THE MADNESS OF ANGELS
I need a fix, 'cause I'm going down...
'Happiness Is A Warm Gun' - The Beatles
A hot, fevered madness hung heavy and humid in the air of Omega the day I went to find its source. There were no summers here, but it felt like one nonetheless. I'd known times like these on Palaven, on that handful of days of the year when the heat went beyond sunbathing or sightseeing weather, the kind of heat that would usually drive most people inside to wait it out. Some days, though, that didn't happen. Some days, the inactivity and indolence met and mated and made something more, an undefinable whisper in weighty air that lit a slow-burn fuse somewhere in the depths of our collective being.
Those were the days riots broke out, the days neighbours lost their tempers and took out their frustration of twenty years of annoyances, the days when fights broke out in the streets and skycars crashed and crumpled in the air. Those were the days of madness. History tells us they were the days of revolution. Omega could use one of those.
They said it was a malfunction in the station-wide atmosphere controls, or a sudden burst of stellar radiation Omega was too old and dilapidated to easily disperse, or any number of pseudo-scientific rumours. The heat must have come from somewhere; or perhaps not. Perhaps we dreamed it. Perhaps I dreamed it. My memory of those days is unclear, as if obscured behind a shimmer of heat. Perhaps none of this happened the way I thought it did. I might still be lying on that cold duracrete floor, imagining all of this as my mind shrivels away under the unbearable vice-grip of the madness. Perhaps if I close my eyes, I can feel its smoothness against my cheek.
And perhaps not. Reality is not the absolute so many people take it for. It can be rewritten, reshaped, yanked out from under you and crammed back down your throat if you just know which buttons to press in the mind. It seems almost inconceivable that all we see and touch and taste is nothing more than the product of a web of electrical signals, but it is; and it can be the work of a moment to change the rules.
That was what he did. Zel'Aenik nar Helash, that is, though we wouldn't find out his name until after his body lay at my feet. He had his own name for himself: Trucoqwan. It translated from the old quarian language as 'Lightbringer', the name of some mythical figure that brought the 'light' of madness in the night. We watched the vids come in, one every couple of days – hardly a deluge, but more prolific than most serial killers I've ever heard of.
They were all the same. Some poor bastard would wander through a series of blurry, empty rooms, dead-eyed and behaving like they were somewhere else. Drugged, I thought at the time. They'd shy away from nothing and babble and scream and cower and fall down in a dead faint for no reason anyone could see on the vid, and eventually something inside them would stop their heart and leave them dead on the floor. That was it. Turian, human, asari, krogan, batarian, salarian, even an elcor – Lightbringer seemed to make no distinction. They all died just the same.
And finally, the image would freeze and fade, and a male quarian spoke a few words. The name, sex and species of his victim, the date, the time. And then: "They were blinded by the light. Who will be next?"
Twenty vids in a month. Lightbringer became the hottest name on Omega since the Pyjacks comeback. Conspiracy sites exploded onto the extranet like a timelapsed cancer. A hundred thousand enthusiasts picked every video apart down to its component pixels in a search for hidden information. Some of them claimed, unconvincingly, to be Lightbringer themselves. The madness spread. Fake videos emerged. Galactic newscasts covered it for a few seconds at the back end of their reports, hidden away behind the monstrosities on Taetrus and the showbiz glitz. And the deaths kept coming, one by one.
The bodies turned up all over the station. Were they symptoms of the madness, or its root? I couldn't begin to say. Crowds would form whenever a new one turned up. You could never mistake the corpses for anyone but Lightbringer's work. He'd done something to them, injected them with some nanocompound that set a brilliant white light playing through their blood, illuminating veins and arteries and eyes and mouths until it looked like the bodies were stuffed with stars. Dozens of them. They came with a brief note, written somewhere on the body in the same compound in the quarian language: "THE LIGHT CONSUMES".
We were run off our feet that month. The station teetered on the edge of outright war. Factional skirmishes doubled, then tripled. Murders did the same. Robbery, rape, assault – the same story. It was a crime wave the likes of which I'd never seen. Something of the madness got to us; Butler decked Sensat over some petty argument, Sidonis set off one of Erash's grenades in the levo fridge, and Erash responded by setting off two in Sidonis's bed. The rest were scarcely better. Bickering was a fact of life, but it descended past sniping and into outright social war at times. It was only a matter of time before something snapped.
