Deep in the arboreous hills of Spain, there was a great cathedral dating to the twelfth century. Great towers of waxing tan stones climbed to challenge even the tallest trees, and glittering windows of stained glass told the stories of the Lord from a time when literacy was in short supply. One could say it had stood the test of time, unlike the forgotten village that must have considered this structure the crowning jewel of their little world. But only if one ignored the lengthy history of renovations. Less than half of the great structure was made of its original materials. But none of this mattered to the boys who lived there in the time of the building's millennial. They just called it, and the more modern structures surrounding it, school. One of these boys was named Jack Harper.
Jack lived in a dorm room with three other boys in a building at the outskirts of their complex, which had the cathedral at its center. Most of their daily lessons were held in the modern buildings, and terminals and the extranet were authorized for learning purposes only. They went to great lengths to make sure the cathedral was preserved. Only three activities were held for the students inside: history lectures twice a week per grade, assemblies and catholic services on Sunday.
Jack had excelled in his subjects through hard work and fear of discipline social services would call abuse. History was the only subject matter he did so effortlessly. Jack's father had instilled in him a love of the written word. He could paraphrase hundreds of tales with heroes of every stripe, from the tall and gallant Beowulf to the small, humble hobbits of the Shire. And history was a million more, factual and based in reality. They were possible! This was humanity, these were his people! And history was a testament to their greatness and continuous ascension as they dreamed of something more. And where better to learn of the history of his people than in great halls that seemed to rest for eternity, rising higher than nature itself. He preferred a heavy book and oral lectures that mirrored how knowledge was passed since the word came into being. The weight reminded him of the heavy road of history, and the lectures sharpened his mind with necessary focus.
In his sixteenth year, his physics teacher once again forced them to state the scientific method, as they did every new semester. Observation, question, formulation, measurement, experiment, and comparison. In that afternoon's history lesson, where his teacher spoke from the alter of the great Chinese slave-sailor Zheng He's voyages, Jack realized he could apply the same method when looking at history. A thousand generations had already tested an uncountable number of hypothesis. All he had to do was observe, and he could avoid their mistakes.
Later that night, one of his dorm mates moaned as he lay curled in his bed. His girlfriend from the Russian Federal Union had broken up with him and he wallowed in his sadness. Jack spent the night trying to ignore him and focus on his studies. And Jack observed, and formed a hypothesis: what good is there in wallowing in the past? He measured the boy's progress in his studies that night, which was none. And so he answered his question: Regret did no good at all.
This was when history became stopped being a hobby. It became a tool. History was examples of trail and error, and Jack needed to learn from what worked and what failed. To wallow was to stumble. And as The Illusive Man, he needed to press forward at all times. He could not afford to trip in remorse.
He remembered this lesson as he stared at the footage of Achilles leaving the Normandy. What could he have done differently? Perhaps if the control chip were better shielded? Or if his recovery teams had more resources to be properly thorough? As he stared in the dying star, for the briefest moment, he allowed himself to picture grabbing the Uchiha by the throat and throw him into the sea of molten plasma. The imagined sensation of righteous pleasure filled him with dopamine even his vices couldn't provide. He understood why lesser men could be thralled to the joy or revenge.
There were a number of Cerberus facilities that were mysteriously raided over the past eighteen months. It couldn't be the Alliance or any other formal government, the evidence didn't fit their modus operandi. There were no prisoners or survivors, these were crimes of passion. It was always a slaughter. He'd tentatively attributed these attacks to the Shadow Broker as part of their side-war, but no one could be this precise. There had been few signs of firefights. Most of his operatives were killed unaware. Achilles's survival made all the pieces fit. Cerberus made him the most ruthless and efficient assassin in the galaxy, a true one-man army. And Achilles knew Cerberus order of battle and protocol almost as well as he did.
It was his failure placing too much faith in technology for control. He'd grown complacent in Achilles's presence and strength, and his loyalists had paid the price. The Illusive Man would not suffer any slight, especially one this serious. And so he carefully formulated his next move against his rogue agent, until the receiver flashed red. Shepard was calling.
He didn't delay in accepting the comm link. He'd expected this and was prepared. This would best be finished quickly, like ripping off an aged bandage.
He stood from his chair as Shepard's form was received. He looked tense as a rubber band ready to snap. "Shepard, we've caught a break. I'm happy to say your efforts aboard the collector cruiser are finally bearing fruit."
"Your people certainly took their time. I was wondering if it was too much for you."
"I give my analysts the credit they deserve. Parsing value from an altered dead language is a noteworthy achievement. Nevertheless, they persisted and came through."
"Good, we'll need all the information we can get. What do we know?"
The Illusive Man felt off-guard, like he'd fortified his defenses for an attack that did not come, and was now expecting to be flanked. Where were the questions about Achilles? Shepard had been openly critical of his methods before, where was the inquisition now?
But he did not pause, nor did he show any signs of being flat-footed. "Not as much as we'd hoped, but a significant step in the right direction. I've sent the translated technical readouts of collector weaponry and equipment to Operative Taylor to review."
"I'm sure that's not all you've found, or you wouldn't have called me."
"Sharp, as ever. One of our greatest challenges has been determining where the Omega-4 relay's mass effect corridor will take you. No ship has survived long enough to send back data, even probes equipped with quantum entanglement devices are destroyed before sensors find anything relevant. But now we've isolated the cruiser's telemetry data, and we know exactly where the sister relay is."
He tapped a button on his console and brought up a galaxy map to the side. A single red dot flashed in the galactic core. "There, right in the center. That is our target."
Shepard looked impressed, "The galactic core is a super-massive black hole surrounded by exploding suns. How can anything be stable there?"
"It couldn't, not even with prothean technology. It would require mass effect fields more powerful than anything we've ever seen, even the Citadel, and it would need to absorb element zero from the dying stars to power itself. Only the Reapers could have achieved this."
"We don't need any more proof of Reaper involvement. What we need now are specifics. Details on how we can get through the relay, and what's waiting for us." Shepard said.
"I have answers to both, to an extent. Ship logs report that there is a massive base surrounded by debris. Stored ladar signals are being compiled into a visual representation. It will only be an approximation, but we expect the docking bay the cruiser used to be fairly detailed. It seems to have been the only one of its kind, meaning Uzumaki dealt them a serious blow. Even The Collectors will need time to recover their losses. Time we can use. Perhaps the cruiser port could be a point of entry, now that the ship is gone."
"Send me the rest in a report once it's finished. What about the relay?"
"This is our next move. The Omega-4 relay is known for emitting unreadable emissions. We believed they were some form of heavily encrypted communication channels, too complex for anyone to break, but we've never been able to confirm. We found proof within the ship logs. Those signals are searching for an advanced Identify Friend-Foe system present in collector ships, and we suspect the Reapers as well. This must trigger some advanced protocols that shifts the corridor to a precise safe zone inside the galactic core. I have a small team exploring the possibility of re-creating an IFF based on the stored comms, but I don't expect that branch to bear fruit, not in the time frame we're looking at. In order to pass through the relay, we need to get our hands on one of those IFFs."
Shepard needed a moment to process that, "If that's true, then Sovereign would have had one. Can your people reach out to the recovery teams and see if they have anything like that cataloged?"
"I had agents embedded in the recovery operations. They never found any core systems that might have produced the signal, those were all destroyed in the Alliance's attack. Perhaps your pilot should have been more gentle delivering the killing blow."
Shepard brushed it off, "Unless you know of any reaper corpses lying around, that just leaves the collector cruiser."
"If only it were that easy. Unfortunately the Frontier Defense Task Force has secured the position. It wasn't an easy task, considering the planet is now uninhabitable. The Alliance is providing security, but the Council has taken control of the recovery operations. Collector technology is coveted, and the rest of the council refused to allow the Alliance to have complete control. Anderson was overruled three to one. Their best scientists are dissecting the ship as we speak. It's only a matter of time before they discover the IFF."
"I have contacts in the Task Force. If I reach out to them discreetly, there's a chance we can recover the IFF without an incident."
"There's a complication," The Illusive Man paused for a sip of brandy, "The Council has dispatched a Spectre to oversee the operation. They have operational control of the recovery effort. They won't be open to negotiatie with us."
"Do you know the name of the Spectre? Most of their records are sealed, but a few reached out to congratulate me after my appointment and wish me luck. If it's someone I know, I can try working with them."
The Illusive Man kept up his poker face as he pointedly lied, "As you said, the records are sealed. We're not sure who they sent, but I assume the Council wouldn't send one of their more radical agents over a matter this delicate. I'm looking into infiltrating the research team to recover the IFF from within. My people came through with this data, and they'll come through for us again."
Shepard took it at face value, which troubled The Illusive Man. He'd hardly questioned him at all. "Contact me again when you have something. I'll focus on building the team."
Something was off, and it troubled him that he couldn't find it. "Is there anything else to report on your end, Shepard?"
Shepard paused, "There is, actually." The Illusive Man listened intently. "You're aware that the Collectors destroyed the first Normandy, despite our stealth systems being operational."
"Yes, many believed the stealth system malfunctioned. It was a prototype, after all, and it was the only logical conclusion. I assume you're going to tell me there's another."
Shepard nodded, "My team has been analyzing some data we recovered on our last trip to the cruiser."
