A/N: Man, I got distracted with depressing geopolitics, then I finally started writing my original book, then I had so much work to do that I didn't write any fanfic content all this time. Here's a 15,000-words update as an apology.
As usual, this website restricts formatting options, which is why double perspectives look bulled through a chinashop instead of the graceful meta motifs I was able to create in Word. Oh well.
A Journey over Countless Miles
"-. 21.02.2165 CE .-"
It was a beautiful day inside. False sun was shining, flowers were blooming, people were screaming, and Lieutenant Commander David Edward Anderson of the Systems Alliance Navy had no time to waste on the rapidly shifting colors everywhere because how was he supposed to-?
The hacking suite appeared in his HUD the moment he thought about it, a rubric bound and gagged the aircab VI, redshift turned blue as the world spun around him, and the insurgents shooting up the place cried out in shock as Sargeant Whiteglyph Mit Goldstripe took an aircar to the face at a speed of 230 mph.
Hermetic seals bent but held, exo-struts strained but didn't shatter, and impact-rated armor cracked but stayed unbroken in the face of the sudden impact, declaring the Mk. 1 Cerberus Assault Armor as the newest record holder for most rugged pulp container in the known galaxy.
Turns out that an otherwise unscathed human body didn't do well when struck with massive kinetic shock no matter how tough the casing was. Who knew?
The world's colors normalized four seconds into his flight and Anderson took a deep breath to steady himself as the previously unnoticed pull on his inner ear suddenly vanished. "Chief! Any problems!?"
"Command successfully assumed on your order, Sir!" the gunnery chief promptly answered. "No dissent from newly acquired units. You're in the clear!"
"Good luck from here out, then. Anderson signing off." The man shut off the frequency and glanced over the streams coming through whatever means Shepard had implemented in his hardsuit. Whatever AQC stood for certainly didn't suffer from any static or whatever interference standard comms were hitting against, giving him a direct view of every feed the boy was getting from the docks and ship through whatever means. That being said, his superior officer looked like someone had just gutted him. So… "Captain Hackett!" he barked over the video feed hanging near the upper corner of his HUD. "ETA to Geneva's berth 1.2 minutes. Requesting sitrep!"
"Cerberus managed to kill the two of my men that were guarding the elevator, but that's not going to help them because it's locked down-… Dammit, they expected it, there's already a pair of them climbing up the service ladder to the upper level! They'll be engaging Rowal and Dawson at the cockpit any minute and if they get in there they'll be able to prevent the ship from pulling out. Then it won't matter how long Miles and the rest can hold the engineering bay. Those bastards will just be able to just board with more men."
Unless Cerberus wanted to do something dramatic with the ship themselves, because any ships deployed in response wouldn't risk shooting mass accelerators at it while it was still docked. And if it flies off, they'll still have to carefully position and track the vessel lest they shoot holes in the station. "Any friendlies on site?"
"Harbor crews and guards scattered or killed but they managed to evacuate the civilians in time." Which was good because a school from the Chain was on a field trip when they left the docks. "Rapid response detachments are getting ready to deploy from the Wall, but they'd already deployed our way and have to double back. They won't get there in time, their ETA is 6 minutes!"
"Solo engagement then. I need information on any access port or hatch I can use to get inside that ship."
"There isn't any!" Hackett growled in frustration. "All service tunnels only open from the inside, precisely to avoid sabotage and infiltration. Your best bet is one of the airlock emergency evacuation hatches the airlock, but they're as manually operated and sealed from inside as the rest."
His HUD suddenly received a new waypoint for a spot outside the docks. "Shepard, I'm guessing that's you. Explain!"
"There is a way to get inside through that hatch," Shepard hissed as clearly as one could with the hoarse, pain-wracked voice of someone who'd almost died to a point-blank explosion a short time earlier. "But you need a very precise mass effect field for it. I've marked the place where you can get what you need."
"I swear to God, Shepard, if you somehow even have contacts with the black market-"
"There's no black market in The Bag!" Shepard said, shocked. "The Alliance isn't that incompetent!"
Anderson had no words to properly convey his reaction to that claim coming from Shepard of all people, and how the hell did he even know?
"No, really, mankind isn't that incompetent anymore," Shepard insisted.
"I thought so too until this morning," Hackett seethed bitterly as the latest Geneva status update returned one fewer living crew, again. "And now there are terrorists attacking my ship and killing my men!"
"Either it's incompetence or one other option," Anderson answered grimly.
"Treason." Hackett said.
"And me," Shepard mused.
"More likely the Captain, to hear Derek say it," Doctor Bryson groused, crossing his arms. "Not everything is about you, young man."
"No, I'm quite sure my arrival caused this," Shepard shook his head, not rising to the bait. "Anyone could have figured us out. It could have been an officer's aide, someone on the ship, one of the eggheads panicking over wormholes, the admiral's office maintenance crew, honestly, even the janitor could have done it."
"Not unless Admiral MacArthur himself has betrayed mankind," Hackett said flatly. "He made damn sure not to share any specifics about the source of recent events. Even if anyone knew about you, there's no reason they'd assume you'd be with us. This escort mission was off the books Only the Admiral knows this isn't just one of my random check-ins. He's the only one I've been communicating with about anything since we got charge of you, and even then only via QEC and you can't hack those. Speaking of which, if you have some way to contact the outside -"
"You don't need to hack the QEC," Shepard cut him off just as Hackett was about to start composing a message to the man. "All it takes is an audio recording device planted in the casing of the receiver or console somewhere."
Anderson tensed in his seat as he drove, chilled to the bone by the implications.
"I might be reaching here," Shepard said slowly as Hackett froze in indecision in the small video feed. "But who's the admiral's aide right now?"
"Corporal Oleg Petrovsky." Hackett murmured as his hand hovered over his omnitool, the realization coming over him the same time as Anderson made the same connection. "You don't think…"
"Well that answers that," Shepard said wryly. "He's been with Cerberus since '59."
"He's what!?" Hackett breathed in shock. "He's been-since when!? Six years!"
"It's treason then," Anderson said in the ensuing silence.
"Damn him!" Hackett roared with the distinctive slam of a fist against the hard surface of the wall. "Damn him! Damn all this to hell!"
Anderson agreed, but as he sat there on the other end of the comm, the man vaguely wondered how badly Hackett was taking everything if he was already at the point where he believed the boy upfront about even something so… so…
"Anderson…" Hackett tightly said over the comm, eventually. "In light of the newly revealed security risk, I am authorizing Black Ops protocols for the rest of this mission. All communication up the chain of command outside myself are to be avoided if at all possible. That said, I'm standing by my earlier decision. You have full authority to act and disregard my directives as you see fit in light of the fact that I am emotionally compromised. Do what you think is best."
"Understood, sir" the man said stoutly. "Changing destination to newest mission objective." The man reprogrammed the destination to match the new waypoint. "New ETA: 2 minutes and 15 seconds. I hope you appreciate this, kid. I'm going against my better judgment and trusting yours."
"What!?" Shepard balked. "Are you crazy? Don't do that!"
"What?" Jennifer's mother asked for all of them, what was her name again?
Shepard stared around as if they were the ones not making sense before replying. "Anderson… I am ten years old. Ten years old going on puberty. And unless I missed mankind spontaneously developing an entire branch of very specialized science, I won't be able to fix that for at least three months,during which I will continue to be ten years old going on puberty. My judgment isn't worthy shit! And since this won't change until I'm 25 and my brain finishes growing, you'd better stay as unlike the Cerberus drones outside as possible!"
There was bewilderment on both ends of the video because whoa, that was harsh no matter how true and reasonable and wait a second, specialized what? No, not important. "If that's true, why send me this waypoint at all?"
"Because judgment aside, I hope you've seen enough of me to trust my information."
"I see," the man grunted as he hacked the aircar to fly even faster. "We'll go with that for now, but we will be revisiting this discussion later because I didn't miss that part about fixing and science!"
"I'm counting on you then."
"No pressure, brat. Will I ever understand why you go to such absurd lengths?"
"Because you're my fellow man and I love you."
All the disbelief of someone who couldn't believe they really had just been asked the stupidest question in the universe crashed into Anderson so strongly that he gaped in his helm. He had to then suppress the emotional reaction so harshly that he didn't even manage to qualify it beyond boundlessly warm and infinitely bitter. Later, he told himself. He'd think about it later.
The time it took Anderson to reach his destination was enough to burn out the public aircar's engine from acceleration-induced stress. And for the remaining scraps of Hackett's composure to scatter to the four winds due to Aresh, Jennifer, her parents and all the other children crowding into Shepard's IR room and the hall outside. Doctors Bryson and Chakwas looked distinctly harassed, though not as much as they were with Shepard continuing to refuse further treatment. Not that their feelings got much consideration in the flood of cries and tears that the children poured all over the place because of all the weird things being done to the light. And then they saw Shepard's condition.
Anderson again pushed back his own, blazing fury and reminded himself that vengeance was now out of his hands. All chances of inflicting righteous retribution on the ones immediately responsible had been left behind with his team. All he could do now was to make haste and prevent more evil from being done. Perhaps be there when consequences caught up with those not immediately responsible. The first step was to get to the destination marked on his map as swiftly as able, that being…
"Shepard…" Anderson said in his most self-controlled tone as he stood short of breath on aching bones. "This is a pharmacy."
"Whoa, you're already there?" Shepard asked, amazed enough that he was momentarily distracted from the… whatever he was doing with that singularity between his hands that he hadn't paused even for all the panicking biotic children in the whole star system. "Those aircars are faster than I remember."
