Mass Foundations: Redemption in the Stars
Chapter One: A Stranger in a Strange Land
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
After one too many near-death experiences, Ethan Sunderland, the Courier, decided to upgrade his Transportalponder. It should increase the device's range, allowing him to teleport to Big Mountain from anywhere, anytime. He took extra precautions—calculations, numerous trials, and multiple prototypes over the last couple years. He was a scientist and an engineer. What could go wrong?
He should have known by now. Everything could go wrong on Big Mountain, and it always did.
He set it up at X-84, the facility in Big Mountain that manufactured his Transportalponder. There was the device itself in the testing room with a robot, a Mister Handy, as the test subject, and an alarm system. Not long after the New California Republic snatched victory for the second time at Hoover Dam, the X-84 facility had popped out of the ground like a mole rat during mating season.
Looking through the thoroughly cleaned window, the Courier observed as a Mister Handy used one of its claws to pick up the Transportalponder. With a press of a button at the console, the Mister Handy obeyed the command and squeezed the trigger.
The result was an outright disaster. Instead of the robot blinking out, the device shot out sparks. Ethan watched in wonder as what looked like a tear in reality, a gray and black miasma of swirling chaos, appeared in the room and started expanding quickly. He read about wormholes in science books and what they theoretically looked like. This one was clearly it.
In a swift motion, he activated the testing room's force fields as the alarms blared out, hoping to contain the wormhole.
"Oh honestly!" the Mister Handy complained. The wormhole pulled it in along with the Transportalponder, almost like it disappeared in an instant.
The wormhole broke through the field like a hot knife through butter and tore everything around it.
He ducked as a piece of debris flew over him, missing him by mere inches, and held onto a nearby desk drilled tightly on the ground. It felt like bits of him were being torn from him as he was being pulled towards the rift. When he looked at it, it felt like the dark, starry abyss was staring right back at him, the stars themselves trailed in the deep black.
"Well, shit," he groaned. He held on the desk as much as he could, but the wormhole was so powerful that he got sucked in. He slammed headfirst into the now flying desk, and consciousness failed him.
As he regained consciousness, he was met by a foul smell whiffing about. It reminded him of Brahmin shit mixed with gunpowder and rotten fish.
At first, he thought he was in an alleyway, somewhere in Freeside. Freeside was not known for its cleanliness. He was half-right.
He expected to see a starry night sky when he looked up, only to find that there was a ceiling far above him. Judging by the weak illumination of neon lights, he inferred that he was in civilization, but where exactly? One thing for sure was that he was neither in the Sierra Madre nor somewhere in the Divide. He never liked either of those places.
He stood up steadily, kicking off whatever particular pieces of garbage were on his black boots. Dusting off his armored vault jumpsuit, the Courier took a thorough, good look at himself. He knew that rifts in the space-time continuum can tear things apart at an atomic level, so he had to be sure.
He placed his hands all over a chiseled face that went well with his tall, lean, and athletic body. His face. His brown, rectangular eyes and his tawny skin tone came from a mixed heritage in Vault 15, common among citizens of the NCR. His dark-brown hair was cut and combed neatly weeks ago while his anchor beard had just been trimmed.
So his body was still here. Hands, arms, legs, feet… everything was left intact. He let out a relieved sigh, taking in the comfort he was still himself, and he was still alive.
He checked his Pip-Boy 3000 strapped on his left wrist. With a whir and a beep, Ethan's scratched face was bathed in its familiar green light. So it was intact too. The Lone Wanderer told him an old friend of hers always said you could drop a bomb on the Pip-Boy, and it would still work with nary a scratch. Even fully submerging it in water wouldn't short-circuit it. If Ethan could get back, he would tell her to add a trip through a fucked-up wormhole to the list of disasters the Pip-Boy could withstand. These things were built to last.
The screen showed an incomplete map. It seemed he was out of the Pre-War satellites' range. Much to his annoyance, he would have to wait for the Pip-Boy's GPS to adjust to whatever new coordinates it would get. However, the date and time read 5:38 PM 10/19/2285. So that meant he wasn't out for too long—unless he traveled through time, he thought with a wry laugh.
He then stopped and looked around, puzzled. "Wait a minute. Where are that Mister Handy and the Transportalponder?"
Conveniently, the Transportalponder was across from where he was. He picked it up and inspected it. The plastic container that contained the energy had cracked open. The vacuum tube at the front of the pistol-like device was burnt out from using enough power to create the wormhole. Without the specific rare materials to create the Transportalponder, he would be as good as stuck here.
He hoped the wormhole had only destroyed the X-84 facility. That wouldn't go well with his conscience if it did more than that.
"At least I could play with it," he muttered and put the now-broken device in his bag.
He checked his surroundings, only to find a small security camera mounted on a wall, tracking his every move. The sight of a stranger randomly appearing in a dark, dank alley would be suspicious as hell. That would prompt someone to check what the hell was going on.
When he got out of the alleyway, he squinted and covered his eyes from the sudden brightness. And then he found himself taken by the view, his mouth half-open. The architecture was dull, brown, and monolithic as if the buildings were interconnected. It felt like a scene from a dystopian science-fiction movie or a superhero comic book, like La Fantoma. Even the dimly lit storefronts and aging neon signs reminded him of his travels in the Mojave Wasteland, especially the Strip.
As his eyes adjusted, he saw people moving about—if he could call them that. Some of them were birdlike, each having a pair of mandibles over their mouths. Others were thin with large, horned heads and black, beady eyes. Some women who looked human had scalped crests instead of hair. A giant, slouching creature with thick arms and vertical slits for a mouth guarded an entrance to what appeared to be a nightclub. There were two long lines of people in front of the creature. As he stumbled by, he bumped into a large, reptilian creature with a crest on its head.
The guns the guards carried far outclassed his. Their suits of armor were sleek while their weapons looked either blocky or curvy. He spotted an orange, holographic light on one gunman with a pair of mandibles on his face. He wondered how they work, but he didn't want to find out the hard way. Plus, he didn't like how the creature looked at him, so he kept moving.
