Chapter 1: Prologue
Wrex’s grunt of amusement elongated itself into startling, constant rasp that went on so long that the assembled company tried not to shift in their seats or look too worried about him. Shepard had made discreet enquiries of Grunt and some of his other friends in Clan Urdnot, and knew that it was the krogan equivalent of a long, wet, hacking cough. Even if he hadn’t, there was no mistaking the sounds of respiratory distress for anyone in the room, and the old warrior… didn’t look so good. When the fit subsided, and he stood there in repose, there was nothing definite you could put your finger on, but he had lost his old air of indestructibility. “When we go, we go fast. No sense lingering on, using up food that should go to those that can still fight”, Wrex had once told him: Shepard knew he’d be losing another friend before too long. All the more reason to get together when we can, he thought.
“What is this, Shepard? A dress rehearsal for the Council meeting?”
It sort of was, so all Shepard could do was shake his head ruefully at Wrex’s bluntness. He waved to Grunt, who was entering the room behind Wrex and trying not to earn himself a headbutt by being too solicitous of his clan father’s well-being, and did his best to deny it:
“I need a reason to catch up with old friends?”
Wrex was hindered from replying as he was rushed by his god-daughters. These reunions were always banner days for Terri and Nezzy — Terri was getting old enough to pretend they were no big deal, but that just meant she was better matched to Wrex’s pretended gruffness.
“Come off it, Shepard.” Garrus took up the tale from his old comrade. “You didn’t move the date up by a week ’cause you were desperate for company. We all know you’re used to being lonely anyway. What’s that human saying? It’s lonely at the top?”
“Ha!” Shepard barked mirthlessly. “You think I’m at the top just ’cause I’m on the Council? Try telling that to the Alliance.” They exchanged a meaning look. “But you’re right,” Shepard admitted. “I do want to talk it over. Hell, you remember what I said: all that really matters to me is” — he paused and swept an arm around to take in everyone in the room — “you guys. Plus I want intel from people I trust.”
A little of the old magic made itself felt: the old friends and comrades were all by now powerful and respected figures in their own right, but when their old commander said ‘I do want to talk’, they broke off their conversations and pulled their chairs into a circle. As Shepard sat down, the years fell away, and it was almost as though they were back on the Normandy, planning their next desperate strike in the war. Almost.
The main difference, of course, was that Wrex wasn’t the only one who was visibly wearing the extra years: Shepard and Ashley, being in their eighties, were now apt to be described as “middle-aged” — literally accurate given the average human lifespan with modern medical support — or subjected to those awful youthful means of damning with faint praise: “spry” or “well-preserved.” Shepard smiled faintly to himself as he imagined Ashley’s reaction to hearing such language from her trainees at N-school. No doubt they wouldn’t make that — or any other — mistake twice.
Garrus was likely showing similar signs to the turian, or otherwise trained eye, but for Shepard the most visible signs of the march of years were the shadows they’d left in his friends eyes. Grunt’s forehead plate had come in completely years before, and he showed some signs of getting a sense of perspective: so many krogan never saw beyond the next fight, but if anyone had learned better and was in a position to teach it to his people, it was Wrex.
These brief meditations brought Shepard immediately to those in the room who hadn’t changed. Liara was smiling her thanks at Samara as the justicar gathered up her god-daughters and ushered them out of the room, and Shepard’s own lips quirked, partly sympathetically, and partly because even after fifty years, seeing his wife smile still made him feel giddy. She caught the look on his face and smiled even wider as she came to join him on the couch, their arms winding in long-established habit around one another’s waists.
Shepard nearly sighed out loud as he looked up and saw two empty chairs. They’d been occupied by the girls, of course, but they came as too apt a symbol of who wasn’t there: Mordin, of course, had outlived his natural span and died in bed decades ago, but for the purpose of this particular discussion his absence left a crucial void. A salarian voice, and that of a bioscientist to boot, would have been invaluable, but…
And Tali. Sweet, smart, deadly adorable Tali: Shepard’s mind still revolted at the idea that she was dead. Your people need you, Admiral Zorah… I need you. For a moment Shepard actually waited to see if anything would happen: if any force in the universe was strong enough to conquer death, it would be Tali’Zorah vas Normandy’s sense of duty… Shepard stepped on a feeling, trying to squelch it before it could rise, but then thought: Why bother? Garrus knows; Liara knows, and in the confines of my own mind I may as well admit it. I loved her.
Samara returned, looking to Shepard’s eyes pretty well exactly as she had looked the day they met. Shepard smiled his own thanks to her as she took one of the vacant seats: there was no doubt in his mind that his daughters had been settled down and would stay out of mischief for the rest of the evening. He returned his thoughts to present matters. This is what everyone is thinking now: they’re counting their dead and thinking about ageless asari.
“All right, people. The floor is open,” he began without preamble. “How do we prevent another war?”
The old friends looked at one another. The word had been spoken. Their fears — in most cases — had been confirmed.
Ashley — impervious as always to any attempt by officers to disconcert her — asked “Do you know what’s going to happen at the Council meeting, skipper?”
“Of course,” Shepard replied, then reined himself in: it wasn’t Ash he was frustrated with, after all. “Councillor Kinarn will announce that ‘it has come to the attention’ of the salarian government that the longevity of the asari is not a product of the normal evolutionary process; that the asari government is in possession of research data on a germ-line genetic therapy that could extend the lifespan of any levo-protein species, and potentially that of every sapient species in the galaxy. Maybe even the krogan” — he nodded to Wrex and Grunt — “We don’t know. And that’s the point: Kinarn will formally request that the data be turned over to the Council for further research and analysis by every member race.
“Councillor Tevos is going to have to respond that sharing information about anti-agathics would violate asari law. I hope she’ll mention that the law could change, but she’s refused to give me any hints. Have you found anything else, love?”
Liara shook her head. “My contacts are not talking either. I think… I hope this is because no-one is really sure what to do.” Everyone nodded at that.
“Well, regardless,” Shepard continued, “the other Council species will almost certainly all vote for the salarians’ motion” — he smiled mirthlessly — “I know I’ve been instructed to. The question is: who is going to speak? Turians being dextro-protein, maybe Tharrik will want to wait and see, but then again…” He looked a question at Garrus.
“You’ve got to love turian conformity,” said Shepard’s maverick turian friend. “Basically everyone on Palaven is furious. If Tharrik does speak — and he may have to — it won’t be pretty.”
“Well, maybe after that the elcor and hanar Councillors will calm things down,” Shepard joked sourly. “Unfortunately, I know for a fact that the quarian, volus and drell ambassadors have all asked to be heard as well.” He paused to sigh. “And, of course, I know a thing or two about pressure of public opinion back home to speak.” He turned to Ashley, seated on his immediate left. “How bad is it, Ash?”
She gave him a quizzical look for a moment. “It’s bad, skipper. The asari have always been the ones pushing for compromise, saying we should all work together for the ‘greater galactic community,’ and now we find out they’ve been lying to us all the while? A lot of people are real angry, and — no offence, Liara — I’m one of them.”
Liara looked briefly at Samara, who remained impassive as always, before replying. “Believe it or not, sergeant-major, I am as well. So are a lot of asari.”
Ash paused to take that in for a moment, then grinned: “Liara, it’s been fifty years. You can call me Ash.”
“Ashley,” Liara acknowledged.
“OK. That’ll do.”
When everyone was done chuckling Shepard pursued the point, still facing towards Ash but addressing his questions to the room at large. “Is that something people realise? Most asari were as surprised by the news as anyone; and any asari who’s ever watched the father of her children die, or who barely remembers her own father, will be just as angry at the matriarchs as anyone.”
“Some people know it,” Ashley told him. “Those that don’t, aren’t interested in being told.”
“Even though it means the law may change? The data may be released after all.”
“That’s the point,” said Garrus. “After all. Anyone who’s lost someone is going to be tempted to blame the asari… no offence.” His tone was light as he concluded, dividing a look between Liara, who smiled gently at him, and Samara, but Shepard knew the pain he was hiding. Tali had died comparatively young, for a quarian, and the consensus was that the exposure to more than one alien pathogen over a busy galactic life had made her vulnerable to one of the few truly inimical micro-organisms on Rannoch, but who could tell? Maybe anti-agathics could have saved her, and Garrus would still be joking about being “an admiral’s wife” and “First Gentleman of Rannoch” instead.
“OK,” Shepard summed up. “It really is as bad as I thought. You’ve all done your usual awful job of cheering me up. I knew I could count on you.”
He waited for the laughter — mostly polite, he was sure — to subside, then went on in a serious tone. “Ash, how much noise are people making about humanity actually withdrawing from the Council?”
“Terra Firma have gotten brave enough to actually include it in their platform. A lot of people seem to like the idea right now. How many will after the shock wears off…” She gave an eloquent shrug. Shepard nodded.
“All right. Fortunately I don’t have to take official notice of the opposition’s opinions. So, worst case scenario: I’m the only one at the very public Council meeting saying anything remotely conciliatory. And, of course, no-one will take me seriously speaking up for the asari because, you know…” He turned to look at his wife. And stayed that way: looking at Liara had always been one of his favourite hobbies, after all. After a beat, she turned to him, and they stared into one another’s eyes, Shepard’s lips moving inexorably towards a goofy grin until finally Wrex murmured “Get a room!” just loud enough to be audible. Shepard, Liara and Ashley laughed together at Wrex’s unexpected grasp of human idiom, then settled back down.
“I don’t understand,” Grunt groused. “You’ll talk and you’ll talk, and everybody’s angry. Where’s the war?” Wrex, who knew full well where the war was, frowned.
“There’s the batarians, for one thing,” Shepard told him. “Suppose the asari do release the data but only to the other Council races?”
“The squints can’t take on the asari!”
Shepard sighed. “No, but suppose they tried and none of the other Council races lifted a finger to help? Look, even without the non-Council races, this debate is going to be political napalm.” He paused to gather his thoughts. “Everyone knows the Council races spy on one another, but this will be the first time one of them has as good as admitted it in a public Council meeting. And Tevos has to say no, the asari will not share data on anti-agathics, even though every other council race will vote to ask them to.
“If she doesn’t hold out any hope, the salarian STG will almost certainly be tasked to steal the data. And of course, since the data is no use if it’s not made public, the asari will know it’s been stolen. How will the asari react to that? I don’t think anybody knows for sure, but remember: the salarians know they can’t take on the asari in open war as well as anyone does, and they love their pre-emptive strikes. So what if the STG steals the data, plants a few charges on the way out, kills a few million innocent asari and… oh Goddess, I’ve only just thought of this: refuses to share the data themselves?”
Everyone’s face registered its own version of horror for a moment, then Liara spoke: “I can’t believe it. You’re talking about the two oldest allies in the Council.”
“I know,” Shepard told her. “And I’m not saying it will happen. I’m saying scenarios like it are sickeningly easy to imagine. I mean, I’ve assumed there that humanity will do nothing. Suppose we introduce conscription and start a radical fleet build-up… No, enough. I feel like everything’s unravelling and there’s nothing I can do, but I can’t… I won’t let that happen.”
The group paused, feeling the extent of Shepard’s passion, then, quietly, Ash spoke:
“We’re with you, skipper. It’s not my kind of fight, but… Whatever you need.”
“I know it, Ash.” He reached over and placed his hand on top of hers, gripping it tightly. “Back during the war I decided that all I cared about was making the galaxy a safe place for… you guys.” They all knew or could take a shrewd guess that originally he’d been thinking of just Liara, but like a good captain he’d remembered his crew as well. Eventually. “I may be on the Council now, and sure, I represent all of humanity, but when it comes down to it, when I choose what’s right and what’s wrong, that’s what I’m thinking of. You guys…” his voice softened, “…and the girls.”
Chapter 2: Interludes, Chiefly Domestic
“So, old friend,” Shepard said to Wrex when they were alone together. “How long can you stay? You know the girls love having you around.”
The krogan grunted. “Politics on Tuchanka is still a nest of…” He trailed off, apparently at a loss for a metaphor to express the depth of his contempt. “If I don’t get back there…”
“Indispensable man, are you?” Shepard’s tone was light enough, but he regretted his words immediately. Truly, all he’d meant was that Wrex could stand to take some time off and play with his godchildren, but the subtext was undeniable: krogan politics would soon have to do without the old warrior for good, as like as not, and if he didn’t have a plan… Shepard shook himself as his old friend answered both questions.
“There are other clan leaders I trust to look after things, but they’re all so damn young. Most of the older ones wouldn’t listen to reason.” — He grunted again, this time in amusement. Wrex was one of the most expressive grunters Shepard had ever known — “You and Grunt know a thing or two about that,” he continued, and Shepard nodded. “When you watch the young fumbling around with things they’re too green to handle, you just want to take them away and do the job properly. Not that a baby like you knows anything about that. Ask your wife, maybe.”
Shepard grinned. “Never mind my thing for older women. Everybody knows about that. Give me the benefit of your wisdom, thou sage elder.” His translator must have done a reasonable job with the nuances, because Wrex gave him a look. “Seriously, Wrex, we didn’t hear much from you tonight. I want to know what you think.”
Another grunt. “I think that if the worst you can say about aliens is that they haven’t genetically modified your species, you’re actually doing pretty well.”
Shepard nodded. “You’ll get no argument from me. You know I’ve always said the genophage was a war crime.” He sighed. “You know, I can almost hear Mordin’s voice? ‘I, for one, understand asari policy. Universal access to anti-agathics radically de-stabilising factor. Especially for we salarians. Eventually might learn to take long view. Extinction in ensuing war more likely, though.’”
“Ha!” Wrex was genuinely amused by Shepard’s attempt at an impression. “He would, wouldn’t he? Scientists. I wish more of them would follow the truth that far.” He shook his head. “Look, Shepard, I didn’t say anything because there’s nothing to say. Everyone knows anti-agathics are out there. If everyone gets them, there might be a war. If anybody doesn’t get them, there’ll definitely be a war. You want to avoid one? Hell, I’ve helped you beat longer odds, and if I can I’ll do it again, but…”
Shepard nodded again, more soberly this time. His friend was right, and he knew it. Nothing like a krogan for cutting through the bullshit, he thought. His musings were interrupted as Liara came into the room, and Wrex shook his head fondly as his friend’s face immediately lit up. Sometimes, Shepard really did seem very young.
“Benezia is insisting on saying good night to her daddy. Miss Teresa is pretending to think that that’s silly.”
Shepard got up, returning his wife’s grin. “How long is that phase going to last? One century? Two?”
“Are you implying that I’m still in it?” Liara asked in a tone of mock outrage.
“Perish the thought!” Shepard waggled his eyebrows in that way that never failed to make her giggle. “One of the better duties calls,” he said to Wrex.
“Hm. And I should get some sleep.” Liara and her husband both knew better than to try and help Wrex as he levered himself stiffly out of the chair, but then Liara moved towards him, doing the honours of the apartment with a graceful gesture, and Wrex allowed himself to lean on an old comrade as she showed him to the guest room. Unnecessarily, of course — none of the Shepards would hear of him staying anywhere else on his infrequent visits to the Citadel, and Shepard was still smiling at the elegance with which Liara had helped him save face as he went to wish his daughters good night.
Nezzy was struggling to keep her eyes — big and blue and beautiful, just like her mother’s — open when her father reached her bedside. “Daddy… night…” was all she managed to murmur.
“Night-night, baby girl.” Shepard whispered, and by the second caress of her head he knew she was already under. He looked up to see his eldest’s eyes — pink like her grandfather’s, not that it worked that way, as Terri, Liara and Aethyta would all have hastened to point out at once, Shepard knew — coolly watching him. Whether by nature or nurture she was well on her way to an almost matriarchal — or justicar-like — glacial reserve. He crossed over to her.
“Kiss goodnight for your old dad?” He asked, putting on a silly pout, then trying not to giggle as Terri’s eyes cut across to check that her sister was asleep before she made up her mind and nodded. She giggled as he made an exaggerated ‘delighted’ face — not difficult at all — and then, after she’d kissed his cheek and he was pressing his forehead against hers, she positively slayed him: “Good night, daddy,” she whispered. “I love you.”
“Awww: I love you too, baby girl.” For once, she didn’t complain at the nomenclature. “Sleep tight.”
He straightened the rumpled bedclothes, carefully passing the hems to Terri so she could tuck herself in, and looked up to see Liara leaning on the door-frame, smiling seraphically as she watched the byplay. He felt the haptic implant in his fingertip twitch as he killed the night-light, and, with a last look over his shoulder at his sleeping treasures, went off to bed with his wife.
“You knew, didn’t you?” Shepard asked, looking over his shoulder at Liara as she undressed and got into bed.
“Yes, I did.” There had been no trace of accusation in his voice, and he joined her in bed as unhesitatingly as ever, but Liara still felt a sense of constraint. She had just admitted having advance warning of the biggest… political shit-storm — Shepard’s memories, shared time and again, supplied an apt expression in his native language — either of them could remember, after all. Luckily enough they knew each other pretty well: she was able to enlighten him with one word: “Aethyta.”
“Ah.” Shepard had apparently felt no sense of constraint: his arms reached out like always, and by force of absent-minded habit Liara accepted the embrace. He always seemed to want to… entangle himself with her: sometimes he wondered if he would ever relax, ever cling to her with a little less… desperation. After all these years, she thought, he’s still waiting for the Universe to tell him ‘No. Those things you love? You can’t have them any more.’
Of course, there were some advantages to getting… entangled, Liara thought, after she was done quivering: her husband knew all the right spots to kiss and nuzzle and caress, and it had only taken him a decade to get the hang of it. Or two. “Focussss,” she entreated him, “you’re the one who asked!”
“And you answered,” Shepard told her simply. He did stop, though, settling for a comfortable embrace around her middle. “Was there more?” He asked, mock-innocently.
Liara shook her head at her husband’s ways and wriggled — rather deliciously, Shepard thought — around in his arms so that they were face to face. Rather than prolong the conversation, she took a deep breath and reached out with her mind, knocking at the door of his and, as always, being welcomed right in…
“Hey, kiddo,” Aethyta’s voice had always been husky, but now it varied between ‘whisper’ and ‘rasp’.
“Please, Lady Aethyta! Save your strength! The doctor said not to talk unless you have to!”
The nurse, who looked to Liara’s eyes as though she couldn’t possibly be over a hundred, was clearly strung up to the pitch of ending all her sentences with exclamation marks by having a matriarch for a patient. She was constantly cutting her eyes Liara’s way, so clearly she knew that Professor Liara T’Soni Shepard, Certified Galactic Hero™ was in the room, to boot.
“My daughter is here, and there’s something I have to tell her,” Aethyta rasped. “So I guess I have to talk. And you have to give us some privacy.” The nurse’s eyes went wide at her choice of words: Liara could see her practically mouthing the word ‘pureblood’. “Go on, girl! Scat!” Aethyta insisted, though not unkindly.
Aethyta watched Liara watch the nurse walk zombie-like out of the room, and felt a twinge of remorse. “Mind?” She asked laconically.
Liara caught the reference. “Of course not,” she told her. “I will never be ashamed that you are my father.”
Aethyta snorted. “I see you’ve not lost your taste for melodrama.” She paused for a laboured breath. “You still with that human squeeze of yours?”
Rather than rise to any of that, Liara just rolled her eyes, and nodded. “He’s outside.”
Aethyta nodded back. “Look, kid, I’ve got something to tell you. I’m not supposed to, but… shit,” she took another breath and grinned wryly. “What can they do to me?”
Liara listened, her eyes growing steadily wider as her father revealed the secret the matriarchs had kept for over two millennia.
“Why am I telling you? Eh…” Aethyta’s eyes unfocused alarmingly for a moment. “Seeing you find someone… someone you’d rather go through hell for than spend your maiden days having a good time…” She peered into the middle distance. “I was with Nezzy for four hundred years… off and on, you know…” She looked straight into her daughter’s eyes. “You find something that really works, you… ah never mind. That can’t be it anyway. You always did take things too seriously.” Another pause for breath, then an impish grin. “I’m probably just going bugfuck.”
Liara couldn’t help succumbing to her father’s charm, not that she particularly wanted to. They laughed together for a moment, and then something happened in Aethyta’s airway. Her back arched, her pupils dilated, and her mouth shaped rattly breath sounds into words that Liara had surprisingly little trouble interpreting as a disgusted “Oh, crap!”
Monitors beeped, and Liara stepped back as medical staff flooded into the room. They worked on Aethyta for a while, but Liara wasn’t surprised to hear that it was all over. Aethyta herself had clearly known it, and having been raised by one, Liara knew that matriarchs had an infuriating habit of being right.
I knew you were struggling with something. Shepard’s voice echoed through both of their heads. But I couldn’t tell anything about what it was about.
I nearly joined with you completely, she responded at once, and Shepard rushed to soothe her as he felt a note of pleading — how many times had he proudly said “Liara knows me through and through”? Trumpeted his profound satisfaction with a relationship based on complete sharing, not just of one another’s lives but of their minds? — I could have used your perspective, but… She radiated the doubt she’d felt: the uncertainty about what the revelation meant to her as an asari, not to mention what Shepard might have to do as a member of the Council once he knew.
Shepard hastened to distract her, summoning memories of the girls’ births, not to mention the moment they’d both discovered he had a… thing for pregnant women. I wouldn’t have minded that… His mental voice was a gigolo’s purr, or his best silly rendition of one.
Focus! She growled affectionately at him, and identical grins crossed their lips as they lay face to face.
I wonder if she knew the STG was closing in. Their connection had deepened: they weren’t entirely sure whose mind the thought had crossed. Shepard could very easily and complacently float away into the bliss of a full joining, but Liara held them where they were. It’s possible. I should have told you. Maybe you could have prepared…
Hush, love. Shepard radiated the instant forgiveness that made Liara wonder just how far it might go. Impatiently, Shepard let his ideas bloom fully into thoughts: this is just the spark; the powder train has been there all along. His aura turned sour. And most of it is humanity’s fault. Trade has grown our economy faster than anything we could have achieved on our own; the Council races have all worked like Trojans rebuilding, and nobody asks if it’s a human world, a turian world or what, but all Terra Firma sees is ‘alien interference.’ And slinky asari space minxes leading honest farmboys from the colonies into bad ways, of course… He let his hands roam, feeling his wife’s indulgent amusement at his antics for a beat, and then… yes, there it was, her appreciation as he showed her his fingers knew exactly where to do the walking. They kissed like teenagers.
Liara let herself bathe in his love, the warm, near-worshipful haze that no amount of married life seemed to be able to leaven. He felt her heart answer it, wanting to clasp his gentle strength, his willingness to make himself completely vulnerable, and his nightmares and flashbacks — now blessedly infrequent — too, everything that made him who he was, to her heart and hold them, well… forever.
Mmmmmm, she felt him luxuriate in it. We haven’t done so badly, have we? You know, for a dirty pureblood and a lousy bluelicker…
Her amused shock at his conjuring up the disconcertingly graphic slur humans had come up with for people like him was the last thing either of them remembered as they drifted contentedly off to sleep.
“Shepard?” Samara’s voice as she peered around the door-frame was the only vaguely calm thing in the bullpen of Shepard’s private office in the human embassy. His staffers were frantically struggling to collate and digest last-minute petitions, letters and polling data in advance of the Council meeting, and he was sure that at least some of them were wondering why they bothered, since their Councillor sometimes didn’t seem to pay any attention to anything but his own convictions. Shepard felt a twinge of guilt at the prospect of taking time out to attend to family matters when everyone was working so hard, and promised himself he’d rally the troops later. He favoured Samara with a warm smile of welcome, and ushered her into his office.
“I’ve just come from the museum,” she reported without without preamble. “The girls are dragging Wrex around the exhibits at top speed. We both tried to exhaust them with biotic exercises all morning, but…”
“Thank you, Samara” Shepard’s voice was the heartfelt opposite of the justicar’s apparently unflappable alto. “I considered calling the school and asking if they absolutely had to close down for teacher training today of all days, but…”
“For such a flagrant abuse of the authority of the Citadel Council, I would, of course, have to kill you.” There were times when an even tone and a demeanour that reminded you of nothing so much as a glacier could be a real asset. Shepard barked out a laugh. “Thanks, Samara. I needed that.”
“It is I who should thank you.” Shepard cocked an eyebrow at the apparent non sequitur. “For the girls, I mean,” Samara elaborated. “I was by no means sure I could bear to…” She tailed off, and the immense freight of emotion she couldn’t find the words for came through just fine as their eyes met. Shepard nodded, and in mercy to both of them changed the subject.
“You know, you were so quiet last night I almost forgot you were there. What do you think of… all of this?” He swept a hand around the room, as though it were a metonym for the turmoil of galactic politics.
“You mean, do I feel obliged as a justicar to hunt down and kill every matriarch?”
Shepard’s eyes grew wide. “Is that the way you’re thinking?”
“I… I simply don’t know. How grievous a wrong can it be not to act? Not to speak? After all, I know of no evidence that my people have tried to check or sabotage anyone else’s science. Anti-agathics could have been discovered by anyone else any time these last two thousand years. And yet…” Samara tailed off, her disquiet written on her features for those like Shepard who knew how to read them. He nodded.
“That ‘and yet’ is a real pisser, isn’t it?”
“As you say.” Samara gave the barest flicker of a zygomatic flexion at his choice of words. Shepard gave her a boyish grin, then sighed as he noticed the time display.
“I guess it’s time.”
Chapter 3: Let’s Meet the Team
“Did you know?”
Not for the first time, Rana Viridon wanted to cuddle Therrin and tell him everything would be all right. He was short, for a salarian, and from chin to horns his head was noticeably smaller than the average. Add to that the fact that he was almost exactly a twentieth of Rana’s age, and she frequently found herself feeling distinctly maternal. She sighed.
“No.” She turned her chair around so she could look him straight in the eyes. Upward, for a change. “Therrin, let’s get this clear once and for all.” The salarian started pacing. So much for conveying sincerity through eye contact, Rana thought, though not without an inward smile. She gathered her thoughts. “As far as I know, no asari who isn’t a matriarch knew.”
“Remarkable,” Therrin observed, peering into the middle distance. “Keeping a secret for that long, I mean. Especially one that had to be common knowledge to begin with. I mean, you must have noticed when you all started living ten times as long. If nothing else, surely you must have noticed the generations in your history used to be shorter. And how did…”
Used to his fluxion of the mouth, Rana cut him off. “First off, it’s more like five times as long: we were getting close to the 200-year mark all on our own. Anyway, in school I was always taught that it was down to medical advances. Invention of diagnostic equipment, cures for several chronic conditions; medical science changed out of all recognition in the last century before we met, uh, you guys.” Therrin nodded acknowledgement. Plausible, he thought. Rana went on: “It was convincing, too: I got all the way to a PhD in biochem without suspecting we’d done anything but unlock a potential we’d had all along…” She tailed off pensively.
“Irresponsible,” Therrin declared, voicing the thought Rana was struggling with. “Falsifying first principles of scientific training… it’s bound to lead to errors further down the line. And no doubt the errors have poisoned the well of data your research establishments have shared with ours, or else surely we would have discovered anti-agathics independently…”
“Wounded in your racial pride, there, Dr. Therrin?”
Therrin stopped in his tracks and whipped around to face her, genuinely shocked. “Of course not, Dr. Viridon… where was I? Hm, yes: if we start from the first principle that any asari bioscience data may be redacted or outright misleading, we can compare against our own observations. Identifying errors in the textbook accounts may be enough to indicate the shape of the secret, but even if not, we can simply throw away existing data and start from…”
Rana, by this time, had stood up, and now caught Therrin gently by the upper arm. She made an effort to speak slowly and soothingly. “Therrin… Are you suggesting that we… just re-invent anti-agathics on our own?”
“Why not?” Therrin demanded. “A similar situation occurred when I was a post-doc. Political considerations meant that I was expected to achieve something I wasn’t even sure was theoretically possible, with inadequate resources even if it had been and on a short deadline. There was only one solution: I decided to forget my doubts and achieve the impossible.”
“And did it work?” Rana had seen more than one such academic bind in two hundred and fifty years as a practising research scientist, and had a reasonably shrewd idea what the answer would be.
Therrin paused for a beat, and blinked. “Well, no… But the situations are not parallel: in this case, we know there is an answer… In fact, that could be another point in the triangulation: what we already know about the modification. We know it affects the germ-line, since asari in this day and age are born with it; we know it won’t work on dextro-protein species without more work than it would take to adapt it to other levo-protein species…”
“We can’t be sure about that,” Rana reminded him, but she had already started a recorder and prepared to note down promising lines of enquiry to follow up on as Therrin dropped them and went off to chase the next new idea. Rana had come up with a new idea or two herself in her time, of course, but the young salarian was truly brilliant… which reflection only served to remind her of the other way in which Therrin made her feel… maternal. I’ll save bringing that up for when I really want to knock him off his stride, she thought, and permitted herself an urchin-like grin she was sure Therrin wouldn’t notice.
“Yo, Stark! How come the sar’-major left you in charge?”
Halina didn’t answer right away; she just went on with her workout, permitting herself a half-smile that curled into a sneer every time her face cleared the pull-up bar. Paco Montoya might have the rank, being a full staff lieutenant to her 1st lieutenant, but he was new meat, still rated I for infantry, while Halina had passed N4 the week prior, and at the villa that was what counted.
She dismounted, dropping easily into a crouch, stowed her weight belt and started doing what might pass to the uninformed as cool-down stretches, but there were precious few uninformed at N-school: grins began to cross the faces of the peanut gallery as they realised that Paco didn’t know aikido kata when he saw them.
In fairness to him, it wasn’t immediately obvious that he had anything to worry about: Halina Stark wasn’t more than five feet tall, and although she routinely added extra weight when doing pull-ups, she didn’t bother with protein shakes or any of that ‘show-off crap’, so she carried all her muscle in a relatively small volume. She finished up her routine, adapting the course of the sinuous movements so that they naturally left her facing Paco. She was unable to resist throwing in a cheesy beckoning gesture as she finally answered his question.
“You care to find out, Montoya?”
Paco, who absolutely did bother with protein shakes, at first snorted, taking her attitude for bravado, but after a second look at her grey eyes, held almost preternaturally still like the rest of her body as she watched him, he realised he would have to put his money where his mouth was. He squared his bulging shoulders and charged.
Less than a second later, it was all over. Halina had just… suddenly not been there any more, except for a judiciously placed hand and the point of a hip, so that before Paco knew it his own weight had gotten cross-threaded with his momentum, and he was proned out on the mat with his wrist in Halina’s grasp, twisted ’round just far enough to show him she could hurt if she wanted to. She maintained her grip for a second, until she was sure he’d got the point, then stalked off to the showers without a backward glance.
One of the older trainees, of the same rank as Montoya but already rated N5, he’d heard, came over and offered him a hand up.
“Sergeant-major Williams left Stark in charge of unarmed combat ’cause she’s the only trainee who ever managed to out-point her, first time she had her on the mat.”
For a moment, Paco thought he must have misunderstood all the ‘she’s and ‘her’s being thrown about. “No shit?” He asked. He wasn’t about to underestimate the second human Spectre and one of the most decorated Marines in the Corps, but surely…
“No shit,” the older man confirmed, then elaborated, guessing successfully at Paco’s train of thought. “I’ve known a lot of DIs who say things like ‘my 80-year-old granny could kick your ass’ but it’s only CQB training at the villa that starts with an actual 80-year-old grandmother standing on your neck until you tap out. Actually, I hear one of the sar’-major’s grandkids is expecting… I wonder if she’ll start mentioning that she’s a great-grandmother…” He shrugged. “Anyway, the point is, Stark was an aikido instructor before she even hit the recruiter’s. Soon as the sar’-major found out, she made her an assistant instructor.” The lieutenant laughed at the expression on Paco’s face. “That’s right, buddy. You think that’s the last time Stark’s gonna throw you ’round the mat, you need to think again!”
“Good day, Captain Martis.”
“Good day, captain.” Coranin stepped out of the elevator into the CIC of the turian cruiser Axon, and his voice as he returned the greeting of the ship’s CO was courteous but void of any special subharmonics. The two officers would treat each other with consummate professional courtesy as a matter of course, but they would never like one another.
“You’ll have noticed we’ve just made our last mass relay transit,” the skipper told the taller man. Coranin stood staring into the ship’s galaxy map, his white clan markings so thick on his brown features that they would have obscured his expression, if he’d been wearing one. “We should be docking at the Citadel within the hour.”
“Thank you, captain,” Coranin said, without looking into his fellow officer’s eyes. “Even if my information is wrong, and my fugitive isn’t there, I’m sure one of the Council navies can arrange further transportation: the Axon can return to the fleet straight away.”
The captain nodded. He’d have requested as much in any case, but it wasn’t why he’d mentioned their destination. “Captain Martis, have you heard anything from the Council about the, er, situation?”
That made Coranin turn around, fixing the skipper with an unblinking stare out of predatory orange eyes. His mandibles spread in a gesture of confusion. “The anti-agathics debate,” the captain clarified. Coranin released the stare and half looked away. He decided to temporise.
“It didn’t come up the last time I spoke to them. After all, it’s not as though the issue bears at all on the mission.” He paused, but before the captain could make the rejoinder that if he’d been a Spectre, sheer curiosity would have made him ask the Council a question or two, Coranin resumed eye contact. “By the time we dock, the Council will have met to discuss it. I expect they’ll brief me and the other Spectres on anything we need to be aware of after that. Now, if you’ll excuse me…?”
“Of course.” The captain assented immediately, and Coranin stalked — there really was no other word for it — aft.
“This is intolerable!” Neela glanced into the corner of the holographic interface and felt a satisfaction that she was careful not to let show on her face. Tens of thousands of people all over Thessia were listening to her live, which meant her speech was likely being beamed to an order of magnitude more in the colonies. These were some of the best numbers she’d had yet: her speech would appear high in the lists people’s politics-watcher VIs compiled for them to review later on. This is no time to hold back, she judged.
“We have been lied to, my friends. A massive conspiracy has been orchestrated to have us lied to by our teachers, by our doctors, by our very mothers” — she was careful to avoid even the word ‘matriarch’, for the time being — “in most cases without them even knowing it. And now we’re told the law demands it, but I notice the law that enables this… monstrous conspiracy is a secret itself. I ask you, how can this be allowed? How can we have a popular legislature, how can we celebrate and hold sacred the right of every single adult asari to have a voice in making and reviewing our code of laws if we are not allowed to know what the law is? We are being treated like children!”
She tailed off, worried that she had gone too far. Her VI signalled that another online user wished to be heard, and that a few hundred active users were interested in hearing what she had to say. Neela voluntarily relinquished her audience share to the new speaker, confident that she’d got it back when she wanted it.
The new speaker was a lawyer from Holra City — mid-morning there, Neela noted: business must be slow. Judging by her whining, pedantic tone of voice, Neela was less than surprised.
“In point of fact, the law in question was passed by the Erenis city-state — this being where the research group was based — after first contact with the salarians, but before the establishment of the Citadel Council. As non-lawyers may not be aware, the establishment of the Council made it desirable to have a more unified legal structure for the Republics. Accordingly, the doctrine of incorporation states that local laws and ordinances not contradicted by the laws of any other municipality are binding on the Republics as a whole until reviewed. It is, of course, customary for laws frequently incorporated in this way to be published along with the rest of the Code, but it in no way invalidates…”
Disgusted, Neela signalled that she wanted to be heard again. Most of the lawyer’s audience switched their attention immediately, no doubt finding the lawyer’s lecturing tone as dry and condescending as Neela did. She hit the ground running:
“Are we supposed to believe that was an accident? This blatant contempt for public opinion is simply too much. I move that the law be overridden immediately, with a specific rider that the data on anti-agathics falls within the definition of normal research data, to be shared with our Council allies under our existing multilateral agreements!”
“That is premature.” Even as she was transmitting the bill she had drafted hours before, confidently waiting for a few of the friends she had primed to second it and start building some momentum, Neela wanted to pound her fists in frustration: her attention numbers plummeted precipitately, and her VI automatically started playing the feed from the speaker everyone was switching to.
“Any change in the law of the Republics should wait at least until the Council has debated the issue and set the tone for legislation among the Citadel races.”
That was all it took. A matriarch had spoken, and Neela watched as her motion faded into ignominious obscurity, attracting no more votes than would make a majority in a single office building, let alone a multi-planet galactic polity. Neela just remembered to kill the feed before curling her lip in disgust and making herself even more unpopular.
Chapter 4: Thunderhead
“I therefore urge the Asari Republics to disclose the data to this Council immediately!”
“That will not be possible. To do so would violate asari law.”
Shepard drew on every last moment of forty years’ experience in politics, not to mention his military training, to keep himself from blurting out: “Jesus Christ, Tevos! Are you trying to start a war?” Instead he simply stood next to the asari Councillor and tried his utmost to keep his face impassive, as everyone in the Council chamber processed the shock. At length a flicker of bioluminescence in the tail of Shepard’s right eye caught his attention, signalling that Councillor Yuril had won the race to think of something to say. Casting a brief thanks into the ether for hanar unflappability, he turned to where Yuril floated at the right-hand end of the slight curve the Council habitually stood in, and waited for his translator to kick in.
“A point of order: does the asari Councillor concede that the scientific data under discussion does indeed exist?”
“Since this Council keeps itself so well informed, it would be pointless to deny it.”
Shepard hoped the audio pickups hadn’t caught his fast intake of breath: Tevos had spoken without any evidence of rancour, at least, but the satirical edge on her voice was almost worse: he wanted to squirm as he looked down at the quarian, volus and drell ambassadors shifting restlessly on the petitioner’s stage. He tried to match the asari’s insouciant tone:
“Then perhaps you can confirm reports that no doubt we have all heard: that the asari public has been as surprised by the news as the rest of us? And that since asari law is made by the asari public, it may become possible to distribute the data as Councillor Kinarn has requested?”
