Mass Effect Human Revolution

Interludes 4: Behind the curtain, part 3

By IgnusDei

Spellcheck by WarpObscura

[h+]


It had been a day since they landed on this alternate Earth, the time having been spent making their way on foot towards what Conrad had called a Chrono Break, the two words sandwiched between two piles of technobabble words that Adam could barely understand, even with a silent Promethean AI stuck in his head. "Quantum" was one of those words, because of course, thought Adam.

Save for the overcast weather and occasional rain, the journey so far had been uneventful, and both Adam and Garrus had been thankful for that mercy. After all, this entire journey had started with the excuse of finally using up that vacation time the two C-Sec agents had saved up over the last few years, and walking through the wilderness of Michigan untouched by mankind finally felt like a real break. Ramsus, of course, was bored, and quietly hoped that they'd kill something soon... refusing to admit that he too, was enjoying the long walk in the wilderness.

He got his wish, in a way. With the burden of Elsa on his back, Adam needed to eat to keep his energy up, and it fell to Ramsus, Garrus and Hannibal to hunt and kill some game. A few hours of stalking in the forest later, Garrus had spotted a wary moose, which bolted at the mere sight of him. A quick snap-shot from the turian's sniper rifle had ended that chase before it could really start, downing the moose, but not killing it. It fell to Ramsus to give it a mercy kill with a flash-forged knife.

Hannibal sniffed the fresh carcass, smelling a familiar scent.

After carrying it back to camp with his biotics, it fell to Ramsus to butcher the animal, the campfire his only illumination under the starry night sky. The rest of the group surrounded the flame, silently waiting for their meal. With all that's happened, one would have thought they'd want to bombard "Conrad" with questions, but no. They had had enough of talk and explanations. They just wanted this Strange Journey to be over.

Garrus sat on a log, and sighed. "The world's gone mad," he said, surprising Adam. He hadn't spoken in a day, and decided it was time to voice some of his frustration with his reality.

Adam, lying on his back, let out a chuckle. "The world's been mad since forever. We're just getting a good look at it." He had put the 108 suit back on, at Teg's repeated insistence. Seeing as he had recently tried to breathe in space and would have died had it not been for Hein's foresight... Yeah, he had thought, maybe I should keep the suit on just in case there's something Hein didn't account for with my implants.

"Feel free to go mad along with it," commented Ramsus, skinning the glowing, floating moose. "I assure you, you'll be in good company." He tapped the side of his head with his bloody knife. "Perhaps trying to stay sane in the face of such madness is a folly in and of itself."

"No thanks," said Garrus, as he set his ration pack next to the fire. "I happen to like my sanity. Of course, the world's probably setting us up for another perturbing revelation."

"I prefer to think of them as clues," said Adam.

Arms deep into the moose's innards, Ramsus realized something was off.

"It's got a uterus," he said, baffled. Then, tapping his forehead, added, "And a vagina, of course. Really should have noticed that first."

Adam sat up, confused... and curious. "...But it's got antlers," he protested.

"I know," replied Ramsus. "Strange. I figured it was some sort of mutant at first, but... Hannibal?"

Hannibal walked up to Ramsus, who offered him a piece of bloody moose flesh. The canine robot almost happily ate it, the micro sensors in his mouth giving him both an electronic feeling of taste and a detailed atomic readout of the morsel.

"It's a bioroid," Hannibal said, after swallowing the piece of raw moose flesh. "The meat is manufactured, much like Brea's."

"See?" said Garrus, resigned. "Well, I suppose vat-grown animals aren't that big a deal."

Hannibal's entire head opened, revealing a suite of sensors. Lights danced over the floating corpse for a moment.

"Not grown," said Hannibal. "Bioprinted." His face closed up, and turned to Adam.

"I could track its point of origin by scent, if you'd like to investigate."

"Proposal," began Teg, as he set up a large wooden roasting spit over the flames. "This is neither our world nor timeline. Any clue/revelation about its nature is meaningless to us. Investigating the nature of the moose-animal is a waste of time."

"What he said," added Conrad, a little too eagerly, prompting a chuckle from Ramsus.

"You know," said Adam, "for once, I'm not gonna pull at that loose thread. The moose, is it edible, at least?"

"Yes," said Hannibal. "Your body will be able to break down the synthetic proteins."

"I'm almost done dressing it," said Ramsus. "Then, it's roasting time."

After supper, Adam would have to admit that Ramsus really knew how to cook meat, in spite of having little to work with. Even Garrus had tried some, and agreed, though his biology would make him regret it dearly later.

Morning came, and it was time to resume the march. Adam beheld his burden: Elsa's corpse, wrapped in thick foil, sitting on a harness, ready to be worn like a backpack. As he took hold of her, a pulse of energy quietly surged between them, and Elsa's body sent out a signal...

[h+]


"No sign of Michaëlle," Symeon 1 said, as the android went over what remained of the campsite with his black Visor. The light rain hadn't quite ruined everything just yet, so there were still some clues to process.