He wandered for hours. Every joint of his body ached. He couldn't help but have this strong feeling of isolation and dizziness over him. He wanted to go back home. But how?
As he passed crowd after crowd, he listened in intently on every detail. It soon became apparent they weren't mutants—they were obviously too different from humans, more like they were actual aliens. Another giveaway was the human inhabitants.
From what he could tell from the human inhabitants, he found out he was in an alternate universe, the year being 2183. Not only that, but he was on a space station called Omega, billions and billions of miles away from Earth, ruled for many years by Aria T'Loak. She had one rule for the residents here, one that no one should ever break under any circumstances: Don't fuck with Aria. It was crude, but it was easy to remember.
Suddenly, someone dragged him to the alleyway. A thug preying on their next victim taking him away so there wouldn't be any witnesses, he thought. Obvious and predictable. This should be easy enough to counteract.
Swaying left and right, the Courier quickly broke his would-be attacker's hold. The Courier reached over his shoulder and grabbed the attacker by the back of their shirt. With a quick motion, the Courier slammed his enemy to the ground like a wrecking ball. The cracking sound should've done the job, but the attacker quickly recovered and stood up. The Courier whipped out his Bowie knife and lunged, giving the mugger a shallow but long gash across his chest. His attacker yelped in pain and stumbled a few steps backward, clutching his chest in a frantic but futile attempt to close the wound.
The Courier inspected and was taken back. This was a four-eyed humanoid with a thin layer of brown fur all over his body. He wondered what else this universe held in store for him.
Enraged, and terrified out of his mind, the four-eyed alien got out a strange-looking pistol. But the Courier, thanks to his implants, was harder, better, faster, stronger. In mere seconds, he drew his M1911 pistol and fired. The two shots hit the thug's chest made him tumble down backward, dead before hitting the ground.
"At least it's not like those three old ladies with rolling pins," Ethan remarked with a sigh. He reloaded his pistol and holstered it.
He went through the alien's pockets, finding what appeared to be an earpiece. It fitted the alien's pointed ears, so it wouldn't be comfortable for him to wear, but it looked like it might be worth something. He found a thin card with the same word in many languages. One of them was 'credits', and he guessed it meant a sum of currency, so he pocketed the card and the earpiece.
He picked up the pistol. From its shape, it looked like a semi-automatic but without a hammer at the back end of the slide. Instead of bullets when he unloaded the magazine, he found cylinder-shaped blocks, thick and big as his thumb. He wanted to tamper with it, but he needed to know how this pistol worked first.
As he put the magazine back in, he heard footsteps behind him. Was someone else in the alleyway? What were they doing while he was looking through the dead alien's stuff? Without missing a beat, he stood up and slipped out.
After walking around for an hour straight, the Courier found himself in a marketplace, looking for a trader that could understand him. The place hummed with activity. A red-haired man wearing coveralls crouched down and tinkered with a pile of scrap metal on a bench, welding two flat surfaces together with a ring around it. The clerk's mask covered his face from sparks and the welder's intense light, not to mention the smell of metal and wire.
Ethan approached the kiosk and knocked on the table, grabbing the man's attention. The man placed his tool on the floor and turned as he lifted his mask. He was pale with green eyes and a soul patch on his thin chin. He looked like he was in his early twenties.
"Hey there. How's it going?" The clerk looked tired as if he spent all day working.
"It's been wonderful, really," Ethan replied. "The sites are gorgeous, and the people here are friendly. What's not to like?"
The clerk paused for a moment. "Well, this is the shittiest place in the galaxy. First time on Omega?"
"You could say that. I'm looking for something to buy."
"What are you looking for?"
The clerk blinked in confusion. He raised his finger before speaking. "You don't have one? You got here without one?"
Ethan realized if he told the truth, the clerk wouldn't believe him. "Actually, I got mugged. They took my stuff and gave me this nasty concussion." He rubbed his forehead to give off the impression that he had a headache. "I got my stuff back, but I think I lost my memory."
The clerk seemed to be surprised "Oh, okay. Happens to everyone on this station. Except for that 'amnesia caused by massive head trauma' thing. But you look like you can handle yourself."
"Nobody's perfect, believe me."
"Anyways, you can use the terminal to buy what you need. Security reasons. You can see 'em everywhere at the Citadel." The clerk tilted his head to an orange screen at the Courier's right.
"What's the Citadel?" the Courier asked.
The clerk shook his head and pinched his nose. "You're a fucking idiot." He sighed, now realizing. "Oh, right. Concussion."
"I had worse."
The clerk rolled his eyes, going along. "The Citadel is the capital of galactic civilization. It's like the polar opposite of this shithole. I'm sure you can figure out the rest. It had its own fair share of problems, sure. Pretty mundane, from what I hear."
"So why can't you leave, then?" Ethan asked.
"I would love to, but travel costs are high," the clerk answered. "Plus, I'm under a contract. I hope I won't get killed before it expired. Omega's a pretty dangerous place."
"Yeah. I get the picture." The Courier gazed at the terminal and tentatively touched the screen. After discovering it responded, he browsed the selection. He found a translator of high quality and an orange light that fitted over his wrist. The same light he saw before.
"Hey, what's up with that wristband?" He pointed at the picture of the object on the terminal.
The clerk turned away from the shelf. "Huh? Oh, that's an omni-tool. They're multipurpose handheld computers. Everyone has one these days."
"So why would I need one?" Ethan had his Pip-Boy, so buying one of these things would be redundant to him.
"The omni-tool will also give you a kinetic barrier," the clerk answered. "It's weak, but it's better than nothing. It won't work against radiation and laser, temperature, slow-moving objects, like knives and sticks, and poison."
"Like this pistol here?" The Courier showed the clerk his new pistol.
The clerk brought his hand up to his chin and investigated the gun. "That's an M-3 Predator pistol. Heavy pistols like that pack a real punch against anyone with armor. They're mass accelerators, so they use metallic slugs, not bullets. They're accelerated by electromagnetic fields and enhanced by mass effect fields."