Before Tevos could respond, a rumbling elcor basso cut across the chamber: “Fervently: the request is not only made by the Salarian Union; the Courts of Dekuuna have instructed me to concur with it on behalf of all elcor.”
“The Turian Hierarchy has given me similar instructions.”
“This one has been likewise instructed by the Illuminated Primacy.”
Everyone looked at Shepard, Tevos not excepted, though the look in her eyes was scarcely inviting him to speak his mind. They all knew what his instructions were from the Alliance, but for lack of a better move to make, he decided to play for time:
“Since this is an issue that may potentially affect every Citadel species — not to say every sapient in the galaxy — I think we should hear from the ambassadors.”
Shepard repressed a wry smile as the ambassadors looked at each other, unsure for a moment who should speak. They silently elected Amit’Koris to speak first, and as soon as he was sure, the quarian bounded straight out of the rhetorical gate:
“This is intolerable! For how many thousands of years have the asari prated to us of consensus and compromise, of respect for the galactic community? And now we find that they have contemptuously withheld this information from us — have lied to us outright whenever we have asked how they have been so lucky” — he made the word drip with contemptuous irony — “as to live for a thousand years. If this data is not swiftly shared it will be a slap in the face to all of us, not to say the final grace note to a centuries-prolonged act of war!”
The word hung in the air for a moment, until it became clear that the volus and drell ambassadors were content for once to nod and admit that someone else had pretty much said it all. Shepard made a heroic effort and managed to begin his own remarks by saying “Thank you, Ambassador Koris” without making it obvious that he wanted to go on “for God’s sake stop talking.” He took a deep breath, just to put it off a little longer, then spoke:
“I too have been instructed by my government to urge the asari to make the data on anti-agathics public. I wish to repeat my observation for those who do not already know it: the authority to make laws within the Asari Republics rests directly with the asari people, to whom the news that anti-agathics ever existed has come as every bit as much of a surprise as it was to the rest of us. Councillor Tevos has reminded us that sharing this particular piece of scientific data would be contrary to asari law; I wish to remind us all that laws can and may very well change. For the time being I therefore urge that we all simply wait and see.”
Shepard had never before felt particularly inclined to kiss a turian, but if it hadn’t been a violation of Council etiquette, he could have kissed Councillor Tharrik as he broke the latest in a series of thoroughly awkward silences: “Well, I think we’ve all made our views on this issue known.” Shepard almost grinned at the way the turian very deliberately didn’t give anyone an opportunity to say that they thought differently: “I’m afraid the next item of business is confidential, so if the ambassadors and members of the public will excuse us? Thank you so much.”
As the galleries cleared and the ambassadors, their aides and everyone else on the petitioner’s stage and in the galleries — one turian in combat armour excepted — filed out of the Council chamber, Shepard permitted himself a glance to his left. Tevos had been an accomplished politician decades before Shepard’s birth, so he wasn’t surprised by his first impression of a mask-like impassivity — made all the more unreadable by the unusually dense profusion of white markings on the asari Councillor’s face. Something about what he had seen nagged at him to the point that he permitted himself a second look, which confirmed it: Tevos’ face wasn’t expressionless, it was rigid. She was holding herself in so tightly that her whole body was very faintly shaking. Shepard held himself in too: letting his curiosity show in his face at this point would probably not help. He had worked with Tevos for fifty years, as a Spectre and then as a Councillor, and he considered her a friend besides, but they both knew their duty: they would conduct themselves as instructed by their governments, friendship be damned, but it didn’t mean either of them would have to like it, and apparently Tevos didn’t. Shepard resolved to bear it in mind.
Once the chamber was clear and Coranin stood alone on the stage, Shepard glanced at Tevos again. She seemed unwilling to speak, so as the next most senior Councillor, Shepard greeted the turian Spectre:
“Welcome back to the Citadel, captain. I understand you have a report for us?”
“Thank you, Councillor — Councillors.” The sweep of the head with which Coranin acknowledged and greeted all six Council members was typical of the frosty courtesy they had all come to expect from him. “And yes, I do. I believe I can state with reasonable confidence that the Eclipse succession crisis is now resolved, at least as far as Citadel space is affected.”
Yuril spoke: “That is indeed gratifying, captain. This Council has heard that you came to the Citadel in pursuit of a fugitive.” Shepard’s translator made it sound like a flat statement rather than an invitation to speak, but however the hanar Councillor’s contribution had come across to turian ears, the context at least was clear. Coranin went on:
“Yes, Councillor. It took very little research to confirm that the rumours were true: Jona Saleris was tricked into the battle that claimed her life; specifically by a corporate officer of Eclipse named Oswald Eich, who prepared by realising every mil of corporate funds he could get his hands on. He fled to Illium with the money. Several of the company’s mercenaries went with him, not unnaturally” — Shepard couldn’t resist a tight little grin: his translator had rendered Coranin’s wry tone perfectly — “Fortunately,” the Spectre continued, “many of the mercs apparently became bored of guarding Eich against reprisals while he enjoyed his, ah, retirement: with the aid of the Axon’s ground forces I was able to clear out those that remained. No casualties.”
“Anxiously: are the authorities on Illium likely to protest your actions?”
Coranin gave a flick of the mandibles that Shepard knew to be the rough equivalent of a human shrug: “I cleared my ops plan with local law enforcement before I struck, and collateral damage was limited to nearby properties: some minor… scorching.” He paused as something seemed to occur to him: “The senior police officer I spoke to, a Captain Anaya, said it was a pleasure to work once more with a Spectre who was a professional.” Shepard smiled a little wider this time, then, when no-one else seemed inclined to speak, took on the responsibility of moving the meeting along:
“I take it Eich himself escaped?”
“Yes.” Coranin made the admission with great reluctance, then made a face as though he had just bitten into something rancid. “He may have been forewarned of our strike: in any case he left the mercenaries to slow us down while he himself fled.”
“You tracked him to the Citadel?” Tharrik’s turian disgust at Eich’s behaviour made his voice drip with predatory eagerness to hear the end of the tale.
“Yes,” Coranin repeated. “He has been… dealt with.”
“So we understand, captain,” said Kinarn drily. “In fact, this Council has received a formal protest from Citadel Security, objecting to your ‘staging an impromptu public execution in a crowded area’, if I recall the wording correctly.” Did Coranin understand salarians — and their eidetic memories — well enough to spot the ironic humour in the dalatrass’s comments? Shepard wondered. If he did, he gave no sign, only flicking his mandibles once again:
“The crowded area in question was a docking bay: Eich clearly only ever intended to use the Citadel as a stop on the way. Once I’d caught up with him, there was no time to alert C-Sec.” Coranin paused, then, apparently feeling further justification was called for, went on: “I was able to recover a great deal of the money Eich had stolen: it has been added to my operational funds.”
“Leaving Eclipse bled white,” Shepard concluded. “And if they try to sue to get it back, they’ll run straight into your Council immunity. Good work, captain: you’ve drawn the teeth of the single biggest threat from the Terminus systems to Council space.” He glanced at Yuril, who glowed assent: Eclipse had interfered with hanar interests particularly. “For a price like that, I think we can manage to soothe Executor Cantrell’s hurt feelings.” Shepard glanced from side to side, and his fellow Councillors all indicated their agreement one way or another. “Good,” he went on. “Job well done, captain. If there’s nothing else…?”
Shepard eyed the other Councillors again, but it was Coranin who spoke up: “Councillors, I must renew my request for a permanently assigned ship. If I hadn’t had to wait for a pickup from the Axon, I might have dealt with Eich before he ever left Omega.”
“I have endorsed your request to the Hierarchy, but…” Tharrik obviously shared Coranin’s frustration, not to mention having a measure of his own, wanting to criticise his own government, but knowing that to do so on the record would be… unwise. Shepard hastened to his rescue:
“I too have raised the issue with the Alliance: I believe it is high time we accepted that supporting the Spectres is the responsibility of all the Council races, regardless of the nationality of the Spectre concerned…” He checked himself: “However, these are… unsettled times. I’m afraid you’ll have to be responsible for your own tasking for the time being, captain.” He grinned. “Or simply take some time off, of course. At any rate, I hope that the next time you hear from us, we will have both a ship and a lead on a new mission for you.” He gave another quick glance from side to side. “This Council stands adjourned.”
“Liara T. Shepard, D.Phil.”
Just reading the words, rendered in elegant Roman characters on the door of Liara’s office, made a knot of tension Shepard hadn’t even realised he was still holding onto unravel somewhere in his midsection. He spared a thought for all those who lived, worked or frequented cafés on his regular route from the Citadel Tower to the Museum of Galactic History — it was a long walk, but Shepard never tired of the view of the wards from the elevator down from the tower, and the walk through Tayseri Ward always gave him time to process recent events and review his thoughts. He wondered how many humans were there often enough to see their Councillor striding stiff-legged through the highways, cut-throughs and secret shortcuts he’d plotted out, muttering balefully to himself. As the door slid open he shook his head, suspecting, and not for the first time, that he might in fact be a dork.
Liara smiled welcome towards him, and the work of releasing tension was done: Shepard’s every muscle immediately felt slack and warm, and the words he spoke had to struggle their way out past his habitual goofy grin:
“I don’t suppose I need to catch you up on anything, do I?”
As he made a bee-line for one of the comfortable chairs on the hither side of her desk, Liara shook her head, gesturing at her computer system.
“You don’t, although I did not actually give the Council meeting my whole attention: I spent most of my time fighting to overcome my security classification.”
“What, you mean the Centre for Foreign Security Policy and Operations doesn’t trust you? Why, you’d almost think they were worried you might share your mind, with, ah, a prominent alien official, or something!”
She gave him a tolerant look. “In a way, it is only fair: it isn’t as though I tell them about every file that crosses your desk, either.”
He nodded. “Still, I’m sorry I’ve kept you out of the Club For Single Purebloods Only.”
Liara closed her eyes and tried not to smile. Shepard had more than enough data to guess what she might be thinking: he’d been absurdly pleased with himself for thinking of a punnish name for the main asari foreign intelligence arm — even if it depended on one particular only-middling-accurate translation of its name into his native language — and he never missed an opportunity to repeat it. Even better, he reflected smugly, Liara’s spies had informed them that the name had caught on within the Centre itself, at least among the Alliance-watchers that were in a position to appreciate it. Still, it might not hurt to lay off it: after presumably begging the Goddess for strength, Liara spoke:
“I suppose I can forgive you.” She smirked. “Besides, it’s not as though they’re my only source of information.” He nodded as she paused, then went on: “Actually, I owe as much to the, uh, day job” — she made an indeterminate gesture that took in her office, the museum and all that therein was — “as I do to my sources for the idea I’ve been chasing.” Shepard cocked his head inquiringly, and then grinned as Liara slipped into her Lecture Voice.
“Sometimes just knowing there must be finds to be made in a general area is enough that any archæologist will be able to give you a short list of places to start digging; and any intelligence analyst will tell you that once people know a secret is being kept, it’s already more than half-way to being found out completely. You look at the gaps in the things you know, and in particular at the things the opposition has tried to mislead you about, and often you see an outline, and you know there are only a few things that could fit… Do you see what I mean?”
“Now, medicine, biology and so on aren’t my field, but I keep coming back to the fact that the known facts in this case are completely open source — they’re in the textbooks: doctors have to know them — so to an expert, now that they know there’s a gap to look for, it should be… an anti-agathics shaped hole in the truth.”
Shepard sat bolt upright. “You mean someone might actually reinvent the treatment?”
Liara favoured him with the smile she reserved for apt pupils: “Exactly. The Centre has locked me out of all information on where the Matriarchs keep their copy — or copies — of the original data, but I don’t think they’ve realised it may not be that important.” She paused to follow up a crucial digression: “I’ll keep trying to get around it, of course: if nothing else, we need to know where everyone else will be looking…” Shepard nodded, and Liara resumed her theme: “but I’m collecting all the data I can find on bioscience research groups. If I hear that any of them is getting close to rediscovering what our ancestors found out…” Throughout the last sentence, her gaze had strayed into the middle distance, and by the time her eyes had unfocussed, her voice tailed off. “Of course, if anyone realises what I’m looking for…” she resumed at length, before grinding to a halt again.
Shepard reached out a hand. Liara looked down at the movement, and, quizzically, took it. She looked a question at her husband.
“Just pulling you to safety,” he not-quite-clarified. “You know, out of that infinite regress of they-know-we-know-they-know-we-know you fell into. No need to thank me,” he assured her airily. She gave him the look again.
Before either of them could say anything more, the door chime went off. With only a mild look of surprise, Liara leaned over and tapped the control to open it.
“Ah, I am glad you are both here.”
“Samara.” Liara’s voice betrayed a morsel of surprise. “We weren’t expecting to see you until we got home.”
Shepard’s brows knitted together as a half-formed thought forced its way past his lips: “Are the girls…?”
“They are at home with Wrex,” Samara hastened to assure him. “I came to tell you… that I have to leave.”
Words were often superfluous among these three. Shepard and Liara invited the justicar to continue using only their expressions. “It was something the quarian ambassador said.” Her voice gathered pace and conviction: “The matriarchs have not merely kept silent. They have lied. How much responsibility they bear… for deaths that came earlier than they might have… I am still not sure…” Again she tugged herself out of the quicksands of uncertainty. “I must return to Thessia and confer with the other justicars.”
Liara and her husband looked at each other. By mutual consent, they elected Shepard to speak up. “All right, but we’re not breaking it to the girls!” Terri and Nezzy’s godmother very nearly smiled, but then Shepard’s expression grew serious again. “Please keep in touch, though. We’ll be working on… everything” — He made a frustrated gesture at his own inarticulacy — “and we may need your help. Especially if you’re in asari space,” he added as an afterthought.
Samara gave him a glacial, unreadable, very justicar expression, paused as though time itself had stopped, then finally reassured him: “I will.”
Chapter 5: Allies, New…
“Hey, L.T., can I ask you something?”
“Hm?” The non-com was at least speaking in that very low voice that is even less detectable than a whisper, so Halina didn’t shush him, but she wasn’t really listening as she peered into the dense jungle.
“What do you think of all this crap with the asari? They know how any of us could live as long as they do, and they’re not telling? That’s some bullshit right…”
His voice had risen, so Halina cut him off. “This isn’t the time, uh, corporal.” The permanent non-commissioned cadre at the villa didn’t include anybody below the rank of service chief, but that didn’t stop them running exercises when there weren’t warm bodies from other units to be drafted in. They just declared themselves to be junior soldiers for the duration and dared you to condescend to them. Halina grinned to herself as she watched Gunny Staines pretend he hadn’t seen exactly what she had: combat is one skill, acting is another, and the Corps generally only trained people in the one…
“Think we’ve got contact, corp.” She shook off the amusement and focused on the job, her voice crackling with decisive authority. “Hold your squad here.”
Halina engaged her tactical cloak and moved cautiously forward, not wanting to so much as brush a leaf as she crossed the dangerous ground between the point squad and the advance guard. She let the cloak dissipate once she was sure she was concealed behind a fallen tree, then slipped silently along it.
“On your six, Williams,” she murmured. The second human Spectre and command NCO of the Interplanetary Combatives Academy had decided that she was a private, 1st class for the purposes of this mission — purely, as far as Halina could tell, for grins — so she played the game and acted as though the sergeant-major might not have known perfectly well that she was there.
“Ma’am,” Ashley acknowledged.
“Third limb up the tree at your two o’clock,” Halina said without preamble. “That look like a boot-heel to you?”
“Yes, ma’am!” The sergeant-major did such a beautiful job of bringing her rifle up like an over-eager boot that Halina pushed the muzzle back down in genuine alarm.
“Easy, private! We don’t have to win the war all on our own, you know!” The older woman returned Halina’s one-dimple lopsided grin with interest, whether due to the lieutenant’s undeniable charm, to the cheeky oblique reference to Ashley’s career, or to the fact that she hadn’t been startled into yelling and giving their position away, Halina wasn’t quite sure. She thought for a moment, then decided to risk the enemy hearing as she brought up her omni-tool.
“All right, everybody listen up.” The exigencies of the situation made her voice over the com quiet but no less purposeful for that. “I’m marking the enemy’s probable location. Staines, I want your squad flanking them in a line starting at my position, like this.” She drew her finger along the map she was rapidly sketching. “Roy, while they’re getting into position, your squad’s going to make a diversion: use grenades, concussive shots, the works; I want you sounding like double your numbers. Staines, start moving now. Roy, hold the diversion for my mark.”
Halina wondered if she’d overdone treating the squad leaders like relative FNGs for a moment, as she watched the dots representing Staines’ people fan out, then mentally shrugged. I’m sure the sar’-major will tell me. At length. In front of everyone.
The dots started to turn green as the flank squad signalled ‘in position’. “Stand by… stand by… mark!” Her military monotone unleashed a creditably noisy diversion from ‘Corporal’ Roy’s squad and Halina and Ashley moved as one, their rifles seeking out Montoya’s people as they broke cover: Halina watched through the sight as an ops chief with twice her years and five times as much experience grimaced in disgust, his omni-tool having just informed him that he was ‘dead’, and she grinned.
“No, no, no,” Therrin muttered to himself. Rana was busy at her own terminal, but had long since learned to keep one ear open for the promising ideas he might let drop by the wayside as he worked. “Apoptosis takes place for a reason — we want to make long-lived person, not a tumour that walks and talks… for a while.” Rana grimaced. “No. No. No no no no no.” She surmised that he was going back over his steps, trying to find where he could have taken a wrong turn to get to the walking-tumour conclusion.
Therrin made an untranscribable salarian frustration sound. “But the answer has to have something to do with…” Gaah! With what‽, Rana thought, and teetered indecisively on the brink of prompting him until he went on: “but there must be an analogue of telomerase…”
Rana’s brow furrowed. “Wait, Therrin. How do you know that?”
He looked up and blinked. “Hm, what? Oh, that’s right, I haven’t told you yet. You remember I told you about Wix? We were rivals in undergrad, then he went to med school while I went for my PhD? He still calls me Phony Doctor?” Rana nodded impatiently. “Well, he was recruited by the STG after he graduated. I called and asked.”
Rana tried not to rest her forehead on her hand. “Therrin, I really wish you hadn’t done that.” That just made him look all hurt and young and vulnerable, so she sighed and explained: “Wix will have had to report the call to his superiors, and that’s if he didn’t have to get clearance to talk to you to begin with.” She waited to see if he was getting the point, then went on. “Besides, do you realise how few false positives anyone monitoring the com network for a keyword like ‘telomerase’ is going to get?” Therrin was still looking baffled, but she was confident the point would make itself felt eventually. “Never mind,” she told him. “We’ll just have to work that much faster.”
“…one last thing,” said Ashley. Here it comes, Halina thought. “Did you see any more of Lieutenant Montoya’s people than the one you pointed out to me, ma’am?”
“No, sergeant-major, I didn’t.” Halina gave the expected answer in the tone of one who has accepted the inevitable.
“Then you didn’t actually know you were putting Chief Staines’ squad on his flank, did you, lieutenant?”
“No, sergeant-major.” Halina repeated equably, accepting and moulding herself around the criticism as though she were fading away from a strike on the sparring mat. Ashley gave her a searching look, which she tried to absorb the same way until it became clear she would have to say more. “However,” she continued, choosing her words with care, “I was ready to adjust if it turned out it was Chief Roy who was on the lieutenant’s flank.” Besides, she didn’t go on to add, I just knew that was how Montoya would have deployed his people. Ash heard her anyway. “I got lucky,” she contented herself with admitting.
Ashley paused long enough to put Halina on edge, then nodded. “You all know what Napoleon said about lucky officers, I’m sure.” She looked from side to side at her fellow NCOs: “Was there anything else?”
“One thing, sar’-major.” Chief Roy leaned forward, and Ash nodded. “Lieutenant, did you consider the dangers involved in using your omni-tool to co-ordinate the strike? As close as you were to Lieutenant Montoya’s patrol, your transmissions might have been picked up.”
Halina nodded. “I did, Chief. But since the lieutenant might have moved his people out at any time I felt the risk was worth it, compared to heading back to give the op orders in person.”
“But you could have given the orders verbally over the com, ma’am,” Roy pursued the point. “Voice traffic is harder to localise, and if Lieutenant Montoya had broken your crypto, he would have had your attack plan and all of Chief Staines’ people’s positions.”
“That’s true, of course,” Halina admitted. “But I decided it was better to have the op orders unambiguous.” And give you all no chance to pretend to screw up by the numbers. She consulted her omni-tool. “We were transmitting for forty-three seconds,” she pointed out. “Even if the enemy had penetrated crypto, it would probably have been too late for him to redeploy his people.”
Ashley raised an eyebrow, presumably at the boldness of the assertion, but didn’t pursue the point. “All right, lieutenant. Thank you.”
Did senior NCOs take classes in politely explaining to an officer exactly how she’d screwed the pooch without ever breaching the rules of military courtesy? Halina wondered as Ashley called out “Lieutenant Montoya, front and centre, please!” Or did it come by degrees?
“What the fuck were you thinking?” Of course, if you’re a Spectre, even a retired one, you can pretty much do what you want…
“Good to see you, captain. Do please come in.”
Coranin inclined his head gravely, trying not to be disconcerted by the way humans seemed to think baring their teeth was a signal of friendliness. He let Councillor Shepard usher him into the palatial — and extraterritorial, though from whom had never seemed clear, unless it was everyone — apartment on the Presidium that he enjoyed in virtue of his office.
“Do you know Liara? And Garrus?” Coranin gave up: he was disconcerted. Were they all to be on first-name terms? As an older man and a war hero to a younger, let alone as a member of the Citadel Council towards a Spectre, Shepard had the privilege of setting the tone, but… it suddenly dawned on Coranin that he wasn’t even sure he knew the Councillor’s given name! He stuck to the facts:
“I met the professor briefly at a function some years ago. Mr. Vakarian I know by reputation.”
The asari, at least, showed a sense of the proprieties, confining herself to a graceful, closed-lipped smile and nod to acknowledge the fact that they had exchanged meaningless pleasantries once, whether she truly remembered or not. Vakarian, on the other hand… Oh, his behaviour was impeccable, but how to respond? The man had quit C-Sec to work in a series of ill-defined capacities: for the Councillor back when he was a Spectre, on his own account on Omega, as a ‘consultant’ — whatever that meant! — to the Hierarchy, and then on Rannoch doing the spirits knew what. On paper that made him junior to a man who had reached the rank of captain in the fleet before being tapped as a Spectre. Coranin took a dubious look at Garrus and immediately dismissed that idea as ridiculous.
“Good!” Shepard was doing the thing with the teeth again. “Then we needn’t stand on ceremony.” He gestured towards a door in the far corner of the room, and his people started off on their way there without further prompting. Coranin let himself be ushered. “And speaking of which,” the Councillor went on, “I hope you don’t mind dining family-style.” He led them through the door, so that Coranin discovered that they were not bound for the formal dining room, but the kitchen, which in fairness was more than large enough to accommodate a party of four sat around a round table. The table in question was loaded with a bewildering variety of dishes, though with an empty stripe down the middle. Vakarian and the asari took their seats without preamble — to show him which was the dextro-protein side, Coranin abruptly realised.
The Councillor waited by his own seat for Coranin to take the empty one. “I hope you find something to your liking, captain. Some of my best friends are from dextro species, and I haven’t poisoned any of them yet!”
Coranin paused into the middle of settling into his chair and fiddling fussily with his napkin: “You prepared this yourself, Councillor?”
“A modest hobby, but my own.” Shepard somewhat enigmatically asserted.
“I’ve been able to smell it all evening, so I say we start!” The professor said, and the Councillor’s face did a thing Coranin had never seen before as he looked at his wife.
The conversation became strictly practical as they pressed dishes on Coranin and one another: he was sure Vakarian noticed his surprise at being presented with some of the best farin bread he’d tasted outside of strictly turian space. Stiffly, he murmured a few complimentary words to his host.
“You’re very kind, captain. Whenever galactic politics become stressful or frustrating, I practise cookery.” The Councillor paused. “People say I’m a very good cook…”
Coranin surprised himself by letting slip a genuinely appreciative laugh — he hadn’t thought humans capable of what he considered to be true humour — he considered reining it in, but couldn’t think of any reason. Shepard gave a smile — closed-mouth, thankfully — and the others joined in, prompted more by his own reaction, Coranin suspected, than by the joke itself.
The Councillor let the merriment subside, then spoke quietly and compellingly. “Tell me, captain, what do you plan to do about the anti-agathics situation?”
It was considerate of him to pounce when Coranin was raising his glass, rather than when he was actually trying to drink, the Spectre found himself thinking. It let him take a sip in order to play for time, as well as preventing the Shepards from being sprayed with dextro-wine — which would be a waste of a well-selected vintage, if nothing else. Shepard himself was drinking nothing but water, he noted… No! He thought. Stall him, not yourself! He chose to go with a non-committal “Councillor?”
“Oh, come now, captain! I’ve read your reports: you don’t strike me as the kind of man who’d use unexpected down-time just to go on vacation.”
Coranin gave him what he devoutly hoped was an enigmatic look. “Perhaps not.”
“And in any case, Spectres are sworn to preserve galactic peace. Does peace seem likely just at the moment, captain?”
The only direct answer he could think of to that was another enigmatic “Perhaps not.” Coranin decided to cut straight to the chase instead: “I’m sure you have some suggestions, Councillor.”
Shepard smiled his appreciation of Coranin’s tone. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Councillor, this is most improper.”
“I don’t think so,” Shepard told him brazenly. “I mean, if the Council had actual command authority over you, it would be one thing, but Spectres are responsible for their own day-to-day tasking. If you can send yourself off on some quixotic mission after talking to some fellow in the street, why can’t you do the same after talking to me?”
A far lesser man would have spotted the flaw in that one, Coranin thought. “And, of course, there’s no particular reason why you’ve invited me here to… talk, instead of suggesting a new mission to me with the other Council members present.”
“None whatsoever!” Shepard actually was baring his teeth this time, Coranin was almost sure. “Look, captain, I’m not trying to give you an order, and I know better than to ask a turian to lie. I just want to tell you my opinion about what needs to be done, in what I honestly consider to be the best interests of galactic peace. Will you hear me?”
Coranin searched the older man’s eyes with his own, then nodded. Shepard started speaking, his wife occasionally interpolating a telling piece of galactic intelligence, and Vakarian offering the occasional turian perspective. It really was a compelling performance.
“All right, Councillor, I see your point.” Coranin had in fact had to struggle not to adopt Shepard’s world-view wholesale as his own — he wished he knew the secret of charisma, and not for the first time — “But if I’m going to do this, I really will need my own ship.”
“So you will.” Shepard nodded. “You’ll have to travel commercially for the first leg of your trip, but if you can get within easy reach of the Exodus Cluster, I think something can be arranged.”
Chapter 6: …and Old
OK, for this chapter there are a few aspects of the AU we need to go into:
- While writing this I thought to myself “For Shepard I’ve chosen a gender, a spouse, a family and an inner monologue, I doubt the reader will be much more alienated if I admit he also has a first name.” It’s Phil.
- I am really not fond of the way Cerberus was reimagined going from the first to the second game in the series; so not-fond that I’m leaving it out of this AU entirely. That means there never was an Illusive Man or a Kai Leng, and if Miranda, Jacob or Jack appear they will need to be reimagined in their turn.
- Another thing I’m not fond of is the blatant fanservice in the character designs from ME2 going forward. The combination of these two means that in this AU, EDI never got a sexy robot body; her relationship with Joker developed while she was still a disembodied A.I.
If you want to get more of an idea of my personal headcanons, takes on the trilogy and prejudices, I suggest checking out my blog on tumblr: https://a-man-adrift.tumblr.com/. The content there is 99% Mass Effect. In particular, I try to post tidbits about Phil Shepard on a daily basis. They are collected in a masterpost at https://a-man-adrift.tumblr.com/phil-shepard.
Liara let frustration quirk the corners of her lips as she eeled her way through the crowds: she could see the back of her husband’s head — grizzled, of course, and with the growing bald patch he was sweetly self-conscious about — but he was getting closer to the front of the boarding queue, and in the circumstances she didn’t dare call out to him. Look around! If she were close enough that thinking it at him would actually work, she reflected ruefully, she could just as easily tap him on the shoulder.
It worked anyway, through the awesome power of coincidence: as soon as he saw the look on her face, he murmured a few words to an attentive steward — I knew there was no chance you’d get to travel incognito! She spared a moment to think — and started working his way backwards through the queue.
As anticipated, Liara had some trouble making the hand-off: he stretched out his arms as a matter of course, and the disconcerted expression on his face as she turned her palms outwards and took hold of his hands, instead of settling complaisantly into the hug they were reaching for, might have raised a few red flags. He was commendably quick on the uptake, though, palming the scrap of paper away and leaning in, not for a kiss, but for a neck-nuzzle that provided cover for them to murmur into one another’s ears.
“Another one?” The buzz of his voice in her ear made her shiver. “Does Garrus have a copy?”
“That’s what took me so long to get down here.”
“Ah, and how exactly did you make the hand-off to him?”
She rolled her eyes: “He can shake my hand without acting out of character!”
They had worked very hard to hold his insecurity and jealousy down to the level of casual jokes: she could feel his contrition when they joined, but she still got frustrated: maybe if we do this right, he’ll live long enough to notice that I love him as much as he loves me, she thought, half fondly and half in exasperation.
They were saved from further exploration of this theme by the steward, who hovered apologetically at their collective elbow.
“I’m sorry, Councillor, but we really do need everybody on board.”
He released his hold — keeping the scrap of paper hidden, she was pleased to notice — and turned to address the steward with his habitual courteous charm.
“No, I’m sorry. Lead on,” he told the man, half-turning to indicate his willingness to be herded at once. He kept eye contact with her, though, just long enough to say “Love you.”
“I love you too,” she told him, firmly and clearly, and he grinned his habitual can’t-believe-I’m-so-lucky grin for as long as she could still see him. She was shaking her head as she watched him disappear through the door to the waiting transport, but she was also smiling.
Whether all the ‘spy stuff’ had really been necessary, Liara wasn’t sure, but from experience she knew how easily com traffic could be intercepted, and handing the enemy — however nebulously defined — an easy win offended her sense of professionalism. With her accustomed mental discipline, she dismissed the thought from her mind, and it stayed dismissed even though there was nothing in particular to replace it: It shouldn’t be this busy this early! Ah, but the Citadel never sleeps. Will the girls be awake when I get back? Will Wrex be up? She let the flotsam of consciousness bob past as she hailed a rapid-transit cab, noting even the driver’s curious once-over as she gave a fancy Presidium address without judgement, except that she was briefly pleased not to have been recognised for a change.
“Mother, what’s wrong?”
Liara looked up from her breakfast and tried not to show her amusement at the studied solemnity of Teresa’s features; she schooled her own into what she hoped was a reassuring smile and asked:
“What do you mean?”
“I was awake when father left. I…” She paused, probably aware she was on perilous ground admitting to having overheard adults’ conversation, Liara thought fondly as Terri cast her big pink eyes down — she was slightly better than her husband at resisting their daughters’ adorability, but only slightly — “I heard you say we wouldn’t be welcome where he’s going,” she continued, and her voice went higher as she gathered steam and confidence. “And the man who was here last night: you called him ‘captain’; when people visit you and daddy call them by their first names. Like Uncle Garrus.”
Liara grinned widely: all right, eavesdropping wasn’t exactly the done thing, but as a mother and an intelligence analyst she’d never been more proud; and besides, she’d had a bet on with herself about exactly when Terri would forget that ‘mother’ and ‘father’ were the only terms a mature young lady could use to refer to her parents. She took a deep breath, paused to collect her thoughts and words, and answered:
“You’re right: your daddy and I do have a situation… something we’re worried about and that we’re trying to fix. Part of it is that some people where daddy’s going wouldn’t like us very much, just because we’re asari.” She was ready to give an entire homily on the subject of galactic racism, when her youngest abruptly derailed her train of thought.
“Daddy should be ashamed of himself!” Benezia spoke the words brightly and cheerfully — Liara found a moment amid her general reaction to worry about the development of her vocabulary, as she very clearly didn’t know what she was saying. She raised a hand to forestall Terri, who by the way she was about to round on her little sister equally clearly did, and spoke, carefully:
“Nezzy, where did you hear that?”
“Jason said so,” said Benezia in a small voice, with a look on her face as though she’d just thrown a marshmallow and watched it break a window.
Liara closed her eyes and frowned: the human boy was Nezzy’s best friend. Or at least he had been. “And do you know what it means?” She tried to ask as neutrally as possible. Benezia shook her head, making a humiliating admission for a girl whose big sister’s brains were already winning her prizes and praise from parents and teachers alike. Liara reflected that she probably did know what the words meant, but the combination of them as applied to her father was too far out of her comprehension to make any sense.
“It’s not a very nice thing to say about someone, you know.” It was necessary to tell her. Nezzy’s lower lip started to wobble, and Liara was out of her seat in a trice. She knelt down beside her daughter and ran a reassuring hand along her daughter’s budding crest.
“It’s all right, baby girl,” she told her. “I’m not angry with you.” I am going to pull favours and find out a few things about young Jason’s family, though! She was startled out of vengeful planning by a once-again solemn interpolation from Terri:
“Mother,” Liara looked past Nezzy at her sister. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Liara grinned again: she wasn’t quite sure which adult’s diction Teresa was very specifically copying, but she had a feeling that she’d remember somewhere towards the middle of the morning. She cuddled Nezzy until she was sure she was feeling better, then moved to crouch down next to Terri’s chair. Looking into her daughter’s eyes, Liara grinned even more widely as something better than the limp anodyne fob-off she’d been ready to offer occurred to her:
“Terri,” she told her, “some day sooner than you think, your father and I are going to have a problem, and we’re going to look around, and we’re going to realise that the best person to help us with it is… you. And on that day, Miss Teresa, we will not forget to ask you for help. That’s a promise.” She put her arms around her daughter’s shoulders, pulled her in close and made a deeply satisfied purring noise that came from somewhere within the part of her mind that was her husband. She’d enjoyed listening to him make it often enough. “But until then,” she went on, “just be a good girl, and let us get on with the silly things old people like to worry about. OK?”
“OK.” Terri told her solemnly, then frowned. “Mother!” She scolded. “You’re not old! You’re not even two hundred!”
Liara laughed out loud, then shook her head. “All right, girls, come on. Time for school.”
Shepard had never before seen the striking blonde he found himself faced with, with finely chiselled features and approximately eight miles of leg, but the fact that she had answered the door, not to mention the SR-2 ball cap she was wearing, was more than enough information for him to put two and two together:
“EDI!” He greeted her delightedly. “You’re looking well.”
“Thank you, commander.” Her voice, at least, was exactly as Shepard remembered, and he shook his head:
“EDI… one: I’m retired, and two: we’ve known each other half a century. You can call me Phil.” If her face was expressionless, Shepard’s wasn’t: he grinned approvingly.
“That’s good to know, Phil,” a familiar voice called from an inner room. “Get in here, will ya?”
Whatever you say, Jeff. The words died aborning as Shepard followed EDI into the living room and saw a familiar figure rise from the high-backed chair next to Joker’s bed, and in a hearteningly sprightly fashion, too.
“Karin!” Shepard folded Dr. Chakwas into a heartfelt hug, and held onto her hands as they broke it. “I was hoping I’d see you.”
“Well, it’s not as though the message had to travel far,” she pointed out, and Shepard nodded. He and Liara had shared a smile when they heard that Karin had just happened to choose the same retirement community as Joker, and been wholly unsurprised that she’d been allocated the unit right next door.
“I was so sorry I had to miss your birthday,” he told her.
She nodded. “It was lovely to see Liara, anyway. And the girls: they’re adorable!”
Shepard grinned the grin of a proud papa. “You’ll get no argument from me!” His expression clouded. “I wish I could have brought them on this trip, but I don’t imagine they’d be very welcome.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Joker piped up, and Shepard turned to look at his friend as he lay propped up on the inclined bed. He was still wearing his hat. “I mean, OK, some random asari: maybe not, but Liara? This is Terra Nova: they remember us here. I haven’t had to buy a drink once since I arrived.”
“I should hope not: I told you to go easy on the alcohol!” Karin reminded him tartly.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever, mom.”
Karin refused to rise to that. “Talking of which, I still have the gift you sent. We’ll have to open it up before you go.”
Shepard smiled assent: “It’s not the most original gift idea I’ve ever had: another bottle of Serrice Ice Brandy.”
“No, it’s something more important,” Karin told him, her voice redolent with sincerity: “It’s tradition, and when you’re a hundred years old, traditions mean a lot.” She paused, and they all savoured the sentiment as it hung in the air. Karin let her voice brighten, dispelling it: “I tell you what: why don’t I go and fetch it now? You can talk over whatever it is you’ve come for with Jeff and EDI, and then if Jeff’s a very good boy” — she paused to pat him on the head — “we can all have a drink together.”
Shepard nodded. “It sounds perfect.” As Karin left to take the short walk to her own bungalow, he sat down next to the bed and sighed. “I’ve turned into one of those awful friends you never hear from unless they want something, haven’t I?”
Joker reached an arm across his body and laid a hand on Shepard’s forearm. “Yeah,” he told him with mock solemnity. Shepard looked down at the hand, snorted and looked up, past Jeff, into EDI’s eyes.
“EDI,” he said, his voice crackling with enough captainly authority that both she and Jeff immediately sat up straighter. “Would your program still fit in the Normandy’s AI core?”
“No,” she answered immediately. “Not in its current form. I could, however, modularise non-essential components in such a way as to be able to reintegrate them later without loss of identity… possibly. I will need to take this hologram offline while I refactor my programming.”
It took Shepard a second or two to process all that and realise that she was asking for permission. “Uh, go ahead,” he told her. It’s your program! He wanted to add. EDI nodded and dissolved into a cloud of orange light… except for her ball cap, which was held up by the dissipating mass effect fields for a second, then fell into the hand that Shepard reflexively shot out to catch it. He turned to Joker, only to discover that his hat had mysteriously vanished. Shepard put two and two together and grinned as he handed his friend his lucky hat, and Joker repaid him with a bland nothing-to-see-here type of look. Shepard rolled with it. He gestured to the patch of thin air in which EDI had chosen to sit down.
