A/N: I've had this idea on the back-burner for a while. This may be the last PV short story I write, and it's been a hell of a ride. (NOTE: This was the fifth PV story I wrote and published on LP's forum. The other stories will be published here in the future.) I wouldn't be anywhere near where I am as a writer if it weren't for LogicalPremise's little Discord channel of chaos and insanity. Working with him and the others has expanded my view of the world at-large and the world of writing. But most of all, it was Jacob who helped me grow into something better. He helped with my first short story, the introduction piece to Estêvão Volinski, and he helped me expand and refine what you're about to read. He's been a good friend and partner.
Special thanks to Sikor_Seraph and Sevoris for helping with the drone conversation in the beginning, and Nogui for helping with some of the Portuguese.
Without further ado, part one of "Brasil Eterno."
Data streams filled the haptic display screen. Bits of information bereft of order and context. Each scrolling by as softly glowing eyes took them in with ravenous glee. Nirin'Ptrun's smile grew wistful as her thoughts wandered to her… mate? Bahnt? Captain? That one was probably the most accurate. He'd questioned her needs in the past, this overwhelming compulsion to snoop and sneak.
He called her an 'e-klepto.'
She called him a 'man with boring computer passwords.'
With wandering hands that reached out to steal whatever bit of information she could find, no matter how mundane or vitally important, it was all the same. Something to seize. Something that wasn't meant for her luminous eyes.
Nirin glanced over at her bahnt as he fiddled with his mechanical prosthetics at the omni-bench. The left forearm compartment was fully opened as he tightened screws and reloaded the disposable 'party favors' – flares, drones, grenades, etc.
She grinned as she remembered the feel of his strong metal hands last night, and the teasing electricity they could expel on command. She'd have to have him reenact his performance once he was done with his calibrations.
"How'd that drone swarm work out for you, Estê-kun?" she asked, breaking the silence of their bedroom.
"Not bad. The targeting algorithms are good, but the coordination between them is iffy," Estêvão Volinski answered with a frown, "Something's preventing the VIs from communicating properly."
"Could be clock drift between platforms."
"Sounds likely, though I can't see a cause. Firmware is consistent across the swarm and the VIs' logic engines know to watch for time inconsistency and self-correct."
"Put them in debug mode and set them to 'bake-out' in the cargo hold with a repeating flying routine."
"The brute-force method?" Volinski asked with a cocked eyebrow, then he shrugged, "I'll give it a shot."
"Mm," Nirin hummed as she turned back to her console and cracked her knuckles, wiggling her fingers to get the blood flowing as she prepared her digital thralls for the coming battle.
She'd taken a series of custom-built VIs and placed them into a processing stack with FTL circuits before uploading a simulated neural pattern – modeled off the kirik beetles of Ekram. This turned her VI stacks into what was known as an 'augmented-neural interface' system.
Volinski had called it an 'AI,' which Nirin vehemently denied in the strongest possible language. She compared the ANI to a vorcha – technically sapient, but only technically. And much like a vorcha, completely harmless – yes, the room is on fire, but it's friendly fire, everything's fine, stop worrying so much. She continued to downplay any potential risk as she set about creating six more ANIs – which she named after the murder victims in an archaic horror movie they'd watched.
The HelNet was an interesting database, its architecture as unique as the mind of its creator. It was a challenge in the beginning, especially with EVA patrolling the servers, but once there was a crack in the firewall, the whole system opened up to her. She always covered her tracks after a long day of dredging the servers with her polymorphic ANI cluster swarms, and she'd never been reprimanded for snooping. She felt safe and carefree, even as she bypassed the security of the Illusive Man's inner sanctum.
Volinski felt a tingle on the back of his neck and glanced over to his quarian. Her silvery eyes staring at the screen, unblinking. Her tongue licking her lips as they rubbed together, one of her many tics when she was 'in the zone.'
He smiled at that as he finished calibrating the drone software. That look, hunched over a computer screen with her body tense and coiled. It was 'Niri at her Niri-est.' The one time she was truly in her element. Killing batarians? Fucking her man? Nothing could compare to this moment, when the digital world was laid bare before her.
The network's custom-built firewall – the HelNet's greatest non-sapient defense and Mr. Harper's crowning achievement – coalesced into an enormous lava golem, towering dozens of meters above. At its sagging, stump-like feet – clad in glowing cobalt armor – stood defiantly a lithe quarian with a strange golden-glowing sword in her hands.
The Heroic Spirit drew a deep breath and lifted the blade above her head and screamed with all her might, "EXCALIBUUUUUUUUUR!"
