Samara’s eyes open, her light meditation interrupted. A small hand tugs at the front of her uniform, and she looks down, meeting the gaze of a teal-skinned asari child staring up at her with a curious mix of hope and petulance.
It does not surprise her that the girl knows who she is. In a colony as small as the one she now wanders, word of her presence has undoubtedly spread and mutated like a virus. More intriguing is the child’s fearless, almost brazen nature. Most of the other young ones she encounters shrink back in shyness, peering from behind their parents’ legs.
“Miss Justicar,” the child repeats. Another tug, more impatient this time.
Samara tilts her chin toward the girl, but does not bend down. “Yes, little one?”
The child studies her with an air of undisguised curiosity. “My mother says you make bad people stop doing bad things. She says you make people be nice and fair.”
She inclines her head. “An adequate if simple description.”
“I need you to help me,” the girl states matter-of-factly. “My friend took my toy while I was playing with it and she won’t give it back even though I saw it first.”
“Did you ask her to return the toy?”
“Yes.” The girl’s lower lip protrudes, just slightly. Samara feels the corners of her own mouth threatening to turn up.
The child jumps as a whirlwind of fabric and flailing arms nearly explodes from a nearby table, barreling over to seize the girl’s hand. The mother stares up at Samara, her face sky-blue with terror. She is young—no more than a hundred and fifty, Samara estimates.
“Forgive me, justicar!” she bleats, and yanks on her daughter’s arm. “Jamira, you must never, ever bother the justicar. Do you understand me?”
A tiny foot stamps. “But Mommy—”
(“I don’t want to!” Her small hands ball into fists, blue eyes flashing dangerously, sending her mother a look of almost malevolent defiance—)
Samara pushes the memory away, watching as the mother tugs her daughter’s arm again, effectively ending the protest. “Go sit over there and don’t move until I tell you!”
The child grudgingly obeys, stomping all the way. Samara’s eyes follow her movements. “Your daughter is quite fearless.”
“Quite foolish, is more like it.” The mother wrings her hands, eyes darting back and forth between Samara’s and the ground. “I apologize again—I don’t know what came over her.”
“Calm yourself. No harm was done.” She studies the mother’s face, now flushed purple across her cheekbones. “May I offer you a word of advice?”
The mother’s eyes nearly bug out of her skull. “I—well—yes, of course.”
Samara tilts her head toward the park bench where the little one sits, pouting. “Cherish every moment you have with her. You can never predict when they may come to an end.”
“I—” The mother blinks and backs up a step, then nods rapidly several times. “Of course, justicar. I understand. Thank you.”
No, Samara thinks, watching as the mother nearly flees back to her daughter. You do not understand.
Pray to the goddess that you never will.
Tali'Zorah nar Rayya
Her heartbeat is loud, her fingers quivering as her hands move down the front of her suit, fabric brushing against fabric. She bends slightly, craning her head to get a better look at the shades of no-nonsense gray and black, accented with delicate patterned swirls in purple—her favorite color. She lifts her hands, running them over the mask, the hood, sliding down to the mouthpiece. Each movement is hesitant, almost reverent.
She’s been dreaming of this moment ever since she first picked out the suit, weeks ago.
Around her, the other young quarians shuffle and fidget, their snatches of excited conversations matching the murmurs of the crowd gathered in the next room. The anticipation is almost tangible, and Tali gives into the impulse to bounce on her toes, just a little, clasping her hands together in mixed nervousness and excitement.
When the announcement finally comes, a brief scramble ensues as they shove themselves into their proper positions in line, and then they’re marching through the doorway into the auditorium beyond, their suits’ auditory processors filled with the crowd’s approving roar. The applause and whooping cheers wash over Tali like the hum of a well-maintained engine, and as she takes her place on the platform she’s sure that her beaming grin is visible even through her opaque mask.
The ceremony begins, the moderator performing the well-loved blessings of the ancestors, and Tali cranes her head, eyes scanning across the crowd in search of the familiar suit patterns.
There. Mother and Aunt Shala stand side-by-side near the aisle three rows up, Mother’s pale blue hood a sharp contrast to Aunt Shala’s dark brown one. Tali suppresses the urge to grin and wave at them, knowing she must remain still for the ceremony. She’s an adult now, after all.