"What are mass effect fields?" the Courier asked.
"They are fields used by element zero, which releases dark energy when exposed to an electrical current. It can increase or decrease the object's mass, with a positive charge increasing mass while a negative charge decreases mass. But when a ship's moving faster than light, these fields can create static electricity charge. If you don't discharge that onto a planet's surface or its magnetic field, depending on the size of a ship, it'll go into the hull of a ship or a car instead and cause a lot of damage. Fusing bulkheads, destroying electronics, you name it."
"So it'll fry everything inside."
The clerk shrugged. "Basically, yeah. Anyways, you can't fire your gun like crazy. It'll overheat. Older models have heat sinks built in, but they don't pack as much of a punch as the newer ones. The new models use thermal clips instead so you won't have to wait for the gun to vent out heat." He took a deep breath. "Maybe I should've been a teacher. You follow?"
Ethan nodded, showing he listened. He turned to the terminal and picked the items he wanted. His eyes widen in shock when he found out they cost about 7,500. It would've greatly depleted his stolen funds from the money slip if he hadn't sold the four-eyed alien's earpiece. He expected something like a rare weapon or a suit of power armor to be expensive, not something like this omni-tool.
"All right, here is your stuff." The clerk handed Ethan an eyepiece and a small PDA. "One Logic Arrest omni-tool and a Rosetta translator. Enjoy."
The Courier took the translator and the PDA, fitting the translator over his eyes. A holographic display appeared with shapes and lines flying when he turned it on. It allowed him to read and understand different languages. He looked at the PDA in his right hand with a confused look on his face.
"You'll have to turn it on," the clerk reminded him. "Button's at the side. It's easy to find."
The Courier did so, and an orange light appeared, reaching up to his elbow. "Nice!" Ethan's smile widened in elation as he messed around with the omni-tool, bringing up a paper-thin screen above the device. "I should go. Bye." He turned it off and pocketed it.
"Okay, see ya. Try not to die," the clerk called out.
The Courier left the marketplace. He remembered passing by the nightclub earlier. It would be a great place to gather word.
As he looked up information on his omni-tool, he went to a nightclub, Afterlife. Its name appeared in giant white letters above the entrance.
A giant creature, an elcor, stood as the doorman. There were two lines, stacked next to each other, waiting to enter the club. The birdlike turians, the scalped head asari—their skin color ranging from blue to indigo—the horned, gray salarians, the giant, reptilian krogan, and humans.
A hooded man shuffled by, bumping into him. He muttered a quick apology and went straight to the club. The Courier wanted to cut past the line but thought better of it when the line went nowhere.
Instead, he walked away from the bar, somewhere else from here.
"Annoyed: No, I haven't seen anyone like that here. Nor have I been looking. Joking: Who do you think I am, the bar's informer?"
This is going nowhere. The blue-skinned asari with freckles on her cheeks pinched the bridge of her nose. Liara T'Soni's patience with the rather sarcastic elcor was wearing thin. All she wanted were some answers regarding Shepard's whereabouts.
"I didn't mean to offend," she sighed. "I just thought—"
"Miffed: You thought because I was an elcor. Otherwise, I wouldn't be watching them dancing all day," the elcor spoke, his voice lacking any emotion. "Pitifully: Elcors are good dancers, but nobody here gives us a chance."
She looked at the display past the counter, amid the loud noises of the nightclub and its bright, colorful lights. The screen across the counter showed news of the repairs the Citadel took in the wake of the attack by Sovereign, a Reaper, and the geth. Last month, Shepard disappeared when the Normandy was destroyed. But it felt so long ago. Deep down, she missed Shepard.
"Mockingly: More than they could afford." The elcor was also watching the news. "Mournful: If it weren't for that station, living on Omega would be downright depressing."
Liara would agree with that sentiment.
"You have to love the elcor," someone spoke nearby. "They got all the expressiveness of a tree. If they didn't explain the nuance of what they're saying, it'd be like talking to one."
Liara looked away from the elcor. "Oh, I don't know. I—" She looked at the hooded figure who sat by the elcor. He looked at his half-filled drink. Upon a closer look, she recognized he was her contract. Her one shot at finding Shepard. "Wait. You have something to tell me about the Commander—"
"No, not here." The hooded man shook his head and looked up, his dark eyes meeting hers. Under the lighting, his scaly skin had a warm set of colors of orange and green. He was a drell, a reptilian race rescued from a dying home world by the hanar. "Outside."
"I… of course. If it's for the best." Liara and the hooded man stood up and walked out of Afterlife.
The Courier leaned forward, resting his arms on a rail. Across from the balcony, down where the crates piled, there was a humongous window where distant stars blinking in and out in outer space.
The sound of gunfire snapped the Courier out of his thoughts. The noises were nearby, down a quick turn and twist of a hallway. Driven to investigate, he ran to the source. Moments later, he entered a large, circular hall. Metal slugs flew by, prompting him to duck back inside. The gunfire here was less noisy than the ones in his travels in the Mojave, meaning he wouldn't get tinnitus. As he leaned against the wall to his right, the Courier held his Predator pistol with both hands.
He took a peek, hoping not to get shot. To one side, ahead was a large group of humans, turians, and the four-eyed batarians. They wore blue-and-white suits of armor, carrying guns like the guards by the nightclub. Some of them wore helmets, concealing their faces.
On the other side, behind Ethan was a hooded man in a suit of tan-green armor, taking cover behind similar crates as he fired his Predator pistol. He blinked, recognizing the man—he was the one who bumped into him at the nightclub. By the man was a young asari with freckles on her cheekbones. Her light purple armor appeared to be skin-tight, having less padding on her chest and limbs compared to her companion.
The asari stood up, frowning, and balled her hand into a fist. A dark-blue aura surrounded her as if some power welled up within her. She unclenched her hand and raised it above her head in a quick succession. A yelp brought the Courier's attention to a batarian that floated mid-air, his four eyes wide with terror, as a blue hue appeared underneath him and pushed him up to the ceiling. His allies opened fire on the asari as she extended her arm, causing the batarian to fly backward. She ducked back behind the crate, unscathed.
