There is a weary resignation all off-world drell face, no matter where you end up in life. A simple fact, plainly stated: if you want to feel the warmth of another against your scales, you best learn to find the beauty outside of them.
Learn to love a different face, or have only your memories to keep you up at night. Alien encounters were almost an accepted proclivity of the young, but even for the liberally-minded, there was a countdown attached: you will come home after you are done.
Because it was expected of the Kahje-born, even if you were halfway across the galaxy. The act of returning to the Sea extended itself beyond the concept of drifting souls for us; no one could outrun the ocean, after all. Kahje had become the place you returned to for drell, no matter how far you wandered.
Memories of your adventures will be but grains of sand, shimmering fragments of nostalgia to look back on. Find a partner in the domes, settle down. Have children -actual drell children, not alien progeny- and increase our dying numbers. Do not let entropy win; do not let the universe forget us.
...or so it goes if you bothered to listen.
I was not a good drell. While I always thought I’d be alone, it was at the back of my mind that perhaps I might end up with an alien on the Citadel, if the Gods took pity on my solitude.
-her pale shoulder shined against the light of the early morning alarm, a gentle glow of orange strapped to her wrist. I wrapped an arm around her, my scales so different from her softer skin. ‘Ori,’ I said to her slow drowsing. ‘Your alarm-
It was not Arashu’s pity that led me to Oriana Lee six months ago, but Shepard’s invitation. I attended her Citadel party on her gentle insistence; fitting my father called her his siha to his last breath, I suppose. Never a god, but a fierce herald of Her word all the same.
Ori was not my first attempt at dating outside my species, but she was my first human. We coped well with the difference, her and me. We were lucky enough that the dice roll of our respected biology converged in many pleasing ways, but that still didn’t mean we understood everything about each other.
It was still new, despite me knowing so much about her. Human peculiarities would trip me up in the oddest of ways, but I could say the same about anyone in Zakera. Drell or turian or Gods damn volus, we all stood out from each other, piled in the Wards.
-I pulled the loose hair out of the sink, nearly gagging. She was worse than the cat- how could she lose so much, where did it even come from? ‘Could you clean up after yourself, this is-
It took me a while to get used to human shedding, even with a cat. There was no escape from the memory, trapped as I was in the locked doors of my cruiser. I breathed through my mouth, eyes on the horizon.
But not everything was easy together, we knew this. There are two dominant schools of thought to harmonious interspecies living; one is that we should embrace the difference, that we are all individuals defined by the cultural tics and manners of our upbringing.
The other is that we are all the fucking same, and just a month working in C-Sec rammed home the view to even the most optimist of souls. Because despite the physicalities, people are people wherever you go, we want the same things in life. We all grieved. We all laughed at something too, even if it was lost in translation.
-Krios, did you hear the one about the drell who forgot?’ A thumping slap landed on my back, and I scowled at T’Lori-
Three years in C-Sec taught me a lot. We all bled, even if it was a different colour from our neighbours. We all breathed in something. Even the salarians passed on their progeny in joy, believe it or not. We all took part in some evolutionary circle of life, somehow smart enough to make it to the Citadel.
Not that reaching the Wards was a standard for intelligence now, of course. All species were very much capable of idiocy, my mandatory beat years saw to that; no one liked drunk tank shifts for a reason, but not even alcohol was an excuse for the truly stupid.
-come on man, it’s new. I bet you ain’t heard it.’ I took a step away from Bats, but the smug bastard followed me. ‘So. A drell and an elcor are bondmates, and the elcor goes, ‘with great enthusiasm! I am going to the store, do you-
A shard of grit clicking against the windshield of my cruiser pulled me from the punchline, lost in the silence of my thoughts. Thrice fucking queues, I hated them.
>Still on the highway, I wrote Ori in a text, scowling at the holdup. I saw the reply flash before I even closed window.
Just ‘K,’ one annoying letter. For a woman who could talk complete nonsense for hours, Ori’s texts were short and dashed off, especially to me.
But I was here in the endless traffic for her; a fool for big blue eyes and soft warmth, the ghost of the memory next to me in the skycar. I had spent half my allotted break time sitting here, bored out of my skull.
