LAST EDITED ON Sep-10-20 AT 03:57 PM (EDT)|
Friday, June 15, 2412
Beyond the Outer Rim Territories
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Perseus sector >>
Dholen system >
Haestrom, third planet of the Dholen system. If you're even in the Dholen system, hitchhiker, boy have you got problems; the star is unstable and the system itself is under the control of the geth. How did you even get here?
Regardless, if you're on Haestrom itself, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that the occasional Federation probes that get in here have never reported any evidence that the geth are using the planet itself, so if you managed to get dirtside without the zillion or so of them who live elsewhere in the system detecting and annihilating you, you're probably OK in that regard. The bad news is that there's no one here, nothing to eat, no hope of rescue, and direct sunlight will kill you, but not before it's torched all your electronics, including, most likely, the Guide.
Information about the planet itself? Slightly academic at this point, we would have thought, but OK. We'll be optimistic and assume that you're reading this entry somewhere else for entertainment. Haestrom was a science outpost of the Rannoch Hegemony, originally founded in the 1800s to study the interesting instabilities inherent (see what we did there?) in Dholen, which quarian astronomers believed was just on the cusp of evolving from a G-class main sequence star into a red giant. As far as they knew, nobody had ever studied that phenomenon up close before.
The problem is, "on the cusp" in stellar evolution terms could mean within a few hours or a couple thousand years. Odds were the Dholen Observatory project was going to be something of a long-term one. The planet's one city, also called Haestrom, became known around the Rim for its unique architectural idiom, its subculture of creative indie video game designers, and the fact that nothing much ever happened there. Until 1896 SC, when the geth uprising brought down the Hegemony and most of the architects and indie programmers got wiped out.
Since then, as far as anybody knows, nothing whatsoever has happened on Haestrom. Dholen still hasn't turned into a red giant, though its stellar output has become markedly weirder and more energetic in recent years (hence the aforementioned killing-you thing). It's hard for Fed astronomers to tell much more than that from outside the Perseus Veil, and if we had to guess we'd say the geth aren't too bothered about the scientific opportunities. Federation probes indicate they're mining the system's second planet for gas and... that's basically it. Haestrom itself is just there. The city's still standing, and based on the probe returns, it looks to be more or less intact, apart from damage inflicted during the war. Night passes indicate that most of the streetlights are even still working... but nobody's home.
All that said, if you're actually on Haestrom, we have only one piece of advice. Our cover strapline notwithstanding, this would be an excellent time to panic.
This Guide entry was written by Peter Parker, OJK.
Captain Tali'Shukra vas Venachar shut down her omni-tool's e-reader, got to her feet, and looked out through the vacant window frame at the city. This was a city that had been designed never to sleep, but it had been dead for more than five centuries. Its silence and stillness were doubly eerie when set against the cyclopean scale of it, the height of its towers, the broad and daring sweep of its intricately interconnected skyways. For all that time it had stood empty and unmaintained, and yet most of the skyways were still here. From where she stood now, near the pinnacle of one of the periphery's middling-tall buildings, Tali could see a significant part of the network, and there were very few major gaps despite the relentless march of centuries.
Master Parker is right, she mused to herself. The streetlights do still work... and this would be an excellent time to panic.
Instead, she tried to com the Venachar again, to no avail. Nighttime might mean a respite from the vicious, killing solar radiation that soaked the city's streets during the day, but Dholen's deranged magnetosphere still played havoc with comms, and she got nothing but flangey static when she tried to raise her ship. She wouldn't be reaching them with the equipment she carried on her; it would take a bigger antenna, a more powerful transmitter, than she could carry.
If they were even still up there. The alarm she'd raised on the surface had almost certainly spread to the extensive space assets the geth had in the vicinity of Haestrom's neighbor Charoum. For all she knew, her ship had been chased off or blown out of the sky by now, and she was the only living carbon-based creature in the Dholen system. That would, she joked grimly to herself, constitute quite a spectacular mission failure.
Well, she thought wryly, Rael always does enjoy a good excuse to tell the rest of the Admiralty Board, "I told you so."
Tali went back inside and sat down with her back against the wall, reviewing the day in her mind. They had all known that penetrating the Dholen system would be dangerous, but it was the only way to get a better read on what was happening to the star. Its recent behavior, as alluded to in the Guide entry, could not be accounted for by any natural phenomenon. If the geth were engaged in something as risky as stellar manipulation, some members of the Admiralty Board felt it behooved the quarian people to know about it.
