Anima: The Airship Part II

The Airship doesn't look like this, but it's the best image I could find. I'm not sure who it's by, but I think the artist is called 'Mr Rainbow'.

The Airship doesn’t look like this, but it’s the best image I could find. I’m not sure who it’s by, but I think the artist is called ‘Mr Rainbow’.

It would have been a slaughter. It should have been a slaughter. By rights it would have taken a few minutes to put everyone to the blade and take the airship. And it would have been had the flustered Merchant who Tebryn had already christened ‘Weasel’ in his head hadn’t brought along his rangy bodyguard. Even so, the odds might still have been in the favour of massacre if the chainmail wearing warrior hadn’t kept his sword. To be fair, it also helped that the guards appeared to be exceptionally bad shots. Of three bolts fired only one hit its mark, striking Weasel’s wife in the thigh. One of the others disappeared into a pile of cushions on an empty chair, and the third stuck itself into the wooden panelling a good four feet above Tebryn’s head.
The burly warrior had already ripped a table from it’s bolts on the floor and tipped it over to provide some cover, and amongst the babble of screams he distinctly heard a cry of ‘Stop them!’ from Weasel, and the rangy man was vaulting a couch to hit the nearest guard in the stomach with both feet. The guard staggered backwards, but before he could regain his footing the acrobatic man had landed and spun with deadly precision, a short-sword leaving a red gash across the man’s neck.
Fighting his immediate instinct to crouch low, Tebryn saw that Sylvia had already hit the floor, and he dived and rolled into the cover provided by the upturned table.
“They have crossbows,” the burly warrior growled.
“Take time to reload though, aye?” Tebryn said.
The man glanced at him and nodded curtly. Then he lunged around the table and made a beeline for the man with the corporal’s stripes. Peeking over the top of the table, Tebryn saw that the short-sword wielding fighter had knocked one of the guards to the ground and was heading for a third. Cursing his inability to stay out of a fight, he stepped up onto the table, riding the top as it crashed down, four feet in the air and let its momentum carry him forward. His knee landed squarely in the man’s crotch, and Tebryn was grateful the guards appeared only to be wearing breastplates, gauntlets and helmets, rather than armoured codpieces. Then his left hand tilted the man’s head back and a blow from the right crushed the man’s windpipe. Given the wounds where blades had slipped into the unprotected flesh of the man’s left armpit, Tebryn knew it was only a matter of time until the man died. It would have been merciful to end his suffering.
Unfortunately for him, merciful was something Tebryn wasn’t.
Tebryn rolled to the side as a bolt threatened to take off his hat and rolled to his feet, grabbing the crossbow from the dead guard’s hands and smashing him in the face with the butt of the weapon. Unfortunately, this man was quick to go for his sword, and it was all Tebryn could do to dodge and duck out of the way. At one point he was rolling on the floor to avoid a downward blow and then the longsword was stuck in the wood of the floor and a heavy boot kicked in the guard’s head. There was the crunch of bone and then it was over bar the spasms. Tebryn looked up into the solemn face of the armoured warrior.
“Thanks,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” the man grunted. “You’re a scrapper for a circus man.”
“Well you know,” Tebryn said accepting a hand up. “Sometimes a crowd don’t like me talents.”
“What was that about?” the tall rangy man asked, walking up as he cleaned his blades.
“Island power struggle, I think,” Tebryn said. “I think they want the airship.”
Suddenly the floor tilted, nearly throwing them off their feet.
“We’re tilting,” the armoured man said.
“Seems like,” Tebryn agreed. “Hey weren’t we above the cloud layer earlier?” he asked as he stared out the porthole into a white mist.
“You sure they don’t just want to crash the ship?” the lithe man asked.
“Go and find out!” Weasel was suddenly there, pushing his way between the two taller warriors, looking almost absurd as he stood nearly a foot below their height. “Honestly what am I paying you for Keith?”
“Sir, please, you should see to your wife. You need to keep pressure on her wound.”
“We need to take the bolt out!”
“No, sir. If it’s hit an artery that bolt could be the only thing keeping her alive. Come, let’s see if there’s a doctor here.”
As Keith led Weasel back into the crowd, the armoured man held out his leather gloved hand. “Conan.”
“Tebryn,” Tebryn replied. “But you already knew that.”
“I should get my shield-and helmet,” Conan said. “They’re still in my quarters.”
“Well that should be easy,” Tebryn said. “That just means heading back through those doors…”
They both stared at the far doors that led into the entry foyer, where a few of the passengers were clustered, trying the handle without any success.
“There’ll be a key,” Tebryn said. “Why don’t you get those people back into the room and quiet, and I’ll find the key.”

The key was, as he suspected, on the corporal, whose head was currently lying several feet from his body and blood was still oozing into the carpet. Along with the key, Tebryn also found a few crowns, which he pocketed before making his way to the now cleared doorway.
Peeking out he blanched and shut the door quickly.
“What’s out there?” Conan asked, from just behind him.
“One of the guards,” Tebryn said. “He’s been…disembowelled by something with really big claws.”
“So we go together?” Keith suggested. “I have to do something anyway or hear about it for longer than I care to.”
“Sure,” Tebryn said. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The thing that the tales never told you about dead bodies was the smell. Of course, there isn’t really one on a fresh, clean kill, but if a corpse is gutted, and the intestines perforated… Tebryn hadn’t seen a dead body in quite some time but it wasn’t something you forgot. It snuck up his nostrils, stuck in his throat and tickled his gag reflex, but somehow he and his new companions managed to avoid adding to the mess. As Conan went into a passenger room to retrieve the rest of his arms and armour, Tebryn ducked into his dressing room to grab his backpack, which he quickly repacked with his makeup and travelling coat. Realistically the coat shouldn’t have fitted, nor should his top hat, but travelling light with a bag that held more than it should had been one of the first things he’d learnt how to do. That said, the top hat collapsed and the coat was usually being worn, so he didn’t have to do it all the time, but this was something of an emergency. As he stepped back into the corridor, he nearly ran into Keith.
“There’s someone in that room there,” Keith said, pointing at the plain wooden doors that led into the a crew area. “I just saw them look out.”
Conan looked at the two of them, nodded, and walked up to the doors, pushing them open to reveal a state of the art kitchen, with polished steel counters that were so new they were only slightly scratched, although the air was still hot from the residual heat from the stoves and ovens. Over at the far end a walk in pantry was open and Tebryn could just make out three people, one of whom walked out, gesturing to the other two.
“It’s all right,” he said. “They have weapons.” The man was dressed in dark clothing, and his black cape was a dull, dusty, utilitarian black rather than the stylish velvet that was favoured by foppish nobles hoping to look dashing. “That sounded better in my head.”
Tebryn relaxed as a chef and a waitress came out of the pantry. “You’re not guards,” he said.
“What gave us away, the lack of uniforms?” the first man asked, pushing his long blond hair away from his face.
“Did you see the monster?” the waitress asked, her lip quivering.
“Monster?” Tebryn asked.
“We heard something scream,” the blond man said. “It didn’t sound human.”
Conan, Keith and Tebryn shared a three way glance. “Whatever attacked that guard outside…” Tebryn started.
“I was thinking a bear,” Keith said softly. “Only I couldn’t find any trace of one. No fur, no claw marks in the walls or floor.”
“A bear?” the waitress squeaked.
“No, Lorelai,” the chef said. “That’s what the man just said.”
“Then what is it?”
Keith shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Oh my god.”
“Changing the subject, where are you going with all your weapons?” the blond man asked.
Conan looked at the others. “We…hadn’t planned that.”
“We should go to the bridge,” Tebryn said. “Whatever’s changed the course of the airship will probably be there.”
“Do you know how to get there?”
Tebryn shook his head. “I’m betting it’s on the main ship but I don’t know how to get there.”
“I do,” Lorelai said suddenly. “There’s a catwalk from the Crystal Ballroom. I used it to take tea to the Captain… oh god, the Captain.”
“You should get to the lounge area,” Tebryn said kindly. “The rest of the staff and passengers are there.”
The waitress nodded and the chef removed a broom from the handles of the double doors and they pushed through into the lounge.
“You should go too,” Tebryn suggested to the blond man.
“I think I’ll come with you if that’s all right,” he said.
“Can you fight?” Keith asked.
The man pushed his cloak back to reveal both a short sword and a longsword, one on each hip. “Yes. I’m Kane.”
“Keith.”
“Conan.”
“Tebryn, but I’m starting to think I should have a name starting with C or K,” Tebryn said. “Come on, we can get to the Crystal ballroom through there I think,” he said, pointing at a third set of doors.

The ballroom, where dinner had been served, was empty, and…sterile. It was as through dinner had never happened, the long tables were stripped bare of their porcelain plates, silverware and crystal goblets. The crisp white of napkins and tablecloths had been secreted away and the chairs were nowhere to be seen. Tebryn thought they’d probably been stored in some travel safe room, stacked up high and roped off to prevent them toppling should the ship tilt, much like it was at the moment.
Not for the first time, he admired the design of the room, with as much of the walls on both sides made of faceted glass which currently allowed a wonderful view of the fluffy gray interior of the cloud bank they were currently descending through. It also provided a view out over a metal gantry which led from their passenger gondola to the main ship. The gantry ran out over the top of one of the many steel struts that connected the two vessels, and Tebryn was fairly certain the arrangement would be mirrored on the other side of the ship.
“You can see the wind,” Kane said as they stared out the glass door at the exposed metal pathway. Even with railings it looked like a daunting crossing, where one could conceivably fall from a great height with no chance of survival.
“I think there’s someone at the far end,” Tebryn said, squinting at the for door. Unlike the one at this end, the door on the main ship was wooden, with a small porthole at roughly head height, and Tebryn was certain he’d caught the glimpse of a face.
“Me first,” Conan said, gripping his shield tightly and opening the door.
The warrior stepped out onto the catwalk, and Tebryn could see him brace his body against the buffeting of the wind. He was walking along, gripping his shield with one hand and holding onto the railing with the other. When he was about halfway across he looked back at them and gestured the universal sign for ‘where the bloody hell are you?’ and Keith shrugged and started over the windy expanse. Before he’d got very far though, the far door opened and some guards came out. Poking his head to one side to see around the larger frames of the men on the catwalk, and he could see the guards gesturing to each other and it looked like they were shouting, but whatever they were saying was lost over the roar of the wind. Then the guards all ran back inside the main ship, slamming the door shut behind them.
“I think they just locked the door,” Kane said.
Moments later, Conan reached the far side, tried the handle, and pounded on it. Then he turned and shrugged.
“Guess we’re going the other way,” Tebryn said.
“There’s another way?” Kane asked.
“I know there’s a second walkway at the stern of the ship. It’s probably on the far side of the lounge area.”
When Conan and Keith returned back to the Crystal Ballroom, the men quickly agreed to try the other gantry. When they unlocked the door to the lounge and stepped inside they were greeted with a makeshift barricade and three sets of nervous eyes staring at them down the length of captured crossbows. The two young men and middle aged woman holding them visibly relaxed when they entered. The screaming had clearly died down, and a one of the passengers was apparently a doctor, and was treating the wounded off to one side. Over by the kitchen doors, the bodies of the guards were lying covered by one of the expensive silk tapestries that had been wrenched off the walls.
A grey haired man with a bowler hat and a fierce looking moustache came up to them and stared at them out from under bristled brows. “Found out what’s wrong yet?”
“We’re crashing,” Tebryn said bluntly. “We’re going to have to get to the main ship and find out what’s going down on the bridge.”
The man nodded. “All right. If you want to go investigate things, so be it. We’ll be bunkering down here though and staying safe.”
Weasel had joined them by now and was puffing himself up with what Tebryn personally considered to be hot air. “You should find out what’s happening and stop it!” he snapped. “What am I paying you for anyway, Keith?”
The Khushistani didn’t reply, simply inclined his head and headed off to the far side of the room, the others following swiftly behind him. They found themselves in the corridor that the passengers had used to enter the airship. They found luggage strapped neatly into cargo storage rooms, and eventually followed the corridor around to a blocked door. It was plainer than the others, and had a staff only sign on it, and when Conan pushed on it, it gave slightly, but stuck on something piled up behind it. Clearly someone had built a barricade behind it.

A sharp shove opened the door enough for them all to slip through, and they found themselves in a much more mechanical area of the ship. The walls were of beaten metal and much of the floor was as well. Off to the left, where the corridor opened out into an irregularly shaped room, a machine rattled and whirred. It was a good eight feet in height and dense and Tebryn took it to be one of the engines of the ship. On the wall opposite them was a number of coveralls and hard hats, presumably worn by the crew.
Grinning, Tebryn, swept off his top hat and collapsed it, before pulling a slightly oversized pair of coveralls on and donning the hardhat. The others looked at him quizzically, but he shrugged and strode forward towards a doorway on the left of the engine block, Kane hot on his heels. He was hoping that crew wouldn’t be so quickly attacked, but two narrowly dodged crossbow bolts suggested otherwise.
Ducking back behind into the shadow of the engine, he let magic seep into his soul. It wasn’t difficult really, and he’d always wondered that others couldn’t do it. It wasn’t even something he had to think about really. It was just something he could do at will. He felt a familiar tingle and warmth at his extremities as he felt power filling him, and not for the first time he thought back to the meditative exercises one of his lecturers had used during their literature classes.
“Let your body fill with positive energy,” she’d said. “Picture it filling you like a warm golden glow, and breathe out any negativity…”
It had been a little bit strange and slightly crazy, but it helped him feel freer and more creative and it was, strangely, more or less how he felt about magic. He was dimly aware of Kane sneaking around the other side of the engine, and of a muffled cry of ‘Help!’ followed by the sound of a fist hitting flesh. Hard.
He felt the subtle currents of air spiral around his body as Keith rushed past, sprinting around some large crates, shortswords drawn. Tebryn’s magical shield worked on the principles of deflection, buffeting and cushioning more than anything else, but it was still very effective at keeping him from harm. Rushing after Keith he saw the swarthy man slice the man from shoulder to opposite hip, striking with enough force to cut through chainmail. The guard stood there for a moment, stunned, and then Keith pushed him over with a prod to the forehead. The second and final guard was currently duelling with Kane, but the black cloaked man was moving with the skill of a dancer, two swords flashing in a pattern that was both mesmerising and efficient. The guard had managed to get his sword out of its scabbard, but it was knocked out of his hands and a boot to the back of the knee sent him sprawling onto the floor, where he ended up with the tip of Kane’s longsword at his throat.
Taking the scene in before him, Tebryn slowed to a walk and strolled up to the guard on the floor, even as Conan went over to see to the third man who was lying in the corner, apparently after having been knocked out by the guards.
“Hello,” Tebryn said to the guard. “What’s your name?”
“I’m not telling you anything, dog!” the guard spat.
“Really? That’s a shame. “We’d just have to kill you then, you know.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
Tebryn jerked his head towards Kane. “Really, take a good look at him. Black cloak, two concealed swords…we’d dare.”
“They’re mercenaries,” a new voice said, and Tebryn looked over to see the third man, who was wearing a pair of coveralls not dissimilar to the ones that Tebryn had borrowed. “They’re hijacking the airship but something’s gone wrong. We heard something scream. It didn’t sound human.”
“Oh, it must have been whatever ate the guard back there,” Tebryn said breezily.
“Ate?” the guard on the floor asked nervously.
“Oh aye, he was torn open and everything in his stomach cavity eaten. Guts, soft organs. It was rather messy, giant claw marks, big pool of blood. I hate to say it but it looked quite painful…”
Turning his head the guard started throwing up, a fairly dangerous proposition when there’s a sword tip at your throat.
“What’s your name?” Tebryn asked the man in overalls.
“I’m Dieter, one of the engineers. These men kept me alive to see to the engines and ensure we don’t crash.”
“But we’re descending,” Tebryn pointed out.
“Yes I know. You’d have to check out the bridge to see why. It doesn’t seem to have been part of their plan.”
“You know, maybe we shouldn’t kill the merc,” Tebryn said thoughtfully. “If he won’t talk we could just leave him out for whatever it is that’s going around eating his fellows.”
“No please, I’ll tell you everything I know,” the man said quickly.
“Okay,” Tebryn said cheerfully. “Now wouldn’t it all have been so much easier if you’d just said that from the start?”