Ethan blinked and stared at the asari on her ability to manipulate some strange energy. Before he could read what happened, one armored shooter, a pale man, saw him and turned to a helmeted woman. She carried a flamethrower, with a large tank full of gas on her back. "Take him out! We don't anyone snitching on us!"
The Courier sighed and brought his chin up. Great. Another bunch of idiots to deal with.
The woman nodded and moved towards the Courier. Taking advantage of the tank's exposure to gunfire, the Courier used his Pip-Boy. It activated VATS—Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. Peaking from cover, he aimed down the sight of his pistol. According to its calculations, he had a decent chance of hitting the tank. For each shot, the chances go up slightly.
Time slowed down around him. Adrenaline rushed through Ethan's body as he fired three times at a rapid pace. Before the flamer realized what happened, it was too late for her to react as the last shot hit the tank. The tank exploded in a fiery blast, engulfing her and two of the shooters nearby.
"Holy shit!" one shooter, another woman, barked. "Someone needs to take him out! Now!"
"On it," said a turian with white tattoos on his face and blue lights appeared on his chest and his head. He approached the Courier with a bulky shotgun. A shot rang out, taking out the Courier's shields. He recalled from the clerk that the shields provided by his omni-tool were weak. In a fight like this, it would last for a few seconds. To survive, he had to be quick and resort to hit-and-run tactics.
He got out his Bowie knife and waited. When the turian was around the corner, Ethan threw him against the adjacent wall. A struggle ensued as he thrust his knife at the turian. The turian attempted to push the knife away from his neck and dropped his gun. Ethan dazed the turian with a head-butt and stabbed him in the neck, dropping him.
More gunshots went off behind him. He turned and saw the hooded man shooting back at their attackers with his pistol. "Hey!" the hooded man shouted. "Get over here unless you want to get shot!"
Ethan nodded, hearing the man loud and clear. As he looked around for another weapon, he found a rifle attached to the turian's back. He snatched it off and found it forming in his hands, adjusting to his size. As he inspected it, he found it was blocky, its barrel triangular. He smirked, finding it convenient somehow.
Stepping out of the alleyway, the Courier turned and fired at another shooter, a batarian, in several three-round bursts. The batarian's shields had been taken out, as seen with a blue blur surrounding him.
He slid behind a crate, next to the asari and the hooded man. As he did so, he heard something breaking like glass. His shields gave out, he realized. A sharp sting went through his right arm like someone swiped a knife at him, and it bled. The wound on his arm sealed on its own accord. Under most circumstances, the injury would be severe enough to be treated. But the Monocyte Breeder implant from Dr. Usanagi he bought years ago covered that, which sped up his healing process. 12,000 bottlecaps well spent, he told himself.
The two strangers stared at him, wondering why he showed up out of nowhere. While the asari seemed to be astonished by his regenerative abilities, he had other priorities to focus on, such as not dying.
"What are you doing here?" The man's voice sounded digitized like he spoke through a mask. The Courier figured it was his translator's doing. "You're lucky your shields held up like that."
"Lucky is what I'm good at," Ethan smiled, nonchalant. He stood up when his shields refreshed and activated VATS again, shooting down more of the attackers in his direction. "You know, seeing the sights, killing people. The usual. You?"
The asari blinked after ducking back behind the crate. "I'll be quick: we're looking for a body of a friend. Feron's my contact here." She tilted her head to the hooded man.
The hooded man frowned, annoyed. "Liara, you sure that's a good idea? We just met him!"
"He helped us so far, so it's a good time as any." Liara, the asari, looked back at Ethan. "We're looking for Commander Shepard. Feron had some information on her whereabouts."
"Who's Commander Shepard?" the Courier asked loudly over the sound of slugs banging against the crate. He popped out of cover and grabbed an attacker that ran up to them, tossed him and slammed him onto the ground. Ethan pulled his knife out and cut the armored man's throat, ending his life in an instant.
When he looked back at the two, he realized he wasted his breath as the two gave him incredulous looks. "You…" Feron said.
"How did you not know who Shepard is?" Liara asked.
"You think you'd know her by her reputation since you're a human," said Feron.
"I'm new around here." Ethan poked his head out and found more troopers coming in.
"Aren't we all?" Feron had shot another attacker.
"Yeah, sure," Ethan retorted. "We can play Q&A after this if you like."
A metal slug flew by, missing them by inches. "A wise idea, I might add," Feron replied.
"At least we agree on something." Ethan put his knife away and continued firing at the shooters. No matter how many they killed, two more entered the fray. Liara gathered the blue energy and formed it into a sphere in her hands. Within a second, she launched the ball at the group in question. It stood there, suspended in the air, pulling those nearby toward it and flew around the object as if they were like a string attached to a ceiling.
This gave Ethan and Feron the advantage. They focused their fire at the floating shooters as the Courier used VATS whenever he could. He ducked as one of them flew above him. He continued firing, with Liara firing her pistol at another new attacker running in on the scene.
One of the turians entered the fray with a large, bulky rifle in hand. Liara leaned out of cover and pulled off a new trick. A blue barrier appeared on the turian, preventing him from moving.
Without warning, one shooter dropped dead with a bloody hole in his head. "Sniper! Look out!" one other shooter, a dark-haired man with tanned skin, cried with fear in his eyes. Another shot pierced through his head.
Several of the attackers got shot down. Capitalizing on this, Feron ran first, dashing away. Liara came next, tossing away another attacker with her powers and grabbed Ethan's arm, following the hooded man. None of them looked back as they ran.
"Which way?" Liara wondered.
"Anywhere safe, obviously," Ethan answered. As they rounded another corner, the three stopped when they saw two huge men in hulking, white armor, carrying smoothly shaped rifles. A fair-skinned, dark-haired lady, clad in a dark-sleeved white uniform, led them. It was hard for Ethan to tell if she was beautiful or uncanny. "Or not."