The plan, as conceived by Admirals Han'Gerrel and Rael'Zorah, was bold, but simple—dash into the system, drop a technical commando team onto Haestrom, proceed to the great Dholen Observatory at the center of the city, and conduct as extensive an observation as possible, then get out and hope the science team back home could work out from the collected data just what was going on in there. Both admirals agreed that the simplest plan had the greatest chance of success—and expended the most bearable quantity of resources if it all went wrong.
Admiral Zorah had been against assigning the mission to the Explorer-rated ship commanded by his own mother, but not because he was worried about her safety. Rather, he insisted, he lacked confidence in her ability to deal with complications that might arise, since she had spent his entire life as a Halo researcher and come to exploration only recently. The others, knowing that her technical prowess exceeded that of any other Explorer captain in the Quarian Navy, overruled him.
It didn't offend Tali'Shukra that her son thought she was a soft-sided theoretician with little practical field experience. He wasn't to know that she'd spent the decade before his birth almost constantly on the move, having adventures that made most of his naval career seem like a cushy job at an insurance company. He'd never asked and she hadn't volunteered.
It did offend her, in a cosmic sort of way, that the day's events looked like proving him right. Since the moment she had arrived on Haestrom, things had been going wrong. The stealth modifications to the Venachar's landing craft were supposed to be proof against geth detection; they weren't. There wasn't supposed to be an actual geth presence on Haestrom itself; there was. The LC hadn't lasted a minute after touchdown. Her four-man landing party had outlived their ship by mere seconds. Only experience, quick reflexes, and blind luck had kept Tali herself alive, enabling her to escape to this refuge and wait for nightfall.
And now that it was here... what? Even if she reached the Observatory, she had no comms and no way of getting back to the Venachar, if indeed the ship was still there.
She regarded her Lens, glowing a gentle silvery-blue from its mount on the back of her right glove. It would be unaffected by Dholen's strange emissions. She considered calling for help with it. She had no doubt that if she called for him, Benjamin would find a way to get to her, but... no. She had nothing to show for coming here. No result at all to offset, in even the most inadequate way, those four lives. Tali's pride wouldn't let her call on anyone—not even him, perhaps especially not him—for rescue just to flee in defeat. All right, he might never forgive her for not asking for his help; but as things stood right now, she would never forgive herself if she did.
Tali wasn't sure how long she spent confronting that issue before her attention was claimed by a faint sound from somewhere deeper inside the building. Since the other members of her landing party were dead, she could only think of one thing that might be approaching her position. She rezzed up her omni-tool and ran a sensor sweep, looking for a very specific EM signature. Her scan range was, like her communications, badly damped by the magnetic anomalies in which Haestrom was constantly bathed, but this close, she found them easily—four levels below and on their way up.
The geth had found her.
Rising, she returned to the empty window and looked again at the dead cityscape. A glance back over her shoulder showed her the bobbing gleam of geth searchlamp beams ascending the stairs from below. She turned back to the city, looked past the foreground of eerily lighted skyways and towers, and saw her objective: the tallest of the city's buildings, its central spire jutting almost to the stratosphere, a dull red light warning aircraft that would never exist of its pinnacle.
The sight of it galvanized her. She might have failed in her mission; she might have gotten her landing party (and possibly the entire crew of her ship) killed; she might never be able to transmit her findings back to the Quarian Union... but before she met her end on this godsforsaken planet, by Keelah, she would know what the hell was going on.
With that thought in her mind and the sounds of the approaching geth in her ears, Tali removed a baton-like object from a magmount at her hip, held one end in each hand, took two running strides, and jumped out of the window.
Approximately 11 seconds after the first pattern-buffering transmat of the modern epoch came online, someone thought of using it to store a physical object as information, making large, heavy, or otherwise unwieldy items effectively weightless and easily portable. Everyone knew that the Transformers of Cybertron had used similar technologies to store weapons and facilitate certain aspects of their transformable ecology for millennia. It seemed a reasonable goal for organic technologists to strive for—but there were many hurdles, not all of them anticipated by the original thinkers, to be overcome.