Her eyes continue past Mother and stop, darting back and forth, searching for a tall, broad-shouldered quarian in a suit colored white and red.
She doesn’t find him.
Her breath catches in her throat. But…he said he would be here today. He promised.
The euphoria slowly fades, replaced by a swell of disappointment, and suddenly Tali feels very small.
The moments just before the start of a mercenary operation are always a tricky proposition. A bunch of competitive freelance mercs all cooped up together in the same place, just waiting for the shooting to start, can be a recipe for tension and insults at the very least.
On this particular occasion, though, it’s mostly quiet. There’s a few angry warning growls when other mercs get too pushy, and a bit of “my quad’s bigger than your quad” bickering, but compared to some of the missions Wrex has been on, it might even be called peaceful.
If anyone could ever use the term “peaceful” in conjunction with “killing for credits,” anyway.
Wrex leans back against the wall and deliberately lets his eyes fall half-closed, surveying the area and the other mercs through the slits of his lids. Across the room stands a young krogan—young enough to look almost wildly out of place among the seasoned veterans. To another species, he probably looks as bored as any of the other mercs in this place, but Wrex can tell the boy is fidgeting. He pushes himself off the wall, lumbering over toward the youngster.
“You,” he grunts.
The boy turns, fixing Wrex with a peevish stare. His fingers twitch on his gun. “What?”
“How long since you left the homeworld?”
The other krogan makes a noise deep in his throat. A sound of disrespect. “What’s it to you?”
“Not much.” Wrex shrugs. “Just wondering if you had any idea how to use that piece of junk gun you’re holding.”
The boy’s wide lips curl back in indignation. “I can use it just fine!”
“So you know that the barrel on that particular brand always pulls to the right, then?”
The young krogan looks down at the gun, then back up at Wrex. “Of course I knew that. I can handle myself, old-timer. I don’t need no babysitter.”
Wrex sighs, resisting the urge to headbutt some sense into the whelp. “Don’t flatter yourself, kid. I only asked for two reasons. One, I don’t get my full share of money if the operation fails, and the more of us survive, the better the chance of success. Two, our species’ numbers are depleted enough as it is without our young ones getting killed because they’re too dumb to buy a working weapon.”
The boy bares his teeth, pointing the gun at Wrex’s face. The sight is almost comical. “I’ll use it on you if you don’t leave me alone!”
Wrex shrugs. “Suit yourself.”
Minutes later, when the fight is over and the enemies defeated, Wrex makes his way back toward the entrance, shoving bodies out of his way. Just inside the door, he catches sight of the boy, lying face-down in a pool of yellow-orange blood.
Wrex shakes his head.
Once a fool, always a fool.
The sky is still dark when Miranda’s father calls her into his office, streaks of faint gray just barely visible through the sprawling picture window. She runs her fingers through her hair, still damp from her shower, and stands stiffly before his desk with her arms clasped behind her back.
Several moments pass before he breaks the silence, attention still focused on the small bundle he holds. “Did you finish your workout?”
Miranda nods, once. Not that he’s looking. “Yes, both the full cardio and strength portions. I also completed the calculus and trigonometry problem sets and reviewed the anatomy terms from chapters seven through nine.”
He finally raises his head, making a noncommittal noise. “Come over here.”
She obeys, careful to combine a straight, confident posture with a subtle swaying of her hips, just like he taught her. From her closer vantage point, she can now make out the folds in the white fabric covering the bundle in his arms, tufts of fine dark hair peeking out the top.
“Hold out your arms,” her father instructs.
The sleeping baby is heavier than Miranda expected. She blinks down at the infant, noting the miniature curve of its snub nose and the tiny black ‘o’ formed by its mouth, fallen open in sleep.
“Meet your new sister,” her father says. “I was thinking you might like to name her.”
Miranda raises an eyebrow, seeking her father’s eyes in the darkness of his office. “Isn’t that a task usually given to little children as an apology for no longer making them the center of attention?”
The severe angles of her father’s face relax almost imperceptibly. “Now, Miranda. You know however old you are, you’ll always be my little girl.”