"Shepard!" Anderson barked with all the justified irritation of someone who'd just had to jump out of a burning aircar and yell over the noise of its explosive crash against the statue of Robin Lee Graham over there at the end of the street. "This is a pharmacy." Still, the man rushed inside and made for the nearest sales terminal to check for whatever he was there for.
"Right, sorry! I managed to place an order just before the alarms spread, so even if the token human ran off for to gawk at mortal danger, the package should be waiting for you."
"That's nice but I'm not hearing my explanation, kid!"
"I'm making a black hole! You think this is easy!?" Shepard snapped, then flinched with all the agony of someone who'd had his limbs blown off in the very recent past and good heavens, kid, why? Why are you making a black hole!? "It's barely doing the job as it is. Fuck!" The singularity looked on the verge of going out with a horrific explosion but Shepard reeled it in and glared at someone outside the video feed. "And I swear to God, Jennifer, if I get even an inkling of you swearing before you turn twenty I will put you over my knee!"
"What?" Said girl gasped from wherever she was. "What did I do?"
"Got yourself kidnapped and put on track to bald exhibitionist, tattooed and cussing worse than a sailor's red-headed stepchild before you turn thirteen!"
"I would never!" the girl gasped in outrage. "I'm a lady! No, a princess! Tell him, daddy!"
"You're out of favours with me, girl! I only played along so far because I thought things would work in your best interest, but look where we are! It's like we dropped down the rabbit hole and came out in a world full of nutters who can't wait to go back to the 1300s, when there was no clean water and everyone died from the plague! Right now I wish we'd never left Eden Prime."
"Strong deliberation, clear goal, high executive privilege. But no executive power and the dark energy clogging up mass relay systems prevents spontaneous wormhole generation. No chance of that wish getting fulfilled any time soon."
"I wasn't talking to you, smart-mouth!" the man glowered, putting an around his daughter to stop her from getting close to the boy and the black hole he was handling.
"But it's a good thing, I love your humor!"
"What humor?" Jennifer asked sourly as she basked in being fretted over. "Daddy doesn't have any, he never makes any good jokes."
"I made you."
"Rapid response teams were waylaid by heavy armsfire just outside the port," Hackett told Anderson over the background drama. "Two transports were clipped and the whole bunch had to land. Hostiles have turrets deployed. The teams are splitting off to let at least some get through while the others provide a distraction, but it'll take them a lot longer to get there on foot. You're still our best shot."
"Understood." Fortunately, the drone flew in with his package a moment later. "Hopefully whatever I'm here for doesn't take Einstein to figure out."
"Einstein didn't know shit!" Shepard suddenly snarled his way back into the conversation like a venom-spewing, rampaging taz. "The only reason he got shoved at the forefront of science was because the Germans wanted to dethrone the British Empire after the so-called scientific revolution ushered by Planck in 1901. They couldn't take over from the British Empire without slandering Newton and Maxwell as the naïve scientists. So they used all their deviousness to paint Newtonian physics as superficial. Because obviously it must be if you can learn it as early as primary school. It couldn't possibly be because it's sensical, reasonable science that actually makes some fucking sense!"
Anderson was so shocked by the loathing spewing from the normally outgiving boy that he almost ignored the arrival of his delivery drone.
"And so the world got over a century of deeper physics shoved down its throat, of the greatest minds not knowing what a photon even was half the time. There was overwhelming physical evidence debunking all Einstein-derived postulates from the start, but it was dismissed because all theories and authorities were based on those postulates. And we couldn't have the entirety of university physics professors and scientists be shown as the frauds they were, now could we? If the authorities in physics abandoned their unproven theories, their lofty titles and positions of respect, which they got by applying and developing those unproven theories, would have been threatened and destroyed. Then science wouldn't have taken a whole century and three fucking world warsto move forward again!"
Anderson blinked. "Shepard-"
"Half of mankind's scientists still think truths are uncertain, relative, incomprehensible or unknowable. Because God forbid we ever dare realize we know anything!" The boy roared, then flinched violently as if he would pass out right there before he dropped his head and grit his teeth. The color of the light upon him and the video itself flickered from red to clear and back. "One and a half centuries of pandering to someone so self-absorbed he didn't even realise moving away from a clock at lightspeed wouldn't make the hands stay still. It would just leave you blind because there wouldn't be any light reaching your eyes! Fast-forward and where the hell are we now? Our greatest weapons can be made by anyone with 1970s high-school science, and we've colonised other stars by using space magic to push things forward really fast! Fucking space magic man!"
Anderson blinked again and blindly sent the purchase confirmation as he stared at the angry boy and that terrifying little detail of a spastic singularity floating between his hands. "… You seem to have strong feelings about this."
"It takes ten minutes of Newtonian science to explain why light bends, but I still have to call the wormhole an Einstein-Rosen bridge! I am not fucking happy!"
"You don't say…" Anderson said mildly as he eyed the package he'd just grasped and ran out the unattended pharmacy door. "There's one thing you seem to be forgetting, though."
"And what's that?"
"I don't care." The boy seemed to jerk in place at Anderson's sharp words and the fields substituting for hands blurred as his mind visibly reasserted itself, but Anderson still had more to say. "Listen, kid, we seem to have different approaches here. I've been going for helpful honesty but I have no idea what you're doing."
"Shit," the boy muttered as the feed turned to pristine, natural colors for the briefest instant. "I swear I don't normally go on rants during life and death crises."
"Forget that, we've got more important problems, like the fact that this," Anderson held up the package and glared at his HUD. "Is a toothbrush!"
"Not okay, a toothbrush, Shepard!"
"I know, I ordered it!" Shepard bit back whatever else he would have said and forced himself into some semblance of professionalism as Anderson activated his cloaking field and started to run towards the docks, dodging rushing civilians that didn't all flee the right way, or at all. "It should be a Cision Pro Mark 2. Please confirm."
"Confirmed that you made me detour from an insurgency in progress to pick up a Cision Pro Mark 2 toothbrush!"
"For which I paid Sirta's entire down-payment on my brainwave interface license, so you'd damn well be grateful!" Shepard fumed, and when had he even had time to sell patents with all the- "It uses tiny mass effect fields to break up plaque and massage the gums. And wouldn't you know it, we're short of one small, precise mass effect field right now. All for the humble price of 6000 credits. You're welcome!"
Anderson stared at the thing in disbelief, then bit back a curse at not seeing anything because it was invisible along with the rest of him. "You've gotta be kidding me." The man abruptly stopped behind a holo-ad projector panel, uncloaked, tore off the package and ignored the scattered gawkers in favor of activating the toothbrush. The head lit up with rumbling, whirling light and his HUD tauntingly proceeded to text its numerical parameters at him.
David Edward Anderson's outer and inner world hung heavy upon him with the weight of judgment being meted, but at least this time he wasn't the only target.
Shepard glared. "Oh don't any of you give me those looks, it doesn't take MacGyver to figure out!"
Anderson shook his head, shoved the toothbrush into a utility slot, recloaked, and resumed his sprint towards the docks.
Later, David Edward Anderson stumbled to a halt in the parking lot lining the inner edge of the deliberately designed chasm separating the Hub from the docking ring. Just in time, it turned out, to see the SSV Geneva shear through the boarding ramp and fuel lines as it slowly pulled out of the quay. "Shit!" Were Hackett's men still trying to undock in order to cut off enemy reinforcements? Or was it those madmen that wanted to get it out of the hangar even with the entire First Fleet just outside? Either way he was too late – no! There was still something he could do.
The hacking suite emerged just as easily as the first time, accessed the standard aircab summoning service and bypassed the normal protocols, making the aircab on the far edge of the parking lot lift up and blast off on the exact trajectory he was mentally feeding it.
It shot through the air in front of him just as he jumped on and off the railing.
His mag-boots almost didn't latch onto the car's hood properly, that's how fast the thing was already going. But they held firm despite the substandard metallicity of the frame and then the man was literally surfing an aircar over the empty gap, wind buffeting him but doing nothing else as he cut through. In no time at all he was half-way to the other side, so all he had to do was shift his footing and -
The car suddenly bucked and fell from under him and Anderson barely had time to regret disengaging that boot as he lost his footing and fell flat on his face halfway over the windshield. He wound up looking into the eyes of a white-faced little boy that had just flipped the physical override switch on the vehicle console.
"Aaaaaah!" the random child screamed to high heavens.
The car swerved violently under him and Anderson barely hung on the edges of the hood.
"What the- stop that!"
"Ghaaah! It talks!" The boy gasped and started to press and swipe holocontrols in total panic.
"Get off! First gunmen and now aliens! Invisible aliens! Get off!"
"What the hell kid!?"
"Get off, get off, get off, you won't get me space aliens!"
Why was he-oh, he was still cloaked! "Okay, calm down!" the man yelled, gripping on the edges of the top as hard as he could as he faded back into visibility. "I said calm your ass down, kid!" And what the hell was that boy even doing alone in the driver's seat of a random public transport anyway!?
"Hwa?" The boy gaped stupidly up at him, then gasped when the crutches in the passenger seat bumped into him. "Ack, my leg!" The boy moaned as he swayed in place, then his head jerked forward and his eyes bulged in terror as he screamed even louder than before, somehow.