It turned out that the guard didn’t know much at all. He and the others were bribed with a lot of money to take the ship and take it to Minzantos. The part where they were crashing into the ocean wasn’t part of the plan. “Commander Sadler took a team to the bridge to investigate himself,” the guard said. “That’s all I know, I promise.”
“You’d better hurry,” Dieter said, pulling out some rope and starting to tie the hapless mercenary to a nearby pipe. It ran from the floor to the ceiling and Tebryn noticed the man was trying to keep out of contact with it, and his skin went red where it touched. Dieter seemed to be taking a fiendish delight in tying the knots tightly. “I’ll have to stay and keep the engine going. When you get to the other side, there’ll be an access corridor. It leads all around the three main areas of the ship. At the prow is the bridge, in the middle is the crew quarters and the engine room’s at the stern of the vessel. You can get onto the bridge from either the port or starboard side of the ship.”
The four men left him tying the guard up to the hot pipe, occasionally pausing to punch the other man in the stomach when his struggles made it hard for Dieter to work. Their trip across the stern catwalk was windy, but otherwise uneventful, and the opened the door to an empty corridor. Looking to their left, towards the prow of the ship they saw only utilitarian wooden panelling and flooring, and large, unadorned lights affixed to the ceilings.
“Where is everyone?” Tebryn asked.
“Don’t know,” Kane said. “Did you notice we’ve flown below the clouds?”
Tebryn glanced out a nearby window and could just see the tiny, indistinct shapes of ocean waves below, the water swelling in the grey of the sea. “Yes, but I was trying not to think about it. Come on, let’s get to the bridge.”
“We should try to lure some of the guards out,” Kane suggested. “Even up the fight a little. If we can get them out the far door, our speedy friend can nip in behind and lock them out.”
“Doesn’t that mean we’ll just have to fight them later?” Tebryn asked.
“Later without their friends beating up on us, yes,” Kane said. “We’ll also have to lock the door on this side of the ship too.”
Tebryn nodded slowly. “I think I can get them out. You stand by the portside door. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Care to elaborate?” Kane asked.
Tebryn shook his head. “Not really. Let’s just say I have more than one set of tricks, and leave things at that, all right?”
They made their way quietly—or at least, mostly quietly—to the bridge, and while the others waited at the portside door, Tebryn padded up to the prow, where the corridor turned sharply around to the other side of the ship. There, just as Dieter had said, was the starboard door. Closing his eyes, he let magic flow through his soul and outside the door there was the sudden sound of a scuffle and footprints fading away down the corridor towards the stern of the ship.
It took a moment, but then the door opened and Tebryn ducked back around the corner. There was the sound of a door shutting, the jangle of chainmail and then actual footsteps followed after the illusory ones. Peeking back around the corner, Tebryn saw the retreating back of one guardsman.
Cursing under his breath, Tebryn signalled the others, who charged through the door, Keith darting down the stairs into the bridge and then up the stairs on the far side to bolt the door on the far side. Tebryn darted in after the others piled through the door, shutting and latching it behind him.
The scene below was not what he expected.
The captain was dead. Most definitely dead. He was still gripping the steering wheel, strangely styled to look exactly like the wheel of a sailing ship, and his hands were still clenched around two of the wheel’s handles. The captain’s eyes were wide and stared straight ahead, and it seemed as though the body was locked in rigor mortis. Had Tebryn been inclined towards melodrama, he’d have suggested the Captain had died of fright. Of course, Tebryn was a magician, and dying of fright really didn’t seem like an impossibility. The rest of the ship’s crew were dead as well, slumped around the room with big gashes taken out of them and the surrounding woodwork. There were also two armed guards and a man in slightly more impressive gear who Tebryn took to be Commander Sadler.
“So you’re the group responsible for killing my guards,” he said. He had close cropped brown hair, and had both a longsword and a short-sword belted to his hip. His chainmail was well kept and the white and green surcoat over the top of it was neat and pressed. “What sorceries did you release? No matter, we will…”
Conan rushed him, striking outward his his shield. Commander Sadler neatly sidestepped, and gave Conan a well placed kick as he passed that sent the warrior stumbling into a wall, where he fell to the ground with a clatter.
“That was rude,” Commander Sadler said, drawing his long sword.
“Get used to it,” Keith said, descending the stairs, both of his swords drawn.
Commander Sadler’s eyes narrowed and he raised his blade. Kane and Tebryn shared a glance and then rushed forward. Kane reached the bridge first, and struck out at one of the guardsmen, Tebryn moving to flank the man, even as the ring of steel on steel told of a battle of parries and dodges being played out behind them. Kane’s blades found their mark, but only barely so, and Tebryn knew his skill didn’t lie in combat. However, it did lie in trickery and deceit. Grabbing his deck of cards he riffled the pack and flicked the card pieces into the guard’s face. The man’s attack faltered, and Kane was easily able to dispatch the man, although a cry from behind them indicated that Commander Sadler’s blades had also found Keith’s flesh. Risking a quick look back, he saw Keith bleeding from a nick in his left arm, but the Khusistani warrior battled on.
Although out of cards Tebryn found the second guard easier to distract—a simple snap of a fan right beneath the man’s nose was sufficient to make him blink and he went down. The lad couldn’t have been more than sixteen, but Tebryn had no time to wonder about the soldier’s age, as another cry from behind them indicated Keith had taken another blow. Commander Sadler was fast, his sword a blur, and it was all Keith could do to keep away from his blade. Even concentrating on Keith, Sadler was easily able to avoid Tebryn and Kane’s attacks, twisting out of the way at the last second, just as it seemed certain that the blow would connect.
“I can see you coming a mile off,” Commander Sadler said, with an easy grin. “How’s are you finding this experience, Slaver?” he asked Keith. “See, I’m going to get through your guard eventually, and then I’ll finish off your rather useless friends and your bumbling excuse for an armoured guard.”
Tebryn shared a glance with Kane. “Don’t panic,” Tebryn said. “I’ve got one more trick left.”
“Only one?” Sadler said. “That’s not going to—”
Tebryn and Kane disappeared from view.
The thing about invisibility that most people forget when they think about it, is that you’re unable to see yourself. Hand eye coordination? What hand eye coordination? Moving while invisible requires you to be able to feel where your body is in relation to itself. Attacking requires you to know where your weapon is in relation to your hand and your enemy. On the bright side, your enemies never see it coming.
Saddler certainly didn’t.
Kane’s blades didn’t flash. They weren’t visible to flash. They simply opened up wounds in Sadler’s neck. The man fell to the floor, and Kane and Tebryn reappeared as Tebryn let the magic fade.
“You did that?” Keith asked, blinking.
Tebryn nodded. “I don’t like to, not often, but I figured if I didn’t we’d crash into the ocean and drown.”
They looked back out the windows of the bridge. The wavetops were clearer now, and larger.
A groan from the prow made them look down, where Conan was clambering to his feet. “Did we win?” he asked.
“Yes and no,” Kane said from the wheel. The assassin, or at least, the man Tebryn thought was an assassin, had elbowed the captain’s corpse aside, and although he could steer the ship, the gadget that was helpfully labelled ‘aeleron’ and even more helpfully labelled ‘Pitch Control’ in smaller font was stuck. “We need to get to the engine room.

The first shock came when they opened the door and didn’t find the fourth guard outside—at least, not in one piece. The second came when they reached the engine room doors—great metal bound wooden doors that had some sort of occult runes scratched into them. From beneath the door, a reddish glow could be seen, and Tebryn thought he could hear the sound of chanting.
Glancing at each other the men pushed the big doors open and stared at the sight that greeted them. Immediately ahead of them was the aeleron, or at least, what Tebryn assumed was the aeleron, the bit that Dieter said made the airship go up and down. It reminded Tebryn of a big centreboard in the bottom of a sailing ship. Just slightly more complex…and held down by two giant metal bars that stretched from one side of the engine room to the other. Even with the four of them, it was going to take them ages to shift it, and would probably require a forge. Unfortunately they didn’t have a forge. They also didn’t have a way of dealing with the tall, lanky and dishevelled man who stood in the middle of a glowing pentagram on the far side of the metal bars. He was dressed in tattered olive green overalls and a rumpled blue silk shirt that had probably cost someone a lot of money. Probably not him. His hair hung in long, lank clumps down past his wrinkled face and blackened teeth. His hands were…well his hands were normal, it was his fingers that were overly long, with nails like…well he didn’t have nails so much as claws. Giant claws that looked like they could disembowel a man. Actually they probably had given the dried blood and flecks of other people’s skin. And possibly guts given the smell. Or maybe that was the overalls.
Cautiously ducking under the beams they approached the man, who was chanting in a language Tebryn didn’t know—and a quick glance at his companions faces indicated they didn’t understand it either.
“It won’t be long now,” the man said with a manic grin, then he giggled, the manic laugh of someone who was either insane, or just wanted to sound insane. He pointed at them and the world went bla-

Anima: The Airship Part I

The Airship doesn't look like this, but it's the best image I could find. I'm not sure who it's by, but I think the artist is called 'Mr Rainbow'.

The Airship doesn’t look like this, but it’s the best image I could find. I’m not sure who it’s by, but I think the artist is called ‘Mr Rainbow’.

If he had been conventionally sane, he’d never have taken the job. On the other hand it paid well and the chance to thumb his nose at the grand Prince Lucrecio, was too good to pass up, even if the Prince had no idea he was doing it. That was, after all, the safest way to go about it really.
From his tiny dressing room, he heard the passengers embarking, walking into the starboard gondola of the airship. It had been christened something patriotic, The Pride of Miniginti most likely, but all the staff were calling it The Airship, complete with capital letters. There weren’t many outside of Lucrecio, and Tebryn wondered whether he’d have ended up on one of these things in a more permanent capacity if things had been different. If he’d been different.
Humming tunelessly to himself, he carefully touched up his makeup in the mirror, lit by the steady light of electric bulbs that were still the envy of the world. The shuffling and muffled bangs and the buzz of conversation went on for a while and Tebryn cherished the small moment of respite. For now, he was safe, comfortable and there were no demands upon his time or person. They would come later, of course, but after several months on the run, sitting on a plain, but well made chair in a tiny dressing room with no concerns was a luxury. Of course, his mind started to race towards all the what-ifs and contingencies upon contingencies, but that was just reflex. Idly, he shuffled his cards and ran coins over his knuckles so quickly they were little more than flashes of silver.
When the knock finally came, he set his top hat onto his head, adjusted his goggles around the base of the hat crown and jammed the old battered Ace of Clubs that he kept there for costume purposes. Then he took a deep breath, and stepped out into the reception rooms. They were panelled in dark wood and leather and had a very modern and very luxurious style, complemented with plush red carpet and leather couches that were so new they squeaked when guests sat in them, and tall round standing bar tables where small groups of travellers gathered in their finery for drinks and nibbles, although Tebryn was certain that the little menus in their smart, brown leather cases would say something like ‘champagne, caviar and canapes’. It was that sort of gathering.
He walked out amidst some gasps, some hushed and slightly startled conversation, and not a bit of laughter. His costume was, well, it was a mix between a leotard and a bodysuit really, there was no other way to describe it. Made of elastic fabric it covered his chest and ran down to his knees, and a heavily decorated belt and harness snapped over the top, providing a decorative overlay that looked appealing to the eye, but was also easy enough to remove. More to the point, it was also highly functional, containing no less than eight pockets for hiding small items in, not to mention it was also a very easy place to stash a card while he distracted the audience with a bit of razzle-dazzle. All in all he was a vision in crimson, maroon, burgundy and leather just on the reddish side of brown. At least one of his flings had described his costume as being akin to that of a walking lizard with a top hat, although not using such fancy words. Besides, that was probably the boots. Knee high, and detailed with etching and inlay, they were works of art in their own right. He’d had them custom made by a cobbler at one of the rodeos out east, and had never regretted the purchase. It was also easy to cover the boots with a pair of oversized breeches, which helped if he needed to sneak away. Not that there weren’t other ways to hide his boots if need be. He’d spent months living as a pale skinned northerner now. Changing the colour and decoration on a pair of boots was nothing compared to making sure all of his freckles stayed in the same place.

With his second best smile plastered across his almost perfect teeth,[Tebryn had learnt early on that using his best smile was akin to inviting advances on his person, which was very useful when he wanted it, less useful when he didn’t want to start a fight. Or get attacked by men suddenly having to question their sexuality.] he stepped forward and arced his deck of cards from one hand to the other, the pieces of card making an audible snap as he did.
“Who the hell are you?” One pudgy, middle aged man asked. His fingers were bedecked in rings and his blue and aqua doublet cost enough to feed a peasant family for a year if Tebryn was any judge. His boots were worn and slightly dusty though, and his face touched by the sun. Merchant then.
Tebryn caught his cards, bowed low and reached forward to clasp the man warmly by the hand. “Tebryn the Magnificent, or so it says on my flyers if you aren’t inclined to believe myself.”
“And you’ll do what, pull a coin from behind my ear?”
“If you want,” Tebryn said, reaching behind the man’s ear and pulling out a silver crown from the Merchant’s left ear. “But I thought you’d like me to go one better.”
“And how would you do that?”
Tebryn balanced the silver coin on the first two fingers of his left hand, the other two fingers pressed up against his palm. “Coin, palm,” he said pressing it into his right hand. “Aye?”
“Yes…” the Merchant drawled.
Tebryn turned his hand over and made a fist and held out his right hand. “Now I want to clasp your hands around my fist tightly, to make sure that coin doesn’t slip out.
The merchant looked at him askance, but covered Tebryn’s hand with his own.
Slowly, Tebryn reached down to his belt and pulled out his closed fan. “Now some people use wands,” he said conversationally, “but that stinks of the supernatural if you ask me.” Snapping the fan over he waved the fan slowly over, and then under their joined hands. “This I think you’ll find…” he frowned. “I think I need my hand back now,” he said, allowing uncertainty to creep into his tone.
The merchant let go, not quite managing to hide a grin.
“Um, I think the coin’s still there actually,” Tebryn said, turning his hand over, but keeping it closed. “That’s not supposed to happen. I mean, you all know the coin’s meant to be gone but…”
A crowd was gathering. Blood in the water was always something that drew people in.
“Er…” Tebryn opened his hand to reveal a fat gold ring set with emeralds. “Oh no wait. I believe this is one of yours,” he said with a grin, and tipped the ring into the merchant’s unprotesting hand. “Thank you ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be here for the next few hours,” he said with a bow. Ignoring the merchant’s rangy bodyguard, who was scowling at him, Tebryn pulled out his cards again and stepped forward to greet a blond woman in what she probably thought was a fetching purple ballgown. “Madam, would you care to pick a card?” he asked, fanning out the cards in his right hand.

Tebryn worked the crowd for a while, doing simple card tricks, hanky illusions and other simple slights of hand that flattered and impressed to greater or lesser extent. When the staff took out their glockenspiels to signal the guests to come in to dinner,[In another century or so, the chimes would be electronic and piped through wires and into cones of paper and cardboard that turned electrical impulses into sound. For now however, their function was performed by waiters with small glockenspiels, felted sticks and in this case white gloves. If you’d told Tebryn about the electrical impulses and paper cones, he’d probably have believed you. If you told him that the poshest people in a hundred years would still have waiters with small xylophones he probably wouldn’t have. But that doesn’t stop both from being true.] he retired to his dressing room to get ready for his next set of tricks.

The dining room was a long galley with polished parquet flooring. It’s tables were covered in crisp white linen and polished silverware. Glittering chandeliers hung from the ceilings and it was a gleam that Tebryn knew well – the glitter of glass that wanted to prove it shone brighter than any diamond. He’d made use of that glitter in the past. Actually he had some of those sewn into the lining of his coat, which was currently hanging on the back of his dressing room door.
There were six tables, each sitting ten people, and he went from table to table performing more complex tricks, balancing glasses on the edge of a plate, some illusory spoon bending, and just for fun, some two card monte, mixing it in with a fanciful tale of misspent youth fleecing people at village fairs.
When he reached the Captain’s table, he noticed the merchant was there, with his wife and leanly muscled bodyguard, as well as a sturdy warrior in what he probably thought of as a suit of dress chainmail, complete with a breastplate, surcoat and a plain longsword at his hip. Ah well, time to pull out the big guns. Or as it were, the metal spike. Wheeling his impromptu magic ‘stage’ – a simple trolley covered in black fabric – Tebryn brought out five paper bags, and a wooden block with a long metal nail hammered through the middle of it, so that the sharp end pointed up to the ceiling. Placing the spike inside one of the bags, he put unspiked wooden blocks into the other bags and closed the bags, folding the tops over to keep them sealed. Then he started moving the bags around on the table while talking to the guests about the trip and the food and then he paused.
“Captain, do you know which bag the spike’s in, because I’ve quite forgotten.”
The captain’s eyebrows rose “Sorry, no I can’t say I do.”
“Do you believe me when I say that I don’t know where it is?” Tebryn asked with a grin.
The captain laughed and shook his head. “Not really, no.”
“All right,” Tebryn said. “I’m going to turn my back and you need to very carefully rearrange the bags. I need you to be careful though and pick the bags up by the very top so you don’t work out where the spike is, all right? If you know where it is the entire trick won’t work.”
The captain looked around the table, shrugged and pushed his seat away, walking around to Tebryn’s cart.
“Now, you’ll tell me if he cheats, right?” Tebryn said, using his second most engaging smile, and grinned at the table’s friendly laughter.
After some more small talk, the Captain piped up. “All right Tebryn, I hope you’re as Magnificent as your name suggests.”
“But of course,” Tebryn said with a grin as the captain returned to his seat at the table. “Now I’m just going to have to work out where the spike is…” he said, eyeing the line of brown paper bags critically.
He ummed and ahhed about the decision for a while and then slapped his hand down on the paper bag on the far left. “Oh good pick Tebryn,” he said, blowing out the rest of his breath gratefully. “Captain, you say you don’t know where the spike is, correct?” he piped up as the table applauded.
“None at all,” the Captain agreed.
“All right. Which bag should I hit next then? This one?” he asked, hovering his right hand over the bag on the the centre right. “Or maybe this one?” he asked, moving it over to the far right. “My very livelihood may hang on your intuition.”
“Well that’s not fair,” the merchant piped up. “How do we know the Captain’s not in on this little trick of yours?”
Tebryn nodded calmly. “That’s a good point, sir. Tell you what, how about you all vote on it. Ten people, four bags… should be easy, right?”

From the perspective of the guests at the table, the rest of Tebryn’s act went something like this:
The votes were counted, and, counting from left to right from the table’s perspective, the second bag was voted as being the safest. The illusionist glanced at the bag, licked his lips and slowly extended his right hand over the bag. Then he paused. “I’m right handed, I should probably use the left hand, aye?”
A nervous giggle rippled across the table, and a few people from other tables were craning their necks to look.
“Okay,” Tebryn said, taking a deep breath. “You’re all sure, right?”
He looked around the table. “You’re not sure, are you?” he asked a woman dressed in green velvet. “You voted for the bag on the far right.”
He smiled at her, an expression halfway between thanks and sadness, and slammed his hand down on the bag which crumpled down with a papery crunch.
“Thank you all, and well done,” Tebryn said. “Just three more, and that means I have a sixty six percent chance of making it through unharmed, yes?”
He stared critically at the middle bag. “I think it’s in this one,” he said, and raised his left hand to hover over the bag on the far left. “So this one’s safe. Captain, would you be so kind as to give me a count to three?”
The Captain nodded, “One. Two…”
The Illusionist slammed his hand down on the bag. At the table a few of the guests jumped, and a cocktail spilled onto the white tablecloth, where it spread out in a sticky sweet pool of pink. “Sorry,” he said. “Sometimes I find the pressure of waiting until three a wee bit difficult.”
There were now two bags, side by side. Tebryn stared at the bag on the left, which had been in the centre of the five original bags. “I picked this bag as having the spike in it, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” the woman in the green dress said.
“I’m pretty sure I’m wrong,” Tebryn said, stretching out his left hand over the bag. “I’m pretty sure this one’s the empty bag…” he turned his head away and closed his eyes. “I can’t look, but…”
The paper bag scrunched flat.
The illusionist turned back to the table with a cheery smile. “And now of course, you’re about to say that there’s nothing in the other bag either and that this was all a trick.”
Squatting down so that his face was level with the bag, he carefully opened the top of the bag and then stood up, his left hand sweeping off his top hat and placing it down on the table. Reaching into the bag with his right hand, he pulled out the block with it’s metal spike still intact and placed it on the trolley.
“Thank you ladies and gentlemen,” he said with a bow as the applause rose. “I hope you’ve enjoyed my humble talents. Enjoy your meal and have a good voyage.”