Dispatch finally spoke over the silence in a crackle, a female voice I could not place. I knew there were new hires this quarter, spread slowly over our overworked departments. “601 on route near Zakera Highway,” she said, a turian’s flanged drawl. “Suspect on foot near the Keeper paths. Eyes on the skies, you are free to pursue, over.”
Grit and fumes whipped in the air from the overhead flow of the highway, hitting the barrier of my windows in disconcerting clicks. “Amonkira guide you,” I said, scowling over head at the flashing blue of the traffic constables going past. There was nothing I could do, despite my badge; the call was for them, not wayward homicide detectives on their lunch break.
-please, there’s no one else to ask,’ Ori said. I heard the desperation in her voice, and I caved. ‘It won’t take long, I promise-
A pale varren popped their head over the skycar seat in front of me as soon as the traffic moved, right in the middle of my eye line. It blinked once, then licked the window, gormless eyes still fixed on me.
“For fuck’s sake.” A window-licking varren was still better company than Bats T’Lori, I suppose. The vehicle had batarian licence plates below the official Citadel registration system, and I wondered if their pet was legal- not that mine was, but still. Instead, I looked away, busying my hands with a pinch of se’aus to avoid the sight.
-Oriana recoiled at the taste, frowning at she looked for a place to spit out her mouthful. ‘That’s all you do, just leave it on your gums? Drell smoking is strange, why-
She may have hated my tobacco habit, but se’aus was the one indulgence that got me through rough shifts. The stuff was a legal crutch, chasing both the pinch of hunger and taste of crime scenes out of my mouth, a working man’s addiction.
The rest of my journey was faster once I reached the slipstream away from gaping varren and dirty highways; the Gods favoured me an open parking space near Ori’s apartment complex, a rarity.
I only had twenty minutes left of my break, trapped in the soulless box of her neighbourhood. The place was all greys and glass, stacked little boxes devoid of personality, hastily thrown up to home a broken Citadel.
Buildings like this were everywhere after the War. Capitalism had moved in and taken over from the extinct Keepers, which meant the Council -and private commerce- could build whatever they wanted in prime locations. Despite the rush of construction, several of the apartments around here were empty, leased out so the rich could have their third home again.
I still had to run to her place to make it in time, uniform zipped up out of view. As soon as I reached the sixth floor of her apartment, I barely had time to breathe before a holo of Ori waved at me through the interface.
“I’m so late,” she said, the real thing smiling at me as the door opened. Ori was only in her bathrobe, stress cutting her painted face into pinched lines.
As soon as the lock slid into place behind me, the robe came off. “And hello to you too,” I replied, unsure what to do with myself.
“Yeah, sorry. Hello.” I admired the lace of her underthings as she walked away; the cutouts at the back almost looked like scale stripes, a tempting sight.
“It’s fine.” Perhaps this was a better way to pass a lunch break after all; the only remaining option was a vending machine snack over incident forms or sloppy rations from the canteen. Ori was better company than Patel and T’Lori, even if I skipped lunch to be here.
She knew I was looking. Ori turned her back to me with an eye roll, picking up a dress that -despite the mess of her apartment- had been reverently laid out on her couch, strings of pearls clicking together as she lifted the thing over her head.
It was also the reason I was here. “I can’t do this myself, I tried,” she said, twisting it into place. A series of complicated fastenings lined the small of her back, and I was unsure what to touch. “I couldn’t exactly ask the doorman. Pull the ribbons, please. Tight as you can go, bottom to top.”
“That’s all?” Ori made a sound like she was being strangled as I laced her in, and the dress automatically squeezed her waist with hidden mechanics I couldn't see in the lining. “Can you even breathe in this instrument of torture, or should I loosen something?”
She took a deep breath to spite me. “Of course I can. It’s actually very cosy, like wearing a constant hug.”
I chuffed my disagreement and clicked the final fastening in place. She chose something low cut and her usual purple, but this time it was the colour of dried asari blood.
-make sure you get that,’ DI Hoorik said. ‘The splatter looks like it came from behind, she was stabbed from the-
I pinched the memory away before more victims came, staring at nothing. Or so I thought.