“Did you pick out that, uh, look?”
“No way,” Joker assured him. “That was all EDI. We had to go through a bunch of really old T.V. shows before she found one she liked.”
“Let me guess: really old T.V. shows featuring actresses you happen to find hot?”
“Well, yeah.” Joker’s tone indicated bafflement at the idea that he might have acted any other way. Shepard nodded. It was, after all, fair enough.
“I’m glad Ochren came through for you.”
“He did, but EDI’s made a lot of special modifications herself. You have no idea what a fingertip made from a mass effect field feels like on your…”
Shepard’s vehement “I don’t want to know!” and EDI’s amplified “I am still listening, Jeff” cut across one another. Joker grinned, and changed the subject.
“So we’re taking the Normandy out for one last hurrah? That’s awesome. I was missing my baby anyway.”
Shepard bent and bowed his head as though it were physically weighed down by what he had to break to him. “Jeff…” he began.
“I know!” Joker’s sudden burst of anger hit Shepard like a shotgun blast taking half his shield power. “You don’t have to tell me I’m a goddamn cripple, commander!” The storm blew over almost as soon as it had hit. “I’m sorry… shit, Phil, I’m sorry. I just…” He visibly gave up and moved on: “EDI can fly the ship just fine. Hell, if she’s on board you’ll barely need a crew.”
Shepard nodded. “I’ve got a crew of two lined up so far: I’m counting on it.” He paused, looking Joker in the eyes. “I’m not going either, you know.” It wasn’t the same thing, and they both knew it, so Joker just nodded back.
“Seriously, though, L.T. — clear — what do you think of all this crap with the asari?”
Stark closed the breech of yet another in a mind-numbing chain of assault rifles, racked it, and finally spoke: “Any particular reason you’re asking me, there, chief?”
Ash held her breath and wished she were Shepard, or Stark for that matter: she could do covert if she had to, but her training had mainly assumed that light infantry sorts like her old captain, or Infiltrators like the lieutenant, would take care of that for her, and then call her in when they needed someone to kill people and break things. She quit second-guessing herself over exactly when she’d drop the other shoe and move the little darlings from fatigues to an all-hands drill, and waited, praying she hadn’t been noticed and the conversation would go on.
“I don’t see anyone else here, ma’am,” said Staines mildly. He didn’t then turn and wink at Ash, which the sergeant-major took as a promising sign.
“Hm.” Stark didn’t sound too convinced, but she was clearly willing to play along for the time being. “Guess I don’t have much of a dog in the fight. I don’t really know any asari.”
“Well, all right, but…” Staines towered over the young lieutenant at well over six feet, and you could tell that he hadn’t spent decades serving in the paymaster’s office: every year in the Corps seemed to have cut its own line into his homely features. But for all that, the burly service chief seemed to Ash to be the more vulnerable of the two as he visibly searched for the right words. “I mean, anyone who’s died of old age since, like, Diocletian…” — Ash smiled to herself as Stark looked up sharply, evidently surprised to hear such a learned reference in a Cockney accent she’d probably never associated with anything more sophisticated than the orders of the day. — “The asari knew how to save them. Well, all right, they didn’t know we were here to be saved for most of the time, but… d’you know what I mean?”
Stark just nodded, as Staines clearly wasn’t done speaking. “I knew this guy, all right? We grew up together back in London. One day, he met this asari, from one of the rebuilding teams the Council sent after the war. We’d neither of us met any before — I mean, we didn’t have a pot to piss in, know what I mean? Uh, sorry, ma’am —” Ash noted Stark’s impatient shake of the head even as she almost copied it. “Anyway, you watch the vids, you think asari are all ladylike and, I don’t know, graceful or whatever, but this one swore like a navvy — and she could climb scaffolding like one and all. I mean, well, I suppose she was one, wasn’t she?”
Staines visibly collected his thoughts: “Anyway, Norman — that’s my mate — he fell, and I mean fell, for this asari bird. He’d bang on and on about how their ‘minds had touched’ and it was all deep and meaningful and whatever, but when the job was done he found out the asari didn’t feel the same. She just buggered off, back to Thessia or wherever. Just ‘thanks, I had a great time’, and gone. Norman was never the same after that.”
Stark paused for a moment. “I’m sorry, chief. But you can’t judge a whole species by one of its members. I wouldn’t want people to think every human is like some of the assholes I can think of!” She grinned as she echoed his phrasing: “Know what I mean?” Staines couldn’t help grinning back. Nor could Ash. “Besides,” Stark went on, “from what I hear most of the asari were as, I don’t know, thrown by this latest business as anyone.”
The skipper couldn’t have said it better himself, Ash thought. Young Lieutenant Stark’s stock had just gone up a few points.
“So come on, Jeff.” Shepard slurred. “When are you going to make an honest robot out of EDI?”
“Do you consider me dishonest, Phil?”
Shepard opened his mouth to explain, but Joker cut across him, his voice slow and… deliberate, but still clear:
“Replace ‘robot’ with ‘woman’ and run your idiom search again, EDI.”
“Oh,” she said before he had finished speaking. Her face was expressionless.
“Yeah, ‘oh,’” said Joker. “’Sides, I’m pretty sure you can’t legally marry an A.I., commander.”
“Call him Phil!” Karin put in, again before Shepard could make his rejoinder.
“It doesn’t mean,” said Shepard with exaggerated slowness, “that you can’t throw a great big party! Show us all how much you loooove her.”
“Like you loooove Liara?”
Shepard giggled. “I do!” He confided as though it were a state secret. Karin smiled tolerantly at him. Joker gave him a Bronx cheer, and then changed the subject:
“It wouldn’t be the first time EDI’s had to carry me over the threshold.”
Shepard nodded: “I’m sorry, man.”
“Fuck it,” Joker said, pursing his lips. “You know how few people with Vrolik Syndrome live long enough to break their legs so many times they can’t walk any more?” The sentence came out of him all in a flood, and his brow furrowed as he went over it again in his head. At length, unable to find a flaw, he went on: “I’m one of the lucky ones.” He spat the word ‘lucky’ out as though it were made of gall.
Shepard’s own brow furrowed in concern. “Are you going to be OK while EDI’s gone?”
“Of course he is,” Karin insisted. “I’ll stay here while EDI’s away, Jeff,” she told him, getting out of her chair. Once she reached peak altitude her eyes went wide: “In fact,” she went on, leaning a hand on the bed — successfully avoiding Joker’s leg on the second attempt — “I think I may have to.” EDI materialised behind her, and led her away to bed.
Chapter 7: Collision Course
Neela relaxed into her comfortable chair on the balcony and peered over the railing: on the horizon purposeful-looking catamarans were slicing their way through the waves, and crews of venturesome maidens were no doubt flinging themselves from hull to hull and dangling periodically over the side in that way that sailors do. An expert camera crew was capturing the key moments, projected on the screens around the club for the convenience of its members, but Neela didn’t so much as consider looking at any of them: the truth was that she knew very little about sailing, but nobody who had any pretensions to be anybody missed the Armali Regatta if she could possibly avoid it, and Neela was in range to watch at least this leg of it with her unaided eyes for the first time in her life.
“Quit looking so pleased with yourself!” Mira plumped herself down into the seat opposite with an urchin’s grin on her face; Neela briefly entertained the proposition that she had broken into her train of thought, but then dismissed it: she probably did look at least a little… smug.
“You telling me I’m the first new member to go around everywhere with a smug look on my face?”
Mira rolled her eyes. “No,” she admitted.
“That’s good.” Neela told her, abandoning smugness for mock solemnity. “I’d hate to think I was friends with an incorrigible liar.” Mira refused to rise to that, so Neela went on, her tone careful to stay just this side of ‘wheedling’: “Speaking of friendship, I did want to ask you a favour.”
The spray of violet facial markings that radiated from the bridge of Mira’s nose seemed to rearrange themselves by mutual consent as she quirked her brow. “Go on,” she invited her, equally carefully.
“The Council’s met. It’s time to re-raise the anti-agathics issue.”
Mira sighed. “Is it? You know the matriarchs will just shoot you down again. Why bother?”
Neela’s lips compressed, and for a moment she shot a poisonous look at her friend, but then over Mira’s shoulder she spotted a better target: there were plenty of matriarchs among the club’s membership, and almost all of them turned out on Regatta Day. When she finally spoke, her voice was a venomous whisper.
“By the time another issue like this comes along — one where public opinion might actually build up some momentum against the matriarchs — I’ll be…”
“…a matriarch yourself?” Mira was smiling gently, but her tone was definitely satirical. “Seriously, Neela: why not just wait? You’re smart; as much as you know about politics now, imagine how much you’ll know in a few centuries.”
Neela grimaced in frustration, but only for a fraction of a second, then she had her features under control; she leaned forward, looking up at her friend with wide, candid, pleading eyes, and pitched her voice in a sincere whisper. The discretion it afforded was a bonus; the real goal was to make Mira lean forward to catch what she said:
“The matriarchs have too much power: they don’t take it — they don’t have to — we give it to them.” Her eyes held Mira’s by sheer force of will. Her voice was an insistent plea. “If they’re really as smart as everyone seems to think, let them persuade us. Let them lay out the facts and show us why we ought to do what they say. But they don’t, they just say ‘This is what we’re doing now. We know best.’” She paused to give her conclusion more heft. “They have to be taken down.”
Mira was so ready with her answer that Neela was briefly dismayed that all her histrionics had bounced harmlessly off her nose. “And when the dust settles, everyone will know it was Neela T’Vallis who brought them down, right?” The question hung unpleasantly in the air between them for a moment, until finally Mira shook her head. “I’ll help you. Of course I will. It’s what friends are for. Just tell me when.”
“Rana, I…” Therrin looked up from his omni-tool once he was a pace and a half into Rana’s office, and finally noticed that she wasn’t alone. Signs of ageing that take a millennium to accumulate are necessarily subtle, but Rana’s body language as she faced the other asari across her desk suggested that their visitor had a century or two’s advantage over her, and was higher in the academic hierarchy besides.
“Therrin, this is Shilta Preen, the Chief Administrator.”
Not straight up the hierarchy, then, Therrin corrected himself as the older asari rose from her seat in front of Rana’s desk and smiled toothily, extending a hand to him. More like diagonally. He knew enough academic politics to know that wasn’t a great sign. He took the proffered hand mechanically.
“It’s a great pleasure to meet you, Dr. Therrin. I really wish it had been sooner, but my job doesn’t give me the chances it should to meet the researchers whose work I support.” Therrin blinked, judging Shilta’s little speech to be more or less content-free. The administrator went on: “I’m glad you’re here, as I need to talk to both you and Dr. Viridon. Won’t you sit down?”
Therrin glanced at Rana, who gave a shrug-like twist of her head at having someone else do the honours of her office. He and Shilta took the chairs in front of her desk.
“As I was telling Dr. Viridon, I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you: the Biosciences Research Council has decided to move up the deadline on your mid-grant review.” She paused, and went on in a halting tone, as if to suggest that it was as painful for her to say as for Rana and Therrin to hear. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to put together a summary of the state of your research so far… over the next two weeks.”
“Two weeks‽” Therrin couldn’t help ejaculating. “We’re not even a third of the way through the grant! What do they expect us to have to show?”
“I’m sure due account will be taken of the… disruption the change of schedule will cause you.” The administrator lied smoothly, but Therrin was sure it was a lie for all that.
“Thank you for bringing us the news in person, Administrator,” said Rana quietly. Shilta turned back to her and nodded gracefully.
“It was the least I could do.” She stood and conjured a business card from an invisible pocket, handing it to Rana. “If there’s anything I or my office can do to help you deal with this… unfortunate state of affairs, please don’t hesitate to call.”
This was so clearly a rehearsed exit line to Therrin that he stood up and gestured her politely out of the office before sitting back down and looking Rana in the eyes. They were a particularly dark and vibrant shade of green, he suddenly found himself noticing.
“They know, don’t they?”
“Yes,” she told him forthrightly.
“They’re trying to shut us down, aren’t they?”
“They’ll cut off our funding no matter what we put in our report, won’t they?”
“So we might as well just keep working?”
“Yes.” Rana smiled as if to congratulate him for successfully reaching a conclusion, and the fact that her mouth did that thing he’d noticed before, where it creased her cheek about a centimetre from one corner, suddenly seemed inexplicably relevant. “Now, what did you want to say when you came in?”
“Hm?” Therrin blinked again. “Ah, yes. Right.” He brought up his omni-tool.
“Good afternoon, corporal. Perhaps you could settle a bet for my friend and me?”
Marie tried not to feel like an orphan asking for another bowl of gruel as she lifted her chin to what felt like an absurd degree. Finally she succeeded in making eye contact with the seven-foot-tall turian standing in front of her, and contented herself with a non-committal “Sir?”
“I’m Garrus Vakarian,” he announced, and Marie let an eyebrow rise fractionally. “I served on this ship during the war. Under Commander Shepard.”
He seemed to be waiting for some kind of acknowledgement, so Marie obligingly said “Yes, sir.”
“Now, it seems to me,” the turian went on, “that if I was to tell you I wanted to show my friend here around the Normandy, you might very well let us aboard just for old times’ sake.” His face did a thing — you couldn’t exactly call it a smile, ’cause he clearly wasn’t built for them — and his mandibles twitched — quivered, even — and suddenly Marie found herself smiling enough for the both of them and nodding along.
“Now, my friend here — may I introduce Captain Coranin Martis, by the way?” Garrus went on, “since he’s a serving officer and a Council Spectre, he feels the best strategy would be to simply order you to let us aboard.” He paused to let that sink in, then punted the ball into Marie’s court. “What do you think?”
“Gwuh…” is probably the kindest possible transcription of the first attempt Marie made to answer this query. She stopped, swallowed, and tried again. “Uh, between the two I think I can let you on board, sir.” She poked at her omni-tool, and the Normandy’s airlock, securely in dry-dock mode, opened both its doors. She stepped aside to let the two men pass. “Enjoy.”
Garrus inclined his head courteously and spared a moment for a “thank you, corporal” as he passed her. Coranin just followed him stiffly.
“I cannot believe that worked,” the younger man murmured.
Once they were well inside the ship and Coranin was already examining the bridge controls, Garrus replied: “Really? I’ve always found humans very obliging. Especially the females.”
“Hm,” Coranin wasn’t really listening. It was difficult enough to make sense of fifty-year-old alien tech, especially when it had no power. Garrus stuck to business, tossing off a superfluous comment as he headed aft.
“I’ll head straight to engineering when I’m done, in case anything needs hooking back up.”
Garrus heard a faint acknowledging grunt as he spliced the rather large battery the guard had considerately not asked about into the control panel for the first door he had to pass through: so much easier than trying to remember where the emergency release was, let alone wrestling it open manually. He passed through to the tech lab and felt a new and exciting stiff twinge as he let himself down the ladder to the crew deck. There was no-one to hear him lament that he was too old for this shit, so he spared himself the self-pity and kept going.
The server room was as dark as the rest of the ship, and Garrus had to fumble around by the light of his omni-tool to find a set of emergency power terminals for the A.I. core. The interface sprang to glowing orange life, and Garrus wasted no time: he issued a command through his omni-tool, and a ready-prepared program leaped into the Normandy’s brain and started running. He watched it pull itself up by its bootstraps just far enough to do its work and show him a progress bar, and he held himself sniper-still, controlling his impatience by force of habit until… yes, there it was: the download completed and the display started flickering purposefully. A familiar, if thoroughly schematic “face” appeared.
“Mr. Vakarian. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”
“You too, EDI. Uh, how are you feeling?”
There was a pause as EDI computed the relative probabilities of different interpretations of the question. Finally she settled on “It’s nice to be back.”
“It is, isn’t it? I’m heading to Engineering,” he told her. “Anything you need me to hook up when I get there?”
“No,” she answered straight away. “I have the drive core warming up already. There are various secondary systems that will need attention, but at the moment they will only use power that I’ll need to get us under way.” She was following with her speakers as he moved.
“Got it,” he said. “You’d better introduce yourself to our new captain.”
“I already have.”
“Captain Martis, I presume?”
Coranin gave a mandible-flick. “You must be EDI.”
“Yes, captain… I have an incoming signal: the base C.O. would like to speak with you.”
“No great surprise there,” Coranin noted drily. “What’s the status of the ship?”
“I have access to all primary systems: self-checks passed and the drive core will be fully online in one minute. We have minimal fuel, but it is enough to reach the Utopia system, and either refuel there or jump to Pax. I am displaying a chart of the course we will have to follow, and the time until simply powering my A.I. core uses up too much fuel to make it viable.”
She was as good as her word: the navigational display showed a glowing sleeve in the space of three star systems, bifurcating to end at the fuel depots of Eden Prime and Noveria. Coranin double-checked the scale of the charts, and started: no turian, and he suspected no organic pilot or captain would commit themselves to a course with a safety margin that small. Then again, his pilot wasn’t organic, now was she? The countdown showed three minutes and twenty-two seconds, and with every second the tube in space that was their viable course got visibly narrower. And the docking clamps were firmly sealed. Just so. Coranin swallowed, and gave his orders:
“Put General Carradine on.”
The hawk-faced man in Alliance blues, the same one who had taken time out of his busy day to welcome Coranin and Garrus to his base, appeared on the screen. He wasn’t wearing the same expression as the last time Coranin had seen him.
“Captain Martis, what’s going on? My board shows the Normandy’s drive core is hot.”
“I’m sorry to be discourteous, general, but I’m going to need to take this ship.”
“You’re what‽ Have you gone out of your mind, captain?”
Coranin closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the first thing he saw was EDI’s countdown. Two forty-nine, two forty-eight… He chose his words carefully.
“Tell me, general, how long have you been stationed on Asteroid X57?”
The human pressed his lips together as Coranin used the old name for Terra Nova’s moon. His tone as he answered was not encouraging: “Long enough.”
“Then you know what a Council Spectre can do with a ship like this. He can be instrumental in fighting a war. Or in preventing one.”
The human’s mouth worked oddly as the two officers locked eyes — two thirty-six, two thirty-five; Coranin would mention the Councillor’s name outright if he had to, but…
“Release the docking clamps.” Coranin could hear a bewildered “Sir?” in the background. “You heard me, serviceman. Release the clamps and let the Normandy be on its way.”
“Thank you, general.” Coranin said quietly. As he spoke he had to shift his weight: the clamps let go and the Normandy was floating in space under its own power. EDI anticipated his order, pirouetting the ship to face the stars and accelerating in the most perfectly fuel-efficient speed curve out to space.
“Captain?” The general pulled Coranin’s attention back to the com screen. “My aunt was Navy: she died on the Cape Town.” He paused to see if Coranin understood the reference. Unsure, he went on anyway: “Sometimes a Spectre can do everything hu… everything anyone could, and people still pay the price. Remember that.”
“I will, general.”
“Then I’ll wish you godspeed and good hunting. Carradine out.”
The screen went dark, and the Normandy sped away from Bowman Base, Luna Shepardis, Terra Nova, following the thread that EDI had strung in virtual space with the precision of a living machine.
Chapter 8: Castle, Queen’s Side
“Councillor! Welcome home! Do come in.”
Minto came out from behind his desk, leading with an outstretched right hand and a broad and — on the surface — welcoming smile. Shepard, mindful of his responsibility to be an essentially fair-minded sort, tried to suppress such mental images as ‘smiling shark’, ‘snake in the grass’ and the unnerving feeling that if the man turned around, he would be confronted with another face on the backside of his head, and that one no more honest than its fellow. The two men shook hands, and Shepard let himself be ushered to a seat. Minto took the other seat in front of the desk, instead of going back behind it, and leaned forward, his body language just oozing awe at being in The Presence. Shepard tried not to roll his eyes.
“I’m so sorry the Prime Minister isn’t here to meet with you in person.” Shepard had spent just enough time in Great Britain to recognise the urbane burr of an educated Kelvinside Scot. “In view of the current situation, she thought it best to be somewhere closer to Inner Council Space.”
“And yet I was recalled all the way to earth?” Minto’s lean grey hatchet face was already puckering into the beginnings of the reply he had ready for that one when Shepard raised a hand and forestalled him: “Never mind. I might as well hear from the person who’s going to make all the actual decisions, in any case.”
“You flatter me.” Minto’s smile came nowhere near his eyes. “No, Councillor. I’ve only asked you here so I can give you some good news: you don’t have to worry about the anti-agathics situation any more.”
“Oh. Good.” Shepard elongated the word ‘good’ as he waited for the other shoe to drop.
“Yes,” Minto confirmed. “Since the situation is unilateral — it’s the asari everyone has a problem with — the Alliance is going to handle it directly, through our respective ambassadors here and on Thessia.”
“Really?” Shepard decided to adopt a jesting tone: “And may one be permitted to enquire just how the ambassadors will, ah, ‘handle it’?”
Minto smiled a thin, sour appreciation of the tone, or perhaps of the opening Shepard’s jest had given him: “Oh, I don’t think you need to worry about that,” he told him airily.
Shepard’s expression suddenly drained itself of all humour, and his voice took on a deadly calm: “Let me see if I understand you, Mr. Minto: I serve on the Citadel Council, the organisation that exists specifically in order to bring disputes between the Citadel races to a peaceful conclusion, but nevertheless I’m supposed to take this dispute — this dispute that has literally every people in the galaxy up in arms, and just… ignore it?” For once in a very rare way, he let all his frustration out: “Do you have any conception of how stupid that’s going to make me look?”
Minto smiled the infuriating smile of a man who is holding all the cards, and knows it: “I doubt you’ll have any trouble,” he told Shepard mildly. “The Foreign Office has been assured that the asari are negotiating with the other powers in the same way.” Shepard still had his lips pressed together and was looking daggers at him, so Minto decided to make the most of having the upper hand for a change: “I’d have thought you’d be pleased,” he smirked. “Having a high profile in this situation might be embarrassing, no? I mean, given your… personal situation.”
“You mean the fact that my wife and children are asari.” Shepard stated it flatly. Internally he was kicking himself for letting his frustration get the better of him, but he had his voice more or less under control again. “Is the Foreign Office taking notice of the fact that there are a few million human beings who can say the same? Will we be represented in these ‘negotiations’ of yours?”
Minto looked him straight in the eyes: “Everyone in the Foreign Office is sworn to represent the best interests of humanity, just like the Alliance military… just like you and me. I’m sure they’ll do their best. For all of us.”
Shepard returned his look with interest, listened as much to what wasn’t in his comment as to what was, and finally found he could do nothing more than give him a choppy nod, then get up and leave his office without any pleasantries, kicking himself all the way.
“Sure. Here goes nothing!” Mira smirked at the appropriateness of the phrase — she was pretty sure Neela’s latest bill wouldn’t get any farther than the last one — and Neela gave her a brief Look before turning to her other screen and signalling her wish to be heard. Mira took in the tableau: a tiny, fairly messy apartment, that her VI would automatically replace with a generic swirling-colours background for the benefit of the popular legislature, and in the middle of it all, Neela, permitting herself to look nervous for a moment as she prepared herself to address the Republics. The thoughts she’s cute! and she’s so damned young! popped into Mira’s mind at the same time, and immediately started warring with one another. She shook herself, leaned back in her chair, and transferred her attention to the other screen on her desk: the current speaker wasn’t bad, but her numbers in the corner of the screen were dropping precipitously. Neela’s speeches were considered good for a laugh, if nothing else, so any time she came online people tended to…
Mira’s attention was dragged back to the other screen by a muted chime and a rather less muted cuss word from Neela: someone was very clearly at the door of her apartment. Neela visibly vacillated between the options of ignoring whoever it was — and potentially having her speech interrupted by further chimes — and losing her place in the queue while she got rid of whoever it was. A second chime apparently decided the issue: Mira watched Neela cancel her request to speak and move just out of frame to answer the door.
“Neela T’Vallis?” The visitor’s voice was quiet enough that Mira had to guess what she was saying by its tone, and the fact that she could hear Neela say “Yes?” more distinctly. “My name is…” three indistinct syllables. “I am a—” Mira shot bolt upright in her office chair: Did she say ‘justicar’‽ “—May I come in?” Mira rolled her eyes as she heard the dry tone in which her friend asked “Do I have a choice?” The visitor said something indistinct, and then she and Neela both appeared on the screen as Neela led her in.
Mira’s immediate thought was Huh. I guess she did say ‘justicar’: the visitor was a tall blue-eyed woman who looked as though she’d be a matriarch if it weren’t for her calling. She wore an indigo dress of old-fashioned cut, that swirled around her purposeful stride in a way that was just audible over the com. Neela had made a bee-line straight for her computer set up and she and Mira exchanged looks of utter bogglement as Neela abruptly terminated the call.
“So how are the kids?” Shepard asked, to kill the time while they waited.
“Grown up. So are their kids, by the way!” Shepard grinned: if they had known each other for even one decade less time, Ashley’s tone would have come across as unnecessarily pointed. As it was he accepted the implicit reminder that starting a family in your seventies, almost exactly at the point when their mother’s age is twice yours, was still not a mainstream part of the human experience. He let the wattage of his grin fall as another item of small talk occurred to him: it relaxed into the smile of a person who knows what it’s like to feel their family grow.
“Miriam make you a great-grandma yet?” He asked.
Ash had started shaking her head before he’d finished speaking. “Any day now,” she told him, and as she returned his head-of-the-family smile with interest, the door chimed. They both stood and Ash went to answer it.
A muted “Come on in, L.T.” came around the corner to Shepard’s ears as he fussily straightened his tunic, but as soon as Ash led Halina into the living room he abandoned nerves and preoccupation in favour of a rueful smile: the lieutenant’s eyes had widened alarmingly when she recognised him, and she was now holding herself so firmly in the position of attention that her whole diminutive frame was quivering. Shepard had to stop himself from feeling all fatherly, and remind himself that she was a decorated special forces officer, who — out of training as he was — could probably hand him his ass whenever she liked, before he finally spoke:
“You snap to like that for every retired junior officer you meet, L.T?”
“No, sir!” Halina told him forthrightly. Her head twisted as she spoke, but the rest of her stayed still.
Shepard rolled his eyes: “Well, as you were, OK? I’m not here in any kind of official capacity.” — His face took on an inward expression. — “In some ways, I wish I were, but…”
“Tell me, Miss T’Vallis, have you visited Srenhal recently?”
Neela shook her head mutely, and Samara suppressed a twinge of pain: the girl was barely two years older than Mirala had been when she found out… And with her eyes wide she looked younger still… for another in an uncountable series of times, Samara pushed the pain aside, and went on speaking:
“The town is thriving: the new plant has pushed utility prices and unemployment to unprecedented lows.”
Neela made an inarticulate sound but otherwise stayed frozen. Samara went on speaking:
“You have every right to be proud: the whole region’s infrastructure was decaying, and you found the best, most workable solution to the problem. Am I right in thinking you set a record? Nobody younger than you were at the time has ever drafted a bill that passed the legislature without significant amendment?”
Neela nodded choppily. Samara looked her straight in the eyes.
“Tell me: was it the issue that motivated you to act? From your public record I couldn’t find any personal connection to Srenhal, so I can only conclude that your aim was entirely disinterested reform, or else… did you start with the goal of making a name for yourself, and go shopping for a likely issue?”
Neela shifted uncomfortably in her seat, and looked away. Samara let a faint smile touch her lips, and, more importantly, colour her voice as it became clear that Neela wasn’t going to answer right away.
“Don’t misunderstand me, child: personal ambition is not something the Code calls on me to punish. But if you do mean even half of what you say in your speeches — more particularly, if you care enough about the anti-agathics situation to do something about it, but have almost nobody know it? Why, then in that case, you may be able to help me.”
“OK, lieutenant, here’s what’s going to happen:” Shepard cut his eyes sideways to where Ash sat next to him. “If you agree to help us, Sar’-major Williams is going to recommend that you be RTU’ed. Now, a lot of people wash out of N-school, but you’re going to take it harder than most: you’re going to resign your commission, and the sar’-major and I are going to do our best to make sure some rumours go around. We want the right, or should I say the wrong people to hear that you quit because you’re an ardent human supremacist, and you…” he paused to choose his words, and felt a twinge of guilt as Halina smiled in appreciation of the parodic tone he chose as he went on “…you just couldn’t bear to train under a former Council Spectre” — he transferred his grin to Ash, who rolled her eyes at him — “a minute longer.”
“If the people we’re concerned about take the bait, they’ll recruit you, and you’ll be in place to tell us what they’re planning, and potentially throw a wrench into it if that’s what it comes down to.” He paused again and sighed. “On the other hand, if they don’t take the bait, you’ll have thrown away a very promising career for nothing.”
“I understand, sir.” Shepard wanted to shake his head: he’d heard exactly that tone coming out of his own mouth at Halina’s age, and thinking back, he was fairly sure anything he might say next wouldn’t sink in or make any difference. Not that he had any choice but to speak:
“Stark, I want to be very clear about this: neither the Alliance nor the Council has sanctioned or authorised this mission in any way…” his lips tightened in frustration as this bought him nothing but a Marine-issue nod, and he went searching for a blunter way to put it: “It isn’t even a mission, not really. Really all I’m doing is asking you for a huge, highly illegal favour, with a very good chance you’ll end up either dead or in prison in the process.”
Halina looked him straight in the eyes, and spoke quietly: “My mom’s from Feros, Councillor. Whatever you need.”
Shepard looked away; his instinct was to keep trying to talk her out of it, but her choice of words reminded him that he really did need her, so he just nodded. “You’ll get all the support that either of us can scare up, but…” — he recalled a trying afternoon spent in search of information from the Foreign Office — “…you’d be surprised how few favours I can actually call in on something like this.” He shook himself free of it. “Anyway, if we all make it through this with our lives and careers intact, I will do everything in my power to get you reinstated into Alliance service, or appointed as a Spectre, or both!
“And I hope it goes without saying, but I won’t leave you hanging: if it drops in the pot for you and it’s humanly possible to fix it, I’ll quit the Council and come do it myself if I have to.”
“Rrr…right, captain: I think that’s all we have for you. Any questions?” Coranin was loath to admit that the briefing had gone by at such a break-neck pace that there were parts of it he’d ideally like repeated verbatim, but from the mischievous look on the face of the young asari — so young she’s probably only three times my age, he thought sourly — she knew it perfectly well anyway.
“No, thank you,” he told her with his habitual distant courtesy, and hefted his data tablet: “I’m sure if anything does come up later, I’ll find the answers in” — he paged through the document — “all the appendices.”
Taurien took in his dry comment without apparent offence; in fact she smirked that little bit more: “I’m sorry I didn’t have time to distil it down a little more for you. In fact I just arrived home yesterday from an assignment to our embassy on the Citadel, so I’m afraid the report is a bit of a snap-kick.” While she’d been speaking, Coranin had been disconcerted to see her almost disappear from view as she went rummaging, apparently in the bottom drawer of her desk. Whatever she was looking for, she was obviously having trouble: she spun the small talk out as she kept rooting around: “Do forgive the sports metaphor. Do you follow the hill game at all? No? No, so few other races do, although I hear the humans are starting to show some interest.”
The pitch of her voice went sharply up on the word ‘starting,’ as she evidently found what she was looking for and had to stifle an ‘Aha’ or some such, and then the rest of the sentence was added perfunctorily as she straightened back up.
Coranin watched warily as Taurien laid a thin sheet of some kind of material — animal- or plant-based he couldn’t tell — on her desk and started writing on it with what was evidently an old-fashioned stylus. He was briefly impressed to see that it was forming a slightly childish-looking but eminently legible hand in the written form of his own language. Taurien went on speaking all the while, and his manners fought with his rudiments of tradecraft as he divided his attention between the two:
“It’s what I missed the most while I was on the Citadel: sure, you can watch the games on the extranet, but I’m a season ticket holder; never miss a match while I’m on Thessia. Oh, listen to me babbling on!” Her performance was such a cartoonish burlesque of the rôle of a maiden overcome by an alien’s charm and seized by a fit of flirtatious loghorrea: spy stuff, Coranin groused to himself, already starting to feel a headache coming on; surely she wasn’t fooling anyone listening in who had even the remotest sense of irony?
Still, he tried to play along: “That’s quite all right,” he told her with his best attempt at let’s-see-where-this-goes gallantry.
“There were some compensations,” she went on cheerfully. “I love the hustle and bustle of the Citadel; you know what asari maidens are like: we love to see life!” She very nearly tittered, she was laying it on so thick. “Plus I got to catch up with an old friend — you know, thinking about it, she’s probably a mutual friend? Liara T’Soni? Or Liara Shepard, I should say. Funny how these human names work, isn’t it?”
“At least they’re not as long as salarian names,” Coranin ventured, and tried not to look censorious as Taurien outright giggled while turning the sheet around to show him what she’d written:
Thank you, professor. After what he hoped wasn’t too long of a delay Coranin remembered to keep the conversation going: “Yes, I know the professor slightly. She does analysis work for the Centre from time to time, doesn’t she?”
DOCTOR R. VIRIDON + SALARIAN NAMED THERRIN. UNIVERSITY OF THE ANIFRA BIO RESEARCH GROUP. GETTING VERY CLOSE. IN DANGER.
Taurien smirked: “That’s a well-known enough secret that I suppose I can admit it, to a Spectre anyway. It’s not how we met, though: we actually go back a lot farther than that. Tormen College, Serrice, class of ’99, to be precise.”
“You went to university together?”
“Mhm,” she smiled and nodded. “We were roommates one year, even. We both breezed through in five years flat: Liara so she could switch to Fol’s Own College for grad school and keep her nose in a book permanently, and me? Well, I was in a hurry to see life. Luckily the Centre recruited me.” She gave a creditable performance of being amused by the memory. “I think Liara spent the entire vetting interview trying to talk about her latest theory on the Protheans!”
Right, I think I got all that, Coranin thought: your connection to the professor is well known, so if the nebulous Opposition has any notion at all of why I’m here, then Drs. Viridon and Therrin could be in even more danger if I don’t hustle. A certain amount of ‘spy stuff’ was part of a Spectre’s job, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.
“Well, it’s always good to catch up with old friends,” he said, rising from his seat and doing his best to sound like he’d decided that Taurien’s motor-mouth wasn’t worth putting up with for the sake of a brief flirtation after all. “Thank you for the briefing.”
“Any time!” She gave him a knowing smile, and contrived to inject far more innuendo into the statement “I think the Centre and the Spectres should work together more often!” than it had any right to hold.
A devilish spirit seized Coranin and he decided to try a little doublespeak of his own: “I don’t know: I think this building is rather creepy, to be completely honest. I mean, I have the disquieting sensation that all my conversations here are being monitored.”
“Oh, they are,” Taurien grinned. “But at least it’s audio only. They only turn the video feeds on when they think we’re being really naughty.”
“So, how are you liking it so far?”
Sarra made a non-committal gesture, not bothering to look up from her computer in the hope that T’Reon would take a hint. No such luck.
“How Holra’s going to manage without me I’m sure I don’t know. I can’t picture any of my, ah… confidential sources talking to any of the detectives I left behind me.”
Sarra tried not to roll her eyes: Are you ever not smirking? she thought.
“Still, I’ve been bucking for a Ready Reserve assignment for years: love love love that travel. They’re sending me down to the Anifra later…”
Oh, thank the Goddess, Sarra thought as her computer chimed to tell her she’d been assigned an incoming call. She made a stiff-fingered gesture as if to brush T’Reon out of the vid pickup’s field of view, and the older detective smirked extra wide and withdrew. Sarra hoped she’d stay on her case halfway across the planet for weeks: sooner or later she was clearly going to make a pass, and Sarra wasn’t looking forward to the histrionics that were bound to ensue when she had to give her the brush-off. I may be a rookie, but I’m not stupid, she thought as she composed her features to accept the call. I’m not getting into a thing with a dirty cop, and no clean cop can afford shoes like that! And was her suit hand-made? She dismissed the thought and accepted the call.
“Planetary Response. How can I help?”
“I need to report a missing person.” A matter of fact response, but the sick look on the caller’s face spoke eloquently of worry. Sarra tried to project reassuring professionalism just as clearly:
“O.K., ma’am; may I take your name, please?”
“And who is it that’s gone missing?”
“A friend of mine. Her name is Neela T’Vallis.”
Sarra entered both names into the relevant spots on the form and waited for the computer to cross-reference, then suddenly her eyes grew wide.
“Uh, I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said as she recovered her presence of mind. “I’ve never seen that before. There’s a note on your friend’s identity record: it seems she’s a person of interest in a justicar’s investigation. I’m afraid you’re going to have to contact the Order if you want to know more.”
“Halina, child, what happened?”
Halina’s lips compressed as she meditated on what a dope she’d been: ever since the meeting with Councillor Shepard she’d been picturing herself alone in the wilderness, patiently enduring the agony of doubt in solitude as she waited to see if anything was going to come of her mission… aand, then she’d gone straight back to her home town. She shifted mental gears with all the agility she could manage, and tried to think of something to say.
“It’s OK, momma. I just… had to quit, that’s all.”
Lucy Stark narrowed her eyes at her daughter. “What are you going to do now?” She contented herself with asking.
For lack of any better ideas, Halina turned on the charm, giving her mother a full-wattage, if lopsided smile: “I guess I’ll find out if it’s true what the recruiter said, won’t I? About all those transferable skills, and Alliance vets being in demand on the job market?”
“You didn’t even have a pl…” Lucy practically spluttered, but she was cut off. Marek Stark had never quite managed — or even tried that hard, if truth be known — to lose his Silesian accent in thirty years of life in America, and its guttural quality went well with the deep, slow voice that so often commands respect whether it deserves it or not. In short, when Marek spoke, others listened, regardless of whether they found him worth listening to, as his wife and daughter most assuredly did.