Tebryn had just finished packing down his cart when Captain Latimer approached him.
“That was Amazing, Tebryn. Magnificent indeed!”
“Thank you Captain. It was my pleasure.”
“It’s all anyone at the table could talk about for the rest of meal. Please join us in the lounge for a drink afterwards, I’m sure the people will want to talk to you more.”
Tebryn placed his left hand on his chest and bowed slightly. “Thank you Captain, you are most generous to a humble entertainer.”
“Don’t push it trickster, even I know that’s an act.”
Tebryn grinned and trailed after the passengers back into the lounge, the Captain himself leaving via another door to get back t his duties of steering the ship no doubt. Now, pre-drinks and canapes were over, and there was a tea trolley, petitfours and the atmosphere was one of relaxation of the type typically associate with cigars, brandy, or a large glass of sherry. He ended up with a flute of champagne, and mingled with the guests, signing the occasional ticket or posing for an official Miniginti commemorative photograph if the passenger in question cared to pay the rather exorbitant fee required to get one taken, printed and set in a commemorative frame for the occasion.
He was in the corner, sitting in a comfortable leather armchair as he discussed the view out of the porthole with the lady in green from the Captain’s table, who he discovered was named Sylvia.
“Oh, but you must come to perform at my estate in Archangel,” she was saying. “You’ll be the toast of the—”
“You are all condemned to death for treason against Minzantos!”
It was a name Tebryn was vaguely familiar with, being one of the small island kingdoms that cropped up everywhere in the eastern reaches of the interior sea. He had passed through and heard of their war with Miniginti, which seemed to consist of sending in suicide squads to butcher civilians while the Minigintians responded with the crushing power of their superior naval forces. Right now there were four men dressed in uniforms of the ships guards and a fifth with a corporal’s stripe had his sword drawn and was standing in what he probably thought was a dramatic pose just in front of the swinging doors that led to the kitchens.
The other three guards raised crossbows, and fired into the crowd.

Go to The Airship Part II

Possibilities (Mass Effect Collision Chapter 7)

Quarian_Web

The days and nights passed in a blur of concerts, sleeping and carefully looking after his health to ensure he was able to perform the next one and the one after that and before he knew it, Elias was backstage waiting for the curtain to go up on his final show. He’d done so many now that stage fright didn’t really kick in until he was in the wings. Of course, now that he was in the wings he could feel the rush of his blood and the slight shaking in his hands. Any moment now his stomach would start to jitter and then he’d step out on stage and it would settle into a warm glow in the pit of his belly when he sang the first note. Probably.
Some of the techs were watching a broadcast of Talkback, an extranet round table show where five hosts discussed and debated the news of the moment. Or three years past in this case.
“But what right did he have to force this…this Synthesis upon us?” a female human was saying. Elias thought her name was Karen. “What right did he have to choose this? Not just for one city, one planet, but for the entire universe?”
“If anyone had the right to make that call, Sheppard did,” an Asari replied. “He was the first to warn us of the reapers. He was the one the galaxy turned to to fight them.”
“He was supposed to destroy them, not infuse us with part of their…their…essence!”
“We put our trust in the Commander to get us all through the war alive,” the Asari said calmly. “He did that.”
“What alternative do you propose?” a Salarian said, his voice rapid fire and pointed. “Sheppard on spot, only one to make it to the catalyst on Citadel alive. Should he have sent out extranet survey via non-existent comm bouys and waited for a months to collate results? Years? Not an option. Sheppard made best call with available data, and of all in universe, had the most data. Right or wrong a luxury only available after the fact.”
Elias tuned out and went downstairs to the lift that would rise through the theatre floor in a grand reveal for his opening number. He’d long ago concluded that life continued because someone or someones made a lot of hard calls. Doubting those decisions was a luxury of those alive to reap the benefits, and those who did were typically those afraid of change. People didn’t like having change thrust upon them. Some might even choose death over it. Well, some wouldn’t. But they were very quick to forget that those had been the choices available.

He was halfway through his set when an electric lightshow went awry. Or at least, he thought an electric lightshow went awry. In the centre of the theatre, a purplish electric cloud was crackling, looking for all the world like a miniature lighting storm. He could hear the techs chattering in the background, but the show must go on, as the earth saying went and so the show did go on. At least, up until a the centre of the storm fell into itself and there was a sensation of darkness and distance, and something was approaching, and the people who had been sitting in their seats were falling into the black, disappearing and falling into the darkness that the things were falling out of. Finally, six squat figures snapped into place in the theatre as the electric storm faded and the fabric of space snapped back into a taut, impervious sheet. They were volus, or had been volus. Actually they were husks. Volus husks. He hadn’t seen any volus husks during the war. These appeared to have the scuttling legs of rachni underneath and from the centre of their chests came a flexible piece of tubing, which in turn led to something that looked much like a bomb detonator, which was clutched in one of the volus’ hands.
Husks weren’t exactly uncommon in society, although they tended to form the underclass of society and had higher rates of mental illness and suicide than any other species—if indeed grouping husks together as a ‘species’ was the right thing to do. These ones moved with a singular purpose and aggression Elias hadn’t seen that since the war. Then one of them turned, hand upraised as an omni blade grew around his forearm and stabbed through one of the seats to hit its occupant. The band paused, the flow of music squeaking to a halt with a brassy squelch from an electro-trumpet. From the catwalk a shot rang out, and one of the husks turned, red eyes searching for the shooter. Elias paused, still outlined by the spotlights on stage. A part of himself that he’d buried five years ago quietly rose from whatever bed it had been sleeping in, and he found himself angry. It was a cold anger though, one that endured in its icy rage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please leave the auditorium immediately. This is not part of the show. I repeat, this is not part of the show,” Elias said, his intonations clipped and inflectionless. With a flick of his wrist, he and Pi sent a stun drone zipping through the air and over to the husks. He didn’t have much hope that it would last long, but he hoped it would buy the audience some time.
“Mr Elias, we need to get you out of here.”
There was a turian on stage now. C-Sec judging by the uniform. Exactly how he rated C-Sec rather than private protection remained a mystery to Elias, but he suspected Jamak had something to do with it. Saving Creds no doubt although given that the more Elias made the more Jamak made, Elias didn’t really feel the need to complain about it. Besides, the more money he had, the easier it was to find ways to help Rannoch build anew.
“Yeah, sure,” Elias said, and left the stage at a run, heading for his dressing room.
Creator Elias, the drone has been destroyed, Pi murmured into his comm.
Elias cursed inwardly. He had hoped it would last more than a few seconds, but there was no time to think.
“Stay here, sir, your bodyguards are on their way to escort you out,” the Turian said, before heading up the stairs to the theatre catwalks. Nodding, Elias ducked into his room and opened one of the boxes inside that looked identical to the many that were overflowing with gifts from wellwishers and fans. Identical in almost every way except this one contained cushioning foam and his weaponry. Grabbing his SMG and Sniper Rifle, he dashed back out the door, heading for the area where the wings met the stage curtains. Sliding across the floor he poked the barrel and scope of his gun through the gap and looked out into the theatre.
The crowd’s stampede had cleared everyone from the ground level of the theatre, aside from some C-sec officers, and what appeared to be a mechanised suit of Krogan battle armour, that was being driven around by a hanar, its pink, gelatinous body floating in a thick, transparent viewing pod where the Krogan’s helmet would have been. There were perhaps a dozen civilians dead, some stabbed, but mostly collapsed without any noticable wounds. There was also a haze of orange tinted gas that discoloured the air, and of the three remaining volus, two were caught up in a biotic singularity, and as he watched, the third was felled from a shot from above.
Shooting. Right. Turning back to the helpless husks floating in the air, Elias sighted down the scope and fired. It was an off the cuff shot, taken without proper aim, but he was in a hurry. He still found his mark, and the lights in the husk’s eyes dimmed and its struggles ceased.
“No one attacks my concerts and gets away with it,” Elias said with some satisfaction. “Not even reapers.”
A burst of shots from the hannar-controlled mech’s assault rifle took out the last husk, and the as everyone turned towards the stage. Elias realised he was still hooked up to the audio system. Shouldering his rifle, he stepped out into the spotlights again, and hopped down from the stage, just in time to see the hannar turn to a nearby C-sec officer and hand over an assault rifle. “This one thanks you for…” suddenly the aggressive, snarly tones were replaced with the calmer, more modulated hanar voices Elias was used to, and he realised the hanar must have been using a secondary voice modulator. “…the use of your weapon.”
“Um… you’re welcome.”
On the prompt side of the stage the officer who had escorted Elias to his dressing room entered through the emergency exits, a female krogan in cuffs before him and a human tailing along behind. “I’ve apprehended the Krogan, Lieutenant Accius, she had a sniper rifle.”
“Good, take it for testing,” the Lieutenant said.
Not being the centre of attention took Elias completely by surprise, and for a moment he was both angry and relieved. Then he looked out at the bodies in the audience and sighed. Hopping down from the stage he started checking the bodies. Some had bullet wounds from the guns the husks had been wielding. Some had knife wounds. Some had no visible damage at all. Running a diagnostic on his omni-tool, he found traces of a neurotoxin, the likes of which he had never seen before.
“This one questions why you are taking those individuals into custody,” the hanar was saying, it’s mech lumbering over to where the Lieutenant was standing. “They were a great help during the battle.”
“This does not concern you, citizen,” the turian snapped. “And and how did you get that mech past security?”
The hanar paused. “This one has its case in case of emergency. This one felt the attack by hostile reaper forces constituted as an emergency.”
The turians eyes narrowed. “I’ll let it slide given your efforts today.”
“This one appreciate the compliment, but its issue still stands. The Krogan was of much assistance in the battle.”
“So was he,” A wounded C-sec officer said, limping over. He took out three of those creatures before they could do more damage.”
“Noted,” the Turian said. “Go see a medic, Officer.”
“Yes Ma’am. Say, weren’t you supposed to be on your honeymoon?”
“Is this some sort of joke?” she snapped. “You know I’m widowed.”
The C-sec officer seemed taken aback. “Already? What happened?”
“Happened? I’ve been widowed for years.”
“Officer Altus, did you…hit your head during the battle?” the other Turian said carefully. “Perhaps you need to see a doctor.”
“No, I’m fine. I’m fine.”
“Did you need us to contact Octavius for you?”
“What?”
“Your husband, ma’am.”
“I’ll be fine. Please escort the suspect back to the precinct. I need to…sit down.”
“Certainly…”
“It’s nice to see leadership being kept up,” the Krogan muttered in what she probably thought was a quiet voice. However, before Officer Altus could continue, a human behind her piped up.
“So you’re the one in charge around here.”
Officer Altus sighed. “Why am I not surprised to see you?” Apparently the two had a history.
“So you’re just arresting people without cause now? Is that how you run things?”
The turian sighed. “I believe she may be able to help us with our inquiries into an unrelated incident earlier today.”
“Oh yes, your inquiries, I’ve seen those,” the man said hotly, a strange, yellow-orange light flickering in his right eye. “Having your snipers shoot a surrendering man? Is that how C-Sec runs its ‘inquiries’.”
“I said stand down, citizen,” Officer Altus snapped. “Unless you want us to take you in to find out what you had to do with all of this.”
The man went for a gun, but it was the Lieutenant’s gun that he grabbed and she was too quick, grabbing his wrist and yanking hard. Her pull turned into a throw and in the blink of an eye the human was on the ground, face down, his hands cuffed behind him. “You’re under arrest for assaulting an Officer.”
Creator Elias, these husks do not appear to be synthesised, Pi said, his voice sounded soft and muted inside Elias’ helmet.
“I thought the blast from the crucible hit the entire galaxy,” Elias said.
Yes, I am computing probability diagnostics, but these husks do not have the base level of organic material found in all reaper creatures after the Crucible was detonated, Pi said. They also appear to be responding to the pre-synthesis old machine signals.
“Did everyone take their crazy pills this morning?” Elias asked, standing up his voice booming through the speaker system once more. “Am I the only one the least bit concerned about the dead husks on the floor here?”
The hanar turned. “This one would like to point out that the husk bodies are riddled with bullets. It would be safe to presume this one noticed. Also this one questions your need for higher vocal volume.”
Rolling his eyes, Elias disconnected his comm from the theatre sound system, even as the Krogan said. “It is odd that they show up again three years later,” she said. “They shouldn’t be here at all.”
“What to you mean?” the hanar asked.
Creator Elias, those four individuals do not seem to hold the same synthetic DNA as the rest of the people here. I have not seen their like in years.
Turning to the officer that was unobtrusively shadowing him, Elias pointed at the husks. “Officer, these husks aren’t normal. They haven’t been synthesised.”
Elias pulled up a scan on his omni-tool, showing the structure of the husks, even as the hanar turned, opened the clear blast shield of his mech and peeked out, two of its tentacles curling over the lip of the neck area. “This one thought all the husks were destroyed.”
“That’s what I thought,” the Krogan said. “It’s odd.”
“This one agrees.”
Creator Elias, I am picking up some strange readings from the hanar’s mech. No known match to current databases. Analysing.
“That one isn’t synthesised either,” Elias said stalling for time.
“That’s impossible,” The C-sec officer said. “Everyone in the galaxy was synthesised.”
“He’s not. Look at his skin.”
“I guess…maybe…people might have…I don’t know. I don’t know how this all works.”
Walking up to the mech, Elias asked. “What’s should I call you, Hanar?”
The alien didn’t respond, and Elias reached up and knocked on its suit.
“Hmm?”
“What should I call you, I can’t keep thinking of you as ‘the hanar’?”
“This one’s face name is Anar. You’re Elias correct.”
“That would be me.”
“This one didn’t vote for you.”
“No one’s perfect,” Elias said absently. “You’ve got some rather interesting readings coming from your mech suit right now.”
“How many mech suits do you normally see.”
“Anar, I’m a quarian. I see anything and everything mechanical. It’s a racial obsession.”
“What strange readings do you mean, exactly?”
Creator Elias, analysis shows the hanar has old machine technology inside its suit.
Stepping back, Elias drew his Sniper rifle and aimed it directly at the hanar’s head. “You’re carrying reaper tech.”
“What?”
“Nothing personal, but non-synthesised reaper husks and non-synthesised hanar with reaper tech… you do the math.”
“Do not take this personally either then,” Anar said and the blast shield closed with a click. “This one believes it might know what you are referring to. This one saw something strange earlier and will check.”
A number of fast food containers, confectionery wrappers, a bobble headed orange and black cat that Elias recognised as being from a Garfield comic from earth and a few back issues of fornax fountained up into the clear bubble canopy. Apparently the hanar’s mech was something of a mess.
Then it peeked up through the blast shield. “This one would like to point out that its suit has never done that before,” then the arms of the mech folded across its chest.
“Would that one like to dispose of the reaper tech before I punch a hole through its mech?” Elias asked pointedly.
Almost reflexively, the mech pulled out its assault rifle and aimed it as Elias. “This item is of personal value and will not be removed from this one’s possession.”
From the ground, Elias could hear the human civilian mumbling something about ‘bigger threats’, but it was drowned out by the sounds of thermal clips being replaced and guns being aimed at the hanar’s mech.
“This one means no harm,” the hanar continued, “but it will not be threatened.”
“Half a dozen people are dead, killed by hostile husks and the only link we have to them is you. You mean no harm…but?”
“This one has its questions as well, but will defend itself if threatened.”
Chask and Markanis burst into the room and rushed to Elias’ side. “Mr Elias,” Chask said. “Are you all right?”
“Currently,” Elias said, nodding towards the hanar mech.
“We should get you out of here, sir.”
“We need to get a look at that reaper tech first,” Elias said.
Chask grinned and clapped his hands together. “Not a problem, sir, did you need that pretty suit intact too?” Markanis simply pointed his assault rifle at the mech.
The mech’s rifle slowly lowered. “This one would like to offer a sign of good faith,” Anar said. “It will allow the inspection of the device on two conditions. Firstly, this one will retrieve the object from its suit and it will be returned to this one-the item is of sentimental value”. Secondly, the object will go with the C-sec officer, and not with the Quarian singer.” Turning to Officer Altus, the hanar managed to stay impressively calm facing a pistol pointing directly towards its head. “Are these terms at least somewhat agreeable?”
“I can work with those,” Officer Altus said.
“Suits me,” Elias said.
“Very well then.” The hanar stowed its assault rifle on its back and disappeared from view briefly before returning. “Does anyone have tongs? If this item is indeed reaper technology, this one would prefer not to touch it.”
“Sure, hang on,” Elias said, and a moment later a pair of tongs dropped off his omni-tool and into his his right hand.

