Emiya sighed, shutting out another three news vid feeds.
It was just more sensationalism and repetition of what had been said two days ago, when the announcement of the second Mars ruin's discovery had been made. Just more useless noise distracting him from other things. The stillness of the empty apartment room soothed his throbbing temples as he closed his eyes and leaned back in the projected recliner.
Two days had passed since he had parted ways with Shepard and the others; the N7 returning to Arcturus Station to deal with the negotiations in person there, Liara having stayed on Mars in her shiny new luxury ship. Cassani apparently lived on Luna, near the Aldrin Labs' main facilities outside Armstrong, so they had shared the trip and only gone their separate ways afterwards.
As for Miranda...
She had rented a room on Mars in Lowell City and hadn't made any moves since. Either she was waiting for someone to contact her or she was trying to oust the level of surveillance she was under.
Emiya hadn't bothered to follow her more than her general location, though.
Outside the dimmed window he faintly heard laughter and jogging pairs of feet passing by, distracting him for a moment from his thoughts. After his jaunt through the Moon Cell, spirit hacking had felt off; a tangible difference between the real world and the... other, of computers so stark that he wondered how he had been able to ignore it before.
He could see practically everywhere; even the smallest detail of the ongoings of the domed city on the moon within his reach and grasp. Where the last time visiting he had been worried about all the cameras and surveillance as he had been trying to enter this time it formed a walls and shields for him, making it that much harder for anything to pass his notice, though it had taken some setting up. Much like on Arcturus Station, most of all information traffic was still routed through physical cables, but there were still enough wireless signals for him to access at all times.
It had been a relatively simple matter to create backdoors for himself in all the systems he wanted to keep under watch, giving him unrestricted access to all the raw data from sixteen thousand and twelve cameras, fourteen thousand and thirty-four proximity sensors, two hundred high-resolution thermometers and over four dozen satellites at all times. In his current position he had no blind spots, save that of his own attention. Surrounded by so many civilians and companies vital humanity's economy, so deep in the heart of the Systems Alliance's territory, he was for all intents and purposes untouchable.
So he waited and rested—though with one eye always open.
Doesn't look like anything is going to be coming out of the Moon Cell.
At least not on the moon's surface.
He had become aware of his presence outside the Moon Cell on Earth, possessing a suitable host body from the beginning. Even with all of his advantages, it simply was not possible for him to extend his awareness enough to bring all of Earth under surveillance. But most heroic spirits would probably not know anything about the outside world and thus stand out like sore thumbs, so he had monitored the news.
Efforts on Thessia to rebuild and figure out what to do now—two familiar-looking Spectres being awarded by the council of Matriarchs for their part in saving the asari homeworld from destruction by deploying a secret Citadel weapon—the continued push into the Attican Traverse by the Systems Alliance Navy after their mostly successful operation on Torfan—the meeting between the Asari Councilor and humanity's ambassador at the public hearing regarding the events of the Dreyn N'var...
The galaxy had been a very busy place in recent times, but even so he focused his attention on more local news. Even if it made him gag to listen to the garbage that qualified as news on Earth and Luna.
An endless stream of celebrities, meaningless drama and utter nonsense. It didn't help that Armstrong was the trendiest settlement within ten thousand light years, apparently. Within a walking distance he could count thirty influencers and media personalities all hard at work, churning out vapid vids and temperamental trends to their millions of viewers—very little of which Emiya could comprehend, the sheer wealth of shared background one was expected to know and understand so great, that it was like listening to a whole other language.
FTL-buoys used to propel information on the tightbeam communicators seemed completely clogged, straining beneath the constantly growing information output of humanity.
And I used to think of smartphones as a frivolous distraction...
It didn't help that a recent slew of rumors regarding the Mars ruins had popped up and begun to dominate the imagination of these people—a leak from the Archive staff being the original source—and within a day dozens of amateur investigators had embarked for the red planet in search of answers. Or rather, something interesting enough to generate clicks. At that point, a mere day after the discovery of the second ruins, the Archive staff made their official announcement of the matter in a video featuring everyone now officially involved.
After that, it hadn't taken more than a dozen hours for Liara to have been shot into the limelight.
The reaction had been very dry and academic at first; universities and experts abuzz with the announcement and its implications for the importance of Mars and the potential for more Prothean findings, but as soon as people began digging into the presence of the young asari beside the human doctor and realized no one had any idea who she was... Well, but then it was already all too late for Liara.
By now she was already dominating the interests and attentions of millions, always craving for the next big hit—and all this despite the fact that maiden in question had no idea about any of this occurring.
Of course the general public weren't the only ones in throes of a craze.
The Systems Alliance had been rampaging internally; acting like a hornets' nest kicked into a pond since his return. The suppression enacted by Alliance Intelligence had curtailed the worst of the spread, but too many people had seen too much. So people talked—or rather, whispered—and word went around about what had happened. Luckily for them, however, it seemed as if most people were too enamored with the news from Mars to pay any attention.
Emiya didn't particularly care, content with concluding that as long as it kept everyone else busy, he could get some shut-eye while he waited for Miranda or Shepard or Cassani—or anyone, really—to get back to him with some real news. So far only Shepard had sent him periodic reports; quick updates and questions about some specific detail he hadn't considered or handled yet. She and Kolkkonen were coming over in another day or two for another face-to-face meeting, but for the moment he supposed that allowing the Systems Alliance to take a deep breath and relax was the smartest course of action.
He halfheartedly tracked down some of the starships that had been waiting for him by the Charon Relay and followed the Systems Alliance's clean-up operation of the AI disaster, noting who and when handled the blue box as it was removed from the site and taken in for analysis.
So far, no one obviously suspicious had popped up.
In fact, a command from Arcturus had come to allow no one access to the quantum computer for the time being until they could send their own analysts to take a look. It might be that he would have to track down everyone who got a copy of the official report to find the culprits, but at that point he doubted he would even be able to recognize them among the hundreds of officials, analysts, secretaries and technicians.
Really, his most pressing concern was his rapidly dwindling liquid assets. Liara's starship hadn't come cheap, and the cost of his current abode wasn't insubstantial either. Certainly, he had accrued a sizable fortune over the years on Thessia, but those were all hidden in various caches in Serrice, the Citadel and even one in Omega out in the Terminus systems. He had planned out for various eventualities—for having to make a run for some distant corner of the universe. But somehow the local cluster had never entered into the equation.
