Interloper: Chapter One
Interloper Relaunch dedicated to users MizDirected and Lachdannen. Without your tireless reviewing and valuable criticism, this rewrite would never have gotten off the ground.
My feet crunched over the icy spot just past my house for the fifth time as I completed another lap of the short loop of road I called home. My dark house stood on the hill, just the same as when I had left it to begin my nighttime wander. I wasn't entirely sure why I had chosen to leave the warm confines on my bedroom to go jogging so close to midnight, though if I had to guess, it probably would have something to do with the last twenty six hours I had spent sequestered amongst piles of empty cans and crisp packets, eyes glued to the screen. Yeah, that might be it. I started on my sixth lap.
Mass Effect 3. The thought rolled around my head. An hour in line the day before to pick it up. A day and a half of self-imposed isolation. And now, here I was, walking it off. My fingers tingled in the cold. I shoved them roughly into my pockets and plodded on. The sound of thunder rolled out of the cloudless sky. I looked about, expecting rain. The sky was clear, cloudless. Nothing between me and the twinkling sky. The thunder sounded again, this time closer. It was almost as if it was coming from just around the corner. I peered into the night, trying to sneak a view around the granite promontory up ahead. Nothing.
On second thoughts perhaps I ought to head back. I though. Curiosity, though, is often a stronger force than fear, and my feet shuffled forward almost of their own accord. Perhaps just a look. My heart stood still as I turned the corner. There, standing in the air just above the middle of the road, was a hole. A flat disk, a black so deep it almost seemed darker than the night sky above it. The edges were wreathed in livid purple. The hole boomed, the same echoing thunder crash I had heard before. In an instant, every hair on my body stood on edge as a thick buzzing filled my ears. I realized I had taken another step towards the thing just as the buzzing reached a peak. I tried to block it out, press my finger to my ears to stop the buzzing, but that just seemed to make it louder. The sound of thunder rang again and the world beneath my feet dropped into blackness. For a split second, the blackness burned a livid purple. I screwed my eyes closed against the violet assault and tried my best to plug my ears against the sounds of a hundred buzzing bees. It did little good, the sound seemed to emanate from somewhere in the back of my skull.
Then, as quickly as it started, the buzzing stopped, the light turned to dark. Gravity regained its hold, pressing my back to the surprisingly soft and springy surface of the pavement. Somewhere, muted by distance, a rhythmic thumping carried over the still air. I cracked an eye open and caught a shaft of dim sunlight. I winced and rubbed at my tired, sore eyes. Have I been lying here all night? I unsteadily pushed to my feet. My whole body ached. It felt worse than the time I'd gotten caught in an electric fence during my backpacking trip across Europe. My fingers splayed across oddly coloured grass.
I really looked around for the first time since I was grabbed by the … circle … Portal … thing. I definitely wasn't standing on my road anymore. In fact, I wasn't sure I was even on Earth anymore. From the burnt scarlet sky full of darkening clouds to the purplish grass that rose in thick and sharp looking thickets, everything felt wrong. And hot. I shrugged out of my thick winter jacket and tossed it over a nearby branch. I rubbed at my aching temples and let out a long, whistling breath.
So, what is this? I struck up a conversation with the air, an old habit. Definitely a dream, right? The air had few answers. I stamped my feet. The ground seemed solid beneath my feet. Succumbing to the cliché, I pinched myself. It hurt. Not a dream? Or a particularly persistent one. I have just stayed up for almost three days; perhaps I just passed out in the road. That thought stuck unpleasantly in my mind. I dismissed it and tried to come up with some other explanation. Come on, Liddle, people don't just fall over and wake up somewhere completely different.