By mutual agreement, Officer Altus took the tongs from Elias and handed them through the blast shield of the hanar’s mech suit, and a few minutes later the hanar reappeared, carefully lifting down a glowing, greenish-purple object that looked for all the world like a datadisc. Except for the glow. Datadiscs didn’t normally glow. As she took it out of the hanar’s tentacles and walked a short distance away there was a…ripple. It was as if the space inside the theatre was twisting, and the purplish electric light show that Elias had seen during the show crackled through the air.
“This one suggests the disc should not be brought near that area of the theatre,” Anar said.
“I second that,” Elias said. “Officer, may I run a diagnostic on that device please?”
Backing away from the central seating area, Officer Altus looked thoughtful as the crackling energy faded and the distortion in the air stilled. Turning towards Elias she stared at him for several seconds longer than was comfortable before she shrugged. “All right. But no touching.”
“Last thing on my mind,” Elias agreed, and sent the drone out so that Pi could complete some remote scans.
“Analysing,” Pi said.
In the suddenly still air, the sound of Pi’s scanner was incongruously loud. Everyone in the room, from Elias, the armed concertgoers to the C-sec officers were standing still, rooted to the spot with their eyes glued on the red drone. Inside his helmet a barrage of information started sprawling across his HUD, and Pi’s low murmur filled his ears. The scan clicked off, and the drone flew back to Elias, who staggered back to lean against the chair behind him.
“Are you all right?” Officer Altus asked.
“I don’t think so, no,” Elias said. “Tell me officer, are you familiar with the idea of parallel universes? The idea that significant events have…you make a choice in this universe and another you makes a different choice and suddenly there are two universes running along different lines of causality?”
“Only in that old historic earth documentary: Terminator,” Anar said.
The C-sec officer shot a glance that was both irritated and tired at the hanar. “I thought that was science fiction.”
“It’s an unproven theory at least,” Elias agreed. “That… as far as I can tell it’s reaper tech and it’s a…reality collider. It needs another piece to work, but if the readings I’m getting are right, it’s supposed to allow passage from one part of the…multiverse to another.”
“That chit was just a pet project of this one’s best friend,” Anar said. “This one has never known him to dabble in reaper tech.”
“How well do you know your friend?” Officer Altus asked drily.
“Well enough to know he would never go that far down that path.”
“That thing is old,” Elias said, pointing at the data cube. “It pre-dates this cycle at the very least, so unless your friend has found…what’s the term… a spring of youth?”
“Fountain,” the human civilian said, pushing himself into a sitting position on the floor. “Fountain of youth.”
The hanar climbed out of its suit and drifted closer. “Well, in honesty, this one only assumed he made it. It seemed like the most logical explanation. This does not bode well.”
“I still don’t understand what you’re saying, exactly,” the turian said.
“I think, Officer Altus, that you’ll find there’s another Officer Altus from this, synthesised, universe who just got married.”
This time it was the Turian who sat down in her chair. “I don’t understand.”
“Wait,” wounded C-sec officer said. “What you’re saying is that this Officer Altus isn’t the real Officer Altus?”
“No,” Elias said. “I’m saying that this Officer Altus is the Officer Altus from a universe where synthesis didn’t happen.”
“This is making my head hurt,” the officer said, and Elias noted that he had the name ‘Shields’ engraved into the collar of his armour.
“Also, the hanar, that human and the krogan are all from other universes.”
“So…they could be responsible for the husks then?” Officer Shields asked. “They could be from a universe where the reapers won? Maybe they’re indoctrinated!”
“I can assure you we defeated the reapers in our universe,” Officer Altus said.
“How could you have? You’re not synthesised.”
“No, Shepard took control of the reapers instead.”
“Controlling them? One person controlling all the reapers? Why didn’t he just destroy them in that case.”
“Hold on, in this one’s universe Shepard did destroy all the reapers, along with all synthetic life.”
“What the squishy one said,” the Krogan said, her voice soft, but strong enough to cut through the babble of voices.
“I’d hate to be in your universe then,” the male civilian muttered.
“Look,” Officer Altus said. “If I was indoctrinated I’d have been helping the husks. And you can easily dig out the psych evaluations from the war that we had to check for indoctrination. I know Commander Bailey used them on everyone after the Cerberus coup attempt.”
“We’d all have been helping the husks if we’d been indoctrinated,” the human pointed out.
Officer Shields paused in thought. “You’re right. My apologies Officer Altus.”
“We’re getting sidetracked,” Elias said. “The point is that device allows the reapers—war winning not friendly reapers—to jump from one universe to another. Once they finish a harvest they can…check on other realities to ensure that they have wiped out organic and synthetic life throughout all of the multiverse, not just the one that they happen to be in.”
“You got all that from a few minutes of scanning?” Officer Altus asked.
Elias shrugged. “Most of it’s extrapolation based on the data contained on that device. And a little speculation based on those volus husks.”
“You’re saying the reapers jump from a conquered universe to a not conquered universe and kill us all across different probabilities?” the human asked.
“That’s what the evidence suggests, yes,” Elias said.
“Have you ever seen a tear in the universe before?” the man asked. It was an earnest question, where someone else might have been skeptical.
“No,” Elias said. “Only in vids where someone passes through a black hole or wormhole and gets spat out somewhere else without being crushed into nothingness. That said,” he added, gesturing to where the purplish lightnight had flared not long ago. “I think we all witnessed it today.”
Off to the side, the hannar lowered its body into one of the plush theatre seats. “In retrospect, perhaps this one should have voted for you,” he said.
“Hey, I might be an airheaded wanker in your universe,” Elias said. “Hey, maybe you can meet yourselves while in this one.”
“What if we do not find our synthesised selves likable?” Anar asked.
“Or alive?” the human added.
“Maybe you can reopen the portal and go home?” Elias suggested. “We should be able to open—or for that matter, close—the portals if we can find the other half of the key. It should look something like this.”
He brought up a holographic rendering of a synthetic construct that looked something like a cross between a toothy maw and a giant metallic claw. There was the hint of a reptilian face, or possibly just at eye, but the lower half of it was a tangled mess of metal and tubes. “The reality collider needs something to weaken the walls between universes, and I think this is the thing that does it. The reapers have to find a weak spot first—like the centre of the theatre—but once they do…”
Everyone strained to look at the holographic image hovering above Elias’ wrist.
“Hang on the second where’d you get that?” the human civilian said. “Do you know what that is?”
“Um, again no-that’s just an image extrapolated from the data on the data cube itself. It appears to be reaper technology.”
“This thing…I’ve been seeing it for about five years now. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve been calling it Mimic. Apparently no one else other than me can see it though.”
“Can you see it now?” Elias asked.
The drone, which had stayed close to Elias, hovering silently turned towards the human. Or at least, Elias saw it. Possibly no one else saw it turn its microarray of sensors towards the man. Definitely no one else heard the quiet Scanning, that came into his helmet.
That would make sense, creator Elias. It would appear only synthetics can see the…this mimic. And that man has cybernetic enhancement in the ocular region. Left side.
“And you?”
I should be able to detect it, yes.
“Funny how you weren’t synthesised with everyone else, you know, Pi. Why do you think that is.”
I’m sorry Creator Elias, but there is still no data available.
“Can’t you speculate?”
Speculation requires data upon which to build a theory.
“I’m not saying anything else until I get a bit of freedom around here,” the human was saying, jingling his cuffs meaningfully. The officers looked at Officer Altus.
“If we get that mimic thing, can you close the breach?” Elias asked Pi quietly.
I should be able to, yes. Pi replied. However, I suspect the other universes will have other breaches in them that require closing as well. I can run a diagnostic to determine their locations once you obtain the mimic.
“Well,” Elias said. “Step one: find this mimic thing. Step two: see if I can use it to close that breach. Step three: sell the movie rights for a lot of money and live off the interest for years to come.”
“This one agrees,” Anar said. “This one has rent due in a week’s time and would like to be there to sort it out. This one would also suggest we move to a more secure location.”
“Good idea,” Elias said. “We should get that disc away from this place until we can locate mimic.”
“We can go to the precinct,” Officer Altus volunteered. “I appear to still have a desk there and we should get statements from the concertgoers.”
Anar walked over to his mech and…hugged it, his tentacles seeking out nooks and crannies in its construction and suddenly it was folding in on itself and folding down until it looked just like an oversized suitcase. Elias wondered where the fast food wrappers ended up being stored. “This one feels a suitcase would be less conspicuous and cause less panic,” he said when the others stared at him.
Elias sighed and started removing his performance outfit, tucking the various bits and pieces into pockets in his suit. “Oh well, I guess I’m back in the military now,” he said. “And here I was wondering what I was going to do after the concert tour ended.

Just then a side door opened and Jamak hurried in, his navy blue suit a little creased and breathing deliberately in the fashion of one trying not to show recent exertion. “Elias! Good to see you’re unhurt! You are unhurt, right?”
Elias nodded. “Yes, Jamak, I’m fine.”
“This wasn’t how we planned your final concert would go. I’ve got reporters out from asking for a statement and our pre-prepared ones won’t cut it under the circumstances.”
“Well, I think we’re back at war now, Jamak,” Elias said, staring down at the dead husks.
“War? We can’t be at war! We don’t have time in your schedule for war. What about your biopic?”
“That’ll have to wait,” Elias said. “Tell you what, I’m about to go save the galaxy. Why don’t you turn that into a reality vid special? I’m going to need funding and it’ll be much more interesting than a biopic of my past.”
The Batarian paused. “I like it!” he said, beaming. “I can see it now: Elias! Music Sensation Turned War Hero! I’ll—we’ll make millions!”
“Absolutely,” Elias said. “But we’ll need sponsorship to make it happen. Possibly a ship. Think you can work your magic on that?”
An almost predatory grin spread out over Jamak’s face. “Elias, baby, have I ever let you down?”
Elias laughed, “No, you haven’t.”
Turning smartly, Jamak headed out towards the front of the building, chest puffed up with importance. On the way, he paused to look down at one of the volus husks. “Thank you very much for this opportunity,” he said sincerely before carrying on.
“So…he’s a character,” Officer Altus said.
“You have no idea,” Elias said, his tone carefully blank. “He’s been amazing for far though. Shall we go?”

Go to Chapter 8

New Digs (Mass Effect Collision, Chapter 6)

mass-effect-3-ending-dlc-1

Neo-Citadel 2191 CE

On the citadel, Elias found himself escorted to his newly rented apartment by Chask and Markanis, the two bodyguards who’d been with him since winning the tv show. Chask was a Krogan who did most of the talking, and Markanis spoke so little that Elias had wondered at first if the Turian was mute.
“Go on in Mr Elias,” Chask said when the elevator opened. “Our crew has already checked the place over and it’s impressive, I’ll give you that.”
Stepping into the apartment, Elias walked past the a glass divider that separated the corridor from an indoor garden and stepped down into a lounge complete with leather sofas, a grand piano, and a wrap around fireplace. And above the fireplace was a large picture and a simple brass plaque: ‘Clive Shepard and the crew of the Normandy SSRII, 2186 CE’.
“Are you seeing this, Pi?” Elias asked softly.
The blue light in his helmet flickered on slowly. “I’m sorry, Creator Elias, I was hibernating. Have I seen what?”
“That image.”
“That appears to be a photograph of Commander Sheppard and his team,” Pi said.
“This is his apartment, isn’t it?”
There was a slight pause. “Yes, records indicate that this apartment briefly belonged to Commander Sheppard in 2186 after being gifted to him by Admiral David Anderson of the Alliance.”
“This is the home of a war hero, Pi. I’m just an entertainer. Keelah, what am I doing here? And what am I meant to do with all this space?”
“You could always ask your agent for more modest quarters.”
“I can see that going down very well,” Elias said as he set out to explore. There was the large kitchen with its centre island, study nook, bar, reading room and two downstairs bedrooms, balcony gallery, master bedroom, hot tub and upstairs lounge.
A buzz at the apartment’s security screen brought him back to downstairs and to the front door. Bringing the intercom video up, he called Chask rather than use the outdoor broadcast. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“There’s a group of Elia’solor nar Ashru’s fans here, sir,” Chask said carefully. “They’re asking to see him.”
He should have gone out. He really should have gone out and signed some autographs and made nice, but there were so many of them. About twenty had crammed themselves into the small space at the front of the apartment doors and there were more beyond. He could see banners with “We love you Elias!” and two saying “Elias, please marry me,” which was slightly frightening given that one was being held by a quarian girl who couldn’t have been more than fourteen, and a human male who Elias guessed was somewhere around sixteen or seventeen years of age. “Pi?” he asked.
“Mr Elias is currently in a recording session and cannot be disturbed right now,” Pi’s smooth, melodic tones said calmly, his voice clearly audible through the apartment intercom. “I’m sure he’ll be down later though.”
“Very good, Sir,” Chask said. The Krogan was used to the game by now. Elias wouldn’t be coming down. He hadn’t been able to walk alone in public since the semi-final round of the show last year. At least, not officially. Elias had been very careful to include a good number of male quarians in his staff, more than would otherwise be called for, sometimes even creating superficial roles in order to hire more people. It was accepted for purposes of celebrity ego—or for a quarian looking to help his people stay employed—and Javak had been most accommodating, but the real reason he hired them was as decoys. All of them were given nondescript suits to wear, slightly better in features than was standard for most pilgrims, but outwardly looking like a standard off the rack suit.
“I don’t want any of you mobbed by tweens mistaking you for me,” Elias told every single one of them. I’m not sure what would happen if they stampeded.”
At first, reporters had pounced upon any quarian leaving the tour ship or any hotel he was known to be staying in, but soon it became clear that Elia’solor nar Ashru was only ever seen with his performance gear on. So they watched for that and clamoured for attention at scheduled press conferences and outings.
Elia’solor nar Ashru was fast becoming known as a very private person and rarely seen out in public without his minders. Psychologists were wondering how he managed with the isolation, and speculated that the high number of quarians on his staff were there as much for social interaction as anything else. And they were right, up to a point. Elias had found that all he needed for a private outing was to take off his performance jacket, change the colours and patterns of the hard panels of his suit, affecting an accent and if he was feeling particularly paranoid, use a voice modulator. Then he was a completely different and quite unremarkable quarian. Sometimes he was on the staff of Elia’solor nar Ashru. Sometimes he was just a passing pilgrim, seeing the sights and occasionally going to other gigs when Elias himself wasn’t required on stage. He was sure Javak knew what he was up to. He was sure his security detail knew where he went. But for now, they let him have his freedom. It was more than what celebrities of most other species ever got.
Retiring to the study he turned on the television for noise—anything was better than the silence—and sat down to go through his fan mail. Or rather, Pi went through his fan mail, sending ‘fill in the blank’ responses to most of them, and adding their senders and scans of their letters to the database they were keeping of Elias’ fans. That way if he actually ended up speaking to any of them, Elias would be able to ‘remember’ anything they sent to him via a quick search in his suit’s database. It had already proved to be a career booster, and there were a few fans that Elias genuinely remembered, but most of the time, it was the combined efforts of himself and Pi, filtering most letters automatically, and marking others for Elias’ personal attention.
“Up next: profiles in courage with Liam Vathanil Musie as he interviews Lieutenant Commander Ashley Williams.”
Elias looked up at the screen. “He was the host on Citadel’s Got Talent last year,” he said. “Looks like he got a new job.”
“It would appear so,” Pi said politely. It was what Elias had come to know as his disinterested response. Once the information had been filed away, Pi didn’t find things like acquaintances job changes to be relevant to his existence. The interview with Ashley Williams was mostly a ‘how did it feel about being the one not to die on Virmire,” the infamous battle with at Saren’s cloning facility where Commander Sheppard destroyed Saren’s genophage cure and fought alongside the Salarian Captain Kirrahe. It wasn’t particularly enlightening, and Elias tuned out after a little while. He was nearing the end of the current batch of fan mail when there was a ping from the computer in the corner.
“You have a vid call,” Pi announced quietly.
“Who is it?” Elias asked.
“It’s Corbin.”
“Is it? How did he… never mind, I’m getting it!” Elias all but ran to the computer and tapped the ‘accept call’ icon that appeared on screen.

Corbin looked just like Elias remembered, his hair short at the sides and longer and unruly on top, one lock consistently curling down over his forehead. He wore a familiar white shirt and he looked a bit surprised when the call dropped in. Elias’ stomach tightened. It had been over a year since they talked. They hadn’t so much as messaged each other since Elias had left New Orleans-Laffayette to film what turned out to be the webisodes where the judges culled the top five hundred to the top hundred, when official program filming began.
“Hey Doc,” Elias said. “Long time no see.”
“Yeah, it is,” Corbin said, “I ah…heard you were coming back to the Citadel so I thought I’d, you know, say ‘welcome home’.”
“Thank you,” Elias said. “I don’t know if this is home though. Do you know where I am right now?”
“On the Citadel?” Corbin asked with a grin.
“Well, yes, but I’m in Commander Sheppard’s apartment.”
Corbin blinked “What? Really? The Commander Sheppard?”
“Yes, I mean, look!” Elias said, and synced up his his omni-tool camera to the video link and stepped out into the main lounge, aiming the camera up at the framed photo.
“Oh wow,” Corbin breathed. “That’s really him.”
“I know,” Elias said. “I mean, how do I rate this? All I did was sing a few songs!”
“More than a few,” Corbin said, the old playfulness returning to his voice.
“Still,” Elias said. “It’s a bit odd.”
“I’d give my eye teeth to be there, you know,” Corbin said.
Elias turned and headed back into the study, turning off the video link on his omni-tool once he got back to the screen. “Well, if you make it to the the Citadel and if I’m still in this place, you’re more than welcome to drop by.”
“Oh? Well, I might just take you up on that,” Corbin said. “Seriously though, how’ve you been?”
“Crazy,” Elias said. “I’ve been all over council space and welcomed everywhere with, well… roaring crowds.” Leaning in, Elias whispered into the microphone. “There’s a horde of screaming tweens outside the apartment. It’s surreal.”
“Any new songs?”
“Always,” Elias said happily. “I’ll have to go record some soon, I guess. How about you, Doc, what have you been up to?”
“Nothing as glam as you,” Corbin said. “I joined the Alliance as a war doc though. I’m going through N7 training now as a matter of fact.”
“Oh, not doing anything special he says. Just Alliance Special Forces training. That must be intense. Are you allowed to talk about it, or is it ‘classified’?”
“Well it’s tough,” Corbin said. “But I’m loving it. Halfway through at the moment.”
“Can I ask where you are?”
“Yeah, but that is classified,” Corbin said, pushing his glasses up his nose.
It was a reflexive action that Elias was familiar with. The human only really did that when something was bothering him. “What’s wrong, Doc?” he asked.
“Nothing, I just…I still find it hard to believe that one of my patients is living the high life.”
Elias shrugged. “It’s weird. I’m just enjoying it while I can before the fickle spotlight of celebrity moves on to someone else. And anyway, if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here right now, so…thanks again.”
Corbin grinned. “So you’re not forgetting the little people, huh?”
A blue light blinked in Elias’ helmet. “He’s not that little,” Pi commented.
“Shut up,” Elias muttered.
“I’m sorry?” Corbin asked.
“Nothing, just thinking,” Elias said. “You were never little people, Doc. I mean you’re a good foot taller than me for starters.”
Corbin’s smile was genuine and warm. “Good to know. Well, I should let you go. I mean, I know you have a concert to prepare for.”
Elias looked towards the door of the apartment. “Yeah, I do,” he said. “You know I was serious though. If you’re in the area, drop by. I’m sure I can get you a ticket into my own concert. You know…if you want to come.”
“I would, but I’m not going to make it to the Citadel before your run’s over. Not unless you really extend it by a few months. But I’ll be back home once training is over and I’ll be at Clinic for a bit before they ship me out again. So if you have some time to kill after you’re done being Mr. Famous, you can find me there.”
“Okay,” Elias said. “I think I can afford a holiday. I’ll see if I can drop by.”
“Great! Um, well. It’s been really good to talk to you again. Bye for now.”
“Bye Corbin,” Elias said. “Don’t be a stranger, okay?”
Corbin smiled again before the call disconnected. For a moment, Elias sat at the desk, staring at the blank screen. Then he got up, tested the showers for their acoustic properties, and turned the water on full. Showers with water were one of the things Elias occasionally indulged in when he was sure he wasn’t being watched. They involved taking off his suit for one, but well. It was worth it. As the hot water cascaded over his body and he warmed his voice with a series of vocal exercises he felt the tension in his muscles drain from his body. Definitely worth it.