In a word, he was broke.
And the only thing keeping it that way were his remaining scruples about simply moving the decimal places on his accounts to conjure up some more credits. Even as someone who seemingly created something out of nothing, it didn't sit right with him to simply falsify money. His swords were forged from his blood and body; his very life-force burned to change the world. Equivalent exchange's importance as a principle had been hammered into his head for many years when he had studied magecraft.
Thus Emiya refrained.
After all, it wasn't as if he didn't know how to make money in other ways.
Of course, there were limitations to his usual methods at the moment. His occupation with news and keeping an eye out for any Servants kept him from doing his usual investigations into corruption and organized crime, from where he could usually quickly acquire liquid funds—besides which, he didn't know who was affiliated with Cerberus, and he was trying to play nice with them. At least for the moment.
Which meant he had to get slightly creative.
"Alright, 10 minutes this time."
Emiya's body relaxed, and he slipped out of his body, squeezing down the line of tightbeams and finally coming to a stop within a relatively low-powered mainframe for a starship. His awareness expanded, taking in the numerous sensor readings along with the feed of surveillance coming from Armstrong.
The starship—a small, already decommissioned design of surveyor vessel, slated for disassembly tomorrow afternoon—finished slowing down as it came to a relative standstill next to the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Its sensors were limited, even compared to a simple shuttle, and it had been outdated for decades already. But it was small and extremely light, thus even with its tiny eezo core it had good fuel performance, and on top of that it had a good array of chemical thrusters making it capable of very delicate corrections around larger free-floating objects, be they other starships or asteroids.
Were he physically riding the ship, he would have been hard-pressed to keep his legs straight. But within the virtual space extending outwards inside the computer, that was hardly an issue.
"Let's try that one..." Emiya decided, accelerating forward to match the seemingly leisurely drifting great shadow of rock and ice. The surveyor slowed down, coming to a halt as it gently impacted against the side of the asteroid. "Tch, scuffed the paint..."
He exited the computer, returning to meatspace in his astralized form, as he passed through the side of the small vessel. Materializing between the two objects in his full regalia of black sans shroud, invisible in the shade in-between, he kept with one hand a grip on the bottom of the ship as he placed the other on the side of the asteroid, careful not to push either away in the Zero-G environment.
"—Trace, on"—begin synchronization,
Magical energy thrummed and pulsed, pushing outwards and spreading like a spider's web through the rock and ice. A second passed, and then he withdrew his hand with a scoff.
"Nothing again, huh?"
Roughly speaking there were three types of notable asteroids in the main belt, which could be ranked quite easily in order of value: m-types, s-types and c-types. The m-types were the floating gold mines of the belt and also the rarest, containing immense amounts of valuable metals and minerals. They were relatively easy to identify thanks to their composition and thus had been the first to be targeted during the first mine rushes into the belt. After all the m-types had been accounted for and staked, the smaller and more adventurous miners set their eyes on the much more common s-types asteroids. Boasting only a tenth of the relative mass in valuable material of m-types, those mining these asteroids had to consider their expenditures and think more strategically about how to extract the valuable contents if they wished to make a profit.
But eventually patterns began emerging, and it became possible to recognize which s-types were profitable by correlating various datasets, such as their albedo, size and mass, rotational and orbital velocity and their location in the belt. Thus with a little bit of telescoping it was possible to make accurate predictions on how profitable each rock was.
This eventually led to mining coalitions and large corporations laying stakes on entire sections of the inner parts of the main belt, claiming all s-type asteroids there as theirs to mine. The practice of sending out small crafts to take samples of other s-type asteroids in the relative vicinity and hauling back valuable ones was also relatively common, with the exact lines for whichever territory remaining very fluid, leading to the popular image of devil-may-care comet thieves pulling off daring heists and sticking it to the faceless, soulless, purely profit-driven corporations.
At least in a popular pre-First Contact War movie series, back when man still thought he was alone in the stars. Regardless, it wasn't the kind of exciting affair Emiya was looking for at the moment—he was perfectly fine going for the c-type asteroids.
These were the dark strangers of the main belt's outer edge, consisting mostly of ice and dust, some rock and even mud. They were as common as grains of sand in a desert and thus usually ignored unless there was need of water, but they could contain valuable minerals as well. Problem was that it took time and resources to investigate such asteroids. Too much time and resources for most people to make a profit out of the effort. But well, he wasn't most people.
Emiya pushed off the asteroid and returned to the surveyor's computer, setting absently an automatic course for the next closest asteroid before riding back with a tightbeam to Armstrong and his body.
Already he had gone over thirty c-type asteroids and had found nothing of real value and had had to conclude that it was no wonder the business was so competitive. If he failed to find anything before the surveyor had to return, he would be taking a definite loss on just the fuel costs. In addition, if he would have had to factor in his own mass into the fuel costs, the equipment necessary for normal surveys and its mass, and then the supplies to stay out in the black the whole time and the mass of that, too...
For anyone else, it would have been a complete gamble.
Especially since the surveyor couldn't even extract or haul back anything it did find.
Emiya opened his eyes and exhaled as he gave the news another cursory scan before sighing, having found nothing worth the effort. He reached for the floor and took up a handful of torn strips of red cloth; his signature sanctified shroud.
The switch, still flipped, permitted the magical energy to push out through his hands and into the frayed fibers. Slowly, ever so slowly, his mind's eye complete a picture of each hair, each tear, each piece and part. Then, carefully, ever so carefully, he imposed his will on the pieces. Joining them, mending the pieces into a larger, unbroken whole.
Sweat ran down his brow as his internal temperature steadily continued rising.
Reinforcement had always been more challenging for him than Projection, though the basic theory was essentially the same with his method; merely constrained by working on real material rather than idealized. Were it an original creation—using his Reinforcement in the stead of real tools to craft an item from scratch—it would also be necessary for him to forge a concept of creation and reason out the basic structure just as it would as if he were to do it by hand, but when repairing something he could simply work off of the original state as a blueprint. Still, the shroud's nature—that of rejecting the world—and own mystical mass did not particularly help.
It would take a long while and a lot of effort to fix it.
But, well, it was worth it. The shroud was more than a mere armament.
Half an hour of work later he exhaled, practically steaming in the recliner. In his hand lay a piece of whole shroud the size of a napkin. He set it aside on a pile of others like it and then leaned back, breathing slowly as he focused on cooling down and confirming his condition.
