Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

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Balsa
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Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Tue Mar 16, 2010 6:45 pm

Chapter 1

She peers at you from the shadows of the building, the small, child eyes unblinking in the blazing sun. They are like tiny, like yellow marbles set in a sea of dark green scales and leathery skin, and they shine with an intellect that belies her bestial appearance. In your heart, you feel an odd, motherly affection for this alien, and you think it incredibly strange that you would feel anything for such an ugly creature. She is, after all, krogan.

She easily reaches your chin when standing even though she is but a child. Her body is covered in a thick hide of olive scales, and you remember how easily that tough flesh turns away your blade. Her golden eyes are set far apart on her face and a crest rises proudly from her squat head. Despite her youth, she is heavily built, the powerful muscles in her arms and legs rippling under the cloth robes she wears. You realize that she wears no armor, and so you guess that she can be no older than a decade, for that is when the krogan perform their coming of age ceremonies.

The krogan ducks back into the rockcrete building, a structure as nondescript as the other habitats stretching across the barren and rocky landscape. There are dozens of such habitats, and they form a grid that stretches for hundreds of meters. The ant-like forms of krogan and other workers scurry back and forth between habitats. You return to your work. Even though you were spotted, you do not worry because you trust in the active camouflage cloak supplied to you by the Citadel Council. It is constructed from the most recent technology and it hides you from all forms of visual, infrared, and other types of surveillance. As long as you move slowly and deliberately, light bends around your form without so much as a shimmer. And so, you are not bothered.

Actually, that is a lie; you are slightly concerned. Your mission is far too important to be compromised by a simple mistake. Even as your fingers deftly splice the wires together, your mind toys with the idea of removing the krogan witness. You briefly run through possible scenarios: snipe her from your perch, smother her while she sleeps, or poison her food. All of these options are possible, but you strangle your wavering mind with a vice-like grip; daydreaming on the job is a sin with deadly consequences.

You connect the small vial to a string of wires and you secure the parts by tightly wrapping them with tape. The chances that she was actually looking at you are quite slim, you tell yourself. You are hanging several hundred meters in the air, clinging to the side of the ferro-ceramic cooling tower of the anti-matter refinement plant. The plant is the largest structure for kilometers; the refinement complex consists of dozens of prefabricated buildings. Kilometers upon kilometers of pipelines and roadways string the buildings in an intricate web. The cooling towers stretch hundreds of meters into the air, as if their creators had attempted to build a staircase to the heavens. Each individual stack is as large as frigate, and you are nothing more than a tiny speck upon its dull, concrete surface.

Your stealth suit hides you well, and the steam clouds bellowing from the gaping maw of an exhaust port form a veil from prying eyes. The gaseous water is dense enough that your form is will obscured, and the heat carried within the molecules shield you from any infrared sensors that might be turned your way. Your body glove insulates you from the harsh environment, but even the air scrubbers built into your mask cannot completely filter the stench of sulfur and chlorine.

This device is ready. The piton is firmly secured in a seam in the wall, and you slowly lower yourself fifty meters. You are sweating from the sauna-like conditions but you focus your mind on the task at hand. This is the last device, and it is the culmination after months of preparation. Some heat and humidity will not cause you to slip up now. You thread one of the insulated wires through another vial, making sure that the copper strand is firmly planted against the silver contact. The tube is glass and inside is a viscous gray liquid that sloshes like warm spittle and carries an almost imperceptible glow. The vial and wires are then connected to a small, black box that is made of hard plastic and sealed against the weather. Individually, the parts are inert, harmless, but together they form a powerful shaped charge. Like the other device, you place this contraption against the tower and cover it with light spray of adhesive foam. The foam is gray like the tower, and from below you know no one will notice the addition.

There is movement below, and you turn and glance downwards. You see her again, the krogan child, but this time there are other children with her. They number approximately two score, and their hunchbacked-forms are gathered in a square formation. An adult male is at their head, his scarred and battered face stretched into a hideous frown. He is shouting and speaking harshly, but over the roar of the cooling towers you cannot understand his words. His body language is plain enough and the meaning is clear. Synchronized like a well drilled troop, the cohort performs a series of calisthenics. As they stretch and jump and exercise, the motherly instinct in your heart that is as alien to you as these creatures are returns, and a smile creeps across your face that is hidden behind your infiltration hood.

Even though they have been training how to fight and survive the harshest of environments, these krogan children are cute. Their enthusiasm reminds you of your adolescence, decades ago, when you decided to follow the path of the huntress; you were as eager as these young warriors to learn the tradecrafts of war. Down below, oblivious to your watching form, the krogan continue with their exercises.

The charges are set and the pack is fastened smartly to your equipment harness. You turn away from the krogan school and grab the rope with a firm grip before unclipping the karabiner from your harness. Without a second thought, you kick away from the tower and plummet like a rock and disappear into the fog like some ghostly wraith.

-+-+-

The peace of the tranquil dawn is shattered by a shockwave that roars across the dusty plains. Buildings, constructed of stone, concrete, and steel, are ripped from their foundations and thrown into the winds. A searing flash of white-blue flame erupts from erupts from the anti-matter refinement facility and consumes the stacks of cooling towers. The firestorm reaches into heavens and overwhelms the rays of the rising sun with the intensity of its flame.

Secondary explosions detonate within the facility as the stores of anti-matter are destabilized. What habitats and buildings survived the initial blast now full prey to the aftershocks. What had once been dwellings for krogan workers and their families are now reduced to rubble. Sympathetic eruptions bring down the gutted cooling towers, and they collapse like rotted trees of rotted wood. A veil of dust, smoke, and ash hangs over the factory complex like a dense, morning fog.

The devastation is so complete and full of malice, as if a god had thrown a tantrum in the middle of the settlement. Within the span of several heartbeats, the landscape is riddle with death and destruction. Some krogan miraculously survive the meltdown of the facility, and they are now gathering in the rubble of their town. They are shocked, dazed, and wander the grounds looking for other survivors. They find many buried beneath the fallen houses, schools, and offices, but no remains are found in the streets, having been vaporized by the blast.

You watch from afar, through the view port of your shuttle as you escape into low orbit. The explosion is so great that you are able to see a flash of blue-white as you glance through the reinforced glass. The intensity is so strong that you blink away the afterimage burned into your eyes. The force of the explosion is to be expected: anti-matter refinement plants are highly volatile structures.

As you sit back against the form-fitting couch, you let out a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished. A burden is lifted from your shoulders as you realize the success of a months-long operation. So many things could have gone wrong, but in the end, you were able to fulfill the objective. The unnoticed tension in your body suddenly releases in a flood of endorphins, and you collapse back into the couch, a groan escaping your lips. You tremble in giddiness.

But, even as you revel in that after-glow of success, a twinge of remorse creeps its way into your heart. You remember the krogan child and her cohort as they exercise in the school yard. You remember her small, yellow eyes and the child-like innocence of her smile. You imagine that when she looked up at those cooling towers emitting clouds of water vapor, she was looking at you. You don’t imagine because you know her youthful exuberance of her age, that curiosity about the world, that hope to see the universe.

The exhilaration of a mission well-done is now gone, and you mutter a curse. The krogan be damned, you think. They brought this on themselves. If they hadn’t begun to attack Citadel planets, this wouldn’t have happened. Those yellow eyes would not have been extinguished.

You pour yourself a glass of liquor.

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Re: Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Sun Mar 21, 2010 12:51 pm

Chapter 2

With a grunt, she clawed her way to a sitting position, and groaned as her aching muscles protested against the movement. Her back was sore from the thin, foam mattress that provided little cushion against the hard bedsprings, and her head throbbed as if someone had mistaken it for a piñata. She rubbed her eyes and muttered a string of colorful curses when a passing hover car’s headlights illuminated her cluttered room with the flare of an exploding sun.

Aesira Al’hyd swung her bare legs over the bunk’s edge and hissed in irritation when her feet touched the ice-cold floor. The sudden sensation caused goose bumps to rise over her violet flesh, and the asari wrapped the thread-bare covers tighter around her shoulders. Her addled mind did clear slightly from the frigid temperatures, and as she steadied herself against the wall, she recalled the terrible night of drinking and excess. Her memories were confirmed when her foot caught a discarded bottle of decanted liquor; the glass rolled away from her bed with a clatter. It was fortunately empty.

The asari stumbled towards the uncovered window and gazed out across the urban landscape that was Nos Astra. The towers, skyscrapers and buildings of Illium’s capital stretched from horizon to horizon like an unending sea of artificially created structures. Long lines of hover cars, their red taillights and white headlights glowing like bioluminescent insects, slithered between the tallest buildings and causeways. The rays of the setting sun Tasale reached across the evening sky and cast a dull violet glow to the darkening indigo that was Illium’s sky. Night was setting in.

Aesira’s eyes bolted open; the realization of the time of day burned away the side effects of a night spent partying and carousing like a flamethrower devouring underbrush. Her blanket was left forgotten on the floor as she dashed towards the small refresher unit that occupied the far corner of her small apartment. She swished some mouthwash and splashed water onto her face before taking a moment to glance at the mirror.

Her reflection smiled back. Aesira’s features were like that of most other asari: feminine and attractive to males of most sapient races. A series of tattoos were etched across her cheeks and danced across her scalp; the ruby emblem accented her violet flesh perfectly. The brands were a remnant of her time as an asari commando.

After spraying some very light perfume over her body, Aesira was satisfied that she didn’t smell like a raging drunk. At least, she hoped this was the case. However, with little remaining time, the asari had no choice but pull on her skin-tight body glove and buckle her armor against her lithe figure. After attaching her weapons against the hard points built into the back plate of her cuirass, Aesira dashed out of her dismal dwelling.

-+-+-

“You’re late,” Sergeant Phaela observed. The Eclipse vanguard crossed her arms, obscuring the stylized E emblazoned across the front of her yellow breastplate. “That’s the, what, fifth time now?”

“Oh, shove it,” Aesira muttered as she leaned against a shipping crate. Though she had only recently earned the right to wear the yellow-and-black armor of the Eclipse mercenary corporation, Aesira was afforded a degree of latitude not given to other recruits because of her experiences as a commando. “Last night was a bit rougher than I had expected.”

The mercenary sergeant laughed a harsh sound that didn’t translate properly through her helmet filters. “That’s not how Tobias described it. The way I heard it, after all that drinking down at Eternity, one thing led to another, and –”

“I said shove it up your ass.” Aesira groaned as her headache returned, and no amount of asari combat training could dull the pounding behind her eyes. Phaela chuckled again and returned to examining canisters discreetly labeled as containing Minagen X3. “Never again,” the asari muttered.

Something bothered her. The hangover’s headache wasn’t much more than a physical discomfort, and Aesira was quite accustomed to bodily sufferings. And though she couldn’t remember what had all transpired between Tobias and her (something she did regret because Tobias was a terrible human being), that wasn’t what caused the itching in her mind. No, it was something that she had dreamed, something that she couldn’t quite grasp. She could only catch fleeting snatches of events: a dense hot veil that smothered her like a heavy fog, an ocean of mercury, a marble lost in a tide of kelp.

Aesira shook her head, which only caused her headache to throb worse. It wouldn’t do to let her mind wander, and daydreaming on the job was a sin. As junior as the position she held was, she still had tasks to complete. The shipments of Minagen X3 weren’t going to catalogue themselves. With a sigh and a wish that she had grabbed some painkillers from her stash of legal-only-on-Illium pharmaceuticals, Aesira adjusted her omni-tool and set to scan the shipping manifests.

Two crates later, the radio crackled with an urgent message. “All Eclipse units, this is Captain Wasea. Three hostiles have been detected in the lower levels. We’ve lost contact with Third and Fifth Squads. Remaining squads, prepare for immediate hostile contact. I want the intruders destroyed!”

Aesira looked up as Sergeant Phaela approached. “Squad Four is taking heavy fire,” she said as she racked the slide of her shotgun. “Let’s go, we’re reinforcing them.”

“Yes, sir,” the asari replied as she followed her sergeant across the shipping yards. Her huntress instincts were screaming that this was a terrible idea. They had next to nothing for intelligence, and if there was anything she had learned while training to become an asari commando, it was that one should never engage in a stand-up fight. Commando doctrine called for hit-and-run tactics, flanking maneuvers, and other forms of indirect engagement. Aesira gripped her M-15 Vindicator battle rifle tighter.

The sounds of fighting grew ever louder and ever more distinct as the pair neared the combat zone. The clatter of automatic weapons fire and the dull thumps of heavy shotguns echoed through the warehouse. Occasionally, the deep thunder crack of what Aesira recognized as an M-98 Widow Anti-Materiel Rifle shattered the cacophony of small arms fire. The cries of wounded mercenaries mixed with the bass retorts of rocket launchers to form a symphony of battle that Aesira recognized all too well.

“Aesira, take the right flank!”

The asari commando sprinted towards the cover of a stack of shipping crates, and ducked her head down as a burst of automatic rifle fire ricocheted off the metal containers. She peered around the boxes and watched as Sergeant Phaela courageously broke from cover and cast bolt after bolt of concentrated warp energy towards the three intruders. The biotically generated mass effect fields hammered mercilessly against their shields and armor, and the Eclipse vanguard smirked in satisfaction.

It was a terrible mistake.

Aesira watched in morbid fascination as Phaela’s face disappeared in a cloud of blue blood. The 50-caliber round entered through her forehead, the dome caving as if someone had taken a hammer to a melon. The slug exited through the back of her head and the shockwave of the anti-materiel round disintegrated her skull, spraying bone and brain matter in every direction. A haze of indigo mist hung lazily in the air as the body slumped to the floor. Almost as an afterthought, the sharp retort of the Widow crackled through the air.

“Nice shot, Shepard.” The words came from the mouth of a turian, and Aesira recognized that name. Commander Shepard, savior of the Citadel, defeater of the geth. Ice crystallized in her gut and she knew at that moment she was not going to survive this engagement; her century and half of life was coming to an end right here.

A krogan clad in gleaming silver plate charged into the center of Squad Four; the massive juggernaut tore into the mercenaries like a vengeful god among mortals. The krogan shouted manically and his Claymore heavy shotgun vomited a storm of death and destruction.

A turian popped out from cover and fired his battle rifle in controlled bursts, expertly laying down a hideous barrage of covering fire. The rapid-fire weapon tore through shields and biotic barriers, picking off stray mercenaries and forcing those exposed back into cover. Every so often, he let loose with his tech abilities, sending powered concussion blasts punching through Eclipse mercenaries and shipping containers alike.

And there was the enemy sniper, the one breaking Citadel law by using an anti-materiel weapon on personnel. The massive weapon discharged again, taking out the Eclipse engineer commanding Squad Four. This time, Aesira caught movement to her far left, behind the canisters of Minagen someone had forgotten to secure. She sighted down the barrel of her rifle and squeezed off a five-round burst. They caught the sniper, whose active camouflage cloak was just dropping, across the chest and set his shields shimmering. He staggered.

It was the opening Aesira needed, one where she could get out of this ridiculous stand-up fight and employ proper commando tactics. Take out the enemy supportive fire, retreat while the primary assault group is occupied, and set up ambushes or look for flanking opportunities. She sent a surge of biotic energy at the sniper, knocking him off his feet, and made a break for the far door.

It was a good plan, but no plan survives contact with the battlefield; the krogan and turian were not as occupied as she had thought, or hoped. Aesira stumbled as a burst of fire from the turian clipped her shoulder, eating through her protective barrier. A deep roar of bloodlust gave the asari just enough warning that she turned to eat a krogan backhand to the face, which sent her soaring like a thrown ragdoll. Aesira landed hard and slid to a stop against the railing at the edge of the platform.

Spitting blood from a broken nose, the commando rolled to a crouch, wincing as her bruised ribs ground mercilessly against one another. She pulled out her service pistol and cringed as a sniper round just barely missed her head and shattered the protective railing behind her. Through the pungent smell of copper flooding her nostrils, she caught an oddly fish-like odor. Aesira looked up. The krogan grinned like a madman and chuckled a deep, throaty laugh. His shotgun belched once, kicking the asari off the shipping dock.

For the first time in decades, Aesira screamed as she plummeted into the void.

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Re: Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Mon Mar 22, 2010 10:16 am

Chapter 3

Your storm cloak clings heavily against your shoulders, its leather hide glistening with repelled water. The rain is harsh and it hammers against your hooded head, but you are grateful for it. The cold and wetness of it are in stark contrast to the barren dryness of that krogan controlled planet and are a welcome change after being trapped on that wasteland for months. You feel the merciless sun must have dried your supple skin and turned your face into a leather mask. You are also grateful that the rain is actually water and not acid; you’ve been to some worlds where environmental friendliness was not a high priority, and being trapped in a rainstorm like this one was a quick way to earn chemical burns and skin cancer.

You duck your head as you walk the nearly empty streets. The torrential downpour has kept most inhabitants of this lonely colony indoors, and there are few attempting to brave the storm. Those who do, dash from point A to point B, trying their best to keep exposure to the elements at a minimum. You know your slow and careful, albeit tired, gait is likely to draw attention, but you are satisfied that most colonists would prefer keeping to themselves, especially in this weather.

The cascading rain cuts visibility to no more than a few meters ahead of you, but the downpour somehow does little to diminish the neon glow of a flashing display mounted on the wall of a fairly squat building; it glows brightly like a lighthouse in the night and you are drawn to it like a moth to flame. The sign has seen better days, but its blinking lights spell out a universal message any alien can read: drink and entertainment. The tavern is built mostly into the ground, like all the other structures in this town; its sunken construction helps it maintain a cooler temperature and reduce operating expenses. You can hear the rain clattering against the buildings metal roofing.

