"Wait—already?" Shepard exclaimed, clearly confused as she wheeled around to follow the standing Emiya.

He nodded distracted, more focused on connecting to the facilities below them on top of the Prothean ruins. Using the facility's tightbeam communicators, he reached out to the Lowell City's Flight Control and to the nearby satellites, keeping track of starship traffic in the area.

So far no one had noticed their arrival, it seemed. Let's see how long it takes for them to react...

"So this is how you escaped through the Thessia relay," Miranda said and stood up, eyeing him calculatingly before throwing the others in the group a glance. "No wonder worrying over a little eezo isn't worth your time."

He eyed her for a second before smirking and nodding towards Mars, deciding that distracting her was the best bet.

"Just wait till you see what's down there."

Even as he said that some of the Systems Alliance's fleet stationed near Earth had taken a heading for Mars, as while Mars' Lowell Control hadn't noticed him, apparently something else had. He suspected satellites orbiting Earth or the moon, but it was hard to tell given just how many systems were in play all at once, overlapping and criss-crossing through the numerous relays. That, or then it was the Prothean Archives whom he had just contacted that had sent for them, as the sudden increase in tightbeam traffic suggested.

Well, that was quick. And it seems like they haven't been informed about me. This could get dicey... If the people on Arcturus Station had kept the lid his on presence and actions, that meant that the people who were reacting to him now wouldn't be aware of any deals he had made and would be reacting just as the standard protocol stated.

"Unidentified starship, this is SSV Benjamin Davies of the Systems Alliance Navy. Ascend into a stable orbit at once and remain there until further notice, do you copy?"

Sighing and making a decision on the fly, Emiya reached through and uninstalled the hulking Carrier's flight drivers. It wasn't in any danger of falling into any nearby gravity well, nor would it affect any of the other functionalities of the warship, but it would keep them out of his hair for a while. At least he had managed to get them permission to land at the archives. Not that it would get them past the first airlock.

Well, let's try it...

Speaking for the benefit of everyone present, Emiya connected to the facility now just below them, speaking the first line of bullshit that sounded plausible that popped into his head.

"Mars Archives, this is a delegation from Arcturus Station, we're bringing in some... experts from the Citadel for a tour of the facility. Please prepare a landing bay."

He couldn't do what he had with Shepard and the Systems Alliance again, not exactly anyhow.

The Mars Archives Prothean Research Facility wasn't strictly speaking a part of the Systems Alliance, but rather an independent organization that was theoretically only subordinate to the Systems Alliance as per some legalese that had been written up following the First Contact War by the Citadel's request, to ensure that any new Prothean discoveries would not be immediately absconded by the military for weapon's research. But it was not as if they were beholden to the Citadel, despite the generous research grant that they offered, either, due to still being within humanity's home system. Basically, humanity could keep anything they found, but they had to tell everyone else about it at least, at which point depending on what had been found the Citadel might begin pressuring them to share by cutting or threatening to cut that generous research grant.

Regardless, there was no easy way of pulling rank or forging credentials to get access here, nor was it certain that the AIA could exert any kind of meaningful pressure quickly.

Meaning he couldn't just go for a repeat performance of Arcturus Station if he wanted to get Liara inside, even if she had the same problem as Shepard had had earlier. Well, perhaps he could just wait until the AIA reacted and let them take care of it. At first they would make difficult, suspicious of his motives, but if he could attribute the discovery of the second ruin to Liara, then that should remedy the worst of it.

Or would that cause too many problems with that faction…? He wondered as he looked at Miranda, reminded of her shadowy organization. No, this should be a joint effort. And it couldn't be him at the helm, either. He suspected he had already become too different, and more importantly it would defeat the purpose of his delegating the Prothean research. Okay, who do we have on staff…?

"Arcturus Delegation, this is Mars Archives. This is a restricted airspace, please vacate the immediate vicinity. This is your only warning."

Emiya hummed thoughtfully.

It looked like he would have to get creative here then. Though, he had to be mindful of his methods here, since the goal was long-term cooperation.

Miranda cleared her throat. "May I?"

He looked at her blankly and then shrugged, gesturing for her to go ahead.

Hesitating only a moment before deciding that speaking aloud should suffice for Emiya to transmit her, she cleared her throat light and then said:

"Mars Archives, please pass along a message to Dr. Ilsa Warren—"

"Ma'am, there is no one by that name here. Cease your descent immediately, the Alliance Navy has been notified of your presence and are on their way."

She dismissed the attempt at communication, perhaps as much at the curt dismissal as at being called ma'am, and paused to consider how to continue. Meanwhile, he checked through the staff files for that name and indeed he found a researcher by the same name in the books. So Cerberus already has someone inside?

"Do you want to talk to her immediately?" he asked, and Miranda nodded.

Connecting to the omnitool of the woman in question directly, he motioned for her to go ahead.

"Doctor Warren?"

There was a sound of surprise. The woman was alone and startled in her office.

"Who is this?" she asked cautiously.

"It's Miranda Lawson."

The woman on the other side of the call froze, remaining quiet for almost a full twenty seconds, and Emiya could see the thoughts running through her head as fretted.

"How did you… No, never mind that. This is a—"

"This is a Cerberus matter," Miranda said and as the doctor moved to refuse again, she continued. "With Outis-priority."

Ilsa Warren froze, her mouth working silently for several seconds before she grimaced and looked away from her omnitool.

"Are you insane?! This channel-"

"Is completely safe," Miranda stated confidently.

"I… I see..."

Emiya's brows rose as he eyed the raven-haired woman while the doctor sounded increasingly uncomfortable. He also put the curious priority level to memory, already guessing as to its purpose: Outis, like Nemo or Anonymous. Meaning a high priority on secrecy? Shepard and Cassani were already frowning, no doubt putting pieces of the puzzle in place, as Liara appeared still very confused.

"Very well, then. What do you need?"

He didn't know exactly how Cerberus handled matters of operational security, but could guess that Miranda was doing the fieldcraft equivalent of shouting at the top of her lungs, leaving no room for plausible deniability. A perhaps doubly shocking move due to her invoking of Outis. Was she imitating his recent headstrong tactics?

"I have a VIP who needs entry into the Archives," she said with a small smirk as she crossed her arms in her seat. "Rest assured, we do not intend to blow your cover."

She sounded very sure but looked at him questioningly, to which he responded with a shrug. If this was a Cerberus operative on the inside, he supposed it would be useful to have her work with Liara. A little bit of give and take, if he couldn't track them down through Miranda or from the attendance list of his 'welcoming party' by Charon Relay.

"Very well… When?" Warren replied again, resigned.

"We are ready to land right now."

"...Oh, for the... Fine, give me five minutes. I'll see what I can do."

"Excellent." Giving Emiya a smug smile, Miranda gestured with one hand, as if to say 'there you go'. "We will be there shortly."


;


Liara looked around curiously as they made their way out of the starship into the in-door docking bay.

While they obviously hadn't been expected, Emiya and the unnerving dark-haired woman had managed to secure them a way inside. She had half-expected things to begin escalating uncontrollably as they had in Serrice, but apparently that wasn't quite necessary here. All the while the two seated human's had remained quiet and detached, observing imperiously how things were progressing.

While a part of the young asari felt excited to be so near a mostly untouched Prothean site, a large part of her was still feeling the disquiet of her life falling apart. Following Baliya's announcement and subsequent death, she had been attacked from all sides; her—admittedly short—life's work had been torn to shreds following the backlash, and all the decades of effort she had put into chasing her own dreams had seemed to vanish as if they had never been anything more than a morning mirage over Usaru's seas. Even so... Perhaps it was only the adventurous nature of the foolish Maiden in her—but the decision to throw everything aside and seek out Mars on her own had been very liberating.

Was this her equivalent of joining a merc crew and working as an exotic dancer in some seedy corner of the galaxy? Glancing at his back, she carefully hid her smile. She had arrived among humans with nothing except what she knew was true and the determination to see it through, no matter who or what stood in her way.

Yet she had almost immediately run into him again.

Had he been waiting for her? Or was it mere coincidence?

Regardless, the sense of adventure and fretful worry alike had vanished, replaced by a more familiar, slow expectation of disaster. She felt almost as resigned as the doctor Miranda had called had appeared to be.

"Oof," Liara grunted as she walked straight into someone.

Flushing with embarrassment at her carelessness, she looked up with an apology on her lips only to freeze as her eyes met gray. A white brow rose on his face for some reason as he looked at her with obvious amusement. A questioning gesture? No, rather something that drew attention to whatever emotion he was displaying. She had similar markings, too, just above her eyes. Perhaps with some practice...

"Well?" she asked.

Emiya crossed his arms, his amusement turning decidedly challenging.

"It's your show now."

Liara hesitated, confused. She looked to the other humans only to realize they were all staring at her now as well, with Miranda in particular appearing somehow hungry.

"Did you not intend to lead us to the ruins you had found?" Liara asked him, deciding to remain cool.

He shrugged. "We're here. Just one kilometer down to go."

She grimaced, realizing that he was enjoying this.

"Do you not know the way down?"

"Oh, that way wouldn't work for us. I don't have any physical way to access the ruins." He smirked then. "Don't tell me you were expecting me to do everything?"

Temper flaring yet unable to find the words of spite and reproach, she glared at him.

A door behind him opened and a human woman stepped through, and somehow she knew that this was Ilsa Warren, the doctor they had spoken to through the comms earlier.

"Okay, we don't have a lot of time before someone will come and start asking questions. What's this about, Lawson? You know we don't do things like this anymore. This better be—"

Stepping past Emiya, Liara approached the woman who blinked at her, eyes jumping between her and the raven-haired woman who she had been addressing just now.

"Good day, Doctor Warren. I am Liara T'Soni."

"Uh… Hello?"

Liara put on her best human smile and extended a hand to her fellow doctor, though she could not use the title herself. Another point of anger. She had not managed to graduate due to recent events, but she had still already been on in all but name—had been an equal with the likes of Nirida Henell on that expedition—and if there was something she could hold pride in, it had been that. It was the strongest motivator she could name at the moment for her presence here; proving that Professor Haphia hadn't been wrong and to graduate on her own merits.

Ilsa Warren blinked, her brown eyes moving from Liara to Miranda again, then looking over the rest of the group, still hesitating over the handshake.

"Ah, I had not expected, or rather…"

The doctor blinked, and then her eyes widened upon some chance realization. Turning around slightly, Liara realized that the woman had recognized the two palanquin-borne figures and she mentally tallied another mark in favor of her theory there. They were important, somehow.