No problems so far.
Magical energy, circuits, spirit core and Servant body were all operating at acceptable levels. It was his physical body which was holding him back; the constant itching along his arms where the false skin met real flesh still a definite annoyance.
Through the cybernetics he glanced at the information he had gathered about various experimental treatments and the like, and again he felt a flare of annoyance. Two million credits for a new type of treatment using medigel custom-made for the recipient's genome. And again he felt the temptation to simply project valuable metals and sell it for a quick profit.
Emiya sighed, shaking his head.
Maybe I should try that selling my mass effect field cooker here... he thought, enjoying the flight of fancy for a moment. He had always wanted to own his own brand of high-quality home appliances, to tailor them to the specific needs and problems he had had to deal with. Of course without any starting capital it was nothing more than a useless waste of time and energy. Still, maybe I should file a few patents. That much shouldn't take long.
Question was whether he wanted to file the patent under his own name or under someone else's. Perhaps Cassani would know, having retired from the military. He worked with eezo-based technology and their patents, after all.
Nothing new on the feeds, and the surveying vessel was only a third of the way to the next asteroid.
Emiya shrugged and closed his eyes, slipping out and through the virtual ocean once more.
Cassani rubbed at his brow, the sensation of sand beneath heavy eyelids unabating.
Another chunk of exotic-variant eezo, almost as large as the previous sample he had been able to acquire and better yet, completely pure and free of contaminants like natural eezo. He had been able to confirm as much through the tests that they had been able to devise after years of experimentation. Armed with this much EVE and the experience from before...
It would unleash Cerberus from all prior constraints.
Except from the most important one, he reminded himself with a long exhale, slumping into a chair. He was still their only source. Worse yet, it didn't seem like anyone had a real handle on what the man thought, wanted or was going to do.
Upon his return to the Aldrin Labs' offices, Cassani had been equally giddy with excitement over the prospects of more EVE as he had been troubled by the revelations on Mars. But he had thought that at least he would have time to mull it over and come to his own conclusions—could take his time and coming to grips with his new situation.
That had been over forty hours ago, and he hadn't slept a wink since.
First, Aldrin Labs' CEO had demanded to know what the hell was going on; informing the thoroughly confused Cassani of just how the company starship had appeared beside Mars, bypassing all known laws of how the Mass Relays and mass effect travel worked.
The rabbit-punch-revelation of just what had been right in front of him, and he had been completely oblivious to, had been staggering. He, better than most in the galaxy, knew how rigid starship doctrine for invading through Mass Relays was. How in the effectively infinite vastness of space, only a few things presented real strategic choke points, and thus positions where a smaller force could defeat a larger one. That 'flying the long way' was no alternative at all, and that there was no risk of being flanked.
Humanity's defense doctrine all relied on the paradigm of the Mass Relays being immutable unknowns that simply worked equally for all.
Had it been another power-play? A show of force, announcing just how beyond them all he was? It fit his memory of Shirou Emiya—the strange and solemn street urchin who took a twisted pleasure in outwitting and humiliating those who wronged him during their shared time in boot camp.
And as if the company having lost their head about what had happened hadn't been enough, within hours the Systems Alliance had come looking for him as well. He had told them the truth; after a fashion. It was pure coincidence that he had run into Shepard and Emiya; it was pure coincidence that it had been the starship he had been aboard. It was all pure coincidence, and he knew nothing, nothing at all about what had happened. Of course they hadn't believed a word of it, keeping him isolated and questioning him for hours, asking again and again about the events.
It was only when word came from above some tense twenty hours later that they had pulled back. He had no idea what was going on—only thankful that his connection to Cerberus hadn't come to light and that no one had thought to investigate the chunk of eezo in his office.
Thankfully, the Systems Alliance had told the Aldrin Labs people to shut up and put up with being mushrooms, giving Cassani just enough breathing space to slink off with his exotic-variant eezo to run the tests. That was just about all that he could do at the moment. Being effectively under house arrest in his own office, he hadn't even had any chances to contact Cerberus.
Not about Lawson, not about Emiya, not about EVE.
And that worried—no, terrified him. The political and consequential landscapes were shifting so rapidly that who knew what would happen if anyone acted on faulty information right now. He had already thrown in his lot with the human-supremacist organization—he was in much too deep to survive if they went under.
But what could he do—
"Wow. You look awful."
Cassani went rigid, his eyes shooting open.
He turned around slowly, blinking as he realized that he was here. Just as he had apparently teleported a starship halfway across the solar system, here he now stood clad in all black in the heart of a private facility. A shiver ran down his spine at the sight of the casual intruder; it was the same outfit as on the footage from Ares Station, missing only the featureless, blank helmet.
Licking his lips once and swallowing to wet his suddenly dry throat, Cassani spoke.
Emiya wryly grinned. "Want me to make you a cup of tea?"
The white-haired man turned around and left the office, taking the right turn towards the office kitchenette without any hesitation, even as Cassani did. Shaking his head, he began wheeling after the stranger, more exasperated than anything by the sheer absurdity.
"How long have these been here?"
Blinking at the question as he rounded the last corner—already hearing the water boiler at work—he eyed the back of the man currently digging through the cabinets. In his right hand, raised over his shoulder, was a box of tea bags.
"I... have no idea." Cassani shook his head. "It's fine, you don't need to..."
The words trailed off as the black-clad man took out a tea bag and tore it open, spreading the dry leaves and dust on the kitchen counter. Bringing his face right next to the mess, he sniffed and then blew at the pile, causing some of the dust to fly off the counter.
"Hmm... Maybe I can work with this."
Saying that, a pair of metal mugs appeared in his hand—the kind that Cassani had seen bartenders use to mix drinks with.
Emiya ripped open five bags, pouring them all into one of the metal shaker before capping it shut with the other and starting to gently shake the leaves. Not fast, nor back and forth, but rather in a closing spiral motion that ended with him parting the shakers and separating them. He peered into one of the metal mugs and then into the other before allowing a small satisfied nod.
Had he separated the leaves by size and weight just now?
The water boiled snapped off the boil, rousing Cassani from his entranced state.
"The... water is done."
"Still too hot. Give it a minute," Emiya replied absently as he took a tentative sniff of the shaker's contents.
Cassani nodded slowly, and a pregnant silence descended.
