"While the mental conditioning is a success, it was naive of Dr. Suchong to assume that the gatherers would just do their rounds like robots indefinatly. Several times I've seen the children participate in actions that don't correspond to their duties in the streets. Mostly it was simply drawing pictures on the floors and walls, other times they were interacting with each other and other children, and once I saw a Little Sister play for almost an hour with a slot machine in Fort Frolic. They play games, they take dares, they ask questions. This is more prevalent with the older gatherers, so I theorize that as time passes, certain aspects of the conditioning wear off. This is starting to compromising their work in the field. I recommend we consider reinforcing the conditioning weekly for each of the Sisters."
-Dr. Edward Grimes
Once Gordon arrived at Rapture Central Control, he defused the bomb so quickly and easily it was almost anticlimactic. Then again, nobody was going to complain about a lacklustre finale after what had been threatened.
Especially not Sofia. The woman rubbed her glasses clean and took a deep breath as she exited her office. The long elevator ride gave her time to think. From what she had seen on the security cameras, she had more important things to deal with.
First off was Gordon's...possession? Sofia wasn't sure what to call it, but she had seen that strange creature exit his body like something out of a horror film. This 'Veran' was a security breach she hadn't saw coming. It was definately Veran/Gordon who planted the bomb and the box in Arbiter's room, that much was clear. How badly had they been compromised? There hadn't been any unusual radio messages detected, or submersibles leaving at odd times...everything was monitored. But then, wasn't the attacker in Las Venturas a teleporter?
Second was the pair who had arrived to help. The Little Sister and the Big Daddy. Sofia had honestly hoped that all of those children had been taken out of the city. Now this girl had shown up with her protector. 'Masha'. Sofia recalled that name from an audio diary where a mother had pleaded with Andrew Ryan to have her daughter back. This Masha couldn't be the same child, but she was still a little girl Lamb had kidnapped and brainwashed for her 'utopia'. Another one of her sins staring her in the face.
Sofia braced herself as she stepped out of the elevator into the lobby of Mercury Suites.
Waiting for her was Arbiter, Link, Gordon and Mario. All of them were staring at Masha and her 'Daddy'. Masha herself was having a spirited – if somewhat one-sided – conversation with Link, who nodded more often than he said anything. The hulking behemoth was just standing there, ignoring any stares or conversations around him. Sofia glanced up to see Lara and Snake watching the proceedings from above.
Arbiter saw Sofia's arrival and walked up to her. He gestured to the little girl and the huge man. "What are these?" he asked, his voice betraying his weariness.
Sofia took a deep breath. "A Little Sister and a Big Daddy. The girl was originally created to help manufacture the genetic compound ADAM, and the Big Daddy was made to protect her. The model's name is 'Rumbler'..."
Sofia would've elaborated, but that explanation was enough for Arbiter. "How should I handle this?"
"The girl...Masha, she's the only one who will respond to interaction. The Protector will only act if he thinks he or the girl is threatened. From what I've seen, Masha is able to control her Big Daddy and dictate who or what he attacks. Fortunately, it seems the conditioning that makes her see any stranger as a threat has worn off. Still, I would advise you NOT to appear threatening."
Arbiter glanced at the girl's 'chat' with Link. It seemed they knew each other. Arbiter would have to ask about that later.
"I'm not used to dealing with children." Before Sofia could respond, Arbiter glanced down sharply at her. "Neither are you."
Sofia would've objected, but thought better of it.
After a brief silence, the two leaders approached Masha and the Rumbler. The girl was in the middle of describing the happy kitty to Link's listening ears when they both noticed Arbiter and Sofia. Masha smiled and fired off a snappy salute. "Hiya, Mister Sir!"
Arbiter blinked. Mister Sir? Odd title. Still, at least it showed Masha regarded him as an authority figure. That was good.
"Masha, is it?" Arbiter's attempt at sounding calm and gentle was pretty bad, but Masha didn't seem to mind.
"Uh-huh! Masha Lutz! It's the name I got when I killed my old self."
"What?!" Arbiter gasped and Sofia groaned.
Masha innocently pointed to Sofia and answered. "She told me to do it."
Link and Arbiter both looked at Sofia oddly. The ruler of Rapture had her face buried in her hand. The confused Sangheili turned back to the little girl. "I do not understand..."
From her perch on the Big Daddy's shoulder, Masha was able to reach out and grab Sofia Lamb's glasses. Donning them and putting on her best serious impression (which still looked like a crooked smile) Masha deepened her voice and gestured comically.
