"Deep Down" from Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
II. Deep Down
Underground, hidden within the sanctuary of Therum's mines, I delighted over my solitude here.
My alma mater, the University of Serrice, had sponsored this expedition, much to my surprise, giving me free reign to search and dig however I pleased.
Only the company of dirt and rocks, caved and compact to protect me from the outside world.
Not a soul around for miles.
This isolation had buried all else far away, deep into the depths where I could no longer reach them. Focusing on the task at-hand was far more preferable to anything else I could have imagined. Anything that was in my reach, at least. All else seemed too far away—too high up within the atmosphere of my inexperience—to ever truly be something I could grasp.
Much like the writings I had recently found:
I understood the language, the text here, of these thousands-year old pages that had once belonged to the Protheans. I hadn't expected to find anything here: nearly all of the mines on Therum had been picked over by industry workers from other planets, other colonies.
They must have left this here, not having seen the value in it…
Using my omni-tool to scan photographs of the texts for my records, I set about writing my digital notes on the piece. I would need to double-check in order to verify the exact era where this was from. For now, I at least wanted to jot down my first impressions from what I read here.
"Something to do with dominance," I mumbled out loud, needing to hear myself think. "Control. Imperial conquest? No, this appears to have very little to do with galactic affairs… Could this be…more interpersonal? Trust. Subspace. Resisting outside influences. One mind, one master." Such a sudden rush of heat to my face. "Using sex, touch, or merely spoken word to achieve this subspace, reaching deep into the recesses of another person's mind… A way to maintain control and keep out any intruders… What could all of this mean, exactly?"
Compared to the online archives of all else that had been discovered here, these writings felt out of place. Why was this here? Why now?
And why did these words stir something so deep in me—so carnal, so primal?
I felt as if I understood this process on some level, even though I had no real idea what any of this meant. All I had were these broken, incomplete mental images in my head… Someone far wiser than I would know what this subspace was, and how it linked to trust, to control. I had to research this.
Each time I typed the letters into my extranet browser to search the meaning, I quickly deleted them.
Holding my face in my hands, I realized that this blush still hadn't gone away, making me sweat.
"Why must I be such a child about these things…? Yet this all feels so—familiar, somehow."
Deep down, somewhere inside of me, I knew…
An unseen abyss that I had scrambled to push away and forget about, as if it had never existed at all.
Rumbling and rocking of a sudden caused drips of dirt and soil to spill from above. Only minor at first, it didn't catch my attention right away, as caught up as I was in these confusing emotions. Not until the shaking grew more intense did I try to pull myself out of this daydream, my mind endlessly surrounded by once-forgotten fantasies of finding unconditional trust with another.
This new topic of subspace certainly added another layer to my wondering, wanting, so wanton at times.
The booming, echoing voice of a krogan finally snapped me out of my trance—"Fuck, it's been hours! I'm sick of looking around these damned tunnels… That asari should be somewhere close by now. Find her and bring her back alive, or else I don't get paid!"
He sounded rather close. Right above me, in fact.
And he was not alone.
I heard several clicks and stuttering sounds, as if the krogan had numerous geth with him.
Looking around, I spotted a small tunnel in the wall, one that I could have climbed inside to hide.
But for how long?
I scrambled to collect my things and store them away in my blue and white backpack: my archaeology tools, my map of these mines, my rations for meals, my canteen of berry juice to replenish my energy in case I needed to overuse my biotics in battle, and now, these writings I had discovered and wished to keep for myself.
I tossed everything near the tunnel, realizing much to my dismay that I wouldn't have been able to fit my backpack through the opening. Not with everything I had currently inside.
I could either abandon some of my items or ignore all of them.
Those writings told such a story that I wished to explore more. Having the photographs in my omni-tool couldn't compare to holding the real thing in my hands. This was such a find!
Just as I was about to collect the texts, that krogan and his geth appeared on the upper ramp in my view.
Cracks of his knuckles seemed to amplify the quavering from the mines; he leered at me with a hunger, with discovery, grinning over his great find. At his side and behind him, dozens of geth waited at the ready, the lighted lens of their view scoping down on me, like endless lighthouses at sea.
"There you are!" shouted the krogan, causing more rubble to rain from above. "Now come with me, little asari. Saren's been looking for you. He expects you to come quietly—"
Firing off my warp at him, I shot my pistol at the merc, wearing down his barrier and armor with ease. Those geth had no shields whatsoever. I threw a singularity field at the krogan in the center, catching most of the geth in the tumble of the blue vortex.
Another warp shot—the echoing smack of the biotic explosion tore apart the metal of the geth's platforms, shrapnel flying.