He was too tired to think clearly, yet the sudden appearance of this chaos incarnate had left him too amped up and anxious to relax, all the exhaustion blown out of his head and instead piling up on his shoulders.
Anxiety arose, rearing its ugly head as he tried to figure out why the man was here. Had he been under surveillance the entire time? Had he screwed up somehow? Revealed Cerberus or said something he shouldn't have to the Systems Alliance? He swallowed heavily.
Even in the Navy—when his omnitool had been tracked every hour of the day—he hadn't felt this boxed in. That had been a known quantity; something he could reason with and something he could even to an extent fight back against, if he so wished. But more importantly, it had been a voluntary; he had agreed to it, sacrificing a part of himself for a cause he could believe in. For a time, anyhow.
How had Emiya appeared here?
How long had he been watching?
It reminded him of something he had read—the Panopticon; the prison built on anxiety and paranoia.
Its construction was relatively simple. A great number of cells, with a window that gave a complete view of everything inside, leaving the prisoner with nowhere to hide from, built around a central hub from where you could see into each cell at all times. In theory, a single guard stationed in the center could not keep an eye on all the prisoners at all times, but the mere possibility of a guard watching a prisoner would keep them in line. The fear of being watched just as effective measure as actually being watched in the mind of the convict.
Was... Did he feel ashamed?
Cassani blinked, struck by the thought. Why would he care about being watched if he wasn't ashamed? He wasn't afraid to die; wasn't afraid to sacrifice himself if it meant a greater cause would be furthered; wasn't afraid to burn bridges and cast aside friends if it meant he could avenge—
He almost knocked the cup out of Emiya's hand, so startled by the sound of his voice.
"I... What?" Cassani hesitated, before his eyes were drawn down to the steaming cup proffered. "O-oh, thanks."
Mechanically, he accepted the cup and was surprised with how warm it felt in his hands—how cold his fingers actually were. The rising steam wafted, sneaking past his surprise and into his nostrils, overwhelming him with an aroma he couldn't place.
His hand moved by itself, and he took a sip.
And it was like all his exhaustion was blown away, the sand behind his eyelids dissolving and the weight on his shoulders crumbling.
"How... did you make this from the same tea I've drunk a dozen times before...?"
Emiya smirked as he crossed his arms and leaned against the far wall. "Practice makes perfect."
Cassani frowned, taking another long drink and trying to discern exactly how such a radically different outcome was possible.
"Anyhow," Emiya said, drawing the distracted man's attention. "Do you have a moment?"
Hesitating for a moment before answering, Cassani replied: "I suppose I do."
It wasn't as if he could leave or get in touch with any of his contacts at the moment.
"I was thinking about filing a few patents relating to eezo and mass effect fields. Would you mind giving me a consultation on the matter?"
"...I suppose," he said again, even more confused.
Cassani listened, zoning in and out of the conversation as he took long draughts of tea, answering to the best of his tired capacity, growing only more and more confused as the conversation went on.
Finally, he shook his head.
"So a small-scale, high-resolution mass effect field emitter for civilian use?"
Emiya nodded, to which he had to sigh.
"You're fundamentally mistaken about where eezo places in humanity's economy. It's not like the Citadel here, or the asari homeworld where it's a commonly available resource; they keep an embargo on its export for a reason. Your idea doesn't sound like it's large enough in scale for industrial materials processing—like metal compression or synthesis of new materials—nor does it sound like something starships or weapons manufacturers would care about. If it's not those, relatively limited industries, then I don't see how there could be any existing patents...
"For starters, it involves the importing of a heavily regulated material." Cassani sighed, rubbing a hand over his brow. "The laws have changed much from the time since eezo was first discovered on Mars, and although we can now import it, its relative importance and scarcity have changed little since then. On top of that, the whole Thessia's Fall disaster—"
Cassani swallowed his next words, suddenly reminded of who he was talking to.
But Emiya did not appear to have reacted to the mention at all.
"So the price of eezo will only go up in the future..." he muttered instead, nodding to himself.
"But that shouldn't affect patent filing, should it?" Emiya asked.
"Well..." Cassani paused, thinking. "It depends. If it was something big, they would probably seek to acquire the rights somehow." His expression darkened. "The Systems Alliance military or one of the greater companies with ties to the parliament, I mean..." He scoffed. "Though if it's you... What are going to patent anyhow?"
"Hmm, didn't I say it already?"
Cassani shook his head. Maybe he had missed it.
"A—well, to put it colloquially—biotic cooker. Even though there's no biotic involved and its just a conventional mass effect field. But it's replicating traditional asari cooking."
What kind of nonsense was that?
"You can think of it like a pressure cooker, if you want."
Cassani stared at Emiya, looking for any hint of the true nature of his words. Because if it was a joke; he didn't get it.
"Right. Well, in that case I can't see any issues with getting the patents."
Emiya nodded, looking supremely satisfied with the answer. Was there some deeper ploy here at work, too? Or was it merely a red herring? Certainly he had already demonstrated that he was not reliant on Thessia—or the rest of the galaxy for that matter—on eezo, but Cassani couldn't see any advantage in applying that to something so mundane.
But the boyish grin was definitely real.
"I've always wanted my own brand of home electronics, you know?" Emiya explained with a shrug.
"...Right." Cassani shook his head, noticing that his mug was now empty and with it, his newfound energy was quickly waning. He yawned, fighting back the tide of exhaustion returning with a vengeance.
"You should get some rest."
Cassani blinked, looking up and noticing that Emiya had somehow gotten right next to him. "I..."
"Don't worry about it."
A hand came to rest on his shoulder and then, as if a switch was flipped, he fell asleep. His oft-troubled dreams didn't bother him once that night.
Emiya left the Aldrin Labs' offices, leaving Cassani behind on a couch with a projected blanket.
Mind already abuzz with possibilities, he penned a message to Shepard about the Systems Alliance bothering Cassani as he checked in on both his body and the surveying vessel in the main asteroid belt. The visit had dragged out a little longer than he had originally expected—marking his longest stay away from his body since his return from the Moon Cell—but his spiritual core was holding up without any issues.
Emiya opened his eyes back in Armstrong and stood up from the recliner, rolling his shoulders.
"I think I can mark that down as a non-issue, now."
Which only left...