None of us were unscathed. I know I became obsessive. It's been no more than a week, but when I look back on my fevered notes and wild theories about Lightbringer, I can sense a pulsating obsession now gone from me. Spirits preserve me, I'd even made one of those clichéd boards with names and pictures connected by serpentine swirls of string, though mercifully it existed only on my computer. A fixation with the singular is standard issue for detectives, and the madness magnified it in me until I could think of little else.
The clues came together as clues do: in fits and starts, fruitless weeks interposed with moments of clarity. I tracked Lightbringer to a sector, then a district. Sensat was distracted and combative, but I wrangled some aid out of him to track the nanocompound. Tiny clouds of it wafted through the air of Omega, and I hunted them down like a technological lepidopterist. I collated a handful of fuzzy images of the dumping grounds, interviewed anyone who would talk to me, and when all else failed I guessed. I broke into several legitimate (as far as anything on Omega can be called legitimate) warehouses on bad hunches. I was careless. Lightbringer wasn't. It shouldn't have taken me as long as it did. Because of that delay, a few more bodies turned up. A few more blazing reminders of the price of failure.
Whether I'd really worked it out or if I just hit lucky... of that, I'm not sure. An hour of that day stays with me, sharper and brighter than any memory; the rest is vague, distorted.
I recall heading through the streets in full combat armour – a mistake; it was hardly rare on Omega, but it broke one of our cardinal rules: conspicuousness is fatal. Still, Omega's crowds were more armoured than usual. I was walking through a forest of glares. Several times I heard gunfire streets away. Simply moving was an exercise in agility; people were looking for fights, and I had no intention of starting one by standing my ground in the face of a krogan powering through the crowd like a dreadnought.
What I remember above all was the tangible sense that the streets were lined with gunpowder. One spark could set the station ablaze. You could see it in the eyes of people passing by, whether it scared them or excited them or, as was most common, both. Even the harried, wide-eyed businesspeople, the civvies, looked like they were one bad day away from torching shops and smashing up aircars.
When I came to the location I'd pinpointed, I was itching to do something, to shoot someone. Inactivity was the real madness. Unless I acted, I felt acted upon. Passivity was intolerable. That was what drove me into the trap.
It was, of course, a warehouse. What isn't? Omega is one enormous warehouse which happens to have millions of people living in it. They tell stories about lost treasures deep within abandoned districts, of folded companies and standstill factories packed with half-finished goods. Some go looking for them. Few return, and the vorcha look a little fatter for days afterwards.
I scoped the building, pried the door, moved through an empty room with my gun drawn. Dull red traces on a wall, smeared across it. Blood, no more than a week old, probably human or batarian, maybe asari. Hardly conclusive on Omega. More blood than water here.
Through a door, into a smaller chamber. It seemed empty. It was about half a second after the door hissed closed behind me that I saw the tiny nozzles on the ceiling. Gas dispensers of some kind, no mistaking them. I was in the right place. Protected by my helmet, I moved for the next door. It didn't open. I went back to the one I'd come in by. It stayed resolutely closed.
And that was when I realised I'd made a miscalculation. Led on by obsession and carelessness – and then, in that moment, I remembered it had been near two days since I'd last slept, and even then it had been a few scant hours – I'd more or less offered myself up for the slaughter.
Garrus Vakarian's top life tip of the day: get a good night's sleep before confronting a murdering madman.
There was a quiet buzz off to my left. I turned to see a wall-sized holoscreen flicker into life. An unmasked quarian head floated there, grossly oversized and grainier than it should have been. A stylistic choice, perhaps. He had to be in an isolated clean room somewhere for it to be safe outside the suit.
"Who would seek out the light for themselves?" Lightbringer said. His hairless face was thin, drawn; the dark markings on it made him gaunt, but the glow of his eyes was sharp and piercing. "You're armed and armoured. And alone. You've come to kill me."
"Yes," I said.
"And a turian." Lightbringer's lips pulled back to reveal neat, glinting teeth. "Welcome, Archangel. I had hoped you might come to see the light."
"You've been killing people," I said. "A lot of people. For what? To make some great point? To show off? Why?"
Lightbringer's mouth twitched. "This is a dark world, Archangel. I simply offer a little light. To the poor creatures living here, it's blinding. They can't handle it. It destroys them – not their bodies, but their minds. What I am doing is merely... illumination. I cast a light on what lies in shadow, and the revelation is too terrible for the weak to bear."
"Why, though?" I pressed. Lightbringer was mad himself; his voice was calm and level, but something odd half-shone behind the usual glow of his eyes. I recognised it. It crosses culture, gender, age and species. I'd seen it in Saren, in Deus, in Harga. It was the manifestation of a mind that did not play by the rules. In the end, what we call sanity or normality or some other self-reassuring word like that is just a convenient label for an agreed set of rules, and when people reject them, we're at a loss. "What purpose does that have?"