That krogan had merely fallen back over his hump, injured, but still alive.
"Motherfucker!" he cursed, gesturing to more geth on the ramp out of my view. "What the hell are you waiting for?! Go get her, now!"
Scores of geth ran out to the fore, aiming their rifles at me.
The pulses from their shots nearly reached me until I caught myself at the last possible second. Within that endless second, I drew a halo of power around my head, kneeling to hold this strength.
I drew a biotic field around me, blocking their shots.
The force from their firing bore down on me nonetheless.
With more geth appearing, and more, some of them hopping down from the ramp to shoot closer to me, I knew I had to move.
Not too far from that tunnel opening was a gathering of thick boulders and rocks. I struggled to walk over there for cover: the geth's shooting and the constant quaking from the mines nearly threw my focus and my balance.
Maintaining my field proved to be too much, yet I forced myself to hold on.
They wanted me alive.
They wouldn't kill me…or would they?
Whatever Saren wanted me for, I had no desire to allow myself to be caught by him.
Taking cover behind the boulders, I dropped my field to catch my breath. Constant noise from the geth's pulse rifles and the growing explosions coming from far above, outside the mines, made it too difficult for me to think myself out of this chaos.
Pressing my back harder and harsher against these rocks, I wished I could have blended myself into them, to disappear, to hide.
It was much too late for that now.
The geth at the front were about to get too close to me.
I risked throwing out another singularity field at this choke point.
Though I caught the brunt of the geth units in that fold, the others out of range were free to keep firing.
Their concentrated stream of shots cut through the barriers over my dominant arm, making me cry out in pain. I could but keep focusing on my singularity field; keep it up, maintain the thought of its power, to keep the geth from nearing me.
Holding my arm close with my uninjured one, I again looked to the tunnel.
I had no time to fit myself through and scurry away.
Even with my singularity field up, I risked being shot at as I crawled my way through that unknown, now, without my map to guide me.
I should have uploaded the schematics to my omni-tool—but now was not the time to chastise myself.
Spotting more formations of rocks and boulders some distance behind me, I chanced running over there. Catching another, and another, I willed myself to keep fleeing, trying to keep my same singularity field up for as long as I could. The strain tore at my mind and my whole body. Yet I pushed onward, knowing that that single field was all that kept the geth from reaching me, from taking me away.
I kept running, running, running as far and as fast as I could—until the geth shot at my ankle; until I nearly fell face-first to the rocky ground, barely catching myself against another set of boulders.
Another tunnel entrance right beside me.
I winced in pain, knowing I couldn't crawl through, not with my arm and ankle throbbing this much.
My singularity field was about to expire.
I could but pray that I would make it out of here somehow, someway.
My eyes shot open at the sounds of a sniper shot shooting through all the noise.
The artificial whimpering sounds of a geth going dark: these repeated themselves again and again for as long as the sniper continued firing.
One after another, I heard the sounds of metal cracking and breaking apart from the single, precise shots darting through the geth's heads, ending the barrage from those pulsing rifles, one at a time.
Every single shot connected.
Every single calculation from that sniper rifle found a geth's head, incapacitating them.
Those metallic platforms crumpled to the ground, one by one, dozens upon dozens, until it all stopped.
Up above, I spotted the glimmer of someone's tactical cloak glittering in the light of a nearby lamp. When their cloak ended, the transition sounded as a digital curtain. That end had pulled back the eye-catching colors of someone's clothes, hair, and skin. All I could do was stare up at the person there:
A tall and limber human woman, she wore an all-black stealth suit, with her golden-brown hair pulled back into a long, military-tight tail behind her back. The gold-brown of her sharp eyes measured down on me. She found me here with a scowling focus and concentration that I could never hope to match.
She carried a pistol at her hip, yet the massive Spectre-grade sniper rifle in her hands was clearly her weapon of choice. A human Spectre?
That gold, that brown seemed to extend to her skin soaking in the mechanical lighting all around her.
From this view of her, I couldn't help thinking that this stranger looked just like the sun.
The infiltrator took stock of her kills in the distance. Accepting that there were no reinforcements on the way, she folded her sniper rifle, and holstered the weapon over her back.
Hurdling over the metal of the handrail in front of her, she jumped down to this level with me. What should have been quite the complicated fall for anyone else seemed second-nature to her: she reached this ground of rock and dirt with legs bent and head lowered in ease and professionalism.
Springing back up to her full height in seconds, she soon spotted my injuries.
She walked over to me with a—somehow—calming sense of urgency about her.
"Dr. Liara T'Soni?" prefaced the soldier, direct and authoritative.