"Relax. We're working toward the same goal: Finding Commander Shepard," the woman stated.
"Shepard's dead," Liara pointed out.
"That's what they say," the woman scoffed. "But Shepard has beaten the odds before."
"Who are you, anyway?" The Courier stepped toward the woman. "And what makes this Shepard so special?"
The woman and her men gave him confused looks. "I'm Miranda Lawson. Shepard's a hero, a bloody icon. And yet you have never heard of her?"
Liara sighed. "I'll try to explain to him. He has helped us so far."
The asari turned to Ethan. "I'll explain later. Shepard…" She curled her lips, finding it difficult to say the words. "None of us would be here if she hadn't stopped an invasion on the Citadel and saved the Council."
"Oh, okay." Ethan nodded and turned to Miranda.
"I admit this wasn't what we expected," said Miranda.
"What do you want, then?" Liara asked.
"I'm here to take you to someone who's interested," Miranda answered. "He wants to meet you. Work with us and we might be able to resurrect Shepard."
The Courier scoffed. He wanted to say resurrecting the dead was impossible, but he bit his tongue instead. If he can go from one universe to another, then he was sure resurrection could be within the realm of possibility.
Feron glanced at Liara, frowning as he folded his arms. "I don't trust this set-up."
Ethan looked at Feron. Under the hood, with what little lighting they had, he saw a scaly set of orange and green. He felt dumb for not noticing it earlier. At least Feron doesn't look like a Mirelurk, but they were amphibians. "What are you talking about?"
"Cerberus is pro-human," Feron explained. "They're only interested in Shepard because she's human. I doubt they'd mourn her if she's a hanar or a krogan."
"A bunch of racists, then," Ethan huffed. "Good to know. Those people who attacked us… Who are they?"
"They're Blue Suns. They're a mercenary group consisting of humans, turians, and batarians," Feron answered. "I think they were hired…"
"Hate group or not, we have similar goals as Cerberus do," the asari butted in. "Let's meet up with them."
"Come with me, then." Miranda brushed strands of hair off her face. "And you can bring your friends, too. We're not being choosy today."
The woman and her bodyguards started off. Liara followed along, with Feron hanging back.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Feron, the drell, commented as the Courier caught up with him and the others.
"Let's see. I got myself into a gunfight with you guys, and now we're working with a human supremacist group to find a dead hero." Ethan couldn't help but smile, holding back his laughter. "Of course you have a bad feeling about this!"
Somewhere else, after a long hike, the Courier looked around at the Cerberus facility workshop. It looked as if it was clean to the point he could see his reflection on the gray tile. There, he got pestered by several engineers about his Transportalponder when he asked for the right materials to fix it. He thought he would never get to hear the end of it.
Ethan sat on a bench in the lobby. While it was a large room, it was also empty and quiet, save for the other occupants: Feron and Liara. A logo of an elongated hexagon and two lines traced to the bottom were plastered on the walls.
Liara sat at the Courier's right, her legs crossed. She smiled, her right hand glowing as she opened it, a bright orb flickering in her palm. Ethan placed the rifle at his side and glanced at the asari. "You froze that turian and summoned a black hole. Did you use dark energy?" He maintained his newfound rifle with a toolkit he found in the workshop.
"She's a biotic. They can do that and create mass effect fields through electrical impulses in the brain," Feron answered, standing in front of them. "She can pull that off because of her bio-amps, which synchronize their nerve system to make the biotics useful."
"My people, the asari, are naturally adept at biotics." Liara closed her hand, and the glowing ball disappeared. "Most other species can develop biotics through exposure to element zero in the uterus and enhance them with amps."
"I've heard about element zero. If they're a chemical substance, that means they only have neutrons," Ethan pointed out. He paused before making a realization and snapped his fingers. "Oh, wait! Neutron stars! Wouldn't they be really dense?"
"Element zero, or eezo, is a nickname. Rather, they're an exotic material," Liara replied. "They're made by stars going supernova, releasing dark energy. Then they latched onto nearby asteroids. That's how Omega came to be. It started out as a mining facility."
Feron glanced at the Courier as he took his pistol apart. The internal parts of the pistol looked rather strange to him, resembling a cross between a recharger pistol and a ballistic gun, like his M1911, along with a computer system. He assembled it back together in a matter of seconds. The drell raised an eye ridge at Ethan's repair skills.
"By the Goddess, that was impressive!" Liara exclaimed with awe.
"Thanks. It's nice to be complemented every once in a while," the Courier smirked.
The drell stood off to the side, crossing his arms in front of him. "Earlier, you said you can answer some questions."
"That I did," the Courier replied. "Fire away."
"So what's your name?"
Ethan paused. He wasn't keen on sharing his real name with two strangers. Not since the time in the wasteland, his universe, where he almost died. Then again, he helped Liara and Feron this far so he could return the trust. "Name's Ethan Sunderland, but people called me the Courier."
"Courier… a messenger, I take it?" Liara stared at the floor and glanced at Ethan. "So people call you that?"
"Well, yeah. Your grasp of the obvious is inspiring," Ethan rolled his eyes. "I used to be one till I got shot in the head. Twice, at point-blank range." He pointed to a scar he bore next to his right eye. He felt tempted to tell more about himself so they understood, but he wasn't so sure they would buy his story. Even if they did, it wouldn't help him much. No one believed him about his time at Big Mountain, except for No-bark Noonan. No-bark believed in the craziest things, whether they happened to be real or just a figment of his imagination.
The asari gasped. "How did you survive?"
"I got better," the Courier answered. "That guy in the checkered jacket, Benny, should've used a bigger caliber. Doc Mitchell patched me up afterward."
"Mm-hmm," Feron nodded, unconvinced. "And that device strapped on your left wrist?"