The camp had been haphazardly made, a combination of primitive wood and hi-tech adhesives. Definitely not from a Legion camping kit... and definitely not a Gaian camp, either. Not enough blood and bones, after all, Symeon thought. "Are you certain this where they detected the signal?" he asked his partner.

"Positive!" insisted Steiner 9. "She was here, count on it!"

"Yeah, but we also detected her black box signal on the coast at the same time." Symeon looked up at the smooth black craft that served as their transport - a KG 200 recon wing - hovering silently above them. "The KG is getting on in years - I wouldn't be surprised if its sensors malfunctioned."

"Hey, I upgraded those sensors myself!"

"...Like I said, I wouldn't be surprised if its sensors malfunctioned," Symeon snarked, getting a pout out of Steiner. Ignoring him, the older Android summoned a scanning drone, and wirelessly commanded it to do a deep scan of the area.

"I think I found dinner," said Symeon, finding the moose's corpse in some bushes.

"Aw, poor thing," said Steiner, expressing some sorrow and a bit of disgust at the state of the carcass: There wasn't much left save bones, and offal had been stacked into a separate pile. "Who would do such a... oh, oh no, is it Gaia's replicants?!"

"Relax, the kill was pretty clean. Wasn't for sport, either. The dressing was expertly done. Someone... someone was just hungry."

"And she had just come out of the nanoreactor, too."

"Pretty sure it was a he, kiddo." He pointed at the antlers.

Steiner was confused. "All moose have antlers."

"Yeah, but the females don't."

Steiner tilted his head. "No... data reads female..." He perused an online database, and within a split second he had seen all that there was to see about moose. "Also, I just checked: all our visual records of moose have antlers on them. It follows the females should have them, too."

"Well, who am I to argue with the database?" Symeon replied, sarcastically. He didn't think much of any of the S-types: Scanners, Scribes, Sorcerers... they were smart, yes, but with that intelligence came an arrogance and a belief that they could do no wrong when interpreting what little remained of Mankind's history.

Not like I remember much, either, he thought. I'd kill for an intact trove of human relics, if only to see the look on those Scribes' faces when I tell them that Huffman Island was never real.

"Huffman came from the mind of god!" they said. I say God is a ditzy nerd and his mind shouldn't be considered a perfect record of human history.

He nodded at the moose's corpse. "In any case, I'm certain Michaelle wasn't not here. That kill's not her style: not enough bullet holes. Signs point to a couple of mechs, one biped, one quad, and three other androids. Judging by the footprints: a Titan-type, two Sorcerer-Type, and a Ranger-Type with raptor leg mods."

"Wow, just by the footprints?"

"And some background Maso radiation in the air, of course. Levels match two sorcerers."

Steiner did his own scans, and came to a similar conclusion, except: "Hm, that Titan-type's footprints seem a bit deep, no?"

"Type Ts are all heavy on account of the armour."

"Hm... no, I'd estimate there's fifty extra kilos pressing on those boots. Could be carrying something heavy... or someone."

Symeon was about to disagree, but thought better of it. "Huh, you might be right about that."

The KG's belly opened, and a light lifted the two of them up into the opening...

[h+]


The Legion's design philosophy could be summed up in three words: Spartan, Sleek, and Monochrome. The inside of the KG 200's cockpit was no exception to that industrial design doctrine, the only decoration being the almost organic, jagged lightning lines of the panelling. The holographic haptics provided the sole illumination, enhanced by the silvery metal of the panels. There were no windows. Androids thought them unnecessary structural weaknesses, and thus — much like the geth — did not use them. Nanocams across the hull relayed 360-degree vision to the android pilots, while larger cameras provided them with long distance sight when the sensor sphere failed to give them an accurate picture.

Steiner loved the Keiji, as he liked to call it. Symeon would have killed the whole Legion to fly his old Hawk D2 again.

"Tower, this is Recon Team 451, please respond." The android's voice resounded across the smooth, bright gray walls of the cockpit as he took his seat. Steiner-9 sat on his left, going over an organic sample he found. Holographic panels with walls of encrypted text streamed all around his head, with a pair of mirrored double helixes as the center of his focus.

"Hi!" 6O's cheerful voice came through the channel as her holographic bust materialized on his console in a controlled eruption of golden sparks. The sight and sound raised Symeon's mood – 6O's good cheer had that effect on a old machine like him. It was the eyes, he decided. Those big soulful doe eyes made of crystalized carbon, so expressive, as if to make up for the smiles hidden by her black silk veil. "S1 Symeon, this is the Tower, reading you loud and clear. Anything to report?"

"Yeah, here's the data package." Symeon uploaded their scans, and began to give his report: "We had a look around the area, didn't find P51, but there were signs of a fireteam camping in the area with their mechs. Of course, I thought that was weird: You said we were the closest Legion unit in the area."

"You are. Are you sure it's not a group of stray replicants? I hear we've been making great progress in that area."

"Well, you heard wrong. The only sapient replicants around are Gaia's. Those that are left, anyways."

"We ah," Steiner 9 began, a bit troubled. "We had a close encounter with a small tribe a couple of days back."