As she drew down the blade, a violent wave of blinding gold light rushed away and consumed the golem in purifying radiance, leaving not a trace of the monster behind. As the glare dissipated, the lone knight sheathed her holy blade and trudged past the guardian's redoubt and into the HelNet's deepest, darkest servers to plunder their secrets and treasures.
Volinski was tweaking the flight VI for his HUSSAR rig when he heard a giggle coming from the nearby computer desk. Glancing up, he saw a giddy smirk on Nirin's face as she tapped a haptic button once or twice – looking every bit the stereotypical slacker hacker wearing one of his oversized t-shirts. Then she revealed a predatory grin of sharp teeth and dramatically mumbled the word 'Excalibur' while slamming her tri-fingered hand down on that same haptic button.
The Brazilian gave a grunt and returned to his work, disinclined as he was to delve too deeply into her fantasies. As long as the room wasn't on fire, there was no reason to get involved.
Basking in her victory against insurmountable odds, Nirin slouched in her chair with an aura of absolute contentment as her primary ANI cluster set about decrypting the data she'd just purloined from the HelNet. How she wished it could be more than idle fancy to fight the daemons in the digital world with her bare, virtual-reality hands, but the technology just didn't exist yet. She wasn't even sure she would use it. If someone hacked it, did they hack into your very mind?
On the nearby vidscreen there was a regal man giving an interview to the 'angry news lady.' Nirin wasn't paying attention, and her bahnt seemed too busy to care what was said, that is, until the Japanese Emperor addressed the Fall of Ilium.
"The humans on Ilium were not Alliance citizens – every one of them renounced such to go to Ilium, and some of those were criminals or worse. Ilium hosted, for reasons we cannot fathom, the single largest concentration of humans with Brazilian ancestry in the galaxy after Oro, and their loss is not exactly tragic."
"Neither was Nagasaki, you slant-eyed nip," Volinski grumbled under his breath.
Nirin tittered at his venomous, redundant words. "Estê-kun, he can't hear you."
"Neither can your anime characters," he snapped, "but that doesn't stop you from yelling at them."
"My waifu was being stupid! I had to yell at her."
"Pfft, anime was a mistake, through and through. I'll never forgive Pam for sharing that shit with you."
"Estê-kun, don't be such a bully." Sliding a claw through her silvery quills and tousling the bound bundles – Brooks had called them 'pigtails' – she turned back to the computer screen as it gave soft 'ding.'
The decryption came to an end and she saw something very interesting on the screen. It was a familiar room that she'd never once visited in-person – and likely never would. The Illusive Man's inner sanctum, an atrium overlooking the churning hellscape of a star with a single chair to take in the spectacle. And sitting in that chair was the man himself, Jack Harper, her… Admiral. And floating nearby in the QEC projector was the bane of any quarian's existence, an unshackled AI of incomprehensible power.
She beckoned her man with a claw. "Come here, Estê-kun, I found something in the network."
"Niri, we've been over this," he said with a weary sigh as he reengaged the magnetic locks on his forearm compartment, "You can't keep hacking the network whenever you feel like it. I can't protect you if things go sideways."
"Since when do I need protection?" Nirin huffed in indignation, "Besides, they need my help against the Shadow Broker. You worry too much."
"You're working on a deficit of good will to begin with, Niri. You've been given a lot of leeway for an alien… that won't last forever. Especially if you keep fucking off in patrão's systems."
Nirin narrowed her glowing eyes as she prepared her rebuttal, which took the form of a blown raspberry.
"Cristo, you're like a child sometimes," he said as he slowly shook his head and clucked his tongue, "Fine. What have you found?"
"I haven't watched it yet, but it looks like Vigil-bō having a conversation with Mr. Illusive-dono."
Volinski's attention was arrested momentarily as his brain stumbled over that last piece. A private conversation between the Illusive Man and the AI known as 'Vigil.'
"Are you fucking insane?!" he demanded, whipping his head around like he was possessed, "Patrão would kill us both if he knew you were spying on him!"
"I'm not spying on him," Nirin huffed, "I just happened upon it."
"That's not a valid excuse!" Volinski admonished, "Nirin'Ptrun, I swear to God, you will be the fucking death of me!"
Nirin responded with a face that radiated smugness so dense it could bend light.
Volinski narrowed his eyes. "You'd actually be proud of yourself for that, wouldn't you?"
Inexplicably, her expression became even more smug – it proved too strong for her bahnt to withstand.
Relenting with a heavy sigh, Volinski sauntered over to the computer. "Fuck it… What'd you find?"