The infant squirms in her arms but doesn’t wake, her tiny fingers balling into a fist. Miranda’s eyes drift to the window, where the sun’s pale glow is just beginning to erase the colorless night.
“Oriana,” she says, and looks back down at the baby.
“Hmm.” Her father’s tone is thoughtful. “From the Latin for sunrise.”
He leans over to stroke one finger across the baby’s wispy hair. “Sol nouus oriens est,” he murmurs.
A new sun is rising.
Miranda’s arms tighten around the infant.
The headquarters are everything he expected—full of busy, bustling officers, criminals being hauled away in handcuffs, voices ringing out with decisive authority. He lets his steps slow, allowing himself a moment to soak it all in, mandibles flaring as he looks down at the datapad clenched in one hand.
I finally made it.
The Personnel Resources office is located down a hallway winding off to the left, and he steps inside, impatiently waiting in line before he finally presents his datapad to the officer behind the desk. The grizzled human glances at it, scrolling through the forms before he leans back in his chair, expression morphing from blank apathy to beaming recognition.
“Hey!” He grins, waving the datapad. “You’re Vakarian’s boy, aren’t you?”
“That’s me.” His mandibles twitch, returning the man’s smile. “Garrus Vakarian.”
“Yeah, they told me you were comin’ today.” The human looks up at him as his fingers fly across the console interface. “Come to think of it, I should’ve recognized you even without seein’ your information on the pad. I’ve never been the best at telling turians apart, but you got the same face tats as your old man.” Something akin to awe crosses his face. “He was one of the best, you know? A regular legend. We lost a great one the day he retired, not that there was anyone more deserving.”
He finishes entering data into the computer and snags another datapad from a nearby pile, reaching up to hand it to Garrus. “Here ya go. It’s going to be an honor to have you here, Vakarian Junior. Welcome to C-Sec.”
Garrus takes the datapad with a nod of thanks, all six talons curling around its glowing surface. He pulls up the training manual even before leaving the office, eyes drinking in the official C-Sec logo emblazoning the screen, and relishes the warm satisfaction that spreads from the tips of his fringe all the way to his toes.
Today’s the day I finally start making a difference.
It’s just a little thing—a tiny painting of lilies floating on a green-tinged pond, almost small enough to disappear in the palm of her hand. It’s pricey, of course, and tagged with an anti-theft device designed to ping and squawk and generally make a hell of a lot of noise if the painting is carried more than a few meters away from the artist’s booth.
Kasumi’s eyes all but glow as she stares down at it. “Isn’t this beautiful, you guys?”
Her friends peer over her shoulder, their eyes half-lidded with teenage ennui. “Just looks like a picture of flowers to me,” one of them drawls. “But hey, if you like it, you should get it.”
The other friend gapes, her finger hovering over the price tag. “If you have that kind of money, anyway.”
“I don’t,” Kasumi says. “However…”
Their faces light up. “You’re gonna steal it?”
“You totally should,” the other friend declares. “Everyone steals stuff. Even if it’s just a candy bar from the grocery store.”
“I never have,” Kasumi says, giving a fluid shrug. “But this would make for a really great gift for my mom’s birthday.”
“Omigod!” The first friend yelps, then lowers her voice to a hiss. “There’s a security guard right over there. You’d better just put it back.”
A little thrill tingles up and down Kasumi’s spine. Her fingers tighten on the painting.
“Just act casual,” she whispers. “Try to stand between the guard and me.”
She angles herself away from the guard and activates her omni-tool, goosebumps racing along her arms. The anti-theft device isn’t much harder to crack than the locks on her mother’s jewelry box that she overrides whenever she wants to “borrow” a piece. But it does take a few minutes to sync properly.
“Come on,” she whispers, tugging her lower lip between her teeth.
“You ladies here by yourselves today?”
A deep, male voice. A deep, male voice that practically screams hello, I’m a security guard looking for shoplifting teenagers to bust.
Kasumi swallows, forcing the muscles in her arms and shoulders to relax. She leans forward, pretending to be engrossed in a display painting of a forest scene. Almost there.
