Admiral Steven Hackett landed his rapid deployment team and stepped out of the shuttle into the searing heat of the middle east. They were passing by the crater of Baghdad on their way in, where the mud brick slums were still growing on top of each other. This place hadn't been inhabited for thousands of years, apparently. But this was where Alec Ryder had told him to arrive. Some pisshole location that had once been part of the fertile crescent. An ancient pile of rocks surrounded by hab blocks and tents. His eyes stung from sand being carried by the wind. "I haven't been on earth in months, and this is where you drag me?" He barked.
Alec Ryder was wearing some kind of local robe and face covering. It looked more comfortable than Hackett's dress whites did. "You wanted proof?" Alec growled back. "I found it. This place hasn't been excavated since the 1900s. It looked like a cut and dry case closed dig. The problem is that it's clay is fairly unique. Or at least it is unique because it was the first place in the ancient world to experience complete salinification of its irrigation canals. Then at some point this place was abandoned due to the lands no longer supporting farming."
Hackett held up his hand. "Get to the part where this is relevant."
"Getting there, sir." Alec grinned. "The sample of that ship the Asari got? There were traces of salified clay from the fertile crescent, during the Ubaid period of history. This place is the home of that clay. So my search began here."
"Alright. I would have preferred a scientific report that left Earth not associated with whatever those ships leading the Geth and Rachni are." Anything to keep their association with the destruction of the Citadel limited. "Are you going to prove us innocent?"
"Even the Asari couldn't hold a pre-spaceflight race accountable for building a space dominating dreadnought. The only thing they can prove is that their sample includes clay from earth. Their data is trying to prove that we built it, or that the clay was inherent to the material. But they haven't been able to prove what the main material is, exactly. Apparently that starmetal piece has biological components. How? Don't know, not our sample. At least, their sample is fairly limited."
Hackett frowned. "What did you find, Alec."
"I think you'll need to come see the seismograph." Hackett followed the man into one of the large deployed buildings, heavy prongs sticking into the sand. Scientists and heavy equipment were deployed, and a large screen took up most of a wall. Not even a haptic screen. Those were on either side. It looked like it was displaying something circular, like a single piece of an Xray. "This is one of the old seismographs. Not haptic, and you'll see why. It came out of a museum."
"Don't we have something more advanced?"
"Not for the sand and silt of the Levant. We have plenty of deep scanning technology, but it all hates sand. This was designed to see through all of the layers of sand and bedrock in this region. Introduced right before Omni-Tools became prominent." He glanced at one of the technicians. "Show him the completed scans."
The view widened, and Hackett's eyes followed. "How deep is this?"
"Bedrock. Bedrock matching the time the Asari operated on." Displayed on the screen was a leg from one of those starships. It looked like it had fallen into the hard packed earth, the bedrock being split on one side of the object. "This fell from height. But unlike a meteorite, there is no melting or explosion upon impact. Without an impact crater, we could only assume that the object never fell from orbit."
"Hypothesis?" Hackett wasn't seeing what this all meant. "These things are advanced enough to ignore the physics of making a turn that would shear a frigate in half."
"Judging from impact force and the damage to the bedrock, this object slid off of the larger ship during it's departure from earth. The leg we see right now impacted the desert here, changing the course of the river. Archeologically, this is significant, but I think you want to know more about the ship."
"Was it constructed on Earth?"
"We don't have a sample yet, sir. We are digging down to the leg. But whoever made this must have done so very quickly. We are detecting calcified wood around it. Scaffolding remnants, the experts assure me. But it's my gut feeling that one of our object models may be right. We can confirm this fell from the sky and impacted the bedrock. Changed the course of the Euphrates. Perhaps leveled part of the city or caused its downfall. But with the force of the fall? We projected what direction this fell from. And the velocity matches what a ship would be using to escape atmosphere. So I can tell you what direction this launched from. And because we have a year, I can narrow it down to three locations where human habitation was recorded. Babylon, Asshur, or a wildcat hypothesis around Mount Ararat."
"What is your gut feeling on it?" Hackett asked. Without a sample, it was unlikely that Hackett could prove anything conclusive to President Huerta or the Asari.
"One of my historians is making the point that this could have been the tower of Babel. A biblical tower to reach the heavens. But if they in fact built a spacecraft, that would fit the narrative."