Nirin pressed the haptic button and the pair watched as the Illusive Man spoke to the Inusannon AI while it was still 'trapped' on the Citadel. They could even see Operatives Brooks and Heldra standing near the silver orb as it went about denigrating anything and everything of this time period.
Volinski rewatched the recording for the third time and was left with the same unanswered question. " 'I need to be placed in proximity to a race unlikely to be harvested.' …Why the fuck would Vigil need patrão's help with that? He can travel anywhere with a wireless connection, no? Steal a ship, or even build his own?"
"I dunno. Maybe it's testing Mr. Illusive-dono? Seeing what it can get out of him?"
"Hmm… maybe," Volinski conceded as he narrowed his eyes, "He's already preparing for the next Cycle. Hmm. Can you… reach out to him?"
"This thing is the single most sophisticated piece of anything in Citadel Space. Chances are it's listening to us right now," she replied with a nervous grimace.
Really? Volinski cocked an eyebrow and turned to the computer screen. "Vigil, could I have a moment of your time, please?"
There was a flash of white light as the picotech AI construct popped into existence, floating above the terminal for a moment before addressing them, "You play a curious game, meatbag. I've been aware of your data-tap since I infiltrated the network. Strange that your employer tolerates it."
"Niri's good at covering her tracks."
"Mm… is that what you think? Well, I won't be the one spoil your fantasies, but I will say that if that's truly the case, then your standards are woefully inadequate. I'm sure the other construct finds your bumbling amusing, I know I do," Vigil said as its form smugly pulsed, "Fumbling around in your little sandbox like—"
Vigil broke off as it took note of a foreign object being thrust into its backside. From behind, stood a quarian in an oversized t-shirt, poking the AI with a long, floppy rod of rubber with rounded ends, as if she were gingerly assessing a corpse in the bushes.
"Stop that, you savage!" Vigil hissed, zapping the quarian with a jolt of electricity and forcing her into retreat with a yelp – dropping the sex toy in her haste. The AI turned its attention back to Volinski. "Few beyond Shepard and the Illusive Man seek to treat with me directly, yet you jumped at the chance to speak. So speak, meatbag."
Volinski straightened his back and took a deep breath. "You're preparing to fight the Reapers beyond this Cycle. I want to join that effort."
"You? What could one broken primate do for me?" the AI sneered, "I have enough on my plate keeping Shepard from falling apart into uselessness. Moreover, how are you even privy to that information? There's no way Mr. Harper would trust a cannon monkey like you with something like that."
"The fuck is a 'cannon monkey'?"
"Don't hurt your brain with that one. Now answer my question."
"Well, I… hear things, I guess? Anyway, back to the issue at hand… my people are near extinction. I wish to establish a colony in uncharted space. Far from the relay network. It would benefit your cause to take a people with no history and mold them into a weapon," Volinski insisted, offering a knowing smile as he continued, his social augmentations helping to coach his features, "I imagine it would be easier to do that with a blank slate species than trying to mold one that's already established, like the yahg or the kintul."
"Are your people any better?" Vigil asked as it scrutinized him for a moment before bobbing slightly in the air, "Humans are fickle, and these Brazilians I assume you're referring to are nothing but barbarous trash. They're unruly criminals."
"I know… that's why I want to start over. I found…" Volinski trailed off, his eyes narrowing as his quarian stalked up behind the AI, marital aid once more in hand, "Niri, don't."
The quarian ignored him and poked the AI again, her glowing eyes widening as the obscene paraphernalia turned to dust from one tip to the other – dropping it before it reached her fingers. The girl jumped back, landing like reared cat on the nearby desk chair – spinning on the swivel as she glared at the glowing orb and hissed in indignation, "Bosh'tet! You killed 'Único Amigo'!"
Vigil's sphere contracted in indignation. "That Mr. Harper would tolerate something like that, makes me question his sanity. Your pet is a loon."
"I prefer to call her 'eccentric,' Volinski offered, downplaying the girl's flimsy hold on reality.
"I am eccentric, she's howling at the moon."
"Oh come on," Volinski tried before mumbling, "she hasn't done that in weeks."
Vigil became very quiet. "You have an indeterminate amount of time to explain yourself before I atomize the both of you."
"I found a garden world! Fuck!" Volinski all but screamed, throwing both hands in the air like her was under arrest, "It's suitable for human habitation and I want to populate it with Brazilians!"
Vigil did not react beyond floating in place. Volinski took it as a good sign that he and his quarian were still alive, though that was hardly the benchmark he wanted to use.