“Yep!” one of her friends chirps behind her. “We’re just browsing. Looking at all the pretty stuff.”
Quick as lightning, she slips the picture into one of her side pockets, the omni-tool winking out in a flash.
“All right, then,” the guard rumbles. “Have a good rest of your day.”
Kasumi lets her eyes linger on the forest painting just a few moments longer before she steps away, keeping her pace slow and her body language casual, sensing her friends walking in her wake. When they’re a respectable distance away, one of them leans over to hiss in her ear.
“Did you get it?”
She winks, and her friend sags in relief. “I thought for sure that guy was gonna bust you and you were going to spend the night in jail.”
“Nope! It was easy as pie.” Kasumi puts a little bounce in her step. “Fun, too. In fact, I think I might even do it again sometime.”
The vantage point is a good one.
Thane kneels by the open window’s dust-streaked ledge, scanning the area through the scope of his rifle. Behind him is nothing but the echoes of an empty room, one of many in this long-forgotten abandoned office building.
Below him, the pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks is busy but not teeming, ideal for his purpose. Picking out his target will not be difficult. The human—an information dealer suspected of criminally aiding Terminus slavers—is tall and thickly muscled, standing a head above most of the other businesspeople scurrying to and fro in the late autumn afternoon.
Thane waits, his skin contracting slightly in the chilled air. He has studied the target’s routine, knows that the man will walk down this street at any moment.
As always, his patience is rewarded.
He resettles himself against the ledge, aiming the crosshairs at the target’s dark head as it bobs and weaves among the other pedestrians. Killing the target without causing collateral damage will be difficult, but not impossible—
Thane pauses, finger tight on the trigger.
On the target’s far side, a small child clutches his hand, toddling alongside. A boy.
Thane’s eyes narrow through the scope. He is aware the target has a son, but the father has not come this way with his offspring before. Presumably the child’s mother or other caretaker is otherwise occupied on this particular day—
—Kolyat’s tiny fingers wrapped around his, quivering with nervousness as they approach the school building on his first day of classes—
—Kolyat shrieking with laughter and excitement as his father tosses him high in the air—
—Kolyat’s fists beating, flailing helplessly as the hanar let Irikah’s body slide into the deep—
The target’s body jerks as the shot rips through his skull, crimson spurting like a macabre fountain. His dead fingers slip from his son’s as his tall form crumbles. Blood sprays into the child’s hair, matting the mass of blond curls.
By the time the boy begins to scream, Thane is already gone, his form melting easily into the shadows.
He does what his body wills.
It’s a cold day on Amaterasu.
Ashley wraps her coat tighter around her shoulders, shoving her gloved hands deep in her pockets. The starched collar of her dress blues uniform chafes against her neck, her skin prickling more from mental discomfort than from the wind’s chill. It feels weird to be wearing something other than her armor or her BDUs.
Then again, a full suit of armor wouldn’t be the most appropriate getup for a funeral.
Beside her, Sarah sniffles, bringing up one mitten-clad hand to swipe at her nose. Ashley slings an arm around her little sister, huddling her close against her side. On her other side, Abby, Lynn, and Mom stand silent and still, red-rimmed eyes fixed on the grave. The reverend drones across from them, deep-toned voice a comfort more for the steady rumble of sound than for the actual words.
“Hey.” She gently bumps Sarah’s shoulder with her own. “I know it sounds really clichéd and all, but you know he’s in a better place, right? He’s up there all warm and happy, probably trading funny stories with God and having an awesome time. In fact, he might even be looking down on us right now, shaking his head and tsking about how we’re all freezing our asses off down here.”
Sarah manages a watery laugh. “That sounds like Dad, all right.”
The reverend draws to a close, and the crowd begins to disperse, slowly shuffling back toward the skycars parked near the cemetery’s entrance. Ashley lingers by the grave, kneeling down next to the freshly engraved headstone. Casting around, she picks up a small rock, uses it to weigh down a piece of paper filled with ink and stained with a few stray teardrops.
“Thanks for everything you taught me, Dad,” she murmurs. “I promise I’m going to do everything I can to make the Williams name great again. I won’t let you and Granddad down.”