“Were you sure, girl? When you made the decision…” He paused, and his lips tightened in a way Halina had seen countless times, as the English language once again frustrated his attempts to get a grip on it. Finally, he gave up on elegant variation, and simply repeated himself verbatim: “Were you sure?”
Halina smiled her gratitude down at him: arthritis kept him in his favourite arm-chair a lot these days, and if he was standing, making eye contact with his pint-sized womenfolk would just be more difficult, she thought fondly. Still she took a knee and put her hand over his. “Tak, tato. Yes, poppa, I was… I am sure.”
“Yes… yes, what is it?” Before he looked up, Therrin let his annoyance at having his train of thought derailed bloom, but once he saw the apologetic look on the face of the stranger in the doorway, he got himself back under control before he’d finished speaking.
The newcomer let her shoulders sag in relief. “Good, I thought I had the wrong room again! Uh, just to check: you are Mannovai Wholar Naar Teäs Oïsma Therrin Vlax?”
Therrin blinked: her pronunciation came as close as any non-salarian’s he’d ever heard. He nodded, then blinked again as the stranger straightened up, her whole demeanour going from diffident-approaching-a-wizard to official-you-won’t-like-this in less than a second.
“I’m Detective T’Reon, doctor, Planetary Response. I’m afraid I have to place you under arrest.”
“Under arrest‽ On what charge?” Therrin demanded, his voice soaring even higher than usual.
The detective had an answer ready for that one: “Conspiracy to violate ordinance CO-6814 of the Erenis city-state, as incorporated pursuant to the Act. I also have an order to search your residence and work area for evidence pertaining to this or any other charge.” By the time she had finished speaking, four uniformed asari who all answered to various definitions of the word ‘large’ — tall, broad through the shoulders, and/or displaying arm muscles like coils of knotted cable — and perhaps more to the point, all ostentatiously carried business-like service pistols, had filed into the room. The first two shouldered mutely past him and started expertly decanting the data content of his computer onto OSDs with official markings, which made Therrin bounce on his feet, but what really had him exercised was the sight of Rana between the other two, each one holding her by the upper arm.
“I don’t even know what any of that means!” He practically screamed. “I demand to speak to a salarian official!”
“You’ll have full facilities for taking legal advice before any questioning, and your government will be informed that you are in custody.” T’Reon told him, and before he could expostulate further, Rana spoke up:
“It’s OK, Therrin, First we go with them, then we get this sorted out.”
T’Reon smiled, widely if lopsidedly: “Precisely! If you’ll behave yourselves, I think we can dispense with the restraints. Now, shall we?”
One of the heavies detached herself from Rana, and, with a look that said that if it had been up to her, Therrin would be strapped to a hand truck and wheeled out of the building on general principles, chivvied him into a formation by sheer intimidating presence: T’Reon leading, him and Rana in the middle, and the two heavies bringing up a watchful rear. Therrin had time for only one agonised backward glance at what the other two were doing to his precious lab before they were led off and he discovered, for once in a way, what the stairwell of the Biosciences Building looked like.
“You know what’s nice?” Coranin muttered to himself as he hurried stiff-leggedly towards the building he’d seen a short squad of cops march into a few minutes prior. “Backup. Backup is nice.”
“You’ve got me.” Garrus’ voice over the com made him try not to jump too obviously; he stepped firmly on the embarrassment he felt at finding he’d spoken rather more loudly than he meant. “And I’m a legend in my own lifetime. What more do you want?”
Coranin snorted in genuine amusement: a couple of weeks in space with only an A.I. — admittedly a relatively personable one — for company had done a lot to sand the rough edges of uncertainty off of his relationship with the older man: Garrus had made similar dry, wry commentary on his own notoriety a theme of their talks, until it had dawned on Coranin that as often as not, when you start getting to know someone with a public reputation, you actually have more to learn than if they were a completely unknown quantity, inasmuch as you never know what you’ll have to unlearn to begin with.
“Has it occurred to you how thoroughly unimpressed the local military units are going to be if we try screaming for their help?” He asked by way of reply. “I am really not used to this.” He continued, then before Garrus could comment he spotted the targets coming out of the building. “Here we go,” he said in his best Command Voice. “Tracking them,” Garrus replied, equally professionally.
“Are you Dr. Rana Viridon?” Coranin covered the remaining space and deliberately addressed the asari prisoner instead of any of the police officers surrounding her. The one in the lead answered anyway:
“I’m Detective T’Reon, Planetary Response. Dr. Viridon is in my custody.”
“With the greatest respect, detective: not any more.” Coranin paused to let the detective start to splutter and the two uniformed officers tense, looking daggers at him and holding their hands near their sidearms. Before T’Reon could form an intelligible reply, he introduced himself: “Captain Coranin Martis, Citadel Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. I’m here for Doctors Viridon and Therrin.”
The other detectives in T’Reon’s old precinct would have been surprised — and many of them felt a measure of schadenfreude — to see how thoroughly flapped their urbane and well-dressed erstwhile colleague was by this development. “Well… you can’t have them!” was apparently the best reply she could think of. The two officers were far more eloquent in their silence: they moved in front of Rana and Therrin, standing one behind each of T’Reon’s shoulders, forming a wall between Coranin and his goal, to the point that he wondered if the two scientists might not take the opportunity to start running. Apparently not. Good.
“Please, detective,” Coranin hoped she would assume he was being censorious, though it was equally true to say that he was begging. “Do I need to point out that as a Spectre I’m ‘allowed’ to take them by force if I have to?” He paused: one turn of the screw at a time, he thought. “Must I point out that none of you are wearing armour?” He ostentatiously looked away to give the cops time to make up their minds. “Spectres are paranoid sorts, did you know that? We learn early on to have a backup plan in case local authorities don’t accept the Council’s writ.” He paused to add to the stress laid on his next words: “Emplacing snipers, that sort of thing.”
The detective evidently made up her mind: she gestured the two officers away, revealing a pair of thoroughly nonplussed scientists to Coranin’s gaze. “It seems you’d better go with the captain,” she told them, and Coranin was briefly dismayed at the doubtful looks on their faces: he’d been so busy putting together a rescue operation with only two men and no fleet or ground support that he hadn’t considered that his targets might well not recognise a rescue when they saw it. Fortunately, he noticed, the asari had a steadying hand on the salarian’s forearm, so her reached peremptorily out and grabbed her opposite forearm, pulling both of them away in what was practically a daisy chain. Once he was sure they were out of earshot of the officers, he whispered urgently in Rana’s ear:
“I’m not taking you into custody, doctor. Let’s get you somewhere safe before they change their minds, shall we?”
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Chapter 10: Research
The ship was small, and its motley hull plating, and the reek of its air when its locks cycled, painstaking in the consistency of the story they told: the galactic economy is too big, they said, the economies of the Council races too interdependent — and getting more so day by day — for running a tramp like this to really turn a profit for its owners. But, the ship’s appearance was at great pains to say, big economies have all sorts of little niches for those who look for them persistently enough, and we are keeping the dream alive.
The ship sat humbly and unassumingly in one of Omega’s outer docking slips, and its appearance in that context equally clearly made the point that dreams alone cannot feed and pay even the most romantic crew, and times being what they were, there were occasions when the only niche that presented itself was a harmless one, but not, if you really had to belabour the point, entirely on the up and up. The idle observer might possibly think the word “smuggler,” but would almost certainly not care. Omega saw plenty of the same and worse every day.
Professionally idle observers from more than one intelligence service had watched the crew of the ship board the space station, and largely ignored the two very quiet notes their appearance struck that were out of harmony with the image they and their ship wished to project: for one, some of them were worse actors than others, and did poorly at conveying the untested wariness that an ordinary decent criminal needed to survive on Omega. Three of them, two turians and a human, carried themselves more like muscle, and tried and tested muscle at that. This rang no alarm bells, as smuggler captains liked to hire muscle when they could afford to. The second fact was even more of a straw in the wind: none of the crew were asari. Asari maidens made up a disproportionate percentage of the merchant spacer community, especially the humbler end the unassuming ship represented, but the watchers shrugged: you could hardly expect a crew of twelve to live up to all the stereotypes. They moved on to more promising targets, since the life of an agent on Omega was usually more about deciding what subset of the chaos to keep an eye on than it was about going out and making trouble in the interests of one’s people. One or two of the watchers remembered the ambiguous red flags raised by the smuggler ship and its crew well enough to inflate them a bit in their reports later on, though, angling for a reputation for subtlety and insight, but it was a ticklish business, since any analyst worth her salt would have to ask “Well, if you found them so suspicious, why didn’t you watch more closely?”
It took a particularly odd kind of research scientist to prefer protection rackets, a notable lack of career prospects or ethics committees, and an appreciable risk of being murdered on Omega over taxes, laws, regulations and the choice between academia and industry in the civilised worlds, but keeping an eye on the one or two that always seemed to be around, trading medical services for acceptance by the locals if they happened to be doctors and occasionally demonstrating that they weren’t to be trifled with, was one of the routine chores of the Omega beat. Fleasa Noron, B.M., B.Ch., M.Phil. (Serrice) was one such odd bird: some back in the Republics spoke snottily about her ‘going native’, since she had been in and out of Omega in her maiden days as an Eclipse merc, actually managed to save some of her pay, enough to put her through med school, and decided to raise drugs instead of children when she became a matron. Most of them were gimmicky designer tweaks to recreational highs, but some were therapeutic.
Her lab was gutted entirely by fire, which was no mean feat for an environment where you had to pay by the mil’ if you wanted your air to have oxygen in it, and it was not any of the local espionage community who spotted some… muscular turians and a human keeping watch while their quarian engineer gimmicked the environmental controls. In the event, it was what passed for the local press that beat them to it, which even on Omega happens more often than spies like to admit. The grapevine, as always with you flashier incidents, had scooped both groups, leaving nothing to be done except to verify that yes, Dr. Noron had been inside when the place burned, and that a certain humble tramp freighter slipped its moorings and left scant minutes after the fire started, too soon to have loaded any cargo or even given its crew a proper run ashore.
Meanwhile, under the blind eye of the Systems Alliance, an illegal arms deal…
Liara leant her elbow on the edge of her desk and rested her aching head in her hand. Taurien really had been in an hurry, bless her, so rather than take the time to be selective — and get caught being selective in a hurry — she’d brought the entire float for the last two standard weeks: all the reports that had been routed between the Centre’s residency in the asari embassy on the Citadel and its tentacles elsewhere had been added to the material she’d been able to beg, borrow or steal from her other contacts. The two of them had made a swift appraisal, relying on the uniqueness and searchability of terms like “anti-agathics” and “research scientist” — which last usually only appeared in very specialised reports — to pick the most promising candidates in reach of Thessia for Coranin to save, and since then she’d been trawling the material in depth, adding new reports as they came in and making sure she hadn’t missed anything.
Liara decided to take a break, if not actually leave her desk, and let her mind wander: for a while it didn’t get far, dwelling on all the scientists she hadn’t been able to save from arrest or worse. Two men, an A.I. and one ship had to be pretty remarkable to save anybody at all, but she couldn’t help dwelling on the fact that no-one on Omega had been interested in finding out whether Dr. Noron had been alive or dead when her laboratory burned.
She wrenched her mind off that particular course, and thought of Taurien risking her career to help her. She remembered the passes Taurien had made when they’d shared rooms at Serrice: Taurien had been fairly wild in those days, and the subtext obvious: “Why should I go out looking for a bit of fun, when we could just… stay in, instead?” The words “I should have taken her up on it” crossed Liara’s mind, but only as something she was conscious of being expected to think: she remembered the increasingly ambiguous looks on her mother’s face as the decades of her early life had worn on and she still hadn’t brought anybody home, unsuitable or otherwise. More than once Benezia had told her outright: “You know so-and-so is interested in you?” and Liara had exasperatedly said “Of course I do!” Once or twice she hadn’t even had to mentally add “…now.” Taurien and others had looked at her in ways that made her think “What you want, I don’t have, and what you’re offering in return, I don’t want.” And then one fine day, she thought, looking up at the ceiling and smiling faintly to herself, she and her husband had discovered that they could put hidden meanings and ambiguous looks aside and simply tell each other how they felt. It wasn’t anything he had that she wanted, it was what he was, and she was more than willing to ante up everything she was in exchange. And conveniently, that was exactly what he wanted…
Right, back to work, she thought, riding the wave of that little morale boost. Checking the executive summaries of the reports one by one, she quickly winnowed out the rest of the irrelevancies in the material Taurien had brought, until she came to one particular, seemingly likewise irrelevant document that started a hare in her mind. Inspired, she crossed-checked it with one of the few reports she’d scrounged up about asari activities from outside the Republics, and…
Her heart sank as her eyes widened; she pressed them tightly shut, forcing herself to take the conclusion her mind had leapt to at its face value, not getting lost in the way it made her feel. She ran back along the chain of reasoning, proving to herself that the conclusion she’d leapt to was true, but all the while she had an increasingly sick feeling that she was simply putting off accepting the truth. She knew what she had to do.
With jerky over-controlled movements of her fingers she made one last check: nothing in the material Taurien had shared was actually classified above her level, so while Taurien might be fired or posted to a series of thoroughly uncomfortable assignments, she wouldn’t stand to go to prison for passing it along. And that’s the best I can do for my old friend, she thought sourly as she opened an extranet comms channel.
“Liara?” In other circumstances, Liara would have smiled at the palpable surprise Samara showed at being contacted over the ’net by, of all her acquaintances, surely the most paranoid about communications discipline.
“Hello, Samara.” She surprised herself by being able to keep her voice clear and level. “Have you seen the news?”
“You mean the arrests? Yes. It’s regrettable, I know, but their interpretation of the law is at least… colourable. We will have to wait for the courts to…”
“There’s more.” Samara’s face very nearly registered the profound surprise she felt at being interrupted by such a well-brought-up young lady. Liara pushed at a control, and sent some of the material — publicly available only for the time being. Samara’s eyeline dropped as she started to read through it, and Liara explained: “There have been at least six attacks by merc bands and pirates on bioscientists working outside the Republics.” She paused as she reached the crux: “On the scientists themselves, Samara, not their work or their labs. And none meant to intimidate: they were all murdered. Murder absolute.”
Samara looked sharply up and their eyes met as she recognised Liara’s quote from the Code. She searched Liara’s eyes for answers briefly, then concluded that they were more likely to be found in the carefully assembled documents, and dropped her gaze back down.
“I see what you mean,” she concluded at length, reading about the death of Dr. Noron and others like it. “Murder absolute indeed, but… we can’t enforce the code against everyone in the Republics, let alone the whole galaxy.”
Liara had an answer ready for that one as well, but this time she was in no hurry. Far from interrupting, she paused for a beat after Samara finished speaking, and when she finally did drop the shoe, she couldn’t meet the justicar’s eyes:
“There’s more.” She sent another packet of documents, these various degrees of classified by various governments. “That’s evidence that the attacks were ordered and paid for at the instigation of Matriarch Irissa and at least one other senior priestess. I can’t prove it, but I doubt the other matriarchs had no hand in it. It’s not the sort of thing one would do alone.”
It was Samara’s turn to regret a lost opportunity to be amused, at the certainty with which Liara spoke of the ways of matriarchs. “No indeed,” she endorsed it absently as she followed Liara’s train of reasoning through the order in which the documents were presented, coming inevitably to the same conclusion. When she looked up and they finally locked eyes once more, they saw without dwelling unduly on the fact that both their faces bore identical sick expressions. “This… this changes things,” she said superfluously.
“What will you do now?” Liara’s voice as she asked the question was small to the point of tiny.
“What I must.” Samara was so preoccupied by the implications that she was inadvertently cruel. “There is no room here for interpretation of the Code.” A papery noise interrupted her, and turning her attention back outward she saw that Liara’s face had landed in her hands, and when after a moment it rose out of them again, there were tears in her eyes. “Oh, child!” The words were torn from Samara, and Liara stared helplessly into her eyes as they both contemplated the vision of asari society tearing itself apart as the matriarchs and the Justicar Order found themselves at odds. Finally, Samara spoke with an urgency of command that owed nothing to her calling as a justicar, and everything to her older calling as a mother:
“Liara, listen to me: you did not do this.” Liara was jolted back into the moment by the ambiguity: without exchanging further words Samara’s urgent eyes clarified that she was absolving Liara of responsibility for the acts of anybody but herself, not binding her to secrecy. “And you must not blame yourself for what happens next.”
I didn’t drive Mother into Saren’s arms, or force her to try and kill me, but I did kill her. Liara’s own voice and Shepard’s echoed together in her mind. If Mother were alive, I’d just have sicced a justicar on her, she thought sickly, but she also knew that she would have done it if that was what it came down to, and above all that Samara was right. She couldn’t put any of this into words, so she simply looked into Samara’s eyes. Samara, in a voice of infinite gentleness, changed the subject:
“When is Shepard going to return to the Citadel?”
Liara shook her head to bring her thoughts into focus, and took refuge from thoughts of asari civil war in the technical question of how much she ought to say over the ’net. “Not for a while,” she finally settled on.
“Hm.” Samara let twin furrows appear above her nose, then considered for a moment: “It’s, what? Mid-afternoon, there?” Liara nodded, and Samara nodded back decisively. “Good. Then you have just enough time to compose yourself, dry your eyes, and go and collect the girls from school.” Liara saw where she was going and smiled faintly, but Samara pressed on: “Hug them, play games, let them stay up late, but above all: do not think about any of this any more, for one night at least.”
Liara smiled through her tears and spoke just above a whisper: “Oh, Samara…” was all that she could manage.
“Oh, and be sure to give each of them a hug and a kiss from their godmother!” They shared a smile, and Samara cut the connection.
With only a moment’s pang of guilt for not departing mentally and physically straight away, Liara bent herself to the task she remembered she still had to complete, and started reviewing everything she had on galactic fleet movements. She summoned Shepard’s memories of his military training to help interpret what she was reading: the Alliance had stripped its patrols below its own declared minima to cover its borders with Council space as well as externally, which was troubling enough, but the asari response… Yes, some of the navy would be “conducting fleet exercises” within what counted in space as spitting distance of the humans’ ships, and it would only take one mistake by someone wearing a lot of gold braid on either side to cause an interstellar incident, if not a war, but… Another intuitive leap sparked across her mind, but this time she was completely unsure. Closing her eyes in concentration she dismissed Shepard’s memories from her immediate perception, reviewing her insights from her own perspective. From first principles her conclusion was the same: she could see no strategic or tactical reason for the navy to maintain a reserve in the largely uninhabited Vernio system, and yet they were, and a part of Liara’s mind that insisted on its conclusions but refused to share its reasoning insisted that there could be only one reason why. She oscillated in indecision, practically physically, her hand moving out and back as she weighed the pros and cons of acting on her… she had to admit that the good old human word ‘hunch’ applied.
Finally, she had to admit that she needed to compare notes with someone, and on balance, making that someone somebody who was in a position to act on it if she was right was worth the risk.
“Professor. It’s good to see you again.”
Liara smiled. “You too, EDI.” She was about to go on when EDI made a suggestion:
“Mindful of your advice on communications discipline, I have been developing a custom encryption suite that takes advantage of my unique input modalities. It is highly unlikely that anyone will be able to attack it, at least until someone gets access to the protocol or records a significant amount of traffic.” A prompt appeared on Liara’s display as EDI offered to send a file. “Would you like to enable it?”
“Yes!” Liara accepted with alacrity, and decide to explore some of the implications as she waited for the software to download. “Could it be used generally? Or just to talk to you?” She asked.
“I have eliminated the need to convert the transmitted data back into sound and video, since I apprehend the universe in terms of data in any case. It might be possible to decode into text, but I have not developed such a decoder yet.”
The file finished downloading, and Liara executed it and watched it cut, re-establish and being to encrypt the conversation with all the seamless slickness people who dealt with EDI’s software had come to expect.
“If anyone else had created this protocol, I’d be sure there had to be a vulnerability in it somewhere, but since it’s you…” She grinned at the image of EDI’s spherical ‘head’, and then got back to business. “I have something I need a second opinion on. Is Captain Martis there?”
“No, the captain and Mr. Vakarian are still on their way back to the ship.”
“All right: I’ll just have to share my data with you and let you make up your minds later.” Her eyes widened as she hauled herself back out of the introspective frame of mind, and realised where she’d have to begin: “First I need to warn you and the captain: there’s going to be a confrontation between the justicars and the matriarchs very soon. I don’t need to tell you what that could do to asari society.”
“No indeed,” EDI agreed politely.
“The other, more important thing,” Liara began slowly, “is that I think I’ve worked out where the matriarchs are hiding the original anti-agathics data. They have fleet units in task force strength guarding the Vernio system, and there’s nothing… there’s nothing known to be there for them to guard.”
She readied another packet of documents. “I’m passing my raw data on, but EDI…” She paused to find the best words, and her voice was an urgent whisper: “None of it is material the STG would have any trouble getting hold of. If they come to the same conclusions I have, then as soon as the justicars make their move they’ll almost certainly make a pre-emptive strike.” As if to assuage the enormity of what she’d just said, she added some superfluous, reflective words: “The salarians have never declared a war without striking first. Oh, Goddess, I hope I’m wrong, but you can look at my data and make up your own minds. And if I’m not…”
“I understand, professor.” EDI’s tone sounded creditably… understanding, drawing a ghost of a smile from Liara.
“Well,” Liara summed up. “I suppose we’d better not let anyone record more of your signal traffic than necessary.” She paused. “Good luck.”
“Thank you, professor.” EDI took her at her word and cut the channel.
Chapter 11: Acids and Bases
Detective T’Reon wasn’t in a position to realise it at the time, but it was an unnerving scene that was in the process of repeating itself throughout asari space: the harassed sergeant in charge of her Ready Reserve unit had barely registered her report of having her arrest preëmpted by a Spectre, instead hustling her onto yet another ropey old issue shuttle to arrest another bewildered scientist on the other side of the planet, and now she sat across the table from the girl — pretty thing if you liked the intellectual type — and her lawyer. Busy day, but basically business as usual, except that the door had just opened.
“Do you mind?” T’Reon said to the newcomer with no little asperity. Long serving cops weren’t conscious of seeing the signs reading ‘DO NOT ENTER INTERVIEW ROOM WHEN LIGHT IS ON,’ but they didn’t need to be: they still followed the rule.
“My name is Eilat. I am a justicar.” The newcomer spoke evenly and kept her face expressionless — Do they get lessons in doing that? T’Reon wondered — taking up station against the wall of the interview room, not leaning on it in an attitude of relaxation, or leaning forward in eagerness, just… standing there. “Carry on,” she added as everyone else in the room paused and stared at her.
“Fine,” T’Reon thought. She wasn’t above finding the odd way to gold-plate her pension, but she’d learned the secret centuries before: you don’t have to be bent all the time. In fact, having someone else in the room to unnerve the suspect for her was just fine. She gave the hapless nerd a big smile, and led off with an open-ended question, just like the textbook called for:
“Right, doctor: would you please describe the nature of your current research, in your own words?”
Halina held her hands in the small of her back and walked down the front of the line of students, doing her best Instructor Face as they went through their drills and she inspected their form minutely. She paused, wordlessly making a minute adjustment to the angle of a student’s arm, then — since he seemed to be a nervous type — giving the lad a reassuring nod and the ghost of a grin as he got the movement right. She remembered standing in similar ranks, both as a budding martial artist and as a midshipman, and she let the grin get a little wider as she did what she knew full well was the most unnerving part, walking down the back of the line. How am I doing, sergeant-major? The grin died a-borning as the thought of the Villa crossed her mind: it was too soon, she scolded herself firmly, to conclude that it had all been for nothing.
The sound of the door opening provided a welcome distraction from that particular line of thought. Halina kept a critical eye on her students: she would be ashamed to call herself even an ex-Infiltrator if she needed to look to count how many people were entering the gym. She recognised the tread of Coach in his bare feet, and six or seven strangers, presumably new students. She looked up and watched him settle the newcomers into the seats down the side wall, and faded back as he took over the class. They shared a nod as he tried his very best to find one or two flaws she might have missed, and failed.
“OK, folks, relax.” The students tried not to show how heavily they needed to breathe; Nobody so much as thought of leaning forward. “As you can see, we have visitors: these fine folks are thinking of joining us, so if some of you can stick around and tell them this is the best school in the world, that would be great. If you can’t, that’s fine, but I’d like to point out that I do know where you live.”
The students gave a dutiful laugh, and Coach beckoned Halina over to join him talking to the newcomers. On the way over she sized them up. Two were kids, and since Coach took that class, she paid them no more mind. The other two were both men: one was white-haired and stocky, likely in his nineties, but moving freely, with sallow skin and a seemingly permanent smile, and the other was a lanky twenty-something walking what he evidently thought was the walk. I’m guessing a lifer taking up a new style and Mr. I-Wanna-Be-A-Badass, but let’s see, she thought.
“Guys, this is Halina Stark.” The older man’s eyes seemed to light up as Coach pronounced her first name, “my assistant instructor. She’s rated 6th dan, so get in quick before she goes and starts her own school! Halina, meet Mickey and Miles.”
The younger man made a sour face and opened his mouth to speak, but the older one, who was now positively grinning, spoke over him, and his accent was achingly familiar.
“Well, you can sign me up right now, if I can learn from a fellow Pole!” Halina smiled back at him as she noticed that her translator was idle: he might be a Pole, but he clearly spoke fluent English. “I only go by ‘Mickey’ because nobody seems to be able to pronounce ‘Mickiewicz’.”
Scenting a sales opportunity, Coach added some more inducement: “And didn’t you say you were a Marine, Mickey? Halina’s an Academy graduate; in fact she’s just come home from the Corps.”
Halina rolled her eyes, feeling an irresistible urge to moderate the flow of marketing: “Just got home from quitting the Corps.”
“Hey, this is America, lieutenant?” He made the rank a question, and Halina nodded. “Don’t you say ‘there are no former Marines’ here?”
“And Halina was Special Forces, too,” Coach insisted, giving her a look that clearly warned her that she could bloody well keep her modesty out of his business.” Didn’t you say Sergeant-Major Williams” — he stressed the name — “made you a hand-to-hand instructor?” She made a gesture that was half-nod, half-shrug.
“Halina takes a lot of our classes for adults,” Coach explained, turning to address the kids and their parents as well, “so why don’t you go guys go with her for your trial session, while I show you fine folks what you’re letting yourselves in for!” He gave a semi-maniacal grin and eye-waggle that earned a nervous laugh from at least some of the kids. Halina could remember taking him pretty much literally at their age, but clearly it worked for him.
“All right,” she said. “If you’ll just step over here, Mickey and… Miles, was it?”
“Call me Kaufman.”
“Rana, Rana… Do you realise where we are?” The words tumbled out of Therrin in a breathless flood.
Rana closed her eyes for a beat, then answered, speaking slowly: “Yes, Therrin, we are on the Normandy, the ship Councillor Shepard commanded during the war…”
“No, that’s not what I mean.” Therrin had started making a gesture she had learned to interpret as salarian impatience as soon as she pronounced the word ‘Normandy.’ “This is the medical bay.” He stared at her and looked impatient as it became clear that the significance escaped her. “Mordin Solus worked here! The cure for the krogan genophage was developed here!”
Rana started to smile at his enthusiasm, but she was distracted and for a moment her face bore a ludicrous expression born of indecision as EDI appeared on a console at the edge of her vision.
“Excuse me for interrupting, doctor, but Captain Martis would like to speak with you in the conference room.”
“You… you’re EDI!” Therrin spluttered.
“Yes, I am.”
“Not now, Therrin,” Rana told him. “Please tell the captain we’ll be right there.”
“I’m still not sure I approve of this… ruse,” the abbess said. “But our order has an amicable relationship with the Justicar Order,” she went on forthrightly, before taking on an inward expression suddenly. She quirked her lips ruefully, continuing: “…and under the gimlet eye of a certain justicar we both know, I find myself agreeing to many things I’m not sure I approve of.”
Neela pretended not to notice the abbess’ discomfiture as she evidently regretted saying so much. She concentrated on looking appropriately demure and respectful, which was difficult as the abbess’ parlour reminded her of nothing so much as the headmistress’ office, and if she’d been demure and respectful at school she wouldn’t remember it well enough to make the comparison.
The abbess gave her a look. “Do you understand that within these walls only you and I know you are anything other than an ordinary postulant? To everyone from the prioress on down you are simply Sister Neela, and will be required to observe all the traditions of the Order’s Rule: obedience, temperance and moderation in speech.” Suddenly the corners of her mouth twitched, and her tone of voice suddently lost a great deal of its severity. “Since speaking at great length, and making a disobedient, intemperate nuisance of yourself seems to be how you get your living, I thought I’d better ask.”
“No problem, my lady… uh, Mother.”
The abbess smiled at the uncertain way Neela spoke the unfamiliar title. “Good,” she told her. “See the sub-prioress. She’ll get you settled in.”
“What was your rating?”
Kaufman had obviously been brooding over something: Halina had seen him looking her up and down doubtfully every time she passed in front of the two prospective students as they drilled. Now that he’d hatched it, she was glad it turned out to be curiosity about her career, at least compared to the come-on she’d feared. Still, Coach was busy with the kids, so there was no need to be too obligiing.
“Watch the arm,” she told him, keeping an eye on it until he tightened up the move that had been getting sloppy, then answering the question: “N4.”
“What happened? You wash out?”
Halina felt like kicking herself; sure, she remembered she was supposed to be on a covert assignment but only after he’d seen her desire to tell him where to go written all over her face. She squelched it, shrugged, and replied in character: “I was RTU’ed, sure. But if I hadn’t been, I’d have quit anyway.” She remembered her overt job, and spoke with purpose. “All right, you can stop.” She smiled as winningly as possible, mainly at Mickey. “And that’s pretty much how our classes go. When Coach is done he’ll take you through the paperwork if you’re interested.” She nodded firmly and walked off, but not too far: she stayed in the gym and busied herself ostentatiously tidying up. She made sure not to look up, but… yes, there it was: she heard Kaufman walking over to her. He was either trying to recruit her, or just clueless and incapable of taking a hint.
“Seriously: how come you quit?”
She looked up as though she was surprised, and looked down again, addressing her answer to the crash mats as she stacked them: “I guess it just wasn’t what I thought it would be.” She paused, and just before he could prompt her to go on, she elaborated: “You know the Alliance doesn’t train against turian tactics any more? I mean, OK, maybe we can’t ask the turians themselves to play OpFor: that’s politics, but we don’t even run exercises where our own people play turian. They’re our Council allies.” She fairly spat the word ‘Council’ out, “as it is, was — at least as long as any politician can remember — and ever shall be. Amen.”
“From the look of things,” Kaufman observed in a surprisingly mild tone, “maybe we ought to be exercising against asari tactics.”
“Heh,” Halina grunted. “That’d be right.” She paused, looked up appraisingly as though she suspected Kaufman might harbour hidden depths, and favoured him with a winning smile all to himself — privately wishing it were possible to choose between being winning as a spy and as a woman. “Well, what do you say? Will we be seeing you back for weekly lessons?”
Kaufman smirked. “Maybe.”
“Dr. Viridon, Dr. Therrin, thank you for coming so promptly.” To Garrus’ great private amusement, Coranin’s voice was as gentle in its expression of the courtesies as he had ever heard it, and he spared no more than a glance for Therrin, his eyes holding Rana’s as she spoke. Rana, for her part, seemed to accept the attention as no more than her due. Asari, Garrus thought, and tried not to shake his head. Coranin gestured the two scientists to their seats and went on speaking:
“First things first: how are you settling in? The one thing we’re not short of is living space, but do you have everything you need to continue your research?”
“We do,” Rana confirmed, and Therrin nodded.
“Good.” Coranin looked down as he chose his words for the next question: “ah, can you give me an idea of how much progress you’ve made… How long it will be until…”
“Those police officers stole our data…” Therrin began in a tone of infinite indignation, but Rana interrupted him: “…but we had a lot of it on our omni-tools, and for the rest, well…” she cut her eyes left at Therrin, and smiled: “…salarians do have photographic memories.” The two turians nodded, and Rana let the smile fade as she phrased her answer to Coranin’s question: “As for our progress, I’m confident we’re on the right track, but this isn’t exactly the sort of thing you can schedule. We might have a treatment ready for in vivo trials inside a week, or we might know it’s going to be at least another year by then. It depends, not just on finding answers, but on finding the right questions.”
“But you are sure, or at least fairly sure, that you’re on the right track?”
Rana and Therrin looked at each other, visibly decided that they couldn’t give a detailed answer to anyone without the right advanced degree, and settled for a simple “Yes.”
“Very good.” Coranin nodded, taking their word for it. “That opens up some options for our next move. You see, I’ve received some reports that mean we may know where the asari government is keeping the original research you’re trying to re-create. Guarded by a sizeable chunk of the Republics’ navy, I might add; Mr. Vakarian and I were just going over ways we might run a raid to secure the data. Against those odds… let’s just say I’m glad you’re here.”
“On that point, captain: can you tell me exactly what you plan to do with the data, assuming we manage to re-create it?”
There was a challenge in Rana’s eyes as she looked straight into Coranin’s, and the captain lifted his chin in a very turian gesture of respect as he answered:
“I have been persuaded,” he began, grimacing oddly, “that our only chance of peace lies in making the data public. That’s my mission,” he went on, holding Rana’s gaze and letting his voice drop to an urgent near-whisper. “That’s the mission of every Spectre: preserving the galactic peace.”
Rana shared a look with Therrin, and nodded their satisfaction with the arrangements. Seeing their acquiescence, Coranin went on in a lighter tone:
“And since we can hope to have the data available to make public in the near future, all we have to do to preserve the peace in the meantime is keep anyone else from making the kind of raid we were thinking of, since anyone but a Spectre doing it might well start a war.”
There was a palpable silence in the room as everyone absorbed the full implications of what he had said: if the data was guarded by the fleet, then anyone raiding it would surely need a fleet of their own… Rather than confront the prospect head-on, Rana opened her mouth to raise an all-too-relevant side issue:
“Er, captain, you do realise neither of us is a medical doctor? I know some first aid, but it’s mostly asari first aid…”
“And I’m the closest thing you have to a chief engineer,” Garrus pointed out airily so that Rana wouldn’t be alone in her discomfiture.
“Quite: we have a frigate that people called ‘cutting-edge’… fifty years ago, a crew of five, only two of whom have any military training, and only four of whom have, erm, bodies.” He eyed EDI’s interface with a moment’s embarrassment, but she made no comment, and he carefully did not add …and if anyone protests what we do to the Council my career as a Spectre is over, as like as not. “But,” he went on brightly, “we will achieve great things in spite of our difficulties by keeping a positive attitude. EDI, would you bring up the display of the Vernio system? Thank you. Now, if anyone has any suggestions as to what we can accomplish here,” he flicked a casual talon at the holographic display, with its flashing icons representing the two dozen fleet units that Liara’s reports had referred to. “The floor is open.”
“Excuse me?” Halina’s heart leapt and her saucy grin got even wider as she looked up into the man’s eyes and saw that he was completely taken aback. She’d been right, she thought smugly. “Mind telling me what you’re following me for?” She added, making his consternation complete. The fact that he was a foot taller than her and wider by about as much through the shoulders bothered her not at all.
“Heh.” A mirthless snort was the first intimation that anyone was standing in the shadowed doorway. “Not bad, Stark.”
“Kaufman,” she acknowledged, and as he stepped into the glow of the street-light she heard two sets of purposeful footsteps coming from the way she’d been walking home. She cursed herself for not noticing that he was there, and for letting herself lapse into regular habits just because she was on her home ground, but fought not to show any sign of it as she looked ’round. Two more men, local muscle by the look of them, and not well-trained. She snorted mirthlessly in her turn. “What is this, a dick attack?”
That smirk was starting to get on her nerves. After a beat, Kaufman looked one of the heavies in the eye: “You can go,” he told them, and when the least stupid among them hesitated, he spoke impatiently: “You’ll get paid: go to the usual place. Now piss off.” He turned back to Halina as the toughs slouched away and brusquely told her “Come with me.”
“Why should I?” was her robust rejoinder.
“All right, don’t. ’S’no skin off my ass, but a friend of mine wants to meet you. Job offer. Someone with your background who’s got no time for aliens.”
You’re not making this easy, Halina thought. Halina the highly unofficial infiltration agent ought to jump at an approach like that, but Halina the disgruntled veteran, or any Halina who wasn’t on a mission for that matter, ought to tell him where he could stick his friend and their job offer, and if she didn’t she was sure she’d look like an obvious coat-trailer. Still, here went nothing: “Lead the way,” she told him as sarcastically as she could manage.
“Disengage the stealth systems,” Coranin ordered, climbing out of the helmsman’s seat so he could address himself to any communications like a captain. He was grimly amused at the way EDI immediately complied with his order: he suspected that any human officer would have questioned it, and he knew one or two turian officers who would, though none of them had lasted long under his command. In this circumstance, he would have grudgingly admitted that it was only natural: the Normandy had shadowed the salarian merchant ship as it had limped into the system, showing obvious — perhaps too obvious? — signs of damage, and monitored its message traffic as it parleyed with the asari fleet units, making ingenious excuses why it had to dock with the research station, rather than accept aid from any of the warships or their train. By now they were in amongst the asari task force, and the asari admiral would have to either grant the salarians’ request or… not. EDI had managed their emissions so perfectly that he was reasonably sure no-one had any idea they were there, so Coranin had to admit that cutting stealth under ordinary circumstances would be the last order any officer would expect.
“Multiple IFF challenges received and answered, captain.” EDI paused. “All ships have identified us as friendly.” And with friends like these… Coranin thought. “The asari flagship is hailing us.” EDI informed him.
“Put her on.”
“Who the bloody hell are you, sir?” The lines that seamed the asari admiral’s face were deepened by a pugnacious frown.
“Captain Coranin Martis, Citadel Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. And you, admiral…?”
