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Mass Effect - Mercy

Chapter Text

"Lenka!"

Near the middle of the pile, a small body moved.

"Lenka. Where are you? Wake up child."

Calloused, grubby hands ground into the corners of the child's eye sockets as she yawned. Opening her eyes, she glanced to the window, nothing but darkness on the other side of the curtain. Still night time then. The light of a single lantern flickered along the walls, a weak play of illumination that left altogether too many shadows. Monsters coiled and pooled in those dark spaces, smelling of lamp oil, terror, and sweat. She looked away, refusing to allow them their feast. Six was too big to be afraid.

"Lenka! For the love of the ancestors, child, do not make it climb all the way up there."

Surfacing, the child let out short, musical sigh. Too late. The tell-tale, no-nonsense cadence of Mother Grettel's footsteps crossed the wooden floorboards, each plank adding its own note to the chorus. The song stopped a half-breath before the door burst open.

Wood crashed off wood as the door rebounded, the pile of children heaped upon the mattresses erupting into a storm of screams and tears and soiled underclothing. Shrieking, the little ones clutched each other and Lenka, dragging her down into the thick, humid, stench of their terror.

The monsters coiled and slithered, lithe bodies slick, long forked tongues flicking out of the darkness to lap up the feast. Lenka's shoulders slumped and her gut churned at the moans of sadistic, greedy pleasure that accompanied the monsters' feeding. Had Grettel believed in the living darkness that lurked just beyond her sight, she may have moved softer and spoken more gently. But Grettel did not believe in the monsters. Childish foolishness, she called them. Obedience, efficiency, and utility played the tune to which the old mother danced. The monsters didn't mind, of course. Believing in them didn't matter; they simply were. In the end, everyone danced to sate their hunger.

Struggling to break through suffering's surface, Lenka patted heads and stroked backs as she climbed through a tangle of limbs to the edge of the mattresses. "Sh, now," she whispered. "You must be so very quiet and so very still. If the Master hears you, he'll come." Sighing, she stood, a monster sucking away her warning on a single, greedy inhale. Most of the children on the floor arrived the day before, endless rivers of snot and tears flowing for mothers and fathers lost but never truly forgotten. Soon, fear of the Master and respect for the monsters would teach them silence. Soon, but not that night.

"Lenka. Come." The crone's four rheumy eyes fixed on the child. Jerking her head toward the darkness outside the door, the old woman shuffled away from the shadow that crept behind the door, uncoiling a tar-slick limb to snag her ankle.

Leaving behind a last few, comforting words and caresses, Lenka broke free and darted to the door. Small, bare feet nimble and swift as they skittered over the wood, she kept to the center of the light. As long as her feet moved quick and light, the monsters couldn't grab hold, the cane didn't fall, and no one yelled. Quick, light feet meant life and peace.

"Yes, Mother Grettel? How may it help you?"

"Run to the well and fill the big kettle to boil. Daliah is about to give birth." The elderly female spun on the spot, but stopped at the door as the mattress covered in children erupted into shrill wails once more. "And keep these children quiet."

Lenka moved to comfort her peers, but Mother Grettel's clawed hand grabbed her shoulder and spun her back toward the door.

"In order, child," she reminded, her voice rough. "You know this. Unless the Master says that a new command takes precedence, you do everything in the order given. Water first, then quiet these new ones down." She pointed to the heap of sobbing children. "You lot settle down and now. If the Master hears you wailing, it'll be the cane, and then you'll have something to wail about."

Lenka darted out past the old woman's swatting hand. "Yes, Mother Grettel. Thank you, Mother Grettel." She scooted ahead of the old batarian, her feet skimming the ground without lifting into a run. Running was never allowed. Running disturbed the Master.

Relief whispered between her lips when Grettel shut the door to the back room, and the worst of the crying and whimpering stayed on the other side. At least the children's racket wouldn't carry to the big house. The last time the crying disturbed the Master, Grettel covered Raala's baby with a pillow until it was quiet. Raala hadn't left the chair in the corner of the sitting room since.

Silent and swift, the child slipped down the stairs and into the kitchen, Grettel's uneven steps thumping after her.

"Ancestors curse Master Hannibal for coming in here last season bragging about how his slaves give him a birth a day," Grettel grumbled, hitting the bottom of the stairs. "Five new ones in three days. How the Master thinks we are supposed to support and care for so many, it will never know."

Lenka winced, the old woman's words making her heart skip a beat. She glanced around the sleeping house that never completely slept. If the Master, or even some of the other mothers, heard Mother Grettel ... Lenka shuddered and hurried to finish her tasks. Perhaps if she got done quickly enough, she could convince Raala to curl up in bed with her for a couple of hours. She allowed herself a moment of yearning for the mother's tight embrace, her breath soft and warm on Lenka's neck, but then walled it away. Work now. Comfort later.

Lenka's spritely steps slowed to a thump-drag-thump. A soft moan escaped her lips when she saw the huge copper kettle sitting on the floor next to the fire. Chastising herself for wishing someone bigger had hung the kettle for her, she bent down, leaning in to get her shoulder under the handle. Grunting a musical mixture of affirmations, bullying, and curse words she'd get a switch across her back for, she heaved. Stick-thin legs shook, knees bowing as the kettle scraped along the stone hearth, letting out a metallic shriek that made her wince. Holding her breath, she waited for anyone to shout about the noise as she hauled it the few steps to the hook over the fire.

"What in the name of ...? Child, what are you doing?" Mother Daliah's exasperated whisper cut through the silence like the wings of Mercy from Mother Lucy's stories. Lenka didn't know who Mercy was, but from the stories, she was the most beautiful of beings. "You're going to break that twig of a body in half doing things like that. For mercy's sake, it swears Grettel is completely addled some days." The very pregnant mother grasped the handle and lifted the kettle off Lenka's shoulder. "Next time, come get someone to help you. You're no good to anyone broken." A smile softened her words, and she caressed Lenka's cheek with her thumb. "Now off to get the water, and no dawdling. It swears this baby is set to just jump right out and start helping you haul water."

Lenka giggled as she imagined Daliah's baby coming out dressed, a little wooden bucket yoke on its shoulders. "It'll hurry, Mother Daliah." She grasped her bucket yoke from beside the fire and settled it over her shoulders. The wood dug into her bones until she shifted it, finding all the places her body had worn her shape into the yoke over the year.

"Half buckets. No more than that at once. If you're done too early, it'll know you carried too much, and it won't let you help with the birthing," Daliah chastised, grunting as she bent on a strange angle to try to put wood on the fire.

"Daliah!" Lucy strode into the room, small, usually-merry eyes narrow and exasperated. "What are you doing? It leaves the birthing room for five minutes, and here you are hauling firewood."

Lenka giggled under her breath. Mother Lucy never stopped scolding, but she never hit, even with an open hand. Lenka hurried out into the night, leaving the two mothers tending the fire. She loved helping with birthing, enough that she couldn't decide whether to obey or not. At the rate Daliah's baby was fighting to get out into the world, she might miss the whole thing if she hauled half buckets.

The grass prickled the soles of her feet, the heavy, fall dew frost-cold on her skin. She smiled as she crossed the lawn, staying to the open, moonlit ground. Things didn't scare her as badly as when she was little, but even at six, she respected the monsters' power too much to leave the bright, silver light. The well stood just over fifty metres away, not a long span for her. She'd started hauling quarter buckets of water when she turned five. Now, she could easily carry half buckets or more full ones with a struggle. Lenka filled them mostly full, but then sighed and poured some back, afraid that Daliah would keep to her word and forbid her to help.

Half buckets dangling from her shoulders, feet moving as fast as she could make them go without running, Lenka completed thirty trips back and forth to the well, finally filling the kettle. She placed her yoke carefully back in its spot and hurried into one of the washrooms to scrub her hands and feet. Grinning to herself, she crept up to the door of the birthing room and raised her hand to knock, but then she remembered Mother Grettel's order to quiet down the children. It took precedence—a word Mother Grettel dearly loved—so she hurried upstairs and eased the door open.

The children had resettled into a loose pile and gone back to sleep, so Lenka pulled the door shut and crept back downstairs.

"Ah, Lenka, good." Mother Lucy waved her in when she peeked through the door. The woman passed her a basin of cold water and a cloth then nodded toward the head of the birthing bed. "Keep her calm and comfortable."

"Yes, Mother Lucy." Lenka smiled as she set her tools on a small table, then grabbed a chair, sliding it up beside the raised head of the bed. She climbed up onto the chair and gave Daliah her bravest smile.

"You're in here pretty fast for half buckets," the female said between panting breaths.

"It promises, Mother Daliah, only half. It just hurried to be here." Lenka cooled the mother's face and neck, pressing the cold cloth over the places where Daliah's pulse thumped hard and fast near the surface.

The female chuckled, then her face twisted into a pained grimace, and she pressed her eyes closed. Lenka stroked her gently, trying to help ease the pain. The females were not allowed to scream during birth, so the child did her best to help them. She liked to believe she made their labour a little easier.

Two hours later, Mother Daliah gave a last push, Mothers Lucy and Grettel helping pull the baby out into the world. Normally, babies came out squalling up a storm: it being the only time in their lives that the Master would not punish them for the noise. He laughed, said it was the sound of money being made. Mother's laughed and cried, celebrating the only moments that the child would be theirs.

This time, however, Grettel just wrapped the baby in a scrap of material and hurried out of the room.

Mother Daliah leaned up. "What's going on? Lucy? What's wrong with its baby?"

Panic filled the air, thick and cloying, crawling into Lenka's head and lungs with every breath. Even though she didn't turn to look, she could feel the monster's moving out of the shadows, creeping across the floor to feed. Lenka stroked around the mother's ear, trying to calm her before the shadows closed right in.

Lucy walked up beside Lenka, taking one of Daliah's hands while resting the other on Lenka's shoulder. Her eyes shone.

"Daliah, you know what the Master said if this child was like the last." Lucy shook her head. "It's so sorry."