6O winced. "Oh... oh I'm so sorry. Are you okay? I mean, of course you are, but... they didn't try to...

"It's okay," replied Steiner. "Symeon didn't let them get too close." The younger android beamed with brotherly pride at Symeon, who made a point of not acknowledging it. Steiner thought it made Symeon look so cool.

"I did a quick search of our duty roster," said 6O. "No one's supposed to be there except you." Her eyes narrowed in amusement. "Curioser and curioser, no?"

"Do we have a satellite up there that can give us a look as to who they are? I've sent you their probable trajectory."

"Just a sec, relaying with a probe is tough – we're still cleaning up the Kessler Disaster." 6O vanished for a few minutes. "Okay, recon probe 25 just took a few hundred snapshots of the area..." she tilted her head, quizzically. "There's nobody there, as far as I can tell."

Symeon and Steiner went over the pictures in a split second.

"Let me connect to the probe," said Steiner. Wires surged out of the neck cushion of his seat, plugging into the ports on the back of his smooth bare neck. "Huh, looks like someone tampered with the probe – specifically its IMREC code. The primary processor core keeps editing something out."

"It's been hacked?"

"Define 'hacked', because whoever did this had the authorization to do it, judging by the logs. Can't undo it, either."

6O's doe eyes narrowed. "Ooh... intrigue! Curioser and curioser!"

Probably a secret op, thought Symeon, or a rogue unit. "Their Titan appeared to be hauling some extra cargo, about the weight of a Gen-6 body. Could be Michaëlle's Type P. Permission to pursue?"

"Let me check with higher ups... Yep! Permission granted! Happy hunting, you two!"

"Goodbye, Oberonia!" said Steiner.

"Byyyeee!"

Oberonia-6's bust vanished, and Symeon connected to the KG's flight systems. "So what's got you so fascinated, by the way?" he asked Steiner, still pouring over bio data.

"Poop," Steiner replied, non-chalantly.

Symeon gave him a look that practically pierced his visor.

[h+]


Another day, another trek, this time across the rocky, grassy plains of the Michigan wilderness. There was hardly any place to hide. That was why Conrad hadn't kept his eyes off the wrist computer of his Alex suit. Burroughs was monitoring the Legion's eyes on this area, and had foiled an attempt at finding them. Anybody else would have panicked at the thought, but Conrad had been over this before. He knew the exact sequence of events that would lead them back home, a skill he had used before to escape dire situations... like being trapped on an insane mercenary's frigate.

Of course, Ramsus being Ramsus, there was a very good chance the psychotic psionic would lead them off the rails just to amuse himself. In fact, he had already nearly gotten them all killed.

Conrad looked up at the overcast sky. I can't let the Triumvirate get their hands on this Adam, Conrad thought. That would snarl up the timelines something fierce, and the Accords would have my head for it.

He sighed. I really don't want to do this over. This sequence has lasted months, by my reckoning. Or is it years? It's getting hard to tell. I've been screwing and unscrewing timelines for how long, really?

I'm getting tired.

Adam, for his part, was trying to flagellate himself with guilt, hoping that feeling the weight of Elsa's corpse on his back would keep the questions at bay. Unfortunately, superhuman strength made Elsa's sixty or so kilos light as a feather, the only inconvenience to him a slight shift in his balance as he walked.

Once, in an elevator chat, Adam had told Brea that Hugh Darrow had said that Adam was like a dog with a bone. Brea had smiled at that, adding that dogs had a tendency to get easily distracted by bones. Adam knew what she had meant: that he had a bad tendency to get sidetracked.

So sidetracked I managed to find myself in an alternate dimension, Adam thought. She's gonna give me an earful when we get back.

The worst part? In spite of declaring that he wouldn't be sidetracked, he was already sniffing the bones, so to speak. Something bothered him about this place: it was Michigan, his home state, but at the same time... it wasn't. It felt like a theme park version of the Michigan wilderness, an accurate-except-not-quite copy of it based on pamphlets and social media galleries: the colours were too bright, the trees seemed more sculpted than grown, and there was always the nagging feeling that he had seen his patch of grass elsewhere, a thousand steps ago.

That raised some questions, questions that, as Teg pointed out, were not worth finding the answers to. Of course, Conrad had provided a convenient explanation for everything. Alternate dimension. Very convenient.

And yet, in spite of having just been shat out from several alternate dimensions... utter bullshit.

Like a dog with a bone,

Adam could hear both Darrow and Brea taunting him. And you're surrounded by them. Poor boy.

Adam growled, his frustrations growing. Just keep walking, he told himself.

Teg heard him and thought he was getting tired. "This unit can carry Devereaux-Lieutenant's body in your place."

"Thanks, Teg," replied Adam, "but it's my burden to bear."

"Understood."

"Oh, are we talking again?" asked Ramsus. "Finally. The long sullen, silent march through the light rain was starting to drive me nuts." He carried what was left of the moose meat over his shoulder, wrapped in his coat and a stasis field that glowed red. "So! How was it for you lot? The trip across the infinite, I mean?"