In the end, the first viable system took just shy of 40 years to perfect, and it was a quarian engineering student who made it practical, reliable, and (relatively) affordable for any object more complicated than a hammer. Called Realized Virtual Machinery, it used a hard-light-holography "framework" to guide the materialization of complicated parts back into their proper relative positions. The technology was not yet widespread—the device in Tali'Shukra's hands was a prototype, handmade for her by RVM's inventor—but once it was, it had the potential to change the galaxy.
Right now, all Tali cared about was its potential to change her evening. /* Journey
"Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)"
Frontiers (1983) */
She left the building a lone figure in a battle-rated encounter suit, her white-trimmed black armor throwing gentle reflections of the city-corpse's undead nightglow. As she reached the peak of her arc away from the tower's face, just before she started to fall toward the skyway two stories below, the baton in her hands divided into halves, linked together by a geometric web of blue-white light. In an instant this framework of glowing lines spread, growing schematically to surround her in fleeting hints of manufactured shapes and the workings of complex machinery.
She hit the skyway below her escape window at the controls of a fully realized, low-slung, black, wide-wheeled motorcycle—its inventor called it a "lightcycle"—its armored outer hull blending almost seamlessly with her own. Its hubless wheels and sleek trim lines glowed with a clean white light, as did the exposed fusion turbine in its belly. The howl of that turbine echoed in Haestrom's abandoned canyons, silent these many centuries, as Tali accelerated hard away from the tower.
The lightcycle's radar was largely useless in this environment, and Haestrom's global positioning satellite network had gone down long, long ago, so Tali was navigating on instinct, riding by the seat of her pants, as it were. She tried to keep the spire in front of her at all times, looking as far ahead as possible to make certain she wasn't about to ride off the end of a fractured skyway, and lost herself in the task of solving the 3D puzzle of this road network as efficiently as possible—until something glinted in her rearview scanner and she realized she was being pursued.
Since when did the geth have motorcycles? she asked herself indignantly, then took a closer look and realized that it wasn't so much that the geth had motorcycles as that the ones chasing her in this particular instance were motorcycles. She'd never seen geth shells built to take advantage of wheels before—even their tank-type units had legs—but she supposed in an environment like the skyways of Haestrom, such a configuration made sense, and the geth were nothing if not practical. Optimized for speed, they were catching up with her fast, their reverberating engine wail much higher-pitched and harsher than the lightcycle's mezzo howl. She couldn't tell how many of them were back there, not having the time or the luxury to take a precise count, but there had to be at least a dozen.
In spite of her situation, Tali smiled.
All right, you krif'tet machines, she thought. You want to play tag? I'll show you how we played it in Saladin Gulch.
The pylons supporting the skyway's surviving lights whipped past one after another, her speed making the sound of their passing into a staccato clatter. She avoided bits of rubble and fallen light pylons with an efficient economy born of long experience. Her mind flashed briefly back to the first time she'd ever ridden a motorcycle in anger, as it were, back on Halo, at the end of the Happy Time. She'd crashed then. She couldn't afford that now.
Another group of the geth cycle units joined the skyway at a junction just ahead of her, fanning out into a tight formation and trying to block her path. Smiling grimly inside her helmet, Tali reached back, underneath the armored fairing that her lightcycle had extended most of the way to her shoulders, and drew her Bryar scatter blaster from its magmount across the small of her back. This weapon, made from a heavy-duty blaster carbine vintage mid-24th-century, was considered an antique now, but it could still throw enough energy to blow an armored humanoid in half at twenty paces—or a geth cycle shell clean off its wheels at ten. She blasted a hole in the middle of the formation ahead of her, leaned hard on the throttle, and shot through the gap.
The geth regrouped, tightening their formation to make up for the loss, and increased speed. Tali was keeping ahead of them, but to stay in the lead required all her lightcycle's power, and at that speed she had precious little time to react to complications ahead. Twice she nearly lost it jinking around broken patches of road or bits of debris. The third time, she sideswiped one of her pursuers with the outer edge of her rear wheel's fairing, sending it crashing into the wall at the side of the road, but lost so much speed keeping herself from going down after it that the others caught up—
—and as it drew even with her on the left, one of them reconfigured, springing upright from a shape reminiscent of a riderless motorcycle to a robotic torso and pair of powerful clawed arms balanced atop a single wheel. Apart from its head, which was the typical monoptic-equipped turret, it looked unlike any geth Tali had ever seen, and she had never seen one change its shape like that before. She was so shocked, and the part of her mind that remained always an engineer was so intrigued, that she did not immediately realize that it was trying to grab her with one of its viselike metal claws.