"Um, yes," I confirmed. "Yes, that would be me… Who are you?"
"I'm Commander Shepard with the Alliance. I'm here to get you out of this place. The geth above-ground are tearing up the planet trying to find you. I'm leading a team to stop the person behind these attacks, and I need you to join me."
The white and red N7 emblem over her chest—she was indeed with the Alliance military.
Not quite believing the timing of all this, I asked her, "You are here to recruit me for your mission?"
"Yes," replied Shepard. "I have a ship and a full team. We'll need your knowledge of the Protheans to help us in this fight. First, we have to find a way out and back to the Normandy."
"I certainly wouldn't mind lending my help—if we can get out of here… These mines go on for miles, Commander. How did you manage to find me at all?"
The commander used her head to gesture toward the piles of dead geth. "I followed the noise. Some krogan was stomping around looking for you, too. Did you take him out?"
"I only weakened him… He's probably gone to call more geth reinforcements."
Then we heard his shouting again: "Get that damned asari! Now! Before she runs off!"
"We have to get moving, Doctor," announced Shepard, bending down to meet me. "How bad are your injuries? Can you walk, or move at all? It'll be safer for us to crawl through the smaller tunnels."
Trying to stand sent a sharp pang of pain to my entire leg. "…I am not bleeding that badly, though I do not think I'll be able to really walk. Crawling is likely out of the question." Commander Shepard accepted my assessment, not at all looking annoyed or inconvenienced like I thought she would have. Already, I felt myself relying on her so. "Forgive me, Commander. I'm…not quite at my best right now. Do you have any alternatives in mind—?"
More geth appeared in droves from the same direction as earlier, opening fire once again.
Shepard shielded me with her body. On instinct, I wrapped my arms around her neck, soon finding that I couldn't see my own limbs anymore. The commander had activated her tactical cloak, and somehow, the invisibility found me, too, here in her hold.
Her tech should have affected her and her alone, as I certainly didn't have any tactical cloak implants.
"What the—?!" Commander Shepard seemed just as confused as I was. "You know what, never mind. Might as well take advantage of this!"
For a moment, the geth stopped firing, no longer able to see us here. And in that precious moment, Shepard picked me up in her arms, gentle to mind my hurting, and carried me away into the nearest hallway. Metallic walkways sounded not at all through Shepard's trained, silent footsteps, even through her hurry and urgency, carrying me along with such ease.
As I held the commander around her shoulders, listening to her barely-concealed breaths as she took me through these winding halls, I accepted my own exhaustion.
At some point, I could hardly keep my eyes open, feeling thoroughly drained from having kept up my biotics overlong, and under such duress.
When the orange glow from her omni-tool lit through my eyelids, I realized that I'd drifted off.
I groaned, frustrated with myself.
Not only had I fallen asleep, but this complete stranger had had the foresight to upload the mines' schematics to her omni-tool, unlike me. The commander studied the remaining pathways, taking stock of our location: we weren't terribly far away from the main exit.
"You still with me, Doctor?" asked Shepard, uncloaked now, as I was. "We're almost out of this place."
"Yes… Yes, Commander, I'm here. I'm sorry for being such a burden."
"You aren't losing that much blood," she informed me. "We can patch you up easily once we get back to the ship. Have you been losing sleep lately? I can't have you falling asleep again once we're outside. It's a madhouse with the geth attacking civilians and raiding their operations."
I should have told her earlier: "No, it's just my biotics. I overexerted my powers earlier, trying to defend myself from the geth. I would normally have something to drink to take care of that. I wasn't able to get my backpack in time. It is too late to go back for it now."
"Oh… Hang on, then."
With unexpected care, Commander Shepard set me down in a nearby corner. Kneeling with me once more, she reached behind her waist, searching through her supplies she had strapped to the back of her stealth suit. Among those supplies, she procured a silver bottle, and proceeded to unscrew the top.
"Here," she offered. "One of my biotic teammates mentioned you might need this. It's juice."
Accepting the canteen with my uninjured hand, I smiled at her with my full gratitude.
"Thank you, Commander. I very much appreciate you doing this for me."
Shepard averted her eyes in a strained sort of reticence. She then lowered her head, staying right where she was; listening as I took my time drinking the juice, so as to not seem rude. Watching her here, I couldn't help noticing the pleasing length of her face, and of how her complexion was both a sun-kissed yellow-brown, and the same raspberry red from this sugary drink in my mouth, replenishing my energy.