"That would imply an understanding of technology that Humankind would not have had at that time, nor would we have that technology even now." Hackett poked holes in the argument. "I can't bring that kind of crackpot theory before our government."
"I don't have a better reason for how this got here." Alec murmured. "I've got the place on lockdown but it won't be long before someone gets wind of us digging up the desert."
"How soon can you give me a sample?"
"Sir, you give me a week and enough manpower to do the job, and I'll do it."
"You'll have it. How deep do you have to dig?"
"Over a hundred feet of sand, silt and stone."
"If I remember correctly, the American states still have some old fracking drills in a museum in Texas. Perhaps you should requisition that."
"Will do, Sir." Alec saluted. "The seismograph and its data can't go on an Omni-tool right now. Anyone with the tech to do that is keeping it in a museum. Operational security has been guaranteed."
Virmire, Hoc System, February 2183
It had been a few days now. With some cajoling and effort from the biotics and engineers one of the beaches had been ground down into a fine sand. The tough gravel had been filtered out or ground down by machines into a slim fifty foot beach between two stacks of rock. Folding chairs fitted with poles had become beach chairs, and it was decided that the best way to recover from heavy injuries was high calorie snacking, alcohol, and swimming. The temperature wasn't very cool, but Julia had perhaps the best benefit while everyone was recovering.
Kaidan hadn't left her side. As in, every time she woke up from sleep he was there. It was comforting in a way she had never been able to experience in her life. None of the people she had slept with were still there in bed in the morning, besides the ones she had done so as an Infiltrator. That was usually for drugged reasons, to be fair. Kaidan seemed to be a source of comfort. Not that she would say that out loud, but she tried to show it in other ways. Like today, for example. Kasumi had carried out her threat to find them something to tempt the men with. The fact that this also coincided with Joker coming out of the intensive care unit had no correlation. Or so she would assume.
"I can't believe this made it on the supply shuttle!" Kasumi gushed. She hadn't had a chance to dye her hair for a bit, and the electric blue roots were showing. Of course no one would be noticing that with what she was wearing. Calling it a two piece swimsuit was insulting the fabric involved. If Kasumi weren't so flat chested it might have just come off, but she was probably using some kind of adhesive to keep her modesty.
Julia couldn't say the same. The bikini she had been forced into was a small white one. How Kasumi found one with an N7 marker on it, she could never guess. If she had somehow sewed it in, Julia couldn't tell. Miranda was showing off a black bikini with the Greek word Persephone covering the backside. It was going to impress someone, she was sure. But the man she was hoping to impress had been so attentive to her needs that she didn't look upon Miranda with any kind of jealousy. They both had massive bruising that the outfits did nothing to hide. There was no beauty pageant that she would win today.
Kasumi was jumping up and down, she was so excited. "Do you think he's going to notice?" She asked, twisting one way and then another to make sure she stayed decent.
"A blind man would notice. But he's coming out of the ICU. It's not like he's going to be medically allowed to do anything to you, Kasumi."
"How long, do you think? You both have been through serious recovery while in relationships!"
"Kasumi." Miranda was far more matter of fact. "He just had his entire skeleton replaced or reinforced with metal. Every single movement is going to be agony for him, for weeks. Just because he is out of the ICU doesn't mean that he won't have complications or move too much. Making him move could potentially kill him." The raven haired woman flicked her hair back, just being dramatic. "Sex is off the table until his hip bones aren't going to be in agony."
"Then I'll just make sure his mind isn't on the pain." Kasumi promised. "He's probably the only person I've met that paid attention to me instead of you two."
Julia snorted. "That's because I'm a spook. He's afraid of me, even if he would like to look. Miranda I have no idea why he wouldn't take a look. But I had to remind him not to hurt my sister. Of course. Older sibling rules and all."
All three of them got an alert on their Omni-tools. Conference Room, Time Sensitive. No Tech. "No Tech? Who sent this?" Julia spoke out.
"Oyabun-sama." Kasumi whispered. "It's one of his hidden administrator accounts that no one is supposed to know about."
"I wonder what this is about." Miranda grumbled, reaching for her jumpsuit. Their teasing of the rest of the crew would have to wait, it seemed. All three of them arrived at the conference room, which was flanked by a pair of large Krogan. The red and gold armor was apparently the color of the Prothean Empire of old. But both seemed to stand taller as they approached, saluting with their fists.