Her fingers tighten into determined fists as she rises, turning away to join her mother and sisters at the graveyard’s edge.
Though much is taken, much abides.
“Very good. Cut is deep, but not life threatening. No major blood vessels severed. Clotting process already begun due to krogan natural self-healing physiology. Have cleaned and stitched the wound, administered simple immunobooster to help prevent infection.”
Mordin steps back from the examining table, nodding in satisfaction. The young krogan shifts uneasily, clutching his wounded arm with his other hand.
“So I’m okay? Seemed like it was bleeding a lot.”
“Yes, will be fine. No complications expected. Still good you came to see me, though. Living conditions on Omega…” He draws a deep, disapproving breath. “Conducive to infection.”
The krogan blinks. “Oh.”
“Be sure to keep elevated,” Mordin instructs. “And remember to take medication daily. Come see me if healing does not occur within next few days.”
“Okay.” The krogan heaves his already considerable bulk off the table, his swagger beginning to return. “Hey, will I get a scar?”
“Hmm, unlikely. Quick application of treatment plus rapidly healing nature of krogan youth combine to prevent scarring. No need to worry, though. Member of long-lived species such as yourself should have many opportunities for accumulation of more impressive scars.”
“Great!” The krogan beams and claps Mordin on the back, not noticing the doctor stagger under the thumping. “You know, you’re okay, doc. I don’t like salarians much—you know, ‘cause of the genophage and everything—but I’m glad I came to see you. Thanks for the help.”
He ambles out, carefully keeping his injured arm parallel to the ground. Mordin’s constantly moving fingers grow still, lower eyelids drawing up to half-cover his eyes as he stares after the young patient.
On the other side of the table, Daniel tilts his head, brows creasing in a frown. His eyes dart from Mordin to the doorway and back. “Everything okay, professor?”
“Hmm? Fine, yes, fine.” Mordin’s eyes jerk back to the examination table as he strips off his gloves, tinted yellow with the krogan’s blood. He reaches for a fresh pair, sucking in a long breath.
“Send in next patient.”
“You want to study what?”
Liara takes a deep breath.
“Archaeology. Specifically, archaeology relating to the Protheans.” She quickly holds up a hand, eyes growing earnestly wide. “Mother, just think of how fascinating it would be. Traveling to remote dig sites, uncovering clues and fragments of the Protheans’ existence—with enough hard work and study, perhaps I could even solve the mystery of what truly happened to them, why they were wiped out!”
“Liara…” Benezia briefly presses her fingers to her forehead before fixing her daughter with a familiar expression of longsuffering. “Archaeologists spend their days far from the comforts of civilization, digging in the dirt for endless hours only to uncover scraps of ancient rubble. It is not the glamorous life of constant discovery and adventure so often portrayed in the vids.”
“But Mother, that is exactly why I’m choosing it. Do you truly think I want a life of glamorous adventure?” Liara clasps her hands together, weighing her words with care. “I am sorry if this is not the path you wanted me to take. But I must choose what I believe is best for me. You know I admire you greatly, but I…I could not be like you. I could not be a teacher or leader. I have no desire for followers, or to constantly be in the spotlight the way you are. And when I think of what I most want to spend the rest of my life contemplating, it is the past that excites me, not the future.”
For a long moment, Benezia falls silent in the brooding, foreboding manner unique to an asari Matriarch. Liara forces her hands to lie still in her lap, resisting the urge to fidget under her mother’s stare.
And then the storm fades from Benezia’s face as she gives a gentle, if weary chuckle.
“I wondered when this day would come,” she says. “All children rebel against their parents at some point in their lives. Even you, my quiet Little Wing.”
She stands, reaching out with a graceful hand to briefly rest her palm on Liara’s forehead. “Very well. If this is to be your rebellion, I suppose it is less terrible than it could have been.”
She exits the room with a slow and dignified stride, leaving Liara staring after her.
Jacob’s never been one to believe the hype. About anything. Doesn’t even matter what it is; if it sounds too good to be true, there’s probably a damn good reason. So when the Alliance stations him on Eden Prime—the so-called utopia, paradise, symbol of humanity’s success and prosperity, whatever you want to call it—he walks off the ship fully expecting to be underwhelmed.