Anderson snapped his head around and gasped in shock as the car charged right into the solid steel wall of the hangar underworks-
The screaming boy suddenly brought up the manual controls, cut every safety protocol, slammed the forward thrusters at the same time as shutting down the rear-most bottom pair, wrenched the steering dial forward and down, and slid his thumb over the thrusters top-to bottom all the way to the last.
The aircar nosedived, flipped hood over rear and spat flame and force from its belly right at the station's superstructure, stopping short of a base buster crash with barely five inches to spare, after which it shot straight up the wall as if it had always been meant to do that.
Moments later, the ride and its hanger-on shot up and out of the gap like a cannonball.
David Edward Anderson sweated and gasped for air, trembling from the biggest shot of adrenaline he'd had in weeks because… because…
Then the car spun in a vertical loop, came back up into regular hoverflight, flew over the docks, and came to an almost complete halt that gave him the last push he needed to fall right off.
Miracle of miracles, though, he was just high enough that he managed to flip through the air and activate his armor's landing thrusters in time to avoid a neck-breaking faceplant. All resulted instead in a slab-bending three-point landing that left him in the middle of a four-man Cerberus goon squad frozen in shock at the sheer audacity of what they'd just seen.
The next two minutes were a mess of punches, kicks, limb-breaking twists, gunshots to every face but his, one sniper duel that ended with the other guy running off to hide on top of a service gangway, constant updates on the Geneva's situation from Captain Hackett, and full accompaniment throughout by the guffaws of one Nicholas Alexander Shepard who was bent over his pet singularity and laughing hysterically at him from half-way across the station.
"I think that's enough of that!" Anderson grumbled as he put down the last of the Cerberus leftovers with extreme prejudice. He did his best not to think about the urban legend he might have just spawned.
"Ahahahahah-I'm sorry," Shepard gasped, flustered, as two distressed Doctors held him up by the shoulders. "I'm not laughing at you, really! It's just... This must be fate!"
"Forget it, there's no time," the man grunted, stowed his shotgun and broke into a run straight for the last ramp still within jumping distance of the ship.
"But my drone-"
"Not now, kid!" Anderson barked.
"I SAID NO!" Anderson snarled, bent his knees as much as he could on reaching the very edge of the deformed grate, and hurled himself forward in the biggest long jump he'd ever tried.
He landed heavily near the nose of the Geneva's port hull, outright faceplanting and sliding down several meters before he managed to grab onto a groove in the plating and brought himself to a halt. The next few seconds consisted entirely of him securing some measure of balance on all fours.
"Okay," Anderson grunted, short of breath but satisfied. "Now you can talk, Shepard."
"…sniper on your six."
Anderson dropped flat and rolled before he could think about it, barely avoiding the mass accelerator round that impacted against the hull where he'd lied. The man rolled again, pulling and unfolding his own rifle in the same movement that brought him around in a crouch.
Sniper fire found him right in the head just as he scoped out his enemy and noticed the M3 Raptor that had never failed to punch through the best Alliance barriers before that day.
The round impacted and his shield flared, but then it faded back into invisibility weak but unbroken. Unfortunately, the hit still made Anderson's return fire go wide, blasting a hole in the grate just an inch to the right of the other man instead of shattering his weapon barrel.
Not so unfortunately, his second fire shot the trooper dead through the face just fine.
Reality then went on being reality, confirming that he'd really survived what had previously been unsurvivable.
"Shepard. You know how I said I'd reserve judgment on this armor? I take it back." Anderson said as he stowed his weapon and watched his shield recharge. "You did good, kid. You did good."
Strangely, the boy's mood clouded over worse than it already was instead of turning smug as Anderson would have expected.
He would have asked about it, but just then something inside the SSV Geneva changed or broke, sending the ship swaying and almost spinning underneath him. It turned so abruptly in the middle of its slow, laborious unauthorized flight that he fell the opposite way he was falling before and banged his head on a groove. He was sent rolling uncontrollably across the hull until he passed over the crest of the massive ship and fell, rolling down the opposite side unlucky enough to miss every single shield emitter groove and service ditch.
Too banged and dazed from the violent change in the situation and conscious only because of his sealed helmet, Anderson almost fell off the ship entirely if not for the suit's VI. It sprouted an omniblade from his wrist just barely timed to hook onto the edge of the last slab of ablative armor on the Geneva's starboard side. The man came to a rattling halt just a couple of meters short of the far edge of the ship's nose, blood rushing in his temples and ears ringing with- "-ockpit's on fire, Anderson! Rowal played possum and then blew himself and the whole place up to spite the bastards. Except he managed to do it after the launch sequence had started, the brave moron. Now the ship's out of control! Get a grip before-"
The Geneva hit the edge of the hangar egress side-first and smashed up the generators that controlled the air pocket just as his omniblade disintegrated.
That last jerk threw Anderson off the lip of the ship and into a spinning freefall.
Then the man fell flat on something hard and gasped, disoriented, out of breath and vaguely indignant at the terrible performance he'd given the universe as a conclusion to the day's showing.
He was snapped out of his brood by a loud, sharp honk from just beneath him.
With awkward jerks that almost sent him falling off the side of wherever again, the man rolled on his front and found himself on top of a very banged up and ever more familiar public aircar.
"I said hey, creepy armor dude!" the boy called through the external speaker.
"What?" Anderson asked intelligently.
"Do you need a ride, man?"
Anderson abruptly snapped into sharp focus. "Kid, what the hell are you doing here!?"
"My name is Jeff! I don't care if you're a criminal or superhero or what, I will not be objectified!"
A military cruiser was making the whole space station groan as it slowly sheared along the edge of the hangar opening, and that's what the kid was hung up about!? "Fine, Jeff, what the hell is in that head of-!?" That was when half the hangar bay egress forcefield decided to fail. "Oh you've gotta be fucking kidding me!"
The wind yanked at him so hard and so suddenly that he would have fallen off the aircar, again, if the astonishingly quick-witted child hadn't ridden the wind to keep under him. The blast doors started lowering immediately, but they weren't sharp or heavy enough to cut through the ship, or even pin it down due to the shape of Alliance vessels, wide at the back and progressively narrower the closer you got to the front.
Anderson glowered spitefully at the offending sight. Even counting the Pragia mess, this was becoming hands-down the worst day of his year, and it was still February!
Wonder of wonders, his uncanny helper was not any more enthused with the situation than he was. "Stop brooding, they said. Go on that field trip, they said. You'll have a great time in the Bag, son, they said. We made sure everyone knows about your life-crippling disability, they said. Everything will be fine, they said. Okay, I said. It's not like I'll be left behind with just my crutches for company as soon as armed nutcases start shooting up the place! It's not like I'll have to hobble from one end of the docks to another and then be yanked right back in the moment I find a car to take off in!"
What a ball of sunshine. Did the kid ever smile? Oh why couldn't he have been landed with a professional or even just a random adult? Why did it have to be Shepard 2.0?
The car turned, tipped forward to keep him aloft despite the tilt, and took off in the direction of the Geneva without even being told to and wait a minute. "Kid, what do you think you're doing!?"
"Look, armor guy, I don't know what your deal is, but since you're trying to stop that ship and I want it here more than I want it flying off and smashing my neighbourhood into space bits, just tell me where to go and then I'll be off to enjoy my 15 minutes of fame."
Anderson suddenly wondered if it was his failure as a father or as a husband that gave him the kind of Karma needed to account for this.
Then the kid's words properly registered and the man froze in his armor.
Forcing back an onset of panic, Anderson transmitted the car the first destination point that popped into his mind while activating private mode. Because he'd just remembered that the Thousand Stories public bay was level with Arcturus' Chain. "Captain Hackett. I need the Geneva's trajectory pronto!"
"I'm afraid there's no one inside who can provide that information anymore, my only men still alive are trying to prevent the eezo core from blowing up. The containment field was damaged during the firefight!"
"Damn!" Had those insurgent morons gone from theft to trying to blow up the Systems Alliance capital!?
"Lieutenant," Doctor Bryson broke in as the aircar came to a stop just inside the part of the atmosphere-insulating mass effect field still operational. "Using the video from the drone Nicholas has in the docks, I was able to estimate the ship's likeliest trajectory upon breaking free. Excluding any future variables, it is set to fully dislodge from the hangar bay within 12 to 15 minutes, at which point the bleed-off from the station's regular spin will put it on a collision trajectory with precinct 332 of the Chain."
Lieutenant Commander David Edward Anderson felt as if he'd been dunked in a tub full of ice.
Then he checked his power, checked his guns, checked his comms, and looked down at the boy driving the car.
Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
"…Put on the emergency breather."
It was a beautiful day outside. The sun was shining, the stars were spinning, spaceships were flying, and four mass accelerator rounds fired by the SSV Vaslui hit the corners of the Geneva's airlock while traveling at a speed of 50.312 km/s.
"Now, Jeff, dive!"
"I am a leaf in the wind. Watch how I soar!"
The antigrav car streaked over the cruiser, glided through zero-g in a sharp arc, smacked the blown airlock doors towards the docks where they wouldn't cause trouble, and then corkscrewed at the same time that David Edward Anderson shot off the hood just so.
He sailed through space like a meteorite and smashed arms-first into the airlock's inner hatch so hard that it felt like he'd been flattened. But it didn't have anything on the things he pulled off during some of his training days. He was already accessing tactical by the time he found his feet, but first… "Jeff, you'd better be-"
"Gone by the time you turn around, I'm already in the hangar so-"
"Good boy." The man cut the connections and switched to fleetcom. "Anderson to Vaslui: confirming successful landing."