"Nothing for it, better start walking again," I said to no one. I picked a direction and set off into the brush. The chest high grass made every step a challenge as I pressed my way through this bizarre dreamland. The thick smell of the grassy fronds overwhelmed my nose with an acidic, alien smell. The distant thumping became louder as I drove on, and became more rapid, irregular. It was just as the tall undergrowth began to thin into what looked like a dirt path that a new smell arose. I could smell smoke. And not the pleasantly warm smell of the campfire, this was a thick, acrid smoke that spoke of flaming plastics and other, more caustic things. It scratched at my throat. I didn't have much time to contemplate the foul breeze, without warning, a harsh rattling sound rolled in from my left. I ducked instinctively; I'd spent enough time down at the old sandpit to recognize the staccato pattern of gunfire. My heart raced as I strained my ears. My eyes darted up and down the down, trying to peer between the stalks of grass in front of me. Further down the path, I heard the sounds of pounding boots, soon followed by voices.
"Jenkins, look out!" The voice instantly grabbed for my attention. The voice was not just familiar, I knew it well. I'd just spent the last two days listening to it. It was impossible, though. I tore back the long stands of rough grass. It was like walking into a memory, only it wasn't a memory I had ever lived, only seen on the screen of a computer. A figure dressed in black rushed headlong up a steep incline covered in rocks. He wore a rounded helmet that hid his face behind a thick visor, and he carried a strange curved rifle that I had seen before, though never in real life. My eyes snapped the other way. Thin, curved disks made of purple metal floated there, brandishing the barrels of what had to be weapons. It was exactly as I feared.
The man in black was Corporal Jenkins and he was about to die.
For a second, I was frozen, my mind reeling at the impossible images flowing in through my eyes. Fortunately, my legs suffered no such lockout. I was already running by the time my brain caught up with reality. I caught the running man in the side with a clumsy tackle. We both went down to the wet ground. Bright blue flashes of light passed through the air we had just exited, carrying behind them blinding trails and the sound of tearing cloth. I fell, sprawled across Jenkins as we both rolled on the ground. More flashes passed above us, this time from the other direction. Two piercing explosions rang in my ears.
I brushed sand from my face and looked across at the marine. It all fit; the black armour, the helmet, the collapsing rifle, even the tufts of blonde hair visible through the thin slit of his visor. "Are you okay?" I asked. The sound of my voice was tinny in my own ears. I shook my head to try to stop the ringing.
"Yeah, you?" he asked in return.
I nodded. The motion triggered a pang of pain in my side. I looked down and found a deep gash in my formally dark green t-shirt. I plucked at the curled, blackened edge. No blood, but my side looked weird, the scorched red of cooked lobster-level sunburn. I hissed as my fingers touched the blistered skin. "Close call, though." I tried to speak calmly, but my voice quavered as my nerves betrayed me. "Sorry, never been shot at before." Two more figures splashed across the sandy trail toward us. One of them, obviously female, hung back ad cocked her head as if listening to something. The man carried on, halting just in front of us.
"Jenkins?" the closest called, "You alright?"
"Yes sir, Lieutenant. This local pulled me out of the way." He inclined his head towards me.
I pushed myself out of the muck with shaky arms. Lieutenant? More Proof. And the pain in my side was far too real to be a dream. I should have woken up by now.
"Did you hear me, kid? What's your name?"
I looked up and looked at the two men staring down at me. Their helmets hid their faces, but their eyes were still visible. Jenkins' eyes were wide and concerned, but his companion's were sharp, focused, suspicious.
"Michael. Michael Liddle," I blurted out without thinking. Sweat broke out across my forehead as the lieutenant's eyes narrowed. "I, uh…."
"Liddle. Good. Alright, Liddle, what were you doing out here? Are you from the colony?" the Lieutenant asked.
The question didn't sound directly accusatory, but my answer stuck in my throat. If this wasn't a dream, and it was looking increasingly likely that it wasn't, then what was it? Because I couldn't possibly be inside my favourite video game, could I? And if I was?
The lieutenant cut off my desperate internal ramblings with a curt clearing of the throat. Before I could speak up, my rescue came in the form of a voice I knew well. A female voice, strong and steady; it was instantly recognizable, even through the muddy haze of my confusion. Commander Shepard stepped up behind the Lieutenant who had to be Kaidan.
"Alenko, what's our status? We needed to be at the dig site, yesterday." She stopped as she saw me. "Who's the kid?"
"Says his name is Michael Liddle, ma'am," Alenko responded smartly. "We haven't been able to get much more out of him. You ask me, he seems to be in shock."