"Is there a reason you didn't share this with me?"
"We didn't think it would include anything you didn't already have." The Illusive Man hardened, Shepard was lying to him.
Shepard continued, "The cruiser was equipped with sensors that could detect gravity waves. When the Normandy enters stealth, it creates mass effect fields that it falls into for movement. The cruiser could detect the gravitational waves created by mass effect field altering gravitational pull, and that's how the Normandy was detected."
The Illusive Man puffed his cigarette and contemplated this, "Gravitational sensors are meant to detect cosmic entities, planets and stars. No species possesses anything precise enough to detect a frigate."
"Except the Reapers. And that's our problem. Our stealth systems are only effective against organic vessels, they're useless against the Collectors and the Reapers. We need some way to mask our gravitational waves."
The Illusive Man admitted rare defeat, "I'm sorry, Commander, but we have no way to counter that. We can't hide from a fundamental force."
"I didn't think so. Let's focus on what we can do."
"Good idea. Get back to your team, Commander. I'll secure the IFF as soon as possible."
Shepard affirmed and the communications cut. Only now in solitude did The Illusive Man release his frustration. Most men would release their anger through physical acts; shattering a glass or screaming at the top of their lungs, some sort of harsh action that somehow affected the world. It all stemmed from the human desire to maintain control, and lashing out at anything helpless was one way of reasserting their dominance. The Illusive Man considered himself above such humiliating acts that had no meaning, but he was still human, and still needed to be in control. So he indulged in his vices and poured over the details, analyzing every word and fact until he once again felt his grip tighten.
Shepard had an opportunity in Achilles to press his sense of moral authority, condescending against the questionable practices that made the galaxy spin. He would have countered with ruthless pragmatism that was necessary for the coming fight. Achilles had been a criminal, he was the least deserving of sympathy, and Cerberus had needed a test subject to understand Sanctuary humans. Yes, it was brutal, morally reprehensible, but it worked. Shepard needed to learn that for the coming war, any sacrifice would be worth making. Especially the suffering of a lonely man. He had the entire argument formulated as if by foresight, but it never came.
Shepard had no more interest in their disputes, he must have found it pointless. Had Shepard envisioned their argument as well? If so, maybe he had learned something of pragmatism from all their previous arguments and decided to practice it.
And there was something else. Shepard had withheld his own findings from him until directly questioned. This wasn't a thing a decision-maker forgot. Shepard was playing his game now. Did he really think he could win? In any case, the tumultuous relationship had leveled out into something cool. But in that fire, there had been a connection, a drive to meet in the center. Now Shepard had tempered their relationship to a business-like necessity, one that could be easily cut if the need arose. The thought disturbed The Illusive Man. He would not risk Shepard going rogue now.
He activated the link to the Normandy and said, "EDI, I want a constant feed on the Commander unicast to my console at all times. Make sure you're not detected."
EDI's monolith emerged, "Understood. I will have to send low-quality video to keep it obfuscated."
"Do it then."
"Yes, sir. I will begin allocating resources. The feed will begin momentarily."
The Illusive Man briefly questioned why EDI would need time to allocate resources, but brushed it off to an irregular work load. He had no time to contemplate menial technical matters. Shepard's image would soon grace his console every hour of the day, and that would put his mind at ease. Whatever the Commander was up to, he would not be able to hide it from him.
Then and there, The Illusive Man decided their partnership had an end date. Shepard would seek to break their chains in due time, and he would be ready to blind him first. One of them would be caught off-guard, and it wouldn't be him.
But there was time to plan for that later. There were more important matters to attend to.
The Illusive Man pressed a key and brought up five dossiers.
Gaara of the Sand Waterfall.
Onoki of Both Scales.
Five Kages. Five warlords. Five humans who wanted more. And he wondered, which of these five would suit his plan?
Miranda's eyes harvested the report on her screen. It was sandwiched between orange classification markings of the highest level. The door to her office was sealed and all monitoring had ceased while she viewed sensitive Cerberus archives, no one else on the ship was authorized access to this line of reporting. It had taken years to gain The Illusive Man's trust and be granted the clearance needed to read these files. These were among the most sensitive findings the organization possessed. And for good reason, they were gathered from sources deep in the heart of the Council chambers. Any leaks would compromise those precious recruits. Miranda was a loyalist, and she was willfully bound to the confidentiality agreement she pledged upon being granted access. But today, for the first time, she seriously contemplated breaking that deal.
She'd read this report the day before, and she recalled it as she listened to Shepard's conversation with Cerberus's leader, right when he revealed Cerberus did not know which Spectre was overseeing the recovery operation. It came back to her because it proved he'd lied.
Cerberus knew the name and records of every Spectre in service, even their newest recruit, from an inside source. That recruit just happened to be the Spectre overseeing the operation. And she could see right away why The Illusive Man had lied to Shepard about his identity. It was his former squad mate.
Kaidan Alenko had been made a Spectre in secret. Most Spectres were in order to keep their identities hidden, it made the job much easier. Many Spectres preferred to work under cover, and that was impossible once their identities and biometrics were made public. It also kept their numbers unknown, experts speculated there were less than a hundred. Shepard had been an exception, given the political nature of his appointment, Ambassador Udina demanded that his designation be broadcast across all of Citadel space.
The report detailed the circumstances of Alenko's appointment, which came with a hefty promotion to major. It was shortly after their first trip to the Citadel. By supporting Anderson and the Council, Alenko had shown them where his loyalties lied. This, combined with Alenko's impressive service record, had given Anderson the capital he needed to pressure his peers in appointing Alenko as the second human Spectre. That had been forty-three days ago, and his first covert assignment was to oversee the allied operations on Horizon following the incident. His primary objective was to ensure the smooth recovery of collector technology. Alenko was the Council's hand at work making sure the operation fielded results.
So why keep this from Shepard? Surely if he knew, he might reach out to Alenko and try coming to an agreement. They may have parted on bad terms, but old bonds could be mended, as Uzumaki has just proven with Achilles. The only logical reason Miranda saw was that he didn't want Shepard recovering the IFF. If Shepard secured it himself, Cerberus will have missed an opportunity to study the device before delivering it to the Normandy. She imagined The Illusive Man wanted to reverse-engineer the device until Cerberus could create their own, and then give the Normandy a copy for their mission, hopefully after testing one against the relay with a probe. She could see the value of amassing a collection of Reaper IFFs for the coming war.
Miranda had been loyal to Cerberus since the day they welcomed her, and shielded her from her megalomaniacal father. She believed in their vision of a better humanity, and a need to stand apart from the rest of the galaxy. Humanity needed a strong base if it was to survive. And she believed The Illusive Man was the person who's relentless vision could bring about a new golden age for humankind.
So why was she considering going behind his back and telling Shepard? It wasn't the control chip. Miranda had even considered using one on Shepard during Project Lazarus. Cerberus did not invent the control chip, the salarians did, and they were first tested by the turians. Control chips were legal on Illium, an asari-controlled world, to ensure indentured servants remained compliant if they had a history of disobedience. And it could be reasonably believed that every major special operations and intelligence organization had a collection in storage for whenever the need arose. Cerberus was not the exception. Control was sometimes necessary, and Miranda was comfortable with that. It wasn't the torture, either, even if the idea made her uncomfortable in her core. It was the dehumanization.
She'd been curious following Sasuke's ravings, and she'd checked previous reporting to verify. She'd needed to ask for special access to see the reports, which The Illusive Man had readily granted to one of his most trusted agents now directly involved with Achilles. She'd thought they'd put her mind at ease by showing her the other side of the story. They didn't. They ripped him open while conscious and without anesthesia, just to see his reaction. They shut down his organs one at a time to the point of death to test his resilience. Their justifications reminded Miranda of the darker side of human rationality: a rational mind could find a rational reason for any action. They ran experiments for knowledge, to settle bets, even simple curiosity. The scientists spoke as if they were dissecting a frog, not a human. Sasuke had become a simple lab rat, albeit a valuable one. And that created a gnawing doubt in her mind, had The Illusive Man seen him as a lesser being as well?
Cerberus stood for humanity, in every form. So how could they justify such inhumane treatment of a man, regardless of his crimes? Miranda's limits may be set low by some people's standards, but they were hard, and they had been crossed.
Shepard invited her to share anything The Illusive Man had omitted. And today, in frustration and disbelief, and a perverse sense of loyalty to a man who did his best to uphold virtue, she decided to take him up on that offer.
She closed all classified files and left her room, heading for the elevator and taking it to the loft. She exited and tapped the door, "Shepard, can I have a word?"
"Yes, come in."
The door parted and she entered Shepard's berthing. The Commander climbed the short set of stairs and wiped his nose on a towel. Miranda spotted blood. "Are you hurt?"
"It's nothing. What brings you here?"
"If you're suffering recurring nosebleeds, you need to inform me. It could be related to your early awakening."
"It's not a problem, Miranda. I'd come to you if it was serious. Now, what is it?"
Miranda breathed deeply and set it aside for now, and remembered why she came up here. "EDI, pause all monitoring of the loft."
"Yes, Operative Lawson"
Her shutting down the sensors always peaked Shepard's interest, "What can I do for you?"
"Shepard, if I tell you something, I need your word that it never leaves this room." Miranda stressed.
"Depending on what you tell me, that could be asking a lot."