“I’m so glad you like it,” she said, leaning up to match my gaze. Ori’s words dripped in sarcasm, and I startled myself into the present.
I took a step back. “It’s very nice.”
She lifted the sharp line of her bodice, amused at the hands behind my back. “I feel obliged to tell you my eyes are up here, but you look like you're in pain.”
I wasn’t, but it appeared she was. Her entire outfit was a constructed feat of engineering held up by flimsy pearls, mounds of soft humanity on show. “How do they not fall out?” I asked, vaguely gesturing at her cleavage. “Can you even move?”
“It’s for a gala, not a construction site. I’ll be fine.”
Dull events and charity dinners were a part of Ori’s job as a colony developer, but this level of expensive fuss was new. I had a suspicion Kellam Industries only sent her because she filled out a dress in pleasing ways, and not for her in-depth knowledge of civil engineering.
My tongue tripped me into the hole I was digging, just as it always did. “Asari think very highly of breasts. The gala is for Thessia’s rebuilding, is it not? I, ah, presume they’re on show for a reason.”
-Krios man I know you’re drell, but you gotta appreciate a fine rack once in your life and-
Ori opened and closed her mouth once. “Presumptions say more about what you don’t know then what you do. I thought that was a dirty word for a detective?”
I cleared my throat. “By the laws of C-Space, it refers to accepting something as true in the absence of proof.”
“So I’m in the right after all.”
There was ice in her gaze. “You look beautiful,” I replied. Judging by her eye roll, it was too little too late. I tried to bite my foolish tongue before it got me in trouble again, but I slipped up. “You just seem more… eye-catching than usual.”
The price of her outfit was unsaid, but even I knew enough about clothing to silently count the credits. “I’m not there to fade into the background this time,” she said. “I usually do, just sit there and smile in my sackcloth and beg for funds. Tonight I’m attending as a guest- in theory, anyway.”
“In theory?” I hated being right. There was always something else, some hidden motive behind even a pretty dress.
“All I have to do is to remind people of Kellam’s work, that’s all. Laugh at their jokes, say the elesa is awful this year, that you just can’t get the staff these days.” Her tones had become clipped, a put upon air of superiority. “But wouldn’t you know it, our own upcoming gala is soon. Just a little soirée, or course- would you be interested in a ticket?”
My face must have shown some of my distaste. Ori gently flicked the centre scales of my brow, painted eyes narrowed at me. “Stop that. I know how to handle myself against the old guard; they should worry about me. Will that be all, or do you have further questions, officer?”
Gods damn police metaphors will be the end of me. “My mother used to tell my father that first impressions were always wrong but still useful.” I don’t know why I told Ori that, but I did.
“She’s right. The more you tell me about your mother, the more I like her.” My jacket was tugged. I leaned down to kiss her before she could sass me further, but she sighed into my lips. “You taste of se’aus , please tell me it’s not in your mouth.”
“Of course not.” Even I wouldn’t kiss my girlfriend with a mouthful of tobacco. Instead, I ran a hand on the pearls -probably synthesised- that lined her shoulders, compelling things to touch.
-gods damn pearl licker,’ Uncle said, and I startled. He was on one of his political rants again, waving at the vid screen. ‘If he were any further up her thighs she would birth him herself-
I looked up, Ori amused by my petting of her collarbone. “So you do approve. Not that your opinion is worth much of anything.”
“These are nice.” The pearls on her shoulders were almost golden next to the pale pink of her skin, and she twitched in silent laughter when I still trailed a finger along them. “Do you know what they mean to a drell?” I asked, pinching a strand between my fingers.
Ori narrowed her eyes, and I smiled- of course she would know. “Depends on the gender, but it’s the same metaphor for humans. All girls have a pearl. Many men of my species need a map to find it, too.”
We didn’t have that problem, I was diligent. “Poor you.” I knew I was smiling, and she poked the crease of cheeks before she pulled away. “Did you know drell women have two?”
“I can survive with one, I think. Like a kidney.” Oriana moved to the mess on her couch to find something, slower than usual thanks to the construction of her outfit. “You have strands of pearls too. Does that translate well, or do I have to break the metaphor down?”