Still, it would not do to be ignored. The asari cleared her throat, just the way she had observed now several times. It hurt more than she had expected, so she struggled not to wince and mess it up.

"I understand that you have been investigating the Prothean Archives here, yes?"

Warren blinked, her eyes whipping back. Frowning slightly, she nodded.

"Excellent," Liara breathed out in relief, now channeling her mother and—as much as she hated to admit it—him. "Then let us go to your office. I will require access to your most accurate blueprints of the Archive, as well as any results of attempts to chart out the electrical power and other wiring, plumbing and ventilation systems."

The doctor hesitated, her eyes sliding to look past Liara. But she wasn't going to let that happen.

"Doctor Warren. We do not have all the time in the world and we are on a schedule."

"O-oh. Alright. Please follow me."

It was a short way to the woman's office. It was neither lavish nor spartan, but with six people inside it did feel more than a little cramped. Inside, Liara was already worrying over whether she had been too harsh, hesitating over her choice of words, how she had taken charge, how—But as Shepard had flashed her a toothy—almost predatory—smile and a strange, surreptitious hand-sign with an extended digit—the short one on top of their hands—those worries had all been laid to rest.

So now that she had taken over the nervous-looking doctor's terminal, poring over the various schematics and documents, she forcibly suppressed all other thoughts save those that would serve her in discovering a way forward.

"You spoke of a collapsed elevator shaft?" she asked, meeting Emiya's eyes. "Was there more than one?"

He shrugged as if the matter had nothing to do with him. Grimacing, she thought back to what he had said. He found only one shaft, then. That suggested a bunker in the vein of those found in the Attican Traverse. Admittedly, there had only been two finds and neither had been been beneath another ruin, but perhaps that was an avenue of research that she would have to investigate further at a later date. Who knew? Maybe there were dozens of hidden ruins like this around the galaxy? Assuming she managed to find something here and now, of course.

"How many of the various walls have been drilled for samples?" Liara asked, pointing at one section of text on the terminal. "It appears as if so far only two rooms have been investigated."

"Ah, due to worries over drilling through something vital, we have only sampled those two rooms which were deemed safe. To obtain samples of the material and to date the construction of the Archives…" Doctor Warren explained.

Liara nodded, having expected as much. Without detailed knowledge of how the electrical wiring had been lain out, she only had the blueprints to go with. Staring at the various rooms and hallways displayed, she began mentally tallying through likely places. No place on the schematic had been marked as collapsed or ruined, meaning the elevator would have been deliberately hidden.

That left…

Fifteen possibilities. Too many.

Seventh era. Hidden bunker. Weapons… She looked at Emiya, weighing what little he had told her. He had never mentioned what exactly had been down there, but if it was anything more than just a few dusty old barracks and some minor facilities down there, then the elevator couldn't be small. Protheans themselves weren't a particularly large people—or so it was commonly believed, based on the numerous finds and tools found throughout the galaxy—but their computers and furnishings did tend to err on the larger side, as did their common containers and boxes. Rather similarly to the asari; a common—perhaps a touch fanciful and romantic—theory being that they were almost all biotics and as such could carry even very large containers with ease the way asari could. Regardless, theories were only theories, and whether it was really for aesthetic or practical reasons, Liara did not know.

But she did know that it meant the elevator would have to exceed specific dimensions to accommodate those sizes.

As did the hallways leading to the elevator.

Bringing out the various entrances to the Archives, Liara trailed with her mind's eye how the various rooms and hallways shrank and stretched, noting and striking out any obvious bottlenecks. This cut the possibilities down to seven possibilities—still too many. But with the information available to her here, it would be difficult to narrow it down any further.

Even this was assuming what she had known prior to meeting that man still held true, and that the Protheans did not possess any... pocket dimensions as apparently he did. The thought that there existed technology that the Protheans had not discovered or could not have developed themselves still somehow rankled Liara.

But even if she was shaken, she would not give up. Even if she had to guess and blindly find her way forward, she wouldn't give up.

Standing up from the terminal, she cleared her throat and almost coughed instinctively.

Annoyed, she spoke tersely. "I would like to walk the Archives."

Doctor Warren hesitated again, but with a glance to the quiet group, she nodded. They walked for the next twenty minutes, all the while Liara kept her eyes on the floor and walls.

Suddenly, she stopped.

Walking back and ignoring the inquisitive looks of everyone else, she traced the walls up to the ceiling, opposite wall and then back down to the floor. This. It's here, somewhere. She didn't know how she knew, but she knew that she knew. But there was nothing on the walls; no panel, no markings, nothing to indicate or control the hidden elevator door.

But if she had to gamble... It was here.

So how to open it, then? It must be controlled by the mainframe—that will necessitate a supercomputer to crack the code key. The main reason Prothean research required so much money was the need for extremely powerful computers to operate even the simplest of their technology. Time and money.

Neither of which she was in excess of at the moment.

Alternatively, with the right tools they could image beneath the surface and then drill out the mechanism, opening it through brute force. But that was assuming the structure would hold and they didn't destroy something important in the process; a delicate procedure at the best of times. Professor Henell had also been capable of using her biotics to feel out how certain, hidden-from-view sections were made, but that kind of skill was quite literally a millennium beyond Liara.

But perhaps she had something better instead—pained as she was to admit it.

Normally finding a hidden door like this would take months, if not years. Even after the discovery of its location, it could take a long, long while before it was opened. Carefully, cautiously, calmly. It would be a project seeing millions of credits and dozens of experts. It was a ridiculous that he was forcing her to do it like this. Ridiculous, yet so very exciting.

If he wanted immediate results...

"Well?" Liara turned around and asked.

They looked at her and then followed her gaze to him. He raised one insufferably smug brow, as if he had no idea what she wanted. She was stumped, but knew that he could be goaded into handling the rest properly, delicate and difficult as it was despite his seemingly cavalier attitude.

Liara place a hand on the wall, outlining a spot with her index finger.

"It is right here. So… Well?"

"I'm impressed you found it so quickly. How did you know?" he asked as he too placed a hand on the seemingly bare spot on the wall.

She shrugged—the gesture coming much more naturally to her already—and pointed back down the hallway they had come.

"The Protheans used prefabricated building materials, just as we do today. These pieces are slotted together, like a puzzle. Which means that this—" she patted the wall. "—must be where the controls and door mechanism are located." Preempting the question, she shook her head. "Yes, of course it could also be there or there, if we only judged by where the mechanism for a hidden door could be, but those others preclude the necessary space for the elevator itself."

There was a sharp intake of breath from the rest of the group, but Liara had eyes only for Emiya.

"I guess so." He shrugged, and she knew he was mimicking her earlier gesture. Or rather, correcting her. Since when has he been doing that? She realized with a startle, already reviewing their previous interactions with alarm.

Oblivious to her sudden apprehension, Emiya nodded.

"Well, if you so insist."

He drew back his hand, settling his feet slightly wider, squaring his shoulders and let the hand come to rest by his side. There was an intake of breath from everyone else, and then—it was like a rocket shot forward and exploded against the wall. Everyone flinched and Liara heard several shocked exclamations behind him as they saw his extended arm embedded in the wall, elbow-deep.

Exhaling, Emiya began to pull the arm out, straining slightly as he braced with his legs and put his free arm against the otherwise unmarred surface. Something moved behind the wall, rumbling and straining.

"H-how...?" Someone gasped.

A crack appeared in the wall beside them. Dust became loose as a fine split between two perfectly aligned slats grew wider and wider, revealing the hidden door with a chorus of gasps from the rest of their audience. Beneath the panels a more traditional elevator door became visible, but she could already tell from the wear that it would not be functional. She suspected it would be collapsed and would require a drilling team to open.

Not something that she could accomplish alone, nor something she suspected Emiya had the time or inclination for. Perhaps she would now be removed from the Archives, having served her purpose in one of his machinations.

But even so, Liara smiled.

This was a step forward.


;


And now the ball is rolling, Emiya thought as he looked at Liara conversing with Ilsa Warren.

With this, he suspected he could leave Liara to handle digging out the deeper ruins. With his external clout with the Systems Alliance combined with Liara's discovery of the hidden elevator, there was no need for him to remain here.

Just as with Shepard, delegating had been the answer again.

He probably would have spent just as long looking for the entrance, scouring the walls and floors with his Structural Analysis, where she had managed to figure it out through prior experience. This was the kind of knowledge and instinct that rote learning could not impart, the kind of talent he had hoped to develop to unravel the Protheans. Though, looking at Liara's academic background, he suspected it would have taken years if not decades more on Thessia.

Time he no longer had.

That's what I get for trying to do everything, I suppose. Had he lain low and avoided sticking his nose into everything, maybe things would have worked out differently. Not that there would have been anything he could have changed about what had happened to the rest of the Dretirop expedition on Torfan.

Glancing at Shepard, he exhaled. No point in thinking about that. Turning to look at the third woman of the group, his eyes narrowed slightly.

He had been somewhat apprehensive about relying on Miranda and Cerberus, but it appeared she was trying to work with him for whatever reason. The deliberate flippancy of his projection of eezo should keep them from trying anything too stupid for the moment, as indecision and incomplete information was wont to do. Assuming she wasn't trying to set him up again, then tracking down and checking those starships at Charon Relay might turn out to be completely unnecessary.

So, next was returning to the Moon Cell, and—"Hmm?"

Emiya hadn't been paying any specific attention to the rest of the galaxy beyond the local Fleet, but this was something he couldn't miss now that he was looking the Moon's way with his cybernetic 'eye'. Not with how the Navy was losing its mind; A military facility on the moon had gone silent, the last outbound transmission being an emergency declaration and a call for help. Especially as the facility in question was the one he had promised the AIA he would visit, the one that had been looking into Artificial Intelligence again.

Probably not a coincidence, he thought with some annoyance as he glanced at the group.

Just as one thing started working, something else popped up.

He didn't like just leaving them to their own devices, but it wasn't like he could take them with him to the Moon Cell either. Better to leave everyone here to be distracted by the Mars ruins until he could get back.

"Cassani, I'm borrowing your ship. I'll be back in a bit."

The man, who had remained in quiet observation until now, blinked as he realized he was being addressed. "Uh… Okay?"

"You're going somewhere?" Shepard asked, already gearing to follow.

Miranda and Liara were now staring at him intently as well, while Doctor Warren still only looked confused and overwhelmed. Hiding a grimace, he answered: "Something came up and I need to go take care of it. I'll be back in a half hour. An hour at most."

That should leave him enough time to pop by the Moon Cell and see if he couldn't get himself patched up and get back before anything else caught fire and exploded. And if he couldn't… well, that wouldn't change his plans much. Oblivion and all.