The stairs descend several meters, and you push open the heavy doors. Immediately, outdated music from an artist you cannot recognize pours through the portal, and you step inside. The pungent odor of alcohol mixed with old sweat punches you in the face, and you wrinkle your nose in disgust. This is certainly not the best of establishments, and it certainly cannot compare to the bars found in Citadel space, but you are not in any position to complain. The tavern is dry and warm, but most importantly, it is home to alcohol.

The cantina is not packed, but it is occupied with a fairly decent number of people. You are slightly surprised at its size; from above, you were expecting a building half, or even a third of its size. Most of the patrons are asari, which is to be expected considering the population ratio of space-faring sapient beings. You see several salarian, and, to your utter amazement, you even spot a single turian. That is, you guess it is a turian. You’ve not actually seen one in person; they are the newest species to be encountered by the Citadel races, and you’ve only seen them via hologram or video. You are surprised that one would be found on as backwater of a colony as this.

There is an open table in the far corner; you would have preferred a booth for the extra privacy, but all of those are occupied. You doff your dripping storm coat and hang it from the back of a chair; a small puddle of rainwater slowly grows from underneath it. As you sit, you notice the slight creaking of the chair, and you note the weight and feel of its construction: the furniture is strong, yet old, but would suffice as a weapon. You chide yourself as your commando-trained mind catalogs likely threats, escape routes, and potential improvised weapons. Sometimes you cannot help but be prepared.

“What’ll you have?” The asari waitress looks down at you, the weariness evident in how her shoulders slump, as if she really does not care what you order. You look up and note her age: her face is undecorated, and her purple skin is smooth and soft. She cannot be much more than half a century.

You run through the impressive list of alcohols and liquors you have memorized, but you settle on a safe choice; you do not know the local fare and so you take the easy route. “Something strong,” you say. The words are carefully spoken; weariness and disinterest underscore their inflection. “What do you suggest?”

The asari shrugs. Her attention is focused on the holovid projector. “Ryncol if you’re adventurous or a PPC if you want to stay local.”

The ryncol is tempting, but you actually have a private stock of krogan-brewed liquor aboard your ship, which you save for times when you either really want to forget everything or degrease the engine. You’ve not heard of a PPC, and you are curious. “I’ll pass on the ryncol,” you say. “But I’ll give the PPC a shot.” The waitress doesn’t reply as she leaves with your order.

The voice from the holovid projector catches your ears, and you glance up at the display. “Refugees from the asari colony Lusia escaping the krogan advance have now settled on several nearby worlds. Relief agencies are sending thousands of tons of food, water, and other supplies into these refugee camps even as new reports of krogan offenses appear. Council representatives are calling for unilateral support of displaced peoples.”

You turn away from the holovid as the waitress returns with your drink. You thank her and deposit a few credits in her hand. She leaves without so much as thanks, and you roll your eyes at the horrible service. The drink sitting before you is a sharp red, as bright as freshly spilled arterial blood. You sniff glass, noting a hint of mint, and take a sip.

The PPC hits you like a punch to the gut, and you gag. You are not a stranger to hard liquor, but this drink takes you by surprise. Despite the fact that your teeth feel as if they’ve had the enamel stripped off, you appreciate the fresh, minty bite. You glance at the glass, grimace, and take another sip.

“You see why it’s called the PPC?” The voice comes from behind, and you silently curse yourself for letting someone sneak up on you. It is light and lilting, and carries enough warbles for you to guess that it was spoken through a mask.

You set your glass down carefully and your left hand reaches for your trench blade. “No,” you reply. “What’s a PPC anyways?”

“Particle projection cannon,” is her response, and you see how aptly the drink is named. The speaker takes a seat across from you, and you arch a brow. A respirator obscures her lavender face, while a cowl covers her head. Her pupil-less eyes shine with the intensity of a small star. She pulls back the rain-soaked hood to reveal a mane of ebony quills that run down past her shoulders. Quarian, you observe. She waves the waitress over with a three-fingered hand and the respirator hides her smile. “Nurse that carefully. It’ll hit you sooner than you think.”

You nod. “Thanks for the advice, miss…?”

“Ari,” she replies. The waitress returns with the quarian’s drink, something green and significantly less potent than yours. The quarian unlatches the respirator and sets it gingerly on the table. She takes a sip from her glass. “My name is Ari’Itani.” She looks at you expectantly.

After a moment, you hesitantly introduce yourself. “Starmet,” you lie. It is one of numerous names you have, and the least used one. You mask your wariness in a false, weary but upbeat tone. “It is good to meet you, Ari.”

You watch curiously as the quarian sets a small pouch on the table. She reaches in for some crackers, and you remember the whole reverse-chirality problem quarians have. She chews and swallows. “I’ve not seen you around this mining town, Starmet. What brings you to the middle of nowhere?”

Now you are alert. “Oh, nothing special. Needed to discharge my ship’s FTL drive, and I figured I’d take a break to stretch the legs.” You chuckle; it sounds genuine but your mirth is fake. “Hell of a night to take a walk, though. Is the weather always this shitty?”

Ari’Itani laughs, and, despite your distrust, you decide you like that very much. “It’s the rainy season. At first it sucks, but you’ll miss it when the dry season rolls around.”

“Why’s that?” you ask. You order another PPC after catching the eye of the waitress.

“Oh, imagine this weather, but completely opposite. Completely opposite.” The quarian takes another sip, and you make a mental note to ask her what she ordered. “The planet is roasted during the day time. There’s no moisture anywhere. If you want to go outside without having to wear radiation and heat shielding, you have to do it at night. It’s rather horrid.”

“That does sound terrible,” you respond. Your attention is momentarily caught by the newsvid, and you move so you can see the projector behind Ari. She follows your gaze.

There is a large krogan armored in ruby and gold combat plate. His weathered face bears the scars of a thousand battles, and the camera pans around to show the hundreds of krogan warriors gathered behind him. The krogan Battle Master shouts; his voice is a brutal guttural sound, and his warriors roar in support. “Races of the Citadel! Your Council is full of hypocritical and cowardly creatures that hide behind their guise of civility and diplomacy. With one hand they claim to uphold law and justice, but with the other, they strike with dishonor and duplicity.

“The krogan colony Oshika was devastated by the dastardly sabotage of its antimatter refinement facility. The explosion destroyed most of the colony, but most of all, eradicated hundreds of clutches of newborns.” The krogan Battle Master narrows his eyes in rage and spittle flies from his mouth. “For that, the World Eaters will rise like a consuming wave and devour your worlds. We will butcher your children as you butchered ours. And we will begin with this one.”

The image wavers and jerks suddenly as the Battle Master raises a shotgun. There is a large thunderclap that is muffled by the projector’s poor audio system, and then the image fades to static. The news anchor looks visibly shaken, but he continues. “After receiving this message from Oshika, the Council issued a statement that all krogan advances will be repulsed. The Seventh Fleet has been deployed and will move to secure vulnerable worlds…”

Your stomach tightens in a knot as the krogan’s final words play through your mind. Your commando and huntress training has instilled in you a sense of duty and you will stop at nothing to see a mission through; however, your compassion and instincts are still strong, and you cannot forget the yellow eyes of the krogan child. Her death, and the death of her Broodbrothers and Broodsisters are on your hands, and you know this. Though you try, you cannot convince yourself that the necessity of your mission was worth the deaths of so many children.

“Hey, you alright?” Ari waves her hand across your face and you refocus on her.

“Sorry,” you say, shaking your head to clear away the ruminations. “The drink’s probably getting to me.”

“You sure?” There is some concern in her voice, and you wonder about her kindness.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” You down the rest of your PPC in a single gulp and manage not to choke. After a pause, you ask, “What do you do here, Ari? You don’t see many quarians traveling the galaxy, so I’m a bit surprised to meet one here.”

She shrugs, but her response is laced with a smile. “Years ago, I caught a case of wanderlust, and so I took to traveling around. Quarians are mechanically gifted, so that served me well. Eventually, I picked up a contract with a mining corporation and ended up here. I’ve been maintaining the equipment and machinery for the last couple of years.”

You point at her respirator. “All that traveling can’t be easy, what with your immune systems and all.”

Ari looks a bit surprised, and you worry if you’ve offended her. “It’s actually not that bad. Our immune systems may not be as robust as yours or the salarians, but we don’t need to wear hazmat suits or anything. At first when I started traveling, I’d be down for a few weeks with chills, coughs, and all that crap. But, my body’s adapted, and it’s not so bad anymore. The respirator is just a nice precaution.”

The two of you continue to talk, and gradually you lower your guard. You know that part of it is the poisonous alcohol accumulating in your systems, but you also sense that the quarian is genuinely not a threat. Your conversations are sincere, and you detect no malice or secrets behind her words. You gather that she is indeed a mechanic and not some secret agent placed here by the krogans to assassinate you.

You do not realize just how many PPCs you’ve consumed until you try standing and nearly pitch forwards onto the table. Your vision swims, but you manage to steady yourself with an embarrassed laugh. Ari is at your side, and she holds you steady with a surprisingly strong grip.

You reach for your coat, but she stops you. “You’re completely wasted.”

“No shit,” you reply. “I’m fine. I’ll just head back to the ship.”

“That’s not going to happen.” Ari refastens her respirator and pulls the hood over her head. She tosses you your coat. “You can stay in my place until you’re sober enough to walk.”

You try to protest, but you can’t remember how. You are led outside into the rain, which has amazingly only intensified. Soon, you find yourself indoors; it is warm and Ari’Itani seats you on a couch. Within a second, you have collapsed and you are out cold.

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Re: Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Tue Mar 23, 2010 8:27 pm

Chapter 4

Asari have long life spans, with some members of the race seeing nearly a millennium of years; this life span is commonly broken into three stages, with the Maiden stage characterized by a drive to explore and experience. The Matron stage is commonly associated with family upbringing, while those asari who survive many centuries of life are considered to have entered the Matriarch stage. During this step, Matriarchs become teachers and sages, using their vast, accumulated wisdom to guide and counsel their communities.

In asari terms, Aesira Al'hyd was a juvenile, just entering her young adult years at 208; she was hardly into her Maiden years. However, despite her youth, the asari was a talented biotic and had entered into huntress training almost as soon as she was weaned. Like other asari commandos, she had trained in the military arts for over fifty years, and by the time she had reached her second century of life, she had spent more time fighting and warmongering than most other individuals had spent being alive.

Her vast military experiences had honed her body into a lean, mean, killing machine. Aesira knew seventy-three different ways to kill an organic being with her bare hands, and was no less talented with an assortment of small and heavy arms. She was a skilled assassin and expert sniper, and she had made her living as a bounty hunter, a mercenary, and terrorist, among other things. If she had learned anything about her body over the last two centuries, it was that when she ordered an action, her body obeyed immediately and completely. Without this simple rule, she would have died long ago on the battlefield, nothing more than a splotch of carrion on the soles of some krogan.

As such, when her body refused to obey even the simplest command of raising an arm, Aesira was suitably confused and even a little afraid.

The asari lay on her back, staring up into what she assumed was the sky. She wasn't sure; her vision was clouded, murky, as if she had opened her eyes while under water without the benefit of goggles. She could smell nothing except some metallic odor that clogged her nostrils. Her breathing was ragged, and her body ached in so many places. Occasionally, there were sharp twinges of pain that lanced through her limbs and abdomen like some electrical arc before grounding in her shoulders.

Aesira tried to bring her right arm to her face, to wipe away the film clouding her sight, but as she did, a surge of pain gutted her will. Her left arm stubbornly refused to respond, not even sending any lance of hurt. Her legs likewise did not obey, but the asari did find that her body could still struggle. She arched her back, but the fire consuming her spine and chest ripped from her soul any desire to move. She flopped back down.

A dark shape moved across her field of vision, but Aesira could not identify what it was. Her mind was tracking just as slowly as her limbs, but she thought she saw a fishbowl. Her brows knitted in confusion, and she tried to speak. Her tongue was clumsy, swollen like a fat worm, so she uttered nothing intelligible. The shadow placed something over the asari's face, and though she tried to struggle with her un-cooperating body, Aesira was soon pulled by the frustratingly enticing lures of sleep.

Her vision faded to black.

-+-+-

The sun peaks through the drawn shades, sending rays of light searing into the gloom that is the living-dining room of Ari'Itani's humble abode. The sunlight is testament to the end of the rainstorms, but they do not bring you joy. Rather, they cut into your eyes like molten razors, causing your head to throb even harder. You groan into your mug of reconstituted caffeine and wish for the darkness of the night. It would make your headache feel so much better.

A three-fingered hand slides a plate of sliced meats and some starchy root. You look up and Ari smiles back at you, her quarian eyes glowing white. She is not wearing her respirator. She brushes a stray quill back behind her ear. "I'm a pretty lousy cook and I don't usually have levo-based food sitting around."

You rub your eyes against the palm of your hand and set the mug of caf down. "Thanks, Ari. You shouldn't have." You feel horrible as it is, and knowing that you've crashed some stranger's home doesn't make help you at all. "I'm sorry, I really shouldn't have bothered you. I should have watched what I was drinking."

She brushes your apologies away. "Don't worry about it. It's not like anyone ever stops by, so it's nice to have some company."

"Some company I was; out cold for the whole night." You glance around the small apartment. The furnishings are what you'd expect from a machinist on some frontier colony: the bare table you are sitting at, several chairs, the couch where you spent the night, a basic holovid projector, and some other pieces of utilitarian furniture. You are surprised to see a plain book shelf with some old fashioned, paper books. The rich aroma of the food before you beckons, and as you work at it, you point to the shelf. "I'll be honest; I didn't expect to see a colonist own so many hardcopy books. They're not all that common nowadays."

The quarian shrugs and pulls one of the volumes from the shelf. She flips through it absentmindedly. "I like the smell of the pages, and there's just something about reading from paper. It's quite different from an omni-tool." She replaces the paperback and begins to pull up the blinds. You wince, but as your eyes gradually adjust to the brightness, you look outside.

The world before you sits in stark contrast to the planet you saw the night before. Gone are the storming clouds and torrential rains. The sky is a myriad of reds and blues and you are awed by the splendor. They remind you of Illium, which you haven't seen in decades; that planet's atmosphere was colored by clouds of dust that gleamed shades of blue, red, and violet. The desert landscape is cracked and buckled, and you are amazed at how fast the waters have evaporated.

"I'm surprised at how different the day looks," you say as you finish the last of breakfast. (You guess it is breakfast; you actually do not know the time.) "There's no way all that water could have disappeared so fast."

Ari glances up at the sky, smiles, and clears your dish away. "Well, the rain will be back tonight," she says in that lilting voice. "I guarantee it. The sun drives the rain clouds away, but with darkness, the air cools, and we get downpours again. It's hot outside now, but not nearly as hot as the dry season. It's quite annoying, but you get used to it. Eventually."

"I can only imagine," you say as you stand and stretch. You are feeling much better now that you have solid food in your stomach; your headache is far diminished. Your muscles are still slightly sore from the awkward position you must have slept in last night, but they are minor discomforts. You step up to the bookshelf and browse the contents. "You've got quite a collection here," you say as you riffle through a book. "The writings of Matriarch Kalsta?"

Her voice calls back from the kitchen. "Yes, I find her sonnets to be quite soothing. I find it's a good way to calm the mind after a long day of calibrating laser drills and heavy loaders."

You have read some of the Matriarchs works, and know her to be a superb poet and novelist. "I guess I'm just a bit surprised to see a quarian interested in asari literature." Ari doesn't respond, and so you sift through some more of the shelf contents as she finishes cleaning.

"What are your plans now?" the quarian asks after several minutes. She is at your side, drying her hands on a towel. "Will you be leaving soon?"

You pause, thinking about how to respond. Your primary objective has been complete, and so you are now waiting for further orders, which will be transmitted to your ship. "Unfortunately, yes. I'll have to deliver my goods soon."

"That's too bad," Ari replies. There is genuine sadness in her voice, and you realize that living on this rock must be terribly lonesome for a single quarian. She has pulled on a heavy cloak, as well as her respirator. She slips on a pair of sunshades and hands a set to you. "In that case, you'll need some shades to get to your ship." After a pause, "Where is your ship exactly?"

You shrug on your storm coat, now completely dry, and gratefully accept the visor. "About half a klick from here. Why?"

The quarian eyes tighten as she frowns behind her mask. She kneels and searches through a footlocker. "That's outside the settlement, isn't?" She is holding a carbine, a make you recognize immediately as Devlon Industries' Raptor line. It is an old model, but it is a stable weapon. "Even in this heat, there are predators. It's best to be safe."

You start to protest. If there really are creatures that pose a threat to you, you are quite confident you can take care of yourself. "It's fine, Ari. I appreciate your concern, but I can handle it."

The quarian is adamant, and shakes her head, which sets her quills swaying. "I'm coming with you. The creatures of Aghoru can be dangerous. Don't bother arguing."

You sigh and follow her as she opens the apartment door. A wave of hot air blasts you in the face as the two of you step out. The sun is striking; you are grateful for the sunshades. The humidity is palpable, and you feel as if you are walking through a haze of steam. Almost immediately, you are sweating, and your body glove pulls the moisture from your body.

"Yeah, this is why most people stay indoors or underground during the day," Ari says as she leads you through the settlement. Her voice is slightly distorted from her respirator. "Miners typically get to their posts during the early morning and stay there until evening. No one is out in this heat."

You don't respond; the heat leeches away your strength, and you simply want to get to your ship. Even though you're a trained commando and you know you can survive in this wasteland, you simply do not enjoy being sweaty and sticky. You and the quarian slowly make your way out of the settlement limits, and you follow the beaten path towards your ship. After a while, you can see your vessel shimmering behind the heat mirages.

"There it is," you point.

You can hear the relief in Ari's voice when she responds, "About time. Why the hell did you even land this far out?"