Lightbringer shrugged. "What purpose would you like it to have? Must it have one? I simply choose. I choose to bring light to darkness. Perhaps that is a purpose in itself. But I will tell you this: the day I find one strong enough to face the light and walk on, to stare it down without blinking – to see things are they are, shorn of all the deception and darkness we've wrapped them in to save ourselves from the truth – on that day, I will go into the light myself, and never return. Once I am sure the truth of it all has survived me. Perhaps that day is today. Shall we find out?"
"Yeah, I don't think so," I said. "I'm not playing your game, Lightbringer. I'm putting an end to it... and to you."
"You may put an end to it," Lightbringer said, "and to me. But you will face the light, Archangel. That room you're standing in? There is no escape. The doors will not open, the walls will not give, and no signal will penetrate it. How long until your air runs out? An hour? Two? I have all the time in the world. You do not. Let me show you the truth... or die."
The screen flicked off, leaving me alone. My breathing suddenly sounded a lot louder inside the helmet. I had three hours of air if I managed it carefully. Three hours to escape.
In the end, it took only one for me to conclude that Lightbringer was right. Escape was impossible. The materials were impervious to bullets, the doors locked by mechanisms and programs nothing I had could even scratch. I was trapped.
I reached up and removed my helmet, collapsed it, and attached it to my combat suit. The air was thick here, warm but fresher than I'd expected. Well-recycled.
"So you've come to see things my way," Lightbringer's voice purred. His face did not materialise. "Come to me, then. Kill me. If you can."
The door in front of me slid open, revealing a lightless corridor which could have been ten metres or ten times that. The blackness yawned at me like the mouth of some unfathomable dark beast, welcoming me down its gullet. Perhaps the drugs I assumed had been silently hissing from those nozzles since I'd removed my helmet – or perhaps ever since I'd walked into that room – were already taking effect, or perhaps it was my mind playing tricks on me, but it seemed that something in that darkness was whispering words just too quiet to understand.
A cold, creeping horror began to wind itself around my heart. I was an astronaut face to face with a black hole, a man staring into the utter, absolute unknown. And I had no choice but to walk into it.
I reached down to my omnitool and activated my flashlight. The beam seemed pitifully small in such all-encompassing darkness, but it did at least show me that the corridor wasn't endless. I stepped forward, and the jaws closed behind me.
"You will not need your toys," Lightbringer said. There was a sharp electric buzz in the air, and suddenly my flashlight winked out. Along with my omnitool. Even the displays on my guns had gone dark. An EMP, or something like it. And I was all alone.
Blackness enveloped me, total and unforgiving.
I stood there, stock still. My heart hammered away, loud against the backdrop of the oppressive silence of the darkness. A few seconds ago it had been a corridor, with a start and an end, an entrance and an exit. Now it was an interminable field of black, stretching off to infinity in all directions, as though I were floating in some forlorn region of space devoid even of starlight.
And then it seemed to me that I could hear things. Not the whispers of earlier, but quiet – so quiet, just on the very edge of hearing – rushes and scrapes, even footsteps. Their source was everywhere and nowhere at once.
"Get a fucking move on," someone said. I leapt half a foot at the sound of the voice and span wildly in a futile search for the source. "Or do you want to die of old age down here?"
I pulled myself together. "Who are you?" I asked. The voice wasn't Lightbringer. It was turian, and one that sounded familiar.
"Well, that's just fucking rude," Sidonis said, strolling into sight from nowhere. He was perfectly lit, some part of my mind noticed, by lights that weren't there. "It's been what, a year? More than that. And all I get is 'Who are you?'. Asshole."
I shook my head in dumbfounded confusion. "Sidonis, I – what are you doing here?"
Sidonis looked annoyed. "Come on, man. I'm obviously a mental projection brought on my that quarian nutjob's crazy-drugs."
"Oh," I said. I felt slightly embarrassed. He was right, now that I thought about it. It was pretty obvious. "But why you?"
He shrugged. "I'm guessing I'm here as a sort of spirit guide deal. You know, I lead you through-" he looked around "-whatever the fuck this place is, and you get important insights into your character along the way. You ever see that movie Brain Stem?"
"Neither did I. But it's like that."
"Wait," I said, trying to piece it together. It seemed far more natural at the time than it does when I look back; the drugs at work, no doubt. "So, you're – part of me, right? Some aspect of my personality?"