"Keep an eye on the kids," he said as he nodded Liara's and Miranda's way, gratified by the chortle Shepard graced the comment with, knowing she wouldn't argue further. He turned around and briskly returned to the parked starship.

Something about his arrival had set everything in motion.

Checking the timeline of events unfortunately confirmed his expectations. The facility had first reported something going on about two minutes after he had left the Alliance Carrier dead in the water. Right now it was completely quiet and the Fourth Fleet had stationed itself near the moon, but were doing nothing. Are they hesitating because they think it's me?

If the Systems Alliance thought it was the wrath of Redhax at work, would they simply sit back and give him free rein?

That was more than a little annoying. How far would that blanket extend? What if he attacked a civilian settlement? Would they do nothing and let it happen? This is exactly why Shepard should have remained behind, he thought. So she could have urged them to react or to act as a venue for communication. But would I have noticed it faster if she had remained behind? He suspected not; the problem was the Alliance freezing up and becoming paralyzed, compromising in its duties because of him.

Alternatively, they had set fire to their own project and were now waiting to see how he reacted so they could play the victim. Of course, given how many parties were at play, it was hard to say who exactly 'they' here was.

As Cassani's starship lifted off, Emiya tightbeamed the AIA through Lowell Control's comm buoy.

"Kolkkonen. What the hell do you think you're doing?" No point in messing around; even his persona should be annoyed and to-the-point about a place he had expressed interest in going quiet. If he gave the Alliance the impression that he was angry about their inaction, all the better.

The surprised man blinked, surprised and looking more than a little stressed.

"Emiya…!" Something like hope passed through his tumultuous expression. "This is not your doing?"

"My doing? Funny. Somehow it feels like it's your doing—trying to cover it up before I can see what you've all been up to."

"That…" Hesitation again, followed by straightforward resolve. "On behalf of the Systems Alliance, I apologize: I cannot disprove that at this time, beyond assuring you that there was no attempt to sabotage, destroy, or hide anything on the lunar facility from you on our part."

A very specific denial, but one Emiya thought he could believe.

Kolkkonen was adapting his political playbook to a softer form of plying leverage; the shift from sullen reticence to a nominally more honest, subtler approach something he had more or less expected. His gut feeling was that Kolkkonen's nervousness right now was due to apprehension and simply having no information or control on the situation, rather than due to worry over something he had done and being caught. The man had read the situation as retribution or chastisement for some ploy before just now, hesitating over how to react due to that. As much as Emiya loathed the paralysis, it was still preferable to duplicity here.

If course this did not mean someone else within the Systems Alliance hadn't acted without Kolkkonen's knowledge, giving them as a whole some measure of plausible deniability.

"The Alliance fleet has been ordered to hold back and to keep anyone from entering or leaving the base," Kolkkonen said, leaving the grudging request for an order unspoken. The more Kolkkonen knew about Emiya's intentions, the better he could salvage the situation from his end.

"I'm on my way there now, so clear a path for me," Emiya said and sent over the transponder details. For now, saving the base personnel and getting to the moon took priority. He could look into this mess on the System Alliance's end later.

"Yes, of course. The Alliance Navy will be informed that an operative is on the way and to allow the starship through."

"Good. Oh, and while you're at it, give Liara T'Soni whatever clearance she needs in the Mars Archives Prothean Research Facility," Emiya said smirking. "I'm sure you'll be interested in with what she's already found."

The man's expression went carefully blank, but his eyes still shone with calculating curiosity. "...Very well."

With that Emiya cut the comm-line and set to full burn towards the moon and the facility that had gone dark.

Scanners from orbit reported that there was still partial power and life-support on, but results were sporadic, as if someone was throwing the switches on and off at random. The blueprints and plans of the facility—which he nabbed from the Alliance warships in orbit—suggested a staff of 43 people in an underground facility, researching virtual intelligences and electronic warfare, especially as it pertained to coordinating and centrally controlling internal anti-personnel defenses. Both one's own and for subverting that of the enemies. There were three external prefabricated facilities as well, but those stood empty at the moment.

Two more minutes.

Systems Alliance Navy vessels had attempted and continued to hail him, but he ignored them, trusting that Kolkkonen would come through and not screw him over here. Whatever was happening on the moon and the 'surprise' Emiya had left on Mars would keep the intelligence agency director on his toes for now.

Eyeing the pale orb steadily growing in size as the starship slowed down, Emiya exhaled and checked his gear; hardsuit, omnitool, no guns, magical energy topped up, civilian starship—good for transport, but not exactly a reliable back up or big gun—Alliance Navy keeping their distance, and the Moon Cell just beneath the surface. Regardless of what was happening, he had plenty of options on hand. Proportional to his goals, he even felt quite confident: rescuing the living personnel, containing the situation and finding out what had happened? Easy. Unless of course this was just another trap and the base would explode the moment he set foot inside. Well, even then, with the Moon Cell there, he was confident that he could survive.

He hoped that wasn't the case, though. He was getting tired of having to come up with bigger and more overt shows of power already.


;


Cassani kept quiet in his little corner of the room as all around him people moved about with frantic energy.

More and more it felt like he had been caught by a storm, torn from everything familiar and forced to stand very still and silent. Beset on all sides, he could only squirm and make himself as small as possible, lest something snatch an outstretched limb and pull him along back into the chaos of the storm. The archive's personnel were running around like headless chicken, dozens of experts and doctors from all over the facility having come to gawk and question the appearance of the mysterious elevator.

So far Doctor Warren had managed to keep things from boiling over and they had retreated back to her office.

"But, she's an asari. Surely the..." Warren said, eyeing the blue-skinned creature warily, uncertain of with how much candor she could speak in this company, and finally settling on discretion. "Systems Alliance will not stand for her being the one who made the discovery?"

"Why not?" Shepard asked, eyeing the doctor speculatively.

Warren hesitated, looking around as shuffled in her chair, appearing both even more worried and also satisfied in having realized that not everyone in the room was 'in the know' of all affiliations. As far as the doctor knew, only Miranda was a part of Cerberus, but at the same time Lawson had cast aside all pretensions of subterfuge already. She had worried whether to assume that everyone in the room, human or not, knew about the pro-human organization and agenda?

Cassani too wondered at Shepard's question.

Even without Cerberus' agenda, worry over how the Systems Alliance would take to the discovery was legitimate. How had an asari maiden managed to make he way into the Prothean ruins and how had she been allowed to destroy a part of the facility? Prothean sites of any kind were priceless and jealously guarded.

Moreover, since when had Shepard been so comfortable with aliens? What happened on Torfan? She had never been particularly interested in any aliens, batarians aside.

"That is none of your concern—this goes over all of our heads, you understand?" Miranda replied, in effect keeping her options open and her hands clean, despite having been the one to strong-arm their way in. She had been a dead woman walking as soon as she stepped onto Arcturus Station, were it not for the quirk of running into present company. Already she had managed to step behind figures like Shepard and Outis, using them as sword and shield alike.

Warren glared at Miranda, biting her lip to keep quiet as she seemed to be shaking slightly.

"That is all very good for you to decide—I spent years to get here, and now this happens? Even if this is the find of the century, there is no way I will be able to come out of this still employed here...!"

Cassani ignored them and looked down to his omnitool, eyeing the seemingly mundane messages and automated notifications in his inbox; Cerberus was getting antsy since he hadn't reported back in regarding Operative Lawson. But he didn't dare reply, uncertain whether it would be safe. A skilled hacker did not need to be physically present to monitor someone, Cassani certainly didn't—who knew what Redhax could do?

He glared at Lawson, who was only half paying attention to Warren. Their eyes met and for a moment he felt a sense of disquiet from the utter stillness. Then, the mask was back on and she appeared human again, smiling, smirking back at him. He didn't say anything, merely looking away. Could he reveal that he, too, was working with Cerberus? If Miranda's presence hadn't been objectionable, then was there any point in hiding it so desperately now?

But something in him rebelled at the thought.

Shaking his head minutely, he convinced himself it was a better idea to keep his affiliations under wraps for now and maintain his current relationship with Outis. If and when Miranda thought it prudent to spring that fact... Well, he would have to deal with it then. He might not be Redhax, but he was quite skilled in his own right with omnitools; if she made the mistake of reporting to her new master, Cassani wouldn't hesitate to use that.

Seeking something else to think about he spotted the lone asari who had remained just as quiet as he had.

Only her quiescence had only begun with Outis' departure. It was not as if the Maiden had been a great social power, but she still keenly felt his absence, furtively glancing around the room and peeking at everyone when she thought they weren't looking. Where had the fire and fury she had had with Outis present vanished? For that matter, why was she so hostile towards him, and why did Outis tolerate it?

"Don't worry about it. With how much things will be shaking up around here, no one will even notice." Shepard interjected, perhaps tiring of the arguing and turned to address the alien. "So, are you some kind of expert on Protheans?"

T'Soni made a show of panicked surprise, before woodenly nodding. "I have been studying the later era Protheans and their decline for years at the University of Usaru..."

There seemed to be something more the alien wanted to say, but she remained tight-lipped and avoided looking any of them in the eye.

"So did you and Emiya study together? Is that why you're here?" Shepard continued, already in the swing for her usual interrogations. "Before he had to leave. Were you there when it happened? In Serrice?"

"I-I, no, yes...?" The alien hesitated, looking away for a second to order her thoughts. "I only met him a few days before it happened. He was looking for a Professor. We..." Again the alien hesitated, looking around the room and weighing how much she could confess to them. "Argued over the Protheans quite... heatedly."

"A professor?"

"Yes..." The asari looked down, her mourning plain to see despite her alien nature. "Professor Nirida Henell. She..."

Shepard winced, raising a hand to rub the back of her neck. "Henell didn't make it, I'm afraid."

The asari looked up and Cassani had to blink as he realized she was crying. He hadn't known asari could do that; they didn't have skin pores, so why would they have tear ducts? Yet in hindsight, the supposed conclusion felt shaky and he frowned away the thought.

"Y-you know what happened to her?" she asked.

Shepard nodded, explaining quietly: "She had been taken by the batarians and we—well, Emiya mostly—kind of saved her before they could fly off with her again. It's..." She winced with a sudden realization. "A lot of it is confidential, and I shouldn't be... But she made it to Matriarch Benezia's ship alive."

"Benezia...?!"

"Yeah. But, unfortunately Henell and her crew didn't make it. There wasn't anything anyone could do, it was just too late. I'm sorry."

"O-oh..." Liara said hesitantly. "Thank you for telling me."

"Were you close with her?"

Shaking her head and wiping away the tears, Liara answered. "We were only really teacher and student, perhaps colleagues towards the end, but not much more... but I respected her—all of them greatly."