“Hassanen. Matriarch Hassanen, N.A.R.” As it dawned on the asari that Coranin, as a Spectre, was entitled to be in the system, if that was what he wanted, she abandoned pugnacity in favour of a tone of heavy irony: “May one enquire as to what brings you to the Vernio system, Captain Martis?”
“Council business,” Coranin lied.
Lady Hassanen smiled tightly. “That’s as polite a way of saying ‘no’ as any I’ve ever heard.” When Coranin made no further remark, she made to dismiss him mentally and verbally. “Well, captain, I have a ship in distress to see to, so unless you need anything from me…”
“Yes, so I saw,” Coranin agreed genially. “Is it one of Admiral Luchen’s colliers?”
The admiral’s gaze snapped back around to her screen: “Admiral who?”
“Admiral Luchen,” Coranin repeated as though he were certain Lady Hassanen had simply misheard. “The C.O. of the salarian squadron on station… well, just outside your sensor range, now that I think about it.”
“By the Goddess!” Lady Hassanen snapped, and turned to her staff: “Bring the task force to full battle readiness!”
“Quite right,” Coranin’s expression radiated approval. “Never lose an opportunity to keep the crew sharp, that’s what I say.” He paused as the asari admiral eyed him furiously, her face turning purple with all the things it would be highly imprudent for her to say. He couldn’t resist twisting her tail just a little more: “I’d be glad to serve as umpire for your exercise, if you’d like.”
And so it proved. The STG infiltration ship, robbed of its fleet support’s element of surprise and faced with the prospect of having their every move observed by a representative of the Council, swiftly decided that the asari fleet train might well be able to effect the repairs it ‘needed’ after all, and made a discreet exit as soon as they were done lest the Spectre in-system take it into his head to board them. Coranin meanwhile carried an invitation from Lady Hassanen, who had accepted his suggestion to save face, to Admiral Luchen, and settled in to referee several days of zestful and spirited, but above all simulated warfare between the two forces, seeing fair play not only in space, but at the dinners and courtesy visits to which the officers of both navies were invited, but determinedly missing all opportunities to invite anyone aboard the Normandy, or to give his crew a change of scene.
Kaufman’s friend was visibly getting on in years, but still startlingly good-looking, Halina couldn’t keep herself from noticing. It took no prodigies of imagination to lift the cobwebbing of fine wrinkles from the pale skin of her face, and unthread the silver from the mahogany hair that contrasted with it so vividly, and so determine that in her prime she must have been downright stunning, even if she had wanted for personality, which the appraising glint in her violet eyes rather suggested that she did not. She held out a hand.
“Miranda Lawson,” she introduced herself. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Stark.”
Halina opened her mouth to say something conventional, but found it unaccountably dry. She managed to take the hand Miranda offered, who gave the ghost of a smile at her discomfiture and gestured her to a seat.
“Kaufman tells me you didn’t like training with Sergeant-Major Williams as much as you thought you would.” Miranda prompted her, and Halina groped in the dark feverishly for smething to say that was in character:
“She’s supposed to to be the loyal human Spectre, but… I don’t think there’s any such thing. I mean, at least she hasn’t gone completely native, like that bluelicker…”
“I’m going to stop you right there.” Miranda’s voice and expression had suddenly turned steely. “Philip Shepard is a friend of mine.” She paused, and the steel was blunted as she visibly felt the need to re-phrase: “I respect him, and I don’t care to hear him insulted.” Halina gave her a confused look, so she went on: “He’s wrong: he thinks if the Council races get used to seeing humans around, eventually they’ll see us as equals; he’s an idealist, always has been.” She was venting disconnectedly, and from the frustrated look on her face Halina was pretty sure she knew it. Miranda shook her head and summed up: “but he’s not stupid and he’s not gone loopy for a bit of asari skirt. If nothing else, you don’t want to underestimate him. Understood?”
Halina nodded, and Miranda clenched her jaw as she wrestled her mind back on track. “Like I said, Shepard’s an idealist: he always tries to do what’s best for everyone. My concern is to do what’s best for humanity. It always has been. In the war that put us on the same side, but now…” She shook her head. “I’m doing too much of the talking. Tell me, what do you think the Alliance should be doing differently?”
Halina felt her cheeks heat as she realised that none of the ideas she’d brooded over for What She Would Say When It Happened would do here. Or none that she could remember, at least. She got herself under control, taking a moment to decide what to say was hardly out of character, after all.
She finally settled on “I just don’t see much use for the Council, is all. They treat us like children, and having our own seat hasn’t changed anything. I vote Terra Firma, but…” Her tone and expression as she tailed off showed her opinion of the Terra Firma party.
“Terra Firma are friends of ours,” Miranda told her, “but we agree with you. Change will probably require something… other than the working of the diplomatic process. The only question is, what are you willing to do to change things?”
“If… people get in the way…” Halina began slowly. Miranda cut to the chase:
“Are you willing to go to war? To potentially take the whole galaxy with you?”
This was the moment, Halina thought. Sincerity: if you can fake that, you’ve got it made. She looked Miranda straight in the eye, and mimicked her staccato, pregnant-pause-punctuated diction: “If I’m convinced something good can come of it. For humanity. Yes.”
“Your Royal Highness; Sir Hector; my lords, ladies and gentlemen… my fellow Marines.” Shepard looked out over the crowd and the Exe estuary beyond. Of all the élite military training facilities he knew, this was certainly among the prettiest. He went on:
“I think we all know a Marine who can’t even hear the word ‘politician’ without spitting on the floor — let’s be honest, I’m sure more than a few of you have been that Marine —” He paused, and smiled beatifically at the polite laughter, then went on, still projecting his voice, but speaking with quiet sincerity: “…so I am genuinely touched to have been invited to serve as colonel-commandant of the Pegasus Corps… especially since the last time I served on active duty with a Pegasus unit, I was a corporal!” And I got my whole squad killed on Akuze… he successfully resisted adding as another rumble of dutiful mirth spread through the crowd.
“I’d hate to disappoint anyone, so I fully intend to live down to your expectations of politicians: I don’t expect to have to work very hard at all to make sure that the Alliance Marine Commandos carry forward all the battle honours, traditions, and élite standards of both the Royal Marines and the Pegasus Brigade. It’s not much of a secret these days that we don’t make a lot of orbital drops any more,” he admitted frankly, causing a mild stir, “but training here at Lympstone, amid all the traditions of the Commandos, will spur the Marines of the future to become the élite of the élite — I can’t imagine a better home for the OI/LI course.”
“And of course,” he went on, smirking irrepressibly, “I expect nothing but friendly encouragement between the web-footed limey bootnecks and the vacuum-sucking Oily Boys who can’t sit still in a perfectly good spaceship! Uh, I mean…” He barely feigned confusion, grinning as his most un-statesman-like humour shocked a genuine laugh out of the crowd. The inevitable nickname for graduates of the Orbital Insertion/Light Infantry course was so ubiquitous that even Oily Boys like Shepard himself had made it their own, and the irreverent opportunity to work it into his speech was too good to miss. He summed up with a quick “Thank you,” and took a last look out over the crowd as he sat down. The new uniform was uncomfortable, but this community was important to him, and he really rather enjoyed a little pageantry and ceremonial now and again. And there were one or two people out there who it would be distinctly useful to talk one-on-one with over the next few days.
Matriarch Irissa stood at the floor-to-ceiling window of her study, looking down to the boulevard twelve floors below, that was thronged with marching bodies. Most were asari, but there was a contingent of salarian students — the window was thick, but even through it she could hear that it was the salarians making most of the noise. The line of her jaw shifted and stiffened as she watched them — one asari bore a huge placard that read simply ‘WHY DON’T I REMEMBER MY FATHER?’ The tide of cheap sentimentality flowing back and forth through the mob was a self-reinforcing menace, one of the few things that could seriously threaten her control over the stable order of society.
The door opened softly, and Irissa let herself stare at the seething mass of people a bit longer, then turned to see her P.A. with an older woman standing behind her.
“The justicar is here, Lady Irissa.”
Irissa schooled her features into a smile of welcome, and reached out an arm in a movement that inherently dismissed the factotum and welcomed the visitor.
“Samara! Thank you for coming. Do please come in.”
Something about the justicar’s demeanour made Irissa stop herself short of actually putting a hand on her shoulder to usher her in. Part of it might have been that the shoulder in question was rather heavily armoured: Samara looked exactly like her images in the press, in fact, wearing the full combat gear she had sported in the war. Irissa forced herself not to wonder if this was as ominous as it seemed to be. She ushered Samara to the seats in front of her desk, took one of them herself, and established that she didn’t want any refreshment.
Samara was holding herself præternaturally still, and watching her with unblinking eyes. Irissa got the distinct impression that she could sit like that for hours if need be, so she took the initiative and spoke first:
“Tell me, Samara: are you as worried by the state of things as I am?”
Samara pursed her lips ever so slightly. “Whether I am ‘worried’ or not must not change my actions. I must follow the Code.”
“Naturally,” Irissa purred, “but there’s a great deal of asari space out there; before you can enforce the Code, you have to know where it is being broken and who by, no? And if you should get it wrong… Surely the first duty of a justicar is to get all the facts?”
“You might say so,” Samara allowed.
“I’m so glad,” Irissa both said and demonstrated, bouncing a broad smile off Samara’s impenetrable armour, “because I think there are things you and your colleagues don’t know. Principally this: our longevity treatment will be shared.”
Samara sat imperturbable and silent even as Irissa dropped the most potent bombshell she had ready. Even though Irissa knew that sitting still and letting the other person throw down all their cards was an immensely powerful tactic, she couldn’t keep it from working on her:
“Look, Samara, you and I have seen a lot: if it weren’t for your oaths you’d be one of us. You must surely look around you and think ‘how can we possibly trust anyone so young?’ That’s what our mothers and grandmothers thought when they developed the treatment in the first place. They watched the salarians unleash the rachni and then the krogan on the galaxy, blundering through dormant mass relays without a thought for the future. And now the humans have come along and made all the same mistakes… Your friend Shepard has made several of them all on his own, be it noted. Didn’t our mothers have the right to see these things and decide no, this discovery is not safe to share? Don’t we?
Samara had actually opened her mouth to reply when Irissa, carried away by her own argument, felt the need to put the cap on it:
“And as I said: we will share the treatment, as soon as we have found people we can trust among the leaders of the other races and negotiated a safe and orderly transition with them. I will not sit back and let the galaxy fall into chaos, and I do not see how any mother can.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Irissa knew she had fatally misspoken, as Samara stiffened and a wave of muscular flexion seemed to pass from her neck down to her feet. Irissa vacillated between preparing her biotics for a confrontation, leaning over the desk to summon help, or finding something, anything to say that would fix it. Since she wasn’t sure exactly how she’d put her foot in it, the final option might actually be the most desperate. She was inexpressibly relieved for a moment to hear her P.A. sidle back in and hand her a data pad. Then she read it, and it was her turn to stiffen and have fury boil out of her eyes.
“This… I… Goddess! Contact the Fleet,” she snapped. “I want a ship to take me to the Citadel.”
She stood, closed her eyes on a brief prayer for strength, and addressed herself to her visitor: “I’m sorry, Samara: I think we shall have to cut the meeting short.”
Samara paused, nodded, stood, and wordlessly left.
“Ahern! Good to see you!”
Reactions to this exuberant greeting on Shepard’s part — possibly a little too loud, he immediately thought — were mixed. Most of those present recognised him, of course, and either figured that he could do what he wanted, or just had low expectations of a man who’d forsaken the Corps for the murky waters of politics. Reactions among the short-sighted or slow on the uptake varied generally by service: Alliance Marines could at least read the admiral’s strips on Ahern’s mess dress, and assumed Shepard’s rank had to be equivalent, while Royal Marines — who had generally all served with the Alliance at one time or another and so could recognise both sets of insignia — saw the cut of Shepard’s uniform and assumed he was a general, then read the badges of colonel’s rank on his lapels and immediately thought “Oh, that’s Councillor Shepard, right.” Protocol-bound junior officers, however, only stood down and breathed a sigh of relief at hearing Ahern’s hearty “You too, Shepard.”
“They make you retire yet?”
“Hell no! My last P.T. qual I ran the examining chief into the ground. He was leg infantry.”
Shepard grinned. “Airborne leads the way, admiral.” Ahern snorted appreciatively at the reference to the American paratrooper community and its… friendly rivalry with the Oily Boys. “What are you up to these days?”
“Special Recon Bravo,” the admiral told him laconically. “It’s a desk job, but well, aren’t they all?” He added after a beat.
“Tell me about it,” Shepard agreed, gesturing at his new uniform, and Ahern grinned. Shepard’s eye-line shifted as he spotted another familiar face in Alliance uniform, who swiftly joined them.
“Admiral, have you met Ops Chief Mickiewicz? He was my sar-major in the 18th when I was a corporal.”
“So, what do you think of her?”
Miranda and Kaufman had withdrawn to one of the other rooms of the spacious apartment, put at their disposal by a wealthy supporter of the Cause, leaving Halina in the lounge, probably not lounging.
“Well, hey, she’s four feet nine inches of mean. What’s not to like?”
Miranda rolled her eyes at him and smirked at the exaggeration, then rolled her eyes even harder as his face lit up sycophantically, as most men’s and more than a few women’s seemed to do whenever she so much as hinted at smiling. Kaufman had made his pass and been shot down years before, but apparently hope sprang eternal. She had his measure, so she simply waited to hear what his real opinion was. Presently, he obliged.
“She could be a plant.”
“Yes, she could,” Miranda agreed equably. “I’m not too worried, though: we have enough friends in the administration that I’m sure she isn’t working for any Alliance government, and if any alien government sent her… we’ll just shop her to our friends in the administration.” She smiled into the middle distance as she mentally explored the ramifications. “They’d never find the body,” she concluded.
“What about the Council?” Kaufman suggested, and Miranda shook her head at once:
“No: I had some good news on that score. Shepard caught a rocket from the Alliance: the Council is to do nothing to rock the boat until the anti-agathics negotiations are complete. They’re even keeping him here on Earth — busy with ceremonial crap. And the other Councillors are getting the same treatment.”
“Mm.” Kaufman grunted doubtful acknowledgement. He had no rational counter-argument to offer, but his paranoia was the main reason Miranda kept him around. She gave him his instructions:
“Keep an eye on her by all means, but while you’re doing that, we have just the job she can be doing to make herself useful, don’t we?”
“‘We’ll talk on the assault course,’ he said. ‘No-one’ll overhear,’ he said.” Shepard forced the words out through gritted teeth, hauling himself up and over the wall, and Mickey grinned as Shepard landed next to him with an ‘Oof!’
“Plus we get to show these bootnecks what a couple of retired, geriatric Oily Boys can do, sir,” Mickey pointed out, and took off at a run before Shepard could point out that as Alliance, if not Royal Marines, technically they were bootnecks too. Or that the accepted response to an invitation to ‘see what the Oily Boys can do’ was to clap one’s hands to one’s face and scream “My eyes! My eyes!” All he could do was chase after him and curse the poor condition he’d let himself lapse into. Relatively speaking, anyway: he was making it ’round the course, but…
“So how’s she doing?” He panted out when he could. “Any sign of contact yet?”
“Yep,” Mickey told him. “In fact, their man came to the same class I did.”
Shepard stopped dead and stared at him. “What‽ Damn it.” His breath was shallow for more than one reason as he peered into the middle distance and rethought his plans. “Damn it,” he repeated. “I didn’t expect Cerberus to move this fast… It wouldn’t take too much digging to link you to me…” He smiled as a new plan occurred to him, and looked back at Mickey. “I want you to stay in place, but unless it’s an emergency, don’t make contact. I have an alternate in mind.”
Mickey looked his one-time subordinate in the eyes for a beat, surprising himself with the surge of pride and self-congratulation he felt at seeing him come to a quick decision and issue his orders. There was no way he could say ‘They grow up so fast,’ or words to that effect, not even here, where they were out of earshot of anybody else, so he settled for a brisk “Aye-aye, sir.”
There is a “deleted scene” from this chapter in Scenes from the Life of Phil Shepard, including much headcanony detail about how I see the Alliance military as working, and a bit of extra character study of Phil.
Chapter 13: Put to the Proof
“Uhh, forgive me, father… I really don’t know what to say.”
The figure in the other booth of the confessional was nothing more than a massive shadow, and Halina found the whole scene kind of creepy, but the humour in the warm Irish-Colonial voice that answered her was reassuring:
“I take it it’s been a while since your last confession, my child?”
“You could say that… I’m not Catholic!”
“Well, that would account for it,” Halina couldn’t see, but she could tell Father Keogh was grinning. “Anyway, Cousin Phil sends his regards.”
“Councillor Shepard is your cousin… father?” Giving Aidan his title didn’t feel quite right — a matter of habit, she supposed.
“He is, sure; and between you, me and the walls, I don’t think he goes to confession very often either, but he remembered us when he realised you might need some help doing the Lord’s work.” Halina was trying to think of a fitting rejoinder to that when she heard him unlatching the grille between the two booths of the confessional. He passed something through and added: “I come bearing gifts.”
The sheets of paper rustled as Halina mechanically took them. “Hard copy,” she noted in mild surprise as she skimmed them as best she could in the dim light.
“We’re old school here, as you may have noticed,” Aidan pointed out drily, surprising a quick laugh out of Halina. The cathedral was four centuries old.
Halina conjured a reading light from her omni-tool and started to skim the paperwork. “You’d better memorise it and let me have it back,” Aidan went on. “Wouldn’t want your new friends to catch you with them.” Halina nodded absently, and went on reading. She resisted the urge to giggle when she saw that she was reading the military record of one “Kaufman, Cornelius Miles.” It didn’t take long: the record covered less than half a page, ending with “discharged as unsuitable without completing basic training.” It was followed by a police record listing a disturbing record of violent crimes, but more interesting were the unofficial memoranda: one was from a city detective, who reported that she was ‘pretty sure’ Kaufman was behind more than one unsolved violent crime in Halina’s own neighbourhood, including a rape—Halina’s eyes went hard: suddenly all the humour was gone from the situation—but couldn’t be picked up for lack of evidence. Halina nodded and passed on to the final and most interesting sheet: a personal message from Shepard about Miranda: “The first thing I saw Miranda Lawson do was murder someone, for what she considered to be good and weighty reasons. She is exceptionally intelligent, has a wide range of experience, and as I think you’ve already guessed, she is willing to place her conception of the good of humanity ahead of pretty well anybody’s life, limb or property. I wish I could say I was surprised it’s her you find yourself up against, but… well, I know better than to wish an N-rated officer ‘good luck’, lieutenant.” So read the highlight. Halina rapidly skimmed the rest, praying she’d remember at least the key points, and handed it back to Father Aidan.
“You’ve got all that, then? Good, good. Now, have you any news for me to pass along?”
Halina nodded, though Aidan couldn’t see it. “Yes: they’re sending me on a mission. I think they want me to prove myself, something like that.”
“Hey, Stark,” Paco ran his finger over the words as soon as he’d entered them, replacing them with “Dear Halina,” then his inspiration dried up. Fortunately he was saved by the bell, or at least by the incoming message chime:
Paco started to peruse the attached document with leisurely interest, then half jumped out of his chair as he spotted the planned date of the rendezvous. Tomorrow. Pausing only to check that the message was available on his omni-tool to read on the transport, he set off for the armoury at a dead run.
From: OpsChf A. Williams, sergeant-major, Interplanetary Combatives Training.
To: SLT F. Montoya, trainee (N1), ICT.
Subject: Fwd: Request for officer assignment.
Please study the following mission parameters, as they comprise your next assignment.
From: ADM T. Ahern, commanding officer, Special Reconnaissance Forces, Division B.
To: OpsChf A. Williams, sergeant-major, ICT.
Subject: Request for officer assignment.
Intelligence has come to light that a shipment of small arms may come under attack during transshipment in the Arrae system. Higher authority has decided that capturing the raiders is a more desirable outcome than protecting the shipment, so the rendezvous between the two ships will take place on the surface of Gellix as planned, and Special Recon B has been detailed to provide security. Unfortunately, my personnel resources are overstretched, so I’d appreciate it if you could assign an N-school trainee with Marine infantry experience to command the mission.
Ash was waiting for him on the landing pad: she was ostentatiously looking at the time display on her omni-tool, but she was also smiling. Ever so slightly, but still.
“Not bad, lieutenant. Ready to ship out?”
Paco shifted his pack to leave his right arm unhampered, and nodded. “I am, chief.”
“Good…” Ash paused, and gave him a searching look as she gave a last few seconds’ consideration to what she could and couldn’t say, then finally settled on “Keep your eyes open, O.K., L.T.?”
“I will… uh, sar-major?” She widened her eyes and gave a micro-nod to encourage him to go on: “Did you know I was reading my messages when you sent the assignment?”
Ash grinned. “I know everything that goes on on my base, L.T.” She snapped to and gave him a sharp salute. Paco returned it, thinking, and not for the first time, that it was the Villa in a nutshell: never mind your N rating, the real challenge was if you can get a salute from the second human Spectre, and not have everyone fall over laughing.
“Two guys‽” Halina resented having to look up at Kaufman’s face. “Two‽ And the security’s in, what, full squad strength?”
“You got a problem, Stark? I thought you were some kind of fancy Infiltrator.”
“Are they?” Halina finally looked at the two meatheads Kaufman had scraped up. It wasn’t long before she gave up on that.
“Yes,” Kaufman condescended. “Contrary to popular opinion you’re not the only one who ever served in the Corps.” He paused. “Your gear’s in the cargo hold. Go on, get it done.”
Halina bit down hard on the urge to say ‘Whatever, Cornelius’ and boarded the transport.
“Neela!” Mira’s eyes went wide as her friend entered the room, wearing the millennia-old habit of a novice of the Order. Logically it oughtn’t to have been a surprise, as she’d known where Neela was for weeks, but she’d been clinging to the belief that there had to be some mistake. She looked over her shoulder at the senior sister propping up the wall, and went on: “What the hell is going on?”
“I’ve decided to commit my life to the pursuit of siari. All is one, after all. I’m sorry you didn’t hear from me before, but during my probation I’m not allowed to speak with outsiders except on specific days, you know.” The words were entirely orthodox, but the twinkle in Neela’s eyes and the fact that she was all but grinning suggested that something else was going on. The fact that the sister listening in didn’t seem to mind the twinkle or the twitching lips also bore thinking on. Mira picked her words carefully:
“Just… so long as you’re O.K. When you were hauled out of your place by a Goddess-damned justicar…” She let herself approach a grin too. “I thought you’d given your last speech.
Neela pursed her lips appreciatively, and gave Mira a look as she weighed the pros and cons of giving her a hint. “They do… encourage us to keep quiet most of the time,” she admitted, “but if Mother permits, I could give a speech in chapter tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that… and the day after that…” By this point Neela was frankly grinning and Mira couldn’t resist looking around again at the sister, who remained stone-faced as she leant on the wall.
The view through Halina’s helmet visor went crazily kaleidoscopic as she lost control of the zoom function like a boot on her first deployment — it was handy to be able to see for miles just by squint/peering, but when you got it wrong it all went… wonky. Normal vision restored itself in milliseconds, and Halina kicked herself, if truth be told, rather too much over the mistake, since she had two very good reasons to be shocked. For one thing, security on the arms shipment was more like a short platoon than a beefed-up squad: there were at least eighteen of them. And for another…
The phrase ‘a fine Italian hand’ swam briskly through Halina’s mind — and a little irrelevantly, since as far as she knew neither Shepard nor sar’-major Williams was Italian, but still, one or both of them had to be behind the fact that Montoya was here. How much did he know? She wondered. In a way it didn’t matter: if she was going to earn Miranda’s trust, she’d have to do more than just make it look good. She felt a brief pang of despair at the thought of actually going into action against Alliance Marines, but then she saw one squad of the opposition start moving away from the spot she was looking at, and she realised that just knowing Montoya was here meant she knew enough about the enemy’s dispositions to plan the opening moves, at least.
She looked down at her squad: they weren’t actually Infiltrators, but the pretty decent job they’d done of digging in showed that they were competent grunts, at least. She paused while she tried half-heartedly to poke holes in the plan that had come to her in a flash of inspiration, and that she already knew she’d be putting into action, then gave her orders:
“Wait fifteen minutes for me to get into position, then as soon as you see me drop my cloak, start laying down fire. When one of them breaks cover or loses shields, you switch targets; you flush ’em out and keep ’em busy, I take ’em down. Understood?” They nodded, but she rammed her point home anyway: “Remember; fifteen minutes. You might see them get antsy before then, but hold your fire: I’m gonna be down there under cloak, and if I take a stray round I’m coming for you, you hear?”
The meatheads grinned, but Halina stayed poker-faced. She activated her tactical cloak and moved swiftly and silently down the hill.
Paco was doing his best to make like the chief said and keep his eyes open, but he was getting increasingly convinced that the assignment was going to be all hurry-up-and-wait. They’d waited for the ship bringing the explodey goodness, they’d waited for the second ship, they’d waited for the cargo to be transferred, and now they were waiting for the crew to futz about with God only knew what so they could get underway. It had occurred to him that if he were planning to steal the cargo, now would be the time, when it was secured on board and the ship was pretty well ready to go. His ready squad and reserve were in position, and everybody had their eyes peeled, but he just didn’t feel like anything was going to happen. He undogged his helmet and resisted the urge to sit down.
“Charlie Actual, this is Charlie Two Actual! We’re… Gaaah!” Paco’s reserve squad leader’s voice was abruptly chopped off.
“Two actual, report! Talk to me, corporal!… Anyone in second squad, this is Charlie Actual, radio check, over.” His voice was the clear, flat monotone discipline insisted on, but his mind was racing as he tried to work out what could possibly take out eight Marines — dead? Or just out of contact? — all at once without showing up on his sensors or First Squad’s attentive watch.
He whirled around to order the platoon sergeant to go find out what had happened, but before he could speak he saw a tactical cloak dissipate and reveal a petite figure that was familiar even in full armour. His reflex response of unslinging his rifle was halted when he peered into the face-plate of Halina’s helmet and his eyes confirmed and insisted on the evidence he could hardly believe:
Halina grinned at the look on his face and gave him a small-world-huh shrug, then ungallantly grabbed the rifle out of his hands and smacked the butt-end up under his chin. Another strike to the side of his head and he was down for the count, hopefully with no permanent damage done. She threw down the rifle and re-engaged her cloak before the sergeant could get over his initial reaction to the fact that Lt. Montoya clearly knew her, and realise that yes, she was in fact a bigger threat than the rounds from the meatheads that were already starting to dent his shield.
Montoya’s problem, a detached part of Halina’s awareness reflected, was that he hadn’t pulled enough space duty. He still thought like a ground-pounder: to him the ship was just a fortified area where he could station his reserve squad. The credo of anyone used to boarding actions, by contrast, was ‘guns we can handle; the real enemy is the environment.’ N-rated personnel lived and breathed this doctrine especially: Halina had used an especially devious little virus sar’-major Williams had ‘unaccountably forgotten’ to purge from her omni-tool against the cargo bay where Second Squad was standing guard over the shipment: the virus was designed to seal a compartment off, randomly jingle-jangle the gravity until anyone inside was whooping their cookies and had no idea which way was up, then pick a random bulkhead to serve as the ‘floor’ and pin everyone to it while dumping the air at fire-suppression speeds. Halina knew Marines: some of them, at least, would have taken their helmets off, and she’d picked the setting that restored the air after long enough to induce unconsciousness, avoiding irreversible brain damage in specimens of rude health like your average grunt. Eight down, plus Montoya left nine to go.
Halina danced through the firefight, waiting for the meatheads’ fire to drop a Marine’s shields, then either hitting them with a neural shock blast or a smack upside the head, whatever worked. She entered a flow state: it was as though bullets and bodies were moving down pre-ordained paths to meet her devastating attacks exactly as she planned them… until the last one. Her cloak had run out of juice, and the rounds she didn’t even know she had caught had left her shield dangerously low, probably lower than that of the buck private who was the last Marine standing. They looked straight into one another’s eyes, and as the kid raised his rifle the tactical problem solved itself before Halina was conscious of thinking about it: she raised her omni-tool and hit him with an energy drain, restoring her shields and dropping his… just in time for a well-aimed round from one of the meatheads to pass straight through his neck.
Still on flow-state-auto-pilot, Halina leapt forward and lowered the boy’s limp weight — armour and all — to the ground. She fumbled in her med-kit and slapped two medi-gel-coated bandages on the wounds. They bonded successfully to the intact skin: it looked like the round had missed both the spine and the carotids, but Halina knew that without more medical help than she had time to provide, the kid wasn’t going to make it.
“We’re all clear: get your asses down here!” Her voice over the radio — safe to use now the Marines were in no position to intercept it — was a harsh rasp. Leaving the wounded boy still staring up in bewilderment, she went on board the ship.
Passing flight school had bumped Halina from N2 to N3, but that had been a few months ago, and it hadn’t included this particular class of ship. Still, it wasn’t as if they had a lot of options, and she understood the security and environmental controls well enough, so she keyed the ship-wide intercom and forced herself to sound cheerfully piratical:
“All hands, this is your hijacker speaking! I’m opening the airlocks and venting all compartments. We take off in sixty seconds. You can leave now or… later, I really don’t mind.”
She couldn’t suppress a grin as she watched on the monitors as the civilian crew scuttled out of the ship without ceremony, and the helmeted Marines in the cargo bay started to lift those of their comrades who weren’t so lucky towards the big loading lock: enough of them were unconscious that even if the others were feeling vindictive, they wouldn’t be able to take more than a fraction of the cargo with them. Not a bad result, she thought. I wonder how many people I had to murder to bring it off?
Chapter 14: Home is…
“STOP THIS NOW!”
There were tall narrow screens dotted aroud the Transients’ Lounge, replaying news reports and the inevitable advertising. No audio, so at least Samara didn’t have to hear “…a division of Elkoss Combine” over and over again. It didn’t save her from filling in the words as the lips of the life-size justicar on the screen shaped them: she’d seen the bulletin, in living colour and sound, and more to the point, she’d shared the memories of an eyewitness:
It had been another demonstration, and as it had turned out, the Order hadn’t been the only ones to have their own people salted through the crowd. Not being amateurs in the investigation game, Samara’s fellow justicars had determined that the provocateur was Kiafol T’Iassis, a priestess-in-training from the Holra City seminary. They could doubtless tell her T’Iassis’ home address, favourite childhood teacher and medical history, if such should be necessary. Samara revisited the memory of a protester who’d assisted the justicars’ enquiries, watching the matriarchs’ picked agent egg two or three of the girls on to go from demonstration to riot, and the asari wave of no doubt equally hand-picked police officers wading in and breaking heads indiscriminately. Had it all been just to smoke their own people out? Samara tried to deny the sick certainty, unable to tear her eyes from the screen as she watched Salka cut loose with her biotics, driving at least a dozen riot cops back from a fallen protester before finally being killed by the rest. To Samara she looked like a baby: protests were always maiden-heavy, so perforce a justicar infiltrating one had to be not long past her vows.
The display blinked over to show a beefy police chief in uniform, explaining the matriarchs’ version of events. Samara was glad she couldn’t hear that part. She wished she could change places with someone who wanted to know the story behind the stories on the news. Stripped of all narrative embroidery, the truth was simple: asari society was tearing itself apart, and the Code demanded that Samara leave it to fend for itself.
Yes, it was what the Code demanded, she told herself for the nth time. “Asari society” was an abstract notion: no doubt there would be more incidents; her sister justicars likely knew more specifics, but the specific danger Samara knew of was on the Citadel, and the fact that it threatened people she loved made no difference. Samara made a rare outward sign of the way she was feeling, clenching a fist by her side in her determination to believe it. She was relieved to be saved from further contemplation by the sight of a familiar drop shuttle landing on the pad, disgorging a pair of armoured turians, one of whom at least she recognised.
“Good to see you again, Samara.”
“And you as well, Garrus.” She turned to the younger man. “You must be Captain Martis; thank you so much for coming. I believe it is critically important that I reach the Citadel before Lady Irissa.”
Presence of mind had deserted Shepard completely: as he stepped forward and to the side, clearing the airlock for his fellow passengers, he was running on farmboy courtesy alone. Everything else was taken up by the sight of his wife’s face. Not for the first time they were mirror images of one another: Liara stood to one side of the door out of the docking area, past the Customs desk, and Shepard toyed with the idea of Bézier equations, assuming mere mathematics were adequate to capture the subtleties of the curve of her lips. What were the coefficients for ‘I love you’? For ‘I missed you’? For ‘Welcome home’?
Whoa. Shepard derailed his own train of thought. When did that happen? The last time the word ‘home’ had meant a place that still existed, that hadn’t been shelled into the ground by batarian orbital strikes, had been sixty-five years before. He’d even said ‘Come on, girls, time to go home,’ or words to that effect, to Terri and Nezzy and his heart had not fluttered, but now…
“Councillor Shepard! Councillor Shepard!”
Ah. Yes. That explained the ‘irony’ term in the equation for Liara’s smile. Mona Lisa’s got nothin’ on my sweetie, Shepard indulged himself by thinking, but then one of the throng of reporters passed between him and Liara, and he was forced to notice that there were more members of the welcoming committee. He pasted on his On-Demand Smile™ and looked into the lights.
“How is the council going to respond to events on Thessia?” The reporters who were a little slower off the mark all shut up in that way that told Shepard that that was the question everyone wanted to know the answer to. The combination of decades of military discipline plus the instincts honed by a short and… unorthodox but intense political career were just enough to keep him from blurting out “What events on Thessia?” Nor did he have to freeze unphotogenically for too long: as his eyes adjusted to the bright lights, he made out the figure of his chief of staff hustling his way urgently through the crowd. Shepard gave them a smile he hoped wasn’t too fatuous while Mark finished throwing elbows, then leaned… up, as the rangy, perpetually-worried-looking-because-perpetually-worried six-footer whispered a brief précis into his ear. As soon as he’d formed a plan of attack, he nodded sagely and addressed himself to the crowd.
“All it’s appropriate for me to say right now,” he began with slow sincerity, “is that my heart goes out to the loved ones of those who have been injured or… or died in the last few days in the Asari Republics… or anywhere else, for that matter.” He smiled gently and started walking forward: the reporters would have to fade back to keep themselves out of the footage being shot by the arc of remotes in his face, so every step parted them like the waves and brought him closer to Liara. He’d run out of honesty; with any luck he’d reach her before he ran out of nothing to say at great length:
“As you probably know, I’ve been on Earth, conferring with the governments of the Alliance.” He favoured them with a decorously cheeky lopsided grin as his next line occurred to him: “Frankly, I see a deal more conferring in my future.” Not wishing to overdo it, he let his expression turn grave again: “It would be inappropriate for me to comment unilaterally; that is, without conferring with the other members of the Council. In particular, I’m sure Councillor Tevos has information about the situation on the ground in the Republics that I don’t.”
He ground to a halt as he reached Liara, and she grinned at the way all the rest of the universe clearly vanished again for him when their eyes locked. She didn’t have to do anything so gross as grab him by the shoulders and turn him around, but she did make the equivalent eye movement to draw his attention to the babble of questions from the crowd. He turned and raised a hand, as well as his voice, to silence them.
“Now, you’ll have to excuse me, I haven’t seen my family in a little over three weeks, and I don’t know about you, but by my standards, that’s far too long!”
The sight of him with his arm around Liara’s waist, sporting the usual euphoric grin that went with such a state of being, made an eloquent statement of his solidarity with at least one asari, for good or ill.
Shepard sank to his haunches and spread his arms with a simultaneous cry of “There’s my baby girl!” Benezia was at full tilt as well as in full voice: she ran straight into his arms, and he stood up, his eyes going wide only briefly as his knees complained. He made sure his grip was secure and made a purely dad-like, clenched-teeth noise through his grin: “Awww: that’s the stuff!” In more comprehensible tones, he went on: “I missed you so much, honey!”
“I miss’ you too, Daddy.”
Shepard closed his eyes for a moment, then went on: “In that case” — he drew out the vowel and the pause that followed it — “I think it’s time… for…” — the rapt expectation on her face was so cute that he threw in a “…some…” he hadn’t even planned just to prolong it, then finally — “NEZZY-NUZZLES!”
His ears drank in the delightful sound of his daughter’s giggling as the tips of their noses twirled around each other, and he squeezed her that little bit more tightly just ’cause. As his eyeline slipped to one side of Nezzy’s face, he caught sight of Liara gracefully coming to her feet, with nary a joint issue in evidence as she hefted the greater weight of their eldest daughter comfortably into her arms. This wasn’t quite as surprising a sight as it might have been: motherhood and having someone around to both cook her favourite meals and remind her to eat on some kind of schedule had swapped out the ethereal, barely-there thing she’d had going on when they met for a curve of hip that he found quite frankly delicious; still, she didn’t look strong enough to carry a ten-year-old around all day long. Confusion to the enemy, oh yes, but for now… He slipped an arm around the previously mentioned delicious middle.
“Welcome home, Father.”
Shepard grinned and looked straight into his eldest’s pink eyes: “Thank you, Miss Terri.” He squeezed harder with both arms and let his eyes half close. “Mmm, group hug. This is what it’s all about.” Nezzy nodded, and Terri and Liara gave him matching indulgent Mona Lisa smiles.
“You trying to make me throw up, Shepard?”
“Wrex!” Shepard grinned again. “Old friend! I didn’t know you were still here!”
He set Nezzy down only a little bit creakily, straightened up without puffing… and was surprised to find himself having to pretend not to be shocked. He suspected that he failed. Wrex was levering himself to his feet with the aid of a stout cane Shepard had never seen before, as well as a very krogan bellow that suited a biotic charge better than just… getting out of a chair.
Standing fully erect, Wrex seemed outright small to Shepard for the first time. It was an optical, or at any rate an emotional illusion: Wrex still stood taller and massed far more than anyone else in the room, but to anyone who’d known him in his prime, the effect was immediately shocking.