"I don't know," you reply. You cannot help but chuckle slightly; you are relieved to finally reach your ship. The craft is a small vessel, capable of faster-than-light travel and minor combat operations, but it is no capital ship. Its hull is painted a dull black, and powerful engines occupy the entire aft space. Atmospheric vanes stretch from port and starboard, while a pair of mass accelerator cannons is mounted just below the cockpit. Its slick curves and angles hint at its mission profile: it is a purpose-designed infiltrator.

Ari runs her hands over the sleek hull and she lets out a whistle of admiration. "Your ship is incredible. It's beautiful, nothing like the clunky bulk loaders that grab our ore. Hell, even the company execs don't have ships this nice." She eyes you curiously. "What did you say you were?"

"A courier," you respond. Your attention is no longer on the quarian as she circles your craft, examining its every detail and cooing whenever she finds something new. Your eyes are focused on the sky. You spot some disturbance in the clouds above: the violets, reds, and blues are swirling unnaturally, and there are hints of arcing lightning.

You beckon Ari over and point at the anomaly. "Those aren't rainclouds, are they?" you ask.

The quarian squints and brings a hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. "I don't believe so. It doesn't rain during the day."

The turmoil in the clouds grows more evident, hints of lightning and flashes of light are now quite visible. A moment later, a series of small fireballs plunge through the boiling clouds and begin their fiery decent to earth. As Ari's eyes widen in awe, yours narrows.

"Meteors? I don't think I've ever seen anything like this," she says.

"I have," you respond, and as you do, a deep dread fills your body. The first of the fireballs impacts beyond the horizon, and after a delay you hear the thunderous crash. More orbs of flame plummet from the sky, and the clouds start to part. You realize what is happening.

"Ari, we have to go." You open the airlock and pull at the quarian, trying to force her inside. "Ari! We don't have time!"

"Let go!" She turns on you and rips her arm from your grasp. Her rifle is up, aimed at your chest. "Back off. I don't know what your problem is, Starmet, but I'm not joining you in your ship. Something's happening, and the colony needs help."

"Put the rifle down, Ari," you say, but she shakes her head. You watch her warily. Your eyes follow her every motion, tracking every sway of her shoulders, hips, and rifle. The quarian glances nervously at you and then back at the falling sky. You see your chance.

Your left foot slides forward and you pivot well inside her guard, and with your right arm you lock her elbow and wrist. A quick application of force, and she loosens her grip on the rifle. It clatters to the cracked, dirt ground. You push gently, and she collapses as the pressure increases on her locked shoulder. You land heavily on her back, her left arm pinned underneath her.

Leaning forward, you hiss into her ear. "Ari'Itani, listen to me. Those are not meteors or comets or fireballs. Those are krogan assault drop pods. In a matter of hours, maybe less, they will overrun this planet, and every non-krogan being will be butchered." You stand and help Ari to her feet; she rubs her strained arm.

"I don't believe you," she says as she coughs to clear the dust from her mouth. "Why would the krogan attack Aghoru?" She glares at you, a look of betrayal and confusion in her iridescent eyes.

You shrug and retrieve the fallen rifle. "They want revenge against the Council," you guess. "Look, Ari, you're a nice girl and I really appreciate you taking care of me last night. But, if you don't hurry, we're not going to have the chance to get off this rock."

Ari turns back towards the settlement. "What about the others? Are you just leaving them?" she asks.

What about the other colonists? you wonder. "There's no time or room onboard the ship to evacuate everyone," you say without conviction. "The most we can do is get off Aghoru and get a message to the Council that another colony has been hit." You know what you say is true, but you cannot convince yourself of it.

Ari continues to stare at the mining settlement for several minutes; you wait patiently. Finally, she relinquishes. "Let's go," she mutters, and you hear the resignation, sadness, anger, and betrayal in her voice. They tug at you because they match what is in your heart.

The squat dwellings of the village disappear from view as she steps into the airlock, and you watch as the hatches seal behind her with the finality of a closing coffin.

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Re: Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Wed Mar 24, 2010 4:55 pm

Chapter 5

There was movement; someone was walking around her. Even through her muddled mind, Aesira knew that much. What she couldn't figure out was why it took so long for thoughts to form cohesively; it was as if every time she wanted latch onto some particular idea, the train that was her thought process would either derail or find some other destination. Gradually, though, the trains began running on time and without catastrophic accident. What had taken hours to contemplate now only took tens of minutes, and even that was starting to shorten.

She slowly but deliberately pieced together the signals from the outside world: the raspy, metronomic machine noise, the steady chirping of some device, and the occasional scrape of leather soles on metal floor. Her sense of sight was limited, her vision nothing more than a hazy mess of vague shapes and cloudy shadows. Confusing her to no end, her nostrils were both clogged and blessedly clear of obstruction. She breathed easily but found all aroma and odors to be sterile and lifeless. She ran her tongue over her teeth, inwardly wincing as she traced several cracks and chips. A foul, terrible taste greeted her, as if something had died in her mouth, and she grimaced.

Her senses were sending her a confusing load of data, and Aesira wasn't quite sure how to interpret it. It wasn't until she reached into the flickering holovid projector that was her memory that she reached a conclusion. Flashes of the warehouse, of moving into the lower levels to respond to a firefight, glowed brightly. She recalled the intruders and how they skillfully took apart her fellow mercenaries. And then she recalled the name.

Shepard.

The hail of razored metal had devoured her chest. She had eaten a krogan fist to the face. And she had plummeted.

Aesira bolted upright, tearing at the gauze covering her eyes and the tubes entering her nose before a shriek escaped her throat as her back muscles spasmed in pain. Strong hands pushed her back against the bed, and a lilting voice warned her to keep still.

"Relax," the voice said. It was calm, melodious. Aesira winced as the gauze was pulled from her eyes, and she grimaced at the glaring lights. "Just a minute," the voice sang, and the speaker left her side. A moment later, the lights dimmed to an acceptable level.

The asari squinted and stared at the speaker. The figure was hooded, and a glass fishbowl made up its face. An odd spherical device hid its mouth, and Aesira blinked in confusion. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, however, the image sharpened, and she saw that the fishbowl was really the faceplate to a mask, and the odd device was really a respirator and voice transponder.

"Quarian?" The word spoken deliberately but even so it left Aesira's mouth with difficulty. Her jaw ached and her tongue was stiff. "Why?"

The quarian fiddled with her omni-tool, and leaned back, tilting her head curiously. "Why what?" she replied in question, but saw the look of confusion mixed with irritation on Aesira's face. "Oh, sorry. You're probably wondering why I'm here and where here is, right?"

Aesira nodded.

"Ah, well, you're in an infirmary, Ward 73. I brought you here when you, uh, fell out of the sky." The quarian looked up when a nurse rapped her knuckles against the door frame.

"The patient's awake?" the nurse asked as she stepped into the room. Aesira watched the human cautiously, despite the universal understanding that medical personnel were to be trusted. The nurse seemed to sense her wariness. "I'm just going to run a few scans to make sure the bones have set properly and the cybernetics have taken."

"Cybernetics? Broken bones? What the hell happened?"Aesira glanced suspiciously at the quarian. "No, wait, first you tell me who you are. Quarian aren't common on Illium."

"I am Nyssa'Rhea nar Seyla," she responded with a bowed head. "When I said you fell from the sky, I mean literally that. I was tending to some supply palettes and you crashed right on top of them. It was a pretty long fall, probably a good twenty meters. I don't know how you survived."

Aesira shook her head and frowned, trying to think back to that. She remembered getting launched over the railing, but between that and waking up, she could recall nothing. "I don't remember anything after getting bitch slapped by that krogan, so I guess you're telling the truth."

The quarian's euphonic voice cooled. "I don't know why you'd think I'd be lying."

"You're quarian," Aesira retorted, as if that would explain everything. She turned towards the nurse. "Well? How am I doing?" She tried to set up, but gasped at the shock of pain lancing up her spine; it was as if someone had shoved a rod of molten iron through back.

The human nurse held her omni-tool over the asari's chest and shoulders. "You'll be fine, so long as you rest. The damage was largely mitigated by your barriers and armor, but you suffered some spinal and bone injury from the fall. We set what bones we could, and had to pin the rest. You really should be grateful for Miss Seyla. She saved your arm and likely your life."

Aesira frowned in confusion at the nurse's comment and looked at her arms. The right was fine, bandaged but fine; her left, however, was anything but. The limb was scarred and shorn at the elbow; a blackened steel apparatus capped the stub. Diagnostic wires trailed from the metal casing, as if some animal had chewed off her arm, leaving long strands of sinew. She swallowed hard.

"What the hell do you mean she saved my arm," Aesira shouted after a moment of shock. "Look! I don't have an arm!"

The nurse responded in a nonchalant tone, one she had mastered after decades of working with ungrateful patients. "You could have lost a lot more. Miss Seyla saved enough of the limb that you can be fitted with a prosthetic."

Letting out a dejected sigh, Aesira closed her eyes and leaned her head against the pillow. Distress, exhaustion, pain, confusion and anger fought for supremacy of her mind. In the end, exhaustion won, and she shook her head. "I want a drink," she mumbled.

The nurse punched a few notes into her omni-tool and turned to leave. "I'll be back later. I'll get your patient information then, after you've gotten some more rest."

Aesira didn't respond and simply lay listening to the steady hiss of the machinery. When she wasn't moving, the pain and soars in her back, limbs, and muscles were nothing more than a dull weight at the back of her mind. She let the regular rhythm of the air pump draw her towards sleep, but after several minutes of quiet contemplation, she realized the quarian hadn't left.

"Why are you still here?" she asked without opening her eyes. Her tone was far softer this time.

She heard the rustling of environmental suit fabric, and when Nyssa spoke, her musical voice was slightly dejected. "When you fell, I took responsibility for your safety. I did what I could to stabilize you, and then got you transported to this clinic. I intend to see that you recover fully." She paused, then resumed after a half-hearted sigh that made Aesira imagine a half-grin behind the quarian's helmet. "Plus, I wanted to see how well the cybernetics would take to your arm."

This time, Aesira did open her eyes, and after several seconds of painful maneuvering, she managed to lie on her side facing Nyssa. "What do you mean? What did you do to my arm?" What little venom had been in her voice had now evaporated.

Nyssa scooted her chair forward, and after punching a few commands into her omni-tool, brought up a small hologram that Aesira quickly recognized as an image of her injured body. The asari winced at sight of her battered form, and was glad she didn't remember anything past the fall. "As I'm sure you're well aware," Nyssa began, "quarians are geniuses regarding all things mechanical. The stereotype is largely true, but some of us branch off into different fields. I've always had a knack for biomechanics, and my interests lie in cybernetics.

"When I found you," she continued, "you were in terrible shape. I didn't think you'd even live. The fall should have killed most people, but somehow you survived. Your breastplate was gouged and punctured in a dozen places, but worst of all, your less protected arms looked completely shredded." Nyssa pointed at Aesira's right arm. "That one had suffered mainly flesh wounds, but your left arm, as you know, was just a pile of ground meat."

"And so you wanted to experiment on me?" Aesira interrupted. She had meant the question to be barbed, but it came out more like an observation than an accusation.

Nyssa shook her head, and Aesira watched her reflection on the faceplate warble. "I've worked with prosthetics and cybernetics before, so I do have a basic knowledge of medicine. I saw your wounds and did my best to stabilize you. I had to get you to a hospital. Medigel only does so much, you know. I also saw that your arm was quite damaged and would likely have to be removed, so I did salvaged what I could in case you wanted to be fit with a cybernetic arm."

"Thanks, I guess." Aesira glanced with some doubt at the stub; it was painful to look at. "Damn, that's ugly. I guess this ends any prospects of being a dancer or stripper, right?"

Nyssa chuckled, and this time Aesira swore she caught sight of a grin behind the violet faceplate. "I suppose."

"How long until it heals?" The asari trailed one of the wires through her fingers. "When can I get that replacement?"

"You've been out for a couple of weeks already," the quarian replied, "and it's healed quite nicely so far. I'd imagine a week and you should be ready."

Aesira stopped playing with the leads and turned back to the quarian. She tried staring through the tinted glass, but found she couldn't make out any features besides a pair of faintly glowing eyes. "I guess from what you've said, you're sticking around until I'm up and walking. Nothing I can do to get rid of you?"

Nyssa shook her head. "I want to see you through this," she said, her voice returning to its silvery self.

"Okay then," Aesira accepted almost offhandedly as she rolled onto her back. Her eyes closed again. "If you don't mind, I'm tired as hell, and my back is killing me. I need some sleep."

The quarian stood to leave, but she paused at the foot of Aesira's bed. "Before I go, you haven't mentioned your name."

"Aesira," she responded after a moment.

Nyssa dipped her head in a slight bow. "Nice to meet you, Aesira. I have one last question. I know you're with the Eclipse mercenaries; your armor gave that away. Did you want to contact anyone?"

Aesira considered this for a moment and shook her head. Phaela's exploding head was etched clearly into her mind, and that name resounded audibly in her ears. Shepard. If the speed with which the vanguard squads had been decimated, she wasn't confident there were any remaining Eclipse in her company. "No," Aesira said finally and without explanation.

The quarian shrugged and turned to leave, but just before she reached the door, Aesira stopped her. "Nyssa?"

She turned. "Yes?"

"Thank you for saving me."

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Re: Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Tue Mar 30, 2010 7:05 pm

Chapter 6

The holographic projector is a sea of salt and pepper, awash as the static struggles to form the shape of something recognizable. It takes a few minutes adjusting the dials and controls, but you are eventually able to form the semblance of a steady signal. Your communications suite is state-of-the-art, but you lament the inability of your smaller vessel to mount larger and more sophisticated transmission hardware, equipment that will allow instantaneous and consistently stable contact with the Citadel. As it is, you make-do with what you have, and are grateful that you are even able to form a connection without the assistance of a communications buoy.

The image eventually resolves into the grainy form of what you recognize as an asari virtual intelligence; it stares at you with its soulless eyes for a few seconds as your ship and the Citadel systems synchronize. With a smile, the VI says, “Welcome to Citadel Extranet Information Network. How may I direct your query? You may enter a response verbally or through your omni-tool—”

“Override code star-beta-four-eight-gamma,” you interrupt. The VI pauses midsentence and processes your command; before she can continue, though, you say, “Check phrase: Knowledge is power; guard it well.”

The VI processes your words and you wait impatiently, but after a few seconds, it responds. “Override command acknowledged. Input orders, Operative 532.”

“Connect me with control. Priority alpha.”

“Working,” is the VI’s response and you curse the software’s slowness. Even though it takes only a handful seconds for the order to be processed, you feel as if it has been hours. Finally, it transfers you.

The virtual intelligence’s image dissolves into a hail of snow, and you see the distinct double-horns of a salarian. You read the tiredness in the slump in his shoulders and the irritation in his nasally voice. “532, do you have a report? Make it quick.”

“I was hoping to speak to the Council,” you reply.

“You think you’re the only one who wants to talk to the Council?” The salarian shrugs and begins to read from a data slate. “You’re talking to me, 532. If you don’t like it, you can take your report elsewhere. Maybe C-Sec will care.”

You narrow your eyes but you’re not sure that the projector is catching such fine resolutions, so you infuse your words with ice. “I don’t have time for your games, Durin. The krogan just hit another colony. Patch me through to the Council. Don’t make me turn your brains to mush with my biotics.”

Durin laughs mirthlessly at your threat. “Save it, 532. The krogan are attacking a dozen colonies. You’re not unique. The Council is busy with more important matters, such as figuring out how to deal with the threat on a global level. You can leave your report with me. Otherwise, clear the channels.”

You bristle at the salarian’s tone and disinterest in your situation, but you know what he says is true. The krogan are an unrelenting tide, rolling over much of the Citadel’s defensive forces, and the Council is scrambling to deal with the threat; you do not doubt that dozens of reports of varying degrees of severity vie for the Council’s attention. Swallowing some of your anger and bruised ego, you acquiesce. “You win this time, Durin. I’ll deliver my report verbally.”

Durin’s attention is already focused elsewhere. “Whatever. The VI can take care of you,” he says offhandedly.

“Yeah, well screw you, too.” You give him a rude gesture, not caring if the projector picks it up. Durin’s image flickers and disappears; the VI’s annoyingly cheerful face emerges from the hail of static. “Record message and transmit it to the Council,” you command.

“Understood, Operative 532.” The VI whirls for a moment. “Please begin transmission now.”

You take a deep breath, letting it out slowly as you gather your thoughts and mentally prepare your report. “This is Operative 532,” you begin, “reporting from the Reya System, Horse Head Nebula. Timestamp to be included in this message. The mining colony Aghoru has been hit by a krogan assault. Krogan forces include drop pod units and a heavy naval presence. Ground forces are estimated at a regimental strength and are based off sightings of at least thirty-nine drop pods.” You recite these figures automatically from memory, and tap some commands into your omni-tool. A data upload status bar appears under the VI’s image. “I’m uploading visual and digital scans of the enemy navy. Initial readings indicate eight frigates and three cruisers, as well as four planetary assault vessels.

“The krogan assault commenced at approximately 1100 local time and was preceded by a broadcast of intent from Oshika. I cannot confirm the identity of the krogan combat units, but because of the proximity of Oshika, I suspect the presence of World Eaters. My hypothesis is supported by a brief analysis of the IFF transponders of the attacking ships. The codes closely match those on file for the World Eaters.” You pause and consider the options. “Reports indicate Battle Master Hordar Malachar commands the krogan unit.”