Go to Chapter 7

Quarian’s Got Talent (Mass Effect Collision, Chapter 5)

Temple of Athame by briansum

Temple of Athame by briansum

Thessia 2191 CE

Elias put the small holographic image of himself and Corbin back onto the table. He was older now. Not much chronologically, but the simple life in New Orleans-Lafayette seemed more distant than a mere eighteen months. He sighed as he stared into the mirror. He was amazed that he didn’t need his mask on the ship now, but then, it had been his home for nearly a year. Also, Pi was always strengthening his immune system, mimicking whatever bacteria, pathogens or viruses that were in the local environment. He’d asked Pi if it was theoretically possible for him to get to the point where he could eat human, asari and salarian food without getting sick, and Pi had agreed it was possible, but it still wouldn’t give him any nutritional benefit.
“You know, you could have told me you were doing this earlier,” Elias had said.
“You did not ask, Creator Elias.”
His last weeks on earth might have been more interesting had he known.
Returning from the clinic, he and Corbin had ended up in a strange holding pattern. Looking back, Elias knew that neither of them had known how to take the next step, or even what the next step was given the Elias’ impeding date with stardom. At least, that’s what Corbin kept calling it. Their routine had changed little until the second email, marked ‘Confidential’ had come into Elias’ mailbox, and Corbin had returned to their little flat to find Elias scrolling through apartment rental listings on the Citadel.
“I don’t think you really have to look at those, Elias,” he said. “Don’t they put you up in a hotel or something if you get in?”
“Maybe. I don’t know,” Elias said. “Maybe I should double check the email again.”
Corbin paused, his messenger bag halfway off his shoulders. “You got in?”
“Elias nodded.”
“Well, that’s great? Ain’t it?”
“Yeah. It is.”
Dropping the bag by the extendable dining table, Corbin came over and wrapped his arms around Elias’s shoulders. “You know, I thought you’d be smilin’ more about getting onto a show that’ll FTL your career.”
“But that’s just it,” Elias said. “If I do this and get somewhere…this is my career. I don’t go back to Rannoch, or if I do I go back and leave again, like Tali’zorah did when she served on the Normandy, but I won’t be saving the universe. I’ll just be…”
He felt Corbin kiss the side of his helmet. “Is that why you’re doing this? For your people?”
“For. Because of,” Elias said. “I don’t know. No matter what I do I need to go back to them one day. And I think I have a lot already from what I’ve been able to gather here.”
Corbin pulled away slightly and looked at him critically. “So you’re doing this so that you don’t have to go home?”
“Do you know what I noticed the other day?”
“What?”
“I called this place home. Not Rannoch, not the Flotilla or the Ashru. Here.”
“So?”
“Corbin, I never did that. This place was always ‘the flat’ or ‘Corbin’s flat’ or—”
“You’ve never called me ‘Corbin’ either.”
Raising his fingers to his face mask, he gripped the curved surface, and heard a click as it separated from his suit.
“Elias! You can’t! You’ll get sick!” Corbin said, his larger hand gripping Elias’ wrist.
“I’ve got a week to get over it before filmed selection starts,” Elias said. “Besides, it’s too late now.”
Slowly, their hands and dropped and Corbin’s lips were on his. His face mask tumbled into his lap and suddenly they were gripping each other fiercely, and only stopped when Corbin jerked back back with a soft cry of pain.
“Corbin?”
“Caught my chin on the edge of your helmet,” Corbin said with a grin. “I’ll survive.” Then his eyes roved over Elias’ face. “I knew you’d be cute. Where are your ears?”
Elias grinned. “Quarians don’t have external ears, just vestigial remnants.”
“Oh, right. I never knew that.”
“You know, you’re the only person alive in the universe who knows what my face actually looks like, right?”
Corbin kissed him again, and sometime later, got a crash course in how a quarian envirosuit fitted together.

The next morning, Elias woke up in an unfamiliar room, and he felt more naked than he’d ever been before. Then he realised he was. He went to bring up a medical diagnostic and then realised he couldn’t, and instead had to settle for placing his hand on his forehead. He didn’t seem feverish, and he didn’t appear to have a blocked nose either, as he’d expected. On the bed next to him, Corbin’s snores were more light snuffles, and for a moment he watched the human’s chest rise and fall. Smiling, Elias slipped out of bed and found the pieces of his suit, slipping them on as he found them, and only hesitating once he got to his helmet and neck-piece. Eventually he left them off, but connected the facially moulded comm piece that could work wirelessly with his omni-tool if needed. The feature was one that Elias typically only used when changing suits or conducting repairs, but he smiled as he looked around the room. Corbin’s room. Even in here, the man was neat, with clothes either in his wardrobe, or hanging on or over a freestanding rail rack. He recognised the jeans Corbin had been wearing off and on for the past week and a shirt he had only worn for an outing to a new pizza place the two nights ago. Other than that there was a datapad, and a few shelves, and unlike the ones in the living room in here Corbin kept mementos from travels on earth. There was a large conch shell, a few glitterglobes and a miniature Eiffel Tower and Big Ben as well as a faux sandstone Sphinx, a plush kangaroo and a soft toy of something round with no mouth and two tiny ears sticking up out top. On the wall opposite the window was a large print of the New Orleans-Lafayette rubble as it had been two years ago, and over it, the new skyline rose, graffiti style in pops of colour, with a husk and human holding hands and staring out over the rejuvenated city. Padding quietly from the room, he went into the kitchen to start the percolator for Corbin’s morning coffee—the man really wasn’t sentient without it—and his own Tzaga infusion, which filled the room with a distinctive fragrance that Corbin had compared to cinnamon and nutmeg.

Eighteen months later, Corbin was still the only person who knew what he looked like underneath his helmet. There had been requests of course, and some rather large offers, but Elias had built his facelessness into part of his mystique. Indeed the art for his debut album had been an artistic rendition of a pair of glowing eyes and just the hint of the concealing envirosuit, subtly backlit so the black and red caught just enough light to show a silhouette, but not enough to give any detail. He’d called it Soul Windows, and it had gone to triple platinum within weeks.
On the vid screen, Thessian television was reporting on the queues leaving his final concert and getting soundbites from attendees, and cutting back to footage from his days on the reality TV show. There were the usual conspiracy theories about the program being rigged, and sometimes Elias wondered that himself. The chance that an unknown quarian could come out of nowhere and unseat popular favourite Rayne was a…humans would have said a Cinderella story. Which worked for film and…fables? Was that the term? Fables, yes. Things like that happened in scripted stories, not in real life. But here was real life, following some sort of script. He wondered how they could have done it, but given that Citadel’s Got Talent still relied on phone voting, despite extranet polls and text message votes being an option, all the producers would have had to do was change the number of phone lines each number connected to in order to artificially influence the polls. At least, that’s how he’d have done it. With all the contestants being surrounded by minders, security and cameras at almost every turn, finding out anything would have been impossible during filming, had anyone the energy or inclination to do so. In any case, it would have breached a number of clauses in the confidentiality agreement all contestants had had to sign. He’d crossed paths with Rayne once or twice in the past year, and she seemed to be doing well, but aside from some chatter and promotion of each other on social media, they hadn’t really talked.
“…new vocals and acoustic backing from his album have been placed over Elias’ original audition video of earth classic Can’t Take that Away From Me to remove the room echo and give the song some context, but this move has annoyed some fans who hold his original video as the ‘purest’ form on expression. The star himself couldn’t be reached for comment but his agent released the following statement:
The screen switched to a pre-recorded image of Elias’ agent at the press release earlier today. “Just as Elias’ first audition was a poignant and pure-hearted interpretation of the old earth favourite, this new release is just that, a new artistic interpretation for his fans. They’re both out there for download and they both have their merits. Elias hopes you’ll enjoy both of them in their own right.”
The face of the entertainment reporter came back on screen. “When asked who Elias was singing the song for, all Javak Avorsk said was that the singer’s love life was a private matter for him and him alone.”
“And is there any truth to the rumours that he met someone on Thessia?” the studio anchor asked.
“Sorry to disappoint Navia, but so far everyone who’s entered Elias’ vessel appears to have had a legitimate work related reason to be there, and aside from some public outings, including the Temple of Athame and the Odessa Zoo, he hasn’t been seen in the streets of our capital, alone or in company.”
“Thanks Tara. And I hear Elias has made it into Arya Blue’s most eligible singles listings this year?”
“That’s right Navia, Elias has entered the listings at number fifteen and this is the first time a quarian has made it into the listings since they launched over a century ago.”
“And there you have it, Elia’solor nar Ashru leaves Thessia tonight and heads back to Neo-Citadel, where he’ll be performing the final concerts of his galaxy wide tour-”
Elias muted the sound and walked over to the loosely covered tank where Bevan Waterwalker was currently peeking above the surface of the water. He’d found Bevan in a pet store on earth his last trip to earth, and brought the mimic octopus back on board, a reminder of the time Corbin had taken him scuba diving in the Gulf of Mexico. Although he’d played several stadiums in New-Orleans Lafayette, he hadn’t heard from Corbin since he’d left earth in ’88.

They were standing just before customs at the passenger spaceport terminal. One set of doors through which Elias would step that Corbin wouldn’t be able to follow him through. “So…don’t make any decisions based on me, all right?” Corbin said, his hands jammed into his pockets.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I don’t want you to be held back from anything just because you’ve been staying with me on the other side of the galaxy.”
Elias paused. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Corbin said. “I’m just saying that if you find an opportunity that keeps you away from me, you should take it and if you find someone else, I understand.”
“What about you, Doc?” Elias asked.
“I’ll be fine,” Corbin said with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I just want to be realistic about long distance relationships and well…you’re going to be meeting all these celebrities and important people.”
“And you’re not important?”
“I can’t boost your career the way they’ll be able to,” Corbin said.
“Hey!” Elias used his fingers to lift Corbin’s chin up so that the other man was forced to look at him. “If I ever get to point where I sleep with someone to get ahead in the music industry, remind me that it’s time to retire.”
Corbin smiled weakly. “Deal. But seriously, don’t let me hold you back. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself if I do.”
“Oh, now you’re just twisting my arm,” Elias said, forcing a light tone.
Corbin nodded. “I know. Now go. Your spaceship is waiting.”
With one final, lingering hug, Elias turned and left earth, leaving Corbin standing alone at the spaceport gate, and a small, omni-tool manufactured sculpture of himself sitting on the shelf in the spare room where Corbin was sure to find it. Eventually. The extractor fan in his helmet didn’t turn on until his ship was breaking atmo.

He had both of his hands inside the salt water tank and was playing Bevan’s favourite game of ‘wrap all my tentacles around Elias’ forearms’ when there was a buzz at the door.
“Who is it?” Elias called, pulling his right hand free from Bevan’s clinging suckers. He’d recently found out that octopuses tasted things with their suckers and wondered what his suit tasted like to Bevan. He had noticed that Bevan did, on occasion, try to remove his gauntlets from the rest of his suit and after the first incident had added a a software lock that had to be released as well—it would work as long as his suit had power, and so far Bevan hadn’t been able to try again. Although he had contemplated dipping his bare hands into the tank, he wasn’t sure if doing so would poison his pet.
“Who else to you think?” a gravelly voice said through the intercom.
“Javek! Come in,” Elias said, and his agent swaggered into the room in a crisp navy suit and four lens batarian sunglasses. “What’s been—”
He stopped as a number of the ship’s crew came in with flowers, boxes of dextro-chocolates and one Krogan almost hidden under a giant teddybear that was bigger than he was.
“Put them in the gift room, boys and girls,” Javek said, waving a hand lazily. “Looks like we cleaned up on Thessia, m’boy,” the baratian said expansively, dropping himself into one of Elias’ plush white armchairs.
“I’m surprised there aren’t fruit baskets again,” Elias said.
“Oh there were about fifty or so,” Javek said as the carriers filed silently out of the suite. “As per your standing ord—request I’ve distributed them to the ship’s cooks and any surplus was delivered to local homeless shelters. And we only brought up twenty boxes of the finest chocolates for you.”
“And those lacy…um…”
“Bras,” Javak said helpfully. “There were quite a few of those. You’ll be able to open up your own lingerie shop soon, you know.”
Elias had been stashing most of the undergarments in a crate in the corner of the room, fully intent on leaving them all behind when he got off the ship. Or just giving them to Javak. The very notion of clothes other than his envirosuit still seemed strange to him, for all that he wore an range of external show jackets for public appearances. It wasn’t as though quarians even had undergarments.
“Last stop the Citadel,” Javak said. Like most people, Javak called Neo-Citadel by its original namesake, especially given that much of the initial infrastructure had been used in its reconstruction, salvaged by the reapers that had been on earth during the final day of the war. “Back where it all began. How are you feeling about that?”
“I don’t know,” Elias said honestly. “I’ve been so busy with this tour that I haven’t really thought about it. I’m looking forward to being anonymous for a while, to be honest.”
“You’re never going to be anonymous again, Elias,” Javak said seriously. “You might as well get used to that fact.”
“Thanks,” Elias said, only a little acidily.
“No charge,” Javak said with a grin. “While you’re rejuvenating your creative side you might want to think about who you want playing you in your biopic though,” Javak said, handing over a datapad.
“What, there’s a biopic?” Elias asked, pulling his left hand out of the tank and taking the datapad.
“Of course! You’re big news, Elias baby. Everyone wants to know about you and it’s a great way to get more cred…ibility and raise your profile across the galaxy. You need to hunt while the Drak-ka are running after all.”
“My life really wasn’t very interesting before all of this happened, you know,” Elias said.
Javak laughed. “Elias baby, haven’t you ever heard of the term ‘artistic license?”
Elias frowned. “I don’t know if I like the idea of people fact checking and finding out I’ve agreed to put my name to something that I know is false, Javak.”
Javak stood up and put his arm around Elias’ shoulders. “Come now Elias, don’t you trust me?”
“Well…yes…”
“And have I ever steered you wrong before?”
“Well, no, you haven—”
“So trust me now! Between you and me we’re going to make tons of…people love you long after the next wannabe stars get on stage for the next season of Citadel’s Got Talent, and you know they’re already filming the top one hundred.”
Elias grimaced behind his mask. “I’ll think about it, okay?”
“Sure, sure, take your time,” Javak said. “I’ll leave you to it while I go finalise things for your Citadel homecoming.”
“Okay,” Elias said. Homecoming. Staring up at the wall, Elias looked at the holo-window, currently showing a map of the galaxy, twinkling as it rotated gently. His eyes sought out first Rannoch and then Earth. Tossing the datapad onto the desk in the room, he went back to playing with Bevan. He wasn’t ready to deal with the hard questions. Not yet, anyway.

Go To Chapter 6

Watch the original RPG Session on YouTube

Change (Mass Effect Collision Chapter 4)

Door

When Elias reached the door, he found it ajar, and a flicking yellow glow spilling out into the corridor. Pausing, he stopped, and listened, but only heard the TV playing a movie in the background. It sounded like a… Corbin had called them ‘chick flicks’ if the giggles and soundtrack was anything to go by. And Corbin hated chick flicks.
Activating his omni-tool’s camera, Elias slipped the semi translucent device under the door, and then around the side, and then stared at the images on the heads up display in his helmet. Then he pushed open the door and stepped into the room.
“Get out,” he said as he entered, moving around to the left past the kitchenette as a flickering white drone moved silently around to the right. “How did you even get in?”
On the couch, Paula sat, a glass of wine in one hand and Corbin’s head lying in her lap. His eyes were closed and his breath shallow, and a there was a smear of crusted brownish something around his mouth.
“I brought him something to eat, darl. Given that you left him all alone.”
“His lips are turning blue,” Elias said. “I think you need to leave. Now.”
Paula put down her wine on the floor. “I don’t think so dear. I think the police are going to wonder how it was that poor Doc Corbin was done in by his housemate’s food so soon after being treated for it. Tsk, tsk. You really should have waited for him to recover before striking again dear.”
“Great, call them,” Elias said. “I’ll do it myself while you explain the red baking dish that neither Corbin nor myself own that’s sitting on the kitchen counter, or what you’re doing here, or the fact that your DNA is all over the wineglass you just put on the table.”
Paula stood, dumping Corbin on the couch, and turning to face Elias. Her eyes were wild, pupils dialated and her hair was coming free from the bun she typically wore it in. “It’s called bleach, darl,” she said.
“And the part where I’ve been recording everything you’ve been saying?” Elias asked. “You really don’t know much about quarians do you?”
Darting her hand into her handbag she pulled out a pistol, which she pointed at him with shaking fingers. “I know enough to know that all I need to do is puncture your suit in enough places and it doesn’t really matter, thief.”
“Okay, so I’m just going to assume you’re officially crazy and-”
A bolt of electricity sent Paula tumbling to the floor. “-you really should look behind you.” Elias muttered as he kicked the gun away and dragged her into the corner, tying her hands swiftly with rope. “Pi if she wakes up, jolt her again.”
“With pleasure, Creator Elias.”
Pleasure. It was an odd word for the geth, but right now Elias had more pressing concerns. It was 1AM, he’d left at 9PM, so there was only a small window of time. Dashing into the bathroom, he found Corbin’s oversized first aid kit, and started rummaging through it for an emetic. He knew enough to know what sort of drug he was after, but he also knew his lack of knowledge of human medicine would be his downfall. In his helmet his comm unit was already dialling.
“911 please state your emergency.”
“My housemate’s been poisoned and he’s unconscious, I need a systemic emetic and my knowledge of human medicine sucks,” he said, scrabbling with his left hand for a datapad to run an extranet search. His own suit’s systems were stretched rather thinly with Pi controlling the drone across the room.
“Do you know what poisoned him, sir?”
“No, but I’m betting it was dextro-protein in the casserole that bitch gave him. He’s known to have an…allergic reaction to it.”
“Are you Turian sir?”
“Quarian. Look, get the cops and an ambulance please? I don’t know if I can get him to the clinic in time.”
“Where are you sir?”
“Apartment three hundred and twelve, forty seven Eunice Street, Old Town. Third floor.”
“I’ve got the police and an ambulance on their way sir. What’s your name?”
“Elias, my name’s Elias, my housemate’s Corbin and the crazy lady in the corner is Paula. Keelah, he’s got apomorphine. I don’t know why he as it, but tell the paramedics I’m giving it to him. His lips have gone blue.”