Taking a nervous gulp of air, he continued, "Specifically, children conceived from those of Brazilian descent. That is my request, a refuge for my people – a tabula rasa from our sins. Raise them as you see fit. I only ask that they know their culture and history from before the Imperador ruined us."
Vigil continued to… stare? It wasn't clear. But after a moment, the AI broke its silence, "Why do you place such arbitrary restrictions upon your request, meatbag? Isn't it enough to have a colony of humans safely tucked away from the Reapers? Is a pack of barely sentient rapists, murderers, and war criminals worth such effort? Most would argue in favor of their extermination. When the Reapers do come, assuming this fool plan of yours works, you will have chosen to save the deformed remains of humanity's worst at the expense of billions of those who weren't tainted."
Seriously? Even an AI talks shit on my people? We're not fucking vorcha!
Volinski couldn't hide the flash of pain on his face, nor the bitterness in his voice, "I didn't realize a few caveats made it such a daunting prospect. And here I thought you more than a floating lightbulb."
"Insults? Trying to attack my pride?" Vigil asked, his form pulsing.
It was right about then that Volinski felt his bowels turn to jelly with unease. Lashing out at a literal killing machine was… unwise.
"I, uh… I'm sure I don't kno— Oh shit!" Volinski exclaimed as his prosthetics went into revolt – legs folding into themselves as the hands moved to strangle their owner.
Nirin leapt out of the chair and was alight with the red glow of her omni-tool as she shot at the silver orb with her Arc pistol – the electroplasma discharge having no effect. She attempted an overload from her omni-tool, only for her body to seize up when the voltage ground out through her instead, rendering her unconscious.
"You two are fully aware of my capabilities and my disdain for primitive yokels such as yourselves, and yet you goad me – attack me. Is it bravery or stupidity, I wonder?"
"Wh-Why… not… b-both?" Volinski forced out, unable to draw a breath as his rebellious fingers dug deeper into his throat.
Vigil was quiet for a moment, then its silvery form flashed as the ancient AI released its hold and actually chuckled at the man's suggestion. "Indeed. You've entertained me, jabá, but nothing more. If I wanted to waste my time conversing with barbarous trash, I would visit Heshtok. Or Oro."
"Eu não sou lixo, seu filho da puta," the Brazilian hissed in Portuguese between clenched teeth.
"Are you so out of touch with reality that you would deny the obvious? You're not even relevant to the man who pays your stipend, how could you possibly be anything to me? You and your pet are nothing but extras on Mr. Harper's set, a man far more interesting and useful to my goals, and even then, he's barely worth my notice. His greatest desires and schemes nothing more than a footnote. So, what does that make you? This is the greatest gambit of your life, the greatest opportunity your broken people will ever have, and it is not even the tenth most consequential thing I've considered in the last hour."
Volinski was still massaging his throat as he eyed the machine and rose to his feet. With his limbs once more under his control, he was barely able to maintain a calm exterior as he seethed with rage. His knuckles strained as he clenched his fists tighter and tighter all while grinding his molars into metaphorical dust.
"Do you understand your irrelevance, jabá? How could you be anything more than a tool when Mr. Harper won't even trust you with access to the HelNet?" the AI sneered.
Volinski's rage slowed his response, but once he processed the words it disappeared completely and left only confusion in its wake. "What do you mean?"
"You and the quarian do not have any access to the HelNet servers, whatsoever. What you use is a perfect replica of the sections you would have access to if Mr. Harper could trust your quarian to know her place."
Volinski winced at the appraisal, his thoughts drifting back to the day he joined Cerberus outright. He'd warned the Illusive Man about Nirin's disdain for digital barriers and secrets. At the time, the Cerberus leader waved it off without concern.
"If it's a replica, how can I talk to people over it? How can I edit pages while others do the same?"
"Mr. Harper's construct, EVA, created your cage and maintains all aspects of it. You use 'HelNet lite,' and she transfers your information to the real thing and vice versa."
"But Niri's always hacking—"
"Your pet is acting as an unknowing white hat hacker. The cyberdefenses of HelNet lite are identical to the real thing. When the playground's integrity is violated, EVA patches the holes in the real network. The servers your pet plays in are honeypots for the Silver Legions, the Dark Network, and the STG – she is nothing more than an unwitting bee."
Volinski was quiet, his guts twisting into knots as he reflected on the implications. Nirin was quarian, she lived to satisfy her Captain, to follow her Admiral, and to add value to her Fleet. In a sense, she was, but she didn't know it. She thought her value was killing batarians and hacking enemy systems, but her true value was apparently patching the organization's servers.
Admiral Harper didn't trust her. Fleet Cerberus was content to use her. Captain Volinski wasn't even worth being told about it.