When she did, she blasted it, which blew it most satisfactorily to pieces. Several of the others also transformed, converging, but their one-wheeled "robot" mode was apparently slower; when Tali accelerated away from them, they were forced back into their original shape to continue the pursuit.
What is going on here? Tali'Shukra wondered to herself. They were on a long, sweeping lefthand bend now, with another skyway joining the one they were on from below midway around. Reflected on the retaining wall at the top of the entrance ramp, she could see the lights of a vehicle coming up. Grinding her teeth, she tried to press herself even lower over her lightcycle's cowl and wring even more speed from the machine. There was little question who that would be.
This wasn't really like Saladin Gulch at all, she reflected ruefully. In Saladin Gulch she'd had backup. Out here...
She flashed past the end of the merging skyway before the approaching geth could reach it, caught the flash of their headlights in the corner of her eye as she passed, and glanced automatically in her rearview scanner—
—but what came hurtling onto the skyway was not more geth./* 2:45 */
It was another lightcycle, a different model than the one she rode: its fuselage completely enclosed by a sleek fairing, front wheel even broader than her own, rear wheel no wider than that of a normal motorcycle. Its whole superstructure, from the teardrop-shaped cowl of its massive front wheel clean back to the gleaming black mechanisms surrounding the rear, was a white so pure it almost seemed to glow in the bluish Haestrom streetlights, pierced only by the three long, narrow, ebony black panels of its windscreen. In its wake it left a ribbon of light, which drew a persistent glowing arc in the air as the cycle caught air at the top of the ramp, then seemed almost to adhere to the road as the machine's rear wheel touched down.
The white lightcycle slewed across nearly the full breadth of the skyway, drawing its trail of light across in its wake, and when the geth reached it, it was as though they had run into a duracrete wall. Explosions filled the night with orange brilliance as most of the pursuing formation, not realizing the light was a threat, raced into it at full speed.
Tali looked to her right as the white cycle drew even with her on that side; the lights overhead strobed rhythmically down the length of its black windscreen, giving her no inkling of who might be inside it. A moment later, the screen in the center of her own instrument cluster flickered and displayed the face of the man she'd just been thinking of.
"Hello!" said Gryphon cheerfully. "Your granddaughter is a huge damn genius. Did you know that?"
"Benjamin!" Tali cried. "What are you doing—how did you get here?" she asked, changing questions in midstream as she realized that the one she'd originally intended to ask was, under the circumstances, kind of a silly one.
"Hitched," Gryphon replied. He glanced at something else on his end, probably his own rearview display. "Uh-oh. We've got more company." Smiling a slightly dark smile, he added, "Just one question I might ask you, and it might sound like a disaster, but can you make that thing go faster?"
Tali smirked, though she imagined he couldn't make out her expression in that kind of detail from the other end of a grainy video link. "You bet your sweet ass I can," she replied.
Gryphon grinned fiercely. "Then game on, a chuisle, and let's run these clowns into our jetwalls."
Then his face vanished and the white cycle peeled off to the far side of the skyway, drawing another curve of that glowing light across part of the road again. The geth were aware of the threat it posed now, thanks to their networked consciousness, and the new pursuit groups that were converging from side junctions behind them knew to at least try to avoid it.
Tali pondered his remark for a moment, then glanced down, her eyes scanning the control board. Yes, in fact, there was a key down there, glowing softly white, labeled GAME. She'd wondered vaguely what it was for when she first received the machine, but Tali'Zorah hadn't been available for her to ask at the time, so she'd put it down as something to investigate later.
Now she pressed it, and was rewarded by the cycle's structure shifting beneath her. At full power, the vehicle's wheelbase actually lengthened by several inches to maximize stability—and then the rear wheel started throwing a light trail of its own. She wondered what it was. Some kind of tailored kinetic barrier field, probably, or a freestanding hard-light hologram. Glancing in the rearview, she couldn't see the far end of Gryphon's, though she supposed they weren't infinitely persistent.