"'All people are bad from birth, and so everybody has to kill their selves and become anew with a new family! Remember, everybody's evil except me, so listen to me and kill yourselves and be reborn!'" Masha's cheery smile promptly returned. "I decided to be reborn as Masha Lutz."
It was Arbiter's turn to bury his face in his hands. Sofia noticed and asked ruefully. "Are you exasperated, or hiding a smile?"
Arbiter didn't answer. Instead he took a deep breath and continued his inquiries. "How long have you been watching us?"
"Since the purple whale first arrived. I was curious." Masha shrugged. "I was wondering what all those people were doing with the city. Especially that funny man with the red hat. Everyone looked nice enough, so I decided to help some."
"The gifts." Sofia remarked.
Masha nodded with the vigor of a child. "Yep. The guitar, the guns, the crossbow. Did you like them?"
"You stole from the armory and Gordon's Lab to build them." Arbiter noted.
Masha raised her hands defensively. "I put it all back when I was done! I give everything back I take!" There was a pause, and Masha remembered she was still wearing Sofia's glasses. They were quickly returned. "See?"
Sofia replaced her spectacles and smiled slightly. "Yes, I see. And we did like the gifts. But you shouldn't have stolen from us to build them."
Masha's smile faded, and her head hung down limply. "...Oh."
"It's alright, Masha." Sofia continued the inquiry herself. "I must ask though...how did you build them?"
Masha quickly perked back up. Nothing seemed to bring this girl down for long. "You know those 'power to the people' things? And those U-Invents that stopped working awhile ago? Well, I put two of 'em together and added some of my own ideas. I showed them to Mr. Woof!" she pointed to Link.
Arbiter glanced down at the youth with a rather stern expression. Link almost spoke, but his commander dismissed him. "We will discuss this later."
An idea came to Sofia. "Can you make more of those gifts, Masha?"
The girl's smile grew even wider. "You mean the guns? Yeah, I can do that! I just need more parts."
"Well, we can give you the parts and you can help improve our tools. We just need to know where you are." Arbiter turned to look at Sofia as she offered Masha a job.
Masha hopped up and down excitedly on the Rumbler's shoulder. "That'd be super! I'd love to!"
"One last question, Masha. When did you think to go to Rapture Central Control?"
"Mr. Kitty told me."
Everyone blinked. "Mr. Kitty?"
"Yeah, he lives here. I think he does, anyway. I see him around. Anyway, he told me I should go to the red room with the big tower today. He said it was important."
Arbiter's expression was very troubled. "What does this...Mister Kitty look like?"
"Like a kitty. He's grey and really thin, and has a big earring on his ear. Oh, and he smiles like this." Masha put her fingers into the corners of her mouth and pulled upward, giving her an odd grimace not unlike a crescent moon.
Arbiter sighed. "Thank you Masha. That will be all. I'm putting you and your 'daddy' under surveillance. I don't want you out of our sight."
Masha considered for a moment, then shrugged. "Ok."
"Stay for a minute. I need to discuss some matters with Sofia and Link." Arbiter motioned both of them aside. The knight from Hyrule and the ruler of Rapture followed him to another corner of the room. Once they were out of Masha's hearing range, Arbiter spoke again.
"She is not well in the head." He stated simply.
"I know." Sofia sighed. "I'll contact someone who can help with that. I'll need Douglas' help to find her..."
"Very well. Now, Link." He turned to the youth with a stern expression. "You have clearly met this child before. I take it has something to do with your vanishing act several weeks ago?"
Link nodded slowly.
Arbiter sighed quietly. "I realize speaking is not a favourite activity of yours, but I need a full explanation. I am your commander and the acting head of this League. I don't want any secrets within this city, especially not now. Tell me everything."
The quiet knight hesitated a moment, but eventually he took a deep breath and told Arbiter and Sofia everything. The detour in the city, the wolf, the voice, the rabbit chase, his encounter with Masha. Arbiter nearly scoffed when he described his transformation, but a look from Sofia and the fact that this was the operative from Hyrule stopped him. He detailed Masha's hideout in Ryan Amusements and her gathering in the Farmer's Market, the fight with the Rumbler and the meeting with the cat. Sofia's eyebrows raised as he described the smiling, teleporting 'Mr. Kitty'; she made a note to have that apartment investigated thoroughly.
Once Link had finished the story, Arbiter and Sofia glanced at each other. It occurred to both of them why he hadn't spoken before – they wouldn't have believed him. Not until after some of the things they had seen. Arbiter took a deep breath and spoke again.
"Very well. From now on, you inform me of anything odd in this city. It does not matter how 'unbelievable' it is. Am I clear?"
Link nodded. Arbiter stared at the youth for a moment, waiting. Eventually the Hylian operative got the hint. "Yes, sir."