"Omni-tools." One of them spoke, voice deep. "All tech is barred from entering this room."
"Even the door is analog." Kasumi muttered, slipping her Omni-tool off of her wrist. Miranda eyed the Krogan, as she and Julia had to remove biotic implants and Omni-tools.
Inside the room, the conference table had been shoved to the back wall, and instead a circle of chairs had been placed. A small battery powered device was against one wall, a system of glass and bright lights meant to display images upon a wall. But that kind of technology was something Julia had seen in ancient facilities on earth. Stuff from the 1900s and 2000s. Sitting at the ring of chairs were Hannah and Jack Harper. No one else seemed to be in the room, and Jack had a pile of boxes.
"So." Julia started saying, noticing that Hannah's jumpsuit wasn't perfectly zipped up. "What's this about?"
"No more secrets, I promised you." Jack said ominously. "I'm going to lay out a lot of details. Especially because what is in your head already knows them. I've developed some images on film, so that I can share them with you."
"Film?" Miranda scoffed. "What museum did you have to steal from to get that?"
"Most of the film I have here is from before Omni-tools were invented. I simply know how to print it onto the paper. But as it is not digital information, it's safe. What we are fighting uses digital worms to get into devices and track data. Well, they treat digital realms like we do breathing. It is a space where we cannot win." Jack flipped a switch on the side of the device and started it. The old school device lit up with a bright light, pushing the image of the film onto the wall. "Ah, shit." Jack fiddled with the device, as it displayed the image upside down. "Old tech sometimes requires a bit of elbow grease."
The first image was of a dingy apartment. Used needles and broken equipment lined the walls, and rust was growing through holes in the walls. "Chicago." Hannah whispered.
"Yeah." Jack said, looking at the picture with feeling. "This is where I grew up."
"That's not sanitary." Miranda muttered. "Did you have any kind of education there?!"
"Lifted my first car at twelve." Jack chuckled. "Here, I've got a picture of that, too." The car really wasn't that nice looking. "But I naturally gravitated towards economics. My mother put me in charge of the bills as her drug addiction got too intense. I had the gang intimidate the landlord, and stopped paying rent. Not that he was doing anything to keep the place maintained. So the money was coming in and I could afford to play with it. Learned the stock markets through that. The gang started pouring money from their trade into what I was doing, and by sixteen I was pushing thousands of credits worth of stock every day. It was taking drug money and then slipping it into the stock market through raw goods. Of course, I didn't cover my tracks effectively enough, and the government came in to try to find out how the gangs were moving their money around. So, my real name got buried as I burned bridges and had to leave to make my way through the world. Ditched the last name and chose this one." Jack had a couple more of these pictures, of his childhood in Chicago. A bunch of young people in a dingy location. Most had smiles on their faces. It was completely different than the childhood they experienced. Richness, opulence, and high expectations.
"So you were always greedy?" Miranda chuckled. "Good to know we inherited an appreciation for not living in mold and rust."
"I never wanted to be there." Jack's eyes seemed distant. "You should just appreciate the fact that you have no other siblings from that era."
"How would you know for sure?" Hannah asked. "Runya Ross would have disappeared them, or hidden them from us."
"She would have held it over me long before this if she could have. If there are half-siblings they died long ago, or I have long since tied such loose ends. Cerberus was contingently owned by the family. Only when the board reorganized recently did they get rid of that requirement." Jack flipped another picture onto the display. This one was of Jack standing beside Henry Lawson and a few other rich men in suits. "Now, after I started working with Henry and his medical firms, I made a name for myself by creating capital for medical patents. Venture capitalists for medical companies are rare to find. But I had a benefit that no one else had. Or so I thought."
Jack moved another picture in front of the projector. This one was something they knew. A Prothean Beacon. But this was of a bomb that had been set against a specific branch of the beacon. "This is the specific branch of the Prothean Beacon that contains plans for something called The Catalyst. Which is really just a trap devised by the Reapers that somehow connects the Citadel and anyone on it into some kind of relay system. As far as I could tell. The last time I was staring at it, I was heavily indoctrinated. I wasn't considering the full consequences of the technology or the fulcrum of its function. I don't have a picture of it, but I did some sketches."