Ethan looked at his Pip-Boy. He guessed it wouldn't hurt to tell since they were smart enough to see through his lies. "This? Glad someone finally noticed." He showed them his Pip-Boy. "This is a Pip-Boy 3000. It came with a Geiger counter, radio, health monitor, data storage, clock, and calendar, and I can use the screen as a flashlight." He shrugged. "Sort of like your omni-tools."
Liara and Feron found themselves shocked. "Why do you need a Geiger counter?" the asari asked.
"There was a lot of radiation back on Earth."
Feron gave him a confused expression. "Earth had massive levels of radiation? I heard the slums of most of its cities were bad. I'm surprised the Alliance dealt with enough radiation to provide a Geiger counter into that Pip-Boy of yours."
"RobCo Industries made this thing," the Courier corrected. "But that happened in another universe. RobCo, the Pip-Boy. Here, they don't exist."
"RobCo?" Liara frowned. "Wait. If you're from an alternative timeline or perhaps an alternative universe, then when did humanity first develop the nuclear bomb?"
"1945, near the end of the second World War, when America developed and deployed it against the Japanese forces," Ethan replied. "Now I know how the victims felt at the time."
"Okay… how about the transistor?"
"I don't see them, aside from Big Mountain and in robots." Ethan curled his lips, thinking up of something else. "Here's a short history lesson for you. In 2077, there was a two-hour war between two countries, the United States and China."
Liara glanced at Feron, with the two exchanging confused looks, and back at Ethan. "There was a war between the United States of America and China little over a century ago? That… I don't know what to…?"
After a second of thought, he pulled out his broken Transportalponder out of his backpack and showed it to Liara and Feron. He hoped it would help make them believe him. "It's a shocker, I know, but it brought me here." There was a wry, satisfied smirk on his face.
Liara leaned forward. "What is that? I saw it back at the workshop, but I have seen nothing like it…"
"You have now," Ethan deadpanned. "It's a Transportalponder, made from Big Mountain. It can transport me there to the Mojave and back. I tried to improve it, but anything can go wrong."
Liara and Feron glanced at each other. "Goddess…" She turned to Ethan before looking back at Feron. "Feron, do you think what he said was true, let alone possible?"
"I… I don't know," said Feron. "He made a large assumption about himself."
"Aside from him being mentally unstable, it's the only explanation I can come up with." The asari looked at Ethan. "Do you have an omni-tool?"
"Just bought it." Ethan pulled out the omni-tool out of his pocket. His right forearm glowed an orange light momentary before putting it away.
Liara nodded. "So do you know about the Protheans?"
"No," Ethan answered. "I don't know much about them."
Liara placed her fingers on her chin. "…Mass relays?"
Ethan shook his head after looking through the data on his Pip-Boy. "No, no references to the mass relays."
"So the data in your Pip-Boy proves it." Liara raised a finger after looking at the Pip-Boy to be sure. "I don't know what happened, but you're not in your own universe anymore."
"That's what I just said," Ethan muttered, watching as the pair ignored him.
"I don't know what to make of this…" Feron shook his head as he placed his hands on his hip.
"I got an idea." The asari sat up. "I was an archaeologist, studying the Protheans' history and their culture before I joined Shepard on her mission to stop Saren. Let me see if I could carbon date your jumpsuit and this Pip-Boy of yours."
"Yeah, sure. Go ahead while I sit around like furniture," Ethan replied.
Liara scanned his armored Vault 21 jumpsuit with her omni-tool. She lifted Ethan's arm and studied his Pip-Boy for a moment. She entered a command, calculating the estimated age of his Pip-Boy.
Ethan looked over her shoulders to see her enter a series of algorithms and equations over an orange holographic screen. For once, he would like to find out how old his Pip-Boy was, exactly.
A perplexed expression appeared on the former archaeologist's face when the numbers appeared. "That can't be right… Was your Pip-Boy made in 1970? It's amazing it still works today."
Feron's eye ridge narrowed as he frowned. "You still believe he came from a parallel universe? You can't be serious, Liara!"
The light disappeared as Liara turned off her omni-tool. "It was that, or he had amnesia, or he's insane," the asari glared at the drell. "Think about it, Feron. He claimed ignorance about the relays and the Protheans. The Pip-Boy was made 213 years ago, which shouldn't be possible here. With enough proof, if the Reapers exist, so do other universes."
"The Reapers are one thing, Liara; we know they're a threat." Feron stepped forward and pointed accusingly at Liara. "You can't prove it. Many people tried before, and it didn't work. Besides, have you seen how humans made their movies? They sure love their 'experiment gone wrong' and transporter clichés."
"You got a lot of nerve. Why don't you stick your head in the sand, then?" Ethan stood up. "Want me to show you a stimpak? Maybe that would—"
"Enough!" The asari had stepped in between the two men before they got too close, her body glowing for a moment. "This is unnecessary." She sighed as Ethan and Feron stared at her, then at each other. "The whole thing would've been solved already if I joined my consciousness with Ethan's. That way, I can look into his memories and prove that he came from an alternate universe."
Ethan arched an eyebrow curiously. "That sounds an awful lot like telepathy…"
"It's a melding, a joining," Liara explained. "As I connect my nervous system to yours, we can exchange thoughts and memories. Do you want to do this?"
Ethan paused. On one hand, it would make it clear to Liara and Feron that he wasn't of this universe. But he shivered when he realized Liara would look through his memories, including the traumatizing ones; they were just memories, nothing more.
"Yeah, okay. I guess there's no harm in doing it. Will it hurt? Have you done this before?"
"Only a tingling sensation, from what Shepard has told me." Liara rubbed her chin, glancing aside. "Though she was the only one I melded with to decipher her vision of the Protheans. That's all the experience I had."
The Courier gave Liara a look nothing short of serious as he dropped his shoulders. "That's good to know." He sighed and closed his eyes. "Let's get this over with."
"Relax, Ethan." Liara approached him. "Embrace eternity!"
Her eyes turned black as Ethan jolted from the electrical impulses coursing through his body. Everything around him transformed into a mess of images and noises, incomprehensible, his mind resisting the melding.