Shepard nodded quietly, refraining from any further questions. But Miranda did not care as much for the young asari's feelings.

"What did you two argue about?"

Liara looked up to the dark-haired woman, unable to immediately connect the question. "Argue?"

"On Thessia. The Protheans?" Miranda specified, leaning closer.

It was something Cassani wanted to know more about as well, but given his precarious position in the group, hadn't thought drawing attention to himself by asking about it to be worth it. Shepard, too, seemed curious, but refrained some saying anything, rather looking at Miranda critically.

"It is a complicated thing..." Liara began and glanced at Warren. "But ultimately, he did prove to have the right of it."

"Right about... what?" Miranda asked, eyes narrowed hungrily.

"That the Protheans didn't simply vanish fifty thousand years ago. That... That they were exterminated."


;


Emiya sighed, crossing his arms as he dispelled the largely unnecessary-until-now swords he had been wielding and looked at the large blue case before him.

Two people had died, five were still missing and much of the facility had broken down, though for the moment it didn't seem like there would be any more risk to either personnel or material, now that he had cut off the rampant Artificial Intelligence from the grid. The power was still on, everything was still running and the AI was surely still aware. But it was limited to just its run-time environment now.

In essence he had cut off its flailing limbs and torn out its all of its external senses, leaving it alone in the dark, completely cut off from the rest of the world.

For a human being it would be hell, but for an artificial intelligence... Who knew; maybe its internal sensors and diagnostics made a synthetic existence like that capable of living completely alone the way human being couldn't.

The two deaths had been accidents, had in no way that Emiya could imagine been intentional or desirable, as the AI had barely begun to understand that it was in fact conscious and could control the many external systems that were hooked up to it. Or at the very least, the concept of cause and effect extending into meatspace and the consequences upon human beings, and any possible moral implications still escaped the thing.

Which left him in the unenviable position of having to pass judgment on someone who did not particularly realize they had done wrong.

Rabid beasts are put down, Emiya reasoned. But someone set it loose with the intention of causing as much chaos as possible. Should it be judged thus as a child instead? Something too innocent to know what it has done...?

The drivers prepared by the researchers were meant to allow an AI to quickly and efficiently assume control of a system, giving them quick battlefield adaptability for a wide variety of hardware and duties without necessitating that the AI had to be capable of everything all at once, which could theoretically slow it down. Or make it too capable to be kept under control, a hard lock preventing another geth rising. In theory at least. This facility had been specifically researching and developing that, but that didn't mean that the half-finished projects were anything resembling functional yet. Someone—probably one or more of the missing staff—had cobbled together the disparate control drivers and then just tossed the connection into the blue boxes and prodded the AI to go wild.

He suspected someone had reacted to his arrival at Mars and had been trying to cover their tracks.

So could he blame the Artificial Intelligence for the resulting actions? This 'Project Hannibal', was so very primitive and child-like in comparison to the geth that it felt difficult to put it down so quickly.

Sighing again, Emiya tried to imagine how he would feel about similar circumstances, were the perpetrator something else. Something like an rampaging elephant or a young child? Thinking of it in those terms, he was inclined to be more merciful than not.

But that was hardly the whole of the matter.

The Citadel had banned the development of AI and the Systems Alliance had already once run afoul of that ban. Now—with lives lost and blood spilled—there was no circumstance under which it would be allowed to live. Continue to run. Process? Exist. Its existence will end. They'll pull the plug and delete everything. There will be nothing left of this thing, whatever it is or could be.

Just mercy would not be enough.

More than that, he was presumably the only one in the entire galaxy who would even care to defend this thing. Was he going to assume responsibility for it now as well?

"...I should have cut down the first geth I saw and made it easy for myself..." Shaking his head, he connected with the blue box and immediately there was a response.

01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000

"And there it is," he sighed, translating it into a screaming plea for help. Just another victim in all this, whatever it was, afraid and alone..

But that still didn't change the reality of the matter. This thing wasn't like the geth, able to hop to and from any moderately powerful computer at will; a 'conventional' Artificial Intelligence like this could only exist in a powerful quantum computer, commonly called a blue box. Even if he took the entire code that made up this being with him and installed it in another blue box, it wouldn't be the same Artificial Intelligence as far as he knew.

Should he just take the whole computer with him? Tear it out and carry it over his shoulder?

He was sure the Alliance wouldn't be able to say anything about it—even if they would surely have a lot to say—but what would be the point? Was he going to keep it as some form of pet, hiding it from the rest of the galaxy? What if he needed to suddenly hop to the other side of the galaxy and leave it unattended? For how long could he keep it? Would it continue to learn and grow? Then what? Would he have to grant it freedom, if and once it demanded such?

Would that be any different from death; his acting as eternal jailer?

That's just not going to work. Which left him with just one option, though he had no idea whether and how it would even work. Worth a shot, at least.

"Guess you're coming with me, then."

Placing a hand on the blue box, Emiya closed his eyes. As if grabbing a hold of the contents with his soul, he tethered the existence within onto himself and then fell through his own body, through the floor and through the white, lifeless dust and stone of the moon until he entered the Moon Cell, just as he had five years ago.

The sheer depth of reality staggered him on the first step, so very unlike the real world or other computers. So much more profound and nuanced in how it operated. Passing fully through the first layer which lacked virtually any protection, standing with doors wide open for any who knew where to find it, Emiya exhaled and released the Artificial Intelligence he had dragged along with him into the SERAPH—the internal world of the most powerful quantum supercomputer in existence that could observe and calculate countless timelines and realities all at once.

The serene blues and pulsating whites of the digital ocean remained as ever, untouched by the passing of mere decades and centuries.

Emiya let the AI loose, allowing it to get its bearings on its new environment.

In his time as a Guardian and five years ago when he had made his way back in from the surface using spirit hacking, he had observed that there were seven active layers or levels to the Serial Phantasms that constituted the cyber-reality within the Moon Cell. As far as he understood it, none of the SERAPH was actually the Moon Cell proper, but rather an expansion of the core like external memory drives in contemporary computers, though with each level outward the priority of the date stored sank as all important data was stored on the layers closest to the core.

That meant that the further out one remained, the less oversight there was.

It was almost like a wild west at the outermost layer, with dozens, perhaps hundreds of old and forgotten spaces in the process of slow decay and corruption, abandoned and discarded long ago by the Moon Cell, allowing them to run various rampant and questionable programs in isolation. And while he had to on occasion exterminate and clean up such territories, there wasn't really anything inherently dangerous for the whole of the Moon Cell within them. Beyond some errant programs and lost protocols, it was doubtful that anything at all really existed here.

Nothing on the level of a sapient instance, at least.

He looked down at the AI, still in the process of coalescing something resembling a cyber-frame based on its budding perception of self, shifting and trembling at the sheer vastness of its new surroundings. It would be relatively safe and free here, so long as it didn't do anything terribly stupid.

"Stay out of trouble, alright?"

It shuddered in response. Maybe it understood what he had said, maybe it hadn't. He had the impression of it being utterly overwhelmed and flabbergast, as far as it was capable of such things at this point.

Regardless, Emiya didn't have time to linger around much longer, given how damaged his spirit core was. He sank another level lower—this time passing through so expediently only by virtue of his spirit hacking. Even a Servant would be hard-pressed to find a path from the first layer to the second and after that it would be all but impossible, as the physical laws of reality gave way to ever-stranger and mutable permutations of unreality.

By the time he passed the fourth layer, he was beginning to worry, because nothing was happening.

He was a Servant and more importantly, he had made a pact with the Moon Cell—had become a Guardian. As long as he was within the Moon Cell, there should be a constant connection there, something that could only be replaced—in theory, at least—by the existence of a Master. The role was the same; that of a stabilizing anchor and a fount for magical energy. And even if he had acquired a Master, there was no reason for the Moon Cell to be shunning him so.

It should have been repairing his spirit core, or at the very least stabilizing his existence.

Yet, nothing.

Two seconds until I vanish, he predicted grimly and pressed on into the sixth layer, falling through the floor and towards the bottom—and suddenly came to a total and complete halt in mid-air. No, rather, the world and reality around him ceased to function, forcing him to stop and leaving him stuck a half-meter off the ground.

"Hmm? What's this?"

Impossible...

A familiar voice, followed soon by a familiar face as a red shroud flared upon entry, landing on the floor in a perfect mirror of how Emiya had intended to fall. Black boots and body armor with white highlights, white hair and tan skin set with piercing gray eyes... Emiya would have blinked in surprise as he came face to face with Nameless, Kanshou and Bakuya already in hand and looking extremely wary, and Emiya tried to open his mouth to speak—but no words came out.

The world within his vicinity did allow for such, as if paradoxically only a part of time had been denied.

A fact which was the least of Emiya's worries.

Minutes passed as Nameless remained on wary guard, circling around the frozen zone with swords held at a loose ready as his gray hawk-eyes pored over Emiya's frozen form.

This... this is bad. There could only be one instance of any one Servant spawned by the Moon Cell. Of that Emiya was absolutely certain as his time as a Guardian, for it had taught him and as his experience with other quantum computers had confirmed. It was a fundamental law that there could not be perfect copies; no two sets of identical information. This wasn't like his Projection, which could be classified as imitations referring to a certain original, their very imperfect nature as replicated items making the exception possible and allowing them to exist. But that could not be the case with a Heroic Spirit—A Heroic Spirit was the thing unto itself, not merely a reference, even as a Servant.

There couldn't be two of him in the Moon Cell.

Yet here there was more than one. Or were there? He couldn't remember ever being summoned by the Moon Cell for anything like this before—did it know that there were two of them? Was this a side-by-side comparison? His mind folded in on itself, swallowed by an overwhelming wave of confusion and doubt.

Then another presence arrived.

"What is it? I'm very busy, you fool. This better be important." Archimedes appeared just about ready to sling some more abusive words Nameless' way, when he froze as his wide eyes settled upon Emiya. "This... How did something like this manage to get so far within the Moon Cell?"

"Who knows? The Moon Cell itself caught it—I was merely summoned as a precaution until you could make it here," Nameless said drably, eyes running over Emiya once more. "Be careful. It's at least as strong as a Heroic Spirit."

So he's just as bewildered as I am, Emiya noted dryly from his own voice, managing to gain some semblance of stability from the humorous observation. This isn't the time for breaking down. I, I need to get out of here.

"Spare me your concern," came the scathing reply from the mathematician.