By the time he leaves the spaceport for base camp, he has to admit the place is pretty nice. It’s all sunshine and fresh warm breezes, fields of flowers and enormous trees. Couldn’t be more of a postcard-worthy destination if it was deliberately engineered to be. Yeah, the big gas bag things are a little weird, but they don’t do much other than float around and occasionally make inquisitive buzzing noises.
But as cheesy as it sounds, the best thing about Eden Prime is its people. There are a few asshats, of course, and some folks who just plain hate having the Alliance military around, no matter what. But for the most part, Jacob finds Eden Prime’s colonists to be a cheerful, friendly bunch. After a few days the kids start waving to him when he passes by on his patrol, and sometimes the farmers even bring him cool drinks or fresh-baked goods to make his duties a little sweeter. It doesn’t take long for him to think this might just be the nicest location his job has ever taken him.
And then Saren shows up and all but blows the whole place to hell.
Jacob never met Saren. But he hates that cuttlebone son of a bitch.
When he signs on with Cerberus and they tell him they’re planning on resurrecting Commander Shepard—the one who saved the Citadel, took down Saren, and avenged Eden Prime—he thinks that for once, he might just buy into the hype a little.
And so during one of his patrols late in the Lazarus station’s night cycle, he ambles into the lab where they’re keeping the body, tuning out Miranda and Wilson’s arguing in the next room over. Shepard, predictably, lies cold and still on the table, a pale blue sheet draped tastefully from her shoulders to her knees.
Jacob looks down at her, clearing his throat and suddenly feeling absurdly self-conscious.
“Well,” he finally says, his voice almost sounding like a yell in the quiet, closed-off room. “I feel pretty damn stupid, talking to a corpse. But since I don’t know if this whole resurrection thing is gonna work or not, I just wanted to say…thanks. For making sure Saren got what was comin’ to him. Those colonists on Eden Prime didn’t deserve what they got, you know?”
He finishes with a nod, heading back toward the room’s entrance before he turns to look back over his shoulder.
“And hey, don’t make this whole ‘coming back from the grave’ business too hard on Miranda and her crew, all right? I have a feeling all of us could use you right about now.”
The geth stands on an expanse of frozen tundra, optic sensors panning from side to side. The wreckage of the Normandy sprawls beyond, pieces of hull and machinery mangled and twisted, victim to the servants of the Old Machines.
The platform completes its scan and deactivates its sniper rifle. No threat was anticipated, and none is found. The landscape is barren and quiet, devoid even of non-sentient life.
Devoid of Shepard-Commander.
The geth takes a step forward, then another, its feet leaving imprints in the snow. More of the crystalline flakes drift from the sky, and the platform lifts its head to watch them descend, several falling onto its arms. They linger only a moment before returning to their liquid form, disassembled by the heat from the geth’s internal processes.
Alchera. The word pings within the platform’s databanks: the designation used by organics to refer to this planet. A term derived from the mythology of an ancient human culture. Relating to the creation of the human homeworld and the existence of legendary beings. Literally, “dreamtime.”
Dreams. Series of thoughts, images, and emotions occurring involuntarily during the sleep cycle of organics. Often abstract. Illogical. Forgotten upon leaving the sleep state.
The geth lifts its headflaps, then lowers them just as quickly. More time is needed to reach consensus on the phenomenon of dreams.
It continues into the grave of the Normandy, winding a path through the debris, pausing at intervals to record potentially useful data. Though Shepard-Commander is not physically present, clues to her current location may be scattered throughout the remnants of her former home.
Near the edge of the wreckage, a flash of dark against white catches the geth’s optic sensors. It turns its head to see a torn, jagged chunk of an organic hardsuit, featuring a dull stripe of red alongside white human characters. A letter and a numeral.
The geth glances down at itself.
There is a hole, the result of a shotgun blast from a colonist on an uncharted world. The human had not understood, had exhibited behaviors consistent with the organic emotion of fear.
Shepard-Commander would not show fear.
The platform kneels by the armor, curling its fingers around the jagged edges. The material is strong and durable. It is suitable for the construction of a patch.