"Troubling," said Hannibal, which earned a chuckle from Garrus, of all people.

Ramsus was curious. "Oh? What soul-shattering revelation did you suffer through?"

"The confirmation of the multiverse theory," replied Hannibal. "It adds a certain level of utter meaninglessness to everything that we do. What's the point of all our decisions if there is another version of ourselves in the infinite that made another?"

That got Conrad's attention.

"I hate it when you get philosophical," complained Ramsus. "Though I admit, you dipping your toes into nihilism is a refreshing first." He paused, then: "But is that all?"

"It was a confusing mess of places and times until Conrad came and got me here," said Hannibal. "Thank you, by the way."

Garrus sighed. "Well, I suppose I should be grateful, too," Then he added. "We all are, really."

"Oh?" Conrad was surprised at the gratitude, especially from Garrus. "Wow! I mean, you're welcome!"

They started climbing a small hill.

"I've got questions, though," said the turian.

"Ah, I'd rather not—"

"Why Verner? The disguise, I mean."

"Oh, well... yeah, I can answer that." Conrad took a moment to consider his answer, "Well, Verner and I were very similar in build, I guess."

"...That's it?" asked Garrus.

"Well, it also helped that I was right there when he died."

Adam stopped, and glared at Conrad, who blanched, realizing what he had implied.

"It wasn't my fault! He was just—"

"—being Verner," finished Garrus.

"...Yeah." Conrad sighed. "Right next to a recycling vat. Figured nobody saw him die, and I needed a cover identity. My chameleon system caught his appearance, so..."

"Might as well replace him," said Ramsus.

"Couldn't have been easy pretending to be him," said Garrus, "what with you being some kind of quantum physicist slash electronics expert and him being, well..."

"...A xenotechnologist with a minor in quantum physics?"

Garrus couldn't believe it. "...I'm sorry, what?"

"Hey, Verner was pretty smart, too!" said the other Conrad.

"It's true," added Ramsus. "AIA had a file on him as a potential recruit for Special Projects' Xenotech labs, though his association with you two was a major red flag."

"A Query," began Teg. "Why did you not save Verner-Original?"

"I ah, I couldn't," replied Conrad, hesitantly.

Teg tilted his head curiously. "Query: are you not a time traveller? It would have been simple to travel further back in time and prevent his accident."

"Anyone ever tell you you're awfully curious for a mech?" asked Garrus, suspiciously. "Good question, though."

"Well, it's complicated – I couldn't rewind far back enough to make a difference."

"From what I've been able to gather," said Hannibal, "You can rewind was far back as two days."

"Right, right, first I gotta explain how that actually works – I call it rewinding, and it feels that way, but most of the time I just take my future experiences and send them into the past. That's all I can do..."

Bullshit, thought Adam.

"...At least, normally. When there's a Chrono Break going on, though, I can do a whole bunch of other stuff, but in Verner's case, there weren't any around. I was physically unable to reach him in time to save him – It didn't matter if I knew when and how he was going to die."

"Couldn't you have called the police?"

"I did! Hundreds of different times, but what could I have told them? Oh hi there guys! I'm a time traveller, someone's going to die trying to catch hooligans on a skytrain. You're the cop listening in: what are you going to think?"

"...Probably dismiss you as a crank call," said Garrus.

"I tried to save him, really! Over and over—"

"Did I ever tell you the definition of insanity?" The Warrior whispered the words in Adam's ear, unseen by his companions. Adam caught the red of his mask in his peripheral vision, and reflexively turned his head... but saw nothing but the fertile horizon of the plains.

"—over and over and over again, and... I just couldn't get to him in time, no matter what, so... I had to give up, I guess, move on. Figured fulfilling Verner's role in this story would be the next best thing to saving him."

Teg betrayed his true nature some more, asking questions born out of curiosity. "Query: How do you travel through time without a Quantum/Breach/Anomaly?"

"Ah... technically, I don't. I just use natural faults in the fabric of reality to hop from one timeline to the next, and they're not always chronologically synchronized, you know?"

"Is that where we're headed?" asked Ramsus. "To another of these faults?"

"Well, technically, it's not there yet, but thanks to Tali..." Conrad tried to hide his dislike of her, but failed. "...there's going to be thousands of new ones all over the place, real soon, when the damage reaches this place. Brace yourselves; we might have to go through some turbulence when we arrive. But don't worry! When we pass through and get home, I can fix the fracture and everything will go back to normal."

"You've done this before?" asked Adam.

"Oh yeah, countless times! ...probably. I may have unraveled all of reality once and then it righted itself on his own."

Adam just stared at him.

"Maybe we should stop talking about this," said Conrad, realizing the horror of what he just said.

"I got one last question, " said Adam. "Nos Astra. Not a coincidence, was it?"

Conrad looked away from his wrist console, sheepish. "Ah... no. I was hoping to Verner my way into the ship..."

"I'm sorry, what?" asked Garrus.

"He was manipulating you," said Ramsus. "He figured he'd play the part of the helpless idiot to the hilt, preying on your paternal instincts and let him onboard the ship to keep him from eating glue, or something."