Such an interesting blend of browns, golds and crimsons in her skin, and of the golds beaming as blonde highlights through her tightened, slickened, bone-straight brown hair. From the slight ocean's wave form of her edges, the crown of her widow's peak had wetted with beads of sweat slicking down the attractive curve of her brow and the lovely raise of her cheek bones, all from her complaint-free exertions of carrying me all throughout these mines.
She certainly didn't look as if she had the sheer muscle and brawn to do what she had thus far.
Nevertheless, Commander Shepard's efforts spoke to her mental fortitude making up for what she may have lacked in raw physical strength.
Needing to distract herself, Shepard reached her right hand to her ear, accessing her radio. "Shepard to ground team, Shepard to ground team. Lieutenant Alenko, do you copy?"
Bursts of static shot through the silence around us, and a man's coarse voice sounded over persistent sounds of gunfire in the background: "Yes, Commander—… Tali's getting… —jammers should be offline soon! Will move out—Mako—ready… able to evacuate and get you and Dr. T'Soni— Just a bit more!"
"Understood. Let Admiral Hackett know directly once the job is done. Coordinate with Joker afterward for our exit plan."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am!"
For a short while as she spoke through her radio, that redness about Shepard's face had disappeared.
Now that all had fallen quiet once more, that crimson returned.
"Was that your team?" I tried. "I heard something about jammers. Is that the geth's doing?"
"Yes," she breathed. "The geth have communications jammers outside. I sent the rest of my squad to disable them while I came here to get you. Once they're finished, they'll meet us with a vehicle, and then we'll drive to a safe location for extraction. The Alliance will take care of the rest."
"Do you think it is feasible for your squad to meet us so close to the mines, if not right outside?"
Shepard already knew: "We'll need to get a reasonable distance away from this place. The geth will be expecting to find you fleeing the exit. I thought we would have to fight our way through. Since my cloak seems to work on you for some reason, we can sneak past them instead." She forwarded me the information to access her team's radio frequency. "In case something happens, you have access to our secure channel. I'll do my best to get us out unseen."
"I believe in you, Commander," I expressed, closing the canteen and handing it back to her. "Thank you again for all your help. I have my energy back now, although I still can't walk… I don't know what I would have done without you."
"Yeah… Don't worry about it."
The way she said that: I couldn't help noticing the dimmed timber of her voice, so deep and smooth.
I couldn't help noticing even the tremble in her neck, how she worked to remain still.
I couldn't help noticing…everything about her, really.
Yet with my noticing, the commander couldn't stand to maintain eye contact with me for very long.
As Shepard secured her bottle with the rest of her supplies, another wave shook the mines, this time stronger than ever before.
Needing to hurry, the commander picked me back up and continued on to the exit, faster this time.
Faster and faster, she ran, steadily bursting into a sprint. Even as the seismic waves pulling and crashing at the mines wavered her view, Shepard refused to relent. She pushed herself beyond her own brink, determined to get us to safety.
Using my free arm, I drew a biotic field around us, over our heads. Though the mines were about to fall apart, I could keep us safe like this. Replenished and refreshed as I was now, I had no worries about maintaining this field for as long as I needed to.
As much as I could with my punctured arm, I gripped Shepard's effort, around her shoulders, down to her back, keeping this umbrella of a field over our heads; keeping the gravel from pouring down on us.
Closer to the light at the end of the tunnel, this uphill climb at such a steep angle: Shepard's breaths heaved out against me, feral and unwavering in her efforts.
She worked so hard for me.
Reaching the hot, arid air right outside the mines, Shepard activated her cloak at just the right time. I dispelled my barrier; she had no time to catch her breath, taking the jump down from the top of this ramp, down to the dirt ground below, escaping the geth waiting for us at the bottom of the ramp. Such an army of those machines, waiting there for us, while other units terrorized the processing plants and refineries in the near distance, wreaking havoc to the miners there.
With so much noise distracting the enemy, Shepard kept running: cloaked, and sprinting, invisible to the rest of the planet as she continued carrying me in her arms.
She refused to stop—not until we had nearly reached a safe area free from those attacks.
Still, I looked on at those innocents dying as they tried to defend themselves, wishing I could help.
Forcing herself to keep walking a while longer, Shepard had read my mind: "We can't do anything for them, Doctor. You're the most important thing right now—"
She stopped, her exhaustion catching up to her at long last.
Why couldn't I stop smiling at that?
Commander Shepard had us sit together behind a mountain pass, well away from everything else going on. We heard her team calling via radio, letting Shepard know that they had succeeded in their mission in disabling the jammers. Since their voices were clear this time, free of static, that was all the additional confirmation we needed.
Winded as she was, Shepard couldn't have possibly responded with anything coherent.