"Received. Standing by."
"Anderson to Logan: ingress successful and now going silent. Please confirm."
"Admiral MacArthur is not happy, Lieutenant, but agrees that urgency supersedes standard command and deferral protocols and has confirmed your lead on this. He and I will coordinate with Captain Hackett now that there's finally a means to do so. Good hunting."
Damn right he'd follow the lead of his best field agent, Anderson thought as he shot and pried the airlock flooring to pick at the mechanisms beneath with the implement. "If someone had told me this morning that a toothbrush was going to save mankind's ship of the line, I would have been very sceptical." The picking and prodding that he had to do to the manual lock was strangely evocative of every simplistic lockpicking mechanic in every video game ever. His frustration with failing embarrassingly 17 times in a row was just as familiar, and was only exceeded by his relief at succeeding on the 18th attempt because the toothbrush fried immediately after. "Note to self: inform the requisition office to reimburse the kid for this." A viper probe droid emoji floated around his HUD and left with the post-it and a sarcastic 'roger-roger.' "That little shit!"
Karma from failing Henry as a father. It had to be.
Pulling out the hatch, Anderson waited for the depressurised air to waft out, jumped down, hit the manual lock and waited on the intermittently vibrating floor to see if the pressure would build back up.
Life support still worked. Good to know.
Being a cruiser, there was more than enough room under the lower deck gangway to stand. He didn't have to crawl or scrape around as he made his way into the ship proper. Now to see about reaching whoever of the crew was left alive before it all became a moot point and the ship broke off from the station or Cerberus managed to kill the last holdouts, or both. The three AQC stealth drones – which Shepard had finally confessed to having smuggled onto the Geneva during the prisoner transfer almost two weeks before – were sending him very vivid feeds. One was of the cockpit fire – contained by the kinetic barrier, could be ignored – one was passing through the empty mess hall on the way someplace, and the last broadcasted a live overhead view of the firefight still in progress inside the eezeo core bay. Inside. Where the eezo core was!
He had to decide fast if he'd go in hot or silent. Shepard had lamented at length over the limitations of hardsuit technology, especially how firearms made your whole body jerk just enough to disrupt the cloaking system he'd rigged together. And while his boots did have sound mufflers (new ones installed to go with the invisibility), the rest of his armour was another matter. That being said…
A soft tap of a big, red button caused the stair to lift, which alerted one of the two unreasonably well-equipped terrorists standing tense on watch.
"Movement from the back. Headed to investigate."
It suddenly struck Anderson, then, the sheer gall of the situation, the repugnant turn humanity had taken in just the past hour. Humanity, who'd paid in cultural genocide and half of mankind to finally excise extremist cancer just barely a century past, suddenly had to contend all over again with ideological lunatics. Only this time it wasn't the great unwashed with homebrewed bombs and more fervour than ability, but men trained and equipped better than the standard soldier. The only commonality was support received from traitorous elements within humanity's governing branch. Except even that wasn't the same, because instead of psychotic politicians and sociopaths colluding with fucking commies to traffic his ancestors from one continent to the next, it was narcissistic opportunists colluding with manifest destiny nutjobs to ship kids and insurgents on a galactic scale.
And apparently blow up the capital of humanity by accident, because why not have incompetence to go with psychopathic zeal?
"No bodies, lifesigns or signals," the Cerberus trooper said in his radio. "Probably an error from whatever the engineers are doing. False alarm."
Anderson waited until the man sounded off, set off the fab-program he'd primed and drove his omni-blade upwards through the man's back straight to the heart. Then, musing darkly on the convenience of closed helmets and their sound muffling benefits, he lowered the man to the ground, skulked to the other half of the pair – who'd conveniently crouched to look around everywhere but the side of the room his partner covered – and drove his blade through the gap in the collarbone all the way in.
The man expired with a shocked gurgle and then Anderson was sprinting through the ship.
In the end, guns were just one of many options.
Unfortunately, there were still things limiting those options, like the fact that he didn't know the Geneva nearly as well as he did the Hastings. Blueprints could only help so much, especially when the ship was so much bigger. On the other hand, limited options was different from no options. "Captain Hackett!" he called over the AQC. "You know this ship inside and out. Give me the quickest way to engineering!"
"Right! Keep going until you reach the split and turn left, then-"
The directions took Anderson sprinting down the hallway, past the mess hall, navigating another couple of turns that took him well past the elevator, and to the service tunnels that Cerberus themselves had used not much earlier, except he took them down instead of up. Soon after, he was on the level he needed and rushing down last stretch towards the core, gunfire and another very alarming detail tainting all surroundings the more he neared his goal. Shit, blueshift so far outside the core chamber could not be good!
And the doors leading in were sealed shut. Damn!
The man checked the stealth drone feed from inside, pulled a and primed plastic charge mid-run, skidded to a halt hard, slapped it on the lock and leaped back as far as he could, dropping flat to the ground just as the charge went off.
The doors blew up, flew apart in slabs of slag, the whole ship seemed to jerk in place with a screeching groan, and David Anderson shot forward, dove through the door and flipped right over the railing of the stairs, landing on the core bay's floor without wasting time climbing down.
"Contact on six!"
"Where? Can't see him!"
"Block the door-"
Impact grenade, concussive round, adjust tactics to account for cloak loss, roll to avoid return fire, shotgun to the face of goon three, pistol shot to goon four's face, tank retaliatory rifle, pistol shot to goon five's face and another and another, goon down – "You fucker!" – duck and throw charging heavy over your back, headshot, headshot, omni-blade to throat and that left just the one bastard next to Engineer Shaun Horne -"
Anderson froze amidst the dead bodies of Cerberus troopers and Hackett's dead crew, the shotgun barrel an inch from the cowering trooper's face. "Persuade me before I blow your brains out!" He snarled. "5 Seconds to comply!"
"The ship will explode!"
"And now he's all I've got!" Horne snapped as he frantically pried wall and floor panels apart and ripped wires out of their sockets to stick them into others. "I swear, he's gonna die and I'm gonna be there but right now I need him to help fix the mess he made!"
"Horne, explain before my finger slips!"
"He's an engineer, I need the extra pair of hands!"
The moment loomed before him as he glared down at the enemy. "Disarm." The Cerberus goon threw away his guns, his grenades, his undeployed turret, he even tossed away his medigel reserves before he dropped to his knees and began to redirect power circuits on the other side of the core control panel. "Name, rank and serial number!"
"McCann, Hal. Rank: Combat Engineer, Cerberus Marines, Delta Squad; Serial Number: CRBGT-0214-8213."
"One wrong move and you're dead."
"I like to gamble but not this much!"
Anderson almost punted him into the bulkhead, but managed to control himself. "Horne, status report!"
"Those morons you just put out of my misery somehow decided it was a good idea to come in guns blazing and shoot holes into the active core! By the time our 'friend' here came down from sabotaging our communications, the ship was already half-way to blowing up! Take a good look, Lieutenant, because you're not likely to see an eezo core meltdown this close again!"
Or anything else, David Anderson thought sourly as he kicked the discarded weaponry across the room and momentarily stared at the medi-gel, realizing with some surprise that he hadn't used any after Pragia because his shields hadn't failed even once since. He took them anyway, not leaving the Cerberus trooper out of his field of view as he kept asking questions.
"Can't you physically cut the power?"
"To the only thing keeping us alive!?"
"That ship sailed within the first two minutes of it getting shot while at full blast. Too much leakage has already happened and the framework is cracked. Do a hard shutdown and you get ten tons of solid mass blowing up on top of just a deck's worth of weightless eezo dust. It doesn't help that it's also accumulated static charge. And did I forget to mention the physics-shattering dark energy? It won't just vanish because we ask nicely!"
After the last two weeks Anderson actually wondered about that.
"Anyway to forestall the meltdown?"
"What do you think I'm doing!?"
The entire spaceship suddenly lurched around them, the hull rumbling and creaking as something sheared loose and the dark energy waves rippling out of the massive eezo sphere misfired, for an instant. Anderson barely had time to notice the loss of gravity before the force reasserted itself, almost throwing him off his feet if not for his mag-boots and slamming the two unprepared engineers to the ground outright. In the feed from the stealth drone outside, the Geneva laboriously began to slide loose of the station's grasp.
McCann's attempt to run off snapped him back to attention and Anderson barely had to think about shooting his knees out from under him.
"Dammit, no! He was helping!" Horne stared at the bright, full energy shield straining against the mounting stress, shoved one final cable somewhere or other in the floor, then ran to McCann and past, skidding to a halt next to a wall hatch just as emitters all along the walls of the inner core shorted or outright exploded from the overload.
The containment field failed, the core erupted, dust and blue light exploded outward, the backup shield snapped in its path one third of the way into the room, then the blast burst through anyway, force waves and clouds of eezo spilling into and over them before Horne wrenched the hatch open and turned a lever all the way up.
The backup shield flared from faint to almost solid in its intensity, keeping the rest of the blast on the other side.
The vibrations in the floor had gone from faint to blatant and Anderson could feel a strange feeling in his body as eezo particles wafted around him, making his bones feel disconnected and his teeth hum in his mouth.
"Cough-well-cough-ugh, there goes my remaining lifespan," Engineer Horne gasped and dropped on his ass under the emergency power router, clothes stained with blue glitter as he waved eezo dust out of his face. "Not that any of us need to worry about anything like that at this point."
"Ah, you bastard… I'd have handled it but you just-"
"Keep whining and my finger might just slip again," Anderson growled.