My granddaughter is a huge damn genius, she thought with pride, and then bent to her work./* 3:43 */
She and Gryphon hadn't worked together, in this sense, for many, many years. Once, she had thought it would more or less be their life together, crashing from adventure to wild adventure with occasional pauses in between to catch their breath in the sort of sybaritic luxury only the galaxy's greatest heroes and most wanted criminals could enjoy with true panache. A naïve dream, maybe, but a nice one, all the same. It hadn't worked out, and instead they'd been forced to go their separate ways. She saw him in person only rarely, had been in combat alongside him only once in all the decades since then.
And yet, here on this ruined and deserted world, at the controls of machines that would have been considered the most abstract flights of fantasy in the days when they first met, they realigned almost instantly back into the complementary parts of the machine they had been when the chips were truly down in Goodyear. They couldn't cross each other's jetwalls, but they could use every inch of the road to create an almost impassable maze for the geth in their wake, leaving each other the smallest possible gaps through which to retake the lead or cut to the other side.
Tali would never know how long they'd had to play that deadly game, balanced always on the razor edge of total catastrophe, across the ruined skyline of Haestrom. She never wondered while they were about it—there was no time, only that one extended moment, terrifying and yet ecstatic, where the boundary line between intellect and instinct blurred into meaninglessness and the only two people on the planet put their lives unthinkingly in each other's hands. After the fact, she could have checked her lightcycle's chron, but by then she preferred not to know. It would have spoiled the magic somehow.
Eventually they found themselves racing up the final span of skyway—more than three miles of arrow-straight, very-slightly-uphill road, two lanes wide, leading straight into the side of the central spire about two-thirds of the way to the top. This had been the ultimate goal of Tali and her landing party. She wondered as they blazed onto the span and into line-of-sight with the doors whether the geth had changed the access code, powered up her omni-tool, and transmitted it.
A rectangle of light appeared at the far end, like the end of a tunnel, as the Observatory Tower's main entrance opened to receive them.
Tali glanced at the rearview. There was only one geth cycle near them now; the next group was more than a mile back, barely visible as they rounded the long lefthander, far below, which would eventually lead them up a switchback to the stretch they'd now reached. That one geth was the only one that could conceivably catch them before they attained the tower and its fortress-like walls—the only one that had a chance of entering the tower with them, which would be rather less than optimal.
It seemed to be, if such terms applied to geth runtimes operating motorcycle-like exo-chassis, particularly skilled. It had avoided several traps she and Gryphon had set for it, shooting the narrowest gaps they dared to leave. Even if they rode almost wheel-to-wheel, there was just enough space between the walls for a single geth to pass, and this one did, without a falter.
Looking ahead, Tali scanned the skyway between their position and the fast-approaching tower—and there was her answer.
"Benjamin," she said, her voice crisp.
"I see it," Gryphon replied./* 4:55 */
His bike was faster even than hers. He accelerated ahead now, two lengths, three, the white lightcycle's turbine screaming—then, pouring on even just a little more throttle, he brought the front wheel slightly off the ground and mounted the sloped face of a massive rubble slab, fallen from the facade of the wrecked building leaning over the skyway from the right.
With exquisite timing, he reached the top of this impromptu ramp and jumped over Tali's path just as she flashed by beneath, nearly scraping the block with her right footpeg. His jetwall bridged hers and the ramp, leaving the two glowing barriers and the jagged flank of the slab to form a funnel that led the geth cycle inescapably to a gap about three feet high by four inches wide.
"So long, sucker!" Gryphon cried as the fireball blossomed behind them, and then they were shutting down their jetwalls and flashing across the threshold into the giant skyway lobby of the Observatory. Airbrakes deployed from the fairings of both lightcycles as they skidded to a halt. The giant doors closed behind them, extinguishing the overhead lights as they did—and suddenly, from a world of speed and light and noise, all was still and dark and silent./* end */
After a couple of seconds, the lightcycles sizzled, flickered, and disappeared, drawn back into the digital un-space that was their home when they weren't in use. Gryphon and Tali stood, unspeaking, about twenty feet apart in the center of a cavernous dark room, visible to each other only as faint traces and shards of light where the dim glow of emergency lamps far above them reflected from the angles of the armor they both wore.
And then they were together, not caring (as they never had) about those angles as they embraced like two lost souls finding each other in Limbo.
"You're awfully good at getting into trouble," Gryphon observed after the first hug finally ran its course.