That same Lieutenant Alenko from earlier started to panic when the commander wouldn't respond: "Come in, Shepard. Come in! Commander, are you there?! We're in the Mako now. What's your location?! We need your coordinates ASAP for pickup! Joker's waiting on us for extraction. The Alliance is about to touch down for an all-out assault. We shouldn't stay here any longer than we have to!"
Touching Shepard's shoulder in pleading, I asked her, "Should I respond to the lieutenant for you?"
She nodded her head, still trying to keep her cool; still trying not to show me how much pain she was in.
I tuned into the frequency Shepard had supplied me with, wishing I had thought this through a bit more first: "Um, hello? This is Liara T'Soni. I'm with the commander now, but she is quite exhausted from our escape." Just barely able, Shepard interacted with her omni-tool, uploading our coordinates to her team. "Commander Shepard is forwarding you our coordinates as we speak."
Lieutenant Alenko coughed. "Uhm, Dr. T'Soni? Is that really you?"
"Yes, Lieutenant, this is me. The commander allowed me on this frequency. It is a pleasure to meet you."
"Oh… Oh, haha, th-that's great! Err, hullo, Doctor! It's, err, it's a pleasure to meet you, too! My name's Kaidan Alenko. L-Lieutenant Alenko… I've, uh, just received the coordinates! We're on our way!"
I heard an unfamiliar woman's voice on the other end—abrasive, impatient: "Seriously, Alenko?! Ugh, you're so freaking predictable, it makes me sick!"
Shepard seemed to agree, as she rolled her eyes in disgust for some reason.
Someone's filtered voice—a quarian's, I believed—sounded out a girlish laugh. "Oh, Kaidan, don't worry. I don't think you're predictable. More like adorable! Guys like you are so sweet, you know that?" She then addressed me: "Hey there, Dr. T'Soni. My name's Tali'Zorah. Nice to meet you!"
A smooth-sounding turian then added: "Hey, now, we can't all be sweet and angelic like the lieutenant here. Some of us have more decency around the fairer sex. Not necessarily counting me, of course… If I were Kaidan, I would have probably choked up, too." He cleared his throat. "Dr. T'Soni? The name's Garrus. Garrus Vakarian. Sharpshooter and former C-Sec officer at your service."
"And I'm Wrex!" called an older, likely battle-scarred krogan. "Don't you worry about these jokers, Doctor. The real Joker you have to worry about is our ship's pilot. He's not gonna let you live this down. I hope you're prepared for it."
"Yeah, yeah," said the abrasive woman from earlier—another human? "Everyone make the new girl feel uncomfortable because of something she can't control… I'm Ashley, by the way. Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams. And I'm sure Joker will get a kick out of this for at least a couple of weeks…"
"Um, what do you mean?" I puzzled. "Have I said something wrong?"
Tali giggled again. "No, no, Dr. T'Soni, not at all," she promised. "It's nothing you actually said…"
"Well, I am unfortunately not able to follow what the problem is…"
Garrus chuckled this time. "And you're one of those innocent ones? Oh, this is perfect."
Kaidan fired back: "Garrus, you're not helping!"
I felt myself getting a little offended now. "I'm sorry?"
Wrex burst out laughing, not helping at all!
Ashley sighed. "Doctor, you're in the clear here," she reinforced. "It's just… Look, you have a really hot voice, and now Alenko here can't drive this Mako to save his life—… Shit, we're gonna flip over!"
"Ash, you're out of line!" scolded Kaidan. "We're all professionals here, all right?! There's no need to use that kind of language with our new team member! And we're not flipping over! No one is flipping over! I've got everything under control…"
"Whoa there, tiger, settle down! I was only explaining to Dr. T'Soni what the problem is."
"There's no problem!"
Commander Shepard couldn't take it anymore—"Alenko, do you have an ETA for when you'll be here?"
"Uh—um! Ma'am, about, ten more minutes, ma'am—Commander? Oh, God, err…"
Tali sounded as if she'd fallen over from laughing. "Keelah, this is priceless! I can't. I just—can't…!"
Wrex's hearty laughter overtook the background chatter from Ashley, Garrus, Tali and Kaidan combined.
Shepard hung up on them.
"That's not good," spotted Garrus.
Tali couldn't breathe. "Oh, no, Shepard's angry at us…! She left…without saying anything!"
"Fuck," worried Ashley. "Now we're gonna hear it once we pick her and T'Soni up… Welp, better brace your asses for impact, folks! She'll tear us a new one over this, I'm telling you."
Garrus sounded suspicious, "So tell us why you seem to want that from the commander, hm? Is there something you're not telling us, Chief? C'mon, we're all in the slammer here together until Shepard rips us that new one you want so badly. Why don't you share your real feelings with the class?"