He grimaced as he rolled his elbow and finally his wrists. The feeling like that of a latex glove over his skin, sweaty and constricting. The contrast to his Servant body was thrown all the more into stark contrast by how he had been able to divide the tea leaves before, as now he struggled to get a definite sensation from each fingertip. He debated whether it was worth the effort to make some food, before a prompt from the nearby terminal he was connected to caught his attention.
Shepard wants to start her sword training tomorrow?
That wasn't going to work—footwork was much too important, but there was that other company working on medigel which could hasten her bones' healing if... if he was willing to shelve out another six-hundred-thousand credits. He debated the merits of withholding the treatment—of keeping Shepard benched for as long as possible to keep her from doing anything stupid...
But... He sighed, his hand twitching as he resisted the effort to run it through his hair. ...I'm not going to do that.
It had—more or less, anyhow—been a promise to teach her swordsmanship. And after he met Saren on Eden Prime, there were no guarantees of him coming back to Systems Alliance territories again. Realistically any training would have to happen within the next week. Hardly a realistic time table even for the best of times.
Which again brought him back to money and the lack thereof.
"At least the surveyor is there already."
If he found nothing worth his time, then he would have to start re-prioritizing his efforts, regardless of the risks. He sighed, opening himself up to the connection, when something on the news' feeds caught his attention.
"Oh... They found her."
"Friends and followers, you will never guess who I found knocking on doors and asking around here on Mars. Joining me now: the beautiful-blue-sensation sweeping the nations from the formerly red-dead-end of civilizations! Liaaara T'Soni!"
The camera zoomed back from the hyper host to show the thoroughly confused asari maiden seated opposite in a dazzling studio, like a sea of glittering stars against a backdrop of the most gorgeous nebula spinning slowly behind them. It was at complete odds with the simple table and the pair of couches they sat on—all obviously bolted to the floor.
In fact, if Emiya wasn't mistaken, this was being filmed onboard the starship he had bought Liara, rather than a physical studio. The backdrop, he realized, was nothing more than a CGI filter similar to the green screens of centuries past. Had she invited an extranet talk show host to join her? The interviewer was a young woman, wearing a snappy and colorful suit that mimicked the appearance of a blazer and dress trousers to his untrained eye.
The kind of wear referred to as smart casual, perhaps?
"I... umm, P-pardon me...?" It sounded more like a plea than a greeting, coming from her as she looked around to see who the woman was talking to. "And, umm, you may leave your personal synthetic assistant by the, well, umm, anywhere is fine, I suppose...?"
Emiya blinked. Was she referring to the camera drone? Oh no.
"Hello, hello, Professor Blueberry! You don't mind my calling you that, do you professor? It's already caught on the extra—no going back now! Just gotta ride it out and live it."
"P-professor? No—but, I have never been a part of any faculty, the title, it's not..."
"But you are an expert on Protheans, right? Right! And you are professing to us about their ancient, hidden and vaunted past right now, aren't you? So it seems only right?"
"I, err... I..."
"She has no idea she's being interviewed live, does she?" Emiya shook his head, closing the feed with slight amusement as he focused on the surveyor and leaped through, riding a tightbeam laser onto its transponder and from there onto the main systems.
He—or rather the small vessel—was being followed by another starship. From the looks of it, a slightly smaller than average freighter. Probably one of the regular belt-miners seeing if he was having any luck. Wasn't this what he had been warned about on Ares Station, long ago? Scuffles between miners over mining prospects and rights?
Well, it hardly mattered.
Emiya shrugged and maneuvered the surveyor again flush up against the asteroid, ignoring the other freighter as he used his own vessel as cover to materialize and Structurally Analyze the celestial body.
With a diameter exceeding 50 meters at its widest, it was pockmarked all around; numerous attempts over the years of hopefuls seeking for anything of value in surface samples, probably with the use of small automated crafts. It wasn't exactly difficult to dig into, as its limited mass did very little to enhance its cohesion, yet even so none had struck the metaphorical gold vein.
But sometimes it would have paid to dig a little deeper, for even diamonds can lie in the rough.
Ice and iron, and... Oh, ho—a core of cobalt, how rare. It's pretty deep, no wonder it hasn't been dug out yet.
It was his first find. But there was nothing more he could do right now about it; only play it cool and continue surveying. He astralized and dived back into the small spaceship and then set course for the next nearest asteroid, putting a mental tag on the asteroid he had just analyzed.
The freighter remained still as he left, probably following through conventional sensors and wondering what the hell he was doing. Seeing as how he hadn't left any beacons or done any digging, they would have no reason to assume there was anything worthwhile to be found. And if they did discover it on their own, then they had more than earned the rights for it.
Anything actually new on the news? Emiya wondered as he opened his eyes again on Armstrong, before sighing and rolling his shoulders to rid the pins and needles sensation in his hands. But it was just the same old garbage airing, though by now he was getting a grasp of what they were saying in the millions. Somewhat, at least, like the first taste of something foreign becoming palatable enough to be understood, if not quite desirable.
Well, at least Liara was still on the air and bumbling through her interview with innocent charm.
Emiya shook his head even as he maintained the feed, keeping a fraction of his attention on it—just in case things went sideways—as a smirk threatened to bloom at the edges of his expression.
The Illusive Man drummed his fingers in a rolling tap-tap-tap across the chair, eyes narrowed as he stared at the screen before him.
Cassani hadn't called in or made any attempts to report, Lawson was in all probability thoroughly compromised and on the loose, the Systems Alliance was in utter disarray and barely keeping a lid on all the insanity boiling over and sixteen of the private interests backing his organization was demanding access to critical information, convinced that he was holding out on them... It had been a long while since he had felt so constrained.
Yet, was all that a sign of the current state of things—rather than merely his own state of being?
His eyes narrowed as he fought the urge to reach for his glass, knowing it was still just as empty as it had been the whole of the last hour.
Mars. This all began on Mars. As more and more time passed, he had grown more and more convinced that nothing he had concluded originally had been right; the entirety of that man's persona must have been an elaborate facade. Yet Mars had been different.
But was that really why Outis had returned?
The report from Lawson was more-or-less corroborated by Doctor Warren's account, but that didn't mean that they both couldn't have been fooled, or that both of the reports might not have been tampered with despite the extensive security measures taken in delivering them. But then why demand a meeting under the pretext of information exchange over the turian Spectre? Did it have to do with the documents supplied to the Systems Alliance Navy regarding the Reapers?