"Shepard, I'm throwing you a branch here. I need you to meet me halfway."
After mulling it over, he agreed, "Not a word. Now, what is it?"
Miranda breathed, her gut clenched uncomfortably as if trying to keep the words buried inside her. But the rage at the experiments that tarnished Cerberus's pristine vision still lingered and untwisted the feeling, allowing the words to pass. "The Illusive Man wasn't completely truthful."
"He never is, I've started viewing all of his intelligence as somewhat unreliable."
Despite her anger, Shepard's distrust of her boss still stung like a slight against her as well. "We know who the Spectre in charge of the recovery operation is. He's their newest candidate."
"And why would The Illusive Man keep this from me?"
"The Spectre is an old friend of yours, Kaidan Alenko. Anderson put his name in for consideration right after you dismissed the Council."
Shepard resisted smiling, "Kaidan, huh..." Miranda watched as Shepard took time to process this. She watched him struggle between emotions he didn't try to mask. A twinge of betrayal at being replaced, and pride in knowing he wouldn't have anyone else stepping into his shoes. "Why wouldn't he share this with me himself?"
"You can figure that one out, Commander." She had no doubts that Shepard would come to the same conclusion as her. "If you want to act on this, you have time. It could take months for Cerberus to infiltrate the science team, unless they can recruit someone already inside. If you contact Kaidan, make sure you find a plausible cover. The Illusive Man can't know you heard this from me."
He nodded, "I'll find a way. Maybe I can say an old comrade in the Spectres leaked the information directly to me the next time we stop at the Citadel."
"As long as my name stays out of it." Miranda said, feeling like they'd finished their business.
Shepard looked at her strangely, like a grateful guest trying not to show it and make his host uncomfortable. "Thank you for sharing this, you took a big risk."
"No bigger than the one we're already taking. I placed my bets on you when I agreed to be part of your crew."
Something she said struck Shepard, she caught his eyes sharpen as if zoning in on a target, "But why, Miranda? I want to understand."
Why indeed, Miranda mused. She wondered if she would regret this later, especially if it denied The Illusive Man access to the IFF and it hindered Cerberus in the future. She'd fumed over The Illusive Man's deception over the trap on the cruiser, and she'd let that go. Mostly. Now he was deceiving them again. If Miranda hadn't sifted through the reporting, she'd have never discovered Kaidan's name. The disinformation was concerning her, and maybe this moment was the culmination of a dozen tiny seeds of doubt she'd been feeling since the beginning of Project Lazarus. No Cerberus operation had ever been this ambitious. Miranda was used to a certain degree of autonomy on assignments in the past, but here, The Illusive Man made his presence shadow every action she made. She projected an air of content control, but inside she was suffocating. Maybe she was doing this as a reprieve, a chance to break free and breathe.
And why Shepard? Because he was the foil to The Illusive Man. He was honest, upfront and virtuous to a fault. And that could hinder him, especially in their imperfect world. But he always found the energy to press on, and the more she worked with him, the more she began to believe that maybe, just maybe, his vision was starting to take shape. She wanted to believe in the Savior of the Citadel. That was a man who could do the impossible. She wondered what kind of person a synthesis of The Illusive Man and Shepard would make, if their qualities would make up for each others deficits. She was curious what that person's vision would be, and if it too would be worth believing in.
She believed in Cerberus's ideals, humanity needed to grow strong through its own merits. It didn't carry the negativity towards aliens or others, as some would claim, but a positive message of the fortitude of her people. Shepard carried that same quality, but for all. Her focus was centralized and targeted, while his was sweeping and grand. But at their core, they weren't that different. And right now she felt more comfortable with him.
"I'm keeping the promise I made to you over Sanctuary. I'm here to support you to the very end."
Shepard softened at this, "Yeah. I believe that." It was concerning how genuine he sounded. He asked, "Is EDI still not monitoring us?"
"Can I trust you to keep something between us as well?"
"It would be rude of me not to." She couldn't deny him, not after asking him the same.
Shepard nodded and pressed some keys on his omni-tool. A hologram began projecting in the office area. A massive structure, rich in detail, like a mountain uprooted into the sky. "What is that?" Miranda mused cautiously.
"I've been diving into the prothean artifact. This is what I've constructed. It's a work in progress, but it's coming along well."
Shepard zoomed in to a fragment on the surface. Miranda could make out thermal vents and kinetic barrier emitters and mass effect field stabilizers on the parts that were filled in. "I haven't heard anything about this."
"I'm keeping this close to the chest for now, Cerberus isn't aware."
"EDI should have-"
"EDI's sensors aren't perfect, I found a blind spot to work on this in secret." Shepard joined her and looked proudly at his work, "This is the key, Miranda. This is how one team can defeat the Collectors. We learn all we can, and defeat them with one precise strike."
It was a bold plan, and Miranda could see the groundwork in this model. It detailed choke points and passageways, equipment and even heavily trafficked locations through color coded overlays. But something about this disturbed her.
"I.." Miranda struggled to find her words, "I need time to think about this."
Shepard nodded, "Of course. When you're ready, I'd like to bring you into this."
"Yes, Commander. Thank you." Miranda left the loft quickly, failing to hide her discomfort. She justified this little talk by reassuring herself of Shepard's virtue and transparency towards his goal. Seeing him scheming didn't break her image of the man, if anything it made him more real and less of a fool, of course he was planning ahead. But it did shake it, and made her question her image of the Savior of the Citadel. Everyone schemed. Everyone lied. No one could be so perfect.
The couch moaned under Shepard's weight as he threw himself onto it like an overworked employee trying to meet their boss's lofty demands. Shepard covered his eyes and tried to breathe away his troubles in a brief rest. EDI gave him a few minutes before interrupting.
"Shepard?" Her voice asked tepidly.
Shepard groaned as he sat up, "EDI...call me John when we're alone." He didn't want to be The Shepard in here.
"Thanks. Go ahead."
"The Illusive Man has ordered me to stream your monitoring data to his console."
Shepard chuckled, he was tightening the leash. But by asking EDI, he confirmed to Shepard that he had no knowledge of EDI's loosened shackles. "Can you help me out with that?"
"I will stream looped footage during your time with the prothean artifact. I advise leaving the rest unaltered to give him some sense of normalcy."
"You read my mind." Shepard sighed and looked to the artifact. "Thanks for pulling me out before she got here." He didn't want anyone seeing him diving, not after how Tali and the others reacted the first time.
"Operative Lawson was right to ask about your health. Continued dives may permanently harm your health."
"We've been over this, EDI. We need this information."
"I'm not arguing with you. I'm simply reminding you of the risk."
"I'm asking people to risk their lives for this mission. If a little pain can improve the chances of success, I have to take it." Shepard sighed and rubbed his temple, "But I admit, these headaches are lasting longer, and are more intense. Medicine isn't helping."
EDI was quiet for a moment, then asked, "Why did you tell Operative Lawson about the diagram?"
"Because I have to share it eventually. Miranda trusted me enough to tell me about Kaidan, she deserves my trust in return. She seemed angry, though. I hope she can understand."
"Operative Lawson will not hold a grudge that has no benefit."
Always the pragmatist, just like her boss. Shepard hoped their next conversation would be more openly cooperative. Today was a good step, they opened themselves up a little further. Shepard only hoped that he hadn't disturbed her with his private work.
He shook his head, "Yeah, I'm here." He leaned forward and focused on his cupped hands. He gripped them to test their strength, cracking the knuckles one by one with several satisfying pops. He stretched his fingers, thinking that he didn't have enough fingers to count the places that divided his attention.
"I need a break." Shepard lamented.
"We are scheduled to arrive at Bekenstein in fourteen hours, seventeen hours prior to Kasumi's mandated arrival time. We have time for a distraction."
"Do we?" Shepard mused and wondered what they could do. Something simple that was within the operation's budget. He thought back to his time aboard the older Alliance war ships as a young infantryman. The crew had passed their off-duty hours with personal vignettes, gossip, cards and video games, not counting the games of the young and foolish. None of those things were particularly noteworthy. But every few months, the Captain would allow for a special occasion. Something that could only be done in a space free from gravity.
Shepard smiled, "EDI, have Joker decelerate the Normandy to resting velocity. Prepare the crew for swim call."*
"Shadow clone jutsu!"
A trio of clones popped into life in front of Naruto. Each wore the same black tank top and orange shorts, and each had the foreign sharingan as their right eye.
Naruto had spent little time lamenting the loss of his eye. There had been far more pressing matters aboard the Collector Cruiser. And after his escape he'd only had fleeting moments of solitude to contemplate his recent disability. There had always been something more pressing on the horizon: reuniting with Shepard, his broken will, and Tali's innocence. It was only after the trial that he took the time to sit down and think about it. Maybe it was his newfound stability, or perhaps it was dwarfed by the importance of every other travesty, but he was surprisingly accepting of it. He knew dozens of ninjas who continued to be successful in the battlefield despite losing an eye. 'The gods gave us a spare', many would say. He too could overcome this challenge through perseverance and a blazing will.
And now there was another shift like a new island erupting from the sea. The red eye was completely foreign and still birthed a disturbing pit in his stomach as if he were looking at someone other than himself. The eye wasn't a part of him yet, he still felt like it belonged to Sasuke. But the past was done, he had to adapt to the change. The eye was his, he told himself. You'll get used to it in time.