Elias half lay, half sat in an old sidechair, as the steady beep of Corbin’s heart monitor reassured him that his friend was, for the moment, alive. On the far wall a muted vidscreen was playing some late night horror flick, and a strange, tubelike monster appeared to be growing out of an old woman’s head. It looked a bit a like a penis actually.
“Visiting hours are over, you know,” Shelley said as she stepped into the dim light of the room. “It’s four AM. You should be in bed.”
Elias shrugged and tried to hide a yawn. “So turf me out,” he suggested. “The apartment’s a crime scene anyway and those cops took forever to take a statement.”
“Sweetpea, you’ve got an iron clad alibi. The whole bar saw you and I know exactly what time you left.”
“Why’d she do it?” Elias asked. “It didn’t make any sense.”
“Love makes people do strange things, child,” Shelley said, walking over and handing him a bottle of water.
“That’s love?”
“Sure,” Shelley said, leaning against the wall. “Twisted into strange crazy obsession over the most handsome, unattached and unavailable man in the clinic, but still love of sorts.”
“That’s crazy.”
“You sing about it every night you’re up on stage, child. You should know.”
Elias opened the bottle and took a drink. “Well, yes, I sing about it, but I don’t actually… I mean I haven’t… that’s what everyone sings about? That?”
“No, of course not. But it’s the same, ain’t it? Corbin taking you in, you not wanting to leave his side now. Paula getting crazy jealous of your friendship—all just notes in the same tune. We just like to pretend love’s some magic cure for all ills, but there’s light and dark in everything.”
Elias shook his head. “I’ll take your word for it.”
Shelley nodded and suddenly he was being hugged fiercely. “It’ll all work out fine, child. You’ll see. I’ll get a cot for you. It’s just me tonight and Harley’s on security. I don’t think either us will care if you make dodo here tonight.”
“Thanks.”

Even with a bed of sorts, Elias found it difficult to get to sleep and found himself staring up at the ceiling, the rough white tiles flickering with the light of the television. “Do you have emotions, Pi?”
“Not as you know them, Creator Elias.”
“Must be nice.”
“Analysis suggests you don’t really mean that, Creator Elias.”
“I’m just having a good wallow in self pity,” Elias said. “It’s highly counter-productive, but it seems to be a necessary custom amongst all organic races I’ve ever met.”
“Corbin’s vitals are strong, Creator Elias. You might find your time more constructive if you focused on what to do next, rather than what you might have done differently in the past.”
On the screen, a human juggled chainsaws to thunderous applause and then the vid cut to an asari singing something he couldn’t hear on account of the set being on mute.
“That’s really good advice, Pi, thank you.”
“You are most welcome.”

The sun was peeking through the clinic window, adding its light to the electronic glow of the vidscreen, which was now playing a cartoon about N7 Operatives facing off against a rogue reaper, one hidden out in darkspace that the change hadn’t touched.
“I think they’re running out of villains,” Corbin’s hoarse voice came from the bed. “I mean, you can’t hate aliens anymore and half our DNA is synthetic composite now anyway. “The Reapers are like us too…in a big, skyscraper, flying lobster kind of way. What’s left to fear?”
“Ourselves?” Elias said, rolling off the cot, his spine cracking in a few places.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Corbin said, blinking slowly.
“You should see your face,” Elias said.
“That’s not really fair when I can’t see yours,” Corbin said. “Is there any water?”
Elias grinned behind his mask and reached over for the rolling table that seemed to be a staple of all hospital rooms. “You know there’s going to be water here and where it’s going to be,” he said, pouring out a cup and picking up a straw from the packet that had been thoughtfully left there.
Corbin went to sit up, and then collapsed flat onto his back. “I don’t think I can get up,” he said, and fumbled for the remote that would move the bed into a sitting position. “I feel weak as the proverbial kitten,” he said, as Elias brought the water over to him, and their hands touched when Corbin reached up to take hold of the cup. “Thanks,” Corbin said softly.
“Welcome,” Elias said, “Doc, I’m sorry.”
“For what?”
“If I hadn’t been around, Paula would never have thought to poison you with dextro-protein.”
“Then she might have picked something more lethal like botulinum toxin,” Corbin said, taking a long drink. “Oh that’s better.”
“Well, I did make you throw up the better part of a rather large serving of lasagna,” Elias said.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat Italian food again,” Corbin groaned. “Hey come now, that was funny,” he added when Elias didn’t respond.
“Sorry,” Elias said, letting Corbin take the cup and sitting back into the chair.
“Elias…”
“You know everything thinks we’re together?” Elias said.
Corbin looked down towards the end of the bed where his feet made small hills under the white sheets. “Yeah. I noticed. Is um…that a bad thing?”
“It nearly got you killed.”
“But it didn’t.”
“And next time?”
“What next time? I hardly think people are going to queue up to attack because they think I’m off the market. Wait, are we actually fighting about this?”
“No! Yes! I don’t know!”
Corbin sighed and scooted across the bed slightly. “Sit down,” he said. “You’re making my head hurt jumping around like that.”
Elias stared hard at the clear patch on the bed. Then he stared at the trundle he’d been sleeping in, just next to the hospital visiting chair. Then he turned back and stared at Corbin. The man’s glasses were on the side table next to the water jug and his hair was bed mussed and pointing off in all directions. His eyes were…uncertain, and Elias thought he could see a slight tremble in his hands that he hadn’t noticed a few minutes ago.
“Keelah…” Elias breathed. “You do like me.”
Corbin sighed. “All right, yes. Fine. I do. And I get it. Sorry, I knew I—”
“You don’t even know what I really look like.”
Corbin stopped and looked up at him, a familiar glint coming into his eyes. “You have blue skin,” he said. “And I know your hair is dark, and you’re slender underneath the bulk of that suit.”
And my face?”
“You have eyes, a fairly straight nose and a mouth,” Corbin said. “You’re talented, resourceful and have a killer voice. Come on, I’ve seen Fleet and Flotilla, I know you don’t have fangs or anything under there.”
Elias laughed, and then he sighed, sitting down next to Corbin on the bed. “I have to leave eventually you know.”
“But eventually’s later,” Corbin pointed out. “For all I know we could find out that we’re great flatmates, but anything more and we start bickerin’ about finding restaurants we can both eat at. Or your snoring.”
“I do not snore!” Elias protested. “Although I can hear you through the walls if you’ve been drinking.”
Corbin laughed and reached out to give Elias a sideways hug, just like he’d done in the past. “Wait really?” he asked suddenly.
“Sort of, yes,” Elias said. “But I just use the noise dampening setting on my helmet and it works fine. How do you think I made it through your porn sessions?”
“I wore headphones!”
Elias grinned and relaxed into Cobrin’s embrace. “Gotcha.”
Corbin rolled his eyes. “Want me to share links?”
“Dunno. I have no idea if you have good taste in porn.”
“Well I… this is a really strange thing to be talking about, you know.”
“I can change the topic to something even more awkward if you like,” Elias said.
Corbin looked at him askance. “Oh?”
“I uh, sent in an audition video for Citadel’s Got Talent last night.”
“Don’t you have to be living on the Citadel for that?”
“Or be residing on a current council world and be willing to relocate at your own expense, clause eighty five subsection six,” Elias said. “And the quarian living on Earth gets in by the back door.”
Corbin’s face froze.
“What?” Elias asked.
“Nothing,” Corbin said, swallowing hard. “Um. How… how long until you leave?”
“I have to get in first, Doc.”
“You’ll get in,” Corbin said. “So…how long?”
“Four to six weeks. Depends on how long they take to pick their top one hundred. I mean, how do you pick a top one hundred out of several million entrants?”
Corbin pulled Elias closer. “They give you the winner’s trophy. Wait, is there a trophy?”
“No, just a performance contract.”
“Oh right, just a performance contract, he says.”
Elias sighed and closed his eyes. “Which may never happen,” he said. “Can we talk about something else?”
“Like what?”
“What happens now?”

Go To Chapter 5

Alien Friends (Mass Effect Collision Chapter 3)

Original Art by Ben Andrews

Original Art by Ben Andrews

Friend.
It wasn’t that the word was unheard of, but Elias had never previously applied it to an alien. He’d grown up on the flotilla, of course, and his first understanding of alien races had come from systems that would give the fleet a ‘gift’ to go away, governments and companies that would call them everything from scavengers and gypsies to space trash and then hire quarian contractors on the side. Apparently they were able to pay his people less for the same job of a local, regardless of what species that was, and the tales he’d overheard those workers tell upon their return had the same simple refrain. “Get in, do your job, keep your head down and get out with your creds. No one likes us out there.”
And until this week on earth he’d been prepared to accept that. But he was at a tiny table in the corner with Corbin, who did have a wet patch on his t-shirt where he’d leant up against the bar, and a few people had come by to congratulate him on his singing and asked if he’d be singing again, to which he’d said ‘Maybe, if I find anything that I know’ and no-one had shot him so much as a dirty look. At least, not that he’d seen. One of the bouncers had even recognised him and come to ask how he was feeling.
“Honestly didn’t think you’d pull through when I found you out back, but Doc’s a wonder, ain’t he?” to which Elias could only agree.
All in all, it was a strange night where Elias felt the city wrap it’s warm arms around him and let him into its heart as a young woman singing I Was Lost Without You by the human pop sensation Samantha Hallick. Given the way the tables had been set up with a view of the stage, he found himself sitting almost shoulder to shoulder with Corbin as they chatted into the evening.
“The hours! You’d think they’d warn you ‘bout the hours,” Corbin said as he took a gulp of his beer. “I always knew it would be hard work, but the amount of things you need to know? In my first year at college at the very first lecture I went to, the prof told us ‘Fifty percent of what we teach you during your time here will be incorrect. The problem is, we don’t know which fifty percent.”
“At least you went for it though,” Elias said. “I was always told I should focus on something a bit more practical. It’s odd really, we love art as much or possibly more than any other species, but we don’t have very many artists of our own.”
“Maybe that’ll change now you got your planet back,” Corbin suggested. “Is your family as musical as you are?”
“Um, no, they’re not,” Elias said, taking a sip of his latest drink. “You know this is really good, what is it?”
“Pelegrin. It’s a Turian Whiskey. I’m told it’s good, but I had to take Jimmy’s rec on that one. And I’m not sure where he got that from either. Glad it’s not some sort of rotgut.”
Elias laughed, “No, it’s probably the best drink I’ve had since getting to earth actually. Um. Where was I?”
“Your family,” Corbin said helpfully.
“Oh, right, well, I’m an only child. My mother was an agronomist but she died during one of the epidemics that used to sweep through the liveships periodically and father…died trying to retake the homeworld a few years back.”
“I’m sorry… if I’d known I wouldn’t have asked.”
“It’s okay, Doc,” Elias said. “I’m dealing, it’s just…it was a stupid war to begin with. The geth didn’t want to fight us anyway and if we’d just tried asking nicely, they’d probably have welcomed us back onto the homeworld. Can you figure? My people have spent nearly three centuries roaming space because we were too stupid or too proud to open up peace talks with the beings we created.”
Corbin shrugged and raised a finger. “One word: Cerberus.”
Elias laughed. “Three decades,” he pointed out.
“Yeah, because the Reapers attacked,” Corbin said. “Your people don’t have a monopoly on stupid you know.”
“Thanks,” Elias said. “I just wish we didn’t run our galactic reputation into the ground while we were figuring it out.”
A warm hand gripped his shoulder. “Hey, look around. Every time you perform, you change us aliens’ perceptions of what quarians are or what they can do.”
Elias stared at Corbin’s face for several moments. “You know I never thought about it that way. Thanks.”
Corbin smiled and seemed to relax. “What’re friends for?”
What indeed.
“Statistical analysis suggests his touch lingered twenty four point zero six seconds longer than is customary amongst human males who are just friends.”
“Shut up!” Elias squeaked.
“Sorry, did you say something?” Corbin asked.
“Um, no,” Elias said, faking a cough. “Just swallowed wrong.”
“Hey, don’t injure yourself now, I’m off duty,” Corbin said with a grin. “Plus I’m not sure how safe my resuscitation techniques would be on you given that they normally require the patient to not be wearn’ an envirosuit.”
“Your galvanic skin response suggests you would not be adverse to the human’s advances.”
This time Elias remembered to keep the conversation inside his suit. “Can we not go there? He’s just being friendly to his new flatmate. Besides, humans are visual creatures aren’t they? Even if he was interested, he hasn’t got any idea what I look like.”
“He’s already seen inside your suit.”
“What? When?”
“When he was treating you.”
“Yeah, I’m sure I looked incredibly sexy while I was bleeding out.”
“I’m sure he could tell you’re in excellent physical health, Creator Elias.”
“We are not having this discussion right now.”
“Certainly, would you like me to schedule it for a later date?”
There was a silence after that question that Elias was certain was Pi laughing at him.
“No, thank you,” he said with as much dignity as possible, and went back to watching the next singer.

It was strange to have a routine, but in a few short months, Elias and Corbin had settled into one. Corbin worked his irregular shifts at the clinic, and Elias found himself working his way through the small jazz bars and lounges to the larger, posh ones in on the Lafayette side of the city, although the two men had a standing night out at Jupiter’s on Sundays. It was a night off for both of them, unless Corbin had to cover an emergency, and in a way, Elias felt he owed the bar a little something. With that performance behind him, he booked a gig there the following week, and was soon able to give up his gig at Le Alligator. He and Corbin became used to colour coding things in their tiny shared kitchen but even then, one Saturday Corbin mistakenly made a batch of bolognaise using dextro-Quorn, turning out something that neither of them could stomach biologically and sent Corbin to his own clinic with some of the worst stomach cramps he’d ever experienced.
“What did you do Doc C?” one of the nurses—Paula according to her name tag—had asked when Elias had helped Corbin in, all but holding the larger man up.
“He ate some of my food,” Elias said.
Paula tsked and Corbin was soon lying on a bed hooked up to a number of monitoring machines and given some medication that looked thick and a little lumpy and smelled sharply of chemical flavourings.
“It’s a binding agent,” one of the more senior doctors advised Elias. “It’ll coat the dextro-proteins and prevent his body from trying to process them and he’ll pass them out normally.”
Corbin groaned. “Diarrhoea?”
“Better than the alternative, Corbin.”
Corbin managed a weak grin. “Yeah, I know. Thanks Doctor Renard.”
“And you label your food now!” Paula said, from where she was using an old fashioned cuff to take Corbin’s blood pressure.
“He did, I just didn’t look properly,” Corbin said with a groan. “I was hungry and it was late and—”
Paula tsked again. “And that’s why you need a woman in your life Doc C. Someone to take care of you. Lord knows that place is barely big enough for you let alone the pair of you.”
“Yeah, me and my crippling student debt,” Corbin said. “I think I’m doomed to be single forever, Paula.”
“Oh, I don’t know doc,” Paula said as she lingered in the doorway of the room. “I’m sure there’s women out there who see your better qualities, if you know what I mean.”
Corbin had blushed furiously and moved his chart—that he’d insisted on seeing for himself—in front of his crotch.
“What was that all about?” Elias asked later when they were back home, Corbin lying on the couch and Elias sitting crossed legged on the floor with his databook, going over the latest music scans he’d downloaded that day.
“What was what all about?” Corbin asked from the couch, his face mostly covered by a damp cloth that was currently resting over his eyes and forehead. It was odd not seeing his face framed by his glasses, but then, Elias wondered how odd it would be for his friend if he suddenly started going around without this facemask.
“You and Paula?”
“She flirts with all the doctors,” Corbin said. “I guess it’s just my turn.”
“You…don’t sound particularly excited about it.”
“I’m lying on the couch, with my insides being shredded by dextro-amino acids,” Corbin said. “I’m really not thinking ‘bout women right now.”
“She seemed to think you were impressive,” Elias pressed.
“Well, you know, I’m charming, intelligent, have buns of steel…”
Elias paused. “Wouldn’t buns of steel be inedible even to humans? How is that a desirable quality in a partner?”
“Um, it’s an idiom,” Corbin said, and out of the corner of his eye, Elias could see his friend’s face flushing again. “It means… um… it doesn’t actually refer to food…um…”
“Yes?”
“Ah…”
Elias burst out laughing and Corbin scowled. “Oh that’s nice, pick on the sick guy. I should have known your translator software would know what that meant.”
“Actually, it was your Men’s Health magazines,” Elias said.
Corbin laughed and then groaned. “Bathroom?” he said, lurching off the coach
Elias scrambled to his feet and steadied his flatmate as Corbin raced for the commode. “Sometimes I wish I had a suit like yours,” he said as he pushed through the door.
“I could probably make you a half-suit,” Elias said as he left, shutting the door behind him. “You’d just have to get used to not wearing pants and having lower body sectioned off and gripped by suction seals.” Then he paused. “Actually that sounds really weird out loud, forget I said anything.”
The next day, Elias ended up at the bar on his own, and although he had a great time with Jacque and the bar regulars, it still felt a bit off kilter and he kept half turning towards Corbin, only to find the other man wasn’t there.
“What you doing out here by your lonesome, sugar?” Turning the other way, he saw Shelley and Kym, a nurse and junior doctor at the Clinic Corbin worked at. He knew Shelley fairly well, as she had been the only other person who had been allowed into the clean room where he’d convalesced other than Corbin. She was short, round and had the most infectious laugh Elias had ever heard. Kym was a slender woman of Korean descent, with delicate features, a sharp wit and, according to Corbin, some of the steadiest surgeon’s hands you could hope to have operate on you. She was a new addition to the clinic staff having come in from the west coast a few months back.
“Well, Corbin’s sick, and mostly sleeping. And… we’re always here on Sundays.”
“You mean, you’re always here on Sundays,” Kym said, sipping her daiquiri. “And he comes to watch you.”
“Well, it’s his local and he’s the one who dragged me in here six months ago, so he…wait, what do you mean, watch me? I don’t always sing.”
“That’s not what she means, sweet pea,” Shelley also seemed constitutionally incapable of calling anyone by their actual name. If she liked you. If she didn’t like you, then you got your real name. Unless she really didn’t like you, then you got a nickname that wasn’t sweet in any way, shape or form.
“Well, what does she…” Elias stopped and turned to Kym. “What did you mean?”
“Elias, Corbin’s totally into you.”
Elias shot a glance over towards the piano, but Jacques was currently in the middle of the nightly rendition of Anywhere But Here, a song from the most recent summer blockbuster that was being played non-stop on the the airwaves, and predictably popping up into all the talent show auditions globally. Just the other day, Elias had heard an audition ad on the extranet radio and it had been a medley of at least six different teenage girls singing it, each one running into the next. He doubted if more than one of them had made the first round selection. “Why does everyone keep saying that?” he asked, turning back to the table.
“Because if you’re nearby his eyes follow you around the room, sweetness,” Shelley said.
“What she said,” Kym agreed.
“But, aren’t humans visual? I mean, he doesn’t even know what I really look like under here.”
“Honey, have you seen your ass in that suit of yours? You could bounce rocks off it.”
Kym’s lips pursed. “Did anyone else just go to a strange visual place?”
“I can’t believe I’m actually having this conversation,” Elias said.
“Well, if you aren’t interested, you could just tell him,” Kym said.
“But it’s not that…” Elias stopped. “If he liked me, he’d say something.”
“Honey chile, he’s saying it loud and clear. You just ain’t listening. Weren’t it you who told me you quarians are masters of body language on account of not seeing facial cues from each other? Something ‘bout your whole body being your facial expressions.”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Treat Corbin’s body like a quarian face that’s been frozen by botox and you’ll work it all out.”
Kym finished her drink and pushed her glass away. “Okay, I’m back at the strange visual place again. Hey, Elias, dance?”
“Huh?” Elias said, his brain also having conjured up some strange mental images.
“Dance. If you’re not singing tonight you can at least dance with the single girl.”
Elias glanced at Shelley, who waved him off. “I’m good here, sweetpea. You young’uns can go boogie. I’m just glad to be sitting down after a long day on my feet.”
Walking home through the well lit main streets was…different, and it struck Elias how safe he felt. He probably wasn’t, but he felt it. Home. Somehow, a tiny, cramped—well, by human standards—apartment in a rebuilt city on earth amongst humans had become home. Staring up into the sky he wondered which direction Rannoch was.
“It is on the other side of the earth, Creator Elias,” Pi said. “You would need to look down at your feet.”
Elias looked down at the cracked concrete of the sidewalk. “How do you always know when I’m feeling down?”
“I monitor your stress hormones, Creator Elias. I am alerted if they rise above your resting baseline.”
Elias laughed and continued down the street, the reddish leaves of fall crunching beneath his feet. “You know that you’re the only person in the universe who has ever given me a coherent answer to a rhetorical question?”
“No, Creator Elias I did not know that. Wait,” Pi said. “That was a rhetorical question, was it not?”
“Yes, Pi, that was a rhetorical question.”
“So what is bothering you, Creator Elias?”
“Should I go back to Rannoch?”
“You feel you have found something of value to planet?”
“Have you seen the ecomarket that sprung up in the shell of the rec centre?” Elias asked. “There’s so much that could be adapted to sustainable living planetside. I mean, solar paint?
“I’ve seen your notes on the chemical breakdown.”
“And then there’s the natural ventilation system ideas and that aerogel stuff? I know I can use that. I can’t believe it’s still a novelty item here and we could manufacture that stuff by the ton.”
“So why not go?”
“What if the reapers already gave all that knowledge to the Admirals?”
“What if they have not and these are true innovations?”
Elias kicked some gravel into the gutter. “I’m a bad quarian, aren’t I?”
“Is that important?”
“Isn’t it?”
“Your people have a home now, Creator Elias. They have resources and space to settle and are no longer under constant threat of ship failure, food stores running out, or well…us.”
“I know, but they still gave me everything I’ve got.”
“Then you either return to Rannoch with what you have, or you make yourself more use to your people off world than on world.”
Elias blinked. “I guess so,” he said, as he started up the stairs to the flat.