Ashley could only sputter incoherently in response.
Wrex and Tali were about to explode from laughing so hard.
"Well, then, we will see you in ten minutes," I attempted, feeling the need to continue speaking in Commander Shepard's stead. "Thank you for doing this, everyone."
Kaidan coughed again. "Yes, thanks for joining us, Dr. T'Soni… See you and the commander soon."
I finally took my turn to hang up.
Judging my how exasperated Shepard was, having buried her face in her hand, I gathered that she'd heard everything else from my end regardless.
I had to ask: "Commander, are your squad normally like this? They seem to get along very well…"
"I had no idea," she admitted, grumbling. "All of the non-humans you heard, they joined more recently. Before that, it was only Chief Williams and Lieutenant Alenko. Kaidan was with me when we found Ashley. He and I recruited her not long before everyone else. Guess they all really hit it off during their first operation together with those jammers…"
"Yes, they sound like quite the lively bunch."
"A bit too lively if you ask me."
I wondered, "Do you plan on disciplining them once they arrive?"
Commander Shepard glanced over at me, finding me trustworthy. "Honestly, I don't," she shared. "They can have a good time like this as long as we're not in any danger. I don't know… After getting the job done, they've earned some time to mess around and de-stress."
"I suppose you do not truly mind, given that they won't take advantage of you as time goes on."
"Yeah, that sounds about right."
I wanted to also ask if this was Shepard's way of showing that she cared about her team.
But, given that we had barely met that same day, I didn't wish to push my luck any further.
And, given that Shepard was clearly perturbed with her squad, I wanted to give her some peace and quiet—at least until they all arrived and disturbed things once more. Once I saw the commander settling her orange-opaque headphones into her ears, I figured I had made the right decision.
"You mind if I listen to music?" she asked. "If I don't chill out, I'm bound to blow a fuse or two. These are definitely staying in once the Mako gets here. I refuse to listen to their fucking chit-chat."
I smiled at her. "Please, Commander, go ahead. Don't mind me. I am sure the others will understand as well. If I hear any danger approaching, I will let you know."
Shepard brought up her music player through her omni-tool, found a playlist, and then settled the back of her head over the mountain behind us, finding her peace. She had the volume quite loud—loud enough that I could hear her music with some clarity. Some clarity, given the number of Alliance fighter ships zipping through the skies. The blue and silver of the crafts passing by caused the commander's headphones to glimmer a faint orange in the light shift.
I forced myself to look away, if only to avoid staring at her.
During these quiet minutes, I did my best to discern her music, trying to pick out the genres she enjoyed. Then again, human culture and customs were still foreign to me, let alone their music. From what I'd heard, the clubs on the Citadel had mostly integrated human culture into their playlists, as the rest of galactic space had seemed to take a liking to their electronic and trance genres in particular.
Beyond that, I was mostly ignorant, though I certainly wished to change this, now that I had a reason…
Over the sophisticated bass simmering through Shepard's headphones, I heard the sounds of multiple heavy wheels crushing over the terrain—the off-white M-35 Mako vehicle specked with dust and dirt approached us, right on time per Lieutenant Alenko's accurate estimation.
With one last groan, Commander Shepard accepted her fate, and prepared herself for the rest.
She picked me up once more, walking over to where one of her team members had opened the side doors. Ample enough room to step inside with me, Shepard said nothing as these smiling faces found us, curious to meet me in person after our conversation over the radio.
"Hello, Dr. T'Soni!" greeted Tali, I assumed, since she wore a quarian's suit. "Glad you could make it."
"I'll say," agreed Garrus, giving me an easy grin. "Looks like Shepard's more than pissed, though. Listening to music, ignoring us entirely? Oh, that hurts…"
"Crap, that's even worse!" fretted Ashley. "Um, hey, Dr. T'Soni… Nice to put a face to the voice."
Wrex patted the open seat next to him, at the very back. "Not my face, I bet," he joked. "This is the only free seat, so Shepard's gonna have to sit here with you."
"It's good to meet you all in person," I obliged.
Kaidan's voice sounded from the driver's seat: "Got enough room back there?"
"Yep!" called Ashley. "We're all set. Let's head to the extraction point! Joker's waiting for us."
Shepard took her time sitting me down in my seat closest to a wall. She then sat down in between Wrex and myself, ignoring everyone, still. For a while, she remained hunched over, resting her chin over her folded hands, her music continuing to blast. With the vehicle moving around so much, she eventually settled on sitting back in her seat to scowl up at the ceiling—even though this meant that our shoulders, our sides remained quite close together, given how much room Wrex took up on his end of the seat.