This hole does not threaten the structural integrity of the platform. It does not require a patch.
This platform has encountered numerous materials suitable for platform repair. We have used none of them. Why does this platform wish to perform repairs now? Attempting to reach consensus.
The repair does not take long to complete. When it is finished, the geth stands, its optic sensors slowly moving back and forth over its new component.
Alert: consensus not achieved.
“So who do you think the new instructor’s gonna be?”
One of the boys props his elbows on his desk and gazes off into space. “I bet it’ll be some really bruising, badass dude. I mean, they’re basically teaching us how to use our biotics as weapons, right? They oughta bring in someone really tough and mean-looking to do it.”
Another of the young biotics gives a devious grin, leaning over his desk and lowering his voice conspiratorially. “I heard a rumor that they’re bringing in an alien to teach us.”
The announcement sets off a chorus of murmurs around the small classroom, and the boy nods to emphasize his point. “And you know what that means? Means it’s probably gonna be an asari. ‘Cause they’re natural biotics and all. And you know what they say about asari—they’re all hot.”
The chorus grows more raucous, punctuated by knowing leers and elbows poking into ribs. “You know what would be really awesome? If they got an asari instructor and she looked just like Ms. Jamison, except blue. Man, Ms. Jamison sure had the most awesome pair of—”
The commotion dims, the students turning as one to stare at Kaidan.
He steels his jaw. “Just…knock it off, okay? You shouldn’t talk about Ms. Jamison like that.”
One of the slightly older boys reaches over to muss Kaidan’s hair. “C’mon, don’t be such a spoilsport, Special K. It’s not like she’s your mom or something.”
Kaidan scows a little, surreptitiously reaching up to pat his hair back into place. “I’m not trying to be a spoilsport, I just think we should be a little more respectful of our instructors. I mean, they have to live out here on this space station and everything, too.”
Another student pipes up, several desks down. “So who do you think it’s going to be, Kaidan?”
“I don’t know,” he replies honestly. “I just hope that whoever it is, they know what they’re doing and they don’t push us harder than we can take.”
The hiss of the automated door sliding open snaps the class back to attention, and Kaidan’s sure his eyes aren’t the only ones widening as their new instructor steps into the room.
He’s never seen a turian in the flesh before—they aren’t exactly a common sight around the suburbs of Vancouver. The alien is tall, heavily armored, and utterly imposing, with a wicked-looking scar curving from beneath one eye to the opposite mandible. His eyes are tiny and beaded, gleaming a bright and pale green in his dark gray face.
The turian lets the stunned silence linger until the students begin to cast near-desperate glances at each other. His booming voice makes more than a few jump halfway out of their seats.
“My name is Commander Vyrnnus. You will address me as ‘sir.’ You scrawny human rascals need to know only two things about me.” He pauses for dramatic effect. “One: under my training regimen, you will either become the most powerful biotics your race can produce, or you will die trying. Two: I was at the helm of the dreadnought that killed your father.”
Kaidan lets out a long breath between slack lips.
It’s going to be a long term.
Today has not been a good day.
It’s not that anything major has gone wrong. Just a bunch of little things, supremely irritating, unpreventable little things that have been building up all damn day long like pus festering under an infected wound. It strikes Zaeed as appropriate that he currently finds himself on Omega, where good days might as well be as rare as asari that aren’t blue.
Omega’s also a damn good place to drink oneself into a stupor.
He shoulders his way into Afterlife, past the gawking tourists and whinging punks, flashing Jessie’s barrel at anyone who dares to look at him twice. Not that many people fall into that category. Grizzled mercenaries are as common as bad days in these parts.
Once seated at the bar, he waves over one of the bartenders—though not the batarian; he’s not stupid—and sets about the business of becoming well and truly sloshed. He’s about halfway there when a middle-aged human man wanders over and plants himself on the neighboring stool. Judging by his bloodshot eyes and the stink of alcohol wafting from his piehole, the newcomer is a lot farther along on his journey to inebriation than Zaeed.
“‘Sup there, Gramps,” the jackass slurs, giving Zaeed a thump on the back. “You look kinda f’miliar. Know you from somewhere?”