"He ran out of the bushes, Commander," Jenkins added eagerly. Now that he was out of danger, the younger man seemed to almost bounce on the balls of his feet. "Knocked me out of the way of those drones. Probably saved my life. Sir … Ma'am?"
Shepard looked me up and down with an appraising eye. "A local, right? Are you with the militia?"
I nodded vigorously. "Yes," I answered without thinking. Who was going to tell them otherwise. "What's going on?" The question was directed at the world as much as it was the man. Everything around me screamed Mass Effect, Eden Prime if I remembered right. And now, for some reason, I was standing on it. Maybe I'd simply gone mad. It wasn't too farfetched given my family's history. I pushed that unpleasant thought away and hauled myself to my feet.
"I'm afraid that's classified information, Militiaman," Shepard answered sternly. She turned to her team and started making motions without speaking. After Jenkins shook his head and pointed to me over her shoulder, she turned back. "My men and I have to move. The immediate area looks clear, so you should be safe going to ground and waiting for reinforcements. Find yourself somewhere to hide and don't come out until you get the all clear. And Militiaman," Shepard retracted her faceplate to reveal a hard face framed by bedraggled strands of fiery red hair. "Thank you for pulling Jenkins' ass out of the fire. I'll be sure to put you forward for a commendation with your unit commander once we beat this thing."
The helmet snapped closed, and the small team was off again. They moved cautiously up the trail and left me standing in the mud, alone but for the distant sound of the guns and the acrid smell rising off the now sparking geth combat drones. A fierce gust of wind blew hot air over the berm and across my face, but I felt a chill creep through me for the first time since falling into this strange world.
"So what do I do now?" I muttered, casting my eyes back across the way I had come. The thick foliage would certainly hide me well. Above that, whatever had dumped me into this mess might still be back there. But…. My eyes were drawn back up the path, where Shepard and her men had just crested the rise of the hill. Heading off to into the fight with Saren. And the Reapers. I looked out across towards the distance, where Sovereign rose into the darkened sky. The mere sight of the titanic space squid made my skin crawl and filled my ears once more with the sound of angry bees. I shivered as it occurred to me that he could likely crush me with a simple thought. I took a squelching step back towards the brush. Back where it was safe. Back where it was boring. I didn't give the brush another thought.
"Wait!" My cry caught the Marines just before they disappeared from view. Shepard spun sharply on her heel as I ran up to her, puffing and panting. "Wait," I puffed, leaning over heavily in a bid to catch my breath. "I you're going after the beacon, you're not going to find it at the dig site."
Shepard's demeanor changed within the space of a heartbeat. Her rifle whipped up and around, leveled at my chest. Kaidan's joined her just a second after, but Jenkins seemed to hesitate. His rifle remained at rest and he flicked his head back towards his commanding officer.
"How did you know about our mission? Start talking, right now. I don't have any more time for delays," Shepard said sharply. Her voice had hushed to almost a whisper.
"I … I …" This wasn't going the way I'd thought. Had to come up with something. "You were talking about the dig site before. The whole colony's talking about the prothean beacon they dug up there. I, uh, pulled a few shifts out and the spaceport. A bunch of the guys there said they were getting something big in from out here." Yeah, that ought to do it.
Shepard didn't look entirely convinced, but she didn't look ready to fill me full of holes either. Her rifle lowered but she held her ready stance. "Kaidan, remind me to have a few words with Colonel Herrick about his operational security arrangements. Okay, kid. I assume you know how to get to this spaceport from here?"
I nodded dully. Shepard's eyes went from severe to questioning and I realized that I was still nodding. "Oh, yes. Yep, I can take you there from here. It's just past the dig site, past the next rise." I strained my memory, trying to remember the map of Eden Prime. From what I remembered, it was pretty linear. Although, now that I looked ahead, the planet seemed to stretch out in all directions, bereft of the stark barriers that had hemmed me in during gameplay. At least the path was still there, winding its way through a stand of oddly coloured trees up ahead.