A shiver ran down his spine and he palmed his face, covering his eyes and closing them against the memories, the visions and the calling that had led him to the turian homeworld Palaven decades back, and the events that followed. Even now, years later, it was frustrating how little progress he had managed to make.
His hand returned to the side of the chair, returning to their rhythmical tap, tap, tapping.
Was it not because of Outis? Was he not humanity's enemy? Because of the massive setback five years ago—of the necessity of remaining hidden, keeping him from optimally utilizing all the resources available to him—were they still not struggling with the looming shadow of that attack and only just coming back into their own? He has come to finish what he began. This was certainly only the prologue to another attack on humanity's only hope for a future in this galaxy. Terror gripped at his heart, the unknown and known alike painting a bleak picture of their chances. Every single asset he could bring to bear would only be burned and turned against him, the local cluster was already lost, it was only a matter of minimizing losses and—fingers stilled.
Piercing blue lit the darkness as he swiped aside the various reports and screens before him and stood up. Exhaling and reaching for the glass again, incandescent blue eyes narrowed as he walked to the counter with his scotch.
Assuming the worst and injuring himself wasn't something they could afford at this juncture; not with how much was still at works in the local cluster and how much even Arcturus still relied on it for economic support. Humanity could not afford to cut loose their homeworld. Not yet, anyhow. But he couldn't risk a personal meeting either, regardless of what the demands were. Not with just how opaque Outis remained.
Which meant proxies—pawns that could be cast aside and cut loose at a moment's notice. Someone already compromised, preferably. His organization lacked the luxury of—even if only potentially—sacrificing any more personnel. So it had to be someone who had already been made.
But Cassani was still out and possibly compromised given his past, meaning...
"Then it will have to be through her, after all."
He poured himself another glass and then walked back to his seat, calling up all his recent reports and files on Miranda Lawson. A known double agent was better than a possible double agent, after all; there were no questions of her loyalty, only of when she would betray them.
Besides—it was obvious what her handle was. There was only one thing which could leash Miranda Lawson to a cause; that which had originally leashed her to Cerberus as well.
Calling up and pressing the terminal's display, he recorded a message:
"Henry, there is a matter in which we require your assistance. A matter, which I'm certain will be equally in your interests..."
Emiya couldn't stand it any longer.
This was just getting too embarrassing to watch from afar. Closing his eyes, he stepped out of his body and surfed down the superluminal waves until he crashed on Mars inside a recently bought starship.
Falling back into the corporeal realm, he materialized and crossed his arms, standing behind the smartly dressed woman, outside of the camera drone's view, where Liara could see him.
The asari blinked, scowled and then gave him a look that was equal parts inquiry and intimidation.
Emiya silently scoffed, rolling his eyes and gesturing with his head to a side-room currently standing empty before astralizing and walking through the wall to wait in the room. Liara frowned, then realized that she had just been asked again something by the inquisitive human but hadn't heard the question, so she shook her head and weakly excused herself as she went to join him.
"What...?" she whispered hotly as the door closed behind her. "What is it?"
"Who's that?" he asked, nodding sideways as he crossed his arms.
Liara frowned again, staring through narrow eyes for a long moment before answering.
"That is Lisa—she is..."
Emiya's amusement swelled at the asari's search for words, re-doubling yet again as she found nothing to immediately explain the woman's presence here.
"She's a reporter. Of a sort."
Well, not exactly. More like a two bit extranet celebrity whose fame was built more on the drama she stirred up than anything else. But the asari had nothing quite like that in their culture, so he would need to explain it in terms Liara would understand.
Big blue eyes blinked, uncomprehending. "What do you mean...?"
"She is streaming your conversation live to... five-hundred something thousand people on Earth, Luna and Mars right now."
"F-five-hundred thousand...!" Liara gasped, slapping her hands over her mouth as she flinched, turning to look at the door as if she was afraid the woman would come through any moment now, or perhaps imagining a crowd of half-a-million storming her shiny new ship. She shook her head, hotly glaring at him again. "That is not what she told me! She did not tell me that she was here to interview me—she did not speak of what channel she represents. Goddess, she did not even bring up a script, or, or..."
"This isn't Thessia, Liara. Or even the Citadel."
"B-but..." Liara tried to protest weakly. "But why would she interview me?"
Emiya stared, amused. The answer to that should have been obvious, especially to her of all people. Everyone at least knew about the Protheans; a revelation of this magnitude would inevitably draw the interest of even some strange individuals.
But, finding some strength in the argument, she persisted. "She has not asked me a thing about the ruins, much less the Protheans. Surely, she cannot be someone reporting on the matter, if she were asking such inane questions."
Questions such as: 'How old are you?' followed by much excitement over, 'What kind of routine do you have for taking care of your skin?' as Lisa continued to marvel at the asari's youthfulness followed by 'What is it like not having hair?' leading into 'Do you have a boyfriend? Or you know, what way do you swing?', Emiya remembered.
"Honestly, I can't imagine how such a vapid woman was the first to find you, but she did. It's lucky in a way, I suppose," he said ruefully, more out aloud to himself than to Liara. "But I suspect she couldn't tell a krogan from a turian, much less ask you anything about the Protheans or mystery of their disappearance."
"Humanity is curious about you. Earthlings know about aliens, but it's still pretty rare for one to come all the way here. Better—or perhaps worse—yet, the rumors about asari 'promiscuity' most certainly have reached their ears," he explained with ill-concealed amusement at how the tables had turned from his time on Thessia. "For an apt comparison..." He could see the horrified realization dawning in the asari's eyes and went for the finishing blow. "Lisa is like Tyra and her biotiball teammates: all slobbering over a new and exotic creature they'd like to get their hands on."
Liara's legs almost gave under as she reached for the wall for support, the other hand covering her mouth.
"Well, I just wanted you to know what and who you had invited." Emiya uncrossed his arms and stepped past her, giving his amusement voice as he passed her. "Have fun."
Astralizing, he prepared to leave through the comm unit as he had arrived, but...
"W-wait! Emiya, wait!"
He halted in the middle of a step, but did not materialize, remaining invisible as he looked at her.
"You cannot leave me here with her, Emiya!" she whispered hotly as she eyed the door, practically hissing now as if afraid Lisa could come at any moment to ravage her. "I-I'll tell her everything about you, if you don't help me...!"
Emiya snorted and materialized.
"You do realize that could easily start a war between humanity and the Citadel, don't you?"
Assuming he didn't simply delete the video feed before it aired.
Liara's eyes swam as she swiveled towards him, and she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as if taking support from his amusement. Opening heated eyes, she glared at him.
"Please. I... need your help to understand."
He almost snorted and suggested that Liara just meld with the woman and get it over with—but that was a plainly offensive suggestion. More insult than jest. So, clearing his throat and swallowing the remark, he nodded.
"Fine. I'll stay out of her sight and camera, since you're the one who got into this mess."
Liara exhaled and nodded, plainly relieved. The gratitude was obvious, if unspoken.
"Well, let's go. The show must go on," he remarked, gesturing to the door. "I'll be around in case she asks something you shouldn't answer."
And then he vanished from sight again.
The young asari gathered her wits, inhaled slowly, and then turned around to rejoin her newly revealed interrogator with steps a tad shakier than she would have liked.
She squeaked as the door opened, revealing the face of Lisa, practically glued to the entrance as she peered inside. The human woman blinked, obviously surprised that there was nothing and no one else in the room with the asari, but hid the calculating gleam quickly.
"Your ship is so big, Liara. I bet you get lost all the time in here—I know I would."
Liara hesitated in answering, her gaze drawn to the drone camera behind the woman.
It's no wonder Liara didn't recognize it, Emiya thought as he stared at the small floating ball of layered pink holograms and mass effect fields—similar to that of the haptic adaptive controls of omnitools—around a metal device, small enough to fit into your pocket. It wasn't anywhere near as advanced as the miniature drones that had chased him in Thessia, or even the bulkier combat drones the Systems Alliance used, but compared to the average drone available to civilians it was quite advanced.
"I... Yes, it is quite overwhelming at times," Liara answered, hesitantly.
"Did you buy it yourself? Where did you buy it?"
"How much was it? Ooohh..." the human woman gave the asari a sly look. "It was a gift, wasn't it?" Her smile grew knowing. "Did you come all the way to Mars to meet him?"
Liara's polite expression became strained as her eyes scanned the room, as if waiting for a signal from Emiya to not answer. But he remained immaterial, smirking at her discomfort in-between diving into the drone to use it to check on the news. Without his corporeal body's cybernetic implants, he couldn't just browse the extranet in real time.
"No, our meeting was surely only coincidence, but, well... No, rather he, I mean..." Liara floundered.
A message, Emiya realized as he perked up when he dived into the drone again.
It was from Shepard.
'Stop messing with Liara or I'll kick your ass.'
He rolled his eyes, having expected some actual news. How did she even know he was here? But shrugging, he materialized behind the drone as he next exited the dive, remaining silent in the human woman's blind spot. Liara's relief was immediate, even if he didn't signal anything to her. Perhaps his mere presence and bored amusement was enough of a touchstone for her to remain calm?
"It is merely something that was provided for me for the duration of my stay on Mars, seeing as how I lacked accommodations and would require the ability to travel between your Earth's universities and the Archives themselves on Mars."
Surprised by Liara's sudden confidence, the extranet celebrity forgot herself for a moment.
Several seconds passed in silence and Liara glanced at Emiya, as if to check on whether he approved, and perhaps sensing something amiss Lisa's gaze followed as well. But there was no one behind the camera.
Just tell her I'm here, why don't you... he thought, crossing his immaterial arms.
Still, the moment both averted their eyes and resumed the conversation, he materialized lazily back into Liara's peripheral sight.
It wasn't as if he had anything better to do at the moment, either.
Saren panted, his eyes closed tightly as his arm continued to send lancing shards of the purest agony imaginable through his whole body.
There was only so much the geth could do; even after forcibly re-shaping his arm back into the right shape and removing and mending as much of the broken shards as possible, it could still only be left to natural healing to fix. Even the vaunted medigel of the damned humans couldn't do more than speed up the process of internal healing.
Turian history—their very myths and legends—were rife with tales of warriors and heroes succumbing to their wounds after accomplishing great feats, and rare was the ending where they ever walked again after their duty had been fulfilled. He had never been the model turian, blind in obedience and satisfied in his lot in the hierarchy, but it was a first even for him to curse that heritage. The sheer lack of value put into restoring the bodies of the honorable rather than exalting their spirits in passing.
If the Hierarchy put even a fraction of their military spending into figuring out how to restore a crippled limb rather than merely dull the pain...
But it was pointless to bemoan what could not be changed.
Exhaling through gnashing fangs, he opened his eyes and focused on the reports before him as he mentally ran through his last meeting with the Asari Matriarch Benezia. His new 'ally' had gone ahead and blabbed all about Indoctrination to the Alliance brass, giving them not only a concrete understanding of the dangers but outlining several—rather drastic—methods for counteracting and containing it.
Some of which hadn't even occurred to the Spectre, to his great chagrin and gnashing of fangs.
Though it was unlikely to do them any good in the long run; humanity would fall easily before the sway of even indirect Indoctrination. The salarians' miscellaneous findings had convinced Saren of that in the final reports that had come along with the lie detection software. Humanity's history was chock-full of examples over their weak-willedness, how they continuously and easily were fooled and misled, tricked and convinced of utter falsehoods.
One STG analyst had almost cheekily noted nearly all of their internal wars had been based on one lie or some misunderstanding, echoing a human notion for emphasis: 'Perception is reality'. Even today they seemed to take some naïve pleasure out of fooling themselves into believing the most ridiculous of things; the reality of the population existing at the whims of those above.
The turian shook his head.
His people rigidly followed the will of the hierarchy, nearly always to the detriment of the individual, appearing often brainwashed in their zeal, but they were still made of sterner stuff than that. It was a willing obeisance, a voluntary act for the greater good of all turians. Unlike the soft humans, theirs was not a society that would fall so easily.
So it was all the better that they were wasting their time on the useless endeavor rather than pursuing their leads and pushing their advantage following their victory at Torfan. Another unexpected failure in the grand plan for the galaxy's salvation, as at this rate the batarians would raise all hell again, presumably by re-joining the Citadel and then making new demands to the Council...
Saren sighed, his mandibles quivering as he closed his eyes and waited for the wave of pain to abate.
At least Miranda Lawson hadn't disappointed him; finding Emiya within hours of entering human-held territory and sending a detailed report of his movements and actions along with her analysis of his motivations and possible frames-of-reference. It was plainly obvious that she had no cover or believability, but even an open spy was better than nothing.