Then it got easier, becoming clear images of his memories, flashing before his eyes. He saw himself shaking hands with an NCR officer at the Strip. He, alongside his companions, fought Lanius at Hoover Dam. He saw himself at the Sierra Madre vault, trapping Elijah in it. He saw himself approaching Ulysses at the ICBM facility, talking to the other Courier. He spared the Think Tank, banished the White Legs from Zion Valley with Joshua Graham's help, and trained the Misfits.
He found himself tied up near Goodsprings. Jessup and McMurphy stood behind Benny, the man in the checkered jacket. Benny pointed his golden-plated Browning Hi-Power pistol and fired two rounds at his head.
Ethan blinked, finding himself back in the lobby. He was all right, but his head felt like jelly as everything came back together. This melding was like his and Liara's minds had become one, their identities crashing together, splintered, and reformed.
"Goddess, that was… disturbing, intense." Liara sat down on the bench. She looked tired, her eyelids slowly dropping.
"You okay?" the Courier asked. She was a complete stranger so far, but he had to be sure. He would blame his conscience for that.
"Yes, I'm fine. Sometimes a melding can be intense if the participant was strong-willed, like you and Shepard." Liara looked up to him. "It's a lot to explain."
Ethan looked at Feron, who stood at the corner nearby. "Satisfied?"
Feron looked down at the floor, considering what happened, then at her. "Liara?"
She nodded wearily.
"Fine, I get it," he grunted. "I'm sorry that I've been antagonistic lately. It's not like you waltzed in here out of nowhere."
"Regardless, we must get you used to the galaxy at large," Liara remarked.
Ethan sighed, relieved, as he sat on the bench behind him. But he had questions about this Shepard and the Reapers. "Shepard, Shepard, Shepard. Who is she, exactly? What makes her so unique? All I know she stopped this galaxy from certain doom."
"Yes. That's the gist of it," said Liara. "Her name's Madison. She was a spacer, the only child in a military family. She signed up for the Alliance at eighteen to follow in her mother's footsteps. She went on a mission on the planet Akuze where a thresher maw killed her entire squad. The Alliance reported her as the only survivor of the attack."
"Reported? So there was someone else, then."
"Yes," Liara nodded. It looked like she didn't have a fond memory of what she told him. "Corporal Toombs. Cerberus took him in and experimented on him. She found him when she searched for the dead scientists, but they were responsible for the thresher maw attack. Toombs wanted to kill one of the remaining scientists, Dr. Wayne, but Shepard talked him out of it."
Ethan's brow narrowed, suspicious. He remembered reading about the thresher maws on the Extranet. They were giant worms, borrowing from underground to attack their victims above. "If Cerberus was behind this thresher maw attack, then why did you have us turn to them in the first place?"
The asari glared at the Courier. "Right now, I don't know who else I would turn to. The Alliance doesn't have the resources after Shepard sacrificed much of the fleet to save the Council during the attack on the Citadel."
"The Council?" Ethan asked, intrigued. "They're the ones that led all of Citadel space? What happened at the Citadel?"
"A geth fleet, a race of synthetics built by the quarians, attacked the station with Sovereign, a Reaper, leading them. Before that, Shepard chased an elite soldier, a turian soldier named Saren, all over the galaxy. He led the invasion, but she put an end to his madness and saved the Citadel Council." Her eyes watered from the tears. She tried to keep her composure together. "I was part of her ground team. And I saw her die on the Normandy…"
"Were you… close to her?" Ethan asked.
Liara hesitated for a moment and then shook her head. "No, we're just friends."
Ethan looked at Liara. "I know it's hard for you, but sooner or later, the only thing you can do is to accept her death, dust yourself off, and move on."
Liara let out a sigh and looked up to the Courier. "And I assume you want to know about the Reapers?"
"Yeah," Ethan nodded. Now they were getting somewhere. "What can you tell me about them?"
The former archaeologist shrugged. "Unfortunately, we don't know much about them. All we know that they're a race of sentient machines that arrive every 50,000 years to wipe out galactic civilization. They destroyed the Protheans and created the mass relays eons ago."
Their conversation came to an abrupt end when the two-part door to their right slid open as a green circle disappeared. Miranda walked through and looked at Liara. "Our leader wants to see you now." She turned at the Courier. "And you as well."
"So I got attention. How delightful of you," the Courier responded with a wry smile. "Any idea why I had your leader's attention?"
"He's interested in that… Transportalponder of yours." Miranda cringed as she uttered Ethan's transportation device. "Such a ridiculous name…"
"Whaaaat?" Ethan dropped his mouth, faking a shocked expression. "You have a problem with it? It's a cool name. You'll grow into it."
Miranda expressed her annoyance with a sigh as she pinched the bridge of her nose. "I suppose. Just come with me."
Feron looked at the Cerberus agent and shook his head. "No thanks. I think I'll stay."
"I wasn't asking you." Miranda turned and exited the room, with Liara and the Courier following her.
It didn't take long to reach their destination as they took a quick right down the hallway. Because the trip was short, Ethan didn't have the time to ask Miranda questions. Maybe her boss could give some answers instead.
As they entered the dark room, he turned and found the door sliding shut behind them. The room was small and featureless, save for a circle in the center. Liara and the Courier walked at a slow pace to the center. When they stepped into the circle, an orange, grid-like light emerged from the ground. They found themselves in another room with a window, showing a red giant star. In front of them was an old man wearing a black suit with a white collar, sulking in a chair. Smoke trailed into the air as he placed the cigarette between his lips.
Ethan stepped out of the orange light surrounding him and Liara, only to find the man had disappeared. Stepping back into the circle, he saw the cigarette-smoking man again.
"Huh, kinda cool." Ethan smacked his lips together and looked around. "I take it this is a communication device, projecting us in two different places at the same time via particles."