Mother Daliah laid back, her face turned away, while Mother Lucy returned to the end of the bed, lowering the stirrups and sorting the mother's clothes. Lenka hopped down to fetch a blanket from the cupboard. Mothers needed to stay warm after they had their babies, especially if things didn't go well. Sadness suffocated the room, dimming the lamp light and chilling the air.

Lenka tossed the blanket on her chair, then put another log on the fire. When she climbed back up in the chair, the shadows had closed in around the narrow bed, their chill limbs slithering up to wrap around Daliah. Pushing back against the sadness, Lenka spread the blanket out, then climbed up, laying pressed against Daliah's side. Wrapping strong, thin arms around the mother, Lenka nestled her head into the curve of her neck.

Daliah turned to kiss Lenka's brow. "Don't let this life break your beautiful heart, child," she whispered, hugging Lenka tight. "Always hold tight to the center of you. No matter what they do, they can only break you if you let them."

Lenka nodded, feeling the meaning behind the words more than understanding them in her head. She snuggled in tighter and closed her eyes. "It promises, Mother Daliah."

Chapter Text

"Child, come with it."

Lenka lifted her head from Mother Da'lat's shoulder, looking groggily into Mother Gra'ttal's wrinkled face. "Morning?" she asked, blinking as the light burrowed into all four eyes, varren jaws clamping down on her skull. Her hand reached up to worry the scars on the left side of her head.

"Yes, now come." The crone's guttural grumble sliced the peace, clawed backup to finish off whatever comfort crushing jaws left intact. Lenka knew Gra'ttal understood the rare currency of waking in loving arms, an ear resting over someone's heart. She knew because the old slave never missed a chance to rip her from the few moments she found. "The master is here. Run to the washroom and clean up, quickly. If you aren't on the lawn in three minutes, it'll switch you until you can't sit for -"

"Gra'ttal." Mother Da'lat's stern tone cut the old woman off. The kind mother patted Lenka's back. "You run, child. We'll meet you out there."

"Yes, Mother Da'lat." She scrambled up, wincing at the heavy stench in the room.

"You shouldn't be seen for a few days, Da'lat. The master is not happy that your child came out deformed like the last. The time has come for you to let go of Lenka. You've held her back at least a year too long as it is."

Lenka pulled the door closed, but then paused, listening.

"That child is meant for more than wasting away in a mine to die with black lungs before she sees ten, or to spread her legs for an endless stream of males in some carnal hole until there is so little life left in her that she steps off a roof," Da'lat whispered, her voice low but razor-edged.

The old woman scoffed, the sound filled with acidic poison that burned deep inside Lenka's chest. "More? Like you and it were meant for more? She's a slave. Filling her head with nonsense about having a free life is just setting her up for disappointment and heartbreak." Gra'ttal's uneven steps approached the door then, sending Lenka fleeing to the washroom, her heart pounding. She'd never heard anyone talk about her that way before. What did Da'tal mean that she was meant for more? Terror trickled through her at the thought, an icicle dripping down the back of her tunic, waiting to break free and pierce her through. Her knowledge of the world ended at the well on the lawn.

Two mothers scrubbed four tubs of children when Lenka raced through the curtain, limbs trembling and frozen numb. Shoving her fear aside, she stripped down and wedged herself in the end of the closest tub, grabbing a battered soap heel. A minute later, she fought her way back out through the slippery little arms trying to hold her in, begging her to play.

"No, it can't. The master is here." She giggled as she wriggled from their grip, their laughter the perfect antidote to Gra'ttal's venom.

"Please, Lenka," they wheedled, little faces of nearly every hue and shape making big, soppy doe-eyes at her. On any other morning, they would have proven impossible to resist.

"There's no time for any of you to play," Mother Tarana said, her voice a sigh of both sorrow and exasperation. The turian mothers and their dual-toned voices fascinated Lenka with the way they could say so many things at once. Tarana pointed a talon toward the door. "You had better keep moving, maribellas. The master is not patient."

"Yes, Mother Tarana." Lenka scrambled out of the tub, snatching a towel from the top of the pile. She dried herself as she hurried up the stairs. Within a minute, she skipped back down, her best sack-cloth tunic and trousers scratchy and coarse against her still-damp skin.

The Mother House lived in a constant state of fear, poised on the edge of hysterical tears and braced to take a blow, but that morning even the timbers under her feet trembled. Until that moment, Lenka thought the monsters to blame for the invisible cloud of dread. Even if they never spoke about them, she knew the mothers felt the oily feeders lurking in the shadows. That morning, however, Lenka sensed something deeper and darker than the monsters. It filled her with fear and then shame. Six did not feel that tremble, that aching looseness in its gut. Six did not soil perfectly good, clean trousers based on the house vibrating as though a great hand poised above it, ready to crush it and all it sheltered.

Mother Da'lat met her just inside the kitchen door, a tight smile making the ache in Lenka's belly worse rather than better. "Stand straight, stay silent. Unless the master or Gra'ttal gives you an order, ignore everything else they say. Understood?"

Lenka moved to open the door, but Da'lat's hand hooked her by the collar and pulled her back. "Shoes, child. You must always wear shoes around the master."

She slipped her feet into a rough pair of leather clogs and hurried out, standing just behind the old, batarian mother. Gra'ttal stooped, bent at the waist, her head as low as her brittle old twigs allowed.

"Is this the one?" The master stepped up beside Gra'ttal to peer down at Lenka, towering over her. She'd never seen another batarian as tall. Curiosity demanded that she stare, but then she felt the monsters coiled inside him and good sense dropped the hammer, crushing her inquisitive nature.

"It's thin as a stick. How will it perform half the duties I require?" the master asked. Two fingertips gripped one of her wrists, lifting it a few centimetres before letting it drop.

"It's very strong, master," the old woman said, almost as if it were a plea.

Lenka's chest puffed out a little at that. She'd worked hard to get as strong as she was. Strong meant useful, and useful ruled the Mother House above all gods and spirits. Hauling her attention back, Lenka forced herself to focus. What if the master gave her an order while she daydreamed? He didn't just stripe a slave's back, they said he prided himself on actually removing strips of hide with every blow.

". . . carries all the water for the house," Gra'ttal continued, "scrubs the floors, hauls wood for the fires." The old mother bowed a little deeper and backed up as she spoke, allowing the master room to circle Lenka.

His stare felt like scalding water, and it took all of Lenka's will to remain completely still. Well, still but for her heart, which felt like it would jump straight out of her belly and run across the lawn to hide in the trees. When the master stopped in front of her, he blocked the sun, his shadow black as night and writhing with monsters. They purred and coiled around his legs like Mother Lucy's cat, except the monsters' affection felt diseased and rotten, not comforting.

A long-fingered and sharp-nailed hand grasped her jaw, forcing her to look up. Her eyes met the master's for a split second, then darted back toward the ground, fleeing from the cold appraisal in the black depths of his stare. Even with that single moment of contact, she felt the monsters crawl inside her, their icicle tongues licking, tasting her fear.

"You say it's strong?" he demanded. "Its bones are hardening?" One of his monsters stretched out an oily tentacle to touch the pure shadow that stretched out from Lenka's battered old shoes. A single touch, and it recoiled, retreating back to its master.

"Yes, master. It's batarian, master. Solid as they come despite its age."

He grunted and pried open Lenka's mouth. "Teeth look good. Why's it so thin?" He shoved her away. "Sickly?"

"Doc said it was fine last harvest, master." Gra'ttal's bow lowered another hand's width. "Just growing fast, it expects."

Lenka's eyes cut toward him, then back to the ground. How did he expect her to be anything but bones and whip-cord muscles when she worked fourteen hour days doing everything he'd just been told while being fed the same ration of gruel and ground varren as a five-year-old?

"And it knows the duties of a personal slave?" The master turned his back on Lenka to stare down at Gra'ttal.

"Yes, master. All the ones fitting its age."

He nodded, the movement making his entire body jerk with stiffness. "Very well, bring it to the house, leave it with the kitchen slaves. They'll bring it back when its duties are complete. I'm leaving to evacuate refugees from the front lines in a few days. I will be taking only it, so be sure it's prepared to leave, and knows what will be expected of it."

Gra'ttal stiffened. "Yes, master."

Lenka watched the master's shadow march away from them, joined by two others, another batarian and a turian by the shapes of their shadows.

"It'll take her," Mother Da'lat said from the doorway behind Lenka. She held out her arm, waving them both inside. "Come, the males and varren will be headed for the fields and mine shuttles any moment. Best none of us are out here when they come through."

"Yes, Mother Da'lat," Lenka scratched at the scars on her head as she turned and hurried into the house.

An hour later Lenka stood inside the front door running her hands over her new domestic uniform. Mother Da'lat had taken away the prickly old sack-cloth and replaced it with a tunic and trousers made from a coarse cotton. She couldn't stop touching it, having never felt any cloth as soft.

Da'lat walked down the stairs, looked over at her and chuckled. "You'll feel a lot of things softer and silkier in the big house, but you mustn't be caught running your hands over everything."

Lenka felt her neck heat up and looked down. "Yes, Mother Da'lat," she recited.

"Good girl." Da'lat stopped in front of her and held out a pair of leather slippers lined in ragged fur. "You must put these on just inside the front door. The master has many fine floors that your old shoes will scuff. If you leave the house for any reason, you must change back. Indoor shoes stay indoors, outdoor shoes stay outside." She also gave Lenka a pair of small gloves. "Wear these at all times. Every day you must wash them when you are finished your duties so they're dry for tomorrow. Understood?"

"Yes, Mother Da'lat." Lenka slipped them on her hands. They fit a little tight, but she looked up at Da'lat with a small smile. Having a new, grown up uniform helped pack down the fear.

"Come." Da'lat opened the door, ushering her through, then led the way across the lawn and through the big metal fence and its hedge. Lenka stuttered to a halt, the endless, open sky stealing her breath as she stepped beyond the trees. They and the massive trees around the Mother House had enclosed her entire world. The big house rose so far into that boundless sky that the early sun blinded her when she craned her neck to see the roof. Gardens surrounded the house, flowers blooming in so many colours and spiriting so many scents through the air that they made her dizzy. One, trembling hand reached out, clinging to Mother Da'lat's tunic.