The image shown was a canvas, with the Citadel on one side and some kind of large device on the other. "How could you have seen a device that doesn't exist?" Hannah asked. "Did you look inside one of the small Prothean beacons?"
"The Dark Beacons." Julia remembered her own experience with them. The feeling that something humongous pressed against her mind was the beginning of carrying around Gwyn. The reaper.
"Yes. Part of why this is important. That thing hitchhiking in your head already knows about all of this. Before it can lie to you. Or anyone else, for that matter. You deserve to know what that thing knows before it starts lying to you." Jack brought out a series of images. The first was a picture of the stella in the Batarian temple they saw in Kar'shan. "These things have been around for millions of years. But the one you've got in your head? They're made from Humanity. A Humanity that exists now. But she talks about things that haven't happened. Or rather, won't happen because the baseline changed."
"You're not making sense." Hannah spoke up.
"That's because this has all happened before. The Reapers, and our total loss. We put everything into that device, and I was there. Gwyn Shepard, Anderson and I were the only ones in that room when I interrupted the device's function. The next time I could think straight, I was under the knife." He brought out another picture, of a hunting accident he had in Australia. "My eyes were damaged. I couldn't tell the difference between that moment and when I was standing in the eye of the Catalyst at earth, in 2185."
"Anderson?" Julia considered. He had been a tad obsessed with her.
"He was meeting with a psychiatrist before he died. Their files were encrypted, but we got a copy of the logs. He drew drawings of things that were haunting him. And in his dreams he was chasing after someone. Extremely vivid dreams, by the way. Vivid details that led to him having trauma in real places that matched those dreams. As such he wasn't allowed to travel to London ever again. He nearly had a breakdown there. He stabilized and returned to active duty, until he ran into you on one of his tasks. This retriggered the entire dream sequence." Jack placed a drawing upon the projector, of a Reaper ship. A Reaper that was sitting in Trafalgar square and firing its main cannon. "He drew this in the 2160's. Before he ever met you. He called this one Harbinger. That's the name of the leader of the Reapers. I remember that from my own experience. So, I am not the only one with memories of a base timeline. Here is one note that he made that stood out to me. A portrait he made."
The picture that went on the old tech projector was of a woman. She looked wiry, with freckles and almond shaped eyes. "That's Gwyn Shepard. Short, athletic and very dangerous. I clearly remember her as well. And right now? She's the one in your head. The one who was touching the device when everything was interrupted. I've presented evidence of Anderson and I for where we went from this device. But when I spoke to Gwyn on Ilos, she admitted to having been sent back far longer. Thousands of years longer. I've been trying to find out how she went back to a human form. Or if she did at all."
He brought another picture to the projector. It looked archaic. It was an art style that seemed middle eastern. Three more pictures followed, all depicting a single person. A single person with flaming red hair and a staff in her hands. "This is the depiction of the Angel Gabriel. Always with red hair, and always with a staff in her hands. My memory of the world has a change right here. Religion is different between the baseline and current. The original timeline had no Muslim Wars in the 2080s. Nor did we have angel Gabriel depicted in the bible and Koran as holding a staff."
"Jack, stop." Hannah flicked the projector's power switch. "What are you trying to say?"
"Our timeline is changed. Anderson, Gwyn and I all went back in time. And I believe the Catalyst device was used to create a Reaper. Whoever is touching that device is made into one. It's the only thing I could presume how Gwyn became a Reaper. There are unanswered questions to all of this, but I wanted me to be the one to explain this to you. Not that creature in your head. You deserve that." Her father said, serious. "With no tech in this room there is no way Gwyn will learn that I am briefing you. The full capacity of Reapers to steal from our technology is not yet known. What I can confirm is that they can steal your memories, or take your experiences and understanding and store it. What they do with that I don't know."
"Kaidan has recorded Gwyn speaking to him. She talks about his memories and events that have never happened. Events on this planet." Julia shivered. "She talks about him dying here, but never being too far from her."