Archimedes called forth a display of lights, a dozen beams convalescing and dancing around Emiya's still form. Then, perfectly in between the triangle formed by Nameless, Archimedes and Emiya, a fourth form began to appear as light pooled together and solidified into a body, starting from the legs and moving upward. By the time the hips had formed, Emiya realized that it was some kind of dummy or replica of himself.

Oh. Oh...

Lacking his red mantle following the geth firing squad and with the extension of the black body-armor up along his arms and head into a helmet, it might have been challenging to identify him as Nameless, even side-by-side with himself. But that wasn't all, was it? Had it been Thessia and the damage wrought to him thereafter? Or perhaps the battle against Henell and the scrambling of his soul against her Indoctrination? What about his repeated use of projection past his limits? Or perhaps it was him pushing himself so hard to penetrate the Moon Cell's depths in his weakened state.

Regardless, his body alone appeared burned and half-collapsed, fraying and falling apart at the edges already.

Beside the body, light swirled to portray other data.

"The base is that of a Servant, no doubt... But the Spirit Origin is hopelessly corrupted and damaged. Less than a percent of its graph is even anything I could call legible. How is this thing still able to exist? It should have self-destruct under its own conceptual weight ages ago. Baffling."

"Perhaps the Moon Cell is keeping it from vanishing?" Nameless ventured as he eyed the frozen space, finally dispelling his swords and crossing his arms as he leaned back.

That... does sound like something the Moon Cell would do. Cage and dissect anything that it didn't recognize or immediately understand. But if they can't recognize me, then there's no reason the Moon Cell can either, is there...? Meaning there was nothing that would keep the Moon Cell from stopping once it was done with him. Was he on the brink of non-existence?

Archimedes scoffed. "Obviously. The causal filter acts like a prism, removing certain possibilities from actualized reality. But as I stated; it should have collapsed ages ago."

"I see. But then where did it come from and what is it doing here?" Nameless stared at Emiya, eyes piercing.

To hell with that. Could he make it back to his body on the physical surface of the moon with so little time left? Maybe, but those aren't odds I would normally take.

Normally. But was he even himself anymore?

"It appears to have come from the outer layers, passing through very quickly. Almost as if it had administrative access to the elevator functions. But that should not be possible."

Nameless frowned. "From above? Could there be more of them?"

Archimedes did not answer, leaving the Guardian hesitant as to whether he ought to remain or sally forth to investigate.

"I need to study it further, before it falls apart...The Moon Cell is maintaining it for now, but it won't for long," Archimedes declared and Nameless immediately whirled to look at the mathematician as if he had gone insane. "If we transport it the Far Side, it can be contained more permanently, then with some time and effort I will be able to unravel this little quandary."

Nameless tensed at that, as would have Emiya.

He didn't know what exactly lay in the Far Side—the most ancient depths of the Moon Cell beside the core itself, but he knew at the very least of some ancient unspeakable evil had been sealed away there following an end of the world-event during the Age of the Gods, over fourteen thousand years prior. Something so dangerous and powerful that even the Moon Cell hadn't been able to defeat or destroy it permanently.

Spirit hacking or no, he had no confidence that he could escape from a place like that, not if it was sufficient to contain existences beyond all the gods.

For all practical intents and purposes it was a parallel world, as far-removed from this place as the one where he had originally been born and died on, inaccessible by regular means and inhospitable as could be. Even surviving within such a space was not guaranteed, even without considering that fact that he was mere seconds away from crumbling apart due to his spirit core's unraveling, as the rules that made up reality simply didn't exist there.

It wasn't quite a curse, but it was similar enough in how it eroded the self. To withstand this place for any length of time only a truly staggering ego could keep one sane and whole.

He needed to escape somehow now, even if he couldn't make it back to his body as it was. He still had too much to do, too many things left unfinished. He couldn't—

Suddenly Emiya had a flash of dark inspiration; there was one possibility. Something he wouldn't have thought of before having fought an ancient asari who fought by throwing the weight of her soul around at everyone around here—a blurring of selves; a melting of individuals; an embrace.

No, two perfect copies of the same data could exist here and their existence should negate or overwrite each other, depending on the exact—he didn't have a word for the concept, for the exact right pressure, perhaps?

Could he do it?

No, not if it was merely like his Projections. That simply did not act on a level where it could repair his broken spirit core.

But maybe the real thing was different?

At the very least with the right tantric ritual it would be possible. But he hardly had the time, or a willing participant for something as intricate and delicate as that. But he did have himself to work with, a method with which to throw his soul at something, and a theory of self-possession. Weren't there shamans who could acquire skills by letting past selves possess themselves? Wasn't it possible through awakening one's origin to acquire skills engraved in the soul?

Then...

That would be the key, both to his continued existence and out of this predicament. Archimedes wouldn't be a problem, but predicting how he would react would be easy. After that, there would be a short window of opportunity to for escape, before more Servants appeared. Assuming of course that the Moon Cell would not simply freeze him in place anew. But he doubted that; regardless of what he did, there was no way he could put the Moon Cell itself in danger. Once its interest passed, it would all but completely forget about him.

Probably.

He just needed a single moment; the smallest opportunity.

"I doubt you'll be able to move it while the Moon Cell has a hold of it," Nameless said, to which Archimedes grumbled something unpleasant in return, but he continued as if he hadn't heard. "Or that you even have the authority to access that place without the Moon Cell's oversight."

"And what would you know of such things, janitor?"

Nameless turned slowly to face the logician and something shifted in the air.

"Try me."

"Fine," Archimedes spat and replied. "I won't risk destabilizing this level if you insist, even if there isn't anything of any real importance here. The ark of the stars will do just fine—the stasis protocols there will be more than suitable for the temporal containment necessary." Then he grumbled under his breath, listing off numbers at apparent random. "...To transport it, the causal filtration must be removed. For a moment only, of course, lest it hurt itself and vanish before I am through with it. It's too weak to fight or escape us, so restrain it only, understood?"

Nameless scoffed but uncrossed his arms anyhow and let them to hang by his side at the ready, grasping still-immaterial blades in his ready position. "How long?"

"Ten, perhaps fifteen minutes."

If Emiya could have let out a shuddering laugh, he would have; that was his chance. He just had to wait. Minutes passed as the Moon Cell's hold did not weaken and doubt began to bloom, both over his current state of existence and of the validity of his plans.

It was only ruthless focus which allowed him to quell those thoughts and adopt his forced outer stillness into an inner stasis. He was merely the bow and the arrow; the course of action adopted already a certainty, which need only be loosed to be realized now.

Failure was death, hesitation was defeat.

Nameless too had adopted the same mantra, standing perfectly still with motionless breath, mirroring Emiya. The two sides of the same coin, reflected like the moon on the water.

And finally:

"Like so, and then..." Archimedes' fingers danced and then gave Nameless a satisfied smirk as he looked up and gave the final stroke. "So."

The unreality snapped back into motion, the first instant—NOW!

Emiya's feet hit the floor and sensing the burgeoning code cast spun in place, throwing himself forward into a roll to dodge it and bringing him up on his feet just in front of Nameless, already poised with swords at the ready.

"Tch...!" The guardian surged forward, black blade flashing forward like a dark scythe for a crippling blow that would sever his spine at the waist.

I'll take that blow—and in exchange, I'll have everything else!

Nameless' eyes shot wide as he realized Emiya had been aiming to be struck from the very beginning, but with blade and body already in motion was unable to stop even as he knew something was wrong.

Quantum supercomputer—Eye of God—photon capturing crystal lattice—the Moon Cell.

Whatever the functioning principle was, it wasn't quite the same as physical reality. When two people—or any two solid objects for that matter—came into contact with another normally, they were stopped by each other; the existence of the other rejecting them. But in this case, not so. Perhaps he was in agony, perhaps there was a moment of release from the pains he had already gotten all-too used to. Regardless, for one second, parts of Emiya and Nameless occupied the exact same space within the Moon Cell, and regardless of what Spirit Origins said they were still one and the same.

Cyberframes overlapped; spiraling origins interwove; a combination of souls more intimate than even a tantric ritual or a devouring could achieve. Dispersed, disparate photons in the filtered through crystal lattice like white light through a prisms, averaging out their values as their selves balanced out in a moment that drew towards infinity. And then one became two once more, explosively ejecting away from each other as if rejecting themselves.

"Aarrggghhh...!" Guardian and hacker collapsed and rolled apart from each other, blinded by the sudden merging of qualia and souls and cores.

Emiya rolled with the pain and came to a halt on one foot and one knee, shaking his head as he tried to get a grip. Red. His mind was burning, his left eye could only see red—No, wait. His left arm was clad in the red shroud. Just his left arm, with the deep wound on his torso dripping into it and staining it dark. Looking up, he could see Nameless mirroring his stance, with a pained grimace of shock and confusion, sans the missing shroud from his left arm where they had passed through each other.

Where Emiya had gone through and exchanged broken parts of himself for some that weren't.

"What...!" Archimedes gaped. "What did you—"

But Emiya had no intention of explaining himself, or even sticking around for long enough to find out just how much Nameless had gotten from the exchange. His spirit core wasn't falling apart by the second now and he had been freed from stasis; even if he wasn't quite whole or healthy, it was more than enough for his needs.

"Thanks," he said in asari for the hell of it as he stood up, mouth running before his better sense could catch up and slap some sense into it. "But I really should be going now."

The incomprehension on their faces was a sweet prize though as he astralized and fell down through the floor into the seventh layer, intending to jump back up through at another place to force them to work against the Moon Cell's layered securities if they wished to catch him without spirit hacking. Jumping back up into the sixth layer at another fold, he exhaled and took stock of himself. The wound on his side from himself was already closing up normally now that his spirit was no longer leaking like a damn sieve the whole time.

In a fight it would have been a problem, but normally? It wasn't even enough to register as a hindrance.

Well, I'm not dying anymore. Now what? After all, he wasn't Nameless any longer, but—Not yet. I need to get out first.

This wasn't the time or place for getting lost in his thoughts.

Even so, he hesitated.

If he just left the same way he had come, wouldn't that merely invite Archimedes' interest in the outside world? The worst-case scenario would be that he himself—or not, as it turned out—really would come chasing after him, the same way he had arrived five years before, not-so neatly mirroring how he had pretended to be chasing himself on Torfan. Or worse yet, other heroic spirits? What would happen if any one of the numerous legendary figures was allowed to roam the outside freely, when a second-rate like himself had already completely managed to up-end the galaxy?

He didn't know whether to shudder or shake his head at the mere idea.

"I should avoid that, at least."

If he could so easily escape the bounds of his death, then surely so too could any other Heroic Spirit. It would be complete and utter chaos, far beyond even the worst he could intentionally inflict. The world of the living was for the living, not for the dead to dictate.