Mother Da'lat pressed a hand down on Lenka's shoulder, grounding her. "It will all be a little overwhelming and unlike anything you know, child. Just keep breathing, focus on your tasks, obey the master quickly and quietly. You'll be fine."

They entered through a small door in the side. Da'lat motioned for Lenka to stay where she was and wait for her to return. Giving the mother a small nod, Lenka looked around, a mole thrown onto a barren plateau of stone under a hungry sun. A few tables stood scattered around the entry, a chair standing by each, but her ability to recognize the furnishings ended there. Walls of gleaming, pale stone rose to an impossible height over her head, the mole turning into a beetle, cowering against the wall trying to avoid being crushed.

She changed her shoes, holding onto the old ones.

A door opened to Lenka's right, revealing a room filled with reds and yellow-golds so bright and rich against the polished white stone that they hurt Lenka's eyes. Staring at them, transfixed by the sheer saturation after her world of perpetual shades of grey, it took a moment to realize that females sat or lay draped over the furniture. An asari and a human sat at a table, a batarian lie reclined on a couch, her face covered by what looked like a bag of ice. One of the females spotted her staring. Lenka jerked her eyes away, but too slow to avoid the human's notice.

The thin woman slipped out the door and crossed the foyer, her body undulating like one of the monsters from the shadows, all sleek, fluid lines. Supple and graceful, but hungry. Colours as bright as the furnishings painted the human's eyes, cheeks, and lips. Lenka' brow wrinkled a little at the immodesty of it, but with the woman's curves and bulges covered by only a thick collar and chains leading to rings punched through her skin, the modest ideals of the Mother House didn't appear to apply in this foreign land.

The female stopped only a hand width away. "What do we have here?" a voice like raspy cloth asked. A long finger stroked along the whirls in Lenka's scalp. "Never had a babe in the house before. Is the master's taste changing?" Perfume, cloying, strong and indecent, radiated from the female in a fog that stabbed a sharp ache in the center of Lenka's head and made her stomach roll.

The naked human's hand slid down to the collar of Lenka's tunic and pulled it out. She peered down inside. "Must really be changing. You might as well be a boy: nothing at all there to hang onto or wrap his teeth around." Two fingers pressed between Lenka's legs. "Not enough room between these for a broom let alone a man the master's size. He'll snap you right in half, little bird."

Lenka shrank away from the woman, her every instinct insisting that she lash out, to fight off the aggressive, diseased tentacles trying to pull her in. Evil spilled out from those painted eyes, evil that stabbed and spit, latching on with claws that dug down inside, aiming for the bright center of her, what Mother Lucy called her spirit. Her stomach spasmed, trying to curl in on itself and a dribble of wetness loosed between her legs. Lenka's face burned with shame at that, a single tear managing to crawl from parched tear ducts. Six did not wet itself in the face of one unpleasant female.

Forcing herself to look up and meet those eyes, Lenka moaned, a sound too soft and plaintiff for ears to register. An evil so much worse than the monsters grinned at her from those eyes. For a moment, she tried to decide what it was, to give it a name. Although some deep part of her knew what it was and shrank from it, she tore her eyes away without unearthing the answer. All she could manage to decide through the fear was that some important piece of this woman had died and rotted away, leaving a hole inside her that could never be filled, its hunger never eased.

"Perhaps he's looking to split you in half, little bird," that rough purr said, clammy and cold. "He nearly took out two of Me'riz's eyes last night." A sharp smile twisted the female's lips. "Markets have disappeared, monsters killing everything in sight, the hegemony gone . . . could be he needs to . . .."

Lenka looked up, taking a breath to whisper for Mother Da'lat, but before she could, a hand darted between her and the angry woman, slapping the invasive claws away.

"She's not for that, Thirty-seven," Da'lat said, her voice as close to a growl as Lenka had ever heard. "She's domestic only. If she tells me you and the other carnals bother her, I'll come strip the hide off the lot of you." Da'lat pushed Lenka behind her, shielding her. A comforting, if painful, grip clamped down on her shoulder, propelling her from the entry and down a long, cold hallway filled with items for which Lenka could imagine no use.

Riches. That was its name. Lenka knew that much from listening to the mothers talk. The master lived surrounded by riches. At night, she'd laid in the pile of children and tried to imagine riches. She thought they must be a lot like the world Mother Lucy described . . . the land where Mercy lived amidst the angels. Sunshine, beautiful gardens, smiling faces and gentle touches. Warm beds to curl up in at night with arms that held her so tight she could barely breathe, shields to protect her from the dark. Perhaps riches meant no darkness, no shadows to give the monsters places to hide. At least they had in her dreams.

In this hard, cold land, lights as bright as tiny suns shone down, gleaming off everything until the reflected brilliance ate its way into her skull, a dull ache settling in to stay. Hallway after hallway, Mother Da'lat marched Lenka through until they emerged at last into a kitchen and the child let out a sigh. Familiar sorts of homely faces looked at her with tired eyes. Sinks and stoves, counters and baskets of food covered the surfaces.

"Does she know how to read?" an elderly batarian asked. "If I give her a map of the house, will she be able to follow it?"

Lenka sighed, her shoulders sinking down to let her arms hang by her side, finally finding a small oasis of sanctuary amidst the madness.

"She does not," Da'lat answered, "but she is quick to learn. Show her once, give her a chance to lead you through it once, and she will be fine." She smiled down at Lenka. "No dullard is our Lenka."

"Very well. One of us will escort her back to the Mother House once the master sends her off for the night." The crone reached into a pocket on her apron. "This is the list of things she will need to accompany the master on his ship."

Da'lat took the paper. "We'll have her ready to go." She stroked Lenka's head with a gentle, calloused hand. "You'll be fine," she reiterated. "We'll see you when you return this evening." With that, Da'lat strode out of the kitchen, leaving Lenka alone in the strange, foreign world of being a grown up.

Chapter Text

"The master is in meetings for the next hour or so, and the house staff have already cleaned his rooms." The elderly batarian looked Lenka up and down, her stare evaluating, but not at all aggressive or frightening.

Lenka sniffed the air. She didn't know what the scents belonged to, but her nose recognized them as heavenly. They made her mouth water and her stomach growl. She walked to the edge of the counter, little gloved hands on the edge, and stood on tiptoes to see what they were cooking.

"You eaten breakfast?" The batarian smiled and picked up a plate when Lenka shook her head. "What do they call you, again?"

"Lenka," she squeaked, keeping her voice just above a whisper. The kitchen didn't make her feel tiny and easily squished like the rest of the big house, but six knew better than to make itself too big.

"You'll have to speak up around it, little one," the crone said, chuckling. "Deaf in one ear and can't hear out the other. Its name is Ma'ral, but most just call it Ma." She placed a couple strips of meat, a flaky-looking bread thing, and some yellow and orange stuff on the plate, then poured a cup of an orangey liquid. She smiled and bent down to pass the plate and cup to Lenka. "Go sit in the corner out of the way and eat."

"Yes, Ma. Thank you." She stared at the bounty on her plate as she wandered over to the corner. What were all the things she'd been given? Her entire life consisted of a gruel made from grains mixed with ground varren meat. Her back to the corner, she slid down to sit cross-legged on the floor. Tasting everything, she found herself making little grunts and moans of pleasure. The meat was fried crispy and tasted of fat and salt; the rest she had nothing to compare to, but each thing seemed to taste better than the last. She stopped halfway through, too full to eat any more, but feeling guilty for not finishing everything she'd been given.

"Don't worry," Ma said. "The varren will enjoy the rest." She waved Lenka up then turned to face a young human. "Julia, show Lenka how to get to the rooms she'll need, then have her take you around so she knows her way before the master needs her."

"Yes, Ma." The human gave Lenka a friendly smile as she wiped flour off her hands. "How old are you?" she asked.

"It's six, miss," Lenka replied, following her.

"Six?" Julia and Ma traded a glance, but then the human smiled and nodded. "You can just call it Julia, little Lenka." She placed a friendly hand on the child's shoulder. "Okay, there are only a handful of rooms you need to know how to get between."

Lenka spent the rest of the day following the Master, fetching things when he needed them, putting them back when he was finished. She washed his laundry in strange machines that Ma showed her how to use, and brought him his meals. In truth, after the Mother's House, she spent the whole day worried that she wasn't doing anything right because the work seemed easy by comparison. The Master smacked her in the back of the head a few times when she got in the way or didn't pour his tea correctly, but as she leaned over his massive bathtub, filling it with running water from a metal spout, she knew that day had counted amongst the best of her life. Because of the bright lights everywhere, even though she'd felt the monsters now and again over the hours, they remained hidden, coiled away, seething and waiting.

The master strode into the bathroom in a robe of gold silk that he let drop onto the floor. He tested the water, nodded his approval and climbed in. Lenka turned off the taps, then hurried over to pick up his robe, jumping up to hang it from the hook next to the tub.

"Well?" The master turned to look at her.

Lenka froze, her eyes darting to the floor. "Master? What may it do for you?"

"Bathe me." He sighed, a low grumble of sound and reached for the switch. "It's one of your duties. No gloves."

"Yes, Master." Lenka picked up the cloth and soap. She bathed the littles all the time. The master was just bigger. She lathered up the cloth and set to work, judging how she was doing by the sounds he made-most of them approval. Rinsing him off, she congratulated herself on a task well done.

"You're not finished," he said as she pulled back to go get him towels.

"It's sorry, Master," she squeaked, picking up the cloth.

"No." He sighed. "That ugly old sow, Gra'ttal, didn't teach you how to do this properly, did she?" He took the cloth and tossed it aside. "Soap your hands." When she did as she was told, he took her hands in his. "Lean over the side of the tub."

Her heart pounding, some part of her terrified of this mystery, she did as she was told, draping herself over the side. She never washed the littles' snakes, the mothers taught them to do it themselves from the moment they graduated from babes to littles. Why hadn't the master's mother taught him to do something so basic?

Lenka did as she was told, the sick, loose-belly feeling from her confrontation with Thirty-Seven returning. He fumbled with her little fingers, trying to show her what to do, but finally grunted with annoyance and thrust her back.