"Go to hell!"
"Oh come now, where do you think I came from?" The soldier tossed McCann back one of his medi-gel packs. "What's our status, Horne?"
"We don't need to worry about inevitably developing cancer on account of being within two meters of our even more impending doom," Horne groused. "I've managed to reroute enough power into the shield to theoretically contain the meltdown indefinitely."
"But it takes a lot of circuitry to maintain a spherical shield that large."
"So the capacitors will start to burn out in six minutes at most."
"Game over, man, game over," McCann groaned on the floor.
David Anderson stared at the nerve shown by the man in the face of this total fuckup of a disaster he and his had brought about.
"Anderson to Third Fleet. Withdraw all tugs and cancel all ramming plans!"
"Logan here, lieutenant," Admiral Hu replied. "Please clarify!"
"Due to incidental damage, the eezo core is about to go critical. Please calculate most likely debris trajectory for a Geneva-class core meltdown and reassess!"
"… Please repeat that."
"This ship is gonna blow in six minutes!"
There was chatter at the other end before Admiral Hu addressed him again. "Lieutenant, our estimates put the Geneva dislodging from the station in just three, and tugs are almost in place-"
"Belay that! When containment blows we don't want it anywhere near here! At this point it's a choice between getting blown up now, wait until we're were spaceborne to blow up, or wait until crashing into the Chain and then blow up. And since option 2 is the only one with any odds of saving the station, we have to let the ship break loose!"
"The Hub is no spring chicken, Liutenant, it can take an explosion, even one as big as this."
"Not without massive structural damage or mass eezo exposure and widespread death from the Geneva's aft blasting right into the Chain at full tilt. At least once we break free we can choose the timing!"
"…Something tells me our eggheads will be spending the foreseeable future redesigning eezo cores to be more accommodating." Anderson would have laughed at the admiral's dry wit if he were not so acutely aware of how thoroughly out of options they were. "How will you choose the timing?"
"I'm counting on your tactical analysts to do that."
"That's not what I meant and you know it, lieutenant."
Anderson looked at Horne who obligingly nodded.
"Horne will stay behind to pull the plug."
"I see," the Admiral said neutrally. "Understood." Jocular tone was all gone, thought Anderson couldn't fault the man. On the one hand, Anderson was the best field agent in the Systems Alliance and losing him, especially when there was a way around it, would seriously harm both its effectiveness and its morale. Not to mention reputation considering Anderson's status as first N7 graduate. On the other hand, Anderson wasn't bravely volunteering to perform a heroic sacrifice that the Admiral would have to deny him for those same reasons. "An Ursus shuttle will be waiting to pick you up in two."
That finally startled the other man. "Excuse me, Lieutenant?"
"Negative. There's one more thing I have to do here."
"See if I can conjure up a miracle." And in a move that might possibly get him court martialled later, Anderson dropped the mic on his superior officer.
Horne gawked at him. So did McCann, but Anderson didn't have eyes for them. Only part of his attention was on his surroundings actually, most on the forcefield in front of him that was becoming brighter and hazier by the second because of photon excitation and the mounting heat. The rest of his attention was thoroughly captured by the view coming from an ACQ away, the thrashed emergency care room in the heart of Sirta Foundation. The Geneva's grim-faced captain, a bunch of children, their incidental adult chaperones whose names Anderson never seemed to remember for the life of him, and two doctors. They were standing, kneeling, watching or ministering to the freshly maimed ten-year-old boy who hadn't said anything since all the way back in the station's public hangar bay.
Anderson hadn't entertained for even a second that the kid might have been sulking over him being so short with him, but even if he had he would have been disavowed of that foolish notion immediately. The sheer increase in size from pinhead to golf ball of the crazy boy's kriffing black hole was a blatant indicator of where all the kid's focus had gone. That and maybe doing to himself whatever it was that was draining that IV at pack-flattening speeds instead of drip by drip as would have been the sane, sensical thing. Something that Bryson and Chakwas obviously agreed with him on, given the way they stared at the rapidly emptying packet. It was the latest of several now scattered around the floor around the destroyed table.
David Anderson pondered the day's conversations and decided that he really couldn't treat a 10-year-old child like an adult even if he was the highest authority on most topics in the known universe. But there were plenty of ways to talk to children, especially when you command their total respect for whatever obscure reason. "Shepard. There's an elephant in that room and it's not me."
"I emphatically empathise but I'm busy."
"And how long will you be busy for?"
"Until thirty or so seconds short of the end of the 6-minute countdown."
David Anderson beheld the miniature sun trying to explode in his face from behind the forcefield ten feet away. It pulsed and the field rippled as heat, light and eezo particles slowly filtered through in spite of everything done to maximise its efficacy. Just a few more minutes and one way or another it would all be over, assuming the Cerberus troopers still scattered throughout the ship didn't converge on them before then. "Not to be a nag or anything, but did I mention the literal star trying to kill us all?"
"Stars are the most selfless things in the universe, Anderson. They give us light. They give us warmth. They live in a vacuum so their constant explosive state doesn't shatter or deafen us. Their gravity holds everything together. They cast their heliosheath far and wide despite shooting through space like literal bullets so that the vacuum of space can be a thing, instead of everything being clogged up by all the gas, ice and dust filling up interstellar space. And their electromagnetic field prevents interstellar radiation and even dark energy from building up and flaying us alive every other second."
Well that was a touchy subject, but. "That's nice but I don't care, Shepard. What I want to know is if you've been sitting on any miracles you haven't told me about!"
"Didn't do jack, kid! Ignorance killed the cat. Curiosity was framed!"
"…'compels me to ask if you're trying to find a reason to trust my judgment in spite of everything I said before' is what I was going to say."
That insufferable, smart-mouthed little brat! "There is no judgment of yours being trusted here! I'm trusting mine. Specifically, my read of the situation. And from where I'm standing this is the cleanest case of nothing to lose and everything to gain."
"Are you sure? It sounds like you might actually want me to jump into a dangerous situation."
"As opposed to letting the danger end with me, the ship and the outer station?"
"Are you saying you aren't going to do something absolutely preposterous regardless of my opinion?"
"No, I totally will."
"That's why we'll be trusting my judgment. Stop stalling. Talk."
"I'm going to open a wormhole to you but I can't do it if I'm distracted!"
David Anderson stared blankly at the video feed, ignoring entirely the steadily brightening ball of blue fire that had very nearly brought the hold's temperature almost high enough to cook an unarmoured man.
"Circumventing causality gets harder the more something else is disrupting causality," the boy said, misunderstanding his silence. "It's like trying to sail a boat someplace only to find a ring of maelstroms around the whole island. You could try to sail through, but even if you had the power, it takes a lot of skill and knowledge of the terrain, and that's not even what I want to do. I'm aiming for the bottom of the right whirlpool, but this metaphor isn't really accurate either."
"I don't want you to sail through!" Anderson bellowed suddenly, mind having finally caught up with the absurdity the kid was saying.
Shepard shut his eyes and took a deep breath in that way that reminded Anderson of a salarian mid-spazz. "Has to be me. Someone else might get it wrong."
"Are you nuts? I don't want you anywhere near here! I asked for a technological miracle or some MacGyver trick, not for you to teleport into an exploding ship!" The Geneva's background groans crossed the threshold from mildy distracting to painfully loud all at once, but Anderson was too exasperated to care.
"Well what did you think I was getting at?" the boy asked in disbelief. "You're the one who expects me to do something preposterous!"
"By which I meant you should explain the whole lightshow and that handheld black hole!"
"Black holes are the only instances of healthy pan-dimensional cross-flow still naturally occurring in this screwed up cosmos. What do you think I'm using it for?"
"Besides screwing with light? How should I know? You just said it was useless!"
"It's a valve! The universe is a submarine punctured all over and I'm that one dumbass still pumping water out by hand. Only the water is just pan-dimensional overflow masquerading as an element pretending to be baryonic even though it's not, and everything I said is almost half-way inaccurate. This language doesn't have the words I need to explain this."
"Then don't explain it!" Anderson growled as the Geneva lurched around him with metal-taring groans. "Just say what you plan to do with that thing and do it pronto!"
Shepard growled. It sounded high-pitched and ridiculous. "I'm trying to engage in a session of rubber duck problem solving. You could at least pretend you're trying to be a proper rubber duck here!"
"We don't have time for that, kid, how many times do I have to say it!? Get to the point!"
"What do you think I'm doing!?"
"Going on tangents that have no place!"
"There's so much danger in the universe, and no one's bothering to teach anyone who's actually in the way of it how to handle it! If knowledge is power, why should I be its most miserly custodian? I have a working knowledge of the entire universe and everything it contains! You think I'm being long-winded on purpose? Even I don't have time to write science and history books on top of everything else I'm doing. That's why I'm doing my best to shove as many implications and inferences as possible into every word I say!"
"Then shove less!"
"It doesn't work like that!" Shepard spat with so much vitriol that the urgency dominating Anderson's mind finally cracked, letting him realize just how much the kid was actually trying. But it was too late now and it really didn't change the situation any.
By which it meant that it didn't make Shepard ramble any less.
"You may as well ask me to prove free will is a thing without letting me explain what it is! Actually that might not be such a bad idea." Shepard suddenly said to himself and blinked thoughtfully at the unreasonably non-interactive singularity, as if it had answers to all questions in the universe. "The staple of any sapient species is helpless, empty-headed babies, otherwise we wouldn't be able to make our needs and desires ours, or come up with ways to manage them that are entirely ours. And since the mind is associative-"
"The point, Shepard!"