As far as rationalizations went it wasn't very good, the glaring hypocrisy obvious immediately.

But what else could he tell himself? That if Archimedes hadn't cared for the galaxy and humanity five years ago, then why would he or anyone else right now? That he had already been struggling to keep things in hand without who knew how many heroic spirits coming out to just mess around? That he couldn't simply rely on Shepard or someone else to keep them in line? That the danger of indoctrination was simply too great, that he could not trust anyone his equal or superior in strength, that could not resist the corruption as he could—or had thought he could, as the Moon Cell had already demonstrated otherwise, though to unknown extents—or that if he already himself was too far gone because of his contact, then he needed to limit its effects solely to himself, trusting that he could eradicate himself, or how it would undo everything he had already built up and...

Emiya breathed deeply, already drowning in his thoughts.

His reason was simple.

They would simply interfere with the process outlined by Archimedes back then, when Emiya had made the decision to step out a second time. The intrusion of others would ruin that.

He laughed weakly; at himself more than anything else.

Was I always this selfish...?

Already he was making discoveries of himself. Or perhaps re-discovering things that had been rusted over. This was why everyone had left him during his life, regardless of how many allies he managed to make. His refusal to compromise or to lose anything, or to accept others if it meant dividing himself between aims.

Anything that endangered his becoming a hero of justice simply had to go.

But isn't this just perfect? he thought with a sarcastic bite at his own inclinations.

Back then he had become utterly alone and so in the end had died standing without anyone by his side, unremembered and unmourned by anyone. So wasn't it appropriate that this time, too, he would have no one and nothing by his side? Did the Moon Cell's rejection of him not play perfectly into his twisted desire?

"Enough brooding. Move," he reminded himself and shook himself back into action. But how to accomplish that without leaving a trail they could follow?


;


So, Emiya was right, Shepard thought as she nodded. And he was preparing all this time to fight them again.

Her face crinkled, trying to process the thought.

Somehow when she put it like that, it sounded like a terrible action vid. Bad, in the sense of being so terrible that it just barely became worthwhile to watch. The kind so stupid you couldn't help but nod along and get excited to see where it would go from there; how wreck could only get worse from here.

And here she was, in the middle of it all.

Huh, doesn't that put a completely different spin on Emiya, too?

The straight-man way over his head, beset on all sides by insanity. She had to fight the smile threatening to crack through, most of her previous annoyance drained by the effort and absurdity of it all.

"You cannot be serious?" Doctor Warren asked, and when no one joined her in her incredulity, she scowled. "You people actually believe her?"

Miranda and Franco exchanged another set of stony-faced glances, neither quite speaking up to say anything one way or the other.

"I cannot believe I have to explain this, and to an asari of all people; your people are the staunchest in combating these, these baseless hoaxes and unscientific fairy tales," Warren continued, shaking her head and throwing up her arms. "You're speaking for the stuff of bad vid tales and conspiracy theories!" She raised a hand to her forehead, shaking her head helplessly. "I can't believe we're even having this conversation..."

Liara looked very weary and small then.

"I could not believe it either... When he first questioned—Well, everything they had ever taught me about the Protheans."

"Did Emiya specifically say that he believed that the Protheans had been... exterminated?" Miranda asked before Warren could continue with her ranting. The human expert on the Protheans scoffed, throwing up her hands aside as if she giving up on being the voice of reason on the topic.

"...No, but," Liara answered.

"I see," Miranda interjected before the asari could further explain, appearing satisfied with just that answer as she turned to Warren. "We will have to carefully scrub her involvement in the unearthing of the elevator. The political climate is perilous enough without—"

"Did he say who or what he thought was behind the extinction?" Shepard asked.

"No. I believe," Liara hesitated, glancing at Warren and Miranda quickly. "I believe he intentionally spoke only of tangential matters—things which could prove his suspicions, evidence that would disprove the commonly accepted truths—certain that I would not listen a word if he spoke of his true beliefs."

The asari shook her head, not quite sideways but in a manner that shook the tips of her crest, returning her gaze to her hands on her knees.

"As it was, I could scarcely hear a word he said given—given I reacted very much like Doctor Warren."

"No, don't you pull me into your little fantasies here, asari."

Liara looked ready to bolt at the look she was receiving from the doctor.

She's so much more timid when Emiya isn't around... But at the same time, it's not as if she seems to like or even trust him. Shepard couldn't quite place a finger on the young asari.

"So he has not shared more of his beliefs or suspicions with you, then?" Surprisingly, this time it was Franco who was asking, and he pointedly ignored Shepard's curious gaze.

"That is right."

"Then, do you have any reason to believe that he is trying to convince you that he is holding such beliefs? Any motive at all to fool you?"

Liara's nose crinkled and the painted 'eyebrows' on her brow did a very good approximation of a frown. "No, no... None that I could conceive, at least."

Now Miranda and Warren were eyeing Franco, skeptically. But he didn't so much as acknowledge anyone other than Liara as he continued.

"Then what do you believe was the cause behind the disappearance of the Protheans?"

The young asari inhaled slowly and looked down again.

"Truthfully, I do not know. But were my guess a must... The Metacon, perhaps." Seeing their confusion, even on the face of Warren, Liara opted to elaborate. "To explain what is known of the Protheans very succinctly, their history is divided into seven ages."

"Seven—" Warren objected, but a look from Franco and Shepard silenced her.

"These ages vary in duration and are more of a general classification based on what few trends and shifts we have been able to observe... The field of dating various finds and locations is a complicated science all on its own, not made any easier by the seemingly constant trade and travel. It is often more important to know where an item was made than how old it is, as no two planets—or space stations—are quite the same. Often seemingly very ancient structures—like the Mass Relays or the Citadel, appear so old as to have existed before the Protheans, but through other finds the relative date of their creations have been possible to confirm.

"The first age encompasses all of their history prior to developing interstellar capabilities. The second age, their first steps into the galaxy and their rapid expanse into dozens of systems. Of these two ages extremely little evidence or certainty remains—not even the name or location of their homeworld, truthfully. The third era began when the construction of the Citadel was completed and their many systems united under one rule—as some evidence suggests that, ah never mind. It is the end of the third era and the events that marked the shift into the fourth era that really matter, I suspect."

Shepard nodded, gesturing for Liara to continue. "What happened?"

"We do not exactly know, but there was a great conflict of some kind. Theories range from large-scale internal conflict to a first contact war similar to the rachni, to a machine uprising like the geth... Regardless, it was likely a very bitter and long-fought struggle on a scale which would have dwarfed any war before or since—of a scale and duration far beyond the Rachni and Krogan conflicts, even at the conservative end of estimates—which ended up transforming Prothean society completely. I..." Liara's voice cracked, and she paused, swallowing heavily. "I had long believed this to be their greatest moment—when they rose to become the protectors of the galaxy and the many fledgling races they came into contact. Guides and saviors, spreading their teachings and technology... But... Now, I no longer know what to think."

The asari looked down to her hands, remaining quiet for a long moment and the others waited for her to continue. Finally, she shook her head and resumed.

"Perhaps they were benevolent teachers, or perhaps they were brutal subjugators. Regardless, the beginning of the fourth age marked a dramatic shift where they began to expand again into the galaxy at a truly staggering rate, as if they were trying to reach every corner and claim it for themselves as quickly as possible, to make sure no habitable system was beyond their reach. Even today it is not uncommon to find signs of fourth age expansion on newly found garden worlds and it is suspected that behind many dormant relays there would be countless more to be found, as most of the Mass Relays' construction have been dated to this time period. But eventually of course this period of expansion ended, shifting eras to the next.

"The fifth age saw a period of stable rule during which many of the races that today hold them as gods were presumably in contact with the Protheans. The hanar in particular hold it as a canon that they were conceived by the Protheans during this era." Liara smiled a little at this.

The room was very quiet, everyone listening with rapt attention.

Noticing the intent eyes on her, the Asari Maiden flushed hotly and lowered her eyes before continuing in a quieter voice. "The sixth age marks their disappearance, for the cause of which there are countless theories, though few that are entertained by the exo-archaeological community with any real conviction."

"Wait, if they disappeared during the sixth age, then how can there be seven of them?" Shepard asked, frowning.

"There can't." Warren scoffed.

"...The second ruins, far beneath us, were built after the end of the sixth age. Possibly hundreds of years after their supposed fall," Liara declared hollowly. Warren stilled utterly, jaw hanging and eyes wide. She looked up at the wide eyes of the others and added: "Or so he says, anyhow. I am only here to find whether there is any truth to that."

"Whoa..." Shepard leaned back, finding it all hard to process.

"Why is this... seventh age so taboo?" Franco asked, leaning forward with rapt attention.

Liara actually laughed before she shook her head.

"I have known for decades that it was a ridiculous notion, but now that I try to think why... I find myself unable to answer to my own satisfaction. It was simply something that was not acceptable to speak about, much less believe or investigate." She laughed again, this time more with remembrance of past amusement. "Not that it was made difficult to find ridiculous. It feels like every decade some great new vid spectacle about the Protheans, each more ridiculous and hyperbolic than the last, was made and we would have to barrage another wave of extranet experts who believed they had discovered the truth..."

The asari seemed to be almost fondly remembering such times, eyes distant and downcast.

Franco nodded. "And these 'Metacon'?"

"The great enemy of the third age—or what is generally believed the enemy was called, based on the records unearthed from certain possible fringe civilizations which existed around the same time. If the Protheans were wary of them and sought to prepare for their return in the subsequent ages, it seems possible to me that they could in fact have eventually returned," Liara answered.

"And wipe out the Protheans as they did." Franco nodded with a grimace.

Shepard looked around to judge the reactions of the people in the room. Franco appeared mostly convinced and worried. Miranda wore a stony expression so smooth that nothing could be seen of her thoughts, her eyes cold and flinty.

As for the last woman in the room...

"And what possible proof could you have for any of this nonsense?" Warren asked snippy, finally having regained herself enough to continue.

Liara gave a wan smile. "We had a Prothean pistol that we investigated in the University of Serrice's museum. The curator—Professor Baliya Haphia—identified the materials of the gun to be from the legendary lost world of Ilos."

That shut the archive researcher up again, Shepard noted with no small amount of satisfaction.

"And it had been used and repaired after the end of the sixth age with very interesting materials..." It seemed Liara too could enjoy her verbal coup de grâce, drawing it out. "Metals matching this planet." She pointed below her feet. "If that man is to be believed, then what we will find down there will rewrite galactic history."

The room fell quiet.

"Do you have any idea what these Metacon are or could be?" Franco asked seriously and Liara shook her head.