"That coincides with what I read and saw. Kaidan Alenko was never a professional athlete. The parental situation was fairly duplicated, though I went through great effort to protect Human biotics this time. I don't know how far back Gwyn went, but Anderson was furthest from the effect. He started having traumatic experiences in 2162, on a trip to London. I went back to 2145. My math isn't exactly perfect, but I was a few feet from Anderson. We were both heavily injured. Gwyn was also injured. So I doubt that was a factor, but two of us were injured and dying. She probably would have survived, but it was not looking good for her either. I would have put myself and Anderson at least a hundred feet from the epicenter. Anderson three or four feet beyond me. Gwyn was the one touching the device."
A new image was put upon the projector, of some kind of device that had two large grips. It looks alien, or wrong. "I think this was just the haptic interface for whoever is using this Catalyst. But I hit that with an Overload right as Gwyn touched it. As soon as that happened we all were hit by a wave of energy."
"Did you see some pearly gates?" Miranda asked, curious. "Or was it something worse?"
"Very funny." Jack said with a tiny hint of brevity. "But no. Gwyn Shepard is inside your head, and I have spent years trying to understand everything about this. Not exactly the creature inside your head, but what has happened. What I hope is just the three of us. I changed history. Anderson probably could have made more changes, and the N7 program was far more comprehensive this time around. So he did some good. But here are some major differences that I managed to oversee." Jack brought up a hand to tick his fingers down. "Firstly, I created the rebellion at Shangxi to force a massive military buildup outside of Sol and Arcturus. This changed the course of the First Contact war, and left our military in a better position to counter Batarian incursions. Then I anticipated our main foe to be the Geth, who would have split into factions to either follow the Reapers or not. Those Geth that chose to follow would attack with Sovereign, a Reaper, to prevent new information about the Reapers from reaching the different races. The beacon on Eden Prime, specifically."
"But that was Rachni." Julia didn't exactly have nightmares about going into the depths of Eden Prime, but those dreams and memories weren't pleasant. "And the local garrison was given ammunition that had limited effect against organic enemies."
"That was the point where I realized that I was not the only one that had gone back." Jack nodded. "So, changes to the bible, the Koran and Eden Prime showed that someone had a lot more time than me. But that same creature was also taking care to keep Humanity going in the same direction. Preserve the timeline. Perhaps it was to preserve the weaknesses they inherently took advantage of. I can't guess. But each of us came back to our own bodies. Except for Gwyn. She wasn't reborn, due to my actions. Which at the time I felt horrid about, but it led to me stealing the technology to create all of you." Jack seemed to debate something as he brought that up. "But I suppose that is a story for another time. In the base timeline, Gwyn Shepard was the daughter of Hannah Shepard." He looked at the redhead, who seemed troubled at that. "They had a decent relationship, both serving in the Navy with distinction. Not the Office of Intelligence. Gwyn Shepard's career was heroic. A stellar rise. She fought in the Traverse against Batarian pirates, and contributed to the battle of Elysium, which did not happen this time around. It was a big thing. But then Eden Prime happened. She was made a Spectre. She fought against the Reapers and probably was indoctrinated by them at some point. She died, and my organization in that timeline brought her back. We were most certainly under Reaper influence at the time."
"So if you hadn't had destroyed that part of the beacon, I might have let her reincarnate?"
"I cannot guess. But she's a Reaper now. A Reaper who seemed very focused on letting the same conditions play out on earth as they did in the base timeline. But ancient facts remain that she had to have had a way to influence Humanity. Somehow. I've had my teams examining earth archeology but there has been no sign of any kind of Reapers on earth. No iconography, no squid gods. Giant monster squids being referenced as great foes or even a greek titan are as close as we can come to finding evidence of the Reapers on Earth."
A final picture was placed on the projector. It was of some kind of deep space facility. Thousands of Reapers were inside of it. As well as another Citadel. "This is the other side of the Citadel Relay. I sent one of my clones with a QEC link to their greybox and pulled this image before the ship was destroyed. This is what we are up against. Not one, but thousands of these bastards. I don't know enough about the one you fought. The few references we have found in the extranet and local intranets around the conflict spots is that the Reaper you killed was named Sai'Parda. A butchering of the name Shepard. The meaning in Asari is not the same, but I think we can make the connection. Shepard manipulated the Batarians, the Humans and the Asari. There are Reaper artifacts on Palaven, in their oldest temples. They call them the Arca Device. A war over them resulted in the temple burying the devices deep underground."