"This is ridiculous, stand aside. Watch how it's done and learn." He looked toward the door. "Thirty-seven."

The carnal slave undulated through the door, proceeding into the tub. She knelt astride his legs and began to wash him with the confidence of much practice. Lenka kept her face turned to watch, but focused her eyes on the tub, not able to meet the gloating hatred that stabbed into her from the woman's painted stare.

"Enough, can't spend all night in here. Turn around."

The human did as she was told, her eyes never leaving Lenka's as the master thrust against her, and they moved together, hard and brutal. Luckily, it ended quickly, the master pushing Thirty-seven down to the end of the tub and standing.

Lenka hurried over with towels, helping him dry off. Instead of putting his robe on, the master strode through into his bedroom. While she had a moment, Lenka emptied the water and wiped out the tub. When she straightened to throw the cloths and towels in the laundry, she saw Thirty-seven standing near the door, her skin still dripping onto the floor.

"One day," the painted woman said, undulating over to where Lenka stood, frozen to the tile floor, "you'll understand, little bird. One day a lithe young body will come in, and the Master's eyes will look at you with revulsion. That day, you'll be sent away. You won't be sent to the Mother House because they destroyed your insides so you couldn't conceive. You won't be turned into a house slave because you have no skills, and the house slaves all hate you for the easy years you spent on your back with your legs in the air. No. No relatively comfortable life for you, little bird. You'll be sent to the mines to lay chained in a tent until you stop breathing because the endless lines of rutting cocks and brutish hands have torn your soul straight out your chest and ground it into the mud."

Lenka pulled back, wanting nothing more than to scream for Mother Da'lat and run into the batarian's comforting arms, but the terrible human followed her.

She slid a wet hand down Lenka's face, one fingertip catching on the child's lip for a moment before popping loose and dropping to hang listlessly from the bony wrist. "You wait, little bird. You'll see. Those wings of yours might be clipped now, but wait until he drills the wires into your brain and straps a shock collar around your neck." She held her balled fists up, thumbs touching. "That day he'll rip them right from your body." A violent, tearing action emphasized her words. She stood, a sharp, toothy smile curving her lips. "See how you fly then, little bird." Cackling to herself, the painted woman stumbled away, her ankles bowing every few steps as she tipped off her high heels.

Lenka stood, frozen, limbs trembling, stomach threatening to heave her supper over her shoes. She didn't understand what the human had said, at least not the words, but the tone and the way the monsters slithered under the words … that she understood all too well. That day she'd taken her first steps down a short, ugly road littered with dead eyes and crushed souls. She clenched her hands together like Mother Lucy did when she asked Mercy to descend on golden wings, but she didn't know the words to say.

"Please find me," she whispered.

"Child! Come here." The Master's voice boomed up from below. "Thirty-seven, make yourself useful instead of spreading your venom."

"Coming, Master," Lenka called, just loud enough to be heard and slipped from the bathroom, her covered feet silent and quicksilver over the polished marble. The Master terrified her, but Thirty-seven felt like a bad wound eating its way into her heart.

She slowed for the last few steps, stopping in a deep bow. The Master grabbed her upper arm, lifting her right up off the floor, and hauled her out of the house.

"We need to discuss your lack of training with Gra'ttal." He glared down at her, his eyes promising terrible things. "You do not move. You do not speak. Understood?"

Straining, Lenka managed to get her toes on the ground for a couple of bouncing strides, her arm crying out with relief. Not at all sure how to reply without moving or speaking, she remained silent, although she must have sighed, because he snatched her off the ground again. Life outside the Mother House made her head spin in unending loops. It seemed that the only people who showed one another compassion or kindness were the domestics and mothers. Everyone else was stuffed so full of hatred and ugliness that their monsters didn't even need to feed from others, they lived housed within banquets.

The Master threw back the shack door, every slave in the room jumping, then slamming onto their knees, their brows hitting the planks with hollow melon sounds that made Lenka wince. He strode in, ignoring his property, other than to kick one out of the way. "Slave Gra'ttal! Get your ugly shrivelled ass on the floor in front of me."

Mother Gra'ttal shuffled across the floor, using the edge of the table to lower herself onto her knees, the process slow and painful to watch.

The Master waited for the barest of moments, then cracked the switch down on her hand and stepped on the back of the old batarian's knee. She fell, catching herself with one ancient arm that snapped like a ice-laden branch. A tiny sigh of empathy escaped Lenka before she could bite it off. The Master turned his terrible stare to her, shaking her by the arm.

"Not a sound from you, maggot." His voice tore into her like thunder, and she shrank away as much as she could without being able to touch the floor. The satisfaction in the narrowing of his eyes and baring of his teeth made her stomach heave. For a moment, she thought she'd throw up, but managed to fight it down, knowing the consequences would prove far more painful than a few stripes on her backside.

emI'll never make anyone afraid of me,/em she promised herself. The idea of causing as much fear as she saw in the furtive glances and bowed heads before her filled her with horror and shame. Mother Da'lat's voice whispered through her mind, the words Lenka's earliest memory. "You must never care too much for anyone or anything as a slave, little one, especially yourself. The only way to find any peace is to care for everyone in that you are kind and compassionate to all."

As Lenka watched Gra'ttal catch herself with her other hand, biting her lip to keep from crying out, she understood what those words had meant. If she felt anything more than compassion and kindness for Gra'ttal, the master's punishment would hurt her as badly or worse than the old woman. The only way to hold that pain at bay was to keep herself apart. That thought felt as wrong in the pit of her stomach as Thirty-seven's hatred.

"Slave Gra'ttal," the master said, his gravelly bark yanking Lenka from her thoughts, "you sent me a personal slave that has not been properly trained. This child had no idea how to bathe me." The Master loomed over her, the switch pointed at the old woman in accusation. "Why would you send me a slave that doesn't know the most basic tasks?"

He shook Lenka as if to emphasize his words, dangling her from his other hand. Her shoulder screamed in pain, the angle wrenching her arm from the socket as her body jerked back and forth. She clenched her teeth against the cries that clawed her their way up her throat to slam into her teeth and die. Eyes that knew better than to cry focused on Gra'ttal. The switch sliced across the old woman's shoulders.

"Apologies, Master. You've never required children to do bathing. This one will teach it to bathe you properly before tomorrow." The mother hunched down into herself.

"You will not." He looked up. "Who is next in seniority?"

Mother Da'lat raised her hand without lifting from her bow.

"Have this child properly trained by dawn." He dropped Lenka. "What is your name?"

"This slave is called Da'lat, Master," she replied. She bowed down, forehead scraping the floor as he stalked over, his switch tapping the center of her back.

"Da'lat. You're the one who keeps giving me the twisted, useless things?"

Lenka swallowed a headful of tears and snot, remembering Da'lat's terrible sadness the night Gra'ttal taken away the poor, twisted little baby.

"How old are you, female?" the Master demanded. The switch whistled as the taps sped up, making a cracking sound when they connected with the material on the mother's back.

"Forty-two, Master." The reply came out muffled and thick, and Lenka ached to run over and throw her arms around the mother she wished was hers.

A heavy grunt greeted that news. "Too old to sell to the mines. Very well, you are head residential slave. See that you train them more effectively than that old bitch." He flicked Da'lat hard across the back of her head, the thin end of the switch raising a line of blood as it cut through the skin.

"Yes, Master. Thank you, Master. This slave will train them properly." She paused, taking a shuddering deep breath. "The child, Master. She is just six."

The switch drew a longer line of blood. "I cannot justify taking up the space, food, and water needed for a carnal on a freighter being paid by the body to haul refugees. That one can sleep under my cot and eats as much as a varren pup." He bent down, shoving two fingers under Mother Da'lat's jaw, lifting her off the floor until she strained, losing balance on her knees. "If you're so concerned about keeping her tenderness intact, teach her how to bathe properly. Understood, or do I need to beat the understanding into you along with some humility?"

"It understands, Master. It will train her properly, Master." Da'lat let out a grunt as he dropped her, her younger bones holding as they hit the floor.

Lenka looked up, wincing as the Master slashed a zigzag line of blood down the mother's back for questioning him. Biting down on her lip hard enough to break the skin, the child reiterated her oath to never be so cruel or brutal that others would shrink away from her.

"Good, see that you do." The Master bent down, grasping Mother Gra'ttal under her arm and half-dragged her out the door. Lenka got up to shut it behind them, wanting to close that terrible presence away, to shelter her . . . her family, but one of the new mothers grabbed her and held her back.

Mother Gra'ttal let out a heavy, clotted moan of realization and fear that rolled back in through the door, slithering along the floor with the early mist. Lenka balled her fists under her chin and pressed her eyes closed as hard as she could. The monsters didn't care if Mother Gra'ttal believed in them. They didn't care that she danced only to the tunes of obedience, efficiency, and utility. In the end, everyone danced to sate their hunger. She knew as she heard Mother Gra'ttal moan, sorrowful, thick, and terrified, the monsters had begun to feed.

A sharp roar of sound split the air, eliciting a moan from most of the mothers and a flurry of prayers from Mother Lucy as she begged the wings of Mercy to carry Mother Gra'ttal to the heaven. Lenka jumped, her heart slamming against her spine and beating so fast that she felt dizzy. She bit down on her lip to squash a yelp before it could escape.

Howls of terror, echoing down the stairs from above, said that the terrible, roaring bang had woken the children.

"Go calm them, quickly," Da'lat whispered, her voice a bare hiss. It sounded angry. Her eyes though, didn't look angry, they looked sad. Sad and relieved.

"Yes, Mother Da'lat." Lenka broke free, slipping across the kitchen and up the stairs. The screaming and crying rose to nearly deafening levels when she opened the door to the back room. The monsters rose up along the walls, tentacles and tendrils of the darkness curling around the nest of youngsters, feeding like men locked up without food for months.

The moaning, gobbling roar of the monsters feasting on the little ones loosened Lenka's bowels, and for a moment, the carnal's vicious eyes burned through her again. The hatred in that stare hurt worse than the narrow end of the switch. Like then, Lenka swallowed the fear, refusing to feed the monsters any more of herself. She was six. Six meant not being afraid.