Knowing better than to comment, Shepard recovered as quickly as he could. “Well, what has it been? Two hundred? Three hundred years since you last took a vacation? I figure you’ve earned it…” Wrex grunted, and Shepard grinned. “Right, what shall we have for dinner, eh?” He set off purposely for the kitchen.
“You know there’s a Catholic seminary on the Citadel now?”
Liara’s lips twitched soundlessly, barely shaping the words, but in both their heads they came across loud and clear. The Shepards lay in bed together, Liara’s eyes half closed as she concentrated on holding a light union — once upon a time she had been embarrassed to join with her husband like this, the thought “You’re so beautiful!” continually re-echoing from his brain to hers; by now, though, she was considering selling all their mirrors.
“Oh?” He thought/said lazily. “Have you heard from Cousin Aidan?”
She radiated assent. “A nice boy in a cassock brought me a letter from Lieutenant Stark.” Liara briefly deepened the joining, passing on her gestalt of Halina’s encounter with Montoya and his Marines as she’d gleaned it from the letter.
Shepard winced. “I know. God knows I never wanted to send her in against our own people.” He felt a reflexive twinge of embarrassment, then smiled as he tasted Liara’s amusement at his hectic impulse to rephrase. There was really no need; after all, if anyone knew what he meant, it was… “Did you see a casualty list?”
“I did…” She couldn’t hide the details from him, nor did she really want to. “There were no Marines killed in action, by a mercy. Private Collignon, who took a round to the neck, was attended to by the platoon corpsman: he’s expected to make a full recovery, thanks to the lieutenant’s first aid… PFC O’Leary, on the other hand, has a traumatic brain injury — how much function he’ll recover, nobody knows yet, but his career with the Alliance military is almost certainly over.”
Shepard’s lips pressed together tightly, and they both swam in regret. “I’ll remember that the next time Miranda tells me Cerberus acts for the good of humanity,” he thought sourly.
Liara agreed. To him, palpably. “The silver lining is that the lieutenant seems to have earned her trust. She’s been warned for something called ‘Operation Gleiwitz’”
“Oh!” A sense of professional disdain blossomed into life in Shepard’s awareness, and spread rapidly to Liara’s as she absorbed the chord of memory the name had struck. “Whose bright idea was that?” He wondered.
“The lieutenant hasn’t spoken to Miranda since the night they met. She got the warning from Kaufman.”
“You’d think even he would know to pick code-names randomly. I’d certainly have thought Miranda would…” They saw the funny side. “…still, I guess we shouldn’t complain… Do you suppose they’re actually going to hit one of the extranet repeater stations on the border?”
“Mmm… maybe…” Liara was starting to get drowsy.
Shepard let go of the thought and they both relaxed, letting themselves bob down their collective stream of consciousness. “Catch me up on everything else I missed?” He hoped, and felt like he was bathing in Liara’s smile at the sense of anticipation he felt. For answer, she simply deepened the union, and the drifted off to sleep on a gentle mutual tide of reminiscences of the time they’d spent apart.
“Amit, my dear fellow! Do come in.”
My dear fellow‽ Shepard cringed inwardly and reproached himself: some quarians — particularly those from the Qwib-Qwib — came across his translator sounding like senior English officers he had known, making his syntax and word choice get literary without even needing to. Amit’Koris had never seemed to be alive to the nuances, thankfully; the quarian ambassador gave a decorous nod and wordlessly let himself be ushered to the lounge.
When they were seated, Shepard smiled gently: “I don’t suppose you’re here to get an Alliance student visa for your nephew, or something?”
Amit’Koris shook his head, and launched impatiently into a speech he’d obviously been rehearsing in his head: “I’ve talked to Kinarn and Tharrik, Calyn and Yuril — after that I even went to see Councillor Tevos, for all the good that did. All I want to know is what the Council is going to do about this anti-agathics business, and I think the answer…” He was speaking faster and faster and with ever-greater degrees of animation “…if I’ve dug the right thing out from under the mountain of empty words… is ‘nothing’.”
Amit’Koris had to pause for breath, so Shepard seized the opportunity to get a word in: “And they didn’t tell you why? Amit, I’m sorry: you and your people deserve better than that.” He paused, and sighed. “Look, the problem we have here is that there are only two ways the Council can get anything done: either we send out a Spectre to intervene covertly — uh, usually,” he added in response to a look, then went on “or, since we have no direct powers, all we can do is make a big public stink, and essentially shame our member governments into line. Now, the Alliance has told me in no uncertain terms that I’m not allowed to lend myself to the making of any kind of stink: we’re all going to be negotiating with the asari separately. One of the others should have told you. I’m sorry.” He tailed off, feeling inadequate.
Amit’Koris, on the other hand, was no fool, and had spotted the crucial point: “And have you sent out a Spectre?”
Shepard looked him straight in the… faceplate: “The Council has made no such decision,” he told him, dancing on a knife edge as he tried to emphasise ‘the Council’ enough and not too much.
A welcome opportunity to change the subject arrived in the form of Wrex, emerging from the guest room. “Morning,” Shepard saluted him cheerfully. “Amit, have you met Wrex?”
“Urdnot Wre…” Amit’Koris began, thoroughly nonplussed. “No, I haven’t. Er, are the krogan…?”
Shepard shook his head and smiled: “Wrex is a friend of the family; he’s here on vacation.”
“Ah,” Amit’Koris acknowledged, not quite sure enough of his ground to commit to more than a noise.
“Although, now that I think of it,” Shepard went on brightly, “since the krogan have asari-equivalent lifespans already, they’d make a perfect peace-keeping force just now, don’t you think?”
Amit’Koris stiffened, not sure whether Shepard was serious. Wrex, who knew him rather better, just shook his head. With commendable speed, the quarian ambassador thought of something diplomatic to say: “Of course, we don’t know if asari anti-agathics couldn’t help the krogan live even longer…”
“That’s true.” Shepard nodded solemnly. He smiled. “I suppose if we wanted a strictly neutral third party, we’d have to ask the geth!”
He should have offered refreshment, he thought: quite apart from the duties of a good host, he had just missed a perfect opportunity for an induction port spit take.
Chapter 15: Viewpoints
“Um, excuse me?”
Therrin regretted the words almost, but not quite before they were out of his mouth. The tall asari was sitting cross-legged, even more præternaturally controlled and still than she normally came across, and holding a ball of biotic energy between her rock-steady hands, and if that didn’t say “I’m busy”… The ball dissipated, and she looked up.
“Yes, Dr. Therrin?”
“Um, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to interrupt, but, er, I just wanted to ask…”
“Please,” Samara interrupted him, gesturing that he should maybe let more of him than just his head enter the observation lounge. “Come and join me.”
Therrin did as he was bidden, moving around the furniture to stand in front of Samara and off to one side, perching himself awkwardly on the edge of the chair. He forced himself to come straight to the point: “You knew Mordin Solus, didn’t you?”
Samara gave no outward sign that both Garrus and EDI had warned her to expect the question: “Looking back, I must say that I never knew him quite as well as I would have liked, but yes, I knew the professor.” Therrin blinked as four or five questions tried to barge out of his mind at once and got stuck in the doorway. “You never quite knew what he was going to say next,” Samara mused, filling the silence reminiscently. “He… effervesced with ideas, usually for short intervals before disappearing back into his lab, but while you could listen to it, it was really rather… invigorating.” Her voice was slow, even and placid, the very antithesis of the subject matter, and she smiled gently as she saw him see the contrast. “The salarian who rushes from idea to idea and the asari who takes her time is a stereotype, but as with all stereotypes there is truth in it. We are each more than we would be without the other.”
Therrin slow-blinked again as he absorbed this, looking at things from a broader perspective than he ever had before: he’d always left politics to look after themselves, and taken his colleagues as he found them. Even now that he was intimately associated with galactic intrigues, it was the work he was concentrating on, and it had never mattered to him much that Rana happened to be asari. She was just… Rana. A neutral thought occurred to him, and he seized on it in relief at being able to take a turn in the conversation:
“It’s literally true in, uh, your case, isn’t it? I mean, there are asari who wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for their salarian fathers.”
“Indeed, and the minds of those salarians have changed the lives of their asari partners.” Samara smiled gently. “I expect asari science has been advanced more than once when a salarian scientist like you or Professor Solus has caught the eye of some asari matron.” Before Therrin could blink at that idea, her smile faded. “You have deserved better from us than we have given.”
Tongue-tied as Samara was seemingly permanently making him, Therrin retained enough presence of mind to be able to make a politic rejoinder: “I’m sure plenty of salarians have learned things… that way, too.”
“No doubt. But so many opportunities have been lost…” Samara frowned. “Your work and Dr. Viridon’s is probably the most important work underway in the galaxy right now. I’m glad to be here to help safeguard it.”
Therrin was saved from having to think of another diplomatic reply as the door opened, and a blue, Rana-shaped cannonball burst in.
“Therrin! There you are! I figured it out! Oh, justicar, excuse me!” Given that casting her eyes down only meant she was looking more directly at Samara as she sat on the deck, Rana was visibly unsure where to look.
“This is a common area,” Samara reminded her. “Do carry on.” She bit her tongue to keep from adding ‘child.’ Almost everybody seemed young to Samara, but a child Rana certainly was not. Rana took her at her word and quickly got a head of steam back up as she described the breakthrough she’d made.
“We’ve been assuming all along the vector had to be airborne, right? Like the krogan genophage, or the Jaeto Vaccination?”
“Or any secret gene engineering…”
“…right. If you’re a salarian, apparently just how things are done. But the epidemiology just doesn’t fit. You’d expect dispersion: symptoms showing up later and later as you get further from initial exposure points.”
“Wait: the symptom is… not dying…”
Rana was already shaking her head. “You’d still see the pattern, it would just be delayed.”
“The records could be…”
She shook her head more firmly, and reached out as if to stop it by grabbing his in both hands. He flinched, and then held passively still, his face young and vulnerable in her hands, enough to abate the frustration and remind her where her duty lay.
“May I?” She asked elliptically, and couldn’t help grinning as he tried to nod. She closed her eyes and formed a light union, just enough that he could follow her train of through without her having to say everything out loud.
“It was food-borne, Therrin. They gimmicked the food supply, everywhere and all at once, so virtually the entire population was affected simultaneously. Only the matriarchs could have pulled it off…” She/they avoided getting sidetracked: “but think about it: if it’s encapsulated in food, there’s much more headroom… You could encode…” “…a whole retroviral genome…” The voice in their heads was now Therrin’s, though both their lips were moving. “That means the vector for the germ-line version could be completely… oh, sneaky…” Their thoughts blended as Therrin leapt with the speed only a salarian genius could ever manage from idea to concept to idea, down the path Rana had already found, and more than a little way down more than a few tangents. “Yes,” he concluded at not much length. “That’s it. That has to be it.” Their union was forced slightly apart as a thought all his own — admiration for Rana for having the idea — came to him. It deepened again as she reflected it back to him: union or no union, he’d caught on very quickly, but there was something else there, an emotion he didn’t immediately know the name for…
As soon as she felt him probing around that area, Rana broke the link off, abruptly. They had work to do. She cocked her head in the direction of the door, said “Come on,” and strode purposefully off without waiting.
Therrin shook his head and blinked several times. It did no good, of course: his eyes weren’t the problem, but the effect was very much like a poorly calibrated binocular interface: in addition to his own point of view he had a fading image of how Rana viewed the world, or at least the room, imperfectly overlaid. Tentatively he moved his head, half expecting to be nauseated. Finding that he wasn’t, he looked around more positively, until his gaze lit upon Samara.
The effect was… startling. The vague unnerved feeling at being in the presence of someone so controlled, who you just knew had as many hidden depths as obvious ones, was congruent enough with his own impressions, but there was more: the justicar seemed to… glow, was the only metaphor Therrin’s experience could supply. He was reminded of creatures that sought out and moved towards light, even when it was the light of a fire that would surely burn them. The effect, apparently, was strongest when Rana contemplated the size of Samara’s eyes, the symmetry of her face, and he had an odd feeling that the justicar’s mammary hypertrophy was important as well, for some reason, but most of the glow came from within, the echo of the gestalt echo of Samara’s mind as Rana was aware of it without making any particular effort at joining. Dazzled, he looked away…
…and caught sight of himself reflected in the window against the backdrop of space. In Rana’s eyes, he glowed too, and now he couldn’t un-know it. Immediately, an “Oh…” escaped him, and he blinked a very slow blink indeed.
Reassembling his presence of mind, he looked back down at Samara, who was smiling that gentle smile again. As a component of the now mercifully fading glow, it was most unnerving. She nodded gracefully at his stammered “Excuse me,” and resumed her meditation as he trotted after Rana. There was work to be done, he reminded himself firmly.
“Very well. Are there any further matters we should discuss?”
Here goes nothing, Neela thought, and raised her hand, trying to look meek and respectful. When she was acknowledged, she spoke up:
“Thank you, Mother, Sisters. I think I need guidance: I find it hard not to let my mind dwell on recent events in the news.”
The sub-prioress jumped hotly in right there; Neela, who had hoped she would, very carefully did not smile.
“You shouldn’t be paying attention to the news, Sister,” she told her censoriously. “The life continues, no matter what is happening outside.”
“That is true, of course, Sister,” said the abbess, “but these are exceptionally troubling times. I myself find it difficult to keep my mind on my meditations, so I think it can only help us to share the burden of our troubles.” She turned to look Neela full in the face, and very deliberately did not wink. “Say your say, Sister Neela.”
Instinctively, Neela knew the right thing to do was to furrow her brow, then direct her gaze into the middle distance and look diffident and troubled. The problem was she found it all too easy to look troubled, and with all eyes in the chapter-house on her, instead of a nice abstract number of viewers in the corner of the screen, she was surprised to find herself genuinely diffident as well. OK, she thought to herself, sincerity… Yeah, I can make that work. She started speaking:
“I’m sure some people look at what’s happening, and take sides, you know? If you believe the news, everyone’s either saying ‘the matriarchs know what’s best for us’ or ‘we must trust in the justicars and the Code.’ But do you know what? I’m quite sure most people simply watch in horror as each justicar, each of our sisters in Athamist orders, and most especially each innocent bystander dies. The voice of these people must be heard.” She spread her hands, re-focused her eyes and made eye contact with one or two sisters she knew to be sympathetic, and smiled “…and who better than siarists to speak for them? All is one,”—she felt she was holding her sincerity tightly enough to trot the old truism out — “and it is time someone reminded the rest of the Republics of the fact before the body politic tears itself apart!”
Neela realised her voice was ringing out: it had slipped into Legislature mode. She cast her eyes down and generally did her best to look bashful. “That’s how I see it, anyway.” She manufactured an anticlimax.
“Your point is well taken, Sister,” the abbess reasserted control of the discussion. “It may set your mind at ease if I tell you that siarist communities with a more pastoral commitment will be doing more or less as you recommend.” She smiled a wise old lady’s smile at the folly of youth, and such was the power of her personality that for once in a way Neela wasn’t annoyed. The abbess went on: “As long as the convent stands our part is to set an example of constancy, of contemplation, and…” Her lips twitched. “…of peace and quiet.”
There was a decorous murmur of laughter in the chapter-house. Neela flushed lilac, but correctly identified it as not ill-natured. She let her own lips twitch. “I will be guided by you, of course, Mother.”
“Very good.” The abbess smiled. “Then if there’s nothing else…?” She nodded. “This chapter is concluded.”
“You know what you have to do?”
Halina nodded, then grimaced at her own awkwardness and pushed an indistinct “Yes.” out of a throat she hadn’t troubled to clear. Kaufman had forged ahead; Halina could just about see him breaking his stiff-legged stride twenty-five yards away at the cargo ramp of the ship they’d be taking; Halina herself was walking a pace behind and half a body to the left of Miranda, like a good junior officer, so of course Miranda hadn’t seen her nod.
By the grace of someone — probably Coach, or sar’-major Williams: between them they’d done the most work on Halina’s reflexes — Halina managed not to walk into Miranda as the older woman stopped abruptly, turning to give her a searching look.
There were two immediate reactions that Halina had to fight down. One, of course, was Fuck fuck fuck fuck what does she know? The other was the irresistible observation that Miranda’s left eye, which was the only one visible in the arc-lights of the ship they were walking past, looked positively violet in the cold white light. Spy stuff aside, there was every reason not to notice how flattering the vivid contrast of white light and black shadow, pale skin, dark, grey-streaked hair and flower-violet eye could be: if Miranda wasn’t trying to use it — and she didn’t seem to be — it would be tedious to go around noticing.
“It’s not too late to back out, you know.” Miranda’s brows were drawn. “Miles knows where to get hold of people, if it comes down to it.”
Halina shook her head decisively, grateful for the straight line. “No. It’s not exactly what they taught us to do at the Academy, but…” She tried to do a determined sort of thing with her jaw. “It’s got to be done.”
Miranda nodded. “Trouble with the asari is they’re too smart. They pick ways to hurt us that they know most of us won’t mind all that much.” Her tone was abstracted, and the ideas she was expressing were by now old hat, so Halina said nothing. They started walking again, and Miranda spoke more decisively and to the purpose: “About Miles,” she began.
“Yes?” Halina prompted.
“Well,” Miranda paused. “He can be useful, but… well, he’s not the sort I’d work with if I had a choice.” The two women exchanged a meaningful look. “Keep an eye on him.” Halina nodded. Further words were unnecessary: no danger of being overheard as they got closer to the ship, where Kaufman was utterly failing to hide his impatience.
“Did you really need to come and see us off?” His voice lacked even an ounce of respect. “You shook your surveillance, at least?”
“Teach me to suck eggs, why don’t you?” Miranda’s voice was unruffled. “I’m hosting a dinner party right now; ask anyone! Or look at the records…” She smirked, but seeing that she was the only one, went straightforward again: “To answer your question, Miles: no, I didn’t have to come and see you off. I guess I’m still not used to sending people out to get things done, instead of doing them myself.
“This one’s for all the marbles, remember,” she told them both, looking from one to the other. “Look, speeches aren’t really my thing, but… Do it right, OK?”
They both nodded, Kaufman impatiently and Halina sincerely… sort of. She resisted the urge to salute, and followed Kaufman up the ramp.
Chapter 16: 27.77777… Little Hours
Habit pulled Shepard out of sleep silently and without any fuss: the only apparent change was that his eyes opened, and within nanoseconds his lips had widened their way through Smile and were within sight of the sign that read “Shit-Eating Grintown. Population: You. Soon.”
The two stacks of pillows had shifted apart by an inch or two at the base, and the points of Liara’s crest had slipped down between them, so that for once in a way she was lying perfectly comfortably on her back, and the very first sight that had greeted her husband’s eyes as he awoke was the perfect retroussé curve of her nose, contrasting delicately against the pale décor of the bedroom wall.
He stretched out a self-indulgent hand and spread his fingers across her stomach, centering his palm on her navel and luxuriating in the well-remembered sensation: drier than a human might parochially expect skin to be, and far warmer than its colour might suggest.
Liara’s eyes opened with no more fuss than Shepard’s had, and a seraphic smile all her own bloomed into life across her lips. “Morning,” she murmured drowsily, to all appearances addressing the ceiling.
“Good morning,” Shepard answered, softly but enthusiastically, then, as every morning when the opportunity presented itself: “I love you.”
Liara joined him in Grintown and pulled over, briefly capturing and bringing under control a hand that had started to get mischievous. With the ease of long practice they rearranged their limbs for mutual comfort, and she snuggled into his shoulder, turning “I love you too” into a barely-comprehensible sleepy purr.
“The alarm’s going to go off any second, isn’t it?” She only had half her face free to say it with, so committed was she to the goal of pressing her cheek into her husband’s chest, but after fifty years of marriage these little communication problems resolve themselves:
“I haven’t checked, but probably, yes.” Shepard replied without missing a beat.
“Then it would be a very bad idea for us to get too comfortable.” Liara snuggled in even farther.
“Terrible, yes.” Shepard laid his cheek across the topmost piece of her crest, feeling the familiar pressure of the shallow ridge in the very centre…
*be-be-beep, be-be-beep, be-be-beep*
*bi-bip, bi-bip, bi-bip, bi-bip*
Ash silenced her omni-tool, and resisted the temptation to curse as half the Villa’s Catholic trainees looked around. Hell with this covert crap, she thought. I’m infantry! Can’t I just blow something up? She gave a completely genuine apologetic grimace to her fellow congregants, excused herself from the pew, and went outside.
Everything she was doing was still entirely consistent with cover, she reminded herself sternly: attending services by all the camp’s chaplains, when she could find the time, was something she’d long since decided was a good way to keep an eye on morale, as well as a way to show respect. And she couldn’t find the time as often as she wanted to be able to, so getting a call and having to excuse herself was, sad to say, not an unprecedented matter either.
She checked the call log, and smiled as she found an excuse to put doublethink aside entirely, if only for the time being. She called her daughter back:
“Hey, kiddo. What’s up?”
“Miriam’s gone into labour!” Was Susie’s first, breathless report, before she remembered herself: “I didn’t call at a bad time, did I?”
Ash grinned to herself: “No, it’s fine. I was right at the back of the church anyway…” Then, before Susie could get too mortified. “How’d Hector do?”
Susie’s voice filled with maternal pride. “Grabbed the bag, took her to the hospital, and then called me. Didn’t call an ambulance or run around flapping his arms or anything!”
“All the right things, and in the right order. Full marks to that boy! He gets that from… well, he gets it from you, but you get it from me!”
“Ha! I’ll tell Dad you said that!”
“Oh, honey… Your father was useless when you were born, and he knows it good and well…” The click of the chapel’s door covered Susie’s appreciative giggle: the service was evidently over. “OK, honey,” Ash told her. “I’ve gotta go, but I’m just going to be in my office for the rest of the day, so keep me posted.”
“I will.” “Great! Love you.” “Love you too, Mom. ’Bye!” “’Bye.”
Ash smiled gently, permitting herself one last Moment before getting her game face back on: unlike her brother, Susie always said “love you too” right away. She ducked into the porch and braced generally to attention, rather than put her cover back on and embarrass the kids by saluting them. She watched as most of them nodded to her and headed back to their quarters while a few sayed to wait and have a word with Father Dias, as she was doing. She tried not to let her smile widen at the utterly characteristic expression on the face of Lieutenant Sforza. He was a highly-trained and capable officer from an élite military branch, or he wouldn’t be here, but it also remained a fact that he was an endearingly serious-minded boy.
Typically, the actual hand-off was over almost before she knew it had started. Father Dias smiled warmly, said “Always good to see you, sergeant-major,” and shook her cordially by the hand. She nodded, mumbled “Father” or incoherent noises to that effect, and came away with a many-times-folded letter gripped precariously between the sides of her thumb and index finger.
Ash thought about her grandson trying to steer his aircar one-handed as his wife right about crushed his hand through a contraction — hopefully he’d actually driven more safely than that, but she could easily picture it that way — about Sforza coming to Father Dias for supererogatory advice on the stresses and strains of military life — she was certain he could handle whatever it was, even if he wasn’t — and she suddently remembered something the Skipper had said, back when he actually was her captain: he’d gotten an odd look in his eyes as he mentioned his sister, the one he lost in the Mindoir Raid, and out of sheer awkwardness she’d responded with some silly story about the break-up Lynn was going through at the time, but Shepard just looked her in the eye and quietly said “That’s it, right there, chief. That’s life. Nobody should have to go through anything much harder than that; it’s our job to make sure they don’t.” Then he got all bashful, looked away and said “That’s why I’m out here, anyway.” He hadn’t changed a bit, she thought.
“I want Papa Wrex to walk us to school!”
Shepard looked up, first at the utterly inert and closed door to the guest suite, then back down at the sandwich he’d just cut so that he could actually fit it into Terri’s lunchbox, then into Liara’s eyes to share a Meaningful Look, then finally into a very similar pair of eyes, much lower down.
“Papa Wrex is on vacation, honey,” he told Nezzy. “Let’s let him sleep in, OK?” She nodded, and he smiled. “Good girl,” he told her.
He handed the girls their lunchboxes, and watched as they zipped them into heir backpacks. Liara and Shepard knelt down behind the girls to help them on with them.
“Are you going to the office today?” Shepard asked his wife.
“Maybe this afternoon,” she told him. Once I’ve checked, as tactfully as I can, that Wrex isn’t being stubborn and hiding something a doctor might be able to help with, she didn’t need to add.
Being fully used to this routine, Terri and Nezzy turned around as soon as their backpacks were on, so Liara could give them both a kiss. “Have a good day,” she told them, with a warm hug for each.
Shepard and Liara stood up so that he could have a warm hug of his own, then he spread his arms behind the hands of his brood, to usher them out the door.
Miranda didn’t—quite—smile: Lindsay really was rather good at shimmering unobtrusively into a room, Jeeves-fashion. A less exactingly-designed specimen of humanity probably wouldn’t have heard the door open.
“Morning, Linds,” she said, and then turned her chair around to face her P.A. across the desk.
Being a pro, Lindsay didn’t—quite—look disappointed that she hadn’t managed to surprise her employer.
“Good morning, Ms. Lawson.” With the smoothness of long-established custom they both brought Miranda’s diary into comfortable editing range on an appropriate display. In her precise, not to say schoolmarmish Sydney tones, Lindsay went on: “I conveyed your displeasure at the postponement of the construction sector presentation to the competent department: they assured me they will be ready this afternoon, as re-scheduled.”
This time, Miranda did smile, thinking of Lindsay looking over the lenses of the reading glasses she didn’t actually wear at the V.P. of marketing. “Good,” she told her, and together they swiftly went through the rest of Miranda’s scheduled day, until finally Lindsay held out an O.S.D. with a distinct air of ‘and finally our special presentation’ about her.
“Oh, and a courier dropped this off. Something about a research project…?”
“Ah, yes, I know what that’ll be.” Miranda did a perfect ‘nonchalant’ as she took the O.S.D. from Lindsay’s hand. “Thank you, Lindsay,” she added, underscoring the fact that she wasn’t going to be gratifying the younger woman’s curiosity. She watched Lindsay leave the office, then pulled out the secure hardware, that wasn’t connected to the extranet unless she deliberately hooked it up. She connected the O.S.D. and started paging through the report…
“Good morning!” Shepard beamed, and waved to the man—middle-aged, carrying himself like a veteran—making it clear as politely as he could using his body language that he didn’t have time to stop. His politician’s smile turned lopsided as he spotted a stone-faced young turian bracing to attention up ahead; C-Sec had been politely exasperated at his insistence on moving around the Citadel on foot whenever possible. They always had a plain-clothes detail keeping an eye, and spotting them kept an old Spectre’s skills sharp.
Miranda sat back in her chair, her jaw working and her lips pressed together in a thin line. Blinking on the screen on her desk was a nice clear visual aid that she hoped hadn’t taken too much time to put together. A much younger Mickey in his Marine blues grinned in one corner, and a fuzzy three-quarter shot of Father Aidan, clipped out of a press photo, dominated the opposite one. They were linked to Halina’s Academy graduation photo by lines labelled with things Miranda already knew, but they were also linked, by intricate extracts from a family tree and from the Alliance Marine Corps Table of Organisation circa 2175, to a smiling face she almost wished she didn’t recognise.
Rather than waste time hissing ‘Shepard’ through clenched teeth, as she wanted to, Miranda got herself under control halfway through barking “Lindsay!”
“Yes, Ms. Lawson?”
“Raise the Lotus.” She fought to speak normally. “I need to check on… my shipment.”
There was a pause. “I’ll try, ma’am,” Lindsay told her, “but if they’re on schedule, they’ll have entered their out-of-contact phase already.”
“So they will,” Miranda acknowledged, already connecting the portable to the ’net so she could use the special encryption software she kept on there. “Thanks, Lindsay. If you do manage to get hold of them, let me know.” She was already setting up a connection as she cut the intercom off.
The image of a certain senior Alliance officer formed on the desk, and a petulant “you shouldn’t be using this link!” impressed itself on the air.
“Have you put your reaction team together?”
“Of course.” The officer’s voice was still petulant. “I’ve personally put a… reliable officer in charge.”
“Good. I have revised instructions for them.” Miranda’s voice was hard, and her eyes were chips of ice. “Miles Kaufman is still a friend of ours. Halina Stark… is not.”
“Oh, there was one more thing.”
“Shoot it.” Shepard’s eyes crinkled and there was laughter in his voice as he spoke to his chief of staff. Not for the first time, he was amused at the pucker in Mark’s brow as he read from his datapad: whenever he was dealing with anything even vaguely unexpected, he seemed to peer at it as though hoping against hope that there was something in what he was looking at to explain what the world had tried to do to him. It was a very relatable expression.
“The superior of the new Catholic seminary in Kithoi Ward, a Monsignor… Gbẹ́kẹ̀lólúwa” — he took one or two run-ups, but eventually made a creditable effort at getting through the name — “He’d like to meet with you about a possible visit. From what I understood it’s already up and running, so it’s a bit later for a grand opening, but…”
“…but the Church has a long memory: someone’s pointed out that my mother was Irish, no doubt.” Shepard grinned. “Of course I’ll meet with the Monsignor. Get it set up, will you?”
Mark’s brow-furrow became one of mild surprise, but he nodded assent.
“As you can see, she did,” was Father Aidan’s wry addendum to the already-cramped writing space of Halina’s note. “I’ve sent a copy to our mutual friend, but of course it will have to go by hand.”
I’ve just been briefed more fully by M.L.: as we surmised, Operation Gleiwitz is an attempt to provoke open war with the Asari Republics by staging an attack by asari commandos on a soft Alliance military target. I wasn’t told the target, but K. and I will board the freighter Opening Lotus tonight and rendezvous with batarian slavers to take aboard asari who will pass for the ‘commandos’. K. let slip that the rendezvous will take place in orbit around the fourth planet of the Amun system. Now I just hope I can slip my tails long enough to pass this message on.
Ash destroyed the note, and brought up a list of movements of merchant shipping, as notified to Fleet Marine Force command, on her terminal. Again, this was entirely consistent with cover: finding just the right missions for the kids to take on sometimes felt like it was most of her job, and underway boardings of suspected pirate ships were a big enough part of that that certain N5s and N6s were beginning to grumble about finding them boring — not that they knew that she knew that, of course. She tried to scroll the list in such a way as to casually bring the Lotus into view, but then she saw the cryptic notation next to it under ‘remarks.’ It was one she’d used often enough: it meant ‘civilian vessel is crucial to ongoing operation’ and was a signal to all other commands — N-school certainly included — to keep hands off.
She looked at the authorisation on the hands-off notice, then wondered what to do with the information: it was… interesting to note that a certain admiral had clearly been suborned by Cerberus, but for many excellent reasons there wasn’t anything she could do with the information. Approaching anyone in his chain of command was potentially far too dangerous… Well, almost anyone… Ash smiled to herself as the idea occurred to her, and with only a brief twinge of regret that she likely wouldn’t be in her office the next time Susie called after all, she went to hop into her aircar.
Kāmila Verēna’s mandibles fluttered and she resisted the hectic temptation to run and find a mirror to make sure her colony markings were just so as she spotted the Shepards crossing the room towards her. Sure, she’d already spoken to a primarch, numbers 3, 4, 6, 8 and 10 on the Citadel News Rich List, and a hanar dignitary with a completely unpronounceable title, but even at a school like this, some parents… well, they simply were, that was all.
“Relax, Kam,” Steve murmured from the next desk over. “They’re just parents… Tonight, anyway.”
“Easy for you to say,” she subvocalised out of the corners of her mouth. “Their kids aren’t in your classes!”
“They were last year,” he pointed out hurriedly before turning to greet his next set of parents. Kāmila was already standing and extending a hand. This would probably be the only time a teacher stood up that evening, but, some parents… you know the rest.
“Professor… Councillor.” She surprised herself by how firmly she grasped their hands. “It’s an honour to meet you both. I’m so glad you could spare the time.” OK, Kāmila, if you can stop now, you won’t be babbling. She did.
“Oh, believe me, politics is just how I use up the time I have left over from being a dad.” Shepard smiled. Councillors weren’t elected, but Kāmila wanted to vote for him anyway. She collected herself.
“Well,” she told them, “I don’t think I’ll have to take up too much of your time. Terri has a mind like a sponge: honestly, sometimes it’s all I can do to keep up with her! And Nezzy is just the sweetest, and hard-working too… Not that I’m saying she isn’t bright, ’cause she is, obviously. You know that already, I’m sure. OK, Kāmila, now you are babbling. She made herself sum up: “Honestly, they both really are a joy to teach.”
The Councillor smiled a gratified smile. “That’s always lovely to hear,” he said.
The professor’s expression was more inscrutable. “I’m sure there are still things we could be working on,” she added, and Kāmila noticed how she’d clearly known the exact moment her husband would finish speaking. The two of them were… fearsomely in sync.
“Well,” Kāmila began, elongating the word as she collected her thoughts: “Terri can be just a little” — it practically came out as ‘leeeetle’ — “impatient with the other children. And they certainly feel it,” she added, spreading her mandibles ruefully. “Just the other day three or four of them decided to try and push her: um, you probably know they’ve been in the habit of asking her for spellings?” The Shepards nodded. Synchronously. “Well, they were asking for every word they could think of. I was ready to step in, but Terri just spelt them all without even looking up! They ran out of words before Terri ran out of patience!” She concluded with equal parts amusement and pride, shared in full by the Councillor if the look on his face was anything to go by. The professor, on the other hand, had listened politely, but clearly still had something on her mind.
“What about this situation with Jason Freeh?”
Kāmila hung her head: “I’ve spoken with him. It’s really very sad: he and Nezzy were getting to be such good friends. I don’t know where he could have picked up the things he was repeating about you, Councillor.” She looked Shepard in the eyes, and was relieved to see his gentle smile trying to banish her discomfiture. He opened his mouth to speak, but the professor’s voice cut incisively across their rapport:
“His mother’s brother — a card-carrying member of Terra Firma — has been staying with the family.”
The Councillor’s smile became a grin, as good as saying ‘Yeah, my wife was the Shadow Broker. We’re not even trying to pretend any more!’ “And let’s be honest,” he added, “if I can’t handle people not liking me, I picked the wrong career…” If he wasn’t pausing for comic effect, the timing was positively serendipitous, as he added: “Several times, now that I think about it!” Just as Kāmila was getting ready to laugh — and more than politely, too! — he frowned: “It shouldn’t touch Nezzy, though.”
Kāmila nodded. “No, indeed.”
“All right, knuckleheads! I guess the drinks are on me!”
It was still early, so only the really hardcore drunks and skivers were in the N.C.O. club. A service chief Ash didn’t recognise looked blearily up from one of the tables and belched thoughtfully, but it was the hawk-nosed gunny at the bar, with almost as many hash marks on his sleeves as she was sporting, that she’d come to find. He looked up, and grinned for sheer delight, calling out “Ashley!”
She grinned back and slipped onto the bar-stool next to him. Some drunks were lovable, especially when you could remember them as a wet-nosed PFC. “Hey, Ike. How’re they hangin’?”
“Still one lower’n the other,” he slurred. “Wha’s th’ occasion?”
She grinned even wider. “My grandson just became a dad!” It was true: the call had come through while she was in uncontrolled airspace over the South Atlantic and really opening the taps. She sent a heartfelt mental prayer for forgiveness winging its way heavenward — her first great-grandchild deserved better than to be cynically used for cover — then shot an arm out to catch Ike as he tried to clap her on the back and nearly overbalanced. He was a good troop, but give him twenty-four hours liberty and he’d be sloshed by mid-morning.
“An’ you wannid to celebrate wi’ your ol’ pal Isaac? Shweet!” She was part-way through an enthusiastic “Sure!” when he started belting out “TWO-TWELVE! TWO-TWELVE!…” She joined in with the last few — I mean, you’ve got to, haven’t you? — and waited for him to wind down.
“So how’s Big Charlie’s Flying Circus?” Thus respectfully did she refer to the Fleet Marine Force and its commanding admiral.
“Ah, don’ even…” Ike was briefly too disgusted for words. “I got handed orders — from Big Charlie himself, mind you — I got handed orders by this… well, I’m not gonna call an officer a prick, but…” Here he leaned in, grinning in anticipation of an old joke “…he buttons up his collar reeeeeal tight…”
“…so’s he can hide his circumcision scar, right.” Ash felt bad about stepping on his punchline, but she was in kind of a hurry.
“Heh. Right. So this… guy… comes along all uptight, and takes my two best squads! He’s got orders from Big Charlie so there’s nothin’ I can do. Breaks my heart. I said ‘What kinda gear should they draw?’ and he’s all ‘Tha’s classified!’” — Ash went out on a limb and guessed that this officer, whoever he was, didn’t actually sound like that — “Breaks my heart,” Ike repeated. “I mean, the squad leaders are good, they got their heads on straight, but they got no sergeant! Nothing but a REMF-ass staff L.T. — I saw his fruit salad. Or lack thereof.”
“What’d he do?” Ash asked as nonchalantly as possible. “Load ’em on a troop carrier?”
“Naw.” Ike grinned. “That he had to tell me. T.A.D. to the Manzikert. I hope they’re runnin’ light on crew, else my boys and girls are gonna be spoonin’ by the numbers! AND THA’S FER NAVY PUKES!” He finished by leaning dangerously past and yelling past Ashley to the end of the bar. She settled him back on his stool and looked around, giving the two chiefs a sunny smile as one of them clearly recognised her and thought better of starting some inter-service rivalry with the second human Spectre. She was feeling the smile, too: it had been surprisingly easy to find out what she needed to know. She just had to leave as soon as she discreetly could, and maybe there’d be time to actually see her great-granddaughter before finding an excuse to wake Father Dias up.
The Shepards dropped as one into a stealthy half-crouch almost as soon as Shepard’s back foot crossed the threshold. They’d heard a noise they weren’t used to hearing in their home, and they didn’t wish the person making it to know they were there just yet.