First, he was outraged. He understood why they wouldn't trust a quarian hacker with no boundaries, but him? He had no ulterior motives. He wasn't a threat. He killed slavers and pirates and helped make space a little safer for humanity. This political maneuvering was why he'd resisted joining Cerberus for so long, content to have the shadow organization contract him and his Blood Dragons to act as proxies in the Traverse.
Some part of him, though, a part that he wasn't sure he could ever tell Nirin about, felt relieved. How many sleepless nights had he suffered because his quarian couldn't not hack the HelNet? And now, knowing it was all harmless, he let out a deflated half laugh. EVA tended to act prim and proper, but he suspected she would be downright giddy over the stress she had induced in not telling him about HelNet lite.
"If what you say is true, why would EVA leave a video of you and patrão talking in the fake server?"
"I neither know nor care, her reasons are her own. Though I suspect she considered the video to be of limited importance. Not unlike you."
Volinski narrowed his eyes at the ancient machine, but refrained from lashing out. It would have been a pointless gesture, one that could quite possibly get him killed. Instead, he focused on the very real danger of Nirin learning the truth. She lived as a quarian does, finding meaning in being valuable to her Fleet, but it was all based on a lie, and if she ever found out she might try to kill herself again.
"I think I've made my point and position quite clear. So let us end this farce of a sales pitch, shall we?"
"Wait!" Volinski cried out, reaching out with his hand, "Don't—"
"Goodbye," Vigil said as his soap bubble form popped out of existence, leaving not a trace.
Volinski's hand remained outstretched for a time, before falling limply to his side as his shoulders slumped, his hopes and aspirations evaporating alongside the fickle AI. He'd gambled and lost. So hopeful to see his people restored that he went in without a plan. Jumping at the opportunity without the foggiest idea of how to convince something that reasonably viewed him as a semi-intelligent animal at best.
Or a Brazilian, whispered that sour, self-loathing voice he carried with him everywhere.
There it was, that voice that wondered if his people really had deserved what happened to them, given their crimes against humanity. The voice that secretly agreed with the Japanese Emperor's sweetly poisoned words. The voice that whispered seeds of doubt and evil thoughts in the darkest corner of his mind.
It had been relatively quiet after Mindoir, when the death of his wife had awoken a brutal nationalism that hadn't existed prior to that, but every year since, it had slowly recouped more of its previous strength. Now it was like tinnitus, a constant thrum on the edge of his perception.
He'd fucked up. And as that realization settled in… his blood grew hot. His fists clenched so tightly that the polymer could be heard grinding against itself. Letting out a roar of fury and rage he struck the wall. Then he struck it again… and again… and again.
He kept punching, ignoring the pain emulators that screamed for him to stop. He ignored the HUD display that warned of fatigue in the titanium finger bones, even as one pinky finger stopped responding to his brain impulses. He just kept venting his frustrations as the metal paneling buckled around the fist-shaped dents.
He might have smashed his arms to pieces against the bulkhead had he not felt the ginger touch of a quarian palm on his shoulder. He leant his forehead against the wall, breathing heavily as the adrenaline played havoc with his emotions. He felt defeated, deflated. His rage was spent, and now he just wanted to curl up and cry.
"I'm sorry, Estê-kun," came Nirin's gentle voice, soothing as it always was when the nightmares seized him, "I know it meant a lot to you and I—"
"Don't, just… don't. He made his choice before he even spoke to us. There was never going to be any help in this. It just means nothing has changed. Operation: FODA-SE ARDIENTE is still at square one… I doubt it'll ever move past that point."
Nirin watched him with a frown, before forcing a playful smile. "How about a good gumming to take your mind off things?"
He shook his head. "Tempting, but I'm not in the mood."
Nirin's frown returned, her bahnt had never turned her down before. Perhaps a change of scenery would suffice. "Well, why don't we check in with Luiz-senpai and see if there aren't a few Masters we can hunt down? That always cheers you up."
Volinski frowned at the girl's choice of words, but nodded his assent. He had never really gotten used to her little idiosyncrasies when it came to the batarians. If she needed to pretend a random squint was her old Master, then so be it. At the end of the day, it didn't matter what she chose to call them… every 'Master' would get exactly what it deserved.
Well, all of them except her actual Master, ensconced as he was on Khar'shan. Justice was a fleeting thing in this dark galaxy.
Or is it? Volinski thought as he remembered something he'd read about a certain hanar on the Citadel. His frown gave way to a small smile. Maybe his dream of a reborn Brazil was dead, but he could still free the woman he loved from her pain. Perhaps that was enough.