Trotting over to the mattress, she hummed the same gentle tune Mother Da'lat hummed while guiding Lenka through the big house. As it took effect, the children moved in, leaving their panicked clumps to gather around her.

"Sh," Lenka whispered, waving them in. "You need to be very quiet." Keeping her voice gentle, she slanted it up at the end, faking a happiness that hid under a frozen lump of mouldering terror. Her mind spat out a dozen things that could have accompanied that roar in the dark. The monsters laughed at her guesses like the garbage bin falling over or the Master kicking it. She pushed their mockery away and focused, instead, on the little ones.

"The Master is right outside. You must be very quiet. Come, everyone hug." She waved them all over and gathered them into a group hug. "Sh. That's right. Very quiet." She stroked hair, scalps, and skinny backs. "Now, everyone smile." She gave them her very best one. "Come on, it was just a big banging noise. Let it see you smile."

When tears ebbed to sniffles and watery, snot-covered smiles trembled on wet lips, she nodded. "That's better, isn't it? Good." She settled onto the mattress. "Lay down, share out the blankets. It's way past your bedtime. Who wants to tell a story? Do any of you have a good story?"

One of the little turians, Mother Tarana's second . . . Merata, stared up at Lenka, her mandibles fluttering in a timid smile even as a soft keen whispered from her second larynx. "You tell the best stories, Lenka. Can't you tell us one, please?"

Lenka let out a huge sigh and shook her head, but tweaked the little one's mandible gently. They were so cute. "Oh very well, it'll start the story, but then you will all have to help it finish it." She smiled and leaned down. "It did hear a good one today when it was over in the big house. But first, everyone lay down, get covered up."

An hour later, Lenka looked up from the sleeping littles as the sleeping room door opened and Mother Da'lat gestured for Lenka to come. The mother led the way down to the kitchen and sat on a chair at the table.

"Come, Lenka." The mother held her arms out, embracing Lenka as she stepped into them. "It's been a long, hard day, hasn't it, beautiful girl?" She sighed and nodded, her cheek pressed to Lenka's brow. "It knows it's uncomfortable to talk about, but did you watch the carnal bathe the Master?" Da'lat asked, pulling away and positioning Lenka between her knees.

Lenka's face heated to burning, her eyes looking everywhere but into the mother's. "Yes."

Da'lat took Lenka's face between her hands. "Did you? Don't lie to it. This is so important, Lenka." Tears leaked from the mother's eyes, glistening on her cheeks. "Did you watch? Or did it make you feel bad, and you looked away?"

Shuffling her feet, Lenka felt the wrongness slither through her, seeing again the gleeful hate in the carnal's stare as if the female were trying to reach inside Lenka's guts and tear something out. "It looked away," she whispered. "She . . .." Having no words to express the feeling, she just shrugged.

"Okay." Da'lat stroked a hand over the back of her head. "It understands. Something dies inside some of the carnals very early." Pulling Lenka in tight, the mother sighed. "It makes them hate innocent spirits, especially one as bright and lovely as yours." Another long, slow breath fanned the child's cheek, making her afraid despite the strength of the arms wrapped around her. "You're going into space with the Master. You'll be his only slave, so you must know how to bathe him properly to protect yourself." Da'lat uttered an ugly oath. "It wishes it could protect you from this, but it is outside its power."

Lenka pulled back. "It'll learn, Mother Da'lat. It won't let you down." She turned to leave the room, to fetch cloths and water to care for the mother's stripes, but Da'lat held her in place.

The batarian shook her head and kissed Lenka's cheek. "No, you never will. It is letting you down, and it wishes it didn't have to, but . . .." She ran another hand over Lenka's scalp. "It should never have raised you as it has. Gra'ttal was right. You have such a beautiful spirit that it sees nothing but pain and sadness in your future." Tears glistened down her cheeks from both sets of eyes. A sad smile forced its way through the sorrow. "It should have let the old woman raise you to be hard, but it loves you."

Lenka stared at the mother, her jaw hanging slack. Love? Thinking back, she couldn't find a meaning or context for it, but she understood the word from the emotion in Da'lat's eyes and in the warmth and gentleness of her hands. A tremulous smile formed, and she reached up to press her hand against the mother's cheek, wiping away the tears. "It'll be all right, Mother Da'lat. It'll learn to do everything the master needs."

The batarian mother nodded and reached up to dry her face. "Good girl. You did everything well, but for washing the master's snake. Listen to me, Lenka. You must do this correctly, so that he doesn't need a carnal on this trip. If he feels the need to use someone … you'll be the only body there." Da'lat gripped Lenka's wrists. "Understand? It's so important. You must wash the snake until it spits, so he will go to sleep and leave you be."

Lenka nodded, not understanding all her words, just the urgency behind them. "It understands, Mother Da'lat."

She released the child and held out two fingers. "Good, now it'll show you what to do."

Chapter Text

The next three days passed without incident. Even Thirty-seven seemed to have purged her system of bile that night and either stayed away from Lenka or kept silent when the master's presence forced them into close proximity. The master said little other than orders, seeming pleased with Lenka's obedience. At least he never took the switch to her. Mother Da'lat's advice to think of the master as one of the little ones at bathing time helped. By the last night, she spent his bathing time telling herself a story about Mother Lucy's cat, her hands doing what they needed to automatically.

As impossible as it had seemed that first day, her life fell into a comforting routine of obedience and silence. She prepared the master's clothes and his morning hygiene, then woke him and helped him dress. After she brought him his breakfast, she made his bed and tidied his living spaces. Much of his day was spent in meetings, during which he sent Lenka away. She made her way to the kitchen and helped out there, washing dishes or laundry while snacking on Ma's baking and listening to the domestics gossip. She brought him lunch, polished his things, fetched and carried, then came supper, more fetching and carrying, then his bath and bed.

Each night, Ma packed a big sack full of leftover food from the day and sent it back with Lenka for the rest of the Mother House. She turned the unexpected bounty over to Mother Da'lat each night with a sense of real usefulness, of having contributed to the house despite being gone all day.

On the fourth morning, Mother Da'lat shook Lenka awake earlier than usual. Outside, the child could hear the hoppers still singing out in the grass. Yawning and scrubbing her eyes, she sat up.

"Mother Da'lat?"

The batarian mother just stared at her with shining eyes for a moment, then waved her to the door. "Come, child. It's time to go."

Despite having known that it was coming since that morning on the Mother House lawn, a pike of terror stabbed down through her, pinning her to the floor, unable to move. She barely knew the master, and space . . .. She couldn't even imagine what it would be like to be out amongst the night stars. It sounded dangerous and unnatural.

"Come. The master's shuttle leaves for the spaceport in an hour." Da'lat's tone cut through the fear with a sharp edge of command. "You mustn't keep him waiting." She turned, her footfalls creaking across the floor to the stairs, then thumping down, quick and light.

Lenka eased her way out of the tangle of blankets and limbs, pausing for a moment once she got to her feet, looking down at all the sweet, little faces. Her heart wished something for them then, but she didn't know how to express it, other than to whisper, "Mercy, please cover them with your wings. I've never seen any sign of you, cept through Mother Da'lat and Mother Lucy, but Mother Lucy believes in you hard, so I suppose that means I can too. So, protect these little ones, please." For a moment, she stuttered on the edge of feeling something important breaking open so that she could finally find words for what she felt, but then it disappeared again. Tearing glassy eyes away from the pile of her brothers and sisters, she hurried out the door, closing it behind her.

"Get dressed. Ma said she'd feed you at the big house if you got there early enough." Da'lat stood at the table, reading a paper and shoving clothes and towels and things into a backpack. "I've got your new uniform here, so just get yourself clean and hurry back out."

"Yes, Mother Da'lat." In the washroom, Lenka stuck a finger into the murky water in the tub, expecting it to be cold from the previous night's baths, but Da'lat must have added hot, because it felt wonderful. She jumped in and scrubbed down, needing to stick a couple shredded heels of soap together to manage a lather. Five luxurious minutes later, she forced herself back out, shivering in the early morning chill as she dried off.

A soft chuckle greeted the child's return to the kitchen, warming her through faster than any fire. "There you are, it was about to go in and make sure you hadn't drowned," Da'lat said, her mouth curved in a smile that didn't show any of her teeth. Her eyes retained the strange glittering light.

"It's never been in the tub alone before," Lenka said, placing the towel in the laundry tub.

Da'lat let out a long sigh. "It can't remember the last time it was, either. Too many bodies, not enough tubs." She waved Lenka over. "Come and get dressed. You have a new uniform."

When she finished putting on the new clothes, Lenka ran her soft, black leather gloves down over the cream cotton tunic with the blue center panel. Her trousers matched the tunic. She looked down and grinned as the polished toes of new boots peeked out from under the trouser legs. She'd never seen clothes so wonderful other than the master's.

Da'lat sighed and sat on a chair, reaching out to run her hands over Lenka's head, pausing to cup the child's cheeks. "You look so grown up, beautiful girl." A single tear slipped down the mother's face. "It's dreaded this day for so lo -" She swallowed and shook her head. "Listen to the master and stay very close to him. The spaceport is crowded with people and noise, so keep your eyes fixed on him so you don't get lost."

"Yes, Mother Da'lat. It will." The fear returned as Lenka sensed the moments to her departure ticking down. She looked down at the worn, familiar floorboards. "It's scared, Mother Da'lat. It doesn't want to go into space." No matter how tight she clamped down on it, her lip trembled. "Please don't make it go. Let it stay with you." She glanced up, meeting the mother's dark, comforting gaze. "It wants to stay with you."

Mother Da'lat pulled Lenka close, wrapping her in strong, soft arms. "It knows, Lenka, but this place is not for you. It has hope that far away from here you'll find something so much better. You're so precious, little one," she whispered. She pulled away and met Lenka's eyes, hers stern but loving. "Be brave, obey the master, and always be ready for something wonderful to find you."

Lenka gave the mother a teary smile. "Like Mother Lucy's Mercy?"

Da'lat sobbed once then looked away for a moment, the back of her hand pressed to her lower right eye. "It sure hopes so. If you find a way to escape this life, never look back, beautiful girl. Don't give this place or this life another thought as long as you live. Promise it that."