"Simply put, but yes. This is a quantum entanglement communicator or QEC for short. Expensive and difficult to produce, but well worth the price," the old man replied. With a wave of his free hand, the chair turned. The old man was pale, his combed hair a lighter shade of gray, parting at the middle of his forehead. Apart from his hair, he doesn't look too old, having few wrinkles on his face. If he had been sixty, he would look forty. His eyes glow a bright blue, probably from cybernetics. But there was something about those eyes made Ethan felt uneasy, but couldn't point out why. "But let us get into the formalities, shall we? You may call me the Illusive Man."
"Elusive?" Liara asked, her voice trailing off.
"Ill-lusive. Starts with an 'I'," the Courier pointed out.
"He's right, Liara T'Soni." The Illusive Man placed his cigarette in the ashtray. "I often need to be hard to find as well."
Ethan stepped forward. "So what do you want with Shepard?"
"Shepard is unique—one of the greatest examples of our species. A symbol of all humanity." The Illusive Man placed his hand on his chin. "Dead or alive, we want Shepard back in human hands."
"This Systems Alliance is also interested in finding Shepard's body," the Courier replied. "That should be a common goal, motivate you to work together."
The Illusive Man shook his head, frowning. "No. You should understand that Cerberus and the Alliance are not on good terms. The Alliance condemned us as terrorists because our methods are different. They aren't willing to do what's necessary to preserve our race, but we do things that matter. They may as well pull a well-decorated funeral for her, and then toss her aside, forgotten."
Liara folded her arms in front of her. "So why would you want her, if Shepard's dead?"
The Illusive Man sat up. "As an asari, I can't expect you to understand our traditions. But our reasons are not important. What's important is that the Shadow Broker wants Shepard, too—and sent those mercenaries to stop you. In some ways, the Shadow Broker is my opposite in the information-gathering business, always working from afar. But now, the Broker made a deal with the devil. Or, more precisely, devils." With a tap from a holographic interface floating beside him, three insectoid creatures with four golden eyes and flat, elongated heads appeared, with spider-like arms twitching at their sides. "The Collectors."
The Courier looked at these creatures with curiosity. "What are the Collectors?"
"Few know what the Collectors are or what they want." The Illusive Man snapped his fingers together, like a god who controlled his world, and the images of the Collectors disappeared. "They make off with individual beings that had trivial distinctions. Volus middle siblings. Dyslexic krogan. Elcor who sings well." His voice trailed off as he turned and sat back down on his chair. "Perverse but harmless in the grand scheme of things, or so we thought. Their interest in Shepard is alarming. We would want Shepard's remains in any event—but it's vital that the Collectors not have them. Whatever their reasons, it can't be any good. That's why we need you."
"So why should I work with you, then? What's in this for me?" the Courier asked at an angry aside, folding his arms. "You admit you're terrorists. That's more than enough for me not to trust you."
"And why me?" Liara turned away from the Illusive Man. "You have all these resources, and Miranda, too."
"It's difficult for me to contend directly with the Shadow Broker out in the Terminus system. And while Miranda played her role…" The Illusive Man leaned forward, a stoic expression on his face. "Nothing beats having someone with a personal connection. You were very close with Commander Shepard. When I heard you were here, I knew I wanted you on my team." He turned to the Courier. "As for you, Mr.…?"
"You may call me the Courier," Ethan answered.
Liara turned at Ethan. "But—"
Ethan turned at the asari with a grave look on his face. From what he could tell, she understood what he intended. He had gotten so used to his title it became second nature to him. He didn't trust this mysterious man, now knowing what he wanted. "Just roll with it."
"I see." The Illusive Man grabbed another cigarette and smoked. One blow and a quarter of the cigarette turned to ash. With a tap, it fell into the ashtray. "It's hard not to understand why you were mistrustful of us. But you need to judge us not by our methods, but by our goals. I've been informed about your run-in with the engineers. I heard it was quite a fuss."
The Courier scoffed as he smiled. "I remembered them quite differently. What about it?"
"Miranda notified me on that device of yours, and how you came from a parallel Earth, devastated by nuclear war," said the Illusive Man. "Perhaps this might persuade you: help us retrieve Shepard's body, and we'll compensate you. You'll carry out whatever experiments you deem necessary. Or you can refuse, and we can go our separate ways. The Alliance may help you in your predicament, but I doubt they would believe your story."
"No strings attached? You have your word on that?" The Courier wasn't confident he could trust the Illusive Man. He couldn't help but compare him to Mr. House. Both men shared a common theme: sophisticated men with a vast wealth of knowledge and resources, willing to do anything to secure power and place themselves above the rest. They believed they were doing for their people's well-being at the expense of others. For Mr. House, his downfall was his pride, not counting on Ethan to turn on him.
He also saw similarities to someone else: Edward Sallow, who liked to call himself Caesar. A charismatic and visionary but merciless man. He established a brutal, fascist regime filled with misogyny, technophobia, and slavery. His regime had supposedly been inspired by the Roman Empire, but Ethan wouldn't commend them for his historical accuracy. But he was a frail man, suffering from headaches, a sign of a brain tumor. It was convenient for the Courier to 'treat' that condition of his. He can only hope that the similarities with Caesar end with having a vision and nothing more.
The old man grinned. "No strings attached, I assure you." With a snap of his fingers, he turned his chair around and faced the dying, red sun once more. "The drell, Feron, does seem to have a lead on Shepard. I suspect he may prove useful for an alien." He tilted his head to his right. "Courier, Dr. T'Soni… Will you work with him? Can we count on you two?"
Ethan looked at the asari, who closed her eyes as she weighed her decision. She sighed and opened her eyes. "No, but Shepard can."
He scoffed. He had every reason not to trust the Illusive Man, but he couldn't see any other option. Maybe he would cut ties with them some day. "Fine. But I'm not doing this for you. By the way, try not to die from cancer. I heard smoking's bad for you."
The Illusive Man chuckled. "Good. That's what I would like to hear. Find Shepard, stop the Shadow Broker from selling her body to the Collectors. Miranda will tell you more on the way."
With a press of a button, the grid-like light descended, causing the cigarette-smoking man to disappear from view, leaving Ethan and Liara alone in the room. It seemed like they had a job to do.