“Sure ‘bout that? ‘Cause I coulda sworn I’d seen your ugly mug before.” He throws back his head and laughs like he just told the galaxy’s funniest joke.
“Piss off,” Zaeed growls. “Do I look like a people person to you?”
“Aw, c’mon. Don’ be like that.” The drunk pauses, his unfocused eyes sliding to Zaeed’s gun. “Though I guess I can’t blame ya all that much. If my gun was as much of an old, ugly piece’a junk as that one, I’d probably be antisocial—”
He doesn’t get to finish the sentence before he hits the ground with a spray of bullets in his face, courtesy of the gun whose honor he dared to insult.
Zaeed stares defiantly around the bar at the other patrons, fingers still clenched around the old assault rifle.
“Nobody talks bad about my girl Jessie.”
Warm. Warm is good. Her cell is usually cold—little things like heated rooms or soft, comfortable clothing aren’t exactly at the top of her torturers’ priority list.
Rage makes her feel warm, but not always the good kind. When she’s banging at the window, screaming obscenities until her throat’s like a cactus and her knuckles leave bloody trails on the glass, that’s not the good type of warm. That kind of heat just makes her feel prickly, like she’s being stabbed with thousands of little needles or bitten by swarms of invisible bugs. It makes the rage grow and grow until she wishes she could just burst—really burst, and splatter her brains and her insides all over the ceiling.
That’d show ‘em.
But the arena is a different story. In the arena, everything is warm—the good kind. There, the rage finally finds a satisfying outlet: a warm, pulpy body that bends and twists and breaks under her hands, the exact opposite of the hard unyielding window in her cell. The blood is warm, too, when it gushes out and covers her face and fingers. She doesn’t even mind the stickiness, or the strange metallic tang when it gets in her mouth.
The buzzing feeling that happens when she attacks—that’s good, too. It sweeps through her whole body in just seconds, makes her feel tingly instead of prickly. Like she could take on every kid, every guard in the place and smash in all their heads just by thinking about it.
But the best part of all, even better than the rewards of drug-induced euphoria, is the moment just before she kills. The moment when the looks on the other kids’ faces turn from snarling hate to pants-pissing fear.
Because when they look scared, it means she’s won. And they know she’s won.
And winning makes Subject Zero feel warmest of all.
She stands alone in the crowd filling Arcturus Station’s main auditorium, the embossed leather cover of her graduation certificate buttery smooth under her fingers. The noise is almost deafening in the enclosed space, the congratulatory shouts and exclamations of pride rushing to meet her eardrums. Nearby, a tearful father hugs his daughter, while a mother plants a beaming kiss on her son’s cheek and a husband records a holo of his wife holding her certificate high.
The words are barely audible above the din, and Shepard turns, snapping to attention almost instantly as she catches sight of a captain’s insignia.
“Sir!” She executes a salute, crisp and perfect.
“At ease, Commander,” the man says, holding out his hand. A friendly smile creases his face, erasing the crags and stress lines just beginning to show. “I’m David Anderson.”
She grasps his hand, shaking it firmly. “I’ve heard a lot about you, sir. It’s an honor to meet you in person.”
“Likewise,” he returns, still smiling, and Shepard begins to relax a little.
“I just wanted to congratulate you on your achievement,” he continues. “I’ve spoken to your instructors, and they tell me you’re one of the most promising N7 graduates they’ve seen in years. I’m not normally one for predictions, but I have a feeling you’re going to do some great things, Shepard.”
“Thank you, sir.” She gives a genuine smile. “That means a lot coming from you.”
He chuckles. “I only say things when I mean them, Commander.” His head swivels, eyes scanning the surrounding area. “Anyone here to meet you?”
Shepard shakes her head. “Just me, sir.”
“Well, that won’t do,” he says, making a harrumphing sound. “Graduation from the N7 program deserves a celebration. Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”
“That sounds like the best plan I’ve heard all day,” Shepard says, tucking her certificate under her arm. “I can barely hear myself think in here, anyway. Never been much for crowds.”
Anderson smiles. “Shepard, I think you and I are going to get along just fine.”