"What about the Salarians?" Julia was quick to ask, seeing the pattern.
"If they have such, I can't find it. And I've spoken with some Lystheni wheel priests." Jack shrugged. "I'm only human. I can't find everything."
"You blew up the Citadel. That took a lot of work, Oyabun-sama." Kasumi added, smiling. "No one else can say they've done that."
"It helps knowing that part of the future. And denying the Reapers the Catalyst. Or so I thought." He pointed at the wall, where technology was lined up. "After analysis we found that there are spare Citadels stored in this dyson sphere sized object. So, all of that work doesn't matter. There are thousands of Reapers. We don't know what their goals are other than the complete destruction of civilizations every fifty thousand years or so. The only clue I have is whatever they've done to Gwyn. My theory is that this is some fucked up method of reproduction. They're machines, but they can somehow store memories or interact with our minds. So there is something here that I don't understand, but the time aspect is telling me it's beyond our biological comprehension. If you can, figure that out. You're the only person in a position where we can learn this kind of detail. Even bad intel is something that we can comprehend and act upon."
"This is insane." Miranda summed up. "How do you even know if those memories you claim to have are real?"
"Only the fact that Gwyn reacted when we spoke. I can't even guess if this is all some crazy dream or some force that pushed that information into my mind. But there are too many details and pieces of information I've acted on that are right."
"Let's presume you're wrong about it all." Hannah brought up. "You're just cooking this up."
"Then I'm wrong, what we have built is going to be brutally destroyed and I am going to die watching everything I care about burn. Again." Jack said, meeting Hannah's stare. "I also don't like the idea that I could be operating on false information, but I've been making changes and so far the intel has been good. Unless that intel is also based upon the fact that others are acting upon the same information."
"I don't trust the idea of time travel." Julia admitted. "It's something out of fiction."
"Fiction or not, you deserved to know first. Someone out there might know more, but this is all I've got. I have some digital files to pair with this information, but all of these pictures," Jack checked them over. "Kasumi." He sighed, holding out a hand and beckoning. "Please don't steal these."
Kasumi giggled. "I would never!"
"You took the picture of the Reaper base."
Kasumi unzipped her jumpsuit, digging around in all of her pockets. "Oh! I guess it must have just ended up in my hand somehow. Sorry, Oyabun-sama!"
"I might be a shitty parent, but I never want you to lose. So I'll do anything in my power to figure out what it is that the Reapers have planned. Why Gwyn is inside your head. If I can I'll see about getting her out. I've got conversations with Asari matriarchs on that. Through intermediaries, of course. They kind of want us dead for the most part." Jack said, clenching his fists as he looked over the group. His eyes never broke contact. "I know we haven't had the best relationship. But I am trying to change that."
"By telling us you're a time traveler? Are we supposed to accept that as an excuse for what you've caused us?" Julia glared. He had done a lot for them, but there was still a lot of anger for what had happened to her. "Does this mean you want us to forgive you?"
"No." He didn't even flinch. No sign of discomfort. "I never expected forgiveness when I started. Nor do I expect us to ever be some idyllic family the news would love to talk about. My mother never gave me anything. I have never believed that she trusted me or loved me." Jack finally broke eye contact, looking at Hannah of all people. "I expect no forgiveness. But I will do anything to keep the wheel turning. And if this all goes to hell? I'll be selfish. There is a plan to save you. To make sure you survive."
"What about Gwyn?"
"If I can kill her, I will." Jack promised, meeting her eyes once again. "Once I figure out how to do it without putting you at risk."
The meeting broke up after that, and Julia was left with a lot to think about. But for today, it was nothing that a bit of alcohol and comfort food couldn't fix. Not to mention, the look on Kaidan and Joker's faces was worth a thousand words. Joker was bandaged almost everywhere, but seeing ninety pounds of eager Kasumi bouncing towards him hopefully took his mind off of the pain. She recorded only a few words for the Reaper on her Omni-tool, for Gwyn to find and respond to.
"How could you let Kaidan die?" It was damning. Hopefully it would get a reaction. She needed answers. Her father wasn't exactly safe for that. She couldn't trust him to decide that for her. To decide what was true and what wasn't. But neither could she trust Gwyn. But it might admit something else that she could use. "Tell me." She hissed, pressing the end recording button.