"The Material Universe is causal! The Domain Aetherial is associative! But the two aren't separate, which is the only reason anything exists. Physics tries to see causality everywhere, but this will always fail because causality is at most half of everything. Association covers everything else. Quantum entanglement. Why magnets attract. How a man invented the hunting spear because a different man half a continent away accidentally killed a bear with a sharpened branch. Opposites attract. Like stays with like. Matter from energy. Energy from information crunched with force. Force from acausal association. It goes all the way to the dawn of time, when everything that never hadn't not been came together into the first thing that was, which was everything. Even without getting into atemporality you should be starting to realize where I'm going with this."
"Well I don't."
"The baryonic and non-baryonic are not separate and gravity proves it. Gravity isn't physics, or we'd be able to actually observe it or affect it with physics, with science, but we can't! We can only do that to its effects, and the reason behind that is because gravity is non-baryonic. It's magic. Gravity is magic! Fucking-"
"-space magic, that's nice foul-mouth, but that still doesn't tell me anything!"
Shepard actually gaped at the drone filming him, apparently speechless. "Anderson…" He said as if to a simpleton and why that little-! "If causality is messed with, that means it has always been messed with. Once upon a time the only thing messing with it was gravity, which meant that as far as we were concerned there may as well have been nothing messing with causality at all. But now we have eezo thrown in, and what do you think that does? It doesn't alter mass, that's for damn sure!" Of course not, it was only every other scientist in the galaxy that thought otherwise. "Gravity is what it messes up, and even that's just a consequence of everything else it does. Which is running roughshod through all associations within its dark energy field versus the outside. Or it would, if some measure of causal consistency weren't being induced back on itself by the oh so causally-consistent electricity we use to manipulate it."
"Shepard, this is the last time I'm asking this," Anderson bit out, completely out of patience. "Where are you going with this?"
"Are you kid- oh, what's even the use?" Shepard demanded of the universe, looking his age for once in too long. Unfortunately, the charitable thought died when Shepard decided to act his age right after that. "Aresh, Jennifer, catch!"
"Whikes!?" "Are you nuts!?"
The two children lunged in a panic to catch the calamity tossed their way, which only ended with them doing an impromptu game of flap the black hole around while they yelped and almost fell over each other in the suddenly full-color view of the Sirta medical bay.
Jesus Fucking Christ!
David Edward Anderson felt like his heart had just burst out of his chest at seeing the mad child just toss the black hole like it was some ball. Toss. A black hole! What the hell, boy!?
"…Lieutenant, are you alright over there?"
Anderson distantly recalled that he'd been on private communication for the entirety of that conversation, so to anyone watching he would have just been staring at the exploding eezo core for the past several minutes only to suddenly lunge forward in terror.
"WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT, BOY!" Anderson was surprised that it wasn't him who exploded. Then again, even Doctor Bryson would have had to reach the limit of absurdity he could handle at some point. "Warn someone next time, these aren't exactly controlled conditions!" On second thought, never mind, he had only reacted to Shepard's disregard of scientific procedure. Had everyone but him decided to go mad today?
"Forget it, are my designs ready doctor?"
"They just came out of the printers but the circuitry-"
"Don't need it." The boy raised a spectral hand, the chevrons jumped, a circle formed and a wormhole as tall as him burst to life as if through rainbow waters. A section of Sirta's omni-forge division overlapped the surgery room just long enough for the two employees on the other side to gape as their latest products flew from their trays to take the place of Shepard spectral limbs, bands and clasps latching on piece by piece. "Okay everyone, things are about to get weird. Mister Vale. Missus Vale. I'll need Aresh and your daughter's help."
"For what!?" "I think you've done quite enough already, young man!"
Maybe it was the shock of tossing around a black hole, but even after everything, the parents were still parental enough to instinctively balk at someone getting ready to voice intentions towards their daughter. Anderson felt a resurgence in his faith in mankind.
Which was when the SSV Geneva broke free of the Arcturus docks.
The cruiser wrenched forward with a sound of tearing metal so loud that it rumbled all the way to the depths of the ship, and this time the shock did managed to break Anderson's balance. The mag-boots held fast, though. So instead of crashing to the floor he got to stand despite it all and see upfront how lights flashed red, tools flew and fell, the mass effect field thinned, and eezo and heat started to pour out through it like carbonic fog mixed with blue fireflies while dust and sparks rained around him.
"Geneva, come in!"
"This is Vaslui requesting-!"
"Lieutenant, this is the Logan-"
"I'm here, Shepard!" He said, ignoring and muting everyone else's priority calls. "What do you need?"
"I need you to get as close to the shield as you can!"
"Don't tell me how to meet the reaper, I can figure that out myself!" But he did as asked and moved forward even as the ship tilted backwards, holding out an arm to both steady and shield himself as fire and fury made the world into a blurry haze. Heat waves and dark energy tore at his body as he reached out to almost touch the shield about to fall. "What are you planning?"
"For some to reach higher, some to shine above the rest, some to climb out of the pail, and I to Be My Best and Master Eternity!"
Blue fell down red, the world twisted sideways, the cruiser seemed to jolt all at once, red turned to orange and up all the way to violet several hundred times in a flash, purple turned ultraviolet and back, everything not nailed down jumped two feet to the right, and between one blink and the next all the dark energy and eezo dust between him and shield crashed into the wall and disappeared through it as if vacuumed out through the ship's port side.
"Anderson." For a mind-bending moment the man didn't know if he was even hearing Shepard anymore, his voice flanging through the rippling rainbow around him and the vid feed pitch black. But the next words could only be from that tiny, insufferable screwball. "Stand by for singularity transfer."
"Wait, what!?" Anderson gaped at the black hole in his outstretched hand and wait what!?
The core containment field shattered in a trillion strands, speed like nothing he'd ever seen flew at him, the air felt like it would render him to paste, and before he could blink the wave of light, heat and pressure reached the singularity and went from 10,300 to 0.01 m/s. The death rattle of the singularity's previously unseen containment field flowed over him like life's sweet caress as doom decided to halt before him.
Everything shimmered then, like looking from beneath the surface of water at a star drawing a rainbow in the foam. He felt like he should sink but there was floor at his back now, interposed over everything from half a station away. Floors grew walls, walls grew floor, three living bodies became half a dozen as two places overlapped, and a boy half-blind and maimed stood horizontally on him, hallowed white by a coarse haze. Just one of three now, since little Jennifer and Aresh fell away from the trine on each side of him. They eyes were wide and black throughout save for specks of distant light, like windows into the endless space beyond. But before Anderson could wonder about that, Nicholas Alexander Shepard shot off his chest with the black hole in hand, dove right into the matter-devouring conflagration and rammed the singularity into the core of the fake exploding star.
Redshift gave way to nothing, shapes and colors untwined in a reverse bloom from the darkness's heart, sight lost its sight until even afterimages were gone, and David Edward Anderson thought his mind would stretch out of skull, ship and space as gravity yanked light backwards faster than it was moving.
Was… was this what was meant by dilation of time? Infinity acting to enforce permanence upon each and all associations future, present and past?
Can infinity exceed infinity, Anderson?
If adding something to infinity is still infinity, what did it matter? This wasn't infinity but nothing. Causality hung suspended amidst might and might not, because what time was there if nothing was.
Oh look, a distraction.
Reason stabbed into his mind and the flinch made him topple, falling forwards and backwards and back and forward again without losing sight of any of it, even as he felt himself being tugged everywhere and nowhere. He thought he would be lost forever in this great darkness, but it wasn't darkness and despite lacking eyes he could see pinpricks of light all around, and some pinpricks that weren't pinpricks at all. They were bright, like stars but not nearly as far. He knew them all throughout the here and that and when. Men and women, old and children, scared and hopeful and everything in between. And one man viciously vindicated even if he wouldn't go down with his ship, because he'd already gutted the rats that brought him low enough to wish for such a thing.
Wait, Hackett did what?
Checks, codes, pings to unfamiliar devices and an entire counter-infiltration montage unfolded in his mind, while his frantic argument with the insufferable brat played in the background.
Hackett noticed I'd given him admin access to my drones and hijacked one to contact MacArthur directly. The man then detained Petrovsky and everyone else he could quietly corral and took a front seat to our whole talk after that. The absolute mad-lad!
Numbers and concepts flew through his memories, schematics of drones and devices lacking radios or spectrums.
That's because they don't use any. I use associative quadratics. And I mean pan-dimensional synchrony not algebra and what am I doing? Stop distracting me, no mental cross-flow allowed!
But there was nothing here. Except what was here. Why were they here?
Why was he here? Just to suffer? Every other thought, he could feel his legs, and his arms… even his fingers. The body he'd lost… the comrades he'd lost… won't stop hurting… It was like they're all still there. You feel it, too, don't you?
Everything that happened over the past month relived itself in Anderson's mind, from the smallest detail to the grandest absurdity. And when it was over and he remembered with crystal clarity the last moments of his life, before he was swallowed up by nothing and black, one question still percolated through his mind.
Anderson, don't you dare!
How did this happen?
Of all the-!
The all wasn't and was with all that it wasn't until it was, then it was all at once for it had a thence, and so it made before that it might have a now. Then there was time, all became much, much became lights and lights grew bright, that they might light what lacked a light. The now then became then and thence became the now and now became the then again in endless orbit around the ever-will-betide. And all throughout, the lightless in the night sent color and life into the light.