Pearls were always feminine coded to drell, but I got the point. “I don’t think you’re in the mood,” I said. This was already an interesting way to spend my lunch break, and I put my hands behind my back again before they got me in trouble.
“Smart man. Still late.” Despite the apparent urgency of her words, Oriana was still not ready. She fussed and reached for something from a messy purple -of course it was purple- bag, yanking a strange heated brush through her hair as she did. The thing looked like a medical instrument, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d assume it would hurt her scalp.
“You look fine,” I told her. A particular strand of hair bothered her, and she glared at it- or me, all things considered.
Before I got the full force of her sass again, my omni-tool interrupted us both. Hoorik’s short message cut through the apartment, and I stood straighter to receive it. “Krios. 603, Mainwae Heights. Now.”
I muted it before Ori could hear the whole thing, especially since it came from my boss. “On my way,” I replied. I had a strong suspicion I would be lectured for my out-of-jurisdiction lunch break in the Upper Wards, but at least I could use the sirens to cut through the choking lanes of the highway.
Ori had paused her vanity to watch me, despite my efforts to shield her from the conversation. “What’s a 603?”
It meant there was a hostage situation, but I had a strong suspicion she knew and was testing me. “Suspected gunfire, victims still alive,” I said, even though I didn’t want to; C-Sec used code for a reason. “I’ll be fine, I’m only the backup.”
I kissed her forehead on the way out, right where a frown creased it again. “Let me know you’re okay after, at least,” she said. “A quick message or something, doesn’t have to be a call.”
“Of course.” That DI Hoorik sent it instead of dispatch was important, it meant things were fraught. I was needed and walked out the door without so much as a backwards glance. “Try to enjoy your gala,” I said. “I have to go.”
It took me five minutes to reach the location with the lights and sirens, faster than my time on the freeway. The situation was strained; a disturbed salarian held part of his family hostage, over what appeared to be an old clan issue.
That we were called in meant the situation needed empathy, not gunfire, but we still proceeded with caution. “Nice lunch?” Bats asked, nodding at me. He was a pale blue asari that barely reached my shoulder, and the only member of the squad I knew from my beat days when I worked as a constable.
We had history, to my misfortune- but he was still a good cop. “It was ,” I replied, eyeing the raid armour he had slung over his uniform. “How bad?”
A snort was my answer first. “No shooting yet. Hoorik’s up front, Special Response on standby. The suspect’s ex-military. History of anti-social behaviour, blah blah blah.”
Bats waved the rest of the conversation off, and I sighed. The suspect’s story was similar to many soldiers after the war. The vids -and the turians who founded C-Sec- made out that talking with terrorists was the worst thing to do, that it was giving in to demands.
Even if the Council had no intention of granting them, the process itself was vital to the survival of the hostages. Special Response would’ve knocked down the door and blown the suspect to bits by now, but DI Hoorik operated under a different system.
I crept along the empty apartment to find my boss, surrounded by C-Sec barriers. Detective Patel waiting behind the barrier, a middle aged human with his sidearm subtly hidden from view. He was the kind of cop that preferred to work at his desk with several snacks to hand, but Patel was a surprisingly good shot with his pistol.
He was our go-to man to have at our six, if you could put up with him staring at your ass. Patel winked at me once when I knelt beside him, something I ignored to focus on our boss. “Maybe if you let the children go,” she said, talking through a metal door. “They’re frightened, they don’t understand. We can still talk, I am listening.”
Hoorik was the second human on our squad, and in charge of our workload as our DI. She was in charge of deciding what cases we were assigned, often in odd ways that baffled even Patel, who put her occasional abstract thinking down to being “European,” a statement not even Ori could explain to me.
A reply finally came through a tinny interface, distorted by static. I could hear it was a salarian, one step away from following though with his threats. “Oh they understand, the shits,” he said. “They won’t shut up crying, shut up crying, I am trying to think -”
“But they’re not needed,” Hoorik replied. “Let them go, yes? You can take me instead, if that is helpful. A C-Sec detective is worth more to them.”
The hallway was silent. Two confused children were shoved outside the door after a slow minute, to our relief. Hoorik looked up at me, and I picked the pair of them up without question, running from the situation as fast as I could.