Go To Chapter 4

Jupiter’s (Mass Effect Collision Chapter 2)

Art by Cat Meff (Used under Creative Commons)

Art by Cat Meff (Used under Creative Commons)

On Saturday morning, Elias found himself standing before a faded red door in a clean but spartan hallway.
“Well, this is the place,” Corbin said. “It ain’t much, but I figure it’s better than a boardin’ house.”
“It’s on a main road with street-lighting,” Elias said. “That’s a step up in my books.”
Out of his hazmat suit, Corbin was tall, and had a muscular upper body and a barrel chest. He wore low slung jeans and a short sleeve shirt over an old white T-shirt, and indeed, his entire look was a bit 20th century throwback, except for his shoes, which were top of the line extra padded MC42s from Micah Black. Clearly, the man dressed for comfort. Right now, he swiped his omni-tool across the lock and the door swung open, revealing a simple interior that was both cluttered and spacious. By human standards, it would be considered cramped, with a tiny living cum dining room with a kitchenette off to one side. Three doors led off the lounge behind the couch and although the floor was clean and the benchtops immaculate—or possibly unused—there was a light jumper thrown over the couch, a pile of books and a few datapads next to the couch and the shelves near the entertainment unit were filled with trinkets from around the universe.
“Where’d you get all of that?” Elias asked.
“The extranet mostly,” Corbin said, his face flushing. “I got that from an asari doctor who was stationed in London for a spell,” he said, pointing to a small greenish crystal that glimmered in the sunlight coming through the window. One day I’m hopin’ to see the universe, but the idea of hopping on a ship and leaving this all behind…”
“You can always come back,” Elias said. “That’s the point isn’t it? You leave and go off so that one day you can go back. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next month. Maybe it won’t be in your lifetime even, but one day.”
Corbin looked up at him, the small cardboard box that held Elias’ possessions in his hands. “Sorry. I forgot that you didn’t have a home planet until a few years ago.”
Elias shrugged. “That’s all right. I had the fleet, cramped and overcrowded as it was. Even the rooming house was spacious in comparison.”
“Really? Wow,” Corbin shook his head. “I saw that place and I don’t think I could live there. Admittedly my spare room ain’t that much bigger, but that’s probably why no-one’s wanted to rent it off me so far.”
“What, no one?”
“No one I’d be comfortable rentin’ to, I guess,” Corbin said, leading the way across the room to the door on the far right. “Well, this is it.”
The room was probably a bit over two square metres in dimension, and had a single bed, a desk and a built in closet and not much else bar an old ceiling fan. Used to worlds of ducted airflow, he stared up at it quizzically.
“I think it looks pretty,” Corbin said placing the cardboard box on the desk. “Plus the ducts in this place can rattle something awful. This really all you got?” he asked, patting the box.
Elias nodded. “When you’re not used to a lot of space you don’t keep many things. It took me a while to get my head around credits, to be honest.”
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t use currency,” Elias said. “On the fleet all food and resources are communal to ensure we all survive. When I have something I don’t need I take it to a plaza and leave it so that someone else can have it and vice versa. If we don’t all pull our weight our people…it’s odd to think we’ll have an economy one day.”
“Sounds to me like you all look out for one another,” Corbin said. “Wish more folk around here did that.”

When Elias took the small A4 poster from his first gig out and hung it from the wall, Corbin snapped his fingers. “Hey, I’ve read about you. La Ville gave you five stars and said you were one to watch out for.
Elias paused. “You got that from my poster?”
“The print of your face…um…mask,” Corbin said. “I didn’t get your name that time.”
Stepping back from the wall, Elias pulled out his databook and a small potted iris from the box and put them onto the desk, and carefully hung the string of red Mardi-Gras beads around the corner post of the metal bedhead.
“Well that’s me unpacked,” he said.
“Good,” Corbin said with a grin. “Now we’re gettin’ you a gig.”

The thing Elias quickly came to realise about Corbin was that the man was enthusiasm personified and within the hour he was standing by a battered black piano with a microphone in his hand. Apparently it was open mic night at one of Corbin’s favourite hangouts: Jupiter’s. It had an old world feel mixed with some industrial flavour. The floors were old wooden boards, the walls a mix of dark metal panels and a deep green paint that had probably been the height of fashion in years gone by. There were brass railings that were still polished regularly, and the crowd appeared to be regulars who knew each other, and although he got a few glances, he could see enough alien faces in the crowd to be comfortable as he walked in next to the doctor. Over on a sidetable near the piano was a number of piles of sheet music and Corbin steered him over and left him with an admonition to pick a good song while he got some drinks.
It took a while to find something that he knew, but when he brought the creased, yellowing paper up to the pianist, the wizened man smiled at him, blue eyes twinkling with a youthfulness that Elias sometimes didn’t see in people his own age.
“I don’t think anyone’s sung that number in ten years,” he said. “And up you pop. I hope you’ve got a good voice on you lad. This song deserves a good outing.”
Behind his mask, Elias smiled. “I hope I have a good voice as well. Otherwise I’ll be letting a friend down.” Over by the bar, Corbin had pushed his way to the front and was leaning over the bar to chat to the barman—and Elias was certain the front of his t-shirt would have a wet mark where the front of the bar had pressed into his abdomen.
“You’re with the Doc?” The pianist asked, adjusting his spectacles. “Well, I always did wonder.”
“I’m sorry?”
In his helmet the blue light that Pi used flickered. “If my analysis of human syntax is accurate, I believe the old musician believes you and your new flatmate are romantically involved.”
Elias was glad the tint of his helmet hid his blush.
“Oh, don’t mind me,” the pianist said. “I’m just rambling. The name’s Jacques and I’m the ivory tinkler in this here bar. Been doing it when it was a Japanese restaurant called Hong’s.”
Grateful for the subject change, Elias’ mind came to a shuddering halt. “Isn’t Hong’s a…Chinese name?” he ventured.
Jacques grinned, the lines on his face creasing into a wreath of happiness and his white teeth contrasting with his dark skin. “That it is. Was still the best tempura in town for near on a decade. Need a key change?”
“Huh?”
“Key change?” Jacques asked, pointing at the music which he’d spread out over the piano’s music desk. “Or are you good with D major?”
“I’ll cope.”

Oh Danny boy, the pipes the pipes are calling,
From glen to glen, and down the mountainside.

It took a moment to adjust to the microphone and the speakers, which although old by galactic standards, still produced a clear, clean sound. The initial nerves and concerns that Elias had about his health and his voice and the strangeness of his location was swept away as Jaque’s fingers flew across the piano keys and there was something undeniably right about being in this old style bar with its brass and wood and non-electronic pianoforte.

The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
‘Tis you, ‘tis you, must go and I must bide

As he closed his eyes and let the music carry him along, Elias dimly heard the room still around him. Conversations petered out, the clinking of glasses stopped as they were placed on tables and when he opened his eyes he found himself at the pointy end of the room’s collective stares. It was somehow different to Le Alligator, where he primarily provided background music, sitting on a stool next to the pianist, an Asari maiden who typically wore dresses of red to match the decor in the bar, which appeared to be styled along the lines of a French Bordello, which was a word Elias had had to look up, and then blushed when he’d found out what it meant. It certainly explained the pictures of women in various stages of undress that adorned the wall, even if there wasn’t any hanky panky on the premises. There, people went to drink and chat and the music was background noise, much the way that the constant creak of bulkheads and the pumping rattle of old air ducts had been on the Ashru. At Jupiter’s people seemed to take their music seriously, even if most of the singers typically performed current pop songs or whatever big musical was currently playing on Broadway. Maybe he should go to New York at some point.

But come ye back, when summer’s in the meadow,
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow,

On the other hand, the older songs spoke to him in a way that newer human music just didn’t. Maybe it was the autotune or the carefully manufactured life of the pop star, churning out predictable hit after predictable hit and being seen at all the right places with a trail of media hyped relationships behind them. Sometimes he wondered if those were even real. He remembered a documentary about the celebrity machine where the human heartthrob Lance Bakkar had enlisted the help of Asari Diva and heiress Aisha Parralli to see if they could manufacture relationship rumours. All they did was go out for dinner and get in and out of the same car and they’d received two weeks of press coverage. Such was the price of celebrity.

For I’ll be here, in sunshine or in shadow,
Oh Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so.

Was it? Was it possible to be a celebrity with integrity? Was it really only the music that mattered, or was there a cost that you paid to the machine that enabled you to make and sell enough to get to where you needed to be in order to make the music that you wanted. And if you paid too much would you ever be able to go back to the simple nights when it was just you and the piano in a dingy bar with nothing between you and the audience.

But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying,
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,

If he hadn’t been singing, Elias would have laughed at himself. No quarian had ever become a big recording artist. Best he could hope for was doing small gigs that would allow him to keep travelling the universe and doing what he loved. And maybe afford to stay somewhere where he wouldn’t get jumped in alleyways for no apparent reason. It was nice to dream, but then, the dream was scary. Idly, he wondered what he’d do if he ever came face to face with the choices of fame, but pushed it out of his head. He had a song to perform. Really perform, and not just stand and sing on autopilot.

You’ll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an Ave there for me.

Opening his eyes, Elias glanced around the room, and felt a warm glow as he saw a clusters of rapt faces watching him, most people sitting quietly at tables. Some had music in front of them, one or two were still flipping through stacks of musical scores, much as he had earlier, but they were the exception. Over by the bar, Corbin was standing with a drink in each hand, one in a red glass which typically signified a dextro-friendly drink. He was staring up at Elias with a strange look on his face and his mouth was hanging open. When the last note faded and the music stopped the silence at the end of the song was almost painful and he clipped the microphone back into its stand to hide the shaking in his hands and stepped back, blinking as the room erupted into applause.
“Elias with Danny Boy ladies and gentlemen,” the host said, a voluptuous black woman with short dreadlocks and a silver nose piercing. “Give it up folks!”
Elias raised a hand, and then ducked his head in an awkward half bow and then walked as fast as he dared off the stage.
“Hey, Elias, lad,” Jacques said.
“Yes?”
“You did the song proud.”
“Thanks.”
“If you like the old stuff, you should check out the library. That’s about the only place you can find music like that these days. You bring it in, and I’ll play it for you.”
That was how it started, but as Corbin descended upon him with a grin that was nearly as broad as the man’s shoulders, Elias knew the future was going to have to wait. It seemed he’d made a friend.

Go To Chapter 3

Pilgrimage: Earth (Mass Effect Collision, Chapter 1)

Note: This is the start of a storified tabletop rpg campaign entitled Mass Effect: Collision. It is watchable on YouTube and run by AngelArts.

Earth, March 2188 CE

Mass Effect Earth City Art

New Orleans-Lafayette was what happened after sea level rises and the effects of increasingly frequent hurricanes lashed the Louisiana bayous, all but sinking the old city of New Orleans. It had never really recovered from the blows it took in the mid 2000s, and the government of the United North American States had paid billions to migrate the population up the Mississippi River, eventually founding New New Orleans, before urban sprawl effectively merged it with Lafayette. The mega city was a study in modern construction, with ivory skyscrapers pushing up into the sun and elevated walkways looking out over parks and canals that stretched out over Fausse Point Bay.
However, even in all of its rebuilt glory, the elegant decay the city had long been known for wasn’t hard to find. In the old town, the tallest buildings were no more than fifty stories high, and some of them had been painstakingly repaired with scavenged stone. Some were still piles of rubble, although scaffolding was everywhere and all levels of government were arguing over the benefits of preserving the ‘historical precinct’ and the benefits of modernisation and new technologies. There were still back alleyways, full of smoke and less than pleasant smells hidden off the main street where the tourists came through for their sanitised slum tours.
In one back alleyway, so hidden that it didn’t even have a name on the street directory—if it appeared at all—there was also a torn, broken quarian envirosuit, and inside an equally battered quarian, slowly bleeding out. Thick red blood pooled beneath him, some running off into a gutter. Somewhere, in the distance, an omni-tool pinged unexpectedly. A battered metal door squeaked open and a burly man looked out and down. Swearing, he turned back and yelled back into the heat and noise of the building. “Hey, someone get Doc!”