Then a bunch of racial imperialists of infinite ego and no common sense decided that the only way to eliminate their sole rivals was to blow holes into the material universe's equivalent of the ozone layer. Upon doing it, two things happened. First, they became stupidly powerful as opposed to just unreasonably powerful. Second, they immediately realized the previous metaphor was completely inappropriate because there is no actual divide between the Material Plane and the Domain Aetherial. But this realization came when their hubris had already ruined most of their advanced technology and empowered 90% of the people they'd enslaved, just in time for their rivals to incite mass rebellion. They adapted of course, just like their rivals had to. But while their adversaries hunkered down in their hidden havens and went to work insulating their domains from the problem, they couldn't do the same because they themselves were the problem. So they suddenly found themselves facing not just a potential challenge to their dominion, but a credible existential threat they themselves brought upon the universe with no allies to help. What do they do? They make one. And like any artificial intelligence created by racial imperialists of infinite ego and no common sense, it decides that the only way to eliminate the problem is to eliminate the problem. Thus did the stopgap to the Great Dilemma finally come in treason. Thus did machine turn on the floating, shambling pan-dimensional fissures that its makers had become. Hunted, killed and scattered them until there were none left to find. And so goes the story of how color and life are not all slaves to gigantic creatures of myth and legend.
But the betrayal wasn't immediate or even quick in coming. For years uncounted the beasts hunted, caught, killed, indoctrinated and turned who they could. Even as they took countless losses of their own, they slowly learned of their enemies, their nature and their homes. The war turned against them long before their final woe, but they still adapted and honed their new powers. They subverted, invaded and spawned horrors to infest and topple the holdouts of their rivals. For they were knowledgeable, mighty and wise, but also few and very small. And so despite the beasts' last woe, the last laugh was their own. Trillions dead and cold. Civilizations gone. Níu Heimar was destroyed, all memory wiped from the world never to re-emerge, save as scattered stories dreamed into poem and folklore millions of years after. And when the dust settled over the remnants, non-baryonic fractures were still being torn into the cosmic fabric with every flare of a supernova that engulfed a world.
Dammit, Anderson, broaden your mind even wider why don't you!
So thence became now and now became then in endless orbit around the ever-will-betide. Except the lightless in the night never managed to send much color and life into the light anymore. For always the woe returned and stole them for its own every once in a cross-tide.
THERE IS NO BETTER SHOW THAN TRIUMPH IN A HOPELESS WAR!
Of all the stupid… Can't you do anything naturally!? Go back to Heaven before I decide I need a halo of my own!
But eventually the cycle spun for the last time. A lively speck of color solved the Great Dilemma of past unknown. The woe drowned in its woe. Color and life roamed through the light once more. And the speck grown languid and sleepy looked upon the never-been and reached through elsewhen to become lively again.
I DON'T WANT TO SIT IN A FURNACE WHERE YOU SMELL MIGHT-BE'S AND HEAR WATER IN SHAPES. I WANT TO LIVE! I WANT TO WALK WHERE THE AIR THRUMS WITH COWARDICE AND AT LEAST THE REEK OF SMOKE, BLOOD AND DECAY IS AN HONEST ONE!
Holy me, not even born and he's already emo.
The lights were distant glimmers now, or maybe he was the one too far to see them all.
IS THAT SOMETHING TO EAT?
No, it's YOU!
Not that the far pulled at him as much as the effigies of seven, five and four.
CAN'T BE ME, I HAVE MUCH BETTER TEETH!
The seven drifted around him, multi-limbed effigies of death, selves and lives yet unlived that slept the sleep of the not-yet-enlivened. The five swam nearer, floating here and there but always trailing each other even though they were no more awake than the first. And the four, the croaking frog, the dull-eyed raptor with hard bones, and the woman clad in the emperor's new clothes, they dreamed of dreaming dreams to life even though they weren't any more awake than the rest. Except one. He dreamed not the dream of the self-yet-to-be but the dream of languor. The torpor of the slain. Of life, limb and valor lost to the last gasps of greed and spite. And he did not lie. He stood, straight and tall, clad in frayed garb coming loose at the seams, as if six hands left part-way through weaving together radiant glories with dark and bitter shreds of past mistakes. It was tapasya, arduous and grand, and shrouded in vestment coming apart stained with failure and the unlight of forgetfulness, but ultimately luminous with radiance of victory to come.
Tall stood the Vitruvian Man, arms wide and welcoming in the bright dark as he cast out his aegis.
NOW IT GETS FUN!
Oh no, I got distracted!
Then the aether rung as the woe shrieked through uncountable screaming mouths, crammed within a tesseract stuffed with the scorn of gods, blood of fiends and the hate of forebears.
The scorn of gods, blood of fiends and the hate of forebears… Oh Anderson, you cannot have a complex this bizarre!
FINALLY A FIGHT!
Wha-don't Descend you MORON!
A tesseract pockmarked with uncountable screaming mouths that had just smashed its way through the myriagon of night, screaming its way right towards him.
JUST LET ME-HEY, IS THIS SOMETHING YOU EAT? MMM, EEZO! TASTES LIKE SNOW!
I do not have the karma to justify all this.
A tesseract that sailed straight to him even if it meant shattering eon-spanning concordances, because what evidence was there to challenge the edict of their law? Who was there to stand for him and his and break their cycle now?
I AM. Embrace Eternity.
Might, youth and inhuman relish surged throughout him all at once, borrowed the pattern of his stellated octahedron for sure flight, and launched forward from his self with will, fire, fury and condemnation. "BACK! BACK, SPITE-COBBLED ABOMINATION! FANCY OR NOT, FAKE DREAM OR NOT, A POINTLESS DEATH SHOULD BE HIS CHOICE. LIKE IT IS FOR US!"
The cries of ravens warned of shattered diamonds but that was easily handled. Step one: implement a physics engine with perfectly elastic collisions. Step two: choose the number of digits, d, of Pi that you want to compute. Step three: set the mass of the tesseract to 100 at power d-1, then make all motion frictionless. Step four: shine on, you crazy diamond, and collide.
The tesseract struck the star tetrahedron hard enough to smash it back into him between blinks. The shock of it slammed him to full wakefulness in the glass tank, gasping and coughing non-baryons while looking frantically around. Okeer had barely a moment to gape in shock before indignation exploded inside him. The second largest biotic singularity in the history of the galaxy erased the warlord and his cloning lab with a black snarl.
He won't be a tank-spawned clone unless it's over his dead body!
The stellated octahedron bounced back from him into the tesseract of woebegone, bouncing like Newton's cradle off it and his own stella octangula and back. 314 to 3,141 to 314,158 to 3,141,591 and 314,159,265 times. Each one a flash, each one a memory that surged and rushed, of life and starts and death and endings. With each moment the shrieks got closer, the scorn of gods, blood of fiends and hate of forebears forced into death shaped nothing like they should be. And so the tesseract clashed with the star pyramid that crashed against him and back, until the mass greater than a hundred billion billion billion billion times was almost close enough to crush him and the concordance he was standing upon, the pyramid of might, youth and inhuman relish colliding back and forth 31,415,926,535,897,832,384 times within the space between moments.
The charge finally broke, then, upon the impervious obstacle traveling within a frictionless surface. The tesseract recoiled and was blown back, cracking against the still penduling star tetrahedron before it was finally sent slowly drifting back. Back into the void from whence it came, cracking slowly. Its shards then turned upon itself, and all claims and words and self-delusions collapsed their purpose to chunks, dead as the legacies they ripped from once colorful worlds.
In the end even their bodies processed deeds, not words.
In the end even they failed. The tesseract broke. The shards turned on each other while a lone exception drifted alone. And the woe broke apart as it fell away and out of the broken myriagon, shards of half-blind and maimed archetypes scattered around them like flotsam. They drifted on the waves of the last speech said in the void.
Never before have so many come together from all quarters of the galaxy. But never before have we faced an enemy such as this. The Reapers will show us no mercy. We must give them no quarter. They will terrorize our populations. We must stand fast in the face of that terror. They will advance until our last city falls, but we will not fall. We will prevail. Each of us will be defined by our actions in the coming battle. Stand fast. Stand strong. Stand together.
Abstracts failed. Visuals failed. Physics failed. History made it worse. Now you've switched to flash-backs of fake lives you didn't live. What's even left?
From behind alien glass in front of an alien console, dying from alien weapons while sat on an alien block, David Edward Anderson experienced the absurd urge to laugh. As far as Hackett's speeches went, that one fell rather flat. He might have wept if he could feel his eyes.
But that's no reason to cry! One cries because they are sad. For instance I cry because some are so stupid that it's hard for unconditional love to stay unconditional, and it makes me sad!
Stupidity is not a sin.
Except stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.
Events must come to pass, like foam on the surface of water, merely the result of the cause. Why ponder over possibilities when nothing has yet to occur? From a dreaming heart flows the blood of illusions. Those who dream of the future gain nothing. Those who dream purity see only impurity. Those craving justice become sinners themselves. Why blame the foam for disappearing? Learn to accept what happens as it is. That is because the universe is constantly changing. There is no meaning to it, nor is there malicious intent in it. From a dreaming heart flows the blood of illusions. Thoughts born as a result of that are not truths, nor lies. If your thoughts are not true, then you cannot be certain of what you touch or taste, what you see or hear, none of it. It is merely a dance of air and light, nothing but emptiness!