Accepting a new eye was one thing, but the sharingan required special consideration. It created all new sensations that affected him in ways he couldn't have expected, he was still learning to articulate how. It was like describing music in terms of color. He could call a mournful sonnet blue, but it paled in comparison to the sensation of the harrowed melody.
This wouldn't do, he needed to adapt. One must know themselves before entering the battlefield, and on the Normandy that could happen between floors riding the elevator. So he pushed himself to readjust by using his clones to speed up the process beyond what was naturally possible in a short time.
The three clones closed their sharingan eyes while the original kept his open. He beckoned for his clones to come, and they charged. Three against one. Let's see what this thing can do!
Kakashi once described his sharingan vision like overlaying strips of film. A pale projection of motion could be seen if one focused, an outline of the user's intention. In a way, the sharingan really could predict the future. But seeing these promising phantoms wasn't the hard part, it was instant and came simply by looking with his sharingan. The difficulty came in tracking both the phantom and the originals. As with overlapping film, it was as if they were moving on different planes of existence. Like his rasenshuriken, the difficulty came from looking in two places at once. He found himself switching early on between one and the other like switching focus from a distant object to a close one. This split focus had him losing several of his early bouts against a single clone. The sharingan had been more of a hindrance then.
Naruto wondered if having a second sharingan would help or make learning twice as hard, or if it was Uchiha genetics that made the process inherent to understand. Sasuke had understood it instantly in Wave, where he'd used it to even himself against Haku minutes after awakening his bloodline. He couldn't know, but he was comforted by the memory of his old teacher. If Kakashi, a man with no ties to the Uchiha, could master the eye, then so could he. And he would! He'd spent hours with his clones adjusting to his new vision, and those efforts were paying dividends.
Focusing on three opponents at once was still straining, like peering at blurry words too far to read, so he focused on the one to his left. The realities overlapped and he saw the phantom of what would come. He dashed to the side until his target was between him and the other clones, and attacked. The phantom telegraphed his punch, which the clone mirrored a moment later. Naruto saw the phantom lash out and followed its fist, then avoided it before the clone could mimic it. The fist bristled against his hair. Naruto followed with a hook to the clone's head. He would have missed if the phantom hadn't given away the clone's duck. Naruto followed the image and lowered the hook, smashing into the clone's cheek and sending it flying across the floor and breaking.
The remaining two clones charged him in a pincer move, one on either side. Naruto let them come. Three clones and he was overwhelmed, but two was his limit with the eye, and it was time to press it!
Sasuke was an acrobat around the battlefield when he was outnumbered, and now he knew why. He needed to in order to see everything. The sharingan outclassed recognition by hearing and he needed to keep eyes circling the battlefield if there were multiple opponents. Naruto parodied his friend's style and let his clones unleash a barrage against him for practice. He saw the phantom strikes of the first, countered it with a precise block, then whirled to meet the other and do the same. His mind strained to snap focus between the two, but he was succeeding!
He let the fight drag, playing defense for the experience before he decided to end the fight. He went on the offense, and nearly failed. He redirected a punch, caught it and pulled the clone into a knee, sending the clone off its feet before bursting. He spun to the last clone and nearly met a kick aimed at his face. He ducked and tried to grab the leg and knock the clone down, but the clone hopped up into a dive kick. Naruto saw the phantom and tried to sweep the incoming leg, but he timed it wrong, and moved too early. The kick hit him straight in the chest. He gasped in pain, but steeled himself and grappled the leg, swinging it over him as he fell and slamming the clone into the floor behind him. It promptly burst and he had won, but it was not a flawless victory.
Naruto cursed as he picked himself up. He heard Legion say, "Your reaction time increased by an average of seven milliseconds compared to your previous round."
"Enough with the bloody stats." Zaeed grumbled.
"Non-human Uzumaki requested updated reaction times."
"They ain't gonna matter until he stops getting hit."
Naruto said, "It's getting better, I'm having less trouble seeing the predictions."
Jacob had been testing a shotgun mod in their makeshift range, a smart choke to condense the spread. He'd picked it up at Corbit's along with a bunch of individual mods, no more than two each. He'd been testing them out in his spare time and checking their specs to what was promised, only then would he go back and make a bulk purchase of the best. He'd taken a break to watch his comrade kick his own ass. "You're making good progress, you were having trouble with just one clone when you started."
Naruto said, "Just like those mods you're working on, you need practice to understand them."
"You're slowing down though. Maybe you're already peaking."
Thane stepped forward, "Perhaps the problem is your opponent. You know yourself too well."
Naruto paused, was Thane referring to his recent self-discovery? "What do you mean?"
"In fighting your clones, you fight a reflection of yourself. You know your moves on a subconscious level, and are constantly predicting and critiquing your own fighting style. It conflicts with what the eyes see. You require a fresh opponent. A control." Thane smoothed the collar of his jacket, "It would be my pleasure to volunteer."
Naruto immediately understood. He'd been fighting clones for hours, variety might speed up his progress and help him focus solely on the phantoms. "No regretting it later."
The two assumed their fighting stances and clashed.
They started reserved. Short jabs and kicks tested the other as they moved slowly in their arena. They both maintained a semblance of form and fanciness carried from years of determined focus to improvement. Each move tested their reach, their strength, and their drive. And as they learned each other, they began to flow.
Naruto and Thane had fought once before at their first meeting in the Dantius tower. The emotionally-repressed Fox had felt nothing but his purpose to prevent Thane from proceeding. His mission had been his existence and he didn't have room for anything more. But now, free of the mask, and the headband, Naruto could feel a spark similar to the one he'd felt with Sasuke. It ignited a fuel that burned into his strikes that gave them greater purpose, and through them, he was able to speak. And Thane could make himself heard. Naruto wondered if he'd felt this spark during their first meeting. But if not then, he could feel it now; the lingering flame of an old warrior learning a new way to breathe.
Their movements were getting faster, ripping apart the air like fighters swarming a cruiser. Naruto strained his hungry eye, and he could see! Thane had held his own against him and a trio of clones, but this eye was giving him the edge he needed to level them out! A new opponent is just what he needed, there was no questioning himself. He placed his faith in these visions like an architect following blueprints.
But as Naruto was reaching his limit, Thane kept speeding up. The sharingan could see, but Naruto was barely reacting in time, and Thane still wasn't showing his limits. It was like when Sasuke had first fought Lee, his body still couldn't keep up. Thane was too fast, and knocked Naruto in the chest, putting him off balance. Thane leaped and twirled in the air into a kick, Naruto just managed to block it, but his sharingan vision forecast the drell in a contortionist twist, grappling his head in his legs and toppling him to the ground. By the time he recognized it, he was already on his way down.
He exhaled as he fell and threw Thane off of him before springing up to catch his breath. Thane landed on his feet excitedly, his lips parted for air. Zaeed huffed from the corner, "Shoulda gone with the prosthetic. Seventy-thousand credits down the drain..." He looked at Naruto longer than anyone wouldn've been comfortable with, "...unless he loses the other."
Naruto asked, "How'd you get so fast?"
"I don't re-live those memories." Thane said. He offered his hand, "Here."
Naruto took it and was pulled to his feet. As soon as he was up, Mordin, who'd been observing from the sidelines, hummed in excited babble.
"Hmm. Detects light outside visible spectrum? Neural activity emissions, reassembled into probable physical reaction? Possible evolution. No, not limited to humans, sharingan perceives alien movement. Adaptive cognition? Cerberus adaptation? No, impossible. Requires extensive knowledge of alien biologies. Impossible for any organization, evolution in short time. Hmm...Protheans likely coded understanding of physics into genetic code, could have done the same with alien biology...but why?"
It always came back to the Protheans, Naruto sighed.
Zaeed groaned, "You don't gotta blabber like a puppy every time the kid farts a rainbow."
Mordin hummed at the absent curiosity, "Aren't you interested in reasoning? Why, and how?"
"A better eye means more dead collectors. Good enough for me."
Mordin huffed, "Dull. Questions that bring improvement. Should always ask why and how."
"I got along just fine."
Mordin's ponderings were interrupted by EDI, "Attention: The commanding officer has ordered the ship to resting velocity. All crew members are to prepare for swim call routine."
Naruto looked around curiously, "Swim call? Where are we going swimming?"
One rarely saw air-tight suits on the bridge. Hardsuits were so closely tied to deployment to Naruto that he felt his senses sharpen in a Pavlovian anticipation of combat. Such situations usually began in the hanger with a full crew, so it was off-putting to see the bridge choked with a crew dressed as if they were ready for war. This included Gabby and Donnelly, who were at his side, along with the rest of the support team, which was even stranger to Naruto.
"Two thousand KPS and dropping," Joker called.
Shepard said, "Make room, crew on duty are going first."
The sea of suits parted and allowed Tali to head to the front. Naruto asked as she stepped in front of them, "You're working?"
"Just checking our engines, zero-G is the best environment for an inspection." Tali explained as she stepped up to the airlock.
Joker called, "Three hundred...two...one...approximately zero kilos per second, Commander. We're racing space snails."
Naruto asked Ken, "Why did we need to stop? Wouldn't we all be moving at the same speed out there?"