"Almost as good as you," Tali replied. "We're not out of danger yet, you know. If anything, we're in even more now that we're cornered." Then she drew him back in, resting her helmet against his plastron, and said, "But I'm glad you're here, anyway." Releasing him, she added wryly, "We do some of our best work when we're cornered."
"That we do," he agreed. He fumbled at his equipment belt in the dark for a second, then powered up a repulsorlift lumisphere in one hand and released it. It floated to the ceiling before coming to full power, illuminating the room with a harsh white light like a battlefield flare. Then, after satisfying himself that the room was empty apart from the two of them, he added,
"So. What's the plan?"
"The uppermost level of this tower is the Great Observatory where my ancestors studied the anomalous behavior of Dholen," Tali told him. "We need to get up there, see how much of the equipment is still working, and then... wait for sunrise. I need to know why the star seems suddenly to be accelerating in its decay toward red giant stage. Dholen was always unstable, but its instability was natural before. Now... " She shook her head. "Something's causing it. I'm here to find out what."
Gryphon nodded. "Sounds good," he said, recalling the lumisphere and switching on a shoulder lamp built into his IPO N7 Frame instead. "Lead on."
Tali had a schematic of the building on her omni-tool. She copied it to Gryphon's in case they got separated, then worked out a route from the public level they were on now—"This building was a showpiece once, or so I've read," she explained—up to what had been the scientific holy of holies.
As they climbed, Tali asked, "How did you know I was here?"
"I asked the Admiralty," Gryphon replied.
She looked back at him, her visor glinting in the beam of his shoulder lamp. "And they told you?"
"I asked very nicely," he said innocently.
"Uh... huh," Tali replied skeptically, resuming her climb.
"And then Vision asked their computer," Gryphon added after a moment's pause.
"That sounds more plausible," Tali said. "How did you know I'd run into trouble? Or were you just assuming that I would because it's me?"
He chuckled. "Well, that's why I wore armor, that and this system being forbidden territory and all. But no, actually, it's just a coincidence that I showed up just in time to pretend you needed rescuing. I was looking for you because I want your help with something."
They reached the landing at the top of this particular stairwell; Tali turned to face him again, her head tilted quizzically. "Something that couldn't wait until I returned from my top-secret Admiralty mission?"
He nodded. "Something that couldn't wait any longer than it absolutely had to."
"Well, it's going to have to wait a little longer, because I'm right in the middle of something," she told him. "Though once I'm finished you may have plenty of time. When you came down here, did you have a plan for getting out?"
Gryphon smiled. "I always have a plan for getting out," he said. He rezzed up his omni-tool and checked the chron. "Sun must be just about up by now. C'mon," he added, becoming brisk. "Let's get your job done so I can ask you my question."
Tali nodded. "Right." She consulted the floorplan on her omni-tool again. "The next room was some kind of auditorium for scientific presentations. What used to be the secure stairs to the observatory itself should be on the other side—backstage, as it were." She leveled the tool at the door's ancient electronic lock; it bleated as if in protest at having its long sleep interrupted, then disengaged, and the door opened.
The room beyond may indeed have been an auditorium once, but now, Tali and Gryphon saw as they entered, it had become something quite different. The seats had been removed from the floor that sloped down toward the stage, and the stage itself was covered in strange bundles of cables and alien shapes they recognized as geth terminals. In the middle, at the room's obvious focal point, was a brilliant white light so intense that its glare obscured what stood beneath it.
"... Keelah," Tali murmured. "I've seen things like this before. In the WDF archives on the Geth Incursion of 2280. They build these in places they've overrun. No one's really sure what they're for, but... "
"It feels like a church," Gryphon said.
"Yes. Exactly. A temple to... whatever digital gods the geth revere." She shook her head. "There's so much we don't understand about them. But... this one is different." She moved closer, adjusting the polarization of her visor, and drew back in surprise. "Benjamin, can you see this? This is... this is wrong."
Gryphon moved up alongside her, trying to shade his eyes from the worst of the glare; then, with an annoyed grunt, he drew his sidearm and shot out the light, leaving the room illuminated only by the glowstrips by the doors. Tali glanced at him in a did-you-have-to? kind of way, then returned her attention to the object.