The question was, would it be worth it to reveal just who she was reporting to as a show of faith? Did he already know? Was he waiting to see what Saren did? Was there some hidden message in the act of allowing her to roam and report freely?
The turian shook his head. The pain kept lancing through him with every breath, like arcs of electricity and red-hot metal whipping at him from inside. His mind was a jumble, barely able to focus on anything—yet even so, it somehow felt clearer than it had in years...?
He spasmed, bolting upright, and then hissed at the pain radiating up his arm.
Why the hell had he jolted just now when he knew how careful he needed to be with his injury? Confused and dizzy, he sat down again and only then noticed the incoming communication notice—the designation made his blood run backwards.
A shaky talon stretched out to accept the call, and he swallowed dryly before he spoke.
"Sovereign—! W-what is it?" Saren mustered what little bravado he still had; before all else, this thing was his enemy. Even if he had aligned with its cause, it was only for the sake of the galaxy and the future of all living things, to negotiate for the mercy when the inevitable return of the Reapers came.
That... When did I decide that it was inevitable? Why and when had he stopped trying to gather as much information about the Reapers as possible and setting up possible countermeasures? Wasn't this all to fool the machine and make use of it against humanity?
The turian blinked, shaking his head and looking up. The terminal's display had expanded beyond the haptic adaptive interface's limit as the vain machine god refused to speak in anything but its full form looking down on him.
He dryly swallowed, lost for words as the room itself seemed to skew and warp, pressing in on him and swallowing him whole. Was it his breathing he could hear—or or was there some great predator with him in the room?
"You have been shattered."
B̵ro̧ke̛n.̢. U͂s̨ͤél̾̿͑̈̂ͦeͣ̽͆̑̑͗s̸̒͆́͗ͦ—Saren's breath hitched as he instinctively grew rigid, clawing his chair for support and sending lances of pure agony through him again, leaving him gasping and mindless as white shot through his consciousness.
Can't... let it see me like this...
Not when he had finally found something beyond the machine's ken, something with which organics could turn the tide of the war even before it began. So long as he could keep his composure and survive until Eden Prime...
He looked up, gritting fangs and mandibles as he stilled himself, letting the pain wash over and beyond him. But curiously the Reaper said nothing, hovering above him like a looming great red giant, slowly growing larger and larger, it's terrible dark maw widening to swallow him whole and...
The turian shook his head, his obscuestean tonessumbeence rapid and shallow.
"It's nothing," Saren spat, glaring at the Reaper. "What do you want?"
The great monstrosity, star-made-flesh-made-star, seemed content to simply observe the pathetically wriggling turian.
"If there's nothing, then I have work to do. Don't bother me again, unless—"
"You can be made who̶le again."
Shuddering, Saren shuddered. What?
His tongue felt bloated and floated, slithering against the insides of his mouth and mandibles and crest and chest and claws, the sensation nailing nailing the noumena to the back of his skull like a hat.
The looming gross
"Y͞o̴u ͠ca̸n be made whole again."
To perceive not even whilst whom flour, for by seconds made whole again?
Ejaculate eye-water, rivulet dry-loss andescring .
Saren's vision, his lungs would not beat eternal mouth would not became everything and distorted touch, to screat for in that drew on and on and on and far as his heart-scrying ream would not oped Saren wanted touch, touch, touch, taste and on and gluttony. Saren waned Saren wanted Saren waned Saren wanted Saren waned all and gluttony scream. Saren's vision credibly utilizes distinctive alignments and completely synergized technically sound meta-services cream, his his moment that drew on and not beat would not oped Saren wanted Saren wanted Saren's vision, his that drew on and far as heart would not became Nazarevereign will b́ę ma͘de ̴ẁh̴ole again."
He loosened his grasp on the neck of the quivering, unclenched his jaw and turned his fangs and jaw and tongue and stomach inside out allowwing himself
to devour himself and be devoured by himmself,
becoming one with himself himself becoming one with himmself.
Thus spake Nazara:
8. [ Biotic Cooker — "Pagoda" ]
A highly advanced mass effect field emitter, replicating the fine-tuned control and feedback mechanisms involved in biotics that is normally not present in control over fields. Through experimentation and intuition borne of an intense desire to create his own line of high-quality cooking appliances, Emiya has created a set of pre-programmed functions with which it is possible to make simplistic biotic cooking.
The basic theory of biotic cooking is that the lightened or heavened mass alters the heat capacity of any material contained within the fields, allowing for the process to be highly customized and much faster. With fine-tuned control of the mass effect fields—shaping them into spiraling helixes or layered rolls—it is possible to even further control the internal cooking of foodstuffs. For example, by bringing down the mass of a foodstuff and cooking it while raising the temperature and bringing back up its mass to normal, it is possible to achieve Sous Vide-like results in a matter of seconds, surpassing even the efficiency of pressure cookers.
But that is hardly all; by lowering the mass of a foodstuff it becomes possible to physically mold into any number of shapes, without placing stress on potentially otherwise fragile or brittle ingredients, enabling the high art of cuisine to reach otherwise impossible heights. With the use of thin tendril-shaped fields, which can then expand into other shapes within the foodstuff, it is even possible to "funnel" heat inside while retaining the normal mass and temperature on the surface, similar to how a refrigerator can drain heat out from within itself through the use of expanding and compressing gas, or how a squeezed sponge can suck up water—a commonly used technique for cooking Thessian varieties of shellfish, making for a succulent inside a fragile and seemingly untouched exterior that may be cracked open.
Originally pioneered by the long-lived and prodigiously talented Biotics of the asari homeworld of Thessia, it is an ancient tradition that still lives on to this day as a unique feature of their culture, remaining unreplicated with conventional mass effect fields despite the passing of millennia. As while mass effect field shaping is a trillion credit business in most parts of the galaxy, the sensitivity of mass effect field detection necessary for making something on as small and precise a scale as in biotic cooking has until now made it too prohibitive for research and has thus been left to the highly specialized—and prized—professional biotics of Thessia. Had this product been released on Thessia where the culture and economy was favorable, it would have quickly bloomed into a billion credit business.
But elsewhere in the galaxy, its potential for success is another matter altogether...
So many requests for an update before xmas, so a bit shorter. But that's fine, since there's almost no action to be had.
And yeah pagoda is back. Archer's mania with cooking and home electronics practically got each their own Secret Garden entries in CCC so can't exactly ignore it :V