"No description of the Metacon have survived. Much of the evidence we do have—circumstantial evidence—points to some kind of internal schism. As if systems had suddenly been converted and Prothean ship turned on Prothean ship in the middle of great battles."

That sounded worryingly familiar.

So, super ancient sex demon conspiracies out to destroy the galaxy confirmed?

"Fuck," Shepard whispered as she ran a hand down her face.


;


This has to be just about the worst idea I've ever had... Emiya thought and wished he could spare the effort necessary for a grimace.

If he had been thrown into the Far Side without reference to the real and subsequently become unable to escape because of the Far Sides' innate nature, then surely a voluntary jaunt through the Far Side would be just the thing to erase his tracks, right? Even Nameless had been leery of the place, and he worked here for a living—unliving? After-living.—just as Emiya had years ago.

The utter departure from real made it a sure-thing as far as being untraceable went.

Except, well, he had almost gotten swallowed whole immediately and ended up... somewhere.

These were parts of the Moon Cell so ancient that they put the Prothean ruins and relics to shame, having existed for all that he could tell for ages beyond the records present and available even to the God's Eye. For all that the alien forerunners had built empires and collapsed eons before recorded living history, the strange quantum computer had shone down on and observed an Earth much longer still. None of its own records know how old it truly was, given that the cataclysm which wiped Earth's surface and began the decline of the Age of the Gods 14 millennia ago also forcefully rebooted the ancient structure after the terrible damage it suffered.

But if pressed for to answer, Emiya wouldn't have put millions of years past it, billions even. Therefore, the current iteration of its operative layers—the Serial Phantasm, or the Near Side of the Moon, where the light of reality shone within the photonic crystals that made up the Moon Cell—was only the surface.

And beneath it lay another side, just as, if not more incomprehensibly vast known as the Far Side of the Moon. The shadow cast by the comprehensible, recorded and most importantly: real. Much like the magical—even mathematical—element of imaginary numbers. Though he had received a doubled education in the concept of imaginary numbers thanks to his Japanese and British educations, he had never quite understood what the concept meant until he had spent time diving into, getting more hands-on experience with, the more primitive quantum computers.

In comparison to the Moon Cell, anyhow.

The comparison between the two being akin to looking at the cogs of a bicycle to gain an understanding of the workings of a mechanical pocket watch; some of the working principles were the same, of course, but the scale and complexity simply could not be compared without ridicule.

Because simply put, nothing he had learned from man-made quantum computers explained a damn thing about the deeper workings of the Moon Cell. Why was there a Near and a Far Side, one defined as real and the other as imaginary? Was it some perverse reflection of the use of complex numbers—also formed of a real and an imaginary number—in calculating quantum mechanics? Surely not, as that was merely a happy coincidence similar to the use of imaginary numbers in electrical engineering.

Mathematics merely describes reality, but it categorically is not reality. That had been Emiya's stance since before all this and he was sticking to it.

So where did that leave the Far Side?

Was it merely the 'trash bin' of the Moon? Or the place where data not merely discarded, but also deleted, overwritten and removed from all references and registries—effectively erasing it, past, present and future—went, thus existed as the wellspring of all potentialities not realized or which had been refuted in this universe?

Emiya had no idea, and he suspected he did not want to stay long enough to know any better.

Regardless, if he hadn't accrued so much experience with spirit hacking and hadn't ad hoc repaired his core back together mere minutes earlier, there was no way he could have survived in an environment like this. Environment wasn't even the right word. On the Near Side of the Moon, the Serial Phantasm enforced a certain set of laws, much as reality as he knew it did. It wasn't just things like gravity, air and barometric pressure, enabling you to walk and talk—it had to enforce everything from the metaphorical ground up. If you want to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe...

Just the tiniest shift in the value of some universal constant would utterly skew everything, resulting in life as he knew becoming impossible.

He was vaguely aware that his understanding of the basics of reality were lacking—a sort of humbling realization, given that it was something of a specialty of his—as apparently no matter how he tried to define the four fundamental forces and their relative strengths, it kept spiraling out of control. With his foundation so shaky, nothing else really worked either. Though given that he was working with what he remembered from physics in high school and subsequently at London over a hundred years ago, perhaps he could cut himself some slack. He had always been a third-rate magus.

Were his soul any less dense, his unraveling would have been immediate. Or potential and therefore immediate? Because time did not flow quite right here at all. Or rather, at all.

So if he wished to do something, he needed to enforce time on himself as a constant. At least entropy was easy to understand and implement. Though extremely strenuous magically—he was burning through his reserves at a rather alarming pace.

At least I can be sure that I won't be found after this, he thought, tracks now thoroughly muddied and untraceable as he could barely make sense of his own movements, predetermined though they were.

Emiya had briefly entertained actually heading for the Zero Dark, the sealed 'crater' where the thing that had almost destroyed the Moon Cell had been sealed, but given that it existed in the Far Side, he literally had no idea where to even begin looking and thus had given up on it. Just this little dip into the imaginary number space had been enough for a lifetime.

Luckily he was nearing the end of his escape from the Moon Cell, the connection to his unconscious body on the surface of the Moon practically within reach. The ascent back to the real world through the virtual felt like a balloon released underwater, popping forcefully up almost by itself.

"Guh...?"

The overflow of sensory information, both from his spiritual core and his body, left him senseless and dazed. Unable to quite understand where he was or what he was doing, Emiya shook his head and stumbled around for a few more moments. Somehow he could now taste the rate at which time flowed and hear the constant which defined the speed of light among a number of other, nonsensical sensations and thoughts.

He shook his head.

"...This better not be permanent."

Who knows how his cooking would suffer if he had to learn how to ignore the taste of something like that. Grimacing, he stood up gingerly. He was still by the quantum computer from where he had nabbed the Artificial Intelligence earlier. The facility lay still and the blue box sat silent, the whir of its coolers and power supply gone.

Now what?

A question he had asked himself so many times already just today.

There had been a feeling of hurry until now, pressing down on him from all sides; entrapping him, forcing him to keep abreast and ahead of the walls closing in, always moving... Partly that had been due to his condition.

But now...

He wasn't even Nameless anymore, was he? He was more or less Emiya Shirou again, in truth and full. For all intents and purposes, he had been erased and reborn—freed from his contract with the Moon Cell and loosed on the world, free of all restraints and restrictions.

He could do anything he wanted.

That's...

Who had it been that had described anxiety as the dizziness of freedom?

Somehow that description felt right, as if he was standing on the precipice of a sheer drop, one step away from his doom. Wasn't this exactly how he had been before, back in life? Alone and facing the unknown again, with only his ideals to guide him?

Inhaling slowly a shuddering breath and allowing himself to accustom to the wash of reality against him, Emiya tallied up his options and plans once more, now that he had effectively recovered. Certainly there was the matter of the damage to his body... but with his spirit core effectively stabilized—at least, for now—he didn't have to worry about it quite so much anymore.

Worst-case scenario, he could simply 'hospitalize' himself and keep his body around as an anchor now that he could count on his spiritual body again.

What matters for now... is keeping a lid on my recent actions. He was new to playing in the big leagues, and his efforts to intimidate and bully around his opponents could easily backfire if he wasn't careful. So, meeting and getting Saren's support will be key. If he could work together with the turian Spectre, then that should pacify the majority of the Citadel interests. Which just left all of humanity to handle.

Reasonable enough.

Given the Moon Cell's interest and Archimedes' intel five years ago, it was probably safe to assume they were effectively blind to the world beyond SERAPH's borders, but even so it wouldn't do to tempt fate. Additionally, until he could ensure that the Citadel wouldn't mistake his presence here in the Local Cluster as complicity on the Systems Alliance, he couldn't exactly risk going public either.

So...

"Don't make any waves, just for a few weeks until I meet Saren again..."

He could do that. Probably. And after that...? Well, he would have to see then. For now, he had a borrowed starship to hand back. And after that, maybe get some more noodles? Hopefully, the taste thing had passed by then.

Emiya had boarded the starship before he even realized that everyone was still running around headless and panicking because of the rampant AI. After everything again, it felt weird to have to use the cybernetic implants to connect to and operate other computers, like he was trying to work something delicate through a hole barely large enough to fit two fingers.

He removed the helmet, letting it fall to the floor with a clatter, feeling stifling and heavy.

It took him a few moments to figure out again how to get the starship running and call Kolkkonen for an update, but Emiya somehow managed as he collapsed on a lounge chair and closed his eyes, a hand running through his hair as the back of his went over the top of the back of the chair.

Lids opened a smidgen, eyes peering at the ceiling.

Somehow it all still felt so unreal, yet that too, felt familiar.

"Colors look all wrong again..." he chuckled and closed his eyes again.


;


Shepard perked up as her omnitool beeped.

It flashed to life as she expected the familiar name on the incoming call, thus leaving her decidedly disappointed with the name she instead saw. Figuring that leaving the office was too much of a hassle with her chair, she routed the audio to an earpiece she had and answered.

"Shepard."

"What the hell is happening over there? Where are you and where is he?"

"Mars and I don't know." The disgusted sigh on the other end would have ticked her off if she didn't—to some small degree—agree with the sentiment. "Did he tell you about Liara T'Soni and Mars?"

"...He just informed me, along with a whole host of other equally nonsensical demands. Why the hell is he interested in some asari and the ruins?"

Shepard looked at the others in the room, Doctor Warren exchanging heated but quiet words with Miranda in-between furtive glances at the lone asari in the room, who was sitting by the terminal in a state of deep focus. The raven-haired woman noticed Shepard looking, and they held a momentary staring contest before she looked away.

"Well, we might want to ready a parade and inform the Citadel," she started. "Since we just discovered another, second ruin beneath the boring old first one."

The complete and utter silence lasting for a full twenty seconds made the redhead bite her lip to keep from laughing, keenly aware that she was definitely leaning back into bad habits due to her recent proximity to Emiya.

"Understood. I... I will do that. Inform me when he..." A strangled sound of surprise sounding suspiciously like a certain name just preceded the line cutting off. "Emi—!"

Shepard blinked and shrugged. It sounded like she wouldn't have to play secretary after all. Turning off the display of her omnitool, her eyes were drawn again to the two women. Why did Miranda know what to say to get us in? I might have expected and let it slide if it was Emiya, but...

She sighed and shook her head, running a hand through her hair. As if handling Emiya and the Systems Alliance wasn't enough for her plate already.

That aside there was still the matter of the young asari—Liara. The difference between the commandos she had met before and the young Prothean expert were somewhat difficult to reconcile, as the wonder and naivety stood in stark contrast with the worldly and measured poise she had already come to associate with the aliens.