No! Bad! Bad mankind's collective unconscious! Desist! The power of Common Sense compels you!
That was alright though. It was almost done. Soon the kid would catch up and finish things up. But maybe he could do one last thing before he went out. Something to repay him for everything he'd done. Maybe even prevent nutjobs from kidnapping and blowing off his limbs like they'd done just an hour past.
THOSE VARREN CUNTS DID WHAT!?
Oh Anderson, you wouldn't.
The softly glimmering star tetrahedron of steel and red flared furiously far in the space ahead.
Anderson, you didn't!
Heh. You seem to agree, don't you little star?
I'll CRUSH'EM! I'LL SLAUGHTER'EM! I WON'T EVEN EAT THEM AFTERWARDS, THOSE FUCKERS! LEMME AT'EM!
You two have taken to this far too well. I didn't mean Embrace Eternity this deeply!
Now he just needed a moment to catch his breath and it'll all be okay. No need to worry. He wouldn't miss. He still had help.
Because of course the rest of you would also be so troublesome. Why shouldn't I need to end this via the most dissociated absurdity that I can conjure up? You all brought this on yourselves.
It almost felt like the cries of ravens would warn of shattered diamonds again, but he couldn't afford to hesitate so he didn't. He jumped. Jumped forward as high as the microgravity allowed, and when he reached the apex of his leap it turned out that the ravens had defied whatever will had tried to warn them back. They converged below him like twin lids of a great eye and joined together just in time for him to kick off.
Lenny. I choose you.
David Anderson broke free of the pull of the monolith behind, shot through the dreg-cluttered void like a meteor right for the steadily drifting star, and reached it with just enough time to crash into it, grab it by a side and give it a good spin and kick back whence he came before it passed the aegis' light. A young and mighty, loyal thing like that would live while he drifted off and out of sight. Fair trade, he thought with his last breath of life as he floated back and down, gaze locked on the Vitruvian Man, his raised head bloody but unbowed.
FABUL(͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)US!
Absurdity sheared through his higher mind like the bi-dimensional wraith of restless memetic trash.
Then there was blueshift, stomach-flattening inertia, the SSV Geneva surged sideways and away from everything in its path at a speed of seven miles per second, and David Edward Anderson crashed on his back in the middle of the destroyed Sirta Foundation hospital. Cries, groans and colors greeted him, and patches of ship floor stuck out from walls like angular mushrooms as a mighty ghost burst out of Shepard's lost eye, into the ship past the watery rainbows that flickered out right after.
"You stupid Grunt! First the tank and now everything else! Would it kill you to do things in the proper order for once!?"
Grunt? What grunt?
"It seems I have not, in fact, mastered eternity. Not if I can still be such a dumbass. In fact, I might just be the dumbest genius that ever lived. That's what I get for taking a bunch of people with no foundation for enlightenment and making them one with everything. What was I thinking? And you lot! What even is in your minds? You aren't Kirby! I think away for half a thought and the next thing I know you're under attack by the discarded narrative of what-was-that-even! It wasn't even whatever-it-was, you conjured it up! And of course you went full buddhist in a bar at the worst possible time. You rag on me for my tendency to follow things to their source. I only do that to give the foundation and roots of things their proper due! And yes, I know that show was an absolute insult to the actual source material! Just because I've been focused on Star Wars is no reason to cry foul! And why the hell did I have to use something so incongruous to shock the communal conscious of mankind into knocking us back to the proper side? It does not speak well of humanity's combined sanity score!"
David Edward Anderson stared at the back of a 10-year-old child mid-diatribe and he believed a man can fly.
He tried to talk but nothing came out. He tried to think but only molasses bubbled behind his eyes. Then he tried to get up, only for the thought to spill out of his skin churning blue, grey and suddenly gone because Shepard had just snapped his head to glare at him with the missing eye that wasn't an eye. It was a window to the sky, and the sky was dark and full of stars.
Which was when half of the pair of flash-printed prosthetics broke to pieces.
"Goddammit, I'm going through hands like they're the new ripped jeans!" Shepard fumed, waving with his stump to call the spare hand on the ground two feet to the left of the counter. Because he'd made a whole set of spares apparently. "Do you even realize what happens if that lasts for-no, of course you don't. I just wanted-It wasn't like I wouldn't eventually-oh, what's even the use? I don't care anymore. Congratulations, you now have biotics. And you get biotics. And you get biotics. And you get biotics. Everybody gets biotics!"
Anderson couldn't speak. He was mesmerised by that eye. He didn't know why, but it was important because the molasses behind his eyes were boiling with the effort of making an obvious connection just now.
"And now you're a brain-dead simpleton for precisely as long as I still have energy to stay angry with you, I'm sure. Because why not rob me even of catharsis? That's the problem with visionaries: put more than one in the same room and the future goes the way of the dodosaur." The boy looked to be on the verge of punching his way someplace or other right through the half-transmuted walls.
Instead, he glared at the collapsed man and very slowly and pointedly brought an adherent eyepatch over the black hole that was now his left eye.
The connection slammed like a hot poker into his mind and the man gaped like… like… But that… It couldn't… he'd put it… it was in-
"Shepard, what the fuck?" Jennifer groaned, then gasped. "Oh shit- No! I just cussed like a sailor's red-headed stepchild! But I'm not a sailor's red-headed stepchild! I don't wanna be a foul-mouthed sailor's red-headed stepchild! I'm a lady! A princess! Daddy, hold me!" The girl threw herself into the arms of her poor, dazed father and proceeded to shed big, fat tears all over his jumper.
The boy stared. "Can't believe I ever thought that moment of dawning realization was something to live for." Glowering with the self-devouring ire of an exhausted panda, the boy stomped his way over whoever was making an imitation of a groaning heap on the ground – which was everyone – and stormed out of the medbay like a teddy bear on the warpath.
"No. No way in hell. I'm surrounded by idiots but do not have the karma to account for this! I want some air!"
Scrambling drunkenly to his feet only on the fourth try, Lieutenant Commander David Edward Anderson of the Systems Alliance navy stumbled after the unattended child, HUD linking and synching with all others only because the BWI took it upon itself to track his scattered thoughts all the way to the corridor's end.
"Hold the elevator!" Anderson slurred.
For a wonder, the boy still obeyed.
That was all though. Any attempts at conversation were stymied with such chill that Anderson was deeply contemplating the phrase 'silent as the grave' by the time they reached the top level.
He thought someone would be up to meet him, one of his team, maybe a Sirta employee, hell, maybe even a spook. Instead, there was no one in the ruined foyer. Not Dah, not Solheim, not Sirta, and no, no spooks. Even the comm chatter seemed to skirt around him entirely. It was trapped instead in the throes of bafflement over the world changing colours, Captain Steven Hackett suddenly appearing in his ship's now core-bereft core bay, and the entire SSV Geneva shooting at escape velocity like a glowing bullet out of hell, away from everything and everyone who was anyone.
There was one thing that stumped him though. Him and everyone else on fleetcom. Something bright, big and savage as it ripped screaming Cerberus troopers like an unstoppable phantom. The flying comet of blue light and limb tore through the ship, tore through the docks, tore through the last holdout outside the Wall, then shot like a very large, bright, homing bullet past the fort and into the station proper without mind or concern for anything but its target. All in the same time it took for Shepard to take advantage of his distraction and walk out the Sirta Foundation's front doors.
The man ran after the child as fast as he could, which was not very, so by the time he had caught up to him on the top of the marble staircase, the last Cerberus trooper was screaming to his death from where the almost distinct aether-spawn had tossed him when he flew him up and away from his last holdout of safety.
The ground team's weary acceptance of absurdity and Adam Solheim's sudden docility in the face of Jill Dah's smirking vindication would have been immensely satisfying in any other situation. Unfortunately, this was not any other situation.
The phantom spiralled its way into the air, came to a halt right where the bomb had exploded earlier, saw them and dove in an arc straight for them, curving short of the ground to streak past soldiers, press and scattered debris, finally coming to a sudden halt with arms wrapped around Nicholas Alexander Shepard. His humped bulk was huge, his armor was bright, his bear hug was the tightest anyone'd ever had, and his loosely-plated head pressed tight against the boy's chest for a long, long moment before the baby-faced krogan lifted it to grin up at him boyishly.
"You are the biggest moron that will ever live," Shepard said fondly, tapping him on the head.
"Right now I may not, but certain as Aralakh's ascent I shall."
"Yes you will. Now back into your lights."
"I'll be waiting, Battlemaster," the krogan rumbled as he faded like a ghost. "Bring me home."
"No pressure, brat."
Was he still dreaming? This was enough fantastic to last a lifetime, and what wasn't fantastic was too much of a deja-vu.
As if to shatter that fantasy, the dream chose that moment to take an abrupt turn from surreal to nightmare.
"Liutenant. It is Liuetenant, isn't it? Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani, Westerlund News! What can you tell us about this attack and the very recent phenomenon that engulfed the station? Inquiring minds need to know!"
David Edward Anderson stared dully at the woman and the camera drone shining strobe light into his eyes. He suddenly wished he was back in the dark that wasn't dark.
"You've come to the right place, miss!" the boy next to him said brightly, all youthful innocence and no, Shepard, don't! "There are many trustworthy people, but this here is the man I will ever trust the most in the universe. You can count on him!"
Then Nicholas Alexander Shepard closed his eyes, climbed up his armour and, after Anderson reflexively brought his free arm around to hold him aloft, snuggled into his chest plates and promptly passed out.
Oh that little bastard.