Sidonis grinned. "Now you're getting it! I'm the dazzlingly handsome, suave, laid-getting...a-lot part of you, which is why you're imagining me as me. Got it?"
"Spirits," I muttered. "Part of my personality is Sidonis. That's horrible."
"Grim, isn't it?" Monteague said next to me. I yelped in surprise and stumbled backwards into an invisible wall, knocking my head on something. Sidonis laughed, but Monteague just sighed and shook his shaven head. "And another part is me. I'm me, and even I think that's depressing."
I stared numbly at him, and he rolled his eyes at me. "Oh, stop being so pathetic. You already saw him appear out of nowhere-" he jerked his head at Sidonis - "so why are you so shocked now? Don't tell me you're going to do the same thing when the next part of you shows up."
"Wait," I said, trying to keep up, "wait, there's more?"
"Wake the fuck up, Garrus," Sidonis said, tapping the side of his head. "I mean, we know there's more of you, and we are you, so you know it as well. Get your shit together."
"Never was one for thinking like that," Monteague said morosely. "His grasp of philosophy was never very strong. Very superficial, really."
I wasn't about to take that from my own subconscious. I drew myself up and stepped forward – forgetting the ridiculousness of the situation from an outside perspective, which would have seen me stumbling around in a dark corridor arguing with nobody – and then a voice I hadn't heard in months and months stopped me in my tracks.
"Keep going, Garrus. Just keep moving. No matter what happens, you have to keep it together."
Slowly, so slowly, I turned to the source of the voice, as if scared that moving too quickly would burst the bubble and vanish it out of existence. But it was there. My throat went dry as a desert.
Shepard nodded a helmeted head towards me and turned, walking away into the darkness.
"Shepard?" I whispered.
"Of course, it isn't really Shepard," Monteague said over his shoulder as he followed Shepard. "Shepard's dead and gone, and you'll never see her like again. It's a cruel galaxy, isn't it?"
"Hey, it could be worse!" Sidonis called. He was following Shepard as well, and I found myself automatically doing the same. I can't tell you how good it felt to follow someone like Shepard again, even if I knew it was part of my mind masquerading as her. It gave me purpose and a direction, and that was like water to a man lost in the desert.
The three of them forged ahead, perfectly-lit beacons in absolute blackness, and I followed. The strange perspective the corridor and whatever drugs had done this to me combined to confuse me; it seemed that my three mental fragments could just walk straight ahead, but I bumped into a door where they had passed unobstructed. As I took a step back, it opened.
What was I expecting? Consciously, more darkness. Subconsciously... well, it must have been Omega. What else?
Specifically, it was Afterlife, but a ghost of it. Dancers gyrated and patrons drank, bartenders mixed and security glared, lights dazzled and music pounded – but all of it was further away than it should have been, like I was on the other side of a moving bubble of thick glass. Shepard, Sidonis and Monteague had all disappeared, maybe into the pulsing crowds or maybe altogether.
The crowds didn't react to me, but somehow they parted before me anyway. I knew where I was headed. There was only one place to go: Aria.
Her little den on the upper level was mythology made real. People swore up and down that it had stronger kinetic shields than most battleships, that it was stocked with alcohol more expensive than the average sports car, that the leather on the seats was taken from the skins of her enemies, that special pheromone vents made anyone who treated with her face to face susceptible to manipulation; anything they could think of, and most of it was probably true. I could see it glinting above me, seemingly bathed by an invisible spotlight. Perhaps that was my mind helpfully highlighting it for me.
I climbed spiral stairs which were flat to my feet, passing listless guards who I could hardly focus on, and emerged into Omega's heart of darkness.
"Archangel," Lightbringer said. "So glad you could join me."
He was sprawled lazily back on the famous chair, helmet off, clad in a gleaming white suit cut from some famous fashion label. His eyes glimmered as he languidly pointed out a chair. "Please, have a seat. Care for a drink?"
"I'm imagining you," I said, lowering myself down. The seat felt right, but I sensed that somewhere underneath it was hard metal. Illusion, all of it. "My own mind is offering me a drink. That's a new one."
Lightbringer shrugged. "Well, parts of me. Everyone sees something different in the light, but it destroys them all the same. I am speaking to you now, though how you see me... that's up to you. And I didn't offer you a drink."