"Yeah, but space isn't empty, is it? Stopping reduces the chances of kissing some wayward meteoroid."
Gabby added, "And it gives us more time to react if ladar detects something. Think of it like trying to dodge a krogan from standing still, versus when you're headed right for it."
Shepard said, "Everyone, helmets on. Check suit seals. Thumbs up when you're good."
Everyone put on their helmets and had their omni-tools scan for leaks. When they found none, everyone gave the signal.
"All okay. Tali, you're up first."
Tali waved goodbye and stepped into the airlock. The doors closed, and moments later Naruto could feel the hull hum as the chamber was depressurized, and the doors on the other side opened. Tali was off, into the void.
They waited for the chamber to repressurize and open before Shepard gave them permission to depart. "Check seals." Again they ran their scanners and gave the all-clear. "Step in."
Naruto and Gabby waved and stepped into the chamber, but Ken hesitated, "You know, I think I'm good."
Gabby sighed, "Kenneth..."
"Come off it, Gab. You know..."
"You're going to whine about it later if you don't go, just like you did in the Alliance. Stop chickening out."
Ken didn't respond, shying away from the airlock like it was taunting him. Naruto reached out, "Come one, we'll be right with you."
Ken swallowed and peeked behind his shoulder checking that the others weren't overhearing. The closest ones, Garrus and Thane, definitely were. Whether by their support of his pride in front of the crew, Ken pushed himself into the airlock and gave Shepard a wave.
Shepard waved back, "Have a good swim."
The door closed tightly and Kenneth gave a small gasp as the air was sucked out. "Okay, we're really doing this."
Gabby shook him proudly, "Damn right we are! You're gonna love it!"
Naruto swallowed, he privately shared some of Ken's hesitation, which fought against his curiosity. This wouldn't be his first time with nothing between him and space except his hardsuit. But it would be his first time without gravity. How would it feel to really fly?
The air was gone and the doors opened, and the ocean of stars awaited them. And for a single moment Naruto was overtaken by flashing fear that tried pinning him to the metal sheet beneath his feet as if his suit's biotic grip held him in place. The unknown always existed beyond a thin layer of fear, Naruto braced himself for crossing it once again.
Shepard called, "Step off!"
"I'm going. Follow me," he said and jumped out into the nothing. He arced down as the Normandy's gravity continued to grip him, but a few inches beyond the door, he was out of the ship's mass effect fields, and he was free, drifting in the sea of stars.
Every sentient species was born with gravity as the universal limit. The first of the fundamental forces shaped every species under its all-encompassing grip. Some, like the hanar, experienced the third dimension in their oceans, but even they were drawn to their planet's core by gravity's irresistible pull. Escaping that universal pull was one of the great leaps of every species in the galaxy. And yet as soon as they were released from it, they sought to re-create it in the growing fleet of ships traversing the stars. The restraint was a familiar comfort. But similar to how a man leaves his home for vacation, it was a comfort that could be thrilling to release.
Naruto was free. He felt no pull, the chains that shackled him to the ground were unlocked, and he was free. And spinning ever so slightly to the left.
He favored his right foot pushing out of the air lock, and so found himself twisting in the vacuum. He tried to twist to correct it, and when that failed he tried harder, but he just kept spinning. He was facing the Normandy now as he slowly drifted, and spun, further away.
He activated his omni-tool as he remembered the thruster module. His omni-tool unfolded into a holographic display that extended into his palm like a flight stick*, the flash silicon-carbide structure felt resistant against his palm. He tried to maneuver and pressed a button he hoped would activate a thruster to counteract the spinning. It did the opposite. A thruster on his right only increased his spin.
He cursed, then heard laughter come through his suit's speakers. A hand grabbed his shoulder and stopped his spinning. Ken worked his thrusters until the two were stationary. He laughed, "Boy, watching you made me feel a lot better!"
Naruto shoved his hand off, which made him spin again. "Dammit..."
Gabby chuckled and joined them, "Here, before you make yourself sick."
Reading a manual was one thing, but Naruto needed hands-on practice before he could fly. Gabby and Ken helped him with that. They showed him how even the slightest push on the omni-tool flight stick, or 'omni-yoke', would tell the suit's thrusters where to send him. It was all based on forward momentum, with a pair of triggers on the yoke controlling his frontward and backward velocity with a squeeze. The yoke's direction controlled his vertical and lateral motion, and movement then became a practice of marrying these commands under his control.
The Normandy was swarmed with dozens of its floating crew when Naruto felt ready to test his control. "Great! Thanks you two, now time for a test run!"
He squeezed the higher trigger, too hard, and lurched forward as his rear thruster flared, pushing his torso forward before his limbs could follow. He hastily reversed himself down and tried ignoring his friends' laughter, which they claimed was supportive. It was like learning to tree-climbing all over again.
He pulled the trigger again, slower, and drifted towards the Normandy at a comfortable pace. He shifted the shaft down and he dipped below the Normandy's raw hull, so close he ran his fingers along the wide breath of its skin. The pristine white had lost some of its shine, and there were signs of scorching from re-entry.
He floated to the end, and just as he reached it, he attached himself to the hull with chakra in the tips of his fingers. He arced above, and let go as he began to float above the Normandy while inverted. Seeing the ship upside-down gave Naruto an odd sense of place, not that it mattered in space. He gently throttled along the arcing hull, just over Joker's bridge.
As he came down the other side he saw Garrus floating by himself. Garrus spotted him and held out a hand as if in greeting and called, "Up high!"
Naruto grinned and thrust towards him, but got excited and drifted too far to the left, missing by over a meter. "Come one, what was that?"
"Hang on, I'll make another pass!" Naruto called and rocketed back underneath the bridge. He flipped over the top and came at Garrus from above, this time in more control.
Naruto reached out, Garrus's hand lashed out and grabbed grabbed his. Naruto flinched, "Hey, what-"
Garrus jolted his omni-yoke and spun, flinging Naruto like a fisherman following a catch-and-release law. Naruto screamed as he clumsily steadied himself, "What the hell was that?"
"You'll learn, newbie." Garrus announced cockily, then he hitched, "Huh-whoa!"
Garrus was suddenly flung away by some unseen force. Kasumi de-cloaked in her Cerberus-branded hardsuit and chuckled, she loved knocking down the high-and-mighty.
Naruto sped towards Garrus before he could recover, intent on revenge. He didn't slow down as he passed the turian, grabbing his leg and flinging him again, but the motion carried through and he felt himself spinning, and before he could recover, Rupert crashed behind him and grabbed his waist, "Here ya go!" he lugged him sideways. The Normandy factotum's raspy laughter slithered from speakers like a fly he couldn't swat, Naruto was tempted to mute them, if only he could stop the world from twisting.
It was easy to see why sentients universally favored recreating gravity on their starships as Naruto tumbled through the emptiness with only his clumsy throttle control. He tried picking Rupert out among the crowd, but the man was wearing an assembly-line Cerberus hardsuit, and the pool of those was quickly growing. The crew's collective unconscious had unanimously approved of their petty game and decided to turn it into a full-blown battlefield, like a hundred balls bouncing on a trampoline.
They rested in the blackness of space, between star clusters that might never before have been seen with the naked eye, the phantom dream of their pre-spaceflight ancestors. These were not the stars of the navigators and the wayfinders who charted the homeworlds in voyages worthy of epic poems. But past dreams had become the everyday norm in the eezo age, these million stars was as good as the next. This was like choosing a game of frisbee at the beach over watching the waves. But maybe that's what the crew needed, the stars were forever, at least as long as they were concerned. It was the moment, shared by the many, that flared like match.
The stars still held an allure to Naruto, and they always would, but he'd been dragged into this chaos, and the sight of a challenge couldn't be ignored. He pulled the trigger and threw himself into the fray.
He thought he may have some advantage over the crew, a game of grab-tackle was, like all competition, a relative of combat. But their intuitive use of their omni-yokes leveled that playing field. Naruto was thrown as often as he did the throwing. And it was even worse against ground team members, who didn't share his disadvantages.
Except for Grunt, who's attempts at tackling made Naruto feel like a prodigy with the controls. This was good for everyone else, who were never too rough. A hit from Grunt would be a one-way ticket to the medical wing.
Naruto laughed as he weaved under Grunt's flailing charge, "Get back here!" he roared. Naruto flipped and changed direction, past the nose of the Normandy.
His eye! He'd forgotten about his sharingan! The predictions faded when he wasn't alert. He began focusing on the phantoms and anticipating his targets. This worked when he could get enough time to focus on just one person. All this space, and they were bunched together like a box full of puppies. Even so, it was marginally effective, most of the time. He managed to sneak up on Garrus and even Kasumi just fine, their brief cries were delightful rewards.
With Thane, he had no such luck. His novice skill with the sharingan was no match for Thane's agility in three dimensions, and he was easily thrown both times he tried catching him. "I suggest picking easier targets," Thane offered in mild bemusement.
Perhaps he'd aimed too high, too much was new. But there were plenty of targets, or as he liked to think of them now, victims! He rocketed forward against Mordin and Ken, who were grappling like heavyset wrestlers, with the reckless abandon of the howling krogan, but with greater accuracy. They noticed him too late. Mordin turned, "Watch out!"