In the holos she'd seen before of these geth temples or whatever they were, the object in the center was a roughly pyramidal structure of the same strange cybernetic... stuff as their terminals and other constructions, surmounted by a similarly harsh light source. This one, though, was some kind of idol, an intricately machined metallic figure in a rough humanoid shape. It had what looked like skeletal bat wings, horns, and what appeared to be a beard, yet was unmistakably supposed to represent a being that was itself mechanical. It slouched arrogantly in the pose of a king on a throne, its face set in a malevolent glower, and its long, taloned fingers were curled over a pair of metallic spheres.
"Oh, wh—nonono," Gryphon murmured in disbelief. "Come on. What?"
"This is nothing like any geth I've ever seen," Tali said. "Look at the legs, the hands. It's humanoid."
"It's Unicron," said Gryphon.
Tali turned, noticed for the first time the blank look of utter shock on his face. "Who? Are you all right?"
"Unicron the Destroyer," Gryphon replied, not looking at her, his attention still riveted on the effigy. "Reaper of Worlds. Bringer of Oblivion. The All-Consuming. The Transformers' dark god of uncreation and despair. But he's dead. I saw him die."
"The Transformers have gods?" Tali asked, puzzled, but Gryphon wasn't listening; he'd already started making for the back of the room at full speed.
"Come on," he called back over his shoulder. "We have to get to the observatory."
"Why are the geth worshipping a dead Cybertronian god?" Tali wanted to know as she followed him past the idol to the rear stairs.
"I don't know," Gryphon told her. "I have a suspicion, but by all that's holy I hope I'm wrong."
They reached the observatory and found most of its instruments still functioning. In fact, there were signs that many of them had been used recently, though if the geth had been up here as well as down below, they were long gone now.
Since almost everything was powered up, it didn't take the two long to collect the readings Tali needed; analysis would have to wait. Then Gryphon worked out how to operate the high-resolution visual scanner and took a good hard look at the system's innermost planet.
Gotha was a sun-blasted rock, like Mercury back home, but that wasn't important to Gryphon. What was important to him was the significant metallic anomaly sharing its orbit around Dholen—and now, as it resolved in the observatory's massive central holotank, he felt his heart sink within him at the sight of it.
"That looks like a free-flight shipyard," Tali observed, then checked the scale reference and added in a tone of astonishment, "but it's gigantic. You could build a planet in a construction frame that big."
"A planet... or a god," Gryphon said softly, his voice full of dread.
"What do you mean?"
"You saw that icon of Unicron downstairs. Remember those spheres in his hands?" he asked. Tali nodded. "Those are meant to be moons," he told her. "Unicron is—was—a living machine the size of a planet. He lurked in the dark space beyond the Far Rim for millions of years. Perhaps once an epoch he would appear somewhere in the inner galaxy, destroying worlds and consuming them, and then disappear into the dark again. In 2005 he attacked Cybertron and was destroyed... barely."
"How do you know that?" she wondered.
Gryphon's eyes were haunted, the way they had sometimes been when she had known him during his century-long exile, by a memory that was ancient and yet still vivid and painful. For a long moment, he didn't respond; then he said quietly,
"I was there."
Then he concentrated on his Lens: Gin. I need an exit.
You got it, Chief, a woman's "voice" replied. We're coming in hot, ETA three minutes.
Gryphon turned to Tali. "Let's get to the roof."IPS Normandy (SR2)
Outbound from Dholen system
Gryphon pulled off his Frame's helmet and crossed the Normandy's docking bay at such a brisk pace that Captain Virginia Shepard and Tali almost had to trot to keep up with him. Neither asked him any questions; they could see he was busy.
Instead, Shepard introduced herself quietly to Tali and said, "Your ship is safe, she's en route back to Scandia for repairs. You've got a dedicated crew there—they hung in until they absolutely couldn't stay in the system any longer, but the geth pickets ultimately chased them off. They got pretty banged up, but they're OK."
"Thank you," Tali told her. "I'm very glad to hear that. When it's safe for us to transmit, I'll need to get in touch with them and relay my report to the Admiralty."
Striding along beside them, his pace fast but mechanical, Gryphon was engrossed in another Lens communication.
... but it's empty. Whatever they were building isn't here now. We haven't had a chance to analyze any of the in-depth data we've gathered... but I have a real bad feeling.
The party at the other end of the link considered in silence for a moment, then replied, This is very disturbing news... particularly in light of some things that have happened here over the past few days. If you hadn't called me, I would have been reaching out to you before too much longer. I think it would be best if you came to Cybertron as soon as you can, old friend.