I’m sure my boss talking down a suicidal veteran would be a masterclass in empathy, but I remained outside with the children. I sat the pair of them on the roof of my cruiser, and the three of us waited for a medical team to arrive in the middle of chaos.
They were scared, I would be. I was-
-Kolyat, mind if I call you that?’ The lady put a blanket over my shoulders, and I shrugged. I had never been in the back of a police skycar before. ‘No one can hurt you now, we’re here to-
“I’m cold,” said the oldest one. I put him at four years, almost a teenager by a salarian’s count.
His younger cousin clung to his side, face dripping with snot. I pulled off my jacket and draped it over them both, trying not to shiver into my stab vest. “Don’t touch anything in the pockets,” I said.
“Because something might bite back.”
“No it won’t,” the oldest said, suspicious of my words.
“But there are sharp things to hurt yourself with,” I told him. “So don’t go poking. What are your names?”
“Gorot the Third Menarot Sal Rinest Tot Inoste Lumin.” It was said in one breath, and I smiled. He had answered me without fear- children often did, even with a uniform on.
“What do prefer to be called?” I asked.
I don’t think he was asked that much, judging by his confused blinking. “I’m Lumi. This is Sav.”
“My name’s Kolyat. I’m a detective with C-Sec.”
“I know.” Sav poked his head from out of the older boy’s arms. A round pair of eyes double blinked at me, just like a drell child would. “Stop moving, Sav,” he was told. “You’re bony.”
A small cuddly toy was held in the youngest’s hands. I touched the grubby head of it, a well-loved creature. I knew it was a child’s version of an animal from Sur’Kesh, but had only seen them in vids. “What’s this? Looks fierce.”
“It’s a guardian,” he said. “He chomps.”
Sav motioned the toy to bite my hand. “Ouch,” I said dutifully. “Does he have a name?”
“He’s just a toy. It used to roar, but Uncle Tivo took the battery out because of the war. No noise, idiot.”
His last words sounded like a repetition of something, a scolding he often heard. “I’ve not seen a guardian before. Do they make good pets?”
“Don’t know. Uncle says we used to have one, Dalatress did. He said it was mean.”
-Fish why,’ I said, watching as her teeth and claws sunk into my hand. ‘Why do you even roll over anyway if you-
“I have a pet cat,” I told them. “Want to see?” Technically having Fish in my apartment was the cause of several residential violations, but I doubt two small children would know that.
“Is it nice?” Lumi asked, so I showed them via my omni-tool. The holo of a disinterested Fish watching out the window played on, Sav’s already wide eyes watching intently the cat yawned. “Sharp.”
“Only sometimes. Her name is Fish,” I said. “She can chomp too. She’s from Earth.”
They were already bored, and my shared jacket slipped from their small shoulders in their fidgeting. “Got any games?” Lumi asked, staring at my omni-tool interface.
“No. You can watch a vid if you want, I have-”
“ Adventures of Agent Yurt !”
“I don’t know what that is, but sure.” The tinny sounds of a salarian kid’s show played on through an extranet site via my ‘tool, even while the medical team finally arrived to check them over.
I heard the shot fired. The children did too, and I looked at the concerned ambulance worker over their heads. “Stay here with Sav,” I said to Lumi. He had shut down, stilled in a mechanism experienced victims numbed themselves with to cope. “Make sure he’s okay.”
Hoorik walked past me without saying anything before I got there, shock and relief etched in her features. Another medical team ran in the direction she had come, past her stiffened figure.
“Ma’am?” I asked, clueless of the outcome. A sharp gesture of her hand was my only answer, and left her alone. Instead I watched her leave to gather herself by the flashing lights of First Response, hands on her hips as she stared into the distance. It was all too human, just like Ori. She did the same when stressed, but with more pacing.
Patel nudged me with his shoulder, lurking as he was behind me. “All good,” he said, following my gaze.
“What happened?” We both watched as the children were hugged by a sobbing relative, a thin man even for a salarian. We didn't get many clear-cut wins as this, and the pair of us watched the reunion in silence.
“Suspect tried to shoot himself, didn’t work," Patel said, after a pause. "T’Lori and the constables are dealing with the aftermath, I think DI Hoorik needs a break. You missed a good show, lad.”