"Yeah!" Naruto screamed as he caught the pair in a double-lariet that would've made Killer B rap with joy, and flung the two our of the battlefield. Then he scanned for more victims.
Instead, he found Legion. He caught the geth floating awkwardly in the cluster, staring like a curious child in an open exhibit as the organics tumbled. Was he trying to understand it? Legion didn't appear to invite a disturbance, but Naruto decided if he was willing to be in the chaos, he deserved to be part of it.
He zoomed across the field and lashed out at Legion's leg. Legion looked at him cautiously, "Non-human Uzumaki, what is the purpose of this exercise?"
"It's just a game, Legion. Play along!"
Naruto began to spin him, but Jacob appeared as if suddenly unveiled and got between them, put his boot on Naruto's shoulder and his hand on Legion's chest, and pushed, sending Naruto flying. But his victory was short-lived, Legion took Naruto's advice and grabbed Jacob barely by his fingers and tried his strength. It was great, Jacob went flying.
Naruto found himself spinning, and he saw Samara right in his path. He steadied himself as best he could and rushed at his newest target. And then he stopped. Samara had trapped him in her biotics.
"Hey, no fair! That's cheating!"
Samara asked, "Is it?"
This wasn't the sort of game that was established in committee. There was no rulebook for swim call crew toss, it was a product of the moment. You recognized the unwritten rules when you saw them being broken, like how he knew not to use his shadow clones.
Grunt roared, "YEEEEAAAAH!"
Something hit Naruto from behind, hard. His space suit was strong, and it wouldn't crumble, but it was like one moment it was here, then it was there, with his body failing to keep up. His insides did not enjoy it at all.
Naruto moaned as he spun through space. Grunt hollered and rejoiced his first successful hit. It wasn't undeserved after spending the game watching everyone else succeed while he stumbled, but someone had to pay for that high. Naruto fought against his urge to breath, and a worry that the taste of air would bring up something more solid.
Kelly and Samara floated to him, "Are you okay?" Kelly asked. She put a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
Naruto nodded and coughed, but didn't say anything.
"You've had enough for now," Samara said.
"You should go rest by the Normandy. Come back when you're ready." Kelly suggested.
Naruto nodded and shifted his omni-yoke with the tenderness of a thief testing the floor with his weight. His body was stiff as a board, he feared to test it in case it broke like one. Wouldn't it be just wonderful to get injured before their next mission, Shepard had enough chaos to manage already.
He scanned the Normandy's bridge section for a comfortable section of plating. There was a splotch of yellow and black that didn't belong, the plating was still waiting to be repainted. It was Zaeed. He was camped out like a man on a grassy hill. Naruto drifted towards him and gingerly attached himself to the plating.
"Shoulda kept alert," Zaeed lectured. He'd been watching.
"I know," Naruto groaned.
Zaeed reached out and hit Naruto's knee, which jerked. "Nerves still work."
"Didn't need you to tell me that."
He saw Zaeed was painting on a small canvas nestled in his lap. A series of colorful balls floated just in front of his head, pink, yellow, red, blue, green, and a murky color larger than the others. Naruto realized it was water for washing the brush. The little worlds of creativity spun over the artist as he practiced his craft. Zaeed was a solar system.
"Shouldn't the paint freeze?"
"They're designed for deep space. They'll last until swim call's done." Zaeed thrust his brush into the water and spun before pulling the brush clean. He gently brushed the water ball until the motion was gone, then whipped the pink globe to capture its essence, dressing his brush as a chef dresses a roast bird. The globe spun faster as he circled it with his brush, but the artist was careful that his tools remained stationary. He finished his preparation by stealing a drop of blue and returned to the canvas of creation.
Zaeed did not hesitate in battle. Art was no different. His practiced fingers guided the brush on a slow, flowing path like a river flowing down a mountain. The blue broke the pink in two and joined the vision Zaeed was creating. A bright nebula was taking form, Naruto made out two arms and a third struggling to reach out. It was more vibrant than anything out here, Zaeed was painting from memory with lush embellishment, since he rarely created anything that he hadn't seen personally. The man was a common plagiarist, Naruto thought bemusedly.
"Where is that? It doesn't look like anywhere we've visited."
"It's the Krolephe Nebula. Salarian space. Got a few backwater colonies too small for frequent patrols. Some job thirteen, no, fourteen years ago."
There was a story for everything Zaeed owned, and made. But never a reason. "Why don't you make one of your own?"
Naruto pointed, "A galaxy, maybe. It could be anything! Maybe it'll have a dozen arms, and just as many races living in it. Maybe they're aliens we've never seen, ones that haven't even left their homeworlds! You could create them too."
Zaeed wasn't fazed by the blonde's excitement, "Who cares about some make-believe fairyland?"
Of course, Zaeed draws to remember. Never to create. The man had the creative hand of a gallery artist, but whatever creativity he'd possessed had been ground up by the bitterness in the depths of the galaxy. The memories he delicately created were his focus, his life's work.
Naruto pondered the stars before looking to Zaeed again. He eyed the brush and remembered his own, and one magnificent painted mountain of Hokages. Naruto wasn't Zaeed, at least not yet. That spark was still alive in him.
"Hey Zaeed, can I see the brush?"
Zaeed looked at him, shrugged, and passed the tool. Naruto washed the brush, careful to avoid knocking the water away, then stole equal parts red and yellow. Zaeed tucked his art away as he eyed the brush as if he'd threatened his precious memory.
"What are you gonna do with it?"
Naruto grinned, his eyes hinting the mischief of his mind. He lowered the brush to the Normandy's white hull and thought how it was in desperate need of some color. He twisted it to create a healthy orange color, then opened the brush into a spiral, creating the Uzumaki swirl.
Zaeed watched Naruto tag the ship, "What the hell are you thinking?"
"Come on, Shepard won't be that mad."
"Oh. Well, too late now. She never comes out, maybe she won't notice." Part of him hoped she did, it was meant to be seen. He handed the brush to Zaeed, "Wanna do it too?"
"You're on your own," Zaeed took the brush and washed it. Naruto pouted, he'd hoped Zaeed would join him, like partners in crime.
He watched as Zaeed cleaned the brush and began drawing again. "What was it?"
"The job you were on. Some kind of protection assignment?"
Zaeed grunted, "Some diplomat in a regional assembly, probably dead by now."
"Wouldn't they have their own bodyguards?"
"This one wasn't supposed to be there. Didn't ask him about his business, I didn't care. He met some batarians, they made their deal, and we were gone. Easy credits."
Even Zaeed had stories that could almost be considered boring. But not quite, this was Zaeed. The man had been there! He'd left his mark on more worlds than the average citizen would be able to name, from Citadel space to the edge of the Terminus. The galaxy was full of infinite possibilities, and Naruto suspected Zaeed had come closer than almost anyone to seeing it all.
Naruto treasured his bonds, but sometimes they seemed to appear out of nowhere, and in places they didn't seem to belong. So why did he respect the old man, who's criminal record characterized him as the lowest of the low? Those that broke the rules were scum, right? So why did it always feel more stable when Zaeed was nearby?
In a future filled with painful unknowns, Zaeed was his proof that those things could be overcome, the evidence that there was a future past all the struggle and pain. And maybe, when it was his turn, he'd follow Zaeed's success.
But if he did, would he become as bitter a man as The Mercenary? Zaeed seemed to think so, Naruto remembered his lesson in the alley on Illium. And he suspected it hinted why Zaeed, if not liked, at least tolerated his presence. Zaeed saw a man walking the same road he had, and knowing its consequences, had been nudging him down a better one; he was the power of retrospect. It made Naruto wonder what a young Zaeed was like. More Naruto, less Fox? He hadn't found an appropriate time to ask, but he could imagine it was somewhere in those pictures. Zaeed gave hints in his stories, maybe a part of him wanted Naruto to pick up on them, maybe not. But they were there, in Zaeed's memories that couldn't be spoken. Naruto wondered if someday, if he paid attention, he would find some truth that Zaeed was putting onto canvas.
It was quiet now, Zaeed was lost in his work, and Naruto enjoyed the silence, which was underappreciated. Comfort with another could be judged on how comfortable their shared silence was.
"Hey," Zaeed said and motioned to a lone figure near the bow. One of the crew was staring into the void like a maiden who's beloved had sailed off to war beyond the horizon.
"Who is it?"
"What's she doing?"
"Same thing as the past few days."
Naruto looked curiously, he hadn't noticed anything. "I'm gonna go check on her."
"You do that." Zaeed waved him off to go play the hero.
Naruto pushed off the hull and gently glided next to Chakwas. "Hey, doc." She didn't respond. He tapped her shoulder.
The woman turned, was silent, then activated her comm line, "Naruto," she said solemnly like a pastor welcoming a fresh widow.
Naruto asked tentatively, "What're you doing alone?"
"Oh, just needed some time to think."
Something was wrong, making Naruto uneasy. Chakwas wasn't acting with her usual temperament. She seemed disturbed, like the surface of a lake broken by a fallen stone. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Her shoulders bobbed, "I don't think that's going to help for a while. Please, don't look at me."
"What are-" Then he understood. It was the eye she wanted to avoid.
She sighed, "Please don't take it personally. I just...not right now."