Ashley and Tali sat together in the seat adjacent to us, opposite the door, while Garrus remained standing, holding on to the overhead railing.
All of them looked at me with an unusual interest—one I couldn't really decipher on my own.
Garrus was the first to bring up the obvious, "So, Dr. T'Soni, you're looking a little banged up there. You and the commander get out of those mines all right?"
"My injuries are from before she arrived," I informed everyone. "I was overconfident in attempting to escape from the geth that had come to find me. I was lucky that Commander Shepard arrived when she did. I may have been captured otherwise."
Tali asked, "Do you have any idea why Saren is after you? He sure sent a lot of geth to pick you up…"
"Unfortunately, I can't imagine why he did all of this. I wouldn't say I am all that valuable to anyone."
"Hey, guys?" called Kaidan. "I think the commander would tell us to save it 'til we get to the debriefing room. She clearly needs some time to herself before we arrive. We shouldn't exclude her."
Ashley hummed her acknowledgment. "Yeah, you're right, LT. We'll talk about something else instead."
They took advantage of Shepard being unable to hear them, speculating openly about her:
Once again, Garrus broke the ice: "…does the commander usually listen to music to cool off? I haven't had the chance to really talk with her one-on-one. Then again, I doubt that's something she would just mention during casual conversation."
Wrex chimed in, "It's news to me. Could you imagine casual conversation with Shepard, though? She's the most intense human I've ever met! Beats some of the hardened warlords I know personally."
"You can say that again," mumbled Tali, sounding a bit resentful.
"You know," pondered Ashley, "I've always wondered what kind of music Skipper listens to. Probably not that mainstream pop stuff… No, definitely not. I can't see her liking the same kind of songs my younger sisters obsess over all the time."
"Let's listen," suggested Wrex. "Should be loud enough, I think. Not that I'll recognize any of it, anyway."
Ashley moved her head a bit with the beat. "Hmm, it's not too fast, not too slow either," she noticed. "I think I hear snapping. Those guys can actually sing… They're harmonizing?"
"Well, I'm clueless," accepted Garrus. "Your human music outside the Citadel is nothing I'm used to."
Tali shrugged. "Same here," she conceded. "Mind filling us in, Chief?"
Kaidan wanted to join in, too—"What else do you hear, Ash?"
"I think it's old school R&B!" discovered Ashley, delighted. "Yeah, it is! Oh wow! That's so romantic!"
"You serious?!" spluttered Kaidan. "Whoa! That's…unexpected!"
"It…it is?" pondered Tali, trying to keep up.
Wrex wished to know, "What's that? Why's it such a big deal?"
Garrus made a request for all of us: "Translation?"
Ashley could barely contain herself, beaming with a pure, unbridled joy over this development.
"Listen up, guys—history lesson!" she rallied. "R&B stands for rhythm and blues. It's like… Um, well, it's music for her kind of people, except it got super popular for everyone else, too. It's hard to explain since it's not my place. Just think of it as this really smooth, sensual genre… That's why it's romantic! And unexpected! It's romantic and unexpected for someone like Shepard to listen to that music, okay?"
Tali didn't have the full picture: "Sure, but what do you mean by her kind of people?"
"Tali, it's not our place to explain," reiterated Kaidan, this time.
"Huh?" said Wrex. "I thought all you humans were the same? Now you're telling us there's different kinds of you? Different groups, or clans or something? Spit it out, why don't you!"
Ashley buried her face in her hands. "Oh, God…"
"Umm, I'm staying out of this one," evaded Kaidan.
"Hey, no fair!" protested Tali. "Are you telling us we have to look it up on our own now?!"
"I…guess?" tried Ashley, wincing. "Sorry."
Tali huffed, "Fine! The second I get back to Engineering, this will be my new research project!"
Garrus looked to me next to Commander Shepard, and then he seemed to get it. Although, he chose not to say anything, resigning himself to stay quiet instead. He also noticed my notice, and gave me a nod.
I smiled with my acknowledgment, grateful for how discreet he chose to be.
When we finally arrived to the wonder of the Normandy, I had prepared myself to walk on my own, given that Shepard was not only physically exhausted, but now emotionally exhausted from everything. I was well-aware of how she felt, yet I found myself marveling over the ship's make—or, at least, what little I could see of it from here, as this vehicle bay was only a small part of the Normandy's grandeur.
I quickly enjoyed the haze of blues I found surrounding this space.