You sigh, and your voice is firm, but you do not like what you are about to say. “I do not recommend extraction of the Aghoru colony. It is a no-go. Malachar is known for his brutality, so sending in rescue forces would be a waste in effort and resources.” You leave unspoken the understanding that any surviving colonists would be left to fend for themselves. “I do recommend placing all units assigned to the Horse Head Nebula on alert, and increasing patrols in the sector would be prudent. Reinforcing the borders to contain the threat is viable until proper military action can be taken.”

You glance at the VI and consider if there is anything more. After a moment, you decide your report is complete, given the limited information you have and the haphazardness of your departure from Aghoru. “Report ends here. Affix time stamp and signature,” you say. “Terminate transmission.”

The asari VI smiles and bows her head. “Thank you, Operative 532, for using the Citadel Extranet Information –”

You silence her by cutting the transmission at its source, and the projected image blinks into oblivion. You let out a tired sigh and rub your eyes as you stand up. The form-fitting command seat is usually quite comfortable, but today you find the cockpit cramped and claustrophobic. You make your way to the sparse galley, and you fish for a bottle of liquor; after some minor searching through your collection, you decide on a golden salarian brew, what they call aptly call amber. The alcohol has the viscosity of oil, and you pour it into a tumbler carved from a chunk of volcanic glass.

The pungent liquid is a flow of sickly-sweet, molten gold, and it burns as it glides down your throat. Your belly warm, you let the soothing effects of the alcohol calm your system, but not even the brew’s fruity aroma keeps your thoughts from being dragged to Aghoru. You are troubled that your advice to the Council was to let the colonists die, but you know there are no other options; by the time any rescue force could reach Aghoru, the krogans would have destroyed any survivors. Plus, krogan warriors are notorious for being tough to kill, so any assault would be costly in lives and equipment.

You sit at the lone dining table and stare into your clutched drink. Unbidden, the golden eyes of the krogan child you vaporized along with the rest of the Oshika facility floats up from the depths of your amber liquor. You know it is your imagination, but you cannot help but imagine the child’s innocent smile as she looks up at you as you plant the demolition charges. Though she is krogan, your heart swells with guilt as you contemplate not only her death but the deaths of her siblings.

The despair is dreadful, and it’s quite a familiar sensation of loneliness and simple crap that you feel. You’ve found that as of late, the sanctity of innocence has been a greater concern to you. It’s not that you’ve grown tired of death or have suddenly become soft; you’ve seen your share of killings and murder, having been hired on as an assassin, commando, and bounty huntress during your Maiden years. No, you are not a stranger to the realities of collateral damage. However, lately, you’ve been more concerned with making sure bystanders are not harmed by whatever methods you choose to fulfill the mission, and you’ve taken great pains to make your ways as subtle as possible.

Perhaps it’s a side effect of growing old, you muse; you are no longer the young, carefree Maiden you once were. You’ve largely given up your old life of dancing and stripping, but you’ve still kept some of the bad habits. Like your store of spirits. You also know you’ve come to rely more and more on these bottles, flasks, phials, and flasks of distilled beverages, and that might be a problem. But, as is your usual course of action, you shove that nasty thought aside and find comfort in your salarian-brewed amber.

You drain your glass and refill it from the bottle. The drink does you well, and the alcohol gradually shunts away your ruminating thoughts. Your belly is warm and you don’t feel as down as before. It is comforting. However, you know that even if you are at peace with your thoughts, even for the moment, there is someone else onboard who is not, and she does not have the luxury of your ethanol companion. You decide you should probably talk to her.

The ship is not large, but when you purchased the vessel, you were wise enough to make sure there were spare quarters for the rare guest. They’ve largely been unused up until now, but Ari’Itani is now situated in one of those rooms. They are located aft of the galley, and you make your way down the short and cramped hallway. You still clutch the tumbler of amber in your right hand.

You rasp your knuckles lightly against the sealed door, and after a moment, you hear some noise; the door slides open with a near-silent hiss, and Ari stands before you. Her eyes are dimmed and her mane of quills is loose and unruly. She wipes a hand across her eyes; she has obviously been crying. You are slightly amazed at how universal the expression of sadness is.

“What do you want?” the quarian asks. Her voice is downbeat, her spirit broken. It no longer carries that musical lilt.

You feel awkward; the past half-century has been spent largely alone without any permanent companion. “Ari, I wanted to say I’m sorry about Aghoru.”

“Why? You should have just let me die with the rest of them.” There is pain in her voice, pain you suspect that stems from more than just losing Aghoru. “They were no one to you; I’m no one to you. You’re just a courier who randomly stumbled upon our colony.” She sinks to her knees and leans against the bunk. “You don’t care.”

After a moment’s hesitation, you sit next to her and draw your knees to your chest. You aren’t sure what to say; you’ve not had much contact with quarians, and so you have no experience with their psychology or thought processes. And Ari is still a virtual stranger. “I’m sorry,” you begin, “I know it’s a shock and it’s tough to lose everyone you know in such a sudden way.” The words are awkward even to your ears.

“You have no idea,” Ari says. She is staring blankly ahead. “You’ve got no idea what it’s like to lose your friends and family like this. My parents died to a random attack by batarian slavers. That was rough. I finally manage to get back on my feet and find a quiet colony where I can do what I’m good at. I start making friends. People I get to know.” She looks at you and her eyes narrow. There is sarcasm in her voice, and even though you know the situation is entirely inappropriate, you think that it mixes lovingly with the natural hymn of her voice.

“Then some random asari drops out of the sky, and it just has to be me to greet her to the world. The bosh’tet then drinks herself over, and I have to drag her ass to my place just so she doesn’t drown in her own vomit.” You grimace as you realize she is talking about you, and you push the tumbler out of sight. “And with my luck, she brings with her krogan death-from-above, and everything I know for the past half-decade is erased before I can even think about what’s going on.”

There is an awkward silence as you look at your hands; you can feel her glaring at you. A small part of your mind finds it hilarious that you, an accomplished killer, are so cowed by this quarian girl. After a long period, you finally say with some trepidation, “I, uh, yeah, Ari, I really didn’t mean for this to happen. I am sorry for your loss.” You dearly wish you can take a sip of your salarian amber, but you guess that’d probably just piss off the quarian even more. “What do you plan on doing?”

Ari isn’t looking at you anymore; she’s playing absently with her respirator. “I don’t even care. Just drop me off wherever it is that you stop next. It doesn’t matter. I don’t have anything left in this godforsaken galaxy.”

“I’ll be heading to the Citadel,” you respond quietly. You are aware that Ari doesn’t know about your secret identity, and mentioning so would likely inflame her even more.

“Great, I’ve never been to the Citadel. I can’t wait to see how life decides to fuck me over this time.” She stands and looks down on you. “Get out, Starmet. Leave me alone.”

You nod and leave her. The door hisses closed behind you.

-+-+-

There is the sound of muffled footsteps and you look up from the mug you are nursing. Ari pulls a chair up to the table and sits; she eyes your drink warily. You lean back and tip the cup towards her, showing her the contents. “It’s not alcohol, just some caf. Do you want some?” The quarian nods and you fix her up a cup.

She sips at the hot beverage gingerly, blowing at the brown liquid in an effort to cool it. “Sorry about what happened earlier,” she says. Her voice is calm, composed, and her quills are tied back neatly. “I just, I think I just lost it. You don’t know what it’s like, to see your life being destroyed at the whim of the gods.”

“I understand, Ari.” You want to reassure her; even though her words from hours before still sting, you don’t let her know. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not a problem.”

She shakes her head. “No, you don’t understand. I wanted to blame you for Aghoru. I didblame you. It didn’t make sense, with the krogan just dropping randomly on the world. You and the krogan appearing, I wanted to believe it was more than a coincidence. My whole life has been a series of coincidences, and it’s driving me insane. It’s just hard to tolerate now.”

Ari looks into your eyes and the intensity behind hers dims somewhat. “My parents, we were on a trip. It was a spur of the moment thing. The year was good, and my father wanted to take us to see the rings of Rho Prime. We arrived and docked with one of the space stations, but just as we debarked, the batarians hit us. They killed lots of people.”

Sadness fills her voice, and you wonder why she is sharing this with you. “I was lucky,” she continues. “Father shoved me and Mother into a supply closet, and then he ran off to try to lead them away. We waited for hours in that tiny room, but they eventually found us.” She snickers and shakes her head; cynicism replaces the melancholy in her voice. “That was my first brush with Chance. The batarians never actually found me or Mother, but there was a firefight right outside the closet. A stray round killed her.”

She finds your eyes again. “What makes it worse is that I later learn the batarians had hit the wrong station. Random chance that they’d be there when we randomly decide to take a vacation. And randomly, they kill my parents. Talk about shitty luck.”

The two of you are quiet. You wait a few minutes, and then venture a question. “What about Aghoru? How’d you end up there?”

Ari chuckles dismissively. “I spent a few years wandering, jumping from place to place. Eventually, I hitched a ride on a frigate bound for Ilium, but would you believe I picked the wrong ship on accident? Took me to the middle of nowhere, and I ended up on Aghoru. I was out of money by that point, so I had to make do. I’ve been there ever since.”

“And then I show up, and the next day the krogan show up,” you finish the thought for her.

“Pretty much.” She stares down into her mug of caf. After a while, she asks, “Starmet, do you believe in fate?”

You consider her question, trying to figure out where she’s going with it. “I’m not sure,” you reply eventually. “It’s not something I’ve really thought much of. Back in my early years, I would have said no. Our lives are what we make of it. But now, I’m not so sure. I mean, I’d like to think that we’re all made for some higher purpose, but the universe is so large. It’s hard to see any larger purpose in anything. The salarians, the asari, quarians, and all the other races, they all add some random element to the universe. Then you’ve got the Rachni Wars, and now these krogan rebellions. I’m not seeing a bigger picture. But then you’ve got the mysterious discovery of the Citadel, eons ago, and you can’t help but wonder what came before us.” You shrug. “I guess, I’m not sure. I’m not convinced either way.”

She contemplates your words, and the two of you sit in silence. You stare out the small viewport at the passing streaks of stars, while she stares into her mug. Finally, she rises slowly from her chair. “Thanks for listening, Starmet. Let me know when we get near the Citadel.”

“Will do,” you respond and watch her disappear back into her room.

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Re: Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Thu Apr 01, 2010 8:17 pm

Chapter 7

She is standing on a sandstone pillar, its top worn smooth by centuries of sandblasting from the wind. The area is huge, capable of landing a platoon of soldiers without strain. There is a circle of krogan, all clad in burnished gold-and-red plate and clutching personal weapons; they surround a lone krogan, one who is larger than the rest and commanding in both his stature and the very nature of his presence. He drapes a cape of gold mail over his shoulders, and the various skulls and other trophies hanging from his pauldrons and cuirass speak to his rank. She observes them curiously from outside the ring, her presence ignored as if she is invisible to their senses.

The krogan Battle Master watches the others through half-closed eyes and dips his head so the shadows cast by his head-crests shield his face from the harsh glare of the sun. The wind howls around him, twisting small gouts of dust that vortex into tiny tornados. The sun beats down, heating his body to an unbearable temperature, and he feels the sweat trickling down his back; his body is broiling under the heavy full plate of his battle armor. Despite the very danger of roasting alive, he swallows his discomfort and grips his right hand even more tightly around the pistol-grip of his heavy combat shotgun.

He nods once.

As one, the other krogan roar, and their battle cries shake the desert wasteland with a resounding thunderclap. They charge forward, a tidal wave of flashing gold and crimson, weapons raised and discharging, and the sandstone pillar is drowned in a flurry hyper-velocity rounds. The Battle Master stands his ground, and she watches in amazement as he absorbs the murderous fire like an impenetrable bulwark.

With bellow that was born of mirth and rage, the Battle Master launches a terrible biotic attack against his closest foes; the massive wave of energy rips the krogan from their feet and smashes them down against the red stone. Armor buckled and limbs broken, the wounded fighters slowly drag themselves to the edge of the ring. His fury unabated, the Battle Master glides forward in an entrancing dance of death and destruction.

He lashes out with his shotgun, using it as a club, and breaks arms, legs, and faces alike. His movements are swift and efficient, enhanced with biotic powers and centuries of careful study of the martial arts. He parries a bayonet stab, and then shatters a rifle with an overhand chop. His right fist explodes into a krogan's face, dumping him on his back. His left leg hooks another krogan behind the knee, and as he falls backward, the Battle Master's shotgun cracks him across his head-crest.

Her heart is beating fast with excitement; it is thudding hard against her chest as she watches the curious ritual. The Battle Master's skill is incredible, honed from centuries of training and live combat experience. He harnesses and uses his biotic powers with careful precision, never taxing himself, and always choosing the exact moment to exploit a weakness. Within moments, the battle is over, and the Battle Master strides among the wounded krogan; they are all nursing broken legs and arms, shattered bones, and bruised egos.

The Battle Master laughs heartedly, cursing at the slower and more inept combatants while offering praise and advice to those more worthy. He stops by one particularly wounded krogan, whose skull is fractured. The krogan is still alive, but there is blood oozing from his torn scalp. Without remorse, the Battle Master executes this soul with a shot to the head.

She jumps as the sharp retort of the shotgun blasts across the barren wasteland.

He barks several commands, and those krogan who are able jump to attention; those with legs that are no longer functional struggle to a sitting position. The Battle Master begins to lecture them about the failure in their technique. He offers some accolades but his words are mostly condescending. His students, for their part, listen intently, hoping to learn from this legend and absorb his years of experience.

She tries to listen as well but is unable to make out the words. She steps closer, but the Battle Master's voice is masked by an invisible filter; try as she might, she is unable to decipher his message. She glances at his lips, but to her frustration, they are blurred and indistinct, almost as if they have been smudged against the canvas of life.

There is a flash, and the blaring desert sun seems to grow brighter. She turns to the west, and where before she had only seen columns of rising clouds, there is an incandescent wall of impenetrable light. She shrieks in pain and terror as the blaze consumes her; her retinas are seared from her skull and her melted eyes flow down her cheeks. The luminous radiance cooks her flesh from her bones, and her mouth is bent in a forever scream.

As her flash-fried body collapses upon itself, the shockwave disintegrates her corpse into a cloud of ash, and they along with her scream are carried into the wind...

Aesira bolted upright with a gasp that was born from terror and the lance of pain pulsing from her injured spine. She winced and carefully felt for her face; her fingers gingerly crawled up her cheek towards her eyes, and with a sigh of relief, the asari realized that her eyes had not melted away. Leaning back against the pillow, Aesira took a deep breath, calming her frazzled mind. Beads of sweat dotted her forehead.

A dream, she thought, and that realization gave her a much needed sense of security. The vividness of the nightmare struck her, as she wasn't one who was prone to remembering her dreams. However, recently, these nightly reveries had grown far more often and far more tangible. She raised her right hand and glanced at the web of pale scars; she stopped the trembling hand with conscious effort. This was certainly the most vivid dream she had had in decades.

With a sigh, Aesira closed her eyes, slightly wary of whatever horrors lay behind her eyelids. She took a deep breath and forced calm on her body, muttering a series of calming meditations she had learned during huntress training. Despite the realness of this dream, and the recurring theme of searing heat and deserts, she concluded there wasn't any significance.

She hoped.

-+-+-

"Try now," Nyssa said after tightening a fastener. "Actually wait." The quarian readjusted some settings and tapped some commands into her omni-tool. "Okay, now."

Aesira glanced with skepticism at the mirrored face mask before flexing her left hand. The metal-and-plastic construct obeyed immediately, mimicking almost perfectly what her natural hand would have done. The asari smiled as she folded and unfolded her fingers. The prosthesis was cast from a black alloy, and tiny servomotors controlled the intricate mechanisms; diagnostic runes and designs were etched into the ebony carapace.

Looking up at Nyssa, Aesira smiled. "There's no delay like last time. The hand works as soon as I tell it to."

"That's good," Nyssa replied as she took hold of the artificial construct. She lifted up Aesira's arm and gently bent the entire prosthetic limb; it moved naturally at the elbow without any stiffness or resistance. "Excellent. It looks like I've calibrated the response algorithm properly. You say it feels normal? Great, at least we've gotten past that hurdle."

"Good," Aesira said with a tired grin. They'd been working at this for hours; it really was a tedious and detail-oriented process. She had known some people with various cybernetic replacements or enhancements, but had never considered just how much work went into calibrating each piece to mesh perfectly with each individual's unique physiology and anatomy. "So how exactly does this work," Aesira asked.

"In your case, it's actually quite simple," the quarian responded, her voice slightly distracted as she brought up a diagnostic schematic on her omni-tool. "What I did was plant some electrodes and sensors in your upper arm. The sensors read the signals in your brachial nerves and then convert those chemical signals to an electronic form that can be read by the arm's onboard computer."

"Oh," Aesira said. She did not possess an extensive background in anything biologically related (or science-related for that matter), aside from what was taught in her schooling, but she had read enough to understand the basic premise of what Nyssa had just said. "So, for this to work, I needed to have a stump. What about those who don't have any arm or leg remaining?"

"Then it's a lot trickier," Nyssa replied. She looked up from her omni-tool and ran a three-fingered hand over Aesira's arm. She traced a finger from the asari's shoulder, up her neck, and to her temple. "There are options, but all of them require some form of surgery. We can implant a sensor in the brain's motor cortex or place some probes in the spine. In either case, the goal is to intercept the signal and to then relay that signal to the arm. The signal can be sent wirelessly or through a very thin wire that mimics a nerve bundle. Both methods have their strengths and weaknesses."

"I never gave much thought to cybernetics. I didn't realize it's so advanced." Aesira poked at her new hand, and her metal fingers twitched at the sensation. "What about biotics?"

Nyssa paused thoughtfully and quickly scanned her omni-tool. "You know, I'm not quite sure. Quarian biotics are decidedly rare, so I've never had the opportunity to work with any." She looked up at Aesira, and though Nyssa's face was hidden behind the violet mask and respirator, Aesira thought she saw her eyes narrow in amusement. "You'll be the first experiment," the quarian added with a hint of mirth in her voice.

"Great." Aesira reached for a cup of water, but her artificial hand nearly crushed the plastic cup. "Guess I need to work on that," she observed dryly.

"The arm's processing units have integrated VI programs, so your prosthesis will learn as you use it," Nyssa explained as she packed away her tools. "As you saw, you'll find some things a bit more difficult until you're used to them. Getting used to the amount of pressure needed to pick something up will be hard at first, but in most cases, I've seen the user adjust in a matter of days. The VI is pretty fast."

"Well, that's good to hear." Aesira pulled her legs up to her chest so Nyssa could take a seat at the foot of the bed. "What are your plans after I get out of this hospital?" she asked.

The quarian sighed, the sound carrying clearly through her respirator. "My work here in Ilium is really at a dead end. I was hoping to work in a medical facility and bring back some data or tech or something. The asari here have quite some advanced systems. But you know how it is with quarian; no one will hire me or even let me volunteer. My Pilgrimage is pretty much a joke. Unless I find something of worth, I can't return to the Migrant Fleet. I'd be a tasi, a nobody."

She looked up, and Aesira found it slightly uncomfortable that she wasn't able to make eye contact; it was quite difficult to find the quarian's eyes behind the violet-tinted faceplate, even though they glowed dully. "And, like I said, you're the first biotic I've worked with, so I want to see how the prosthesis turns out. The literature isn't very clear." Nyssa glanced nervously at her hands. "If you don't mind, I'd like to join you, wherever you decide to go, to observe and collect some data. I might be able to gather enough to make an acceptable gift."

Aesira chewed her lip in thought. She wasn't terribly fond of quarians, what with their disgusting habits and scavenging lifestyle. Though after thinking about it, she was sure her views were based entirely on stereotypes because she'd never had any real contact with the migrants. Besides, with that compromised immune system, they must actually be fairly clean, right? Nyssa seemed nice and honest enough, and she had saved her life. Plus, having a traveling companion might not be such a bad idea after spending the last half-century largely alone.

"I'd be glad for you to join me," Aesira finally said, and she saw a hint of relief in the way Nyssa straightened up; she imagined a smile behind the respirator. "To be honest, though, I'm not so sure where I'm headed. I'm done with the Eclipse Sisters so, I'll probably be traveling off-world." Something nagged at her mind. "There's some place I want to check out," she said slowly, unsure of her words.

"Oh?" Curiosity laced through the quarian's sing-song voice. "Where might that be?"

"I'm not quite sure," Aesira replied after a slight pause. The dusty pillar with the krogan and her burning body sprung to mind. "I've been having some... thoughts, and I want to explore them." She stifled a yawn. "I'll let you know when I have some more concrete ideas."

Nyssa pushed off the bed and fastened her kit to her belt. "Thank you, Aesira, for letting me join you." Genuine appreciation filled her voice. "I owe you one."

"You owe me one?" Aesira grinned. "You saved my life. I think I'm the one who still owes you. Letting you join me doesn't come close to paying off that favor." She tried to hide another yawn but failed horribly. "Thanks for the arm and everything, Nyssa."

"No problem." The quarian waved once as she left Aesira's room. "Sleep well."

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Re: Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Thu Apr 08, 2010 9:24 am

Chapter 8

Displacing well over 7 billion tons and home to over 13 million sentient beings, the Citadel is a massive space station and serves as the hub of galactic life. It is a marvel of engineering; its five massive wings unfold from the central torus like the petals of a flower blossoming under the Serpent Nebula's watchful eye. Its history is a mystery; from what you know, the Citadel was created eons ago by an unknown race and was discovered by asari explorers some 1200 years past. Initially thought barren, it was quickly discovered that the enigmatic beings known as keepers had inhabited the Citadel since long before the asari had ventured into the stars.

There is a gasp from behind, and you turn to see Ari's eyes light up in delight as she steps into the cockpit. She grins and stares out of the viewport just as the Citadel eclipses nebula's central start, the blue giant known as the Widow. It is a spectacular view as the Widow's sapphire corona illuminates the Presidium, the Citadel's central ring, and casts reaching fingers of shadows across the petals known as the Wards.

"That is amazing," the quarian whispers, and your smile matches hers. "It's incredible."

"You've never seen it?" you ask. This is the first time you've seen her in such high spirits after the Aghoru debacle.

Ari shakes her head sadly. "Only in holovids, which do not do the Citadel justice." She places a three-fingered hand on the viewport pane. "Even on approach you can see the lights of the cities, and we're still so far out. The Citadel has to be massive. How many tons does it displace? Billions, right?"

You chuckle at the quarian's enthusiasm. "That it does. If you think it's humongous from the outside, wait till we're actually inside. I've lived on the Citadel for years, and I still haven't been to each Ward."

"You've lived there?" Her voice is awed to a quiet whisper, and you can't help but laugh silently; her eyes are widened in amazement like those of a child who has awoken to a sea of candy. "What's it like? Who maintains it? How many people?" she asks after tearing her gaze with effort from the viewport.

"Slow down, Ari." It is incredibly amusing, you decide, that she is acting like a stereotypical quarian; the race is well-known for its obsession with all things mechanical, and the Citadel is a mechanical marvel without peer. "It's like any other giant city except the sky is open to space and you can see the other Wards. It's quite a view."

She finally seems to get a hold of herself, and Ari seats herself with a scoff in the co-pilot's chair. She takes a deep breath and runs a hand through her head-quills. "Wow, sorry, it's just been a small dream of mine to actually visit the Citadel. I never thought I'd actually be stepping foot onto the station." She tilts her head curiously. "What's it like to live there?"

You shrug and gently guide your ship past the multitude of vessels making up the Citadel Defense Fleet. "It's a bit strange at first since there's no night-day cycle, but you get used to that pretty quick. I own an apartment in Tayseri Ward; it's pretty close to the Presidium. The apartment lighting can be set to certain cycles, so it's not difficult to adjust. Other than that and getting used to the vertigo from the view, it's not all that different. It's a self-contained city."

Seeing the slightly diminished excitement in her eyes, you quickly add, "Don't worry, I'm probably selling the Citadel short. After a decade or so, the thrill sort of fades and it just becomes another place to live."

She nods. "That makes sense." Ari stands again and approaches the viewports; her nose is just barely touching the transparent steel as she peers out again. "So, as a courier, you operate out of the Citadel?"

There is some hesitation in your voice; she doesn't know your true profession. "Yeah, that's right. The Citadel is the center of the universe, after all."

The two of you are silent for several minutes; Ari continues to observe the seat of the galaxy while you follow the air traffic controller's careful directions. The quarian suddenly returns to her seat and unclenches her fists excitedly. "How much longer until we dock?" she asks. Then, suddenly, her beautiful features frown dismally. "Oh, no. I don't have any documentation or anything." Sadness seeps into her voice as she remembers the colony. "We left Aghoru before I was able to grab any passports and IDs. This isn't good."

You try to reassure her. "Don't worry, Ari. I've got a few contacts and strings to pull; you'll be cleared. If anything, the situation on Aghoru should be a mitigating circumstance. Relax, we've still got a few hours."

She licks her lips in nervousness, and you can sense her trepidation. She looks down at her hands. "To be honest though, I'm expecting something terrible to happen. I just can't shake the feeling that this is just too good to be true, to be able to visit the Citadel. And that it happens right after Aghoru. I don't know."

"Hey," you say, "don't worry. There's no sense in worrying about something outside of your control. As far as I know, there's no way you can change your luck, so why get worked up? Enjoy the moment, and take things as they come. Relax, Ari. I'll give you a tour of the Citadel."

"I suppose you're right." After a pause, her smile returns and you can't help but grin; her exuberance has reasserted itself, and it is infectious. "Thanks Starmet."

-+-+-

One thing you always find odd when you return to the Citadel is the smell of the air. The atmosphere is a very standard mixture of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen, as well as some other trace elements, but it carries a very different tang than the atmosphere found in most starships. You aren't quite sure what it is, but you do know it has to do with more than just the advanced air filtration systems of the Citadel; you suspect it's the presence of various plant matter and other organisms that make the space station home.

Regardless of the reason behind the Citadel's unique air quality, it is a welcome change and something you always look forward to after an extended "vacation." As the air lock hisses open, you take a deep breath and close your eyes, inhaling the fresh air and pumping your lungs free of the recycled, stale ship atmosphere. It is invigorating.

Ari is right behind you as you step out of your ship; though she is giddy with excitement, you see that her elation is tempered with nervousness and what you guess is the melancholic memories of Aghoru. You give her arm a gentle squeeze to calm her, and she appears to appreciate the gesture.

"So what now?" the quarian asks as she steps to your side. Her face is half-obscured by her respirator as a precaution against the likely germs and foreign agents harbored in the Citadel; Ari has told you that she's taken some antihistamines and drugs to reduce any immune response she might experience.

"Right now," you say as you spot the salarian approaching you, "we get cleared to enter the Citadel." Your eyes narrow as you recognize the reptilian creature.

"Greetings, Operative..." Durin trails off as he catches sight of Ari; he is obviously unsure if you've told the quarian about your true identity.

"Starmet," you respond without missing a beat, giving Durin your assumed name. You glance sidelong at Ari, but her nervousness is by now quite apparent, and she overlooks any strangeness of the encounter.

Durin nods quickly. "Yes, Miss Starmet. Welcome back to the Citadel. Your presence is requested at the courier office; there is another assignment for you to pick up at dispatch," he says using all the proper code words. You know you must report to the Council.

"So soon?" you reply. "To be honest, I was expecting a C-Sec greeting."

The salarian shrugs his slender shoulders. "C-Sec is still a new entity; they're ironing out some details and procedures, and because you possess a commercial license, they've placed you on low priority." Durin looks at Ari, eyeing the quarian suspiciously. "Who is your guest?"

Ari is about to answer, but you respond for her. "This is Ari'Itani. She's a friend and will be staying with me."

"Very well," Durin replies dubiously, and types something into his omni-tool. "Make sure you report in immediately, as the package is time sensitive. Welcome back, Miss Starmet."

"What was that about?" Ari asks as the salarian leaves the docking bay.

"He's a representative of the courier company I work with," you say as you lead Ari to a rapid transit terminal. "Apparently they've got something else they want me to deliver. No rest for me, eh?" Ari looks slightly crestfallen. "Don't look down; I doubt they'll send me out without some time for R&R. I'll definitely show you around the Citadel."

The quarian nods and pulls her hood down. "If you've got business, don't worry about me. I'm sure I can figure out the area."

"No," you say as you hail a cab. "Even though the Citadel is the capitol, it can be dangerous; I don't want anything to happen. Besides, I said I'd give you a tour, so I will. You're my guest here, Ari."

It doesn't take long for the hovercar to arrive, and the two of you climb into the white-painted vehicle. The craft sags slightly under your weights but compensates quickly. You tell the VI to take you first to Tayseri Ward, where you'll drop off Ari before meeting with the Council. The car lifts off and soon joins the flow of traffic, and you look to your right to see Ari peering out the tinted window. It's such a cute sight, to see the awe written plainly on her body language.

You settle yourself into the form-fitting couch of the cab and glance out the window at the speeding landscape below. It's been over a year since you've last returned to your home here, and though the cityscape is mostly the same, you spot some new buildings and the absence of old ones; these are probably the results of the mysterious workings of the keepers. Living on the Citadel has always been slightly awkward, as you generally prefer the open and sprawling forests or plains of an underdeveloped garden world; the often-times cramped conditions of the Wards aren't your thing, but living in the capitol of the known galaxy does have its benefits.

You look over at the quarian, who is now typing diligently into her omni-tool and scanning the horizon; a smile blossoms on your face. Ari's youthful exuberance is refreshing, and it's something you remember you still had when you left Thessia centuries ago; the optimism and amazement at the wonders of the galaxy is something you dearly miss, and it has now largely been replaced by a healthy dose of cynicism. Ari brushes a stray quill from her face, and you make a mental note to do some research on the quarian race. In your travels, you've met few of them, and your knowledge about their culture, their habits, and their psychology is decidedly sparse. From your conversation with Ari on your ship, you know that it'd be prudent to be far more versed in alien practices. Plus, you admit sheepishly to yourself, you're quite curious about those quills and what purpose they serve; you can probably ask her, but you decide the question would probably be terribly awkward.

Ari looks up and notices that you've been staring at her. Her lavender skin flushes a darker violet in embarrassment and she smiles nervously; you glance away. After a bit of a pause, she asks, "So, uh, earlier you and that salarian mentioned C-Sec. What is it?"

"C-Sec, or Citadel Security Services, is a fairly new organization," you explain. "The institution was suggested by the turians some years ago when they were allowed an embassy on the Citadel. C-Sec acts as the Citadel's police force and garrison, and they're in charge of customs, maintaining safety, preventing crimes, and so forth."

Ari nods her understanding. "Makes sense. Who was in charge of security before the turians showed up?"

You shrug; you've never really paid attention to the security of the Citadel as your work constantly takes you elsewhere. "Police forces were fragmented groups, with various divisions found in all the different Wards. It was quite disorganized, so C-Sec is a centralized enforcement unit."

"I see," Ari says as she turns back to her data entry. You wonder about how observant she is, and are curious how much she's actually pieced together about you.

You close your eyes to catch a slight nap as the car flies over the Ward, but after twenty or so minutes, you automatically awaken; there are some huntress habits that are ingrained into your psyche at the deepest level. "We'll be stopping by my apartment first. I'll drop you off, and you can either head to my apartment or wander around," you say, breaking the silence. "The Dilinaga Concert Hall and Gaeron Botanical Gardens are very neat and worth a visit. I shouldn't be more than a couple hours."

Ari looks at you and you easily recognize the nervous twain in her voice. "If you don't mind, I'll wait for you." You realize she is actually fearful of the thought of exploring the area alone, something you find quite puzzling; Ari doesn't come off as the type of person to be intimidated by the new and unknown.

"Are you sure?" you ask, your curiosity piqued. She nods as the cab lands on one of the Ward's numerous docking zones. "That's fine. Hold on a second. I'll transfer to your omni-tool directions to my place as well as the access codes." You punch a few commands and the required information is sent instantly. "You're all set."

Ari steps out of the car but glances dubiously at the map glowing on her arm. You sigh inwardly and walk up to her. "Hey, it's okay. I know Aghoru is still messing you up, but the Citadel is safe. My apartment is safe. Bad luck won't get you there, and there's no terrible fate awaiting you. Get some rest, grab a shower." You give her a reassuring hug. "Besides, I've got an automatic food prep unit that has a dextro setting. The menu is exquisite and definitely beats the tasteless mush you've been eating on the ship for the past week."

"Thank you," Ari says finally. She smiles tiredly behind her respirator, and you see the real presence of fear in her searing eyes; the fear quickly diminishes, however. "I'll wait for you in your apartment. I'll be fine," she says with more vigor.

You take a step back and lay a hand on her arm. "Get some rest, Ari. I'll be back soon," you say as you head back to the cab.

-+-+-

"Operative 532, we have reviewed your report and greatly appreciate the lengths to which you have gone in collecting the data." The holographic image of Councilor Asmati bows her head. "We've dispatched additional operatives to the Reya System, and initial reports support your findings."

"Thank you, Councilor," you say. The briefing room is dark; the only light is provided by the central holographic projector and the three projectors representing the Council. You are seated around the central display, as are other operatives, who are all either asari commandos or salarian members of the Special Task Groups. "I am relieved that my information was corroborated."

"Indeed." Councilor Taelon, the lone salarian on the Council, folds his robed arms across his chest. "It is very unsettling to know that it was the World Eaters who attacked Aghoru."

"Excuse me, Councilor, but is it confirmed that it truly was World Eaters?" The question comes from your right, but in the gloom you are unable to discern whose voice it is. "Are we sure it's not another krogan unit?"

"Operative 532's report is correct, I am sad to say." Asmati shakes her head, and you can sense the dread filling the other salarians and asari. The World Eaters are a terrible unit, infamous for barbarism that would make even the batarian sick; they follow no rules of civilized warfare, and their rules of engagement are so broad that you could fly a dreadnought through them with room to spare. "It is almost certain that the colonists of Aghoru have long sense perished."

The final Councilor, an asari by the name of Yura, raises her voice. "Even so, this news brings with it a silver lining. From the other reports, we were able to place the bulk of the World Eater force at Aghoru. More importantly, STG operatives in the Pariah System report that the remainder of the World Eaters is presently located on the planet Opers. The report also indicates that the Battle Master Malachar is presently on-planet. This is a fine opportunity."

The central display shifts to show the temperate world of Opers; it is a swirling mass of green, its land mass separated into several continents by wide oceans. Glowing runes tag various targets of opportunity, but the primary objective is illuminated by a purple indicator. The holographic image focuses on that location, and a secondary projector displays a model of a krogan base.

"As you can see, this is what we believe is the krogan command post." Councilor Asmati's voice is calm and serene. "The STG operatives on-planet guarantee that Malachar and his senior command staff will be located at the base for the foreseeable future. As a result, we believe a surgical strike can eliminate him and possibly decapitate the World Eaters in a single stroke."

"And you want to send in an assassin team to take them out?" you ask. You are already examining the data readouts that have been downloaded to your omni-tool.

"That is correct, Operative 532." The salarian councilor smiles, but you do not notice. "A small team will rendezvous with the STG unit and will coordinate a strike."

"Why not send in the turian and their fleet? They could bomb the world to hell and back." You recognize the voice from before, and you half-agree with his proposal. The turian, relative newcomers to the galactic community, possess a powerful military and impressive fleet; they could easily sterilize the world.

"There are two reasons," Councilor Yura responds. "First, the world is a garden world; we do not wish to damage the ecosystem with a reckless orbital bombardment. Secondly, and probably more practically, a general assault would not guarantee the death of Malachar and his staff. A surgical strike would be far more precise."

There are murmurs of agreement, and you quickly speak up. "Councilors, I volunteer for this mission. My role in the Oshika op might have provoked Malachar." You remember Ari's distress. "Plus, Malachar made this personal when he attacked Aghoru. I am honor-bound to stop him."

Councilor Asmati shares an uncertain glance with her colleagues. "I suppose this is acceptable. You will rendezvous with the STG team. Cells Four and Seven will assist you in this assignment."

"I respectfully object," you respond with a slight shake of your head. "I work best alone and do not wish their assistance. No slight to their skills intended."

There is uproar as the other commandos and STG operatives protest your seemingly rash words. Councilor Taelon frowns. "This is a mission of the utmost importance; it cannot be threatened by personal pride."

"Are you insane, 532?" An asari commando echoes Taelon's words. "Have you ever seen the World Eaters in battle, let alone fought them?"

You look over and recognize the commando immediately; Operative 34's face is an ugly web of scars and cybernetics, trophies of a mission barely accomplished that had pit her against krogan berserkers. "Thirty-Four," you say, "I am well acquainted with the World Eaters, and I am aware of their battlefield prowess."

"Then you know this isn't a mission where you place a headshot and it's done." Thirty-Four growls in frustration. "The World Eaters do not die easy deaths. They do not just keel over!"

"I'm well aware of that," you argue. "It is not pride or insanity that motivates me, but confidence in my skills. With all due respect, I believe I am one of the best asari commandos in this unit; my records will attest to this. Plus, working alone will allow me to move faster. I can get closer to my targets and get out without detection. Finally, sneaking in a small ship, especially my ship will be far easier than working with a larger vessel."

The Council discusses amongst themselves, and you can also hear the arguments of your fellow operatives. You know what they are thinking, that your offer to take on this mission alone is born of hubris. However, you are confident of your abilities; assassination is your specialty, and your impressive streak of mission successes is a testament to your skill. In addition, you are far more accustomed to working alone; having to worry about the habits and nuances of another operative will only make the mission more difficult.

"Very well," Councilor Asmati says finally, "Operative 532 will carry this mission individually. The necessary documents and briefs will be forwarded to you. Be aware, Operative 532, that we will be carefully monitoring the situation. If so needed, please request back-up; this is not a mission of pride or personal vengeance."

You mutter a silent thanks to the goddess. "Understood. And thank you for this opportunity, Councilor. When do I leave?"

"You will have four days at least," Taelon responds, "as we make the necessary arrangements. Until then, please take care of any personal affairs and settle any outstanding obligations you might have; I'm sure you're aware of the risks of this mission."

"I am," you reply with a nod.

"Excellent." Councilor Yura salutes those gathered in the briefing room, and you and the other operatives mirror the gesture. "Good luck and good hunting. Dismissed."

You stand and stretch your arms. Thirty-Four gives you a dirty glare but you ignore it; you are slightly annoyed at the commotion. You are quite eager to get out of this mission room, away from the other operatives. You look forward to spending some time with Ari, and that thought serves to brighten your mood considerably.

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Balsa
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Re: Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Wed Apr 14, 2010 9:08 pm

Chapter 9

Aesira rubbed at her eyes and absentmindedly ran her hands through the fleshy folds of skin topping her scalp. She shivered at the coldness of her artificial hand, but was also amazed that she had largely forgotten about the replacement. Though it had only been a couple of weeks since the fitting of her arm, she had adjusted well. Nyssa had expressed satisfaction that her body had taken so well to the implanted cybernetics and that there had been no graft rejections. More importantly, Aesira was growing rapidly accustomed to this black-alloyed construct; her hand-eye coordination had adapted well, and according to the quarian, she was making rapid progress.

The asari glanced down at her hands and flexed her fingers. The artificial hand matched its flesh-and-blood counterpart exactly, and when she poked at the plastoid palm, she felt the distinctive sensation of pressure. The on-board sensors couldn't replicate the sense of touch perfectly, but it was enough to allow Aesira unhindered movements and actions. After having spent several days with the arm detached while Nyssa made some calibrations, her appreciation for the prosthesis skyrocketed; living one-handed was a challenge she didn't think she could bear.

Unfortunately, for all the advances in biomedical technology, Aesira found herself utterly lost in her current predicament. Groaning in frustration and irritation, she massaged her temples and blinked several times to clear the afterimages burnt into her mind. She stared bleak-eyed at the holographic images, wishing and hoping that the runes, maps and diagrams would somehow morph into something useful. She willed it and the air around her shimmered as she forced her biotic powers into motion, but to no avail; the terminal display showed the same, useless information.

"It really shouldn't be this difficult," Aesira muttered. Though she had never been a technology savant, she had had little trouble with computers up until now. That dream, the one with the desert world and krogan ritual, it burned in her mind, and try as she might, she could not articulate the proper search terms to thoroughly investigate the extranet. Aesira had spent days searching, and without the appropriate queries, deciphering the dream or even finding tools to interpret the meaning behind her vision had proven difficult. "That's assuming there even is a meaning," she grumbled.

"What are you doing?"

Aesira spun at the voice, now even more irritated that she had let someone sneak up on her, but relaxed as she recognized Nyssa's violet-tinted faceplate and her distinctive melodic voice. "Oh, it's just you," she said with an annoyed sigh.

"Why so tense?" the quarian asked as she approached the data terminal; Nyssa made no indication of picking up on Aesira's tone. She pointed at the various images. "What are you working on?"

The asari growled and clinched her fists in exasperation. "It's nothing; I'm just doing some searching on the extranet, and nothing's come up. I've spent hours, but I haven't been able to find what I'm looking for. I can't figure out the proper key words so I can't narrow my search to something useful. Plus," she raised her artificial hand, "this thing is still awkward, so manipulating the interface is quite a pain in the ass."

"You're going to have to get used to the arm; like I said, the embedded VI will need some time to adjust. But, I can help with the research." Nyssa pulled a folding plastic chair up to the terminal. "So, what are you looking for?"

"Uh," Aesira began with some trepidation, "a desert planet with bare rock columns. I'm looking for a planet that's pretty much a dustbowl, with canyons and rock formations."

"Is that it?" Nyssa responded. "That's not a whole lot to go on."

"No, it isn't," Aesira agreed with a dejected shake of her head.

After a bit of silence, the quarian glanced curiously at her. "There's more to this," Nyssa observed in her sing-song voice. "Aesira, if you want me to help, I need to know more than just that you're searching for a desert world. I mean, why the interest all of a sudden? Let's be honest, the typical person who gets her arm blown off isn't so eager to jump on a quest to find some lost world. So, what are you after?"

Now that Nyssa was asking her directly, Aesira felt rather embarrassed about the subject. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, but decided it'd be best to simply admit that her attention had been struck by what amounted to a whim. Even as she said them, though, the words sounded quite laughable to her ears. "Well, for the longest time, I've had these dreams," Aesira said after a long pause. "I didn't think they were important at all, and once I woke up and started the day, they simply floated away. But, after the accident, I had this vivid nightmare that's just stuck with me sense, and for whatever reason, it feels like the dream spoke to me, wanting me to seek it out."

Aesira felt her cheeks flush from the inanity of her words. "This sounds all pretty farfetched. I spent the last day searching the extranet all because of a dream or vision or something. I don't really know." She chuckled. "I bet you it's because I haven't had a drink in so long."

Nyssa seemed to consider her words for a moment, but Aesira wasn't sure because she couldn't see the quarian's face; it was something that bothered her terribly whenever talking with Nyssa. "That's quite intriguing," the quarian replied finally. "Is there anything else you remember about this dream? Was there anyone in it? Can you tell me about the dream"

Aesira sensed no judgment in Nyssa's voice, and she appreciated the quarian's casual acceptance of what was in her eyes a crazy quest. "Basically, I was standing on this stone column that had to be a hundred meters high. In front of me was a circle of krogan dressed in plate armor. Gold armor, I think. Like in all dreams, they couldn't see me, but they seemed to be performing a ritual of some sort.

"A much larger krogan stood in the center of the mass. I'm guessing he was their leader. That one had some chainmail cloak draped over his shoulder. Anyways, the leader yelled something and then all the other krogans charged him. It was the weirdest thing." She chewed her lip as she recalled the strange ceremony that followed. "They charged him with their weapons. I thought they were going to kill him, but he fought them all off. He was obviously a biotic because he was throwing mass effect fields everywhere, and none of the other krogans touched him. Finally, after he took them all out, he started to lecture them. It was very strange."

"Was that it?" Nyssa asked.

"No. Out of nowhere something happened; there was a flash, like the sky just exploded. My eyes burned out and it felt like my flesh had caught fire." Aesira shivered at the memory. "It certainly felt real. After I was flash-fried, I woke up. I might have been screaming; I don't know."

"And what makes you think this is more than a recurring dream?"

"I don't know," the asari admitted. "I mean, the dreams aren't all the same; they're quite different actually. But, this one just spoke to me at some level. I can't explain it, but I know there's some meaning to it." Aesira threw her hands up in exasperation. "I just know it."

"I see." The quarian nodded and turned back to the extranet terminal. "Well, I'm assuming if you find this planet, we'll go take a look, and if that gets me off Illium, then I'm more than happy to help." She typed in a few commands into her omni-tool, and the images displayed by the terminal changed one by one. "If we take 'desert world' and include the search term 'krogan', we're able to narrow the results down a small bit."

Aesira quickly scanned the list of eligible planets before shaking her head; the list was still quite daunting. "This isn't good enough," she said. "There's still far too many."

"What if we added" Nyssa trailed off as she began to manipulate the computer and Aesira watched with a mixture of amusement and awe as the quarian sped through the search results as if she were one with the machine. Well, of course; she's a quarian after all, Aesira thought with a smirk.

It didn't take long before Nyssa pointed at the holographic image, satisfied with her results. "Got it!" she exclaimed. "I narrowed the list down to just five planets."

"How'd you manage that?" Aesira asked as she scanned the names. She didn't recognize any of them, but from the information boxes, she saw that they were spread out fairly evenly in the galactic southeast.

"Well, I worked with what we knew and added in variations of 'krogan,' things like 'Krogan Rebellions' and 'krogan training world' and so forth." The facemask and respirator could not filter out the pride in Nyssa's voice. "'Krogan Rebellions' and 'exothermic catastrophe' and 'artificial' made up the key combination of words. Everything else was still too broad since krogans apparently colonized a dozen desert worlds, and in the past 1500 years, most of those have experienced some type of explosion."

"I really wish I had asked for your help sooner," Aesira said, obviously impressed. She laughed, her irritation and tension suddenly evaporating like a smoke cloud sucked away by a gust of wind. "Damn, that would have saved me a ton of time. I owe you one again, Nyssa."

This time, the quarian's response was a bit more subdued, and Aesira recognized slight embarrassment in Nyssa's voice. "Thanks, Aesira. I'm glad I could be of help," she said. Then, after a pause, she continued, "So, what now? Are we heading over to these worlds?"

"You bet your ass we are!" With a quick tap of commands, Aesira downloaded the search results into her omni-tool. "Pack your stuff; we're getting out of here."

Nyssa wasn't convinced; still seated on her chair, she crossed her arms and nodded at the terminal again. "Not to spoil your mood, but how are we going to get to those planets? I know I don't have the credits to charter a ship, what with being on my Pilgrimage and all, and it might take weeks just to find a freighter who's even headed in that direction."

"Oh, don't worry about that," Aesira replied as she pulled Nyssa to her feet. She was quite eager to leave this planet. "As gross as it might seem, Dad was a volus, and he certainly made sure I understood basic financial concepts before I left on my adventure to become a merc. Investment returns, supply and demand, under-cutting, that type of thing. I've seen two centuries, Nyssa. I've been smart with my investments and I've made a tidy sum." She winked at the quarian. "Plus, I've got myself a nice little light freighter that you might find interesting."

That, she saw, piqued Nyssa's interest. "Is that so?" the quarian quipped. "You continue to surprise me, Aesira. Lead the way."

-+-+-

Aesira laughed inwardly as she watched her quarian companion fawn over her ship's drive core. She had taken Nyssa on a short tour of her personal craft; the freighter was quite small, not much more than an express courier. It was fitted with a modest cargo hold and two separate quarters, allowing for four occupants. A small galley outfitted with a customized food preparations unit, as well as some military grade sensors and weapons systems were examples of some modifications Aesira had made.

"How'd you get your hands on something like this?" Nyssa asked. She was hunched over a diagnostic panel and had hooked her omni-tool to the display.

Aesira chuckled; it was exactly how the vids portrayed stereotypical quarians: geeky, engine-obsessed beings who immediately became enamored with all things mechanical. The asari realized that some conventions, as terrible as they might be, were fairly accurate, and she briefly wondered what other quarian stereotypes were true.

"Funnily enough, a used starship dealer," Aesira answered as she stepped up to the quarian. She looked down at the diagnostic display and saw that she didn't understand any of the scrolling text. "I guess the seller didn't know what he had because when I took the ship in for maintenance and check-up, I found out the core certainly isn't stock."

"No, definitely not," Nyssa agreed. Suspicion entered her voice. "That's creepy," she muttered.

"What is it?" Aesira hadn't expected "creepy" to be used to describe anything on her ship.

"It's nothing, but the eezo reaction chamber is of a model that hasn't been manufactured in nearly a millennium." She glanced at the asari. "This ship is old, Aesira. Krogan Rebellion old."

That was certainly something new, and the coincidence bugged her more than a little; Aesira shivered. "Well, I've had lots of the systems replaced and some modifications made, so at least the ship shouldn't fall apart on us. And I'm not one to believe in haunting and the like, so I'm not going to worry about the whole coincidence part. Sound good?"

Nyssa laughed, a shrill sound from behind her respirator. "We should be fine. The diagnostics all look great and the maintenance logs are sound."

"Well, good," Aesira replied as they made their way back to the habitable part of the ship. "Yeah, I bought this ship about fifty years ago, and it's served me well since. There's an advanced sensor suite, which was a great asset when I was a bounty hunter, and for those long assignments, I had a gourmet food prep unit installed. It'll take care of your dextro-diet."

"Thanks," Nyssa replied. "I hadn't even considered that." She set her pack down in front of a hatch; she had packed light and all of her possessions fit into a duffel bag and small cargo crate. "This is mine?"

"Yeah, the room is designed for two people, so it's actually quite spacious," Aesira replied as the hatch hissed open. "The refresher is to the left a bit, while the galley is further down the hall. My room will be right across from you. If you want to get settled in, I'll start making preparations for departure."

Nyssa nodded. "I wish I had something to toast with, but to a new stage in our lives and the adventures we'll be having."

Aesira's growing smile matched the one just barely visible from behind Nyssa's mask. "To life and adventure!"

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Re: Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Sat Apr 24, 2010 9:44 pm

Chapter 10

Your mind is busy as you disembark the hover car, and as a result you do not remember the ride back to your apartment block. A mental list of what equipment and gear and supplies you will need for this mission is slowly forming in your mind. Your stealth suit will be essential, as well an assortment of specialized weapons and accessories. You know a high powered rifle will be a plus, and you consider the different calibers that are suited for taking out a krogan. An anti-materiel weapon packs the necessary punch to destroy even a krogan's redundant nervous system, but the weight and bulk of such a weapon is prohibitive. You consider the option of using a smaller, but more powerful round; a higher velocity round would carry more kinetic energy, but might not adequately penetrate advanced armor. You conclude that some research is necessary for you to make an informed decision.

In the centuries you've spent as a huntress and commando, you've earned a great deal of experience. Most of your hunts have taken several weeks; you've always held to the philosophy that stalking prey should be methodical and unrushed. Part of that methodology is to possess proper intelligence, and so you make a mental note to retrieve all of the surveys, geological studies, and other reports on Opers; you anticipate the next few days will be spent memorizing maps and terrain, deciding ambush locations, and planning probable escape routes.

And of course you have to figure out a proper supply line. Your ship can carry enough goods for a lengthy mission and initial reports indicate that Opers' temperate climate is home to numerous edible plants and animals, so hunting and foraging is always an option. You do not wish to rely on the salarian operatives hidden on planet, as you suspect their own stores are likely at the breaking point. You'll have to stop by and check with the Citadel quartermaster to requisition the appropriate foodstuffs and equipment. Fortunately, your private liquor stores are well stocked, so you are not worried about depleting that resource.

With a low growl, your stomach reminds you that you've not eaten since the previous day. You rub your eyes, clearing out the grit that has accumulated, and you look forward to a shower in a fully furnished refresher unit. You wonder if Ari has eaten yet; you'd like to introduce her to some of the finer dining establishments on the Citadel. You vaguely recall a restaurant that specializes in quarian cuisine up near the Presidium and decide that that'd be a good place to take your friend.

Your apartment is situated just past the main promenade of Tayseri Ward; it is a tall, regal complex that occupies the third and fourth floors of the Ward. Your cab drops you off at the front entrance, and in a few steps you are through the atrium; you nod a greeting towards the asari receptionist, who doesn't recognize you, and quickly trot up the flight of stairs. Your quarters are just down the hall, and before long, you place your thumb over the biometric reader. After a brief moment, the door hisses open, and you step through the vestibule.

The bustle of Tayseri Ward's streets contrasts sharply with the quiet calm of your residence. The lights are dimmed and the air is fresh with a faint wisp of citrus that emanates from the room's atmospheric unit. The tang brings a smile to your face; it is an old foible, a reminder of someone long since gone. You run a blue finger over the coils of a potted fern that is hanging from the wall, but after a moment, shake off the feeling of nostalgia. Sighing, you unclasp your boots and step through the foyer into the living room.

Your elation grows when you see Ari, but the smile blossoming on your face dies a terrible death when you see her dour expression. She is facing you, seated on a couch with her legs and arms crossed, and the scowl is eminent. You hesitate, your usual confidence self taking a step back.

After a brief moment, you pull a chair from a table and take a seat. She glares at you, and you are mildly relieved to see that it is anger and not fear that is consuming her. "What is it?" you ask.

Ari doesn't respond and continues to stare at you with her glowing eyes. The silence becomes uncomfortable, so you walk to the kitchen and start mixing a drink; without thought, you automatically choose several liquors. You can feel her gaze trailing you. After several minutes, she finally says in a quiet voice that carries more raw rage than a charging krogan, "You lied to me."

Your brain churns over those words as you sip your drink, and you go over what you've said to her over the past week or so. "What do you mean?" you reply when you do not recall ever being untruthful. Just as you say those words, however, you realize with startling clarity what she is saying. "Oh."

"That's right." Ari stands before you, and though she is shorter than you, she stares defiantly into your eyes. She pokes you hard on the chest. "I know you're not a courier, and I know what you do for the Council."

"It's not what you think," you say as you break eye contact and return to your chair. Frazzled, you down the rest of your drink in a single gulp and your mind reels from the inanity of being wrong-footed by this quarian. A centuries-old asari huntress should not be so dazed by a twenty-something girl.

"How can it not be what I think? You weren't out in the Traverse delivering messages or packages or some other shit. You were on some secret mission." Ari is pacing now, her hands clenching and unclenching in frustration and anger. "Whatever you said on Aghoru, on your ship, they're all lies." She turns to face you and her eyes have narrowed into dangerous slits; her quills have stiffened. Ari stabs a finger at you. "You led the krogan to Aghoru. You killed Aghoru!"

"No! Damn it, Ari, calm down." You reach out to her, to guide her back to the couch, but she pushes you away with surprising strength. "That is notwhat happened." You sigh and turn towards one of the bay windows overlooking the Ward. You gather your thoughts. "Yes, Ari, I was on some mission, but no, I did not lead the krogan to Aghoru. Why would I do that? Why would I want to kill a colony?"

"I don't know," she says slowly. The quarian pauses just long enough for you to see the confusion shimmering beneath the anger. "I don't know," she says again. The storm has abated slightly, but you catch a twinge of hurt laced in her musical voice. "They followed you. It only makes sense that you had something to do with them."

You don't answer immediately. You know you should not be revealing anything to Ari as your status as a commando is classified knowledge, but you feel you owe her an explanation. After all, you were involved with the krogan who had assaulted Aghoru. Though there is no way to accurately predict what would have happened, you want to believe that the colony would have been spared had you not sabotaged the Oshika plant.

Ari's voice breaks the silence. "See? I knew you had something to do with them." A three-fingered hand grabs your shoulder and spins you around. "Why don't you answer me, Starmet? What are you hiding?"

Sighing, you look down at her and make a decision; you hope you won't regret it. "You're right, Ari," you say. "Aghoru began weeks before I even set foot on the colony, before meeting you. I was given an operation by the Council to go to the planet Oshika in an effort to stem the krogan tide." As you explain your role in the Krogan Rebellions, all traces of infuriation evaporates from Ari; shock, then dread, and finally betrayal fills the void, and she stumbles back to the couch.

"Oshika was an op that took months to plan," you continue. "There was a vital anti-matter refinement plant, and I was tasked to cripple the facility. I succeeded in my assignment, but the resulting explosion killed thousands of krogan." You pause as the face of the krogan girl resurfaces; you stomp the memory underfoot. "Most of them weren't even combat troops." There is regret in your voice. "The garrisoning unit, however, was not fully destroyed, and decided to seek revenge."

You take a seat on the couch next to Ari. "Do you remember that news vid in the bar when we first met? That krogan was Battle Master Malachar of the World Eaters. He commanded Oshika and promised vengeance on those who were responsible. Aghoru was the first in his crusade."

Ari buries her head in her hands and shakes her head in dismay as she realizes the full import of your words. "Oh, keelah," she murmurs.

"I'm sorry, Ari." You place your arm around her, hugging her close as she gently sobs. You are slightly surprised at her emotions, but it soon dawns on you that Ari has only been holding herself together just barely. You are a hardened warrior who has seen more than her share of bloodshed, so you've come to forget how easily some people can be traumatized by events you'd consider routine. You realize that now that the immediate danger is gone and the environment is relatively innocuous, Ari's emotions have finally boiled over; she has simply crashed. Acute post-traumatic stress disorder can be a sudden thing.

You hold and comfort her, unsure exactly what to do, but knowing that simply letting her vent helps. You are melancholic; even though you know you cannot be linked to her catastrophic history, you feel responsible in some abstract way for her suffering. Aghoru was likely not your doing, but you are certain that your actions had indeed provoked Malachar, which led to the death of Aghoru. That certainty fuels a righteous fury in your heart, and you swear to the goddess that you will destroy him for the sufferings he has brought upon Ari.

After some time, Ari stirs and slowly straightens up. She rubs a hand over her eyes and sniffs once more before glancing at you sheepishly. "Sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry for," you say as she straightens up. "Ari, I suppose I should tell you now. In less than four days, I will be leaving the Citadel for another mission. Specifically, I'll be hunting Malachar and making him pay for Aghoru. I'll be gone for weeks, and I most likely will be out of easy communication. You're welcome to stay here while I'm gone, but you can also head elsewhere if you would like. I just thought you should know."

You pause; against your better judgment, you add, "Actually, you could accompany me. If you want, of course."

Ari looks down at her hands as she considers your offer. "I need time to think over this," she says finally, and you expect that answer. "Things are just happening too fast; I haven't had enough time to digest all that's happened." She smiles weakly. "I need a shower."

"Understandable," you reply, relieved that some mirth is returning to her. You help her to her feet and take her deeper into the apartment. "I've got a spare room, Ari. Get washed up, and get some rest. Think things through."

-+-+-+-

It isn't until the third morning that you see Ari again; you had checked on her in the mornings, but she hadn't responded, and you had decided that was simply part of the healing process. The past few days have been incredibly busy, and you've spent the time running errands, making arrangements, and requisitioning supplies. You know she's been moving about the apartment because of the reports from the food preparation unit and other sensors; you decide she's likely just avoiding you.

As you are browsing the daily news vids over breakfast, Ari slides into the chair across from you. You look up, glad to see her at last; she looks healthy and recovered, and her eyes glow brightly. Her quills are smoothed back and tidy, and her voice carries the characteristic melodious twinkle. "Good morning," she says.

"How are you feeling?" you respond. You stand and command the food unit to prepare some dextro-based foods.

"Better," she says as she accepts a plate of reconstituted breads. "I've given this some thought, and I'm going to take you up on your offer."

You smile around your mug of caf. "That's great! I have to ask, though, why? I mean, I would have thought you'd want to get far away from the krogan and all that."

"Do you remember when I asked you about fate and destiny?" Ari responds; she hasn't touched her food yet. You nod. "Like I said, a lot of my life doesn't make any sense. I spent the last couple of days consulting with my ancestors and seeking their advice. I was hoping I could glean some wisdom from them. "

You arch a brow in curiosity. "Your ancestors?"

The quarian points at her omni-tool. "Yes. Quarians take an imprint of an ancestor's personality and combine it with an interface to make something similar to a VI. It's a way of honoring our ancestors. In any case, I didn't find anything about fate or destiny or whatever, but I did learn that there are no coincidences in life, and even if we aren't sure of the meaning of our lives, we should take all opportunities to make a positive difference in the world."

Ari looks intently at you and you read something in her eyes. "I don't know if there's some big plan that governs the universe, but here is a chance to try to make Malachar's wrong a right. This is a chance to do something about Aghoru, and even though I still blame you to some extent, I know I need to take this chance to help you fix the wrongs. If I don't, I'll never have another chance."

"That makes a lot of sense," you say as Ari finally eats her breakfast. "Plus , it'll be nice to have someone keeping me company."

She shrugs. "Who knows? This could be my destiny."

Something suddenly bothers you, though. "Ari, about what happened the other day. How did you figure everything out?"

"I had my suspicions," Ari admits. "Couriers don't usually travel with military-grade tech." She blushes a deep purple. "Plus, I, uh, took the liberty to examine your personal files while you were gone."

"Those files were encrypted and secured."You frown and hope she didn't pry into everything.

Ari smirks. "Starmet, I am a quarian; breaking into your computer systems is like child's play."

"Touche." You raise your mug in a salute. "Now that you mention that, I'm pretty sure your computer skills will come in handy."

"I hope so," she replies, though there is some doubt in her voice.

You smile encouragingly. "Given, the nature of the mission, I know so."

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Re: Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Fri Jan 21, 2011 9:56 pm

Chapter 11

Iron-red dust, so fine that it was like liquid, poured out from between her fingers like blood streaming from a severed artery. The sand pooled at her feet, returning to the rust stained surface of the plateau. She knelt and scooped up another handful, this time in her artificial hand. The fine powder left a stain that matched her tattoos on her metal fingers that wouldn't come off even as she rubbed them against her armor.

Aerisa stood and swiped an arm across her brow, wiping away the beads of sweat that had accumulated on her sapphire scalp. The merciless sun beat down harshly, and the climate control system built into her body armor struggled to keep her core body temperature in check. It wasn't doing a very good job. The asari commando shivered as she felt another stream of sweat trickling down her back, but the feeling short-lived as her body glove whisked away the moisture.

Taking a swig from her water flask, Aesira turned towards her quarian companion. "You find anything unusual?"

Nyssa, who was intently studying her omni-tool, shook her head. Her visor, mirrored to reflect the harsh sunlight that was slowly roasting Aesira, shimmered with whites and violets. "I don't know," she said. "The geological survey says this crater was formed during the Krogan Rebellion, but not by what. I guess that's unusual?"

Aesira didn't answer immediately. She shielded her eyes from the sun and looked out towards the horizon. They were perched at the edge of an impact crater whose ridgeline stretched for miles in either direction. It was a gargantuan geological formation that couldn't be appreciated at ground level; they only saw the crater in its entirety during their approach to the planet. The walls of the crater were stratified, with different colors stacked on top of one another.

"This isn't it," Aesira muttered. She took another sip from her flask, noting that the once cool water had slowly warmed.

"What's that?" Nyssa asked as she stepped to the asari's side. "Did you say something?"

Blinking away some sweat that had pooled at the corner of her eyes, Aesira shrugged. "This isn't the right place."

"You sure?" The quarian raised her omni-tool, scanning the horizon. "Why do you say that?"

"Well, look at it," Aerisa replied as she knelt and scooped up another handful of rust-colored sand. "This crater is huge. How large is it? Fifty kilometers wide?"

"Seventy-three point four kilometers, actually," the quarian replied in her melodious voice.

"Yeah, okay, seventy-three kilometers then," Aerisa echoed with the hint of a smile. Leave it to the quarian to know the exact numbers. "What do you know could cause something like this? It's got to be a meteor or asteroid or comet or whatever."

"Is that a problem?"Nyssa responded with a question, as she usually did. "You said that in your dream, all you saw was a flash, an explosion. An asteroid impact would certainly match that description."

Doubt crept into Aesira's voice as she replied. "I guess. But think about it. Planetary impacts don't just happen instantaneously, right? You'd know months or years in advance." Nyssa nodded. "In my dream, there were krogan fighting or training. Why would they be on a planet that was about to be kicked in the face by a giant space rock? It doesn't make sense."

"This whole trip doesn't make sense," Nyssa jested. The smile was hidden behind her now-opaque mask, but was carried on her words.

"Yeah, yeah, smart-ass." Aesira rolled her eyes in mock irritation. "Even so, look around you. Do you see any pillars of rock or columns of stone? What about on her flight in? In my dream, I was standing on one. I don't see any here. This isn't the right planet, Nyssa."

"Well, the Rebellion happened fifteen hundred years ago, so whatever rock formations could have eroded away." The quarian pointed at the crater walls. "You can see where the walls are smoothed by the winds. But, this is your quest, Aesira. It's your call."

Standing, Aesira tried to take another drink from her water supply but noticed it was empty. She muttered a curse. She really wasn't sure what to make of the planet, but her intuition was telling her they were on the wrong planet. "I say we head back," she said as she and Nyssa made their way across the ridge. "I'm ready to get out of this heat anyways."

"I've been meaning to ask you about that," Nyssa said. There was concern in her voice. "My suit sensors say it's well over forty degrees. How are you coping with the heat?"

"You mean besides sweating like a Thessian pig? I'm fine." She wiped away the sweat beading at the tip of her nose and grimaced. "I'm going to smell awful after this. But, yeah, it's hot, but my suit's keeping me relatively cool. It's nothing I haven't faced during commando training. The jungles of Thessia are terribly humid and were way worse than this." Aesira turned towards the quarian, noticing how she seemed not to be affected by the heat at all. "How about you? You've got to be feeling the sun in that suit."

"No, not really." Nyssa shook her head and plucked at her suit. "Our suits are self-contained environments, completely sealed off from the outside world. They've got pretty robust temperature moderators built in, and with the amount of tinkering most quarians do, the suit is very efficient at maintaining a consistent and stable body temperature, regardless of outside environmental conditions. I'm currently running at just about thirty-four degrees, which is around quarian body temperature."

"Quarian engineering has always amazed me," Aesira smiled. "It must be nice to be in that suit."

"It's like a prison," Nyssa said quietly, regret and dejection in her voice. After a few seconds, the quarian changed the subject, all hints of mournfulness gone or at least carefully concealed. "Why'd you join Eclipse, if you don't me asking?"

It was an expected question, but Aesira wasn't sure what Nyssa's motivations were. She detected no malice or suspicion in the quarian's voice; all she heard was curiosity. The girl was simply intrigued by her mercenary history, Aesira decided. Plus, if she wanted to change the subject from her suit to something else, it was an easy and quick fall-back question.

"I guess I wanted a family of sorts," Aesira said finally. "I know it sounds weird, but up until that point, I'd been operating alone for almost half a century. I was an independent bounty hunter or assassin or whatever for hire. I didn't have any partners or anything. Working along was nice. You didn't have to worry about anyone else, and if you screwed up, you only messed up yourself. I didn't have to figure if my partner was trustworthy or if he'd been bought out or something. I've heard tons of stories where a group is betrayed from the inside, and I didn't want that to happen to me."

The asari shrugged and wished she had taken extra water. "But, after a bit, I guess I just got lonely. It's nice to have your own freedom, but after a few decades, you start talking to yourself on your ship, and you realize you need a companion. Someone, anyone would have been good. So, I figured joining Eclipse would be a good idea. They're a mostly asari group that focuses on the work I've had experience: assassinations, smugglings, scouting, that type of thing. Plus, my commando training made me an instant hit, so it seemed like a great deal." She paused. "At least until I nearly died," Aesira finished with a laugh.

Nyssa echoed her chuckle, though it was mostly hollow. The quarian wasn't as lighthearted towards life as Aesira seemed to be. She eyed the asari. "You were an assassin?" Nyssa asked, and Aesira imagined the look of curiosity behind the visor. "I know you said you were a commando, and I've read that's what asari commandos do, but it's just hard to imagine you as the cold-blooded killer type. I guess you seem so young?"

The asari responded with a mock erotic dance routine, but clad in full armor, it didn't have the intended effect. Even so, Aesira laughed heartily when Nyssa seemed taken aback by her display. "Yeah, most asari my age are still doing the whole dancing-and-stripping thing. I tried that for a couple of years after commando training, but I never liked it much. You weren't allowed to kill the obnoxious customers. Besides, I'm two hundred-something years old.

"Now a question for you," Aesira said as the ship came into view. "I know most quarians are techno-geniuses, but I haven't heard of any who deal with biology." She pointed to her prosthetic arm. "You've got a knack for cybernetics and you know your biology. Why'd you choose this path instead of, say, starship engineering?"

Nyssa didn't respond immediately, and Aesira worried that she might have asked something personal. Finally, she replied in a voice that was automatic, devoid of any melody. "Cybernetics has a lot of mechanical and electrical engineering spliced in, as well as biology. I had a talent for the medical sciences, and decided that it'd be a prudent to mix the two areas together since we quarians are naturals at all things mechanical. It's worked out well."

Nyssa's words were dead, and confirmed Aesira's suspicions that this was a topic she shouldn't have touched. "Oh," she responded lamely.

They reached the ship a few moments later, and as the airlock cycled, Nyssa studied Aesira's face. "You're dehydrated," the quarian said as the airlock chimed twice.

Aesira nodded once, grateful that Nyssa was still watching over her health. "I'll go get something to drink," she responded as she headed towards the galley.

The quarian stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. "Water, Aesira, no alcohol. It'll only dehydrate you faster."

"Okay, okay," Aesira smiled. "Water it is."

"I'll get the ship ready for departure," Nyssa said as she headed towards the cockpit.

Aesira watched her friend's retreating form, before heading to her quarters. As she stripped out of her smelly armor, she wondered what could be in Nyssa's history that would illicit that cold response. The quarian was on her Pilgrimage, which meant she couldn't be more than twenty years, Aesira decided. It wasn't like Nyssa was some asari commando deep undercover. Then again, she couldn't see through that visor, so there was no telling if Nyssa really was a quarian.

Tossing her body glove into a basket, Aesira stepped into the refresher unit and hoped the soothing water would carry away her suspicions like the dirt and sweat washing away from her body.