Terri was laughing. As her parents risked peering around the door-frame, they saw Urdnot Wrex, preëminent among krogan battlemasters, lying on his back on the living room floor, and Teresa T’Soni Shepard, acknowledged expert at spellings, suspended in mid-air above him by the exercise of his, and… yes, and her biotics as well. A krogan could count on one hand the number of people in the galaxy capable of making Terri forget her froideur and laugh with complete abandon, and Wrex was proving that he was one of them as she affected to swim in place, alternating between butterfly, crawl, breaststroke and miscellaneous wriggles, by being sure to reach up and give her a tickle whenever she was in danger of looking too dignified.
Shepard nearly started forward as he heard his friend give vent to another of those alarming wheezes he’d been given to lately; it was chopped off abruptly as he lost control of his biotics and Terry abruptly fell onto his belly, knocking the wind straight out of him.
She rolled off him and onto her knees, looking down at his face in concern: “Are you O.K., Papa Wrex?”
Wrex grunted indistinctly, then finally managed an “I’m fine.”
Nezzy took him au pied de la lettre: “My turn! My turn!” She cried.
“You’ve already had a turn,” Wrex growled. “Besides, it’s bedtime. Go on: go wash up.”
Readers who have trouble projecting an air of authority around children may be heartened to learn that that’s exactly what they did: if you give it enough centuries, eventually you get the knack. As Terri and Nezzy scampered off to the bathroom, the Shepards steeled themselves to try to persuade Wrex to let them help him up.
“Grandma!” The voice of the slight young man bending over the crib next to the hospital bed was low, and the tiny bundle in his arms was the reason why. “You made it!”
“Hell yes I made it!” Being by no means slow on the uptake, Ash kept her own voice low. “I’m only sorry I’m so late.”
“It’s O.K.,” Hector said, shaking his head as his back muscles reminded him to straighten up. “They only just brought her back. Tests and such.” By the time he’d finished speaking, he’d crossed the room and was slowly extending his arms. “Ashley Williams,” he began slowly. “Meet Ashley Flores.”
“Oh, kiddo!” Ashley whispered as she took Ashley from him with infinite care. “Oh, kiddo… She’s perfect.”
“Yes she is,” he agreed with feeling. His mother looked at them both from across the room. With their matching expressions of can’t-quite-believe-it wonder at the beautiful miracle in the elder Ashley’s arms, they’d never looked more alike, Susie thought. The Williams nose notwithstanding.
When her eyes had had their fill, Ash spared a glance for the lady in the bed who’d done all the work. “How are you doing?” She asked. Miriam smiled a deeply satisfied smile, but here eyes were no more than half open. “You need your sleep,” Ash added to spare her the effort of replying, and half-turned. “I’ll just…”
“Moooommm…” Susie’s voice was a low growl. “You can’t take her with you!”
“I’m a Spectre,” was Ashley’s mumbled rejoinder. “I can take whatever I want!”
In unison, her daughter and her grandson gave her A Look.
“O.K., fiiine,” she mock-groused, already crossing her room to put her great-granddaughter gently to bed.
Chapter 17: The Limb Narrows
“Therrin?” Rana had deliberately waited until he’d taken the blood sample from her arm — in a just universe, she’d one day get a card from all the future lab animals Therrin would ever work with: as a source of blood and tissue samples that could patiently explain what he was doing wrong, she’d… gently encouraged him to become a great deal more deft.
“Hm?” He said, not looking up from the analyzer as he measured out the prescribed amount of Rana’s blood and got ready to run their latest battery of tests. And quite right too: it was more important for him to focus on his work, but a side-effect was that he didn’t see the mischievous quirk at one corner of her mouth, or notice the equally mischievous note in her voice:
“Would you like to have a child with me?” Therrin was turned away from her, but Rana could still see him freeze up, and she could see just enough of one of his eyelids to know that he blinked several times.
“You know we’re pretty much there,” she pointed out, her voice slow and even. “That test you’re running, or the next one, or maybe the one after that, is going to show that we have a treatment that’s ready for in vivo trials.” He still seemed to be frozen, so she went on: “From here that’s about all we can do, but I trust the justicars, and Councillor Shepard and his friends to get us the rest of the way.” Therrin’s mouth opened just too late, by the time Rana noticed, she’d gone on speaking and he’d closed it again: “If I’ve got anything to say about it, you’ll be one of the first people to receive the treatment, so…” — Was he going to speak? It appeared not. Rana went on, trying to make her case in purely scientific terms, and not reach to ativate a bunch of hormones salarians didn’t have — “Therrin,” she finally told him simply, “I think you and I would make one beautiful little girl, and I want to meet that child… I want you to get to know the woman she’ll grow up to be… and I want you to remember that day that you’re the one that made it possible…” Therrin blinked as Rana reached the last of a series of pauses increasing in length, then finally spoke.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I would like to have a child with you.” Rana took a breath as he went on. “I’m sorry. I should have said, but you had a speech and so on. It was a good speech. I liked it.”
Rana grinned in relief, stood up, and gave him a big hug.
“You’re late.” Kaufman squared off, doing his best to loom over the squat batarian they’d come to meet. He shouldn’t have bothered, Halina thought: sure, Kaufman was the tallest person present by a good half a foot, but even without his armour the slaver had the mass advantage. Also two equally bulky friends. Halina tensed, readying herself almost imperceptibly for anything as the heavies stepped out of the shadows.
“And you’re human scum,” the slaver growled, not giving a micron of ground or bothering to look up at Kaufman’s face. “The offer was good enough that I’m still here, but you don’t want to know what happens if I change my mind.” He hefted his pistol, canting it sideways as though he just wanted to show it off. Halina half-heartedly pulled hers free, holding it by her side: Kaufman getting shot would complete her mission right here, which would be nice, but she very much doubted the batarians would be interested in shooting just one human scum, so it would probably be better to keep him alive. Unfortunately.
Kaufman bristled, his upper lip curling into a snarl and his tongue running slowly across the back of his lower front teeth. Halina had to hand it to him; he played it just right: not going for his own weapon, since there’d be no time to get it into play, just standing his ground and trying to look even a little bit broad-shouldered. Still, it wouldn’t do to let a dick-measuring contest this potentially explosive go on too long, so Halina punctured the tension by popping the vac-seal on the demonstration crate they’d brought with them, watching as the batarians responded to the whoosh of the air pressure equilibrating and the clatter of the crate lid as she threw it farther off to one side than she needed to. The leader did it right, glancing briefly at her but maintaining awareness of his weapon and keeping most of his attention on Kaufman, but Halina was heartened to notice that the other two were all over the place, jerking their hands ’round and wathcing the entire fall of the crate lid. They were probably perfectly competent as slave-handling muscle, but they weren’t trained troops, which was a comfort.
“We brought the merchandise.” She let her voice cut incicsively across the developing situation, gesturing at the open crate as the batarian leader gave her a withering look. “Type 19 asari light mortars—”
“I should hope so,” he growled, cutting her off. “Where’s the rest of it?”
“On our ship,” she told him mildly. “One gross each high explosive, EMP and biotic suppression shells, a half-gross of directional mines and two spools of mono-filame—”
“I know what I ordered!” The slaver snapped.
Kaufman’s nostrils flared. “And what about our order?”
The slaver bared his teeth. Halina briefly wondered if he and Kaufman were going to drag each other off to bed right there, but then he made a quick hand gesture over his shoulder, and the two mooks disappeared into their ship.
Halina had to fight hard to keep her composure when they returned: on the end of what looked like eight-foot polymer broomhandles was a biotic suppression collar, forcing up the chin of the very biggest asari Halina had ever seen. Her forearms bulged ’til they seemed wider than her chest, but then they were flattened hard against her breasts by the posture she had to hold them in, her balled fists side by side and forcing her chin uncomfortably up, with her wrists manacled and fastened to the collar. It was all Halina could do to keep her eyes from going wide as they took in her six-pack, and the shifting of the grooves in her massive calves and thighs as one of the mooks tugged on his broomhandle and she stumbled. Halina didn’t bother trying to hide her disgusted expression as it registered that the huge asari was naked.
The foremost mook offered the T-bar handle on his stick to Kaufman, but he waved him on and he offered it to Halina instead. Heroically, she resisted the temptation to call him a sick fuck as she took it.
“You sure you got it?” The other mook sniggered, letting go of his broomhandle to teach the squishy little human a lesson, but Halina was barely listening. Fifteen years as an aikidoka were practically drawing an arrow in the air in the direction that the asari lunged as soon as the mook let go. Halina twisted the broomhandle in her hands and pushed, adding just a little extra momentum, and the asari overbalanced, pitching face-forward into the dirt. Halina would hate herself later for it, but she channelled her frustration into staying in character, twisting the T-piece and pushing the asari’s nose into the floor.
“Don’t do that again.” She forced the words out through clenched teeth.
“Heh.” The batarian leader watched the byplay. Halina didn’t want his appreciation for her deft slave-handling but apparently she was getting it. He turned back to Kaufman, his face and voice immediately void of humour. “The rest of the stuff.” He said. It was not a question.
“Sure,” Kaufman smirked. “Stark, go get the gentleman his merchandise… Have her help you,” he added, nodding to the asari on the floor.
“Yeah, right.” It slowly dawned on Halina that he wasn’t joking. “Just a brilliant idea there, dude.”
In the event, they stashed the asari slave in the compartment they’d prepared on the Lotus, and it took Halina, Kaufman, and the two batarian mooks to unload the rest of the arms. Kaufman tried to convey ‘You’d better not try and load any of this stuff before we’re done’ using body language alone, but he was breathing so hard that it looked more like ‘I need to do more push-ups’ from where Halina was standing. Be that as it may, the slaver condescended to send a mook to finish the trade.
The big asari hadn’t said a word the whole time, but the other slave was clearly cut from a different cloth: Halina heard her before she saw her. “No! Please! Oh, Goddess, no, please don’t do this! I’m too young to die! I’m only fifty-eight!”
She looked it, too, at least to the cosmopolitan human eye: she was waifishly slim and not much taller than Halina, and her eyes were the size of soup plates as she took in her new captors. She gave Halina an appraising glance that spoke volumes: between it and the hint of self-satire in the please-don’t-hurt-me-big-strong-man look she turned on Kaufman, Halina was convinced it was more or less of an act.
Kaufman, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have noticed. With the most hateable shit-eating grin in the world on his face, he grabbed the asari with either no mind paid to where his hands ended up, or far too much, and hustled her off to the Lotus.
Halina squelched her determination to keep an eye on Kaufman for the time being, in favour of cocking an interrogative eyebrow at the batarian slaver. “We good?” She asked him.
“Unless you’re interested in a whole new career as livestock,” the batarian drawled. Halina gave him a tight, humourless smile and followed Kaufman out of the warehouse, turning her back on the batarians only at the last possible moment.
“Ah, Dr. Viridon, good.”
The captain’s voice was louder than it would have needed to be to break the silence, and from the frozen attitudes in which Vakarian and the justicar were standing on either side of Captain Martis, Rana got the distinct impression that she’d just interrupted an argument. The captain went on speaking: “I was sorry to interrupt you and Dr. Therrin, but I think it’s important that I get some input from at least one of you.”
“That’s quite all right, captain,” she told him. “Our work is at a stage where… essentially this part of it is one long process of elimination. Routine work. Therrin doesn’t need me there to get on with it.”
“Fine.” The captain nodded. “I’ll let you get back to it in a moment, but we have a decision to make, and as I see it, you have a right to be heard in the process.” The paused, obviously rewinding his thought process to a place where he could present the topic under discussion to someone who didn’t yet know anything about it. “EDI,” he went on. “Would you play back the distress call for Dr. Viridon, please?”
Without preamble, a stressed, high-pitched voice impressed itself on the air: “Any Council vessel… being boarded… pirates…” It cut off so abruptly that Rana winced at the sharp change in pressure on her ear tissues. Captain Martis gestured to the galaxy map, which was projecting a view of the local system, with a freighter highlighted in yellow on the side the four of them were clustered around.
“The pirates were already on the point of escaping by the time the message reached us, but the prize has just got underway. It looks as though they’re making to follow their mothership; if they are we can definitely intercept them. The only question is, should we?”
Before Rana could say anything, the justicar spoke. Rana didn’t think for a moment of interrupting. “Whether or not ‘we’ should, I must. Piracy is a grievous affront to justice; the Code does not permit me to ignore it.”
“Oh, come on, Samara,” Vakarian interjected. “How are you going to intercept them if you don’t have a ship?”
“I will simply have to find a way.”
The justicar’s voice was phlegmatic as ever, but Rana still gulped and tried not to let her eyes go wide: the last time the justicar had served on the Normandy, she’d sworn the Third Oath to her captain, but clearly she hadn’t this time around. Did Captain Martis realise that Samara was on the verge of challenging him for command? She wondered.
“We should stick to our mission,” Vakarian urged, addressing himself to his fellow turian. “All right, between the three of us we have a decent boarding party, but there’s no margin for error.”
“You see my dilemma.” Coranin looked into Rana’s eyes as he spoke, and his voice was full of wry humour. “Any thoughts?”
Rana paused. Compared to these three highly dangerous people, she had very little control over what was going on, but she had to do what she could. “We’re in your hands, captain,” she told him slowly and carefully. “From what the justicar has told us, if you hadn’t come along Therrin and I would have been, ah, disappeared. We owe you our lives, so we’re in no position to demand that you spend all your energy protecting us, or second-guess any of your military decisions.” Huh, she thought as she paused again. I seem to be giving another speech. Sorry you had to miss it, Therrin. “There may be people on that ship that need your help just as much as we did, so for what it’s worth, I say go help them.”
“Thank you, doctor.” The captain nodded. “I’m inclined to do exactly that.”
“What if we hear from Shepard in the meantime?” Vakarian asked insistently. “We’re supposed to be ready to support his other efforts if he needs us.”
The captain shook his head. “Until we know where and when he’s going to need us, that can’t be a factor in our planning.”
Vakarian gestured to the galaxy map. “But to intercept the ship we’ll have to head away from the mass relay. Every hour out potentially adds two to our response time if the call comes while we’re moving to intercept. Not to mention the time it could take to complete the boarding and send the freed hostages on their way.”
“True enough,” the captain allowed, “but I’m not going to let innocent lives be lost to a might-be. Besides,” he pointed out to the older man, “it’ll give the three of us a chance to shake down as a combat team.”
“Or get killed.” Vakarian pointed out obstinately.
“Two living legends and a Spectre?” If the captain’s face were built for it, Rana thought, he’d be smiling. “The spirits would never let it happen!” A thought visibly struck him. “Of course, with the tree of us on the boarding party, that leaves only one experienced crew-member to lead the naval part of the mission.” He turned unnecessarily to the nearest control station. “EDI, here’s what I want you to do…”
In a move that owed nothing to aikido, only Marine combatives and sheer rage, Halina grabbed Kaufman’s wrist and wrenched his hand away from a part of the younger asari slave’s anatomy that he had no business going near. As she dragged him by main force into an armbar she felt a wrench in her shoulder from the effort she had to exert, but she doubted it would hurt enough later to make her regret anything.
“Get your fucking hands off me, Stark!”
She gave him an extra, vicious wrong-way twist to the arm, and hurled him bodily into the corner of the room. He flailed wildly for half a second, then interrupted the fall by flattening his hands heavily against the bulkhead. He turned around, and there was pure rage in his eyes. This was it, Halina thought. There was no doubt in her mind that she could kill Kaufman right here if she had to, and that would be Operation Gleiwitz foiled. She could dominate the rest of the Lotus’ crew with no trouble — they were only being paid to drop them off and ask no questions — hell, she could fly the ship herself if she had to: head straight for the Citadel, drop the Councillor’s name, declare victory and have the slaves repatriated tout suite.
But. There was definitely a but. She’d be leaving the job half done, and bringing only half a tale to tell about how exactly Gleiwitz was supposed to kick off a war with the asari. And she’d be making a grand public entrance that wouldn’t exactly help the Councillor stay out of trouble. Sure, she trusted Shepard to go to bat for her no matter what, but she could meet the fellow halfway. If she could make it so’s he could say “Yes, I ran an agent on my own account, but look, she’s still in place with Cerberus. Now we’re all friends again, why not use her?”… It was a long shot, but Shepard could trade on his name to get at least one of the Council and the Alliance to buy it. Probably. At least, it beat the chances she’d have if she just showed up on the Presidium and yelled “Yoo hoo! I finished that highly illegal job you had me do, there, boss!”
This wasn’t the first time Halina had followed out this particular chain of logic. Indeed she’d thought of little else since they shipped out, so she’d reached her decision before Kaufman turned around; if he pushed her to it, she’d activate Contingency Plan Yoo Hoo and end him, but if at all possible they’d keep going. They locked eyes, and Halina did her best impression of the Immovable object as she spoke.
“Tell me again how we’re doing this for the good of humanity.” Her voice dripped with contempt.
Kaufman snorted and answered. He was willing to talk: a good sign. “Can’t tell you again: I haven’t told you once. That ‘good of humanity’ business is the boss’s shtick. Hate to break this to you, but you’ve joined a terrorist organisation, honey.”
Halina couldn’t suppress an eyebrow-twitch, but that was the only sign she gave that she objected to the point of homicidal violence to being called ‘honey’ by rapists, would-be or otherwise. For the rest, she just stood there, between him and everything in the room except the door. She watched him weigh the pros and cons: his hand twitched towards his gun, but he clearly knew better than to try to bring it into play at this range. He looked over Halina’s shoulder at his intended victim, and visibly decided she wasn’t worth it.
“Whatever, Stark. You get ’em dressed. See if I care.” He gestured to the small pile of asari commando leathers on the floor, and stamped out of the room. Halina resolved not to sleep or turn her back on him. Like, ever.
She turned her attention to the two asari. They had their hands free, but they still had their biotic suppression collars on, and they were tethered to the bulkhead by solid cables. They were still naked and the younger one was eyeing Halina as if to weigh the pros and cons of saying “Thanks.”
“Let me guess,” Halina said to her, to spare them both the embarrassment. “You’re the dangerous one.”
The two asari shared looks, then smiles. The younger one settled on “Maybe.”
“Heh, right. Well, I’m not going to play around with you,” Halina told them. “I’m going to leave the room, unlock your collars and watch the monitors. You’ve got two minutes to get dressed and put the collars back on, or I dump the air ’til you pass out then do it for you.” And she was as good as her word.
Chapter 18: Body-blows
“Thank you so much for coming, Monsignor.” Shepard’s on-demand smile was pasted firmly in place for the benefit of the cameras: there always seemed to be one or two news outlets terminally bored enough, as he saw it, to capture everyone he met with on video if they weren’t shooed away. He went on: “It’s often much quicker to arrange the little details of things if we just meet in person and hash them out. I’ll look forward to seeing you again when I visit the seminary.” There, he thought. No ambiguities. I’m a thoroughly ornamental old warhorse, and they’re going to lead me around in public for a bit. Nothing to see here. Move along.
“Or sooner, perhaps?” The Monsignor seemed to be having a fine old time: his rolling basso was full of laughter and mischief as he took the opportunity to stick the needle in on camera: “At Mass? Or confession? God’s house is open seven days a week, and with last week’s graduation we have no shortage of priests just now!”
Shepard just smiled some more: he was spared from having to come up with a politic reply by the sight of the next best thing to an elephant in the room. The on-demand smile turned to a genuine grin of welcome, and he gestured to two of the reporters. “Will you make some room there, please?… Thank you. Grunt! It’s good to see you.” He turned back to the assembled crowd. “Will you give us a moment? Thank you.” He drew Grunt to one side, placing the krogan’s bulk between him and the small crowd so they could speak in relative privacy.
“What brings you by?” He murmured, for all the world—except for the volume—as though Grunt had come from no farther away than Tayseri Ward.
“Mother sent me.”
Shepard grinned: Grunt had long since stopped calling Bakara anything else. “To fetch Wrex?” He asked, and Grunt nodded.
“We need him at home.”
It was Shepard’s turn to nod. “Have you seen him?” He wondered, and Grunt shook his head. Shepard was saved from having to debate what to say next with himself by a rush of air by his side and an insistent hissing in his ear by one of his staffers. He froze, grateful to be sheltering in Grunt’s lee from the electronic eyes, and hissed in his turn: “What, right now? Did they say what…? OK, let’s go, I guess.”
Decision made, he emerged from krogan eclipse and addressed the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just been informed that an emergency… an immediate emergency session of the Council has been called.” He let that sink in, then let his voice cut incisively across the confusion he’d planted: “Nothing I’ve heard indicates it’s a closed session, so if you’d like to come along and witness it, you’d be most welcome.” He made it clear with eye contact that his invitation included the Monsignor and the silent young student who’d accompanied him, and took advantage of the general introspection and sudden changing of plans to hand a certain packet of papers to Grunt, and murmur a terse message into his ear: “Give these to Liara. She’ll know what to do.”
“Find peace in the embrace of the Goddess.”
Garrus felt the familiar if indescribable sense of… tightness in the air—the nerves all down his left side screaming that something was trying to tug at him—that went with a really powerful biotic gathering her forces, and a wave of nostalgia carried him just far enough away to make his shot perfect: the shotgun surprised him with the exact moment it picked to recoil into his shoulder, and he watched over the sights as the pirate’s armour gave up the ghost and let the shredder shot into his chest cavity The man was tall even for a turian, but that just made him a bigger target, Garrus thought as he watched him fall like the shot had found his off switch. He heard a familiar crunching sound from the next cabin over, and had no trouble picturing Samara matter-of-factly snapping the neck of some unfortunate pirate. He nodded to himself: Yep, definitely like old times.
Coranin moved up to the next hatch; Garrus kept his sights trained on it until he was in position, then moved to stack up behind him as he hit the release. The way they moved proved that some things really are impossible to forget: they were both decades past basic fire-and-manoeuvre training, but they burst through the open door as one, zig-zagging across each other to take statistically half of hits each on their shields, no matter which direction they might come from, and wound up precisely back-to-back as they recognised the T-shape of the intersection the hatchway commanded, and arranged themselves to cover all the angles.
It was a crew quarters corridor: that much was obvious from the open hatch to Garrus’ left, and the view of empty racks and lockers inside. They were running light on crew, like merchant spacers generally did—
“Get off me, you bosh’tet!”
Garrus was halfway down the corridor before he’d even started moving. Coranin had obviously felt the sudden lack of camaraderie pressing into his back, because he called out an exasperated “Vakarian, wait!” for Garrus to ignore. That achingly familiar Rayya accent, and the ugly situation the words implied made him butt-stroke his way into the guts of the hatch controls when they wouldn’t immediately open, then take a deep breath and show a bit more method as he fiddled with them. He could almost hear Tali’s voice: “You know, if you’d thought for half a second before you went off half-cocked, you’d have it open by now…” As it was, Coranin had moved to cover him by the time the hatch finally slid aside…
Only to see a purely-pissed-off quarian use the distraction to get up off her knees and plant a bee-yootiful snap-kick straight in the groin of the turian standing over her. He staggered, and Garrus looked him up and down. Only one part of the scumbag wasn’t armoured, but that was all right by Garrus: he lowered the muzzle of his shotgun and pulled the trigger.
The quarian looked around the cabin, apparently searching for something, and the expression on her face was pure venom. The expression on her face… Garrus cursed himself for forgetting that they weren’t on Rannoch, and bent to pick up the woman’s faceplate and hand it back to her.
“I was looking for his weapon,” she told him acerbically, but she put the faceplate straight back on all the same.
Garrus looked down at the scumbag: from the way his lower body wasn’t writhing, it looked as though most of his waist had been crushed by the shot that had penetrated the… weakened point in his armour. He was clutching the general area and keening most satisfactorily. “Why?” Garrus asked the quarian mildly. “Let him bleed.”
The quarian gave him an appreciative, if mirthless laugh at that, but was interrupted in what she might have gone on to say by the two turians’ helmets twitching suddenly. They were obviously listening to something…
“Normandy to shore party: I am picking up a message from the Citadel. It’s still coming through, but I suspect that when you read it you will want to get underway as quickly as possible.”
“Understood.” Coranin wasn’t an easy man to read, but from his voice Garrus suspected that he was as amused by EDI’s circumspection as Garrus himself was. “I’ll preflight the shuttle,” the captain went on, already moving. “You two finish up here and join me as soon as you can. Oh, and don’t worry, Vakarian. I’ll have comms open in case you want to tell me you told me so.”
Garrus matched Coranin, saucy tone for saucy tone: “I’d never dream of it, captain.” But when he returned his attention to the quarian, his voice was all business. Compassionate business, but business nonetheless. “Looks like we have to get out of here pretty soon. What kind of shape are your engines in?”
“Oh sure,” she spat, her vocal and body language still adrenaline-jagged. “’Cause I’m a quarian I must be the engineer, right? This is my ship, I’ll have you know.”
Garrus paused. He had to. The girl looked young enough that she might be having an unusually successful Pilgrimage, for all he knew. Rayya accent, touchy about her status… he was tempted to hand her the shotgun and see what she could do. Instead, he spoke with exaggerated patience: “O… K… What kind of shape are your engines in, captain?”
The quarian captain froze. Garrus was worried she was having some kind of reaction, emotional or worse: some kind of fast-acting pathogen from the air she’d been made to breathe unfiltered. But no; she whispered: “Keelah… you’re…”
Oh. Right. Garrus took his helmet off to help the penny finish dropping. “Yeah,” he confirmed laconically.
“Sorry,” she said. “I haven’t been home in a while.”
Garrus gave an indifferent head-tilt. “No reason you should recognise me,” he told her. “I’m just me.”
Shepard’s first clue as to what the big deal might possibly be materialised—almost literally—roughly halfway through the elevator ride up the Tower. Grunt had fallen back and peeled away from the group as stealthily as 7′9″ and 750lbs of pure krogan might be expected to, and Shepard had met Tevos waiting for the elevator, but with all the cameras around they’d only been able to exchange brief grimaces of ‘Do you know what’s going on?’ and ‘Why did you bring the press?’ before bundling into the elevator with absolutely as many reporters as would fit and still give them room to stand there and Project Leadership. Eventually, he’d had to turn ’round, enjoy the view and hope he had a very commanding back. Tevos had followed suit—with relief, Shepard could have sworn.
And that was when it happened: from out of the mists of the Widow Nebula, the largest dreadnought in active naval service made one of those dramatic entrances beloved of pilots and reporters alike.
The Keelah Zirenn. Shepard knew it well: indeed, he’d made a point of accepting Tali’s invitation to go along as one of the V.I.P.s on its maiden voyage, and made a speech that was as long and boring and full of platitudes about defence, great feats of engineering and other anodyne topics as possible. For all the good it had done.
There was no getting around it: the Homeworld in Flight—as it was awkwardly rendered in English—was unsettling to the peace-loving mind by its very existence. Shepard knew—hoped—that it spoke more of quarian pride of place and determination than of real belligerence: the quarians had scarcely set foot back on Rannoch before deciding that, by the ancestors, they would start digging up bits of it and making them into the biggest, baddest flagship a star nation’s fleet ever had. And if the resulting design just happened to be a ton or two bigger than the Destiny Ascension—not to mention built from the keel out with all the latest toys, instead of having them wedged into increasingly unlikely places in retrofits—why, any quarian child could walk you through the math behind the engineering considerations that meant it absolutely had to be just so.
To call the Zirenn aerodynamic would be a massive overstatement, but the fact remained that the quarians had gone ahead and started building it before they’d established any orbital shipyards, so they’d needed help from the shape of the vessel, as well as its engines and a whole mess of booster rockets to get it up the gravity well, so it had a definite streamlined avian look. The Ascension hove into view, and Shepard watched the asari sea monster and the great quarian bird seemingly lumber towards one another, but he wasn’t fooled: sure, as spacers liked to remind one another, it’s taking forever to travel its own length, but that’s ’cause no matter how big you think—or know—it is, it’s bigger!
Things were becoming a little clearer, but Shepard still had questions: the unscheduled arrival of an associate Citadel member state’s naval flagship wasn’t a matter to get the Council together Right Now for, surel…
The blood drained from Shepard’s face as more quarian ships started to make their own wraith-like entrances behind the Zirenn. He recognised the Rayya and the Shellen: even more impressive than the Zirenn, in its own way, was the determination with which the quarians had re-mastered their native biosphere, in part so that they could refit the liveships as fighter carriers—there was only so much anyone could do in the way of adding armour, but now instead of being eggshells armed with hammers, they were eggshells containing swarms of angry wasps: you really didn’t want to try and break them.
Shepard didn’t recognise any of the other ships individually, but nobody needed to paint him any pictures: this was the core of the Quarian Navy, the ships that had retaken Rannoch, each crewed by some of the most experienced combat veterans in the galaxy. Generally speaking, he liked looking at space vessels, indeed he thought the Zirenn was beautiful, and he never tired of this particular view of the wards, but just on this occasion he wished the damn elevator would go faster.
“…nce again, captain, I’m sorry we have to rush off like this. Though if truth be told, we’re not exactly set up to provide the kind of support you need, anyway.”
Garrus had changed out of his armour, showered and come to the conference room to find Samara already there—with nary a sign that she’d just finished a boarding action, naturally—and Coranin speaking to the quarian captain over the com. Both ships were already underway.
“That’s all right, captain. Believe me, we’re just grateful for the rescue. We can keep up with you until we join the inner-system traffic, and once we’re there we’re no more than a relay jump from all the support we need.”
“Very well,” Coranin looked up as Garrus took his seat, and visibly decided to move things along. “Then I’ll wish you a safe journey home. Normandy clear.” He cut the link without waiting for a reply, and turned to Garrus, Samara and EDI.
“Right, now we’re here: EDI, will you brief us on the professor’s message, please?”
“Yes, captain: in the professor’s judgement, you now have a need to know about one of the other elements in Councillor Shepard’s plan. 1st Lieutenant Halina Stark, formerly one of Sergeant-Major Williams’ trainees in the N7 Programme, is working undercover with Cerberus for the Councillor. She is on a mission to stage an attack by asari commandos on an Alliance military target.”
“Miranda!” Garrus fairly growled. “What is she thinking?”
“Apparently that war with my people is in the best interests of humanity. In the present state of chaos, with my fellow justicars coming out against the matriarchs…” Samara shook her head. “I won’t comment on her judgement, but her timing is impeccable.”
Coranin forbore to comment. “Go on, EDI.”
“Lt. Stark is believed to be aboard a freighter named Opening Lotus: there is a record of the ship on the Alliance registry, but it deviated from its last filed flight plan over a week ago. At the other end of the operation, we know that Ms. Lawson has arranged for the frigate Manzikert to be detached for special duties with a half-platoon of Marines aboard. Finally, our need to know comes from the fact that there are indications that the lieutenant’s cover may have been blown.”
Coranin’s mandibles spread in consternation. “EDI, I don’t much care for anything I’m hearing here: a freighter that’s been off the reservation for over a week could be literally anywhere. And the Manzikert? She’s a Cho Sin class: no more than a year old. With her stealth systems and countermeasures, she’ll spot us well before we spot her.”
“What were the indications you spoke of?” Samara put in.
“Principally, that the lieutenant’s name has been included on a list of wanted terrorists. It has been circulated only in the Manzikert’s command area, and the other Cerberus operative on the mission is not mentioned.”
Garrus momentarily had to hide his amusement: some day he’d have to arrange a Serene-Off between Samara and EDI. Surprise winner: Terri Shepard! Fortunately for his self-control, an idea occurred to him: “What is the Manzikert’s command area?” EDI answered very practically, by bringing up a map display above the table. A star outside the highlighted volume started blinking: “Lt. Stark was able to get a message out to the effect that the Opening Lotus would call here, at the Amun system.”
“Mm.” Coranin grunted and leaned forward. “And we know the target is an Alliance facility,” he said, half to himself. “EDI, can you show us those?” More lights started to spangle the map. Coranin “Mm”ed again when he saw how many there were. “Exclude the fleet bases: they’re not going to hit warships with a freighter,” he murmured again, and most of the lights winked out. “They won’t have the resources to hit any of the larger ground bases… we’re looking for a small outpost, maybe signals or a specialist training command…” The lights winked out as he spoke until there were only a handful left.
“All right,” Coranin summed up. “At least this narrows the options down to one instead of zero: we’ll just have to sweep through them all—we can check through the local records to see if either of the ships passed through: they’ll be harder to erase—and we’ll just have to hope we get there in time.”
It wasn’t the hardest climb up these particular stairs that Shepard had made in his life, but he still wished he’d taken a shuttle direct to the Council Chamber as he forced the pace up. When he got close to the circle he heard the Councillors who had already arrived listening to com traffic:
“…tadel Traffic Control, this is the quarian war vessel Keelah Zirenn, Captain Semeen’Tallis commanding, requesting permission to dock.”
And how long did you spend closing in silently before you asked, Captain Tallis? Shepard thought. Thank you so much for that.
“Your arrival was not pre-announced, Keelah Zirenn. Please state your intentions.”
Whatever Captain Tallis might have been about to say, those in the Council Chamber had their attention arrested as Amit’Koris emerged from a convenient shadow—Shepard started to have definite suspicions about who had orchestrated this whole performance—and said “They’re here to collect me.”
Shepard hurried to his station and used the controls to make the com tap two-way. “Traffic Control, this is Councillor Shepard. Please clear the Keelah Zirenn to approach as soon as safety permits. They are to be granted access to the Tower Port.”
“Uh, yes sir.”
Shepard blithely ignored both the confused tone in the voice from Traffic Control, and the filthy look Tharrik briefly shot him, each engendered alike by his prompt interference from the very top. His attention lit instead entirely on Ambassador Koris, who was continuing to stride forward and claim the emergency attention of the Council from the petitioner’s stage. Portly as he was he was moving perfectly freely, with the stride of a man in complete command of himself, and in deference to the occasion he wore all his military and civil awards, adorning his suit in various places it took a learned eye to pick out. An old warrior grown fat on the peace dividend, Shepard thought, No wonder I like him. He barely noticed the cognitive dissonance involved in thinking of someone who hadn’t even been fitted for his first suit when Shepard was promoted captain of the Normandy as an ‘old warrior’. Still, he was a hard man to read, Amit’Koris, even to one who knew his quarians.
“Well, that accounts for the Zirenn.” Kinarn’s sardonic voice cut across the silence when it became clear that Amit’Koris wouldn’t be saying more until prompted. “May we enquire as to what the rest of the fleet is doing here?”
“Escorting the flagship.” Truly was it said among enlisted men: ‘Never play poker with a quarian.’ Shepard thought. He spoke, trying to match Kinarn’s tone of heavy irony:
“I’m sure no-one doubts that you deserve to return home in state, Ambassador. Will you be gone long?”
“Very possibly.” Amit’Koris visibly took a deep breath. Did I finally give you the straight line you were waiting for there, Amit? Shepard thought. It was the last whimsical notion that was to occur to him for quite some while. The ambassador went on: “My government has been aware, perhaps for longer than this Council might realise, of the negotiations ongoing between the Asari Republics and its other members, concerning the release of scientific data and possible trial applications of anti-agathic therapies. We have waited to receive similar representations, and even diplomatically invited them, but whether on Rannoch, in our embassy on Thessia, or here on the Citadel, we have waited in vain.” He took a breath, and as he went on his high, carrying voice lashed at them in its fury: “The quarian people view this as confirmation of a suspicion we have long held: that we are still despised as second-class citizens of the greater galactic community.
“Accordingly, by a near-unanimous vote of the Conclave, and with the full support of the Admiralty Board, diplomatic relations between Rannoch and the Asari Republics on the one hand, and the Citadel Council on the other, are hereby cut off. Effective immediately.”
It came like a body blow, and Shepard bore it as best he could. Quite apart from the implications for galactic stability, his own personal political legacy had just taken a big crazy fracture down the middle. Opinions varied on exactly how much he’d had to do with getting the elcor and the hanar the seats they now occupied on the Council, but everyone knew exactly who had been the driving force behind bringing the Quarian Embassy home to the Citadel. He’d sold it to the Council… and Tali had sold it to the Admiralty Board and the Conclave. He fumed over the insult to her memory, but only to distract himself from the sick conviction that he was the only one who cared, that as soon as the Zirenn approached Amit’Koris would turn on his heel and leave amid a silent shout of “Good riddance!” That, at least, he could prevent.
“Then this Council properly has no more to say to you, ambassador. However, if my colleagues will permit”—and he did not stop to find out if they would or not—“may I say as a private citizen that I deeply regret this turn events have taken, and hope to have the privilege of welcoming you back soon?”
For a few more lonely moments, Amit’Koris said nothing, but then he relented to the extent of a “Thank you, Councillor.” A sudden dramatic change in the light levels made everyone look up to see that practically every window was dominated by some part of the Keelah Zirenn. Of course they’re not sending a shuttle; of course they’re docking directly, he thought. A few more grand gestures like this and the wheels would really come off the trolley. He thought of Coranin and Halina, Garrus and Samara, the oblique hints that had been all he could give to Amit’Koris. Just a little miracle, guys. That’s all I’m asking you to pull off with none of the support you could reasonably ask for…
Chapter 19: A Head
Halina watched the big asari bend down and plant yet another in a series of mines that seemed endless — to Halina, and she was only watching. The other slave had finished stringing the perimeter of the mortar position with a frankly excessive amount of mono-wire, and now stood at the business end of Kaufman’s gun, as he stood in the centre of it all, ready to shell the ever-loving entrails out of the Alliance’s most infamous jungle training facility.
The whole thing felt like an op handed down form some government minister’s office, with actual officers and troops asked for their input late if at all. And that figured: Halina knew Miranda had fought in the war, but as far as she knew, she — Miranda — had always been among the irregulars; she’d learned her tactics and strategy from the outside, though with the same formidable intelligence and attention to detail she brought to everything else, and it showed.