Commander Shepard again chose to be accommodating, carrying me out of the Mako with her, without her music this time. As she did, that unusual interest from the rest of the squad overtook the looks they gave us—with Ashley in particular seeming to focus on me the most out of everyone. They all followed her to the main elevator, with everyone fitting together with plenty of room as we went up one level.
The rest of the squad shared in quiet, light conversation while continuing to give me the occasional, friendly smile, making me feel welcome aboard the ship without needing to try terribly hard.
Right near what appeared to be the mess hall, the medical bay awaited. Various medical equipment adorned the ceiling and the walls, with the ship's chief medical officer standing to meet us in kindness and warmth.
"Hey, Dr. Chakwas!" said Ashley. "Looks like you've got a new patient!"
"So it would seem!" replied Dr. Chakwas, appearing to recognize me. "Is this our Dr. Liara T'Soni, then?"
"Sure is," noted Kaidan.
Dr. Chakwas gestured to the nearest, empty bed. "Please set her down here, Commander," she requested. "Well, Dr. T'Soni, I'm glad the team managed to pull you out of the fire down on Therum. Sounds like it was quite the mess. Thankfully, we should be able to patch these cuts right up."
At last, Shepard had availed herself of her responsibility to me, setting me down over the requested bed. And yet, even in her relinquishing, I felt the commander stop.
She remained over me at this perfect angle, still holding me around my shoulders. Stopping to stop. Stopping to breathe. Stopping to pause, to hold this moment, while everyone behind us continued to speak among themselves, again—oblivious.
This strength in her hold and in her stopping, I had never felt from anyone before.
Shepard's breathing hardened as she stayed here, her lips so close to my neck.
I stroked her back, heated so by her continued consideration.
"Are you… Will you be all right now?"
"Yes," I whispered, feeling our exposed privacy beginning to expire. "Thank you for taking care of me."
Licking her lips, Shepard exhaled her last defiance of our remaining time together—like this—before letting me go, to stand up properly.
Dr. Chakwas guided the commander to the nearest bed. "And you, Shepard!" she scolded. "Sit here, won't you? I'll need to run a few tests on you, too. I can't imagine you had an easy time with your task. Do you remember my warnings about staying cloaked for too long? The strain you place on your implants can lead to dangerous side-effects, Commander. We'll want to avoid those at all costs."
Shepard accepted her fate, avoiding eye contact with everyone as she sat on the bed close by. "Yeah, I remember…"
"Hmm, and something tells me you failed to heed my warnings. But, first, Dr. T'Soni…"
While Dr. Chakwas cleaned my wounds and sealed them, the others continued to loiter in the med bay.
The commander seemed to want to tell them off, yet she chose not to.
She continued to say nothing, even after Dr. Chakwas had finished with me and asked for me to return after our debriefing upstairs. The doctor then looked her over: Shepard had apparently heeded Dr. Chakwas' warnings, yet something else seemed to be wrong.
"Look, Dr. Chakwas, I'm fine," insisted Shepard, standing anew. "We really need to get to the comm room now. The Council's expecting a call from me afterward. I don't want to keep them waiting."
Dr. Chakwas was unconvinced. "If you say so, Commander," she allowed, at least looking pleased that I was able to walk on my own now. "Dr. T'Soni, do come by and see me once you're finished. With all this rushing around, I haven't had the chance to introduce myself properly!"
"Of course, Dr. Chakwas," I replied. "I appreciate your assistance. I'll be sure to return soon."
As we left with the group up the nearby stairwell, Ashley looked to be bursting at the seams to tease Shepard over her aversion to medical professionals. Tali kept her giggling to herself, likely thinking the same thing. Wrex and Garrus had fallen into a discussion about the Citadel for some reason, while Kaidan's attention remained fixed on Shepard leading us at the very front.
They each fell silent, however, once we passed the impressive space of the Combat Information Center and the galaxy map. We entered the comm room together, with everyone shifting their focus to the matter at hand, having left their earlier enjoyment and conversations behind.
Taking my seat among the handful of chairs in this circular formation, I made sure to listen carefully as Commander Shepard led the debriefing. She prompted Kaidan to explain how things went with the ground team disabling the geth's communications jammers. He did so, noting the sheer number of hostiles they had to push through, as well as how the geth colossus models had shown up in endless waves, causing constant near-earthquakes as they moved across Therum's surface.
"That explains the mines collapsing in on themselves," mused Shepard. "Or it might've been something else. Either way, I was exhausted because we had to run out of the mines to escape the collapse. Well, I had to."
Ashley couldn't help herself—"Wait a minute, Commander. Dr. T'Soni was injured when you first found her, right? I think that's what she said earlier while you were…uh, ignoring us."
"Please, call me by my first name," I offered. