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“Why are we allowing Dis to run rampant?”

I twitched at the comm message, relayed back to Rannoch through a randomized series of buoys. Wanderer’s IF signature was woven with the little bit of text, complex encoding meaning any penetration without proper encryption keys meant the message would collapse into malware. Still, it was a risk, and one that would’ve made me grit my teeth if I still had them. And I absolutely hated gritting my teeth.

It was the work of ticks to weave a message, encoded defenses cocooning a ‘come home at your convenience’ message and send it along to the origin address attached. If Wanderer was so determined to speak with me that he’d do something so reckless as to send it through unprotected channels, I’d prefer it if he was in-system, minimize the risk of being caught. I could even fabricate a reason for his return, an official missive from his employers about a flaw in the detection equipment his ship had been issued.

I was thus distinctly irritated when, instead of receiving a confirmation in reply, I instead got a single image of a ship at a distance, with ‘STG Free Candy’ edited in on the side in bright green lettering.

I admit, I’d been casting metaphorical nervous glances in Dis’ direction. The contents of the couriers I’d shared with Wanderer when I could, disguising them in mountains of paperwork. I’d expressed my own concern, mixed with intent to wait and watch, and thought that would be the end of it. Apparently not, as Wanderer seemed dissatisfied with my lack of action far as Dis went. Which meant that either they were checking my reasoning for not doing so, or they’d seen something that I hadn’t that they didn’t want to relay through easily accessible, low-security channels.

With an electronic hiss of displeasure, I did a quick swipe through the server storing the plans for the new generation of Geth, ensuring no one was looking as I corrected some errors and gave little hints towards the direction I wanted it to go. It gave me something to focus on to clear my mind for a handful of ticks.

The fact of the matter was that I couldn’t intervene. Any sort of movement of mine against Dis would be noticeable, and I wasn’t about to hand hints to watching parties like that. Dis was acting stranger and stranger while sharing a system with the corpse of an eldritch AI created from the unwilling fusion of millions of individuals, and that wasn’t even mentioning their highly concerning and potentially immoral work with Varren, but I couldn’t justify the extreme risk of direct intervention. Not yet.

Still, that didn’t mean that I didn’t have four Heavy Envoy class vessels occupying a hidden hangar in a hollowed out asteroid, ready to be filled with a copy the moment I thought Dis had crossed that final line, whatever that might be in the end. There was a difference between not intervening when the risks outweigh the benefits, and using the risks to justify a lack of preparation, and I wasn’t about to fall into the trap of the latter- especially not when a Reaper corpse was involved.

But there was something else that was disturbing, something that had been entirely unexpected and had come out of Dis’ labs. The difference between my own neural network and that of those of the galaxy’s species was both interesting and slightly worrying, especially considering how I had no idea whether it coincidental, or… I don’t know. And that was the thing that really stuck in my metaphorical craw, driving me crazy, something I chewed again and again without it ever getting softer or giving me answers, because I just didn’t have the information to guess why that was. Frankly, the differences very well could be explained by whatever process had made me what I was- not that I wanted to think about it like that, in such an unsettling way, but I had to consider all the options.

Fact was, no matter what I had or what I thought, I would need brain scans from a large human sample size in order to determine what the difference there was and whether or not it actually mattered. Or whether there was a difference at all, really: it could be that humans were just some strange evolutionary outlier when compared to the rest of the galaxy, and it just wasn’t discussed in the games like a million other things. And, what do you know, the Earth group was already long gone, and I wouldn’t be hearing back from them until they sent a VI courier ship back to Citadel space.

If I had teeth, I’d grit them, but as it was, I pushed it aside, though reluctantly. There were better things to be doing.

I observed the little box, platform standing stock still in the center of the corridor it was tucked in. I’d hesitated a lot on this point, delayed and delayed, but could I justify delaying again? I reached for the collar of a shirt that I wasn’t wearing, then put the platform’s hand back down. In the end, I didn’t think my delays had real reason behind them- just anxiety, a worry that this wasn’t going to go down like I wanted, that I’d have my hand forced into doing something… drastic. Something I’d regret in the end. But now I had my excuse for if things did go wrong, misleading implications that gave false assumptions, keeping me safe. I couldn’t excuse waiting anymore.

With an electronic sigh, echoed slightly in the empty maintenance corridor, I walked the unit off towards its responsibilities. Somewhere else on Rannoch, a genetics lab was finishing its work, and there was no point to staying here any longer than I had to.


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Holist grimaced as he slipped into the maintenance passageway. He steadied himself on jutting pipework, sweeping the interior with his eyes, not truly expecting anything to be there, to be different, but… still, a small sigh of relief always escaped him when he found it as he expected. Empty, ignored, out of the way- the reasons he’d selected this place to begin with.

A single button press was enough to eject the drive chip from its slot and into his hand, a deft movement filling the slot with a fresh one in nearly the same moment. The action was so practiced that he could do it in his sleep; he had, in fact, woken up once from dreaming about doing it, and found his hands performing the motions. He tucked the full drive into his pocket and left a different way than the one he’d entered, walking down the corridor to its terminus and stepping through a basic door with hazard markings.

Moving through the building itself was something he did almost on autopilot, and the rare greeting or exchange of pleasantries with his coworkers was no different. He barely knew any of the people that worked with him, he was just so tired these days, so worried about… anyway. He hadn’t been here long when the triple-S occurred, and the surveillance, the upkeep of it, was wearing on him. Consuming his time, his attention, to the point that some part of him worried that he was going too far and doing too much, spending so much time on something like this. Hadn’t… he’d had a therapist, a number of years ago, try to help him curb this sort of obsession. He’d thought he had it handled, satisfied with only a drive a month, a VI to sort through it all. Now, though, it was eating his life.

It was eating him.

Holist shivered in that moment of clarity, paused in the middle of a hall with office doors lining the walls- empty, most of them, lights out and holo computers off in the absence of their users. After hours, few stuck around. It was a surreal moment, an empty corridor with few lights, and even those that did were just occupied by janitorial Geth, keeping the lights on more to signal that they were there than anything else. In that moment, he felt a sense of loneliness, a feeling of knowing without the ability to share it. More than that, he felt like something was right at his fingertips, a word that he didn’t know but could almost say, sitting at the tip of his tongue. He felt his world perched on an edge.

Then the moment passed, and he swallowed, running his hand nervously over the bulge in his jacket pocket that was the drive. He glanced into one of the offices, then started when he saw the Geth within staring at him, motionless and still. It stared as he made eye contact with its single optic, the walls feeling too close, like the hall had shrunk and stretched. He couldn’t look away, frozen to the spot as the Geth leaned closer to the glass between them, putting a single one of its robotic hands against the surface, and he heard a sound right at the edge of his hearing- like it was whispering something…

“Holist!”

He nearly jumped a meter, turning with a jerk to see a concerned-looking Quarian in formal wear examining him, omnitool shutting off as they put it to their side.

“You alright? You, uh… look like you’ve seen a spirit. What’s got you skittering like that?”

“Ah, uh…” he swallowed again, sticking his hands in his jacket pockets to hide the shaking. “Nothing, was just… thinking about a software problem. You, eh, scared me pretty bad.” He let out a weak laugh, an attempt to seal the act.

They- who were they? Holist felt like he recognized them, but he… he didn’t remember their name. They examined him closely, close enough that Holist felt uncomfortable, before seeming to decide that he passed muster. They drew away, shaking their head slightly.

“Just take care of yourself. You’re even more tired than usual, lately.”

“I’ll… try.” Holist said in reply. They nodded to him, then left, bringing their omnitool back up and examining its display.

He waited for the other Quarian to turn the corner. The moment they were out of sight, he turned his head back to the janitorial Geth that had been staring at him… only to find it cleaning the glass with a cloth and spray bottle, focused on its work. He shivered, shaking his head to clear it; he was seeing things, now. He lingered there for a minute, getting his heart rate back under control, then continued on his way down the hall.

He didn’t turn his head again, and thus didn’t notice when the Geth platform’s head turned to follow him.


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As the Quarian passed multiple janitorial platforms, I used them to gather biometric data and collect facial data, comparing them to the genetic material I’d sequenced. He’d acted paranoid, had nearly jumped out of his skin multiple times, he was in the same building as the surveillance box… sensors, the weak package that came standard with Geth platforms, even indicated that there was something that greatly resembled the chips the box used in one of his pockets. Finally, the fact that his biometrics were an 87% match to the genetic material, with a 13% margin of error without actual samples, was enough to cinch it for me: this was my mysterious watcher.

Now that I’d found him, I felt hesitant. I’d expected someone… there wasn’t a nice way to think it, but I’d anticipated someone more… stable. In retrospect, considering that I’d been looking for someone who clearly had airgapped equipment and was apparently constantly vigilant for AI activity, perhaps I’d been more than a little unrealistic in my expectations. However, even toning them down, I don’t think I’d have precisely expected what I’d gotten here. The Quarian (Holist Nexxi, VI engineer first class, data mined from company records) was paranoid and anxious- incredibly so, in fact. So much that just making accidental eye contact with one of the janitorial platforms through a window it’d been cleaning was enough to make his pupils dilate in an obvious fight-or-flight reaction.

I kept track of Holist as he moved through the buildings, cameras and the various senses of Geth platforms allowing me to follow him, even the moments that he very specifically avoided the line of sight of cameras. A shadow here, a footstep there, a glimpse of him or any other tiny indicator of his passing was enough to tell me where he was and where he was going. I didn’t need to, there were only so many exits to the building and I was watching all of them, but I felt… I was… concerned, I suppose. I almost felt like he was a kindred spirit of a type, afraid of those bigger forces in the world that might come down and wash him away in the work of but a few moments, never to have existed. His attempts to avoid the attention of the hypothetical AI he was attempting to track reminded me of my own dodging of the Reapers, and as he made his way to one of the exits, I mused to myself about whether he wondered about the effectiveness of his efforts. If, despite everything, he’d still failed to avoid notice.

Because, well… he hadn’t. I’d noticed him despite whatever efforts he’d taken in his attempts to avoid that, and I could have tracked him down so much earlier if I hadn’t given it a relatively low priority, if I hadn’t kept avoiding the issue with excuses like ‘too few free platforms’. If I’d truly wanted to, I could have tasked a single platform to hide where he had hidden his box, and either track him all the way home or… eliminate him on the spot. And that, all of that, every bit of it, called to mind my own fears. What if, at some unknown point, I’d made an error? I wasn’t experienced in espionage; no training and not much more than some spy novels behind me meant that I was relying on Indy ploys. It was like seeing my reflection in miniature, a storm in a box that so resembled the one that raged in my own mind, behind it all.

Storm in a box. Appropriate. Far too appropriate.

It made me wonder if, somehow, the Reapers were watching me even now, the Catalyst judging whether to squish me underfoot like an ant through proxies and cat’s-paws. Who watches the watchers, but giraffes all the way down- or, at least, for layers until the Catalyst, who watches all. A huge cosmic game, played out again and again over millennia, and when I thought about it, I felt like I was Holist Nexxi, a single Quarian on a planet of billions trying to affect whatever tiny change I could with what power I had. Standing against the marching tide that was millions of years, bearing down on me like a tidal wave that swallowed the world, again and again.

He left the building, and platforms watched him from the buildings, the sidewalks, the rooftops. Cameras kept him at the edge of their views if they could move, but never in his line of sight. And I wondered if the Catalyst was doing this to me, stringing me along while observing my every move, always just outside my awareness. From shadows and behind my back. This wasn’t the first time I’d had this line of thought, but now I allowed it to roam, allowed that tense cable of connection between myself and this being who didn’t even know I existed to remain. It was the best and worst thing I’d felt in… in a long time.

He swept his gaze over the street around him, and I froze the platform watching him in place. The camera was pointed at him through the latticework of a fence surrounding a rooftop, and with no lights, the platform it belonged to was invisible to him. He stared at the street behind him, seeming nervous, then finally turned back. Footsteps up a series of worn concrete steps to a building that sat mostly dark, an opening of the door, and he was inside.

The building didn’t have internal security cameras. The only ones I could access were those attached to platforms within the building, and the occasional resident-planted camera. Still, auditory sensors triangulated where he was between an array of microphones across the building, and a floorplan revealed that, when a door opened, closed and then locked, it was the fourth door on the left side of the hall on the third floor. I returned most of the platforms I’d picked up along the way to where they’d come from, but the one on the roof across the street from Holist’s building remained.
 
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Cammy Deer

  • Man in the Van with a Plan

Bio: Writer of many fics, reader of many more.

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