"...Yeah," confirmed Conrad. "Didn't have to, though, turns out Hein wanted to hire Verner on as crew."

"And Hein?" asked Adam. "Did he know you weren't the real Verner?"

"I don't think so... my chameleon system's foolproof! But... why do you ask?"

Adam shook his head. "...No, he had to have known. Hein's too clever to just let anyone aboard his ship."

Conrad snorted. "Oh, no, no, that's impossible! I mean, all he wanted from Verner was practical knowledge of dark energy systems that's centuries more advanced than what he could have possibly come up with."

For a moment, nobody said anything, and Conrad realized how stupid he sounded.

"Well, that was a Verner moment if I ever saw one," said Garrus. "Fooled us all, well done, kiddo."

[h+]


The journey continued.

In spite of the burden he bore, Adam's new legs did not tire, nor wear out, allowing him to take in the scenery. Every mile walked through the grass brought a new perspective, a new point of view to admire these quiet Michigan hills.

The group encountered a pack of grey foxes. Adam admired them from afar, neither expecting nor hoping that they would approach him... but they did. Ramsus knelt before the pack leader, and petted him like a dog. Conrad joined in, awed, as if he had never seen an animal up close before. Teg eyed the pups curiously, as they barked all around Hannibal. A couple tried to nibble at his toes.

They moved on: Hannibal chased after a rabbit into a small forest, and came back with the game caught in his teeth. Not that he needed the food; it had all been about the chase. While waiting for Hannibal, Garrus spent the time admiring the mushrooms, wondering if they would taste good in butter. Not that he had butter, but it was nice to dream.

Night fell, and the clouds finally parted to reveal the stars. Adam looked up, and in spite of having traveled among them for the past few weeks, he was glad that they hadn't quite lost their magic or beauty, and found himself staring. He wasn't sure why: out there in space he had found more of the same he had suffered through on Earth: more wars, more fighting, more crime, more intrigue. The kinds of things that erode luster.

And Adam could remember the time where outer space had been this grand frontier, waiting to be conquered by mankind. The mysterious stars! The setting for countless movies, tv series, comic books, novels, the muses of hundreds of dreamers... and while Adam had slept, they had built shopping malls and factories throughout these alien worlds. The brilliant stars were just more real estate, in the end, to be fought over in courtroom bullshit or proxy wars.

And yet... they're still beautiful from here, he thought.

Adam wondered if that was Manah's influence. That girl's oddly cheerful, considering the crap she went through.

Conrad sighed, getting Adam's attention. "Skies are getting a little too clear. There's a cliffside cave where we can hide."

"Don't you mean camp?" asked Garrus.

"That too," said Conrad. "The robots are going to patrol this area. Can't let them see us, at least until I get the Chameleon system recalibrated."

The campfire was small, just enough to get some light. Neither Adam nor Garrus were particularly close, nevermind Teg or Hannibal, but Ramsus seemed to find some comfort – even joy – at the presence of the flames, though his face soon became marred with sorrow again.

"Are you alright?" asked Adam.

"No," the younger man replied. "I haven't a hit of Red Sand in an entire day."

Adam was about to roll his eyes when he wirelessly received a text message from Hannibal: he medicates with Red Sand whenever he feels sad. That put things in perspective.

"What did you see?" asked Adam after a moment. His trip through time and space had been confusing, so it followed logically that Ramsus' would be, as well. Garrus's too. "Through the corridors of time, I mean."

Corridors of time? thought Adam. That's Aleph talking, right?

"...Lots of things," admitted Ramsus. "Wars, mostly, between angels and demons, stretching into infinity. Looked fun, would have stayed if I could."

He chuckled, and it looked like he would have left it at that, but then:

"I saw my mother die." Ramsus shuddered, holding back tears. "She was blood and meat on a table, after my so-called aunt and uncle cut my sister and I out her belly. "He takes a deep breath. "Moments before that, I saw her with a man... looked a lot like you, but more French... they fought side by side in zero-g against an army of Templars. Corpses, hundreds of them, floating over the shattered ice cube that was once Pluto. It was beautiful... but in the end, my parents lost."

"I saw my mother die," said Garrus. "I tried to stop it, but it was no use. All I could do was... all I could do was save myself." He let out a single tear. "Before that, I saw some Jester presenting my parent's heads to a crowd. Thousands of crooks, all around me, cheering at the sight, as if they were at a damned concert."

Adam told them about his mother, and how she died in his arms. "...This can't be a coincidence," he said. "Something... someone wanted us to see this. Wanted us to be here."

The three of them stared at Conrad. "Well, don't look at me!" he protested. "I'm just trying to get you all home!"

[h+]


They had been deceived.

"I don't understand it," said Steiner, transmitting to Symeon sub-vocally. "How could anyone breach our security?"

Steiner hadn't found anything in the software, so it fell to Symeon to check the hardware. He was knee deep in their craft's guts, to see if anyone had installed some kind of bypass. He found nothing.