"Alright, good," Shepard said. She pressed her fingers to her helmet, just above the ear, obviously activating her radio. "Ground party to Normandy, minor change of plans. According to one of the locals, the beacon's been moved to a nearby spaceport. He's offered to guide us in, but I want you on station and ready for pickup. You copy that, Nihlus?" After cocking her head, apparently getting a response she liked, she looked back to me. "Did they teach you to shoot in the militia, Liddle?"
"A little, I'm kind of new, to be honest," I said dishonestly. "Barrel goes towards the bad guy, right?"
"There'll be time for jokes later," Shepard snapped. She reached behind her back and snapped something from where it was clasped. She withdrew a bright red, bulky metal rectangle. "Here, take this for now. I'll be wanting that back once this is over."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, taking the object. The thing snapped open in my hand, revealing the blocky yet surprisingly light weight form of a wide barreled pistol. The gun fit my palm easily enough, but inwardly I groaned. I'd always gotten a less than stellar performance out of my father's Sig Sauer back home, much more comfortable with my own rifle. Not that twenty rounds of .22 would do me much good here. I tried to keep the disappointment from my face and pulled the heavy duty pistol up into what I thought was a decent ready stance.
"Corporal, keep our guide safe. Shooting breaks out; you make sure he gets into cover. Without barriers, those drones will rip right through him. Militiaman, try to keep out of the line of fire. What Corporal Jenkins says goes. I don't want any heroes dying on my watch today, you understand?" She shot a meaningful look at the Corporal. The both of us nodded in reply, Jenkins saluting smartly.
"Lead the way, Militiaman."
The cry shook me from my thoughts just in time to see the first flat disk of a geth drone to drop from the canopy of the strange glade. Before I could react, a rough hand at my back pulled me to the ground. I hit the soft earth with a whuff as the air was driven from my lungs. Hypersonic flakes of metal raked the air where I had just been standing, showering me with shredded bark as they bit deep into a nearby tree. Ignoring the stinging splinters, I managed to roll behind a thick knot of roots.
Around me, the Commander's squad returned fire, filling the small copse with the clattering of their curved assault rifles. I tried to peek up and over the roots, but the hand on my back pushed me back down. Jenkins gave me an apologetic look and shook his head. A near miss on the ground near my feet convinced me that he had the right of it.
Damn, I forgot about this ambush. I chided myself internally. Another round kicked up dirt just past the tip of my shoe, sending me shuffling deeper into the embrace of the tangled roots. The ground shook slightly as something exploded behind my hiding place. Something whirred up above. One of the drones had managed to get around the tree. We were exposed. A wordless croak escaped my lips and I raised my weapon. The handgun bucked in my hand as my finger pumped the trigger. My shots scattered wide, but the wild shooting managed to force the drone to swerve away from the team. I fired again, this time trying to aim carefully. The shot hit, albeit narrowly, gouging a glowing streak across the drone's convex lid. The drone plummeted, crashing into a tree and crumpling into a pile of wreckage. I let out a long held in breath and tried to still the shaking.
"Cease fire!" Shepard called, silencing the guns. Wisps of smoke rose over the newly silent battlefield as my new allies surveyed the field. "Coast is clear. Let's move people, if the enemy has drones in the area, odds are their scouts aren't too far behind!"
Then we were off again, Shepard leading and keeping up a brutal pace. I struggled to keep up as the humidity of the planet began to sap at my energy. That and the hilly terrain, and the fact that at this point I probably hadn't slept in a good eighteen hours. I almost regretted not crawling into those bushes and taking a nap. This strange world didn't give me a chance to dwell on it, though. Up ahead, the sound of gunfire flared up.
"Let's move, people!" Commander Shepard ordered. The four of us sprinted down the path until we came across a clearing. I caught a flash of pink and white. A woman sat with her back to a rock, wearing a similar cut of armour to the team ahead of me, though it was primarily white with highlights rendered in a soft pink that looked out of place on the battlefield. She looked hurt. Two figures advanced on her position. They were short and stocky, each with a long flexible hood that extended from where a human head should rest. They too carried rifles, though of a different, more bulbous design. The edges of the rock that hid the wounded soldier began to glow from the volume of fire poured into it.