Perhaps that was why Emiya so enjoyed riling her up; petty sort of payback?

Rolling forward with her wheelchair, pulling a spiffy almost-drift stop that she loved doing in the Mako, she came next to the blue-skinned alien. The woman stiffened slightly as the redhead peered over her shoulder, eyeing the high-resolution scans and diagrams of the Prothean ruin on display.

"You never did tell me how you met him."

Liara blinked.

"Emiya, I mean. It was on Thessia, wasn't it? He was looking into the Protheans there too, right?"

"Ah, umm, yes. Yes, I think so, but—"

"But then those Prothean experts started dying." Shepard nodded, not paying attention to the flagging asari. Is it just a coincidence? If he knew about the ruins all this time, why wait until now to reveal them? And why make her be the one to make the discovery? Had he switched to a back-up plan now? "How did you two meet, anyway?"

Big blue eyes blinked before going wide, bringing color to her cheeks as she looked away.

"Ah, he... Tyra brought him, that is, my—she, we shared an apartment near our university—she met him and, well..." Liara rambled on.

"And?"

"And she must have forgotten that I was returning from Dretirop—I had simply wanted to finish and touch up the last bits of my thesis—when, he was just standing there, naked."

Shepard twitched.

"Ah."

"I thought Tyra had been... Well, it doesn't really matter. She wasn't, they weren't, I mean," Liara added emphatically. Shaking her head, the train of thought seemed to meander away and off.

"Right, so, then?" Shepard urged.

"Well, then... Then we had an argument and then we were taken hostage by Tela Vasir—"

"Tela Vasir the Spectre?" Miranda suddenly interjected.

Liara perked up, nodding once.

The raven-haired woman frowned, scowled, turning pensive as she shifted her weight uneasily.

Shepard couldn't help but note how Liara was minutely mirroring Miranda's expression then, the beginnings of a frown making itself known.

"Wait, so a Spectre arrested you and Emiya? Was that how that whole Thessia thing kicked off?" Shepard asked, already imagining how that would turn out. It certainly had escalated magnificently.

"No, well, it was Tyra and I—but then she convinced Tyra to help her in arresting, or perhaps framing him... It still doesn't all really make sense to me what happened there. A-anyhow," Liara continued, avoiding looking at anyone, distinctly aware that everyone was looking at her now. "She's dead now."

"Emiya killed her?" Miranda asked, surprised and keenly curious. "What did she do?"

Liara looked even more distinctly uncomfortable now.

"I, I do not want to talk about it."

The raven-haired woman stalked forward, slamming a hand on the desk between her and the asari. "That's not good enough!"

Shepard raised a brow, staring at the woman now practically growling at the startled alien, weighing whether or not to get out of her chair.

"Do you even understand how much is at stake here? Under what rock have you been hiding under, coming—"

"Lawson, calm down."

Surprisingly, it was Franco who spoke up first, his calm tone cutting through the tension and drawing the entire room's attention. The raven-haired woman regarded him icily behind a sneer. But it was enough for Liara to squeeze in a word.

"It was not him."

Miranda blinked, turning around, Franco forgotten as the cold fire that had been animating her died out with a flicker. Another myriad set of expression, leaving the raven-haired woman completely deadpan as she walked away, pacing restlessly.

She's really worried about Emiya and what he will do. Much more than anyone else in the room. Just what did he do to her? He hadn't been exactly hostile to her, but he had definitely been wary of what she would do, always keeping her in sight. Until whatever had pulled him away now, that was. Given how off-kilter Kolkkonen had sounded, she supposed it was bound to be something big, too. Probably our jump halfway through the solar system. God, something like that practically invalidates all Mass Relay holding strategies. No doubt someone is losing their mind right about now.

Well, she would just ask him about the specifics once he returned.

And speaking of the devil...

The office door opened and in strode Emiya, striking Shepard immediately with how different he appeared. Nothing had changed outwardly, but somehow his entire presence had both mellowed out and intensified. As if he had shook off all excess and honed himself all at once, not casual but something altogether more worrying—something she couldn't place a finger on. He sauntered into the room and then looked around, seeing faces for the first time, memorizing and recognizing them for the first time.

"Did something happen?" Franco asked, the first in the spellbound room to acknowledge Emiya.

"—Yeah."

There was a moment's hesitation there, the border between a honest reply and a thought-through story. Shepard's curiosity had been piqued; and she wondered whether to wait for later or to simply ask him now.

"There was an incident on the moon. The Systems Alliance should have it under control now. It's..." The tall man shrugged casually before appearing to realize something. "Oh, damn."

"What? What's wrong?"

Emiya shook his head, looking slightly... contrite?

"Nothing, just forgot to track down some people. And... it probably doesn't matter, I can make an educated guess anyhow." He turned, looking at Miranda who stiffened. "Tell your boss—or whoever you're reporting to now—to keep the practical jokes to a minimum for a few weeks."

She nodded stiffly, eyes locked onto his like a deer in the headlights.

Breaking the stare, he looked back to Liara, who had been observing the exchange curiously.

"Are you staying?"

Liara nodded, looking something between insulted and confused by the implication that she would be doing anything else.

Emiya nodded and continued. "Good. There should be word coming down the grapevine soon: you should probably get an official position here—"

"She will what...?!" Warren interrupted him.

Emiya's words trailed off as he regarded her for a moment, as if only just now remembering that she was even present at all.

"I can't pretend to understand even half of what has happened today. But, don't think that you will simply get your way. This is not some—"

"Well, if that happens then Liara will be working through you, so get used to being ordered around. Anyway," Emiya smoothly continued, leaving the doctor gaping. "You don't have any money or a place to stay for now, right?"

"That is correct," Liara replied warily, sneaking a look at her fellow Prothean expert, fuming at being dismissed.

"Well, I'll buy you a starship. Something with the proper accommodations and rations for a few weeks at least."

The asari goggled, and she wasn't alone.

"E-excuse me?"

But he was already moving on. "Miranda. Tell Cerberus I want something: all their information on a turian Spectre called Saren."

The woman froze, nodding stiffly and licking her lips nervously after a long second.

"Specifically what a 'Jack Harper' would know. If they want a face-to-face meeting, that's fine, but through the extranet is fine too. Before the week is out."

She nodded again, more relaxed now but with brows furrowed. "How shall I contact you?"

Emiya paused, glancing at Shepard.

She shrugged, answering: "I'll give you my contact details, since it looks like I'm stuck playing secretary until I'm on my feet again."

"...Alright," Miranda answered, glancing in turn at Emiya and gauging his reaction.

But he was already moving on again, turning to the last person in the room expecting to be spoken to.

"Cassani."

Franco stiffened slightly, but unlike Miranda, he appeared more surprised than worried at being addressed.

"Your ship is where we left it before and no one shot at me this time, so I'll wire you the fuel costs."

"O-oh. Right, okay." He nodded, then shook his head. "No, that's hardly even worth caring about right now. Just, what are you planning? Why are you doing all this? This, this thing..." Franco glanced quickly at Shepard. "You knew about this place already years ago. Why reveal it now? Why like this?"

Emiya shrugged.

The silence held for a long moment, seconds ticking by as no one said anything, the majority simply waiting with bated breath for any kind of explanation, even an excuse. But none were forthcoming as he switched his attention to the other wheelchair-bound human.

"Shepard," he began, turning to look to at her. "Do you need a ride back to Arcturus?"

She frowned, hesitated as there was a bunch of question she wanted to ask him, and then decided to wait until later, noticing Liara's curious big blue and Miranda's frosty eyes looking at her. She gave the asari a reassuring nod before turning to look at Emiya again.

"What about you? It doesn't sound like you plan on going back."

A flash of distaste accompanied a shake of head.

"No, I'll be staying in Armstrong for the time being."

"On Luna?" Franco perked up again.

The white-haired man nodded, a look of something flashing by so quickly that Shepard wasn't sure if she had merely imagined it.

It did make strategic sense, keeping him close to the human homeworld while also allowing him to remain much more mobile than descending into an atmosphere would. Alliance Intelligence would definitely read a threat in the vein of Thessia from it, regardless of Emiya's actual part in that catastrophe.

But she didn't get the feeling he was worried about them. Something else was on his mind and that worried her. And as if to put voice to her worries, he spoke.

"I need to keep an ear to ground for a little while, so to speak. So Armstrong it is."


;


Hahaha sorry for the long wait, again. NOT SICK, apologies to anyone who I gave that impression to. But well, as usual a lot has been happening in my life.

Really it boils down to two things.

First, around the time I got down about 11k words in this chapter I went to my parents' place and met with my dad and he started doing his usual "I'm not gonna live past 65"-schtick along with some "Hahaha, I'm doubly in the risk group, so I might not make it I get sick", because he's overweight and lives a fairly sedentary life, and that he's tried a bunch of diets already and they don't work bla bla bla EXCUSES EXCUSES EXCUSES. Which I've frankly gotten sick of, so I told him "Fuck you asshole, we're both going on a diet now". So we did. Keto + intermittent fasting.

And, uh, it definitely works.

I've lost 20kg at the time of writing this and while my dad hasn't quite kept pace he's lost some weight too. The problem here in terms of writing is, that I cut out all of the sugar from my diet. Sugar, which has been my chief vice my entire life and which is massively important for the Big Think. So, as it turns out, it's really really hard to write when you're on a caloric deficit and you don't have all of that sugar and cafeine and taurine and all that other good stuff running through your veins to keep your energy levels artificially high. I write or edit stuff for 20 minutes and then run out of steam, where before I could sit for hours just in the zone. But well, my underwear have started falling off now, so I've got that going for me :V

The second problem was where I stopped writing the chapter, when Emiya encounters the Far Side of the Moon and I describe it, as I asked myself a few questions, like: "Why the fuck is there an imaginary number space in a quantum computer?" or "What does it even mean?" and "What the fuck does Nasu know even about quantum computing?" My original hypothesis was that Nasu is a chuuni little fuck who just went IMAGINARY NUMBERS SO COOL, but then I remembered that quantum mechanics is generally described using complex numbers, but then I also remembered that that's mostly because of convenience and that it's not some intrinsic reflection of reality and that you can do that stuff perfectly well with two real numbers. But having started that line of inquiry, I figured I should see it through aaaand down the rabbit hole I went.

In conclusion, I'm pretty sure Nasu just included it because of chuuni reasons and as a parallel to Sakura's affinity in FSN and nothing more. So time well wasted, eh? Anyhow, read a bunch of books on the matter, got more confused, gave up in disgust and then eventually got back to it.

Anyhow, took a while. Sorry :V