"Very good. Masha seems to trust you, so I ask that you keep an eye on her. Keep your commlink on and report to me anything of note."
"Dismissed." Arbiter waved Link away, and the youth quickly ran to Masha and the Rumbler. The two league leaders watched as Link conversed with the girl, who excitedly described the process of fixing a machine guns boo-boos and how she'll show him how to do it.
With that out of the way, Sofia turned to Gordon. "Now, Dr. Freeman. There is the matter of your..." Sofia wasn't sure what to call it. "...possession. What is the last thing you recall?"
Gordon took a pencil and started writing on a handy clipboard. In a second, he showed the writing to his leaders. Soldier returning from Hyrule Campaign entered my lab.
"The Hyrule campaign. Of course." Arbiter sighed.
Sofia shrugged and continued the inquiry. "I've looked over your notes and reports. This 'Veran' was very good at imitating you, I have to say. The only thing that stuck out to me was that she seemed to deliberatly avoid reporting on the Hatter mecha."
"She was likely busy with the bomb and the package." Arbiter noted.
"True, but the avoidance of the matter intrigues me. Recent events have demonstrated that there is an alliance working against us." Sofia motioned to Arbiter. "You reported that Dimentio described a 'new coalition', and that he was working with Robotnik. That computer is our only link to this threat. I want you to investigate the mainframe immediatly."
Gordon nodded. Arbiter glanced around for a second. "We'll need a voice...where is that chronicler?"
"She'll arrive shortly." Sofia answered.
Sure enough, Casey slowly stumbled into the foyer of Mercury Suites, Aven behind her. The girl had changed into a t-shirt and jeans, and had the expression of someone who had been roused out of bed far too early. Aven seemed just as displeased as she was, and the two grumbled between each other.
"This had better be good..." Aven growled, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Hear friggin' hear. After Venturas, you'd think we could catch a break. If I have to deal with more dead kids – "
"Hiya!" Masha's voice rang out, jolting both of them out of their half-asleep stupor. They whirled around to see the little girl waving from the shoulder of a huge man in a diving suit.
Casey's eyes went wide, and Aven's jaw dropped. "What the..."
"Hi there, Mr. Grumbles! Did you like the new gun?"
Aven blinked. "YOU?! You're the burglar? You are the one who built that carbine?" He asked incredulously, pointing at the tiny child in disbelief.
"Yep! Did you like it?"
Aven didn't move for a second, not sure how to react to this new development. He glanced at his commander, who simply motioned for him to stand down. Eventually he turned back towards the girl who apparently named him 'Mr. Grumbles'. All he could say was "Yes."
"Goody! I knew you would. Okay, C'mon daddy! I wanna show you my place!" Masha hopped off the Rumbler's shoulder and began pulling the huge man by the hand. After a nod from Sofia, Link followed them out of the building. Casey and Aven watched them go with wide, confused eyes.
"Link? What's going on?" Casey asked.
"I'll explain later." Link sighed as he walked out of Mercury Suites.
Casey and Aven glanced at each other. "What just happened?" Aven demanded.
All Casey could do was shrug. The two walked to their commanders, a bit more awake now.
"Chronicler, sorry to wake you. I need you to record Gordon's findings again."
The chronicler groaned quietly. "Boss, couldn't this wait until morning?"
Arbiter checked the time on his headset. "It is morning. Fairly late in the morning, actually."
"Look, just cause YOU never sleep –" Aven nudged her in the back to shut her up, almost knocking her over. She rubbed her back and sighed. "So, what is it about?"
"The Hatter mecha's computer data. Gordon is going to process it and..."
Casey's eyes went wide. "No. No no no. I'm not going near that thing. No."
Arbiter blinked. "Why not?"
"Why no-?! That thing nearly killed me! And what it did to the kids?! Hell no! I'm sorry boss, but I'm not going within 100 feet of that thing."
"I will do it, then." Aven volunteered.
Casey was caught off guard by the Sangheili's offer, cleaning out her ears to make sure she heard right. Arbiter was a little confused by this turn of events as well. "You're certain? This is not part of your assigned duties..."
Aven folded his arms. "How difficult can it be?"
Sofia didn't question that, and neither did Arbiter. "Very well. Follow Gordon to his lab. Casey will explain the details. Dismissed." A wave from Sofia directed Gordon to leave, with Casey and Aven close behind.
"Aven?" Casey remarked.
"Do not speak of it."