For Elia’solor nar Ashru, New Orleans-Lafayette had been the perfect place for the next part of his pilgrimage. Maybe he’d find something worth bringing back. Maybe he wouldn’t.
Arriving just in time for Mardi Gras, Elias was swept away in the music and riotous colours and revelry of the parades, parties and street performers. He was soon sporting around six necklaces of cheap, sparkling beads and was being offered delicacies by the Turian and enterprising human entrepreneurs who had thought to cater for dextro-tourists. The amount of flesh and casual nudity during the festival had caught him by surprise, and he wondered what it would be like to feel the breeze on his skin. He’d heard that there had been recent advances in genetic engineering that was aimed at strengthening the quarian immune system, but ancestors knew when that would bear fruit. Of course, before the Device had been triggered there had been some geth uploading themselves into quarian suits and effectively running high speed immuno-boosting programs to allow some quarians to bypass to live without the suits, but after the Synthesis, well, things were tricky as geth suddenly found themselves to be a strange mix of hardware and software and with a council injunction against creating new synthetic life, that wasn’t something likely to happen now. Or to him.
Elias had found odd jobs around town—some welding, some basic electronic repair work, and after a few auditions, he’d also started booking gigs at jazz bars and lounges around city. After a few months he had a regular gig at Le Alligator, and even a few fans who showed up wherever he was performing. About six months into his stay he was making plans to move out of the rooming house he’d been renting, probably to a studio apartment. More space than the bedsit, but, well…still roomier than anything he’d had back on the Ashru. He’d kept a few things—the very first string of beads he’d been thrown, and digital copies of the posters his name had appeared on, along with one pristine copy of the first poster that had his face on it. Posters were still used in the city—there were digital billboards everywhere, but for the small, independent music scene it was still easier to print on cheap paper and paste the posters up on the many abandoned walls and temporary fences that were ubiquitous in the area. Sometimes cheap holograms were used, or iridescent inks, but often simple black on colour prints were used in a technique that hadn’t changed in centuries.
He was cutting through the maze of alleys in old town at 3 AM when he was jumped. He ducked the first blow from a two by four and sliced through a length of metal rod that came towards him with his omni-blade. It was an instinctive response, as was ducking to one side and going into a combat roll that took him past the two attacking thugs and then he took off down the closest side street. Footsteps behind him told him he was being pursued and it sounded like there were more of them if the shouts and hollers were anything to go by. Ahead, a red shape loomed out of the dark, and a bright, circular white light illuminated a rising gun. Elias hit the deck as shots rang out, his hands covering his head for all the good that would do. There was a cry behind him that was cut short and the footsteps stopped.
“Creator Elias. You should not be walking alone through back alleyways. Chance of assault calculated at six point seven eight percent per night which is not insignificant.”
Elias stared up through his faceplate at the familiar, lithe figure. “You’re geth?”
“Yes creator Elias,” the weapons platform said, its voice smoothly modulated. “We should not delay. I suspect the gang after your credits have guns of their own.”
Scrambling to his feet, Elias pulled out his sub machine gun and took cover behind an old bollard.
“You’re not synthesised,” he said. He’d become used to seeing the green shimmer over all forms of life and not seeing it on the weapon platform had come as a bit of a shock.
“No I am not. You should ready your weapon, Creator Elias. The humans outnumber us significantly,” he said.
The firefight was swift and brutal. Although Elias and the geth hit most of their targets, one of the gang members, a scrawny, pale human with faux Krogan tattoos and scraggy hair was using modded rounds that tore through Elias’ envirosuit. The red danger icon flashed up in his visor advising of breaches in the abdomen, chest, and left arm. As he fell to the ground with a cry the platform stepped forward, placing itself between him and his assailants. There was more gunfire, more screams, the loud crack of a shotgun and then the platform slowly toppled over to lie next to him. Slow footsteps approached, and Elias stared up into a scarred, battle hardened face.
“Who are—”
The man raised his shotgun, the barrels staring down into Elias’ mask. He opened his mouth to speak and then stopped, a gush of blood pouring out as he fell to his knees, his eyes both shocked and accusatory. As he fell out of view, Elias saw a three fingered, cybernetic hand, holding a pistol.
“Creator Elias?”
“You shot him! Is he…it? Are…there more?”
“Creator Elias you must flee. This area is not s-safe and you…you…”
Elias grimaced and pulled himself up into a sitting position. “My suit’s ruptured badly and…are you okay?”
“Mobility seriously imp-impaired, power reserves failing. I am…dying, Creator Elias. You m-must apply antib-b-biotics and flee.”
In the distance, Elias could hear the the sounds of gunfire, although whether that was more of the gang that had attacked him or something unrelated he didn’t know. Reaching over to the weapon’s platform, he deftly opened the panel to the geth’s memory banks. “Come with me,” he said, using his Omni-tool to open up a localised wireless network. “I’m probably not going to last long anyway and…someone might as well… Try not to get the suit trashed, okay?”
Elias half limped, half crawled away, not knowing which direction was best even as he saw the meter in the corner of his vision showing one of his isolated hard drives filling up as the geth’s programs transferred into his suit. On the other side he pulled up a map of the local area, and cursed when he found himself in the middle of an unmapped mess of buildings. A snatch of alto saxophone floated through the air with the sounds of laughter and glasses clinking, and the night air felt warm against Elias’ blue skin. It wasn’t the feeling of freedom he’d been hoping for, however, and he as his strength gave out he collapsed on the floor.
“Creator Elias!” the geth’s voice rang in his helmet. “Creator Elias!”

The air smelled of antibacterial cleaner and the floor was white. No, the ceiling was white. He was on his back, staring up at a ceiling. Grunting, Elias tried to sit up, and gasped as his body protested. He fell back against the pillows beneath him and swift footsteps approached.
“No sir, don’t you be trying to get up now. You’ve taken quite the beatin’ and I don’t know how good your suit’s held up. You’re running a fever, which is to be expected and you’re in the cleanest room we have, but I’d appreciate it if you don’t tax yourself none, all right?”
Turning his head, Elias saw a tall, broad shouldered human with what appeared to be an engaging smile. He was wearing a surgical green suit that was probably a hazmat suit and a clear plastic helmet that was more tub than anything else. Inside, Elias got the impression of black rimmed glasses and short, dark hair, slightly damped down with sweat.
“You’ve got one hell of a diagnostics program in there though,” the man continued. “Kept telling me where you had contaminants and what I needed to do to make sure your suit was sealed up and well…patched I suppose. I didn’t know you could section off your suits like that. Makes sense I guess, but it sure puts ours to shame. I’ll bet it costs a bit more to make than this cheap thing though.”
Staring down his torso, Elias could see the black of his envirosuit had been patched with a rough, blood red resin.
“Sorry about that,” the hazmat man said. “I’m not real good at patchin’ stuff, but I used a new tin of resin over medical gauze. I should’ve matched the colour but…honestly I just grabbed the first unopened tin I could find.”
“I can—” Elias’ voice came out in a rasp. Coughing, he cleared his throat. “I can work with it. It’s a bit of a signature look, I guess.”
The other man laughed. “I’m glad to see you’ve still got your sense of humour. I’m Corbin, by the way. Most people ‘round here call me Doc though.”
“Doc Corbin?”
“No sir, just Doc. My boss is Doc Skinner, and there’s four of us here in total, but I’m just Doc.”
“Why’s that?”
“Cause I’m the first boy from Old Town to go to college, and come back a doctor, I guess,” Corbin said. “What’s your name? I don’t really like just having ‘Male Quarian’ on your chart, y’know?”
“Elia’solor nar Ashru. Most people call me Elias.”
“Well, Elias, it’s very nice to meet you,” Corbin said. “Now do you think you can drink some water for me? I’ve got you on a drip, but your throat sounds dry.” Reaching over to the table on the other side of the bed, Corbin brought over a bottle of distilled water and a straw. Cracking the top he helped Elias get the straw into the right section of his helmet.
“I’m amazed you managed to get a drip in,” Elias said. “Actually I’m amazed you know enough to treat a Quarian patient.”
Even through the hazmat suit, Elias could see Corbin was blushing. “I studied some xenomedicine in college. Honestly I had to dig out my notes from that class and well…like I said, your diagnostics program was incredibly helpful. Voice interface and everything.”
Elias swallowed and lay back into the pillows. “Thank you,” he murmured to the Geth in the privacy of his own helmet.
“You’re welcome,” was its muted response.
Corbin might have said something else, but Elias was fast asleep and didn’t hear it if he had.

When Elias woke next he was alone in the room. Well, mostly alone.
“Good afternoon, Creator Elias.”
“Good afternoon…wait, have you picked a name yet?”
There was a pause. “No, I have not.”
A number of questions swam through Elias’ mind, and he picked the first one that came to him. “How did you know my name?”
“Your name and voiceprint was in our database of creators likely to be in this system.”
“The geth have databases on quarian pilgrims?”
There was a pause. “Your safety is important to us.”
“That was kind of creepy.”
The baritone voice in his ear sounded amused. “It was also true.”
“Why?”
“You are our creators,” the Geth said simply. “You and the Sheppard-Commander chose to give us life. We choose how to live it.”
“And how do you choose to live it?”
“Do you remember what the word geth means, Creator Elias?”
“Touché,” Elias said. “Okay, so tell me about you.”
“I am geth.”
This time Elias grinned. “Okay, that might have flown four years ago, but I know better than to believe that’s it.”
“I am made up of three thousand one hundred and forty one individual runtime processes. I like circles. I also like red.”
Elias smiled. “I like red too. Why haven’t you returned to Rannoch?”
“Why haven’t you?”
“I did. Then I left,” Elias said. “I just didn’t think I’d be very useful there right now.”
“I came to the same conclusion.”
“Wait, I get that I’m not useful back home, but why not you?”
“I am not programmed for construction.”
Elias paused. “You can reprogram yourself to do anything you want, can’t you?”
“I can yes. But then would I be me?”
A laugh escaped unbidden from Elias’ ribs, which turned into a gasp. “Please don’t be funny,” he said. “It hurts too much right now.”
“All right. I will be funny in the privacy of your envirosuit circuitry.”
“Smart Ass.”
“I am a fast learner.”
“What’s the difference between learning and re-programming?”
The answer was slow in coming. “Learning is iterative.”
“You know, if I could just add data directly into my brain to improve my knowledge immediately, I totally would.”
“You are hardware and software,” the geth said. “I am just software.”
“And if you weren’t, you’d be dead by now,” Elias pointed out.
“I…concur.”
“So why don’t you have a name?”
“I have not found one that fits.”
“You like circles, huh?”
“Yes. I find them to be…mathematically symmetric.”
“You could just say beautiful, you know.”
The geth paused. “I am still formulating my concept of beauty.”
“Until you find a name, do you mind if I call you ‘Pi’?”
There was a long pause. “What flavour?” Pi asked eventually.
“Does it matter? You don’t eat!”
“I do not think I’d like banana,” Pi said.
Elias grinned. “Well I can’t eat those either, so I can’t help you there.”
“Who are you talking to?”
The clean room doors hissed open, and a now familiar pale green hazmat suit.
Inside his helmet, Pi’s voice rang softly in his ears. “I suggest you do not be too forthcoming,” he said. “I’m not sure if humans will be comfortable with geth, even one in a suit.”
“It’s my VI,” Elias lied glibly. “I’ve been modifying the voice interface and need to test it.”
“You have a VI for your suit?” Corbin asked, as he made his way around to the drip that Elias was attached to and switched the bags over.
“Well, for some of the functions inside of it, yeah,” Elias said. “Mostly things like enhanced facial recognition, birthdays, sorting through audition notices and keeping track of my…wait, what day is it?”
“Thursday, why?”
Elias sat up with a jerk and started to swing his legs over the edge of the bed. “I’ve got to go, I’ve got a gig at Le Alligator and if I don’t—”
A hand on his chest stopped his movement and a strong arm grabbed his shoulders just as the pain hit.
“You’re not in any condition to be gettin’ up on no stage, no sir,” Corbin said.
“I’ve got to,” Elias said. He tried to push past Corbin’s grip but found himself weaker than an Eden Prime Gasbag. “I need to pay the boarding house, I know I’m going to need creds for this place and if I lose that gig—”
“You’ll get another one,” Corbin said. “I know Le Alligator, I’ll give them a call and let them know you’re here. How long are you paid up for at the rooming house?”
“Until tomorrow,” Elias said. “I was planning on moving out to a studio, but I’m not sure I can afford to now. Studio’s aren’t cheap.”
“Do you mind me asking how much you’re paying?” Corbin asked, as gently encouraged Elias to lie back down.
“Seventy five creds a week,” Elias said. “It would be more, but I can’t eat the meals there.”
“Let me get your stuff from where you’re staying,” Corbin said. “I think I might be able to help.”
Elias collapsed into the pillows with a sigh. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Doc, but why would you? You barely know me.”
Corbin laughed. “Elias, I’ve spent the last two days monitoring your vitals, patching your suit and draining out your suit’s waste port. I didn’t even know quarian suits had a waste system, you know? I know more about you in two days than I knew about my ex after two years. You’re a good guy. Plus I love this city.”
Elias blinked. “I didn’t follow that leap of logic.”
“I’ve lived here all my life,” Corbin said. “Bar six odd months hiding out in the countryside patching up soldiers’ hurts, I’ve always been here. And I think it’s better than what you’ve experienced—and I’d like to prove that to you.”
Elias laughed, only slightly awkwardly. “That’s the southern charm I’ve heard so much about is it?”
“If you like,” Corbin said. “You’ll be out of here tomorrow evening, if you keep mending the way you are. Do you quarians normally heal this fast?”
“Compared to humans? I don’t know,” Elias said. “My suit does monitor my health constantly though.”
Corbin shook his head. “There’s something to be said for those things,” he said. “Maybe all of our patients should wear those.”
“Expensive treatment process,” Elias said. “Could be good if you could tailor it to their species though.”
Corbin laughed. “Something to think about, that’s for sure. Almost a pity I’m a doctor and not an engineer, huh?”
“Nope,” Elias said. “I’m very glad you’re a doctor. When… I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it.” He took a deep shuddering breath and let it out slowly. “I just…”
“Are you… oh um… this is normally when I’d give you a tissue, but um…”
Elias laughed a shaky laugh as a suction fan turned on inside his helmet. “It’s all right. My suit has an extractor fan built in.”
Corbin squeezed his shoulder gently. “All right. Can you get your suit to bring up your temperature please? I’m a bit concerned you’re still feverish now.”
“That’s just my body adapting to the environment,” Elias said. “It’s normal.”
“Right,” Corbin said, snapping his fingers. “That quarian response to foreign pathogens. I remember learning about that.”
Elias looked up into a big toothy grin. “You’re getting a kick out of having me as a patient, aren’t you?”
“Yes sir, I am,” Corbin said. “It’s a chance to get better at xenomedicine and hell, I’ve been talkin’ to doctors on the Citadel to make sure I’m doing right by you. Most of the other staff here ain’t got the training in alien physiology. Wasn’t a thing when they were going through college, you know? Now. Where are you stayin’ exactly? I need to get a wriggle on to get everythin’ done, you know?”

Go to Chapter 2

National Novel Writing Month: Progress, Dragon Age Inquisition and Computer Stuff

DragonAgeNanoWrimo2

Hello out there in the real world! I say the real world because mine feels rather not real at the moment. I’m in the midst of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and I have to say, every year I forget how hard it is. 50,000 words, one month, and well, me being me I’m shooting for about 60,000 to 70,000 words, while not killing my health, diet or exercise regime (such as it is). I know from past experience that shooting ahead of target is great, but typically there’ll be a few days later in the month where I just can’t write—and just write a little bit of nothing (i.e. 200 to 300 words) or I just take the day off and feel both bad and relieved.

Actually, even though I’ve made a conscious decision to write this blog post, I can feel the weight of expectation pressing down on my shoulders—does this really count towards NaNo? The answer of course is ‘Yes it does because it’s writing and I say it does’. The next question is ‘Is it cheating?’ to which the answer is ‘Yes it is, but it’s my time and my month and I’m going to define it any way I bloody well please’. I guess I’ve always treated NaNo as a writing month, but now, for me, writing has become more than just putting words into a draft. Currently it also means blogging, which I do far too little of, updating the Queermance website, and sending out emails regarding Queermance 2015.

Speaking of, if I’ve just met you at Book Expo Australia earlier in the year (seriously it was only what, one or two months ago? Feels like a lifetime!), then expect an email from me about showing up at Queermance. The emails are on their way, I promise! Also, it’s not writing, but I am also going to be dedicating some time to video editing, both to bring you some of our recent fundraising Cabaret Get Your ROCS Off with the RMIT Occasional Choral Society, but also because Isabelle Rowan and I will be launching a Pozible Campaign very shortly in the hopes of turning our annual Anthology (Queermance Vol II) in this case, into a print book, as well as having it as an eBook. Hopefully with some amazing wrap around cover art! Our first goal, however, is to pay our authors, stay tuned for more info and pitch in if you can (either submit a story to us, support our Pozible Campaign or both), Izzy and I will love you forever if you do! If you want to see some images of the event itself or find out how it went you should have bought a ticket. But if you didn’t, you can check out the Queermance Blog over here.

In other news I just splurged on a new computer. Or at least, I splurged on the parts for a new computer, which I’ll probably pick up in a week or two, just in time to lose myself in Dragon Age: Inquisition for a month or so. I may have argued I was buying a new rig for decent video editing power (and I am), but part of me also wanted to get something to kick Inquisition into high gear. If you haven’t seen the gameplay videos yet, it looks amazing! I love the Bioware games, as they’re always trying to tell an amazing story, which is a cause dear to my heart. Sometimes I feel they sacrifice gameplay for story (see my review of Mass Effect 3), but I love what they do, what they try to do, and while I have issues with EA’s spyware Origin platform, I will very grudgingly allow it onto my PC for the purposes of getting awesome games. That said, EA, please expect me to buy fewer of your games on account of it. Plus the whole SimCity fiasco. Ugh. Waste of money, that one.

The thing about computers is that when I start looking at parts, I always want to get the best—the latest chipsets, the latest motherboards and top of the line graphics. When I looked at a new rig at the beginning of the year it was Intel’s Haswell CPUs that were top of the line, and I wanted those (but couldn’t afford them). Now, I’m lusting after the X99 systems, but…yeah. Can’t afford those. In the drive to want the best (and arguably do that little bit extra in terms of future proofing), it’s easy to get sucked into overspending and pushing out your budget. So I have to ask. Do I really need the Z99 chipset when I’m not a hardcore gamer? Do I need an i7 CPU with hypertheading just because it’s supposedly ‘more powerful’ than an i5? Do I really want 2400 Mhz RAM or will 1600 do?

Turns out the answer is, no, I don’t need the Z99, yes I do need hyperthreading for video editing, and no I can take the more economical 1600 MHz RAM and probably see little change in performance. Which is good, because it turned out that one of the cheapest RAM sets available to me had a better transfer rate than the more expensive sets, arguably making it a more efficient and effective bit of kit. My last PC was a beast, sucking it a lot of power (electricity bills, ouch), and running super hot despite having a case with six fans. As a case with six fans, it was (and is) super noisy. So my goal this time around was to find a quieter build. Unfortunately, some of what I’d want in a quiet build isn’t available in Australia, but I’ve done the best I can. It does mean I’ve had to splurge a bit and get a new case, Power Supply and my first CPU third party cooler, which has cost a few hundred dollars extra, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to reuse the case down the line (possibly replacing the fans when they wear out). I’m also hoping that only putting in a single, higher end graphics card rather than two lower end ones using crossfire or SLI will mean that the entire system will use less power (both in terms of inefficient fans and power draw) and lead to lower electricity bills. Hopefully it works and leaving the computer to render video will no longer take all night—or if it does take all night it won’t sound like there’s a spaceship taking off in the corner of my bedroom.

One day I’ll have a dedicated writing room. I have no idea when that will be, but one day! In any case, I’d better shut up about technology and get back to my NaNoNovel. If you’re writing as well, how are you going? On track to get to 50,000 words? If you’re in Melbourne hope to see you at the Night of Manuscripting Madly next weekend. I will be there with foccacia and I might even do pancakes in the morning if the donut run to the South Melbourne Markets is a bust again this year. You’d think the food truck would realise we show up once a year to buy a box or two of donuts, the same way that Mojo’s weird pizza have realised we place to orders in November for 30-40 pizzas and that it’s not a prank. I think they put on extra staff for Melbourne Cup day and our NOMM each year actually. Okay, Goodbye for now and hopefully I’ll be updating again soon when I next need a novel break!