Lenka nodded, her fear snapping and hissing at the monsters as they lapped it up, but for those moments, the fear gave her no shame. "It promises," she said, knowing even as she did that the words were a lie. How could she forget the beauty and kindness of the mothers who cared for her, and the sweetness of the little ones she'd cared for?

"Okay, enough of that silliness." Pushing Lenka away, Da'lat stood and picked up the backpack. "Don't take this off and set it down anywhere. It'll probably get heavy, but you can't lose it."

"It won't." Lenka shrugged the backpack over her arms then buckled it in place around her chest.

"Good girl."

Lenka took Da'lat's hand and followed her out of the Mother House. She glanced back over her shoulder as they walked to the gate, feeling as though the house itself reached out for her, trying to draw her back, not wanting to her to leave. A small tug on her hand turned her back toward the gate and her terrifying, unknown future.

When the gate opened, she saw a large box-shaped object sitting on the ground beside the house. Actually, as she looked at it, it almost appeared to be lying down - its four legs stuck out to the front and back, a strange blue fire burning at the feet. The side of the thing opened and three batarian males stepped out to stand next to it. It was empty inside . . . hollow, like a silver box . . . with legs . . . that burned at the ends. The fear grabbed her heart for a couple of beats, and dizziness swirled the gardens around her in loops again, like it had her first day under the endless sky.

"Looks like the master's shuttle is here, but you should still have time to eat something," Da'lat said, pulling Lenka away from her gawking.

"Shuttle," she repeated softly to herself.

Inside the kitchen, the familiar warmth and chatter between Ma, Julia and the other domestics helped calm Lenka's nervousness. They seemed to think there was nothing at all to jumping inside a silver box with burning feet. The master did it all the time, Julia said as she passed Lenka a plate of eggs, bacon and biscuits.

"Here, it packed up some biscuits with cheese and side pork inside them," Ma told Lenka, holding up a cloth sack. "There's also a couple of apples and mula fruit, and bottles of water." The old batarian placed the sack inside the backpack. "Can't count on the master remembering to feed you when he has so many important preparations to make."

"It's good work that he's doing," Julia said, smiling, "helping evacuate the refugees from Palaven. That means you'll be doing good work too, little beauty." She tapped a finger on Lenka's chin. "You'll be helping get people away from those monstrous Reapers." She drew lines across her chest the same way Mother Lucy did. "God forbid they reach us here."

"Get eating," Da'lat scolded, but without any heat.

Lenka did as she was told, ignoring the strange conversation of the grown ups as she shovelled in the food as fast as she could. When her plate was clear, Da'lat held out her hand. "Come, let's get you on the shuttle."

The kitchen slaves each gave her a hug and wished her a safe trip. She hugged them back, just barely managing to stop herself from begging them to hide her so that she could stay. But no, she remained quiet and obedient, following Da'lat out the side door and to the gaping, dark maw on the side of the shuttle.

"Good," the master said, striding toward them from the front of the big house. "On time. Let's get aboard and get going."

Da'lat grabbed Lenka in a tight hug. "Stay safe and do as you're told, my precious girl."

Lenka gripped the mother tight, clinging to fistfuls of tunic. "It will." She turned her face into Da'lat's neck as fear exploded in her chest, bubbling up to strangle her throat and send her brain into a whirling, senseless panic. "I love you," she whispered. "Please, Mother, don't make it leave."

Da'lat let out a strangled cry and jerked back, grasping Lenka's hands to pull them free of her clothing, but the child's terror lent her impossible strength. Da'lat gave her a rough push toward the master, but couldn't break Lenka's grip around her waist. "Good-bye, my sweet child."

"Please don't make it leave, please," Lenka sobbed, knowing even as the Master thundered up behind her that she'd take a beating for such disobedience. Still, she hung on with everything she had, not caring if he took all the skin off her back as long as she didn't have to leave. "Please."

"Your child?" the master asked, his voice aimed over Lenka's head at Da'lat. Sharp-nailed fingers gripped Lenka's shoulders, tearing her in half somewhere deep inside as they ripped her away from Da'lat.

Da'lat's face twisted into a pained grimace, the fingers of both hands pressed against her mouth as she backed away, her eyes locked on the master's face. "Your child," she whispered.

"Mine? Mine?" the master's voice thundered so loud that Lenka dropped to her knees, his monsters reaching up to drag her down into their grasp. "Why do I discover this today, Da'lat? Six years after I . . .." He threw Lenka down onto the dirt and stormed after Da'lat, the leather switch whistling as he snapped it off his belt. "You knew how I . . . what I risked . . .." He bit back the words, the thin end of the switch curling and snaking toward the mother's face.

"No!" Lenka scrambled up, running even before she got onto her feet. She threw herself between Da'lat and the blow, screaming as the whip sliced across her face and chest. Barbed, glowing coals of torment shattered against her skin, shards and splinters peeling back her flesh. Crumpling to the ground, she wrapped both hands into the whip, clinging to it as tightly as she had Da'lat the moment before. "No, please, Master, don't hurt her. Please. It will go. It's sorry. It will go. Won't make another sound . . . obey perfectly. Please."

The master yanked the whip loose, tearing a flap of skin from one of Lenka's palms. He threw his arm over his head, the terrible switch falling over and over, slicing straight through cloth and skin and muscle, scorching hot one second and freezing cold the next. Blood blinded her, pouring into her eyes and mouth, her skin streaming slick rivers of it, but she shoved the pain aside and reached out toward her master, bowing low, her hands pawing weakly at his knees as she heard Mother Da'lat screaming, shrill and incoherent. "Please, hit it instead. This is its fault. Please, Master. Hit it instead."

The thick end of the switch plowed through her forearm, the bone shattering with a sick crack. Lenka shrieked, caving in around the broken limb, the agony dissolving her words and her will, leaving only sorrow in its wake. The switch crashed down on her back, and neck, but her backpack blocked most of those blows.

"Sir! Stop! We've got to get her past the port authorities," a rumbling voice yelled.

That seemed to break through the Master's terrible fury, and the blows stopped. A rough hand grabbed her shoulder. "Get up," the master said, his tone warning her what would happen if she didn't obey quickly and silently. "You're bleeding on me." He dragged her up.

Lenka opened one eye a slit, seeing Da'lat back through the gate, blood covering her face and arms as well. Before Lenka could decide what that meant, the gate shut, blocking the mother from view.

"Get in the damned shuttle." The master shoved her toward the open door.

"Get in and sit down." A turian caught Lenka as she stumbled and helped her climb into the vehicle. He led her to the back and buckled the harness around her.

"Leave her to do it alone," the master called back as he boarded, his voice rumbling in a way Lenka didn't recognize. "You're meant to make my life easier, not fill my hours with endless whining and babysitting." He stared down at her for a moment, then dug into his pocket and thrust a big, white handkerchief at her. "Stop the blood, and change your clothes. I can't drag a bleeding, screaming child through port."

"Yes, Master," she whispered, pressing the cloth to the deep furrows that sliced her face open from crown to chin and side to side. He turned and walked away to take a seat near the front. Several batarians and two turians got in, sitting around him, their voices hard as they talked about things she didn't understand.

As they pulled the door closed, Lenka slid sideways into her harness, all the frantic sorrow and terror vanishing along with the starlight. Only pain remained. Mother Da'lat spoke true. It was better to not care. Feel only compassion and kindness. She pressed the kerchief hard against the wounds on her face, savouring the pain, taking it in deeply to make it a lesson she never forgot. At least she'd borne the consequences of her mistake, not the only mother she'd ever known . . .. The image of Da'lat, retreating back through the gate, her face and arms streaked with blood, flashed through Lenka's thoughts, but she shoved it away. It had been her blood. Hers, not that of the mother that she lo. . ..

No, she tucked that thought away, sealing it so far down that she'd never just stumble upon it. She was a slave. Slaves didn't feel, they obeyed. She tucked her broken arm in against her belly to brace it as she began to shiver. So cold. So very cold, and so tired. Her one eye that wasn't swollen shut, slipped closed, and she started to drift off, her head sliding down to rest in the curve of the seatback.

The silver bo . . . shuttle began to vibrate, pulling her back awake. She pushed herself upright as it began to make a rumbling, whining noise. The floor dropped out from under her, and the shuttle swayed a couple of times. For a moment, Lenka worried that she might throw up her breakfast as a weird dizziness grabbed her belly rather than her head.

One of the turians passed her a bag as he sat next to her and opened a medical kit. "If you're going to throw up, use that," he said.

"Thank you," she squeaked, opening it and holding it ready, just in case.

The turian winced as he inspected the damage. "It's all the way to the bone in spots and this arm is going to need a couple days in a regen field," he called over his shoulder, his words aimed at the master. "She'll need to see the doc when we get aboard." He scanned her then prepared and gave her a couple of injections.

The master just grunted in reply, staring at Lenka with a strange, unsettling look on his face, as if she were an alien creature, and he was trying to decide whether to kill it or walk away. She dropped her gaze to the floor, his stare almost as sharp and painful as his whip. A fog drifted across her vision, making the world inside the shuttle look wavery and distant. After a little while the pain and nausea faded, and her eyes slipped closed. Relieved, she dozed as the turian cleaned away the blood and dressed her wounds.

The turian smeared medigel over her face and neck, placed her arm in a stasis field, then patted her shoulder. "Get changed like he ordered, then get some sleep. We'll be in the shuttle for another couple hours yet."

"Thank you, sir," Lenka replied, folding the bloody handkerchief into a neat square and placing it on the next seat..

"It's just Aidan, kid. Get some rest. We'll get you to a doc once we reach the ship."

Lenka fought with the harness for a moment before she got it unbuckled. She shrugged out of her backpack to change into a clean uniform, a nearly impossible task with one, injured hand, but then Aidan returned, helping her with kind detachment. Once he buckled her back into her seat, she closed her eyes and wrapped herself in the feeling of Da'lat's arms holding her.

The sun had risen by the time they reached the spaceport. Lenka undid her harness but it took a minute before she managed to get to her feet. The master waved for her to join him at the door. She stumbled up behind him, but froze when she looked out at the spaceport, her limbs going numb and stiff.