"Ok. Gordon likes to make these notes on the blackboard, but he erases them when he finds something new. Just keep the tape going and recite what he writes down while it's on. If there's something important, he'll point it out to you. Don't worry too much about the math formulas, I don't think the bosses get those either. Oh, and stay outta his way. The guy's pretty cranky when he's working."
A few minutes later, Aven was watching Gordon type rapidly on a computer. How very thrilling.
Hatter's decapitated head sat on the table next to Gordon's computer. With the huge top hat removed, a huge computer was visible. The design was surprisingly sophisticated considering the outmoded materials. Several processers had apparently been welded to each other, and Aven could see a few gears turning inside the mechanism. Why would they need gears in a computer? Whatever the case, there was still program code in this mecha that could be analyzed. Several cords and wires connected the scientist's computer to the machine's head. Gordon just had to decrypt it.
Despite his boredom, Aven had to admit he understood why Casey had refused to go near this thing. Hatter's dead eyes never closed, the destroyed mecha staring at Aven as if it knew the soldier was disgusted. Why 'Robotnik' would design a machine like this confused Aven to no end. Why give an unfeeling machine the appearance of something almost human?
There was also the matter of what this...thing had done. Not only what Hatter itself had done, but what it had made the operatives do. Aven remembered all the enjoyment and release of fighting in war had evaporated when he had learned what was inside those automatons. It must have been worse for Casey...the girl had her first taste of war forever marred by this machine's acts.
Aven tore his eyes away from the Hatter's head, clearing his thoughts before his rage smashed the only link they had to this threat.
From the way Gordon was typing and the unreadable text on the computer, it would be some time before he found something Aven could record. With that in mind, Aven decided to record something on his mind. Taking another audio diary out, the sangheili moved to the back of the lab so not to disturb Dr. Freeman.
"It's funny. For the longest time, I was told that the commander of the human forces was a demon. An unholy abomination sent to stop our Great Journey. Just before the Great Schism, I vowed to eradicate this demon once and for all. Now I know that 'demon' sought to save the universe. And here I am now, encountering bizarre individuals who deserve the moniker 'demon' far more than the Master Chief. A fat scientist with overblown designs who abducts children. A ludicrous mecha that turns those childrens into mindless machines to be killed. And this...Dimentio, a damned CLOWN with a measure of malice and insanity I have not witnessed since the war. What is next?"
Not sure how to continue, Aven paused for a minute. His eyes turned back to the silent scientist at his computer, still tapping at the computer like a overcaffeinated pianist. How he could continue to work at that pace perplexed Aven.
Something appeared on the screen, catching both Gordon and Aven's attention. The designated chronicler quickly ran up to the screen to see what it was.
Gordon Freeman had managed to crack the memory card of the Hatter mecha, and now they saw a recording of what it had seen and heard. On the screen, a somewhat fuzzy picture of a man wearing dark sunglasses was talking to Dr. Robotnik.
"I am offering you unlimited resources and funds, doctor. Enough technology for you to rebuild your Roboticizor to specifications. My only condition is that you build this 'Devil's Machine' for my alliance."
Robotnik appeared to be considering it. "Hmm...what exactly is this 'devil's machine'?"
"Let's just say it's something that will pave the way for a new world."
"Oh really?" Robotnik seemed sceptical.
The man in the sunglasses smirked. "Ivo, this device is impossible for anyone but a genius to build. We need your expertise in order to accomplish our goals."
His ego stroked, Robotnik appeared a bit more willing. "Heh...when do you want an answer, Mr. Wesker?"
"By the end of today." Mr. Wesker suddenly became very serious. "It is imperative that this is constructed within three month's time. There is a very specific event that we need it for."
Three months? Gordon checked the timeframe on the video. This was recorded over two months ago...almost three months. No, three months. The deadline was either today or tomorrow.
"Alright, I'll give it some thought. How do I contact you?" Robotnik remarked.
Wesker handed Robotnik a small card. "Call this secure number. Remember, we need the Devil's Machine operational within three months."
"I can do it in one." Robotnik proudly sneered.
"We'll see." With that, the recording ending.
Aven scratched his head briefly. "Devil's Machine? I have never heard of that." Aven activated his commlink. "Sofia?"
"The only thing of significance we've found so far is something called 'The Devil's Machine'. Robotnik was commissioned to build it, and apparently the deadline is tomorrow. Can you look up what it is?"
"Of course. Just give me a few minutes."
Gordon's brow furrowed in thought, a nervous look going through his eyes. He was a rational man, not trusting of 'gut feelings'. But he still felt fear crawling through his bones. Something he couldn't explain told him that whatever this 'Devil's Machine' was, it was something terrible. Something to be very afraid of.
Sofia's voice returning over the commlinks proved that fear completely correct.