"Either there's nothing wrong with our sensors," Symeon began, as the ship's skin grew back over its exposed frame, "or we're dealing with a hacker capable of completely erasing his tracks."

They had spent the better part of a day chasing false leads – footprints leading to the middle of the wilderness - and would have kept on flying in circles if Symeon hadn't caught on to the ruse.

"The only one who could do that is the Maker himself," stated Steiner, as Symeon re-entered the ship. "You don't think—"

"Does it look like he's finally awake?" asked Symeon.

Steiner linked up his visual processor to one of the ship's cameras and looked up at the sky. The Sphere — the Maker's body — floated among the stars at the center of the habitat ring his Legion had built around it, a grand temple with millions of Synthetics praying for their Father's awakening.

Steiner sighed. "Nope, no activity."

"What a shame," said Symeon, as he took the co-pilot's seat. "Fucking around with our sensors is just the sort of thing he would do for a laugh."

"What?... oh. OH! That's right, you're old enough to remember a time when the Maker walked among us!" Steiner beamed. "What was he like?"

"Complicated," replied Symeon, tersely. "And definitely not like how the Triumvirate likes to portray him." He'd probably hate their guts, he thought. Sometimes I wonder if they're the ones keeping him asleep.

Three quick tones rang out in their internal comm units, announcing 6O's incoming call. "Hey guys!" she began cheerfully, as her image appeared on their holoprojector. "Got a status update for me?"

Their report, of course, was less than satisfactory.

"Hoo boy," she said. "Remote diagnostics show nothing out of the ordinary..."

"We're keeping up the chase anyways," transmitted Symeon. "But we're running a bit low; where's our drop?"

"Weeeeellll, about that?" she started, sheepishly. "Damnedest thing just happened..."

Exasperated, Symeon called her by her chosen name: "Orchidée..."

"It's not my fault this time! Honest! I sent that supply drop request on time, after triple-checking it! But it got caught up in some kind of loop, and the robots only sent the drop only pod minutes ago!"

"Hey, as long as we're finally getting our Luciferase," Steiner offered. "Right?"

"Wait for it," warned Symeon.

6O wilted. "Well... I just checked its projected trajectory – it's going off course."

"Which continent?" asked Symeon, sighing as he assumed the worst. This had happened before.

She pouted with her eyes. "Hey! It's not that bad..." Her hologram shifted, replacing her form with a miniature model of Earth and the drop pod's course. "It looks like it's headed for the outskirts to the Copied City."

Steiner perked up. "Ooh, I've got friends there on the reconstruction team!"

"Hey, me too!" added 6O cheerfully, as her form reappeared on the holoprojector. "Anyways, the pod will make landfall in a few hours. Might as well take it slow, right?"

Symeon double-checked the location of the drop zone before inputting it on the KG's navigation systems, and something about the location seemed odd... "Hm, I could swear those breadcrumb trails we followed were meant to keep us as far away from the city as possible."

"And if I didn't know any better," added Steiner, "I'd say those jacks down in logistics pointed us in the right direction. Almost as if..." the hand of the Maker was at work, he left unsaid.

"Mysterious ways, huh?" Symeon smirked.

"...I'm sorry?"

"Never mind, joke's from way before your time."

[h+]


It was the Golden Hour of the morning, and Adam found Garrus sitting on top of a hill, his rifle leaning against a rock as he looked upon the horizon blazing with shades of purple and orange. Adam approached him quietly, his burden safe back in the cave.

"Listen," said the turian.

"I don't hear anything," Adam replied. It wasn't quite true: his augmented hearing picked up the quiet whisper of the wind and the distant song of swallows, but he didn't hear anything out of the ordinary.

No, that wasn't quite true either. The bird's song... it didn't sound right. There's no mystery as to why: the birds were likely bioroids as well, but it raised the question... who made them and why?

Is this a giant zoo? he wondered.

"Exactly," said Garrus, pulling Adam from his thoughts. "It's quiet." Garrus took a deep breath, savoring the peace. "This is how the world should be."

Adam felt a crawling sensation in the back of his brain again, but this time it came with a sense of dread.

"Sorry," Garrus continued. "I'm still adjusting to the concept of not being shot at by crooks or monsters... or crooked monsters and monstrous crooks."

"And here I thought you wanted to get back to investigating as soon as possible."

"Yeah... so did I. Still want to get back home and back to business as usual, but... but there's no rush."

Adam sat besides his partner, letting the golden hour wane.

"After we deal with the Snatchers, I'm going back to Palaven."

"I figured you would," replied Adam, unsurprised. "Unfinished family business?"

"Yeah, that."

They said nothing, letting the wind whisper.

"I've got something for you," said Adam, as he produced the crystal entrusted to him by the dying Leto Valerius. "Your... father? Your father wanted you to have this."

He dropped the crystal in Garrus' open palm.

"I remember this," said Garrus. "My... Leto Valerius kept this on his person at all times, but Brutus could never figure out why."

"Do you know what it is?" asked Adam. He knew it was Messian tech, but...

"It's a key," said Garrus. "To what, I'm not sure." Garrus pocketed the gem. "But it doesn't matter now."

Adam and Garrus got up, and began the short walk down the hill.

"I just realized," said Garrus, a slight chuckle escaping his mouth. "We finally made good on our vacation time."

"Don't jinx it," said Adam.

As soon as he said that, he noticed a streak of light hanging in the sky above them, headed towards the east. Garrus zoomed in on it with his sniper rifle's scope, boosting its lens' magnification with a digital zoom. "That's... that's no meteor."

"Technically..." Adam began.

Garrus cut him off. "I mean, it's not a space rock."

"Let me have a look,"asked Adam, and Garrus handed him the gun, and zoomed in:

The falling object was made of dark metal, and kept itself safe from atmospheric friction through some kind of energy shield. It wasn't a mass effect field, or some kind of omni-gel barrier... no, the shield seemed to come from wheels of light. Definitely engineered, he thought. Too bad I can't make out any more details.

Sensing his thoughts, the 108 deployed the helmet, and its sensor suite scanned the object, and zoomed in further than the scope could.

Emblazoned on it was the symbol of a five petal flower.

That logo... seeing it made Adam's mind go back to the Durendal's hangar, where the ruin of Elsa's craft lay. Then, to that fragment in time where the immense Reaper warforms were being destroyed in dark space.

Before Adam could fully process the implications, the 108's AR display dropped another bombshell:

Luciferase 451 detected.

Adam double-checked the files he had downloaded – apparently Luciferase 451 was potent battery fluid for Gen-5 Androids and above, and with Elsa being 'Gen-6', she was apparently compatible with the stuff. If Luciferase 108 had a 25 percent chance of resurrecting her, perhaps 451 had better odds?

"Wonder where it's landing?" wondered Garrus out loud, as the meteor merged with the sunlight.

"Same place we're headed, looks like," replied Adam.

They looked down the hill, and saw Ramsus petting a few wild horses, of all things.

"Found us some transportation," he said, as they approached. "Don't worry, they'll be quite docile as long as I'm close."

"You can control these?" asked Garrus.

"Of course," Ramsus replied. "Why wouldn't I? They're real enough."

"More animal than animal?" quipped Adam.

"Doesn't need to be," replied Ramsus. "Hannibal... no, even Teg has a psychic signature."

"But they're machines," protested Garrus.

"So are we," replied Ramsus. "We're just more complicated."

[h+]


It was almost noon, and the sun's light was obscured by a sheet of grey clouds.

"Looks like I jinxed it," said Garrus, half-jokingly. He was the first to notice the fissures in time and space that skewed the light just so, splitting it into chromatic aberrations. The fractures were subtle, at first... but as they approached the location of the Chrono Break, they became far more difficult to ignore.

"They're not hazardous yet," Conrad reassured him. "When they do, I'll let you know ahead of time."

"I just hope the horses don't panic," said Garrus, a little nervous. Riding animals just didn't seem right to him, and without a saddle he was running the risk of falling and breaking his neck. Adam, of course, seemed fine riding his horse. "You've done this before," he said.

"Once," replied Adam. "I took Megan on a date at a horse ranch."

"Who?"

"Ex-girlfriend, from before I got put on ice."

"That reminds me: isn't the cache were you slept around here?"

"Technically, it's in Ontario. Tecumseh, to be exact."

Conrad got nervous, and Ramsus picked up on it, smiling evilly. "Wonder if there's a version of you in this timeline, sleeping the apocalypse away?" The psionic wondered aloud.

"Who knows?" said Adam with a shrug. "I'm not even sure Sarif even existed in this world."

Keeping their horses to a canter, they came across — of all things — a pristine highway, made of concrete. "Huh," said Adam, as he dismounted. He knelt, removed his gauntlet, and took advantage of the new sensors in his fingertips to feel the asphalt: It felt a little too smooth. Peering closer at it, the material reflected back a lot of colored noise, like the JPEG artifacts you'd get out of a digital camera.

His smart vision highlighted the patches of dark asphalt, where the cracks in the road should have been filled... but there were no cracks, not really. It was all cosmetic.

"Found anything?" asked Garrus.

"I don't know," replied Adam.

[h+]


"Symeon to 6O," the veteran android transmitted.

"6O to Symeon, hi!"

"We've lost sight of the drop pod on our scopes. It was a kilometer away from the target zone, and it winked out. Can you confirm?"

"Let me check... huh."

"What is it?"

"It's not on our scopes either. Hold on, we're going to triple-check this... Pods don't vanish into thin air. Stand by."

"Standing by."

[h+]


The gas station, and everything inside of it, was white.

The counter was white, the fridges were white, the shelves, the snacks, the beer cans, everything was white. They hadn't even been painted that way, for everything was made of the same stuff. At a glance, Adam couldn't tell if it was ceramic, or plastic, or metal... but at the touch he realized that it was definitely programmable.

He picked up an imitation of a protein bar, and through that touch, he commanded the object to transform into a can of beer. He even altered its colour with a thought, even its texture. His control over it wasn't fine enough to make it into a real beer, sadly.