I'm already on my way, Prime. Gryphon out.
He came back from autopilot in the elevator, returning from wherever he'd gone inside himself, and turned to Shepard.
"I have to get to Cybertron," he said.
She didn't ask what for. She'd known him much too long for that. Instead, she led them into the CIC, up onto the commander's platform abaft the holographic starchart, keyed the intercom, and said, "Joker. Set course for Cybertron. Fast as she'll go."
"Aye aye, Captain," Joker replied, his voice serious—he'd picked up on the urgency in his captain's, and it tamped down the delight he always felt at those last four words. "From this far out, even the Normandy'll need at least 12 hours to get there," he added, sounding faintly apologetic.
"Very well," she replied, and clicked off. "He'll get us there in 10 or kill himself trying," she added to Gryphon with a wry half-smile.
Gryphon nodded. "Good enough. Have you got someplace I can lie down for a little while?"
"Sure, use my quarters. Back to the elevator, all the way up—well, you know where it is, you designed the ship," she said. "Get some sleep, I'll com you when we get there if you're not down by then."
He nodded. "Thanks."
Not knowing quite what else to do, Tali went with him; they went up one more level and were deposited in a small "attic" deck at the very top of the pressure hull, one just large enough for the lift, a private fresher, and a comfortable office-cum-stateroom for the commanding officer. She followed him down the steps from the office and stood next to him for a moment, admiring Captain Shepard's aquarium of exotic alien fish.
"What did you want my help with?" she wondered.
Gryphon blinked, turning to her as if he'd just realized she was there. "Oh. Uh..." He put the helmet down on the desk next to Shepard's bunk; dismantled the Frame and folded it up into storage mode just to buy himself a little time; then put his hands in the pockets of the blue Tac Div jumpsuit he wore underneath it and turned back to Tali, who stood watching him thoughtfully.
"If I'm a little out of sorts right now," he explained, "it's because what we just stumbled into down on Haestrom ties into what I came looking for you about—and I would never have expected that. It probably means the situation is even worse than I thought, and that... that throws me a little."
Tali nodded, but remained silent, letting him work it out in his head. After a few moments, he went on,
"Something's brewing on Cybertron. Something big. All the Autobot expats I know of have either returned there already, or are planning to go as soon as they can. They say it's as if something's calling them home. The Decepticons are apparently feeling it to; they came out of hiding and invaded, then abandoned their invasion in favor of peaceful coexistence after a... command change."
The ghosts of Tali's eyes widened behind her smoked visor. "I would never have expected the phrases 'the Decepticons' and 'peaceful coexistence' in the same sentence. What new commander would order that?"
"I know. And as if that wasn't strange enough, now we're getting reports of weird shit happening that doesn't seem to be related to the Decepticons at all. It's as if..." Gryphon groped for words. "... dark forces are all converging on Cybertron. In particular—and this is why I came looking for you, specifically—the geth were sighted there yesterday."
"It's true. They blacked out a whole sector while the Autobots were distracted monitoring the Decepticons' activities, and abducted a whole slew of civilians before a special squad put the kibosh on whatever they were trying to do."
"How reliable is the ID?" asked Tali. "There are a lot of synthetics out there, and sometimes people are quick to assume."
"Sylvie Daniels was on the squad that stopped them. Blaster and Soundwave both confirm her analysis. In the real world and online, the signature is unmistakable. So you can imagine my shock when I came here to consult with you about geth activity on Cybertron... and found the geth possibly rebuilding a dead Cybertronian god."
Tali nodded. "Yes... yes I can. Because I'm feeling it myself. What in the universe is going on?"
"That's what I need you to help me find out," Gryphon told her. "If Prime hadn't asked me to come to Cybertron, I'd be going anyway, and after what I just saw, I'm more convinced than ever that I need you with me."
Tali gazed at him for a few moments in silence.
Then she said with a slight smirk in her voice: "I'm in. Did you even need to ask?"
Gryphon smiled. "It's only polite." Then, yawning, he added, "In the meantime, can I interest you in a nap?"
Tali gave a snort of laughter. "From any other man," she said, "that would be the cheesiest possible line."
"Yup," he agreed cheerfully, shutting off the lights. "Sure would."
"Holiday in the Sun"—a Cybertron Reloaded/New Frontier Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with the advice and consent of Philip J. Moyer
revised per a suggestion by Peter Eng
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