People. She'd never even guessed so many people existed. Above, more boxes like the shuttle flew in long steamers, while on the ground, they spread out, as numerous as fallen leaves in the fall.

"You better wear this, kid," the turian said, pulling a rain poncho over her head, using the loose cloak and hood to hide the worst of her wounds. "There, all better."

Lenka retreated into it gratefully, using the dark folds to hide from the foreign bustle and noise. Despite her oath not to feel, her heart hammered hard and quick inside her chest.

"Stay with me," the master said, gripping her shoulder. "Hold onto my belt tight, and you'll be fine." He looked at her, his expression still strange and confused, but his voice had softened, taking a sad tone. "Do you understand?"

"Yes, Master." She gripped his belt tight and jumped down, biting down on her lip to keep from screaming as all her wounds stretched and cried out.

The men unloaded large canvas bags and crates, slinging the first over their shoulders, and carrying the latter between them. The master gave her a small leather bag with a long handle. She tried to loop it over her head, but the turian fellow took it from her and hung it from his neck. Lenka grasped the master's belt again, as he hurried into the terrifying crowd. She clung to him with all her strength, needing to trot to keep up with him as he shoved through the endless mass of people. The master's men took positions ahead and behind, clearing the way.

The master didn't stop or slow for almost twenty minutes, leaving Lenka stumbling, blind and gasping for air by the time the crowds thinned and their pace slowed.

Once she had room to see anything past people's midsections, Lenka forgot a little of the pain by peering at the strange surroundings, not at all sure what her eyes saw, but amazed by it just the same. Huge shapes hovered in the air, attached to the ground by long ramps and staircases. A delighted and terrified squeak escaped her as one of the shapes began blaring a horrible, repeating blast of sound. The ramps pulled back, folding into themselves. She held tight to her master, letting him guide her as she stared, transfixed. Huge arms hissed and banged then lifted up. A few seconds later, the huge shape's noisy honking changed to a different pattern, and it backed up, turned and flew away.

She gasped, watching it fly away, then flushed with shame as the master turned to glare down at her for making noise. But instead of yelling or swatting her, he just nodded. "First time you've seen a ship take off?"

"Yes, Master," she replied in a properly modest whisper.

The corner of the master's mouth twitched when she glanced up at him, and he nodded again. "You'll be on one just like it in a minute." He pointed ahead to another of the strange shapes.

"A ship," Lenka repeated to herself, too softly for anyone to hear. She stayed silent, not wanting to draw attention to herself again.

The ramps clattered and echoed as their boots climbed the metal, and then a door slid open, letting them in the side of the master's ship. When the door closed, a mist sprayed over her, cold and acrid smelling. She panted softly, holding herself rigid in anticipation of pain that never came. Still, she backed up into Aidan trying to escape a strange purple light that swooped toward her. It passed over them, again causing no pain, then another door opened.

"Aidan, take the child to my quarters," the master ordered.

"She needs to see the doc, get that arm set," the turian said, clearly not at all afraid to argue with the master.

The batarian stared down at Lenka, who still had a death grip on his belt. "Unpack my things, get our quarters in order, then you can go to the doc. Aidan, I guess it then falls to you to make sure dinner is on my table at 18:00 in the outer room for two people."

"Yes, Master."

The turian peeled her hand from the master's belt and encased it in his giant, gentle talons. He gave her a flick of the mandibles that she knew was a smile. "Come on, kid. I'll show you where to go." Aidan slung another canvas duffel over his shoulder then led her into the ship.

Lenka followed, taking everything in with one huge eye and a gaping mouth. Lights blinked and flashed, people hurried from place to place too busy to even notice her in their midst. Aidan showed her to the master's quarters, four small rooms in the belly of the huge ship: a bedroom, sitting and dining room, washroom, and an office. They set down the bags, then the turian took her by the hand again, assuring her that he'd return to collect her in less than an hour.

It took Lenka longer than it should have to unpack the master's things, only having one partially functional hand to use, but before Aidan returned to collect her, she had the rooms looking as comfortable and organized as possible.

Stopping to look around the room, Lenka nodded to herself then bent to pick up her backpack. As she reached down, the world dipped and swirled, a heavy black cloud falling over her. She felt a stab of pain from her arm as if it came from a great distance, realizing that she'd fallen down as her chin hit the carpet. Panic set her heart racing. No. She needed to get up. The master would get so angry if he found her lying there. She needed to . . ..

Chapter Text

Lenka awoke, her vision clearing to reveal her master's face. He still stared at her with that same confused, wary expression. She shifted, her whole body hurting, but not as stridently as before she'd lost consciousness. Reaching up with her broken arm to touch her face, she realized that both had healed.

"How long has it been asleep, Master?" she whispered, hoping that he didn't find the question too impertinent. Lifting her head, she looked around, finding herself on the master's bed in his quarters. She sat up. It must have been days for her wounds to be so healed, even with medigel.

"Seven days. You'll find the ship a lot more crowded now, little one." A small smile eased the rigid cast to his face, but the expression looked uncomfortable as if it fit poorly.

"Seven days? It's sorry, Master. It'll get to work immediately." She moved to crawl off the bed, but he laid a hand on her shoulder to keep her in place.

"You're fine, Lenka. Just stay there for a moment. I want to talk to you." He pushed himself up in his chair. "What did Da'lat tell you about your parents?" he asked.

Lenka looked down as the universe turned on its ear again. "She wouldn't tell it anything, Master. Mother Da'lat said that it was best that it not know. Knowing would make an attachment, and attachments were pain."

He let out a puff of air that could have been either a bitter laugh or an amused sigh. "Wise female, Da'lat. Always was. It was one of the things that attracted me to her. That and her beauty. She glowed with it, and then I crushed it." He stood and paced to the door and back, checking the chronometer on his omnitool.

The sharp, hard bang of knuckles against the door made both of them jump a little. The master turned to answer it, but spun back to look her straight in the eyes just as he stepped through the door. "I never knew, Lenka. She never told me, and I always just assumed that the baby had been born deformed like the others." He held her stare for a moment, then turned and left the room.

Lenka crawled off the edge of the bed, standing carefully on shaky legs. She didn't understand grown ups, always speaking in halves: half-sentences, half-truths, never making more than half sense. What did he mean he didn't know? Know what? She checked the time, then turned and headed for the washroom to prepare for his shower.

"Is that her?" asked a deep voice like rocks being rolled around in a sack.

Lenka turned to see a batarian standing in the bedroom door. His face was greenish with bold yellow and black stripes marking the sides of his skull. A light shone deep in his eyes, sharp and frightening. The monsters that dwelt behind it didn't slither and crawl like the ones that lived in the shadows. No, these whispered, burrowing into her head. They didn't want to feast on her fear, they wanted to transform her, make her like them, and for a moment her world went dark, her terror so absolute that it destroyed all light.

She shook it off, tearing her eyes from his, remembering him from the big house. He'd visited every day before they left, sitting hunched over maps for hours with the master.

"Yes, but . . .." the master said, stepping around the other man to position himself between them. "Something has happened, Balak. I can't . . .."

The other man sliced off the master's words with a raised hand. "It's too late to go back now, Jon'Dillak. The plan is set, the clock counting down at last to our glorious future." He held up a datapad, the picture on it looked like a colorful bird with its wings spread. "Be ready, make sure this one is stowed in your safe room before the attack. We'll meet on Pertexa."

The angry, manic man stared at Lenka for a moment, his fierce smile making her belly hurt. "You're poised on the brink of a remarkable destiny, child. The first scion stepping forward to carry us through Heaven's Gate." He spun on his heel and hurried out the door.

"Balak, please. Not this child," the master whispered. The fear, the pleading in his voice set Lenka's heart racing, her legs loose and trembly. What could scare the most terrifying, monster-filled man in the galaxy? Whatever this Balak was, he must be so much worse. She remembered the crazed, pointed glint in his stare, and for a fraction of a second, she was able to see the monster that lived behind it. Ancient beyond knowing, driven mad by its own power, it ate at the inside of the angry man, consuming not just his fear, but everything he was.

Lenka gulped down a mouthful of vomit and edged forward, her whole body shaking so hard she was sure her muscles would dump her on the floor. This monster wanted to kill the master. She opened her mouth to say something brave, something to send the angry man away, but all that came out was a chirp like the bleat of a baby bird.

"I asked you for a human child, and this is what you gave me. Don't think to disappoint me again, Jon'Dillak. You won't enjoy the consequences." The angry man, Balak, pushed in on the master, his eyes showing white at the edges. "I chose you because you're a coward." He laughed, harsh and cruel. "Only man I know who installs panic rooms on all his vessels." A pointed finger thumped the master between his upper set of eyes. "Don't get brave now. It'll prove fatal."

Balak turned to look over his shoulder, seeing her creeping toward him. Another terrifying smile showed all his teeth. "Now, there's some courage. Good, you'll need it." He shoved the master away and stormed out the door.

Lenka let out a shaky breath, realizing that she'd been holding it as she did.

The master looked at her, then sighed, his entire body deflating. "Go change, Lenka. Your warmest clothes."

She frowned, not sure what he meant, then flushed, her face burning with embarrassment when she realized that she'd wet herself. Spinning around, she fled into the bathroom, tears of shame rolling down her face. Six. She was six, far too old to be so afraid like that. She washed up and changed, dressing in her warmest clothes as the master had said. When she was ready, the master awaited her, her backpack in his hand.

"Come," he said, holding out a hand to usher her through to the door. When she walked out into a crowded corridor full of pushing bodies, he lifted her in his arms, setting her against his hip. She stared at him for a moment, then touched the fold of his cheek.

Something had happened while she slept, something that had stripped away the master's monsters, and with them, his rage. "What happened?" she whispered, her little fingers caressing his face.

Swallowing hard, he took a deep breath and shook his head. "I stood over you and Da'lat, beating you both until I broke your bones and sliced your flesh open to the bone because you'd committed the sin of loving one another. Both of you screaming for me to hurt her rather than the other . . .." He shook his head again. "In that moment, I almost killed you both, wanted to kill you both simply because she kept you from me, kept what you felt for one another from me." He looked down, the proud man suddenly lower than even Gra'ttal in her last moments.