From a political-psychological point of view, though, Halina had to admit that the plan was brilliant, above all in the choice of target: after her own time there, she wasn’t completely opposed to the idea of “Camp Ass-rot” getting a good hard shelling — there were even a few of the training staff she’d caught herself hoping would catch a fragment somewhere uncomfortable — but the point was that her fellow N-raters, not to mention OI/LI boys and girls and units from national armies that were Certified Able to Hang, positively delighted in telling horror stories about the place to every POG, nub, swabbie and boot within earshot. The result? Halina looked up at the stars briefly as she contemplated it: out there were ships amounting to half the fleet, staring through invisible shells in space at asari units the other side of the border, wondering if they were going to have to pull the trigger, and whether they’d get to pull it first or second. And every single crew-member on those ships would know exactly what it meant when the alarm sounded, and on their way to their stations their oppo told them “A huntress team just hit Jungle Training!”
Halina watched the big asari stoop to plant the last mine, and reflected that the layout of the mortar emplacement was more form than function as well: fully half the mines around the perimeter were counter-biotic, and the position was, of course, big enough to fit a short platoon, rather than just two Cerberus terrorists. It would only take a little help from the ‘friends’ in the Alliance military that Miranda had vaguely referred to to make the physical evidence match the story Cerberus wanted told, exactly. Yeah, Halina thought, it’s a genius plan. So quit appreciating it and work out what you’re going to do to stop it, girl! She felt something eerily like a trickle of ice-water down her spine as she remembered what she was here to do, but shook it off with all other forms of woolgathering, shifting her grip on her rifle as she saw the asari slave stand up.
The slave might have spared a hand to rub what must by now be an aching back, or writhed and stretched to get the kinks out, but she didn’t. What she did instead spoke volumes: her gaze first tracked the movement of Halina’s rifle, then tracked right to take in her friend and Kaufman in the centre of the circle of mines; finally, and most revealingly, her head swept back through an arc that took in the triple-canopy jungle, and all the theoretical beasties that starred in a million stories starting ‘No shit, there I was…’ Plenty of asari units rotated through here too, Halina remembered, and the big asari’s watchful gaze, spotting and tracking everything Halina would have in her place, spoke volumes: buff she might be, but she wasn’t just a gym-rat.
Halina watched Kaufman prod the other asari in the back with the muzzle of his pistol, and grunt a laconic “Out.” Confused, she started off in the only direction available that counted as away from Kaufman: towards the gap in the mono-wire she’d strung around his position. Halina moved to one side, partly to keep lines of fire clear, and partly to get closer to the gap in the wire herself: probably the best time to do something would be after the prisoners were out of the way.
Once Kaufman’s prisoner had made it through the narrow clear lane in the minefield and outside the wire, she moved to join her friend, and Halina moved to block the entrance to the mortar position. She stood at an angle that felt awkward, but succeeded sufficiently well at keeping an eye on the two asari and Kaufman at once: she saw him free his left hand, leaving his gun trained on the two slaves with his right, and make a pointing gesture with his left index finger that was clearly keyed to his omni-tool.
The clatter of the two asari’s biotic suppression collars falling off was entirely drowned out by the concussive crump of a mine going off right next to them — and not exactly far away from Halina, either. She winced, working her jaw to equalise the pressures, but was otherwise fine; the two asari, on the other hand, were brought to their knees, clutching their heads as the counter-biotic effect hit them hard. Kaufman, for his part, smiled tightly, apparently at the sight of pain. He checked his omni-tool as he waited for the effect to wear off, then looked the prisoners in the eyes, and spoke:
“You’ve got about 20 seconds until the rest of the mines arm.” They were obviously still groggy: Halina started moving forward, to get inside the circle in time, but the prisoners just looked nonplussed. “Run!” Kaufman clarified, looking frustrated that they hadn’t understood the role he’d assigned them in his carefully scripted plan. Halina looked over her shoulder: after a brief look at one another, the two asari got the point and headed off together for anywhere but here.
“You too, Stark.” By the time she’d looked back round, she was staring straight down the barrel of Kaufman’s gun. She froze for an instant, but as soon as she saw his mouth open to say something more, she swung her rifle and fired from the hip, before he could switch back from Gloat Mode to Shoot Mode.
“Gaah! You fucking bitch!” OK, he was hit, but clearly not critically. No time to finish the job: Halina turned tail and started running, as the tell-tale lights on the backs of the mines started to blink from green to red, then — much more ominously if you knew what was what — go out. She dashed down the clear lane as quickly as she could, but not quite quickly enough: there was another bang behind her, and a concussion that nearly knocked her off her feet, but since she discovered that she could keep running, a part of her spared the time to conclude that it must have been another C-B mine. So that was something. She aimed for a dense part of the undergrowth and dived. Cover successfully found, Halina had to just pray that she’d hurt Kaufman badly enough… there was another, distinct crump, then another, and another in an all-too-familiar rhythm: he wasn’t too badly wounded to service the mortar. Halina closed her eyes, and tried to fight down despair.
“Oh, hey, there you are! Sign here, please.”
The maiden at the door thrust a package towards Sister Parem, favouring her with a cheerful smile that grew increasingly uncertain, then finally vanished as she took in the look on the prioress’s face.
“What is this?” Sister Parem asked, in a tone that suggested she was fairly sure it was an unsolicited stool sample, but wanted to be fair.
“Um, it’s a delivery? For, uh,” she checked her clipboard, “Neela T’Vallis?”
This was apparently the wrong answer. Sister Parem’s jaw worked back and forth, and her next words came through clenched teeth. “Young lady, did you perhaps not notice that this is a convent? Everyone within these walls has forsworn possessions, so the sisters, and especially postulants like Sister Neela, do not receive deliveri—”
The exasperated crescendo Sister Parem’s voice was building to quite nicely was abruptly spoilt as the abbess’s calm, authoritative alto cut across it. “It’s all right, Parem.” She came forward quickly, accepting the pad from the delivery woman and authenticating it. “There you are, dear,” she said reassuringly. “Thank you so much.”
The young woman handed her the package. “You… you have a nice day, now.” The abbess nodded her thanks and closed the front door of the convent, leaving all uncertaintly comfortingly on the far side of it, as far as the delivery woman was concerned.
Mother Rayilla turned to her prioress, a searching look of worry on her face. “You’ve been under a lot of strain lately, haven’t you, Parem?”
Sister Parem was still spluttering with indignation, so the abbess reached up and laid a hand on the taller woman’s shoulder. “It’s all right. You know, I think I’m going to have to send you on a spiritual retreat… when things are more settled, anyway.”
Halina forced herself through the soothing routine of checking her armour and equipment, telling herself firmly that there would be time for grief, guilt and shame later, after she’d done her very best to limit the amount she had to feel grief, guilt and shame about.
And she was as well equipped to do it as might be expected, she had to admit. All right, she had no helmet — clearly Kaufman had paid all too much attention to the report she’d had to give about the way she’d buggered the environmental systems on the ship she jacked from Montoya, because she’d come on board the Lotus to find a full set of Marine-issue kit, with that one vital exception that left her as dependent on ship’s air as he was — but she still had a weapon, her shields were at one hundred percent, and nothing could take away her training. She was an N-rated operative, and she could retrieve this situation; all she had to do was keep her head…
As if on queue, inspiration struck. Halina brought up her omni-tool and started paging through the goodie bag of software sar’-major Williams had thoroughly illegally sent her home with. As long as they hadn’t rotated in a brand-new encryption key lately… Yes! She had access to the training base’s tactical net. She brought up their map of the area, and added a dot to it that showed the precise location of the mortar position, with all the relevant codes to show how it was defended, and a line to mark the clear lane in the minefield. Now the training staff could head straight for it, and all Halina had to do was keep herself and the two asari out of their way.
She continued studying the map, working out the most likely ways the two ex-slaves might have run, when a half-rhythmical drumming sound under the monotonous and continuing crump of the mortar made itself noticeable by getting louder and louder. You have got to be kidding me, she thought as she realised what it had to be.
Six out of seven classes that rotated through Camp Ass-rot — the one Halina had attended included — didn’t see even one sphex. The seventh might come across one alone; the training staff were glad when one of the ordinarily highly territorial creatures decided to include the area surrounding the base in its stomping grounds: hunting down a creature that resembled nothing so much as a seven-foot-tall praying mantis with a permanent advanced case of rabies was just the assignment to take the starch out of a bunch of swinging dicks who all thought the Alliance should just acknowledge their greatness and hand them their N7 stripes already. And truth to tell, with modern armour and weapons and strength in numbers, it wasn’t half as dangerous a job as it looked.
But. There was one time of year when no class was assigned to the base, and the permanent staff made sure to hunker down inside the wire, and that was sphex mating season. The beasties had some kind of migratory instinct that overrode their fratricidal territory-maintaining ways, and made them all return to their mating grounds once a local year, forming groups as early as possible for the journey and getting even more fractious with anything that got in their way, as they tried to show off for one another by playing with their food. A lone human, however well-armed and armoured, would just be a crunchy snack in their path.
Halina remembered all this in a split second as the first few sphexes hove into view, one leaping onto another and mingling their limbs grotesquely together, made the briefest of surveys of her surroundings, and dashed for the thickest, smoothest tree she could conveniently reach. She pulled out her knife and jammed it into the trunk at eye level, then as she used it as a hand- and foot-hold to scramble up into the branches she prayed were out of even sphex-reach, she was absently mumbling to herself: “Bad day. Very bad day.”
“Are you ready?”
Mother Rayilla’s tone was gentle: just from changing into her old clothes, Neela somehow looked younger, but what was much more affecting was the haunted look in her eyes as she looked up.
Neela nodded: “I’ve been watching it again. I couldn’t help it. It’s… horrible.”
“Yes it is,” the abbess agreed. “It’s time to do something about it.”
Neela tilted her head as she noticed the lack of personal pronouns. It was appropriate, she reflected: Mother Rayilla was doing something about what was going on throughout the Republics just as much as she was. The realisation led to a disquieting thought:
“You know, it won’t take them long to work out where I’m broadcasting from.”
It was Mother Rayilla’s turn to nod. “And all the sisters will have to live with my decision to let you,” she pointed out. She glanced at the screen on the wall, and hastily changed the subject: “You’ve got twenty seconds.”
Neela stood up and turned to face the screen, which was fortuitous, as it meant she couldn’t see how Mother Rayilla smiled at the way she instinctively commanded the theoretical space, seeming to grow taller and more confident as she prepared to address anyone who cared to listen. Which was a respectable twenty million people, in the event: Neela couldn’t help feeling a little pleased with herself at how much attention the prospect of a Key Policy Address by the Baby Matriarch had gathered, despite, or perhaps because of her abrupt disappearance last time she’d addressed the asari people.
The last ‘Ready to broadcast?’ dialogue box popped up, and Neela confirmed it away almost instantly; there was a moment’s lag as the system sorted through the responses from all the spectators connected, and then a quarter of the screen was given over to Neela’s face on the customary abstract, swirling background, for all the world as though she were speaking from home the way she had a thousand times before.
The remaining screen space divided and sub-divided itself faster than the eye could follow, until finally even the minority of spectators who were willing to show their reactions had less than a pixel each, and the system gave up for the time being, showing only the numbers — climbing into the tens of millions now that people could see that Neela was actually there — atop a different abstract pattern.
“My friends,” she began, her voice soft and surprising even herself in how it was filled with emotion. “It’s lovely to see so many of you — so to speak. It really means a lot to me.” She smiled gently. “If you were hoping to hear a fire-breathing rant against the matriarchs, the justicars, or anyone else for that matter, I’m sorry: that’s not why I’m here. I’ve come back just to give you a few facts about what’s happened over the past few weeks. They speak much more powerfully for themselves than anything I could say.”
She signalled to her V.I., and her face disappeared completely from the stream, replaced with footage of that peculiarly indifferent quality that suggested security cameras the whole galaxy over. It showed a police cell with two women in it, a younger one seated on the bunk and an older one leaning against the wall.
“The prisoner you can see in this footage is Terna Palathon, a graduate student in biochem at Srinityevu College, Serrice. Guarding her is a justicar named Eilat.” Neela kept a steady, neutral Narrator Voice, knowing all too well that some of the footage coming up would be unbearable if she broadcast sound as well as video. “This video comes from the security feeds of the Planetary Ready Reserve base for the north-eastern quadrant. It was recorded shortly after the Matriarchs issued the Emergency Consult, and warned us all that the justicars were a mortal threat to the Republics,” — Neela gave her redundant gloss of recent events as a grimly ironic counterpoint to what was showing on everyone’s screens: the security footage showed the cell door opening, and armoured cops filing rapidly in, in a manner more suited to a raid on a nest of dangerous felons than entry to one of their own cells. The lead officer fired exactly one round, murdering the helpless Terna Palathon, and the others opened fire in disciplined bursts, cutting down Eilat as she tried to avenge her, her obedience to the Code as helpless in its own way as Terna’s untrained harmlessness, as far removed from it as the late justicar’s exquisitely honed biotics might have been.
Neela’s screen began to show reactions again. One, in particular, grew larger than the others as those watching endorsed it: it showed a maiden, probably barely past her century, making no effort to restrain her tears, her face a heartbreakingly eloquent mix of shock, grief and doubt. Neela steeled herself against it, and moved on to the next scene.
The camera’s viewpoint moved methodically through what was clearly a fire-gutted and blackened compartment of a ship or space station. The camera lingered on the remains of lab equipment and materials that might have accelerated the fire, then continued to pan…
“This is a post-incident survey by a work crew on Omega. And this…” Neela paused, her timing a little off, then because after several viewings, the sight was still hard to take: the camera revealed a mass that was mostly charred bone, but still had some shreds of the larger muscles clinging to it, contorted into grotesque attitudes as the heat shrank them. It was still recognisable as the body of an asari. Barely. “…this was Dr. Fleasa Noron.”
Neela paused for a beat, and kicked off a file transfer. “The documents I’m sharing with you prove that the fire was set deliberately, by mercenaries in the pay…” As certain as she was of what she was saying, Neela still choked on the words that came next: “…in the pay of Matriarch Irissa and other prelates of the Athamist Church.”
Multiple cries of anger and denial were upvoted, growing larger on Neela’s screen, but she forged ahead, her voice beginning to ring with indignation. “Do I need to tell you what Dr. Noron and Ms. Palathon were researching? And there’s more:” Another video began to play. “You’ve all seen the news footage, I’m sure, of the justicar Salka in the middle of a riot, attacking honest police officers who were just trying to keep the protest peaceful? Well, here’s the part you haven’t seen.” The carefully-assembled fragments of footage from people in the crowd, from security cameras and even from satellites showed an asari maiden pushing determinedly through the crowd, speaking urgently to some of her fellow protesters, and finally — and Neela gave innumerable thanks in her mind for the fact that this had been caught extra-clearly on video — jostling a maiden who was shaking her fist at one of the riot cops, so that she lurched towards the shield wall, and the officers knocked her down, moving the line over and past her, leaving her unconscious on the ground behind them. The cops then began breaking more heads, the justicar reacted, and the rest… the rest was recent history to all the audience.
“The woman you’ve been watching is Kiafol T’Iassis. The day before the protest in Ratel she was in Holra City, where she’s in training for the priesthood. The day after the protest, she was back at the seminary, I daresay quietly back in class. Isn’t it odd, my friends, that she should travel four thousand miles in three days, just to exercise her right to free speech?
Neela paused ever so briefly, knowing now was not the time to get worked up. “I have no bill, or resolution to propose,” she told the Republics. “I am here only to offer facts.”
“Facts be damned!” One reaction window had grown to the point where its audio was permitted to cut Neela off. Naturally, it showed a matriarch. “This is simply sensationalism, not to mention justicar propaganda!”
“Is that what you all say?” Neela responded mildly, and it was clear to all those watching that she meant all the matriarchs, particularly as she went on: “My Ladies, I could offer all the documentation there is to show why I believe everything I’ve shown and told you is the simple truth — in fact, I’m doing exactly that — but there’s no need, because some of you knew before I ever spoke that it’s true, and I hope and pray that at least one of you knows it is wrong. I’m not here to call either the Order of Matriarchs or the Church of Athame evil: I honour your wisdom and your commitment to do good in the world, as we all do. And that is why I call on you to do what you know is best for all of us. Guide us, advise us… lead us, by all means. Your wealth of experience is a resource all the galaxy has learned to rely on. But when we choose to go our own way, however painful it may be to see us, your daughters, making what seems to you to be a mistake, there comes a point when you must let it happen.”
Neela paused. She could see in the corner of the screen that her eyes were moist, but that was no bad thing, so long as she could keep her voice under control. “Please,” she begged, “will one of you not reach out now, and let the breach begin to heal?”
Silence. The matriarch who had interrupted couldn’t keep the disgust from her expression, and her window diminished rapidly in size as viewers downvoted her reaction. None grew to replace it.
“Then we are lost,” Neela concluded in a small voice, and ended the stream.
Halina hadn’t expected to find out what the planet’s sky looked like from below, and yet here she was, in the very top of the forest giant she had climbed, well above the general level of the canopy, her arms aching as she clung on for dear life. Down below, though she couldn’t see it, a maddened sphex kept leaping half its height into the air, and jamming its front claws into the trunk of the tree much as Halina had stabbed it with her knife. The difference, of course, was that a sphex couldn’t detach its foreleg and use it as a foothold to climb higher.
The treetop lurched even more violently as another, even-more-maddened sphex barrelled straight into the one trying to climb up, and the weight of both crashed into the tree-trunk. Halina managed to hold on as it flexed, but then it snapped back, and she found herself launched into the air, and too busy falling by the numbers to even give vent to the hearty “Oh, shit!” echoing in her head.
Her fall was arrested by a comparatively innocent sphex, and she made the split-second decision to hang on to its neck, and so stay out of range of its claws and teeth, just in time. Her memories of the last time she’d come to this planet were flooding back quite nicely, thank you, including the knowledge of where the soft spot on a sphex’s skull was: she could pith it with one shot just… there. She unshipped her rifle…
The sphex, of course, had just taken the weight of a fully-armoured, if petite Marine at an appreciable fraction of terminal velocity right at the point where its elongated neck met its upper set of shoulders. It had, from its own particular point of view, every reason to feel ill-treated by its gods, not to mention that it was feeling woozy. It staggered at precisely the wrong moment, when the grip-field on the back of Halina’s suit was just letting go of her rifle, and the rifle’s weight was shifting crazily as it started to deploy from its stowage configuration, and the lurch made her lose her grip. She watched the rifle clatter off and vanish almost immediately into the undergrowth, and permitted herself the luxury of muttering “Yup, very bad day.” again as she remembered that her combat knife was about twenty-five metres away, still stuck into the bole of the tree.
There was nothing else for it: she dug her fingers as deeply as possible into the sphex’s throat, trying not to think about how close her hand was to the lower row of its impossibly numerous teeth, and started driving the heel of her other hand as hard as possible into the soft spot behind its ear.
The sphex, not unnaturally, considered this to be insult added to injury, and started bucking determinedly. Halina felt her hold slip, knew there was nothing she could do, and went for one last strike as the sphex wound up to flip its head back and hurl her into the air yet again.
Training kicked in, and she tucked and rolled… only to find herself faced with the knees of the younger asari ex-prisoner as she came to a stop. Looking up, she saw what was only to be expected: a look equal parts furious and exultant on the woman’s face, and her arm flung back and already starting to glow with biotic energy.
“Wait! Please!” Halina cried desperately, rising no further than her knees and flinging her hands into the air. “I’m not your enemy!”
That bought her a split-second more, as an eloquent look of ‘What even is the point of saying that?’ crossed the asari’s features. “I was undercover!” Halina explained no less desperately than before. “I’m working for Councillor Shepard!”
Coranin entered the Normandy’s main bay to find Samara waiting for him, her armour and weapons just so, seemingly as ready to make a combat drop as to discuss comparative metaethics. They nodded to one another, and Coranin walked over to the Mako.
“Tell me, justicar, do you know how to drive one of these?”
“Good. If possible, I think we should try and keep you out of sight. The presence of an asari…” He tailed off, words failing him as he approached the delicate subject of his thoughts.
“I understand, captain.” Samara told him quietly. Coranin nodded gratefully, then shifted his gaze as he heard the door open again. He lifted his chin to acknowledge Garrus’s expression: the older man was hurrying to join them and spreading his mandibles apologetically. He let the two of them take their places in the Mako, then put his helmet on and joined them.
“Comm check: everyone ready to drop?”
“Ready.” “Ready.” Garrus and Samara had fastened their restraints and stowed their weapons by the numbers.
“Ship channel is live, captain,” EDI put in, her voice coming in both ears evenly, and seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. “Optimal drop window is from eleven to forty-seven seconds from now.”
“Acknowledged. We’re all secure here. Make the drop when ready.”
“I wish we’d managed to find the Manzikert in orbit.” Garrus groused. “There’s no way EDI can hide us from them when we dro—”
He was cut off by the ejection catapult, whose acceleration curve was precisely tuned to place them on the drop path EDI had calculated, but the subtleties were lost on Garrus amid the overwhelming sensation of suddenly weighing four times as much as he was used to. Samara, for her part, carefully kept her hands well away from the Mako’s controls, only watching the telltales to check that EDI still had her remote link to the decel jets. Presently they began to fire in precisely-timed asymmetric bursts, guiding the Mako through unpredictable atmospheric turbulence to a landing spot chosen with orders of magnitude less error expected than any human pilot could have managed. Not that Joker hadn’t taught EDI everything she knew about the technique, of course.
Coranin, Garrus and Samara prepared themselves for landing like the pros they were, and within seconds of hitting the ground, the two turians had popped the hatches and leapt from the vehicle, sweeping half the area each with the muzzles of their rifles before training them on… on three human males in Hawaiian shirts, apparently.
“Whoa! Whoa, mate, whoa!” The speed with which the men threw their hands up was more eloquent than their words, though they could hardly be blamed, since while Garrus and Coranin were leaping out of the Mako, Samara had been traversing its turret to point directly at them.
The eyes of all present were ludicrously diverted at that point, as there was a fizzing sound right next to them, and a small, cheerful fireball launched itself into the air behind one of the men, who was still half-crouched down, and held a beer can in his raised hand.
“Ah, captain, I may have been mistaken about those explosive signatures. They may be…”
“…fireworks,” Coranin concluded. You learn so many things in this job, he thought. Turns out it is possible for an A.I. to sound mortified. “I wouldn’t have thought the signatures were that similar, EDI.”
The most upright- and sober-looking of the three humans pointed off to one side, where an Alliance-issue mortar was set up. “We were going to fire off a couple of starshells as well,” he explained. The stillness of the two blank, helmeted faces confronting him may have been unnerving, or else he knew he and his friends were being a bit naughty, because there was a distinctly defensive note in his voice as he explained: “It’s Australia Day!” He went on to mutter: “why they couldn’t send a unit from, just, any other country’s army to man a pissant little rebro station today of all days…”
“Right,” Coranin cut in as he sorted the explanation from the irrelevancies. “Sorry to have, ahem, crashed your party, gentlemen. Uh, carry on.” He turned and wrenched his mind away from what had suddenly become an awkward social situation, and back to the mission. “EDI,” he barked. “Find somewhere we can recover the Mako A.S.A.P. I want us back on our sweep soonest.”
“I’m Halina, by the way.”
“Halina Stark,” the younger asari said, challenge and amusement mingled in her tone.
Their new-found truce was just old enough for them to have determined that the sphex Halina had landed on was Tail-End Charlie in its particular migrating herd, and there didn’t seem to be another herd coming any time soon, and now they were squatting on their respective haunches, getting to know one another in the character of equals in armament and endangerment.
Halina matched the asari smirk for smirk. “Sure. Halina Stark: failed Alliance officer turned Cerberus terrorist, if you ask the authorities. Or it’s Halina Stark: highly deniable agent, if you take my word for it. I don’t want to say ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’, but…”
The big asari seemed content to just watch and listen, letting her friend do most of the talking, but this drew an amused snort from her. Halina turned and gave her what she hoped was a winning smile, but whether it had any effect, she couldn’t tell.
“Got it,” the younger asari grinned. “Anyway, I’m Thamini and that’s Kessa: Blue Sun mercs, turned slaves, turned, what? Cerberus stalking goats? Me, I plan to keep on turning.”
“Amen to that,” Halina grinned back. Her grin faded as she remembered something she’d been wanting to say for a while. She turned to Kessa: “I’m sorry about the, uh…”
Her hand made an evocative twisting motion that did the job of reminding the big asari how they’d first met. Kessa gave vent to a non-committal noise but otherwise stayed stone-faced. Halina found her eyes particularly disconcerting: they were a dark hunter green, and betrayed nothing.
“You were right, by the way,” Thamini put in, bringing Halina’s attention back to her. “I’m a ground-pounder, Kess is a pilot, so on this kind of op, yes, I am the dangerous one.”
“Got it,” Halina said, taking the hint: she could explain what was going with as much jargon as she liked. “Look,” she began, “I think what we need to do is find the training base staff and surrender to them.”
“You mean the base your buddy’s been shelling all this time?” Thamini asked incredulously.
Halina nodded impatiently. “Yes! Look, I trained here myself about a year ago, plus I painted the mortar position on the base tac net. If we can make contact with the training staff, I know how to talk to them, even if there’s no-one there who actually remembers me.” The two asari still looked dubious, so she kept going: “Also, Cerberus will have sent someone to clean up, maybe mercs, maybe Alliance, I don’t know, but they’ll be looking to make sure all the physical evidence says this was an asari military op. That means your dead bodies in your commando gear, the mortar position built out of asari munitions, and me and anyone from the base who looks argumentative where we can tell no tales.”
Rana wasn’t in the least surprised that it was the justicar, standing next to her, who spoke up first. What she was was relieved: when the captain had dragooned her and Therrin to stand lookout watch in the separate observation lounges alongside the rest of the, ahem, crew, the idea had seemed ridiculous. Granted, the eye was the best bet to detect a vessel using modern stealth technology, and the Normandy’s visible-light-sensitive sensors — EDI’s eyes — could only scan so much of their surroundings at one time, in the level of detail they were going for, at least.
“Confirmed.” That said, there was apparently nothing wrong with EDI’s eyes inside the ship. She’d taken off lines from Samara’s eyes and hand, worked out precisely where she was pointing, and covered the same area with the sensors, while Rana had still been woolgathering. “Silhouette is consistent with a Cho Sin class frigate.”
“Yes!” The captain exulted. “Vakarian, justicar, please go and prep the Mako. Dr. Therrin, Dr. Viridon, thank you for your help.”
Rana went to grab Therrin and take him back to the lab, where no doubt he would be much more comfortable. He probably had the best eyesight of any squishy being on board, but Garrus always made him nervous. As she went, she half-listened to Coranin, who was still speaking over the all-hands system, for whatever reason:
“EDI, I want to manoeuvre us into position so the Manzikert is least likely to detect us until we deploy the Mako. Here’s how we’re going to do it…”
Halina turned to make sure her new-found friends were keeping up: there were elementary and sound reasons for her to take point, mainly concerned with which of them was wearing armour, and who the training base staff would be slowest to shoot, but she didn’t have to like it.
Kessa might be the less dangerous of the two in planetside combat, but she’d clearly taken the ground-combat/survival component of her training a lot more seriously than most fighter jocks Halina knew. The big asari’s movements were precise, economical of energy, and above all, silent, just like Thamini’s and Halina’s own. Just as Halina was noticing, there was suddenly nothing to notice: Kessa stopped, with Thamini coming to a halt a split-second after, lifted her chin and spoke the longest sentence Halina had heard from her yet: “Up ahead.”
She’s observant, too! Halina thought as she turned around, tracked the two or three disturbances in the foliage about as far ahead as was visible, and spotted what was unmistakably an armoured arm within one of them. “O.K.,” she whispered, as much to herself as to Thamini and Kessa, “here goes nothing.”
She raised her hands and moved steadily forward. It went against her every Infiltrator instinct to make no effort to avoid being noticed, but she forced herself not to care how loudly she put her feet down.
“Uh, hello,” she called out, then made a face at how lame that sounded.
There was a general susurration of surprised Marines. A quintessential, and vaguely familiar, chief’s voice shouted back “Who goes there?”
“Escaped prisoners!” Halina replied. OK, ‘released’ might be a better word than ‘escaped’, and she herself hadn’t been Kaufman’s prisoner as such, but with any luck she’d live to explain all that. Later. “We’re unarmed!”
Six fully armed and armoured Marines, none below the rank of corporal, emerged from points in the undergrowth along a broad line roughly perpendicular to Halina’s line of sight, and swiftly surrounded the three of them, moving like the pros they were. It was almost like being back at the Villa, except that nothing was quite like knowing the weapon pointed at you was live.
“Don’t move,” said the same voice as before: this time it was at an ordinary conversational level, and Halina could see that it belonged to an armoured figure that seemed almost as broad as he was tall, with a gunnery chief’s subdued stripes and rockers on his sleeves. Halina recognised him even with his helmet on, and apparently the feeling was mutual. “Do I know you?” He asked.
“Sure. Halina Stark. I rotated through here about a year ago. And you’re Gunny Ringo.”
The gunny took his helmet off, and grinned at Halina: “Sure am. Mind telling me what the hell’s going on, ma’am?”
Halina felt the need to kick off with: “You don’t need to call me ‘ma’am’: I washed out.” Gunny Ringo raised an eyebrow at that, but waited for more. “It’s a false-flag op, chief: you’re supposed to think an asari huntress team has attacked your base.”
“Hence your friends here?”
“Right: they’re actually ex-slaves, bought by Cerb—”
A rifle round whistled past Halina’s nose. The Marines showed how credible they’d found Halina’s story much more eloquently than any words ever could have: to a man and woman they faced out, tracking back and forth with their weapons as one yelled “Contact!”
There was a panicked shout of “Hold your fire!”, followed by a more controlled “Alliance Marines! Hold your fire!” from the jungle off to Halina’s left. The terrain in between was the closest she’d ever seen to a clearing on the planet that housed Camp Ass-rot, about twelve yards long.
“Then why the hell are you shooting at us?” Hollered Gunny Ringo, with understandable asperity.
“All we saw at first were the asari!”
“Come out where we can see you!”
“OK!” Marines started to emerge from the tree-line — such as it was. The N.C.O.s around Halina stood up, keeping their weapons at low ready.
“Don’t come any closer!” Gunny Ringo warned.
“Easy, chief.” They could now identify the figure the voice was coming from, particularly when he took his helmet off, revealing a narrow, pale face with a weak chin. “Staff Lieutenant Petrofski, chief,” he introduced himself. “S.S.V. Manzikert.”
“Gunnery Chief Ringo,” the gunny replied, his tone not responding to any of the too-friendly overtures in the lieutenant’s. “Jungle Training.”
“Where are your officers, Gunny? Your sar’-major?”
“Dead.” The flat monosyllable made Halina wince.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Petrofski’s voice, now a little hoarse from the ten-yard range Gunny Ringo was holding the conversation at by sheer force of will. “We detected the mortar barrage; it’s why we’re here. Is that when they…?”
“The X.O. was wounded when the first shell hit. We would have been fine, except one of the others took out a section of the wire. It’s sphex season; one of them got into the base. Half of us had to keep the others back, and the commander and the sar’-major bought it dealing with the one that got in.”
Halina sighed, and almost in spite of herself whispered “I’m sorry.”
“Did you fire the mortar?” The gunny asked her. She shook her head. “Then we’re good.” He told her.
“But… I could have stopped it…”
Gunny Ringo looked her in the eyes. “Lieutenant,” he said firmly. “We’re good.”
It was the strangest thing: nobody in the vicinity seemed to be cutting onions, but there were needles behind Halina’s eyes, threatening to release her tears.
“Ahem,” Lt. Petrofski cleared his throat unconvincingly. “Your attention, please, Gunnery Chief.
“In the absence of any other officers, I think it’s appropriate that I take command.”
“Aye-aye, sir.” Gunny Ringo stood stock-still, his rifle not exactly pointed at the lieutenant or any of his Marines, but pointed closer to them than anyone else present. And he didn’t sound happy about it.
“Very good.” Petrofski was blithely, or at least pretending to be, indifferent to the nuances. “You’ve all been through enough for one day; I’ll detach a fire-team to escort you back to our shuttle, where you’ll repair on board the Manzikert. And you’re to turn your prisoners over to me.”
“They’re not prisoners.” The gunny protested doggedly. “Innocent bystanders, sir.”
Petrofski actually laughed: “Right, because this is such a crowded planet! Gunny, I wouldn’t believe a word that woman tells you, if I were you.” Needless to say, he was pointing directly at Halina. “Ex-lieutenant Stark is a listed fugitive: a couple weeks ago she hijacked an arms shipment guarded by Marines from Special Recon Bravo; put three of them in the hospital and damn-near suffocated a dozen more.” His voice turned slow and deliberate as he summed up: “I have orders to bring her in, and I’m giving an order to you: turn Stark and the asari over to me, gunnery chief.”
Gunny Ringo looked at Halina, who returned his gaze unblinkingly, asking for nothing. He opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by one of Petrofski’s Marines, who happened to be looking up:
“What the fu—” Halina and one or two of the N.C.O.s just had time to look around, and they felt no shame in dropping face-first onto the floor as they saw an M35 Mako tank on what seemed an impossibly shallow landing trajectory just above their heads, firing its starboard decel jets at the last possible instant to turn it through ninety degrees, so that its broadside fetched up in Lt. Petrofski’s face instead of its nose flattening him.
Two turians in full armour leapt from the Mako, and perhaps the only human present who kept his head was Gunny Ringo, who recognised the armour of one of them and bellowed “Hold your fire! HOLD your fire!”
The other turian spared the gunny a glance, then turned his attention to Petrofski’s squads.
“What the hell is going on?” Petrofski’s voice was so rattled it practically came out falsetto, but perhaps he deserved credit just for being on his feet.
“I’m Captain Coranin Martis. I’m a Council Spectre. I detected mortar bombardment of the Alliance facility on this planet, and came to investigate.” Garrus was glad of his helmet, and Samara that she was inside the Mako, so no-one could see how much they were enjoying Coranin’s deadpan delivery.
“By dropping a Mako on our heads with no safety margin‽” Petrofski fairly screeched.
“Yes. Are you the ranking officer present?” Coranin calmly bulldozed straight over him.
“Uh, yes sir. Staff Lieutenant Petrofski, S.S.V. Manzikert. I’ve assumed command of…”
“Right. It’s a good thing your ship arrived when it did, Lieutenant. You can assist me in my investigation. Here are your orders,” Coranin began, and to an irregular accompaniment of Petrofski interjecting with strangled ‘Wait—’s and ‘But—’s, he went on imperturbably: “You will search for the mortar emplacement, arrest anyone you find there, and document its layout exhaustively. You will also document all damage to the training base, and make due arrangement to deal with any casualties. You will conduct a general area search in case anyone involved in the attack has gone bush. And, of course, you will prepare a full report and forward it to me care of the Citadel Office of Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. Is that understood?”
“Those aren’t my orders, sir!” Petrofski leapt at the chance to finally object.
Coranin looked at him for a long, hard moment. “They are now, lieutenant.”
“But, sir,” he persisted, pointing at the other group: “Halina Stark is a fugitive! I have specific orders to arrest her!”
“Ah, yes, thank you for reminding me, lieutenant. Ms. Stark is wanted on the Citadel as well.” It was true, in a manner of speaking. “Mr. Vakarian, will you escort Ms. Stark and the asari prisoners aboard the Mako?”
Coranin had pronounced Garrus’ name with extra clarity, and was gratified to see a wave of recognition pass over the Marine squads: one reinforced when they heard his still-familiar voice.
“B-but, sir!” Petrofski was still protesting.
“You have your orders, lieutenant. Carry on.”
“No, sir.” The lieutenant was suddenly very calm. Coranin, who was half turned away from him watching Halina, Kessa and Thamini board the Mako, turned slowly back, and looked at him, eye to… faceplate.
Before Petrofski could finally decide to raise his rifle, Coranin spoke again. “You’re under arrest, lieutenant. Corporal, take his weapons.”
“Aye-aye, sir!” Lieutenant Petrofski had clearly not endeared himself to his temporary command, as not only the corporal but half his squad trained their rifles on the hapless officer, who seemed to shrivel like a spider in a candle flame, and meekly handed his rifle and sidearm over.
“Keep him under guard,” Coranin ordered, then raised his voice, although his radio made it unnecessary: “Gunnery chief!”
“You heard my orders to the lieutenant?”
“Good. I’m placing you in command of these Marines. They seem rather light on N.C.O.s, for some reason. You’ll complete the mission as I’ve outlined it.”
“Good.” This time, with everyone under control, Coranin allowed relief to seep into his voice. “I’m afraid I’m overdue to report to the Citadel, so I’ll have to leave you to take care of things here…” He thought for a moment, then looked briefly up. “Martis to Manzikert”
“Lieutenant-Commander Bujold here, captain. I’ve, ah, made contact with your ship, sir, and I’ve been monitoring your communications ground-side. We’re at your disposal, captain.”
Lieutenant Petrofski can’t have been popular with his fellow officers, either… Coranin thought.
“Thank you, captain.” Junior Alliance skippers liked to be called ‘captain’, he recalled, and a little bit of sugar for the bird was thoroughly appropriate in the circumstances. “I’d appreciate it if you’d offer the gunnery chief and his Marines whatever support they need to complete their mission, and recover them and bring them and their prisoners to the Citadel once it’s complete. That includes Lieutenant Petrofski: they’re to be kept under close arrest and turned over to C-Sec custody, under my authority.”
“And time really is short, so if I may I’ll borrow your shuttle to get my people back aboard my ship. I’ll trade you the Mako: with its extra firepower, plus your Marine squads, I’m sure the gunnery chief can handle any threats that might arise.”
Gunny Ringo gave him a firm nod, and Captain Bujold another “Aye-aye, sir.”
“Good!” Coranin concluded brightly. “Then get everyone ready to move out, Gunny. We’ve all got places to be.”