"Spread out, focus fire on the leading hostile!" Shepard had her assault rifle out and was already firing. The sudden storm of fire caught the machines off guard. The first one went down almost immediately. The second one froze for a second, as if trying to decide whether to continue going after Ashley or aim at the new threat. Kaidan didn't give it a chance to build a consensus, firing up his biotics and sending the Geth pin-wheeling into a rock. The platform's lights slowly died. I hadn't fired a single shot.
"Thanks Commander. Thought I was a goner for sure." The soldier's voice came out strained and shaky. She clutched at her side, where her dull white armour was stained by a much darker shade of red.
"Are you wounded, soldier?" Shepard asked.
"One of them got me pretty good. Nothing some medigel can't fix." Ashley had gotten shakily to her feet. "Who's the kid?"
'The Kid' must be referring to me.
"Says he's with the militia," Alenko said as he dosed the wounded soldier with the solution of pain meds and healing goo.
"I don't recognize you, are you with the Agrigroup?" she asked. She thanked the other soldier and seemed to stand taller, though she still favored her unwounded side.
"Yes Chief, but I haven't had contact with them since the attack started." She seemed to accept this. Probably didn't hurt that I had just addressed her by the correct rank.
"I'm Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams, with the 212. We did some training with Agrigroup a while back. Colonel Herrick still in charge?"
"Yes ma'am." I replied, "At least he was this morning."
"The fighting's been pretty fierce, the rest of my unit's gone, the 232 was deployed just up by the spaceport, and I haven't heard from them either."
"What happened to your unit?" Shepard asked. Ashley began to explain the situation. I wasn't really paying attention, I already knew the details. The conversation gave me time to think, though, and that thinking gave doubts an opening to slip in through. If this was real, and I wasn't mad or trapped in some hyper-real dream state, what did I plan to do? The thought of running back to the clearing I had arrived in began to feel all the more attractive. Maybe that portal or whatever it was still there, ready to take me back to somewhere that I wouldn't be shot at. Or maybe it wouldn't. Maybe I'd just curl up there and fall asleep, waking to find the world still sporting a burnt orange sky. But where would that leave me? Stranded on a broken colony with no identity and no way home.
The question hung in front of me. I shook my head, bidding the fear of never going home again to disappear. I'd follow Shepard; at least it would pass the time until I figured out what had happened to me. Maybe I'd even be able to make myself useful. That said, I still had very little knowledge of how this world actually worked. That was something that I could at least do something about. I walked over to where Jenkins stood.
"You ever seen action, Corporal?" I asked. He seemed to jump a little.
"No, this is my first, you?"
"Before today, I'd barely fired a gun." A half-truth, mass accelerators were altogether new to me, but I had spent as much time as I could cram into my schedule out at the sandpit down the road.
The corporal nodded. He scuffed his boot across the top of a metal box. A memory hit me.
"Hey Jenkins, pass me that crate." He looked at me quizzically but handed the crate over. "The militia left a few caches out here," I said as I pried the thing open. A jumbled suit of armour tumbled out into my arms. Unfolded, it looked like a wetsuit with a few molded plates covering the shoulders, legs, and stomach. The suit itself was a dusty black, while the plates sported a digital camouflage scheme.
"We, uh, didn't cover how use this in the militia." I lied lamely.
"Oh, it's easy." Jenkins said, "here, just hit this bit…"
Donning the armour was actually pretty simple. You kind of stepped into it and pulled it up until it fit snugly. Once I had zipped up, Jenkins hit a button on my belt. A burst of static electricity shot across the suit's surface.
"There, ready for battle." Jenkins seemed to have regained his gung-ho attitude. By now, Commander Shepard had finished debriefing Williams. They walked over, Kaidan taking up the rear.
"We just got word from Nihlus. He wants to meet us up at the spaceport. Are you ready to travel, Militiaman, Jenkins?"
"Good, Jenkins, take point."
And we were off once more. Just before passing out of the clearing, I gave one last look back at the path that led back to where I had arrived. The long blades of grass waved limply in the hot breeze, offering no evidence of our passage. Shepard called from up ahead and I turned my back on the scene.