Lenka leaned over and kissed his cheek. "I'm sorry I was so afraid of you, Master."

His whole body convulsed a couple of times, the motion of the sobs remaining even though the crowded hallway ate the sound. He looked over at her, tears flowing down his face. "I see why she loves you so." He straightened, squaring his shoulders and pushed through the crowd, suddenly determined and fierce, but not in a way that scared her. Lifting into a run, he hurried down onto the lowest deck to a control panel in the far corner.

"Listen carefully, Lenka. You need to hide inside this room. It has its own light, heat and gravity. It's airtight." He set her down, kneeling at her side to show her how to work the airlock controls. When he finished, he made her cycle the two doors, pressurizing the space in between, following all the steps that she'd need if the ship ever lost pressure and air. She completed it without any errors and the master opened the inner door, lowering her into a small room that held only a contained toilet, a cot and a stack of crates.

"We don't have much time, and I'm sorry you have to do this, child, but you must stay in here. There is food and water in those crates. If it runs out before you're rescued, you can leave the room, but be sure to use the airlock properly, and when you leave, you must wear this suit."

Lenka made a dubious face, but listened and practiced putting on the suit, making sure the seals were tight, and then powering up the air, heat and magnetic boots. Once she could do it herself, he helped her stow it under the bed.

He crouched under the entrance. "No matter what, you stay in here."

"Only leave if it needs food or water," she recited, not understanding anything that was happening. He'd distracted her with learning how things worked, but now she just stared at him. "Master?"

"Someone will come for you, Lenka." He cycled the airlock and opened the inner door, hoisting himself up through. After a moment, he looked down, the sadness in his smile making her heart pound again. Da'lat looked at her with that exact smile while he pulled them apart. She knew, looking into his eyes that she'd never see him again.

Running forward, she reached up. "Don't leave it here. Master, please. You can't leave it here."

He reached down and squeezed her hand. "Someone will come for you. Balak thinks he can use you, but don't let him. Love her when she finds you, child. Grab hold of her and the life she can give you. Don't hold back." He pulled back. "Thank you. Thank you for showing me." The door closed.

Lenka reached out, her hand hovering over the controls. She'd just leave, get lost in all the refugees. Nothing could make her stay in that tiny room.

"Someone will come for you," she whispered. "Grab hold of her and the life she can give you." She backed away from the controls. "Mercy?" The backs of her knees hit the side of the cot and she sat on the heavy woolen blanket. Surely she could be brave enough to wait, obedient to the Master's command, if Mercy was coming to find her.

Time passed, but she had no idea how much. She slept, she ate and drank, she built a shelf out of the crates and organized her supplies. She lay on the cot and told herself stories, imagining what the little ones and mothers were doing back on the farm.

With a roar of sound, the ship pitched hard, dropping and tipping on its side so fast that it dumped Lenka right off the cot. She screamed as the lights went out, leaving her in absolute darkness. The ship shuddered again, the metal shrieking like a monster in its death throes, floundering to recover for a moment only to shudder and throw her to the floor again.

Crying out for Da'lat, Mercy, and even the master, Lenka crawled under the cot, laying on her belly, her hands over her head. With one last, horrific crash and scream, her master's ship died. She felt it pass, the great vessel letting out a breathy exhalation, then going completely still.

She lay there for a long time, the cold creeping in through the walls and floors. She shivered, her thin frame shuddering harder and harder until her teeth clattered together. Finally, she crawled out and toggled the controls, turning on light and heat. She leaned against the wall and pulled her knees up to her chest, hugging them tight. Her eyes wandered over the now familiar surfaces, her food and clothes strewn everywhere, her shelves tipped over the toilet that was thankfully bolted to the floor.

She frowned, wondering at her slow, level heartbeat, the dryness of her cheeks. Reaching up, she pressed her hands to her face, took a deep breath and nodded. She was six. Alone on a dead ship - she felt the truth of that - and six. Six could tolerate being alone until Mercy found her. She pushed up and moved to rebuild her shelves, stacking her food and water neatly. Six could wait. Mercy would come.

Lenka started marking her sleeps on the edge of one of the crates, carving marks into the plastic with her thumbnail. On her thirty-third sleep, she looked at her empty shelves and the crate packed with the compact from her toilet then turned to look at her special suit. The time had come to venture out. Her stomach clenched tighter and tighter as she dressed in her suit, testing all the seals as she had every sleep since the master locked her in the tiny room.

Once the helmet sealed and air flowed, she moved over to the airlock controls. Cycling the compressors to fill the small antechamber with air, she opened the inside door, shoved the crate with her filth up through and then released her magnetic boots to jump up. Giggling at her own clumsiness, she hauled herself through the little door, then sealed it, emptying the air from the space before opening the outer door.

She emerged into darkness, her breath catching in her throat until she remembered the light on her helmet and turned it on. The giant room on the bottom deck was empty. She turned a slow circle, stopping with a small cry of surprise and fear when she saw that one whole side of the vessel had been torn open. She walked that way, peering out at the endless, twinkling stars from a safe distance back. Her belly growled, reminding her that she had only a short period of time to find what she needed.

The ramp between decks was clogged with giant crates, but she found spaces to wriggle through. When she made it to the center deck, she lurched to a stop, looking around her, not sure what she saw. Heart pounding hard and fast, she crept over to the nearest person. It looked like a statue of a little girl. When she touched the little one's hand, the flesh was hard.

Frozen. She looked around the room filled with people. All frozen. All dead. All because of the angry man. She knew that for certain.

Something floated past her hand, so she reached out and grabbed it. It was hard on the outside, but when she opened it, leaves covered in colour drifted past. She smiled at the colours. Oh! That leaf showed a garden. She flipped to another one that showed a house with a little girl standing outside. She closed the hard part and shoved the object into her sack.

As she made her way through the room, she collected all sorts of treasures, a little girl no longer than Lenka's forearm made out of strips of cloth, and more of the bound together leaves covered in colour. Finally, she found the galley and filled her sack full of the ration bars and frozen, bottled water. On the way back, she even found a sack full of compact bags for her toilet.

Grinning, thrilled with the success of her adventure, she returned to the little room, emptying the crate of dirty bags, then heading back inside. When the room sealed and she stripped out of her suit, she giggled, a swelling feeling blooming in her chest.

"It did it, Mercy," she whispered. "It went out and found so many things. Come and find it, please."

The time between sleeps after that day was spent looking through the bound leaves, making up stories that went with the colours and people and places they showed. She talked with the little rag girl, telling her about living in the Mother House and everything she could remember seeing or doing.

Silent tears fell when she told the rag girl about Mother Da'lat and the warmth of her arms, and she giggled remembering the antics of the little ones. Still, the time dragged and loneliness began to eat at her, its pale, translucent monsters clinging to the shadows around the crates and under her cot.

Notches covered two sides of the crate, and Lenka had left to find supplies three times when, on one of her foraging expeditions a bright light poured in through the giant hole in the side of the dead ship. She froze, a thin, shrill scream echoing around inside her helmet as a shape flashed past the hole. A moment later the ship shook with a series of bangs. She gripped her bag of food and water tight and hurried back to her room. She needed to hide.

More bangs and then lights moved toward the front of the ship. Shrieking again, Lenka dove into the pile of crates that blocked the ramp, wriggling and squirming through the tight holes.

Voices spoke. One was the low, dual-toned rumble of a turian. The other was a deep, rough male. Probably human. She didn't wait to find out.

Running back to her shelter, she hurried through the airlock cycle and stripped out of her suit, hiding it under the cot, just in case they found the little room. Panic making her head feel dizzy, her heart beating low and quick, she spun, searching for a place to hide. She pulled the lid off one of the shelf crates and shoved herself inside, pulling the lid back over the crate. Trying to keep her breathing silent and slow, she listened.

They found her hideout. The airlock cycled. A woman's voice spoke to the turian. Lenka held her breath.

"What the hell?" The woman sounded confused, but not at all aggressive.

"Anything?" the male turian asked.

"No. Looks like Tali's been living in here, though. It's spotless." The woman's armour creaked. "I've got a envirosuit and helmet. Doesn't look very big." Lenka strained to hear over the thunder of her heart, her breath coming in tiny whimpering gasps no matter how hard she tried to control it. Still, something in that voice called to her. Something warm and soft like the way Mother Da'lat' voice always whispered through the silence like a caress.

"Well, hell... huh."

Lenka's foot slipped, thumping against the end of the crate, and she whimpered.

"Oh, my god." The woman's voice sounded so sad and kind that Lenka leaned toward it. Her heart slowed a little, pulling her outside the crate. Something in that tone promised Lenka that it was safe to let the woman know she was there.

"What, Shepard?"

"I think it's a child." Fingers wedged around the edge of the lid.

Lenka kicked the lid off the crate, leaping out at the woman and screaming to back her away. She needed space and time to look at the invaders, to know if they were safe or not. The woman scrambled backward on all fours until her back hit the wall, but she didn't stay there for long. The woman brought up her pistol, its light blinding Lenka, who threw her hand up to shield her eyes.

The child scrambled back into the refuge of the crate, her chest heaving, tears flowing down her face as fear warred with the longing to rush out and throw herself into that kind voice's arms. How long? How long had she been alone? Did she dare hope? Could it be Mercy, come for her at last?

"Garrus, I'm taking off my helmet, so don't pop that hatch." The woman reached up and unsnapped her helmet, lifting it off. She smiled, a wide, genuine, kind smile at Lenka as she set the helmet on the bed. Holding her hands out away from her body, she eased herself up into a crouch.

"Hi there," that beckoning voice said softly, the tone comforting like warm arms wrapped around her, stroking her back. "My name's Admiral Shepard. What's your name?"

Lenka shifted, the bright light finally moving from her eyes, and she gasped at the beautiful vision with the glowing golden-red hair. The woman held out her arms, shadows stretching down . . . wings reaching out to shelter her.

"Mercy," Lenka whispered through the tears, her breath hiccuping softly. "It knew you would come."