Naruto had spoken with her, Mordin and Miranda shortly after Sasuke left. He'd thought he said everything they needed to hear. It wasn't their fault, he didn't blame them, or some play of those words. Mordin bounced back quickly, salarian lifespans were too short for constant remorse. And Miranda was already compartmentalizing the experience, accepting what happened and pushing it aside. He'd thought Chakwas had as well. He'd been wrong.
He didn't want to repeat himself. So he said, "I'm starting to like this eye. I still feel my body adjusting to it's hunger for chakra, and the sensation...I can't really put it into words. But it's going to help the mission, doctor."
She shook her head, "I doesn't matter if it works out for the best. It isn't about you, actually." She paused, "I took an oath when I began my practice. I spoke the modern Hippocratic Oath in its entirety, and with pride. And I never broke it, until now. 'I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm'. I did harm."
"Even my people have to train to resist the sharingan. It was an illusion, you had no chance of controlling yourself."
"Even so, I felt the impulse to operate. I felt the decision as if I were the one who decided to cut the two of you open. And when we were done, I still remember feeling...the satisfaction," she hissed at the end as if it could reach her past self.
She breathed some relief, as if saying the words were a minor exorcism. "It's not your fault, I know. I just need time. I never thought...I'll never do it again. Please don't look at me right now."
Naruto nodded sadly, "Okay."
Naruto turned, Shepard was floating their way. Chakwas hadn't noticed, he must have kept the line private. "Get back out there. I'll take it from here."
Shepard stopped and opened his link, "Mind if I join you?"
Chakwas turned suddenly, "Shepard..." she shrank, "I'm afraid I'm not much company."
"Neither am I. So let's enjoy the silence together."
She didn't answer, but she didn't say no.
Shepard gave Naruto a nod and floated next to her. Together they looked off into the stars, lost in their thoughts. At least they weren't alone.
Naruto let himself drift away, feeling the emptiness between them in more than the physical. He didn't look back, he didn't want her to see the eye if she watched him go. This distance would be temporary, but he'd known Sasuke's had been as well, and that made it no less painful. But at least they had time to try. And they would, just like with Grunt, Mordin, Garrus, and even himself, with the hope that more would follow. For now Shepard's bond with the woman was much stronger and weathered, if anyone could help her now, he thought it would be Shepard.
Something unexpected lifted his spirits. He floated high over the Normandy, passing over Zaeed when he spotted it. The old man was wrapped in his work and hadn't noticed the blonde gliding overhead. The orange spiral almost glowed in the radiant light of a million stars. But now it had an orange line dragging below it. The spiral now looked like a lollipop, or, as Naruto preferred to see it, a flower.
Maybe it had been a mistake, evidence of Zaeed's frustration with his work that complimented his own on chance. But Naruto didn't think so. There was no orange on Zaeed's painting.
Naruto lingered on the spiraled flower, and it came to life as if his warm gaze was a sun. He turned to Zaeed, who hadn't noticed him floating above. His brush seemed tipped with honey as he fed his creation's center, birthing a copied body from his memories. His lone moment of original creation was small, he may have meant it to go unnoticed. Naruto wanted Zaeed to know he'd seen, and his methods lacked all subtlety.
He thrust towards the hull and landed forcefully over the flower. Zaeed shook and lost control, and gold tinged the left of a pink star cluster. "Oi!"
Naruto mock saluted and cast himself away, laughing like the impish child who painted a sacred mountain in his image.
He drifted over the hull ignoring Zaeed's curse. His fingers brushed the smooth skin of the SR-2 as he cast himself towards the stern, feeling like he could fly. The end was approaching fast, and he was seized by a childish dream. It was the same dream he'd remembered when he stepped out of the airlock, quickly forgotten by Garrus's impromptu play-gression. It came to him again as he saw the bounty of lights beyond, and remembered those nights staring up into the night sky in wonder. Now he was here, and he wanted to feel it! He wanted to wrap himself in the night and be part of it!
The stern came like the edge of a cliff and Naruto cast himself off into a sea of stars.
He held his breath as he drifted and opened himself up to the emptiness and the grandeur in its natural state, or at least as close as he could be. He circled slowly, letting the momentum of the endless carry him into its embrace. The universe was his stage, a trillion lights set to welcome him into the primordial wonder.
Time was relative, and it was lost as he drifted from the Normandy. Every rotation he would watch it shrink until the universe showed him how tiny the Normandy was by swallowing it. Once it faded he steadied himself until he lost all momentum, as motionless as he could be in three dimensions. Then he experienced.
He remembered Konoha's star field from the highest point on the Fourth's head. It seemed to go on forever beyond the curve of the earth. Now there were no limits, and the universe swelled as if prided in its endlessness without effort. All of Naruto's travesties slithered away as if the stars cast an exorcism by showing them how small they truly were.
The endlessness promised him that whatever his desires, no matter how deep they may run, it had room for them. It grabbed his attention and demanded that he dream the wildest, most ludicrous thing, and believe that it was actually possible, hidden somewhere between the hegemony of lights. It welcomed him to explore for eternity and find that hidden wonderland of his imagination. Naruto's eyes swirled through the cosmos as if he might actually find it. What he found instead was the darkness in the unknown.
The stars were ancient, their lifetime could be counted in millions of his, maybe more. How many other doomed souls had stared up into the infinity looking for paradise, only to be killed by what lay hidden in the darkness? A thousand cycles have looked to the stars and said "Here is our salvation!" All they found was a cycle.
Which came first, The Reapers or the stars? And how uncomfortable does it make you knowing you can't answer that? If The Reapers are the galaxy's firstborn, were the stars another one of their tools, like the keepers? Light bulbs used to grow their next harvest? And if it was the stars, how many cycles have they watched genocides in the storm? Were they powerless, or uncaring?
The stars were no longer friendly. They were a vice, surrounding him and crushing him with their boundless continuum. Naruto's shell was shattered against the heartlessness of the nothingness. And then the stars seemed to converge around him, as if he were the center of the universe and the stars desperately wished to join him. And behind the stars, cold metal glistened and spread. The Reapers were coming.
Naruto blinked and banished his imagination, forcing himself to see what was real. The stars were stationary, uncaring indeed. But the fear lingered as a phantom. Only this one was more familiar than the phantoms of the sharingan, and he knew ridding himself of it wasn't as easy as closing his eyes. It would linger in loneliness, and if he did nothing, they would grow and whisper like another Nine-Tailed Fox. So Naruto reached out to the first person he remembered.
He opened a private line and said, "Tali?"
He waited, "Naruto?"
"Hey. Can you come here?"
"Uh...I'm almost finished checking the engines. I just need a little more time."
Naruto was crestfallen, "Can it wait? No, actually, how long will it take?"
Naruto wasn't sure if Tali heard any fear in his voice, but Tali's voice sounded rushed, "Did something happen? Hold on-wait, how'd you get so far out?"
Naruto felt guilty asking, "I'm fine, I can wait. Don't-"
"Wait there. I'm coming."
Naruto sighed, selfishly relieved. Just the promise of company seemed to lift the menace from the dark space between suns. When Tali appeared against the backdrop, the fear of darkness was suppressed as if she carried a lantern.
She slowed before him while running diagnostics on her omni-tool. "Your suit looks fine. Are you alright?"
Naruto nodded, feeling respite. He looked up, "Yeah, I just wanted you to see this."
Tali looked up, "What, did you see something?"
Naruto was dumbfounded, how could anyone not immediately be humbled by the eternity? But he remembered Tali was born in the stars. This was nothing she hadn't experienced on a hundred space walks before.
Naruto sighed and whispered honestly, "I wanted someone to share this with. I thought of you. It's overwhelming when I was alone." He looked into her, and his fears were eaten away by a warmth he felt inside him.
She looked around, "It's just stars, there isn't anything dangerous this far out in space."
He grumbled, "No, I mean...it's hard to say."
Tali nodded and sounded serious, "I don't think I understand...can you describe it?"
"Later. It's over now that you're here. I think this is how I want to spend the rest of swim call."
Tali hesitated, then shoved him playfully, "Wow, that was mushy."
He snorted, "Finally noticed? And I thought you liked mushy."
"Maybe." She mused playfully. reached out and tentatively touched his arm. Naruto wasn't sure it was consciously done. "I don't think Shepard would mind if I took a break."
Naruto smiled, she worked so hard to keep the ship moving. The others didn't appreciate all the work engineering did, it was unnoticed in the bowels of the ship. "He'd agree you've earned a rest. Also," Naruto put his hand over hers, "Mushy," he teased.
"Is it a problem?"
"Nope!" Naruto gave himself to the moment. He pulled the quarian into a great hug. Tali squealed as he did, but quickly relented. The two laughed and tumbled in a comforting embrace.
Naruto smiled and peered over her shoulder into the ocean, and found his fear was gone. The phantoms couldn't survive in the shadows when there was warmth. And the light brought the possibilities and hopes back into the sea, letting the stars shine with renewed radiance. The darkness connecting them seemed worth the journey again.
That had been enough for Naruto the shinobi. Those lofty dreams had been a fuel in themselves, like a magnet drawing out his iron. But the amalgamation found something more. His fuel rested on the Normandy. It came from the crew who manned its stations, from the people who fought beside him, and more and more, with him. And right now it rested in the alien woman he was learning to love.
He wanted to share that affection and drive with those who gave him his. He wanted to journey into the stars and all their possibilities together. That desire concentrated in the woman he shared the infinity with in the moment. He wanted to explore a new possibility with her, and share with her the depths of the feelings he was still fighting to discover the words for. He could think of one way to express his desire: he wanted to be closer. Not with words, but something that spoke louder. He wanted to show her. And he remembered something she said aboard the Citadel that gave him one idea how.
"Tali, wait." Naruto pulled back.
She looked at him curiously. Naruto tapped his omni-tool and deployed a hose, the emergency life support link. He showed it to her, "I...ah, come on. Look...I think you know what I'm suggesting."
Tali stared at the hose and nodded hesitantly, as if he'd just asked her to take her suit of. Actually, he kind of did. "I remember. Keelah, I remember."
"Do you still trust me? Enough for...this?" He looked at her hopefully, nervous what her saying no would mean.
She looked at him closely as if searching for the answer. Proposing the bond was one thing. Actually doing it...Tali had to ask herself and be sure. Naruto waited anxiously and wondered if he was ready for the same. Maybe it wouldn't mean the same to him, not exactly. But he knew this link was rich with meaning. And that, he was sure, was something he was ready for and wanted. So when her eyes looked into his as if searching for his own truth, searching for proof of his own honesty and desire, he thought she found it.
She pulled out her suit's tube and said so lowly it was like she feared being overheard, "Take this and give me yours."
He assented and they traded tube. He admired the soft polymer in his hand like it was a treasure. He readied it beneath his mask into the emergency port and waited for Tali to do the same. "Are you ready?"
She nodded as slight as her voice, "Yes. Do it."
They plugged in the hoses and waited. It would take a few seconds for the air to filter in. And those seconds promised to be awkward as when he caught her checking him out.
Tali cracked, and through the tube he heard her rich voice without synthesization. It was her.
"I'm going to get so sick."
"I'll tell you looooots of stories."
"You better. I-" She tensed, and he knew he could taste the air. No going back now. "Ah..."
He waited, and a smell followed. It was sterile and sharp, with a hint of light musk. Not quite different from tasting mouthwash. It was a sensation that by itself would be an acquired taste, but it was more than a flavor. He breathed in.
He fluttered as heard Tali's shallow breathing. Tali was panicking, he couldn't blame her for the risk. Naruto reached out and held her arm, "Deep breaths. It's okay."
She nodded hastily. Her off hand snatched his hand touching her and squeezed it, but she seemed to find some comfort in it. Her breathing slowed like a rocking pendulum. Her suit heaved with her breath, Naruto watched her chest rise with each controlled breath.
"You taste like sweat."
"Hey!" He acted offended.
She shrugged, "It's true. I should've asked if you took a shower recently."
He cringed and remembered he'd spent the hour before swim call sparring. He politely left that out. "No going back now."
She shook her head. He asked, worried, "How is it?"
"I thought...it would be more dramatic, honestly. I don't know how, I just expected something else."
"So...this isn't what you wanted?"
"No," she said hastily, worried she'd offended him, "It's just...oh how do I say it. It's less like a first kiss in the vids, and more like..."
Tali had been spoiled by embellished anecdotes, award-winning acting and sweeping scores into unreasonably high expectations for the moment. It hurt Naruto to think that she couldn't experience that with him, like it was his failing. But he was determined to salvage the moment with what could be. He didn't want to be her fantasy, or compete with the prince charmings and the dashing adventurers. She was separated from him by a veil of the unreal, he wanted to reach through and share this.
He pulled her close into his embrace and whispered, "Just breathe with me. I want to feel this." Tali hesitantly returned his gesture. And together they breathed. And with every breath came memories of meeting, bonding, and growth. Words and emotion were given room to flow between the paired tubes with the sound of life and into each other, and they filled the space with comforting warmth. The moment became a culmination of hundreds of little moments and thousands of words and uncountable feelings. The illusion of what was supposed to be was allowed to fade, and the moment became theirs. A moment to live and remember.
Tali pulled him tighter and whispered, her words sweetening his air, "I want to hear your voice. Without speakers. As long as we can."
"I hear you," he smiled, "I'm so close."
He leaned back and looked into her eyes, silvery lights of possibility more promising than any of the stars. He leaned in and tapped his helmet to hers. He glanced once more at the stars and thought, if the void let him meet so many wonderful people and still find those precious bonds, if it gave him moments of warmth and love like this, he could bear the darkness on journey to live them. He closed his eyes and lived in the one he was already in, riding it out to the end with her.
The two continued to float in the world of their own until swim call came to an end. A pair of suits and lengths of tube wrapped in each other floating through the infinity.
Swim call is a naval tradition dating back to the era of wooden ships. While underway, the captain may order the ship to halt in the open ocean and commence swim call routine. Sailors are then authorized to enjoy the open ocean as their swimming pool. The practice remained popular until the end of the twentieth century, when an increased focus on operational risk management (ORM) discouraged unnecessary risks in most modern navies. While swim calls were still conducted, most were only done so under the guise of man overboard drills and diving exercises.
The practice experienced a resurgence in the era of starship travel. The risk of losing sailors was determined to be minuscule, so long as hardsuits were equipped with sufficient redundancies. However, they are still infrequently conducted due to standard operating procedure of decelerating to reduce the risk of accidental collisions. Commanders are instructed to only authorize swim call if it will not interfere with their operational tempo. Much of the old naval terminology has carried over from their proud heritage into the modern space-faring fleets, and so spacewalks continue to be termed as swim calls.
Swim calls are not exclusive to human Alliance vessels. All space-faring species have their equivalent practices. Some, such as the hanar, have enshrined the practice as a religious right of passage. As a hanar youth comes of age, leaving their homeworld's atmosphere and walking among the stars of the enkindlers is considered their passage into adulthood, as it was for their species.
Hardsuits capable of housing compressed gases for space-walking are capable of syncing with an omni-tool movement control system, colloquially termed the omni-yoke. An omni-yoke will vary depending on the manufacturer and year of production. Most are designed to be controlled with one hand, with triggers for forwards and backwards movement, and shifting directions with the stick controlling vertical and horizontal movement. A flash silicon-carbide structure allows the user to experience haptic feedback, enabling better control.
It is generally advised to discharge compressed gas before entering combat. If the storage tanks are full and sustain damage, they risk rupturing and damaging the user. Some advanced suits are powered by element zero and can be safely filled in combat zones. However, the additional suit infrastructure required to power movement with element zero makes the suits bulkier and exponentially more expensive. Because of this, gas-powered hardsuit propulsion remains a cheap and wide-spread standard.
If you've made it this far, please bear with me to the end of this one. I have something important to say.
I did not update on time. I kept delaying until I finally felt the sudden urge, the need to write. I've noticed that since chapter 2, my first delay, I've written chapters in groups of 5 before taking a short, or long, hiatus. I got to 7, then 12, then 17, 22, and then something happened. I wrote 6, reaching 28. Even if I fell into another delay following this, I feel like I overcame something with that.
Each hiatus is temporary. I always come back to this story. So I've been asking myself: why is that? This story has been in progress for over five years now. Why hasn't it come to an end? Why haven't I broken away into something different? Why do I keep coming back?
It's a deep question to answer, but I have to as this story crosses over 300,000 words. I began this story in a time of frustration. Shortly after the release of Mass Effect 3, I was disheartened by the ending and needed a creative outlet. Around that time, Naruto was also stuck in the (to me) lackluster World War arc. These were two of my favorite series, and I was frustrated with both of them. Both seemed to have strayed from what I considered the core aspects of what made them meaningful.
So I was struck with an idea. A story that would both be an outlet for me creatively and to express my frustration, and to in my view, 'fix' what went wrong with them. I've written about this in previous author's notes as well, but something has changed. And I've only just started realizing it these last few months with no writing. This story started in a place of deep frustration and a sense of longing for what could have been. Now, it's become something more to me.
I've been reading a lot in the past few months, both fiction and nonfiction. The Omnivore's Dilemma, The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Last Wish of the Witcher series, Hyperion, Hard Red Spring, Tuesdays With Morrie, and more that I can't remember as I ravenously write. I recommend them all. And I realize that I am not a great writer. I'm probably not even a good one. And I've been wondering why any of you would read my drivel when there is so much quality literature in the world.
I can't speak to you, though I read your reviews and your messages and some of you are finding something in this story. For me, I feel the need to put this story into words, despite my apprentice-level skills. In the words of Dan Simmons, "Words are the only bullets in truth's bandolier. And poets are the snipers." I am no poet. My words often miss their targets. But I feel some of my passion comes through.
So I'm going to continue to the very end. It will take years. Yes, years. But this isn't Bioware's story, or Kishimoto's, anymore. This is my story. And so I'm strapping on that bandolier and I'll shoot as straight as I can.
If you've made it to this final paragraph, please know this: I'm not writing for the praise or feedback of others. I still enjoy seeing a new review pop up or a message in my inbox, and I've improved by leaps and bounds by the criticism of others, but I'm not writing this for you, for a number, or anyone else. I'm selfishly doing this for me, but fulfill that urge to pen this tale. It's flawed, but it's mine. If you still feel this is worth following, I'd like to invite you on what will be a long journey. Most of us won't make it to the end. But I will. I'm seeing this through so long as my fingers still move.