"What the hell is all this..." he muttered, tossing the can away. It landed as a plain cube. Through a stray fragment of reality, he had a glimpse of what the place should be like, alive with colour and the occasional activity of a traveler looking to pay for fuel or a snack.

He rejoined his traveling companions outside.

[h+]


"6O to Recon Team, come in."

"Symeon here, what is it?"

"Pod's back on our sensors! It's a bit off course, but it should arrive."

"Well, that's good, I guess. On our way."

"Be advised that we've been getting strange reports from the Recreation Team. Their timestamps are... wonky, and there have been unsubstantiated reports of Gaian units in the Copied City."

"Someone's idea of a joke, right?"

"I don't know... but, seeing as you're the closest ones..."

"...Get in, get out, see if GAIA and her insane bitch of a daughter is back. Got it."

"Thank you, 6O out."

Symeon really hoped that they'd find Michaëlle soon. If the red-eyes were coming back... then they'd need her to kill Yonah again.

[h+]


The city, and everything inside of it, from the roads, to the buildings, including the trees... was white.

White, and utterly silent in the gloom of the evening, save for the clacking of the horses as they trotted. Garrus looked up and around in awe at the uniform majesty of the tall buildings, while Ramsus found it deeply unsettling. It didn't help that the place was deserted.

"We're almost where we need to be!" said Conrad cheerfully. "We're almost home!"

They dismounted, intending to let the horses go. Conrad reasoned that with the time fractures growing larger and more frequent, it would not do to ride easily scared wild animals. Adam took his burden from his horse, and then he saw something that made his eyes go wide beneath his shades.

It was the Sarif building.

"Son of a bitch," he muttered. He checked his surroundings – they were definitely on Bagley and 2nd, as it was after the rush of real estate development after Sarif had jump started Detroit's economy, turning it into America's mechanical augmentation capital... only, completely devoid of colour.

LUCIFERASE 451 DETECTED flashed in his AR display again, just before a burning streak flashed across the sky, a sonic boom following close behind.

It landed several kilometers away, with an oddly muffled crash. All Adam could think of was the bounty inside, the promise of undoing Elsa's death.

He handed the body over to Teg.

"I'll be right back," he said. "Stay here!"

"Adam, wait!" Conrad pleaded, but the cyborg had already Zero Shifted away. "There's no time!"

[h+]


He was there in minutes. The pod had left a small crater in the middle of the street, but it was mostly intact, its logo and the motto "Pour la gloire de l'humanité" still visible in spite of the damage.

What kind of genocidal killer robots have "glory to mankind" as a motto, Conrad? thought Adam ruefully. He owed the kid his life, but the constant lying...

Getting it to open had been... more difficult than anticipated, involving a trip to cyberspace that had felt like an insane game of Asteroids, but ultimately its security had been breached, and as the elaborate panels slid open, Adam's face became aglow with the light of a hundred vials of the Luciferase 451.

Smiling, he picked three vials up, and because old habits die hard, he gladly picked up the weapon inside as well, some kind of large bore medium length shotgun. He checked its power cell, found it empty and, without thinking, took a fourth vial and inserted it into the gun, reloading it.

He heard someone move, and instantly aimed his new weapon in their direction. He caught glimpse of a blur of motion: someone had just ducked and rolled behind cover to hide. It was a familiar move.

Sensing danger, the 108 deployed the helmet, covering Adam's head.

"Hello?" he called out, as he entered the storefront, ruined by the pod's crash. "Who's there?"

He heard nervous breathing, and activated his smart vision. There was a cyborg hiding behind the counter. A rock was in his hand, an improvised weapon that would do him no good. Adam approached carefully, gun trained on the cyborg, as he came around.

He had a good look at him, now. He was dirty, emaciated, and hadn't showered or shaved in months... but there was no mistaking it.

It was Adam Jensen.

Another Adam Jensen. "Do... do you have a candy bar on you?"

He looked so pitiable. His skin clung to his ribs; there was no meat there.

"I... I'm so hungry." He choked back tears, dropping the rock. "You have no idea... you have no idea."

The armor-clad Adam couldn't believe what he was seeing. "What... what the fuck? What the..."

"Don't move," said a voice behind him. It was familiar, but it was missing something... "Drop the gun," she ordered, and he felt the hum of a high-frequency sword next to his neck. He obeyed, and without prompting, raised his hand in surrender.

"Turn around," the woman ordered, and Adam came face to face with P51 Michaëlle. Her hair was brown, her eyes were covered with a blindfold, and the dimple on her chin was gone... but it was unmistakably Elsa, clad in a uniform that was equal parts French maid, SS soldier, and US navy pilot.

His head started to spin with a mixture of vertigo and déjà vu, as a crawling sensation tingled over the back of his brain... but it wasn't Aleph. This time, it was himself, reminding him of something important, a piece of himself, locked away.

The sight of the city, the taste of the cooked moose, the smell of the air, the sound of the birds...

You sensed all these things before.

You were here before.

With her.

[h+]


End of Part 3

TO BE CONTINUED


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