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Re: Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Fri Jan 28, 2011 10:55 pm

Chapter 12

The salarian amber swirls gently in your obsidian tumbler, the black volcanic glass reflecting the dimmed cabin lights. As you stare into the golden depths, you tip the glass sideways and are reminded of that krogan child, her black pupils set starkly against golden irises. It is a memory that will stay with you forever, and you're moderately disturbed that that specific incidence should be etched into your mind. It's not like you've never killed before. You've conducted your share of unsavory missions for both the Council and other, shadier organizations, so you're unsure why this krogan girl should stick with you.

The amber slides down your throat as you tip the glass back, and you relish the smooth mix of its honey-like bite and gentle burning. This particular glass of salarian brew is the last of your original stock, but you've made sure to have replenished your ship's alcohol supply for this mission, including a special request made to Durin. Despite how much you hate the gawky operative, he has connections to some of the best amber brewers in Citadel space, so you're forced to go to him when your stash runs low. Strong liquors are your preferred method to unwind after a stressful operation, and you never know what might strike your fancy during the post-mission cool off. It's best to be prepared.

The past week has been a blur, you realize, and you're always amazed at just how fast the Council can get things moving for an urgent mission like this one. You've heard numerous stories of Citadel bureaucracy moving slower than elcor speech, but with your unique status, you've been able to requisition the necessary gear much faster than anticipated. Aside from restocking your liquor stores, you've made a few special purchases from the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance armory, modifying your weapons load out specifically for this mission.

"Know your opponent and you will never lose a battle." That is a battlefield maxim you remember from your schooling, centuries ago on Thessia. Your experience has proven those words true on more occasions than you care to remember. Your career as an assassin and bounty hunter, commando and terrorist, have taught you that your krogan prey are notoriously difficult to kill. One mission comes to mind, where a krogan bandit king continued to fight even after you'd taken off three of his limbs; it was only after you'd blown off his head that his grotesque body stopped twitching. As such, you've supplemented your preferred shotgun with experimental hyper velocity slugs that should punch through hardened carapace like molten steel through candle wax.

For ranged targets, you had to consult the Specter armorer. You wanted a weapon with the power of an anti-materiel rifle but without the cumbersome size and weight, but nothing came to mind. It had taken the armorer, a former STG operative, over ten minutes of deliberation and searching to introduce you to the aptly named Thunder Strike Long Rifle. It is compact and light, of salarian manufacture and uses advances in mass effect field technology to accelerate a ferro-tungsten round to excessive speeds, packing enough kinetic energy to penetrate even hardened vehicle armor. As the armorer described it, targets "go down faster than an asari on the third date." (He then smiled nervously at your disapproving scowl.)

The thrum of your ship's powerful engines cuts your thoughts and echoes through the deck plates, and you feel the gentle pull as the craft shifts course. You've now left the outer reaches of the Opers system and are now conducting a methodical burn towards the garden world. Most assault teams would have preferred a lightning entrance, a sprint towards the safety of the planet's atmosphere, but you plan to use your ship's powerful sensor array to scout out the opposition first. Your ship is a fast recon and insertion vessel, stealthy and agile; it is not built for slugging matches, so utilizing its strengths to discover the best insertion and extraction points is the prudent thing to do.

You drain the rest of the amber in a single gulp and rinse out the glass in your quarter's zero-G sink before placing the tumbler in a cabinet. You are confident about this mission, but there is one thing that keeps bothering you. It's a question that has been plaguing you since before leaving the Citadel. Why did you take Ari? The quarian girl is nice, and you do feel responsible for her predicament, but there is no real reason you can discern that would justify taking what is essentially a noncombatant on a commando mission. Not only is she violating your rule of working alone, but her inexperience would be a terrible hindrance. Her inability to handle the stress of the destruction of Aghoru should have been warning enough.

The weight in your belly grows heavier than a black hole at the realization that you are now responsible for more than just you. It is a dreadful thought, to know that Ari's safety and well-being are now in your hands. Your actions and decisions will determine if she survives the next several weeks. You will have to make special arrangements to make sure she comes to no harm. Otherwise, you are sure that her lavender face and star-like eyes will replace those black and gold pupils of the krogan girl. With a rueful smile, you realize your huntress instructors would have had you flogged for your foolishness.

You want another drink.

Even so, you've made your offer and she accepted, so you can do nothing except move forward. Standing and smoothing the wrinkles on your tunic, you step out of your room and head towards Ari's quarters. A smart rap on the door follows, and the quarian's response reaches your ears. "Enter," she says.

Ari is sitting on the edge of her bunk, studying her omni-tool. The tension in her shoulders is evident, and when she looks up, you see the weariness in her glowing eyes. The two of you haven't had much time to chat during the journey. Though the ship is small, you've been engrossed in planning the strike mission. Ari for her part has been gobbling up the ship's data core, absorbing schematics, technical information, and other relevant knowledge. As if she senses your hesitation in bringing her along, she has been making effort to be useful.

"How are things going?" you ask as you lean against the bulkhead.

She switches off her omni-tool, and when she responds, that melodious voice hides any traces of strain or tiredness. "I'm doing well," she says, "I've been reading up on what you have on the krogan. They're an interesting people, what with their entire culture based on warfare and fighting."

"That they are," you agree. "The krogan are an incredibly resilient people, and their society makes them perfect weapons. They were our trump card in the Rachni Wars, but even the best weapons can be double-edged." You pause before deciding that it is best to be frank. "Ari, I'm going to be perfectly honest," you begin, "I'm not sure asking you to join me was the smartest idea. After all, this is a military expedition. Do you have any combat experience or training?"

The hesitation in her response confirms your suspicions. "Not really, no," she admits with a shake of her head, sending her quills swaying. You can hear the uncertainty in her voice. "I mean, I know how to shoot a gun. You can't really survive in this galaxy without knowing something as basic as that." You nod in agreement. The galaxy is a tough place. "But, aside from that, I'm not a soldier, Starmet."

There's really not that much you can do with her admission. It is far too late to return to the Citadel, so you are stuck with Ari. It is a liability, but your training kicks you in your mind's face. You've been taught to make best use of your current resources, and this is no exception. Ari may be a liability, but you are going to make her the best of liabilities.

"Ari," you ask, "without meaning to offend, I assume you're quite skilled with things mechanical?"

The quarian smirks. "Yes, I am. Stereotype or not, good or bad, it's true." Her smile weakens. "It's why I was on Aghoru in the first place."

You can work with that strength, you decide. "Okay, are you good with reading sensors? Intercepting and decrypting secure communications?"

Ari thinks the question over for a moment, but when she responds, the eagerness in her voice is evident. "I haven't worked much with sensors, but if you can supply me with some basic manuals, I'm sure I can pick it up pretty fast. Most encryptions are algorithm based, so it's all about math and figuring out the formula. I've always been pretty good at that, so it shouldn't be that hard. It won't be as easy as hacking a computer program because there are no security flaws to exploit, but given some time, I should be able to find and crack the patterns. I mean, it didn't take me that long to hack your files." That last sentence she added with a careful smile.

You chuckle in response. Her youthful exuberance is infectious. "Good to hear. What I'll probably have you do is stay on board the ship and monitor the krogan communications. If you can crack their code and feed me intel, the mission will move that much faster and that much smoother. As they say, knowledge is power."

"I'll do my best, Starmet. As much as I want to be down there kicking their asses and getting revenge, that's probably not the smartest thing to do. I've seen some of the combat vids you have, and the krogan are brutal." Ari shudders. "That's not something I want to mess with."

"Definitely not," you agree. You remember that brawl with the krogan bandit king. Point blank confrontations with krogan are never smart or pretty. "I'll get you the necessary manuals to get you started on the sensors. You've got a few days to go over them."

The two of you are quiet for a few minutes. It dawns on you that you've only known each other for a few weeks, but it feels like ages. It is these rare moments of awkward pauses that shortness of your relationship really comes to light. "How are you really holding up?" you ask finally.

The quarian shrugs. "I'm doing well," she replies weakly.

"I know that's not true," you say with a smile and shake of your head. You sit next to her and place a gentle hand on her shoulder. The tension in her muscles is palpable. "We're at most a week out from hitting dirt side, and you've never seen combat. You've been on an emotional roller coaster since we first met." You give her shoulder a squeeze. "Relax, Ari. If you need to talk, you can. You've got to be feeling a ton of strain."

Ari sighs wearily and rubs her eyes tiredly with her three-fingered hands. "No, it's fine, Starmet. I mean, yeah, I'm stressed. Yeah, my emotions are running all over the place, like an uncontrolled fusion reaction. And I'm exhausted as hell. But, this is what I'm like when things are tough. When my parents died, when I first landed on Aghoru, I was like this for about a week, but I got over it. I'm fine."

You nod, not fully convinced but knowing where she's coming from. Different people face uncontrollable events in different ways. As you pull your hand away, you accidentally brush one of her quills, and she shivers slightly at the touch. "You sure?" you ask. "If you need to vent, I'm here."

"Yeah, I'm sure. Thanks." Strength has returned to her words, and her sing-song voice has replaced the mournful tone. She looks at you and cracks a smile. "I could use a drink, though."

You laugh, a happy sound that broadens her smile, and you drag her to her feet. "Well, Ari, I can help with that. Come on," you say as you lead her to the galley.

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Re: Mass Effect: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Post by Balsa » Fri Feb 04, 2011 10:20 pm

Chapter 13

"It's quite a sight," Nyssa observed quietly.

"It is indeed," Aesira agreed. She glanced over at the quarian, who occupied the co-pilot's seat, and marveled at how the refracting light played over her visor like a swirl of blue, violet, and white paint. "Sometimes, when I'm worn out or I need to zone out, I like to hit the FTL drives, grab a drink, and just sit, watching this light show. It's quite soothing."

The quarian turned her head and laughed, a sound that translated beautifully through her respirator. "Really, Aesira?"

The asari frowned. "Yeah, is that a problem? What's funny?"

"No, nothing at all," Nyssa said with a slow shake of her head. "It's just, my people simply have a belief that if a person stares out into that chaos" -- she pointed at the glowing storm of light that was an effect of the ship rocketing at speeds faster than light -- "he will lose his mind and go mad."

"Oh." Aesira glanced tentatively out the cockpit viewport again, into the riot of colors, before turning back to Nyssa and cracking a smile. "If that's true, then I guess I must be insane. I've been staring out into that for decades."

Nyssa chuckled, a lilting sound that was quite pleasing to the ears. "I doubt it is true. If there was any validity in that belief, we'd have shutters on all of the Migrant Fleet's viewports. Plus, there'd be medical literature out there explaining the phenomenon, and as far as I'm aware, no psychosis has ever been reported in anyone as a result of staring out into the void during FTL transit." The quarian paused, staring at the asari, and then added in a serious voice, "Though, these dreams of yours, they're recurring and quite clear, right? That could be an early indication of mental instability."

Aesira blinked several times, trying to read the quarian's body language, but not being able to see her face made it about as easy as reading an emotionless machine. "You're joking, right? You're not being serious."

Nyssa started to shake her head sadly but couldn't hold back the chuckle. "Of course I'm joking. Dreams are just that, dreams, or at the most, some old memories. I'm not being serious. I hadn't expected you to be so easily convinced."

Grinning in appreciation of the joke, Aesira shook her head at her own foolishness. Even so, the quarian's words did strike closer to home than she would have liked. Ever since the first of the dreams started to occur, Aesira had often questioned her own sanity. She had learned, though, to simply accept the dreams as natural, and had coped with them as best she could.

She took a sip from the glass tumbler. "Yeah, well, Ms. Know-It-All, do explain why the light even acts this way."

"Technically, this is a physics issue, which isn't my specialty," Nyssa began. She hesitated, as if to gather her thoughts, before continuing. "But, basically, it has to do with relativity and the refraction of light. When the ship is traveling at faster-than-light speeds, the light waves outside of the ship will slow down. The light appears to redshift, resulting in that swirling mass of colors. It's actually a bit more complicated than that, since most of colors you see are actually the result of cosmic radiation and not visible light, but that's the basic idea."

"I see," Aesira said, not really seeing. She had had science schooling while growing up, but it was never with so much detail. Plus, over the last couple of centuries, she'd forgotten much of the academic lessons. "And you're positive that staring at the redshifting light won't make you go insane?"

"Positive, Aesira."

"If you say so," the asari said as she leaned her seat back. She glanced at one of the cockpit's displays. The glowing runes reported that they were still several days out from the second planet on their list. It was some abandoned dustbowl with no real significance. With no mass relay linking that system to the rest of the galaxy, they had to rely on faster than light travel to reach the lonely planet. Closing her eyes, Aesira let out a sigh and absentmindedly rubbed at her arm, where the prosthetic joined her flesh.

"Is something wrong?"

"What? No. Why?" The asari looked up, startled to find the quarian standing beside her.

"You were rubbing your arm," Nyssa replied, concern coloring her words. "Let me take a look," she said and grasped Aesira's upper arm in a surprisingly firm grip. Aesira winced when she poked at the seam where her sapphire-colored flesh joined the cold steel. "Does that hurt?" the quarian asked.

"Not really," Aesira shrugged. "It's a little tender, but that's about it."

Nyssa was silent as she examined the asari's arm, gently but purposefully applying different pressures to the bicep and shoulder. She muttered some things to herself, words that Aesira did not catch, and she waved her omni-tool over the scarred stump. After several minutes of examination, she seemed satisfied. "Well, everything looks mostly good. The graft has taken completely, and your body has largely accepted the hardware. But, there's some slight discoloration and inflammation at the joint here."

"Is that bad?" Aesira inspected her bicep, noting where Nyssa had pointed.

"Not necessarily. It just means there's some irritation and what looks like a minor infection," the quarian said, shaking her head. The redshifting light reflecting off her visor completely obscured her expression, but there was no concern in her voice, just the typical melodious tone, and so Aesira was also unconcerned. "I've adjusted the polymer cap on the prosthetic to use a formula that should be more inert and won't irritate your skin, so that'll likely address most of the issues. I can also get you some basic antibiotics to fight off the infection you have, which isn't serious at all."

Aesira nodded her thanks. "Like I said, I never realized cybernetics to be so complicated."

"In theory, it's not, but in practice, you have to tailor each cybernetic implant to the individual. There are a lot of specific calibrations that are needed to make sure the implants are not rejected and function perfectly. Most recipients of implants will need to have regular maintenance and checkups for many months afterwards, just to fine tune all of the adjustments." Nyssa reached into a pouch strapped to her thigh and pulled out several vials. She studied the labels briefly and handed one to the asari. "Take one in the morning over the next three days."

"What is it?" Aesira stared at the label. "Adioldi- what?"

"Adioldichloroxymiocin," Nyssa corrected without trouble. "It's a synthetic antibiotic that'll take care of the inflammation and infection."

"Isn't this dangerous?" Aesira asked while peering at the bottle. "What with the amino acid differences between quarian and asari?"

"Typically, yes, but this medicine is a meso compound, so it is symmetrical. There is no worry of incompatibility." Nyssa saw the skepticism in Aesira's eyes and shrugged. "Trust me on this. I'd rather not get into a lecture on dextro-levo chirality."

"I'll take your word for it," Aesira responded with a chuckle. She finished the rest of her drink and sat up, but quickly noticed the silence from her quarian companion. "Is there something else?"

"You can't drink alcohol with that medicine," Nyssa said. "It'll lower the effectiveness, and I'd rather not risk that."

"Can't I just take more meds?"

"It's not good to overuse antibiotics," the quarian said. There was a hint of annoyance in her voice, as if she had given this explanation to numerous others in the past. "'Overuse of antibiotics leads to drug resistance in microorganisms'," Nyssa quoted from memory. "As it is, many of the galaxy's once powerful antibiotics are no longer of use. There's just too many drug-resistant strains out there. That's why you need to finish the medicine on time and at that dosage. So no alcohol."

Aesira sighed at her tumbler. "Well, that'll suck. Only for a few days, right?"

"Right." Nyssa paused, hesitating, then continued with a shrug of her slender shoulders. "Honestly, I'm worried about how much you drink."

That caught Aesira by surprise. "What's that now?"

"You drink too much, Aesira," Nyssa said bluntly without hesitation. "Since we've left Ilium, you're always with a drink. It's not just once in the evening, but all the time. Every time I see you."

"Not all the time," Aesira protested. "I didn't have anything the other day when I was dehydrated. Besides, it's normal to have drinks occasionally. Alcohol doesn't hurt."

"That was the only time. Besides, you grabbed some of that salarian amber as soon as I said you were properly hydrated." Though the quarian shook her head, her voice was still musical. "I admit I'm not an expert on asari physiology, but I've done my research, and that much alcohol isn't healthy. Besides, I've seen your food stores. Your liquor supply is quite extensive, more so than it should be."

Irritation leeched into Aesira's response. "I'm as healthy as ever, Nyssa. I don't have a problem with drinking. Besides, it's a nice way to relax after a mission."

"Maybe, but you shouldn't need that much alcohol," the quarian said. "I'm concerned, Aesira."

"Oh, what do you know?"Aesira snapped, her words laced with venom. "You're fresh on your Pilgrimage, what would you know about the galaxy and the stresses of the universe? And why do you care? I'm just a test subject, who happened to fall into your arms. What's it matter to you what I drink or do?"

Nyssa didn't reply immediately. The cockpit was silent, save for the whirl of instruments and the constant, barely audible hum of the drive core. Finally, Aesira heard the rustling of Nyssa's suit, and she turned to see the quarian stand. "I care because I thought we were friends," Nyssa murmured, her voice subdued and dead.

The asari watched the quarian retreat out of the cockpit and into her quarters. The hatch slid shut behind her with a nearly inaudible hiss. Aesira leaned back in her pilot's seat and rubbed her eyes, letting out a frustrated sigh. "By the goddess, I'm an idiot," she muttered.

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