I blinked. He had. I'd heard it as clear as day, watched his lips move to say it. Lightbringer must have seen my confusion somehow, because he gave a silvery little laugh and put his feet up on another chair. "You will find that reality as you see it in the dark and reality when dragged into the light are two very, very different things. The dark is so easy. How simple it is to live life when all is in the shadows! When you see reality for what it really is... oh, there is no greater horror. A man walks over an uneven path in twilight every evening and thinks nothing of it, hearing stones clack and crunch underfoot. One day, he returns at midday, and he sees the stones were skulls."
"Seems like a waste of good skulls to me," Sidonis chirped, appearing from nowhere on another chair. Lightbringer glanced over at him and chuckled again.
"Of course. An inadequate metaphor, but most are in translation. That is the life we lead in our world of darkness, Archangel, and those who see the light are driven mad by it." He unfolded his legs and leaned forward. "It is so very perfect that you came to me. So very, very perfect."
Afterlife had vanished. It must have done so slowly, over time, for there was no moment when I saw it disappear – but neither did I see it fade. Lightbringer stood from a chair that was no longer there and began pacing around me, and honeycombed apparitions of his face popped into existence in the black 'sky' overhead, a choir of Lightbringers speaking with one voice.
"Archangel. A human word, originally. It refers to a chief messenger from a monotheistic deity. A great proselytiser from the skies, on wings of white with flaming sword in hand, delivering the truth of a god. A bringer of light. Your crusade on Omega is much the same. You seek to bring an order of sorts here. You do not believe you are simply imposing your personal will, but that you are a conduit for some greater justice, a truth that you can see and others are blind to. Is this not so? You just want to show people the truth, and if they refuse to see it, you make them see it."
"I can guess this next part," I said. "Something like 'we're not so different, you and I'. Am I right?"
Lightbringer smiled and inclined his head. He passed behind me and immediately appeared on the other side, as if he'd teleported ten feet. "Are we not? Our truths are different, but our goals are one. Illumination is the name of the game, for both of us. You came here to bring your light to me, but first I can bring mine to you. We'll see which wins out. Only one of us survives the day, Archangel. Your path is clear. You can succumb like so many have before you, blinded by the truths the light uncovers – your mind will wither away to nothing, and I will give what is left of you the release of death."
"Or," I murmured. Lightbringer was walking in circles, but it seemed to me that there were two of him now in addition to the constellation of faces staring down from above – or perhaps three? When I tried to focus clearly, there were none, or one, or two or three, all pacing slowly around me like a predator zeroing in on its prey.
"Or," Lightbringer said, "you can do as I did. You can look into the light and see the world for what it really is – see yourself shorn of all the comforting lies you tell yourself each day to make your existence seem anything more than another black joke – and stand your ground. If you can live with the truth, then you deserve to live with it. And I will die."
"You don't seem too concerned about that," I said.
Lightbringer laughed, and suddenly he was relaxing opposite me in Aria's chair once more. "Of course not. Death will be welcome! Death means freedom, freedom from the burden I bear. All I seek, Archangel, is one to take up my load, to carry my torch. The truth is a terrible thing to know. If you survive the day... you'll know the same thing. And you will do as I did."
I snorted. "Never."
Lightbringer paused, cocked his head, smiled. "Do you think I am the first? The truth was shown to me, many years ago, and I withstood it. The woman who brought me into the light left this life the same day, and the same story lay in her past. Was the one before her the first? Perhaps, but I doubt it. I believe I am merely the latest iteration of an ancient cycle, searching for an acolyte to keep the fire burning once I am gone. The light survives, Archangel, even in a world of darkness. It cannot be extinguished. The truth cannot die."
I stood, a little unsteadily. "It will."
Darkness fell like a veil. Afterlife disappeared. Lightbringer vanished with it. I could still hear his voice, echoing through the void from a source unknown.
"We shall see."
Then it faded, and I was left alone once more in the darkness of darknesses.
"What a nice guy," Sidonis said to my left.
"Against madness like this, there's no defence," Monteague muttered on my right.
"Some things you can't change," I said.
Monteague laughed bitterly. "All things."
I turned to face them, and they were gone. Shepard stood in their place.
"Shepard," I said. It no longer seemed insane that I was speaking with the dead. Normality had taken the day off, and madness was filling in. "What do I do? Where do I go?"
"Forward," Shepard said. "Always. Never stop. Never give in. Fight until you can't, and then fight some more."
"And if I fail?"
Shepard pointed off to my right. I followed her finger to see a glowing blue pointer in the distance, a floating triangle which seemed somehow familiar.
"Now get moving, trooper," Shepard called, and now she was a good way behind me. "Let's get this show on the road!"
I looked back for her. She was gone. It was just me.
"It really is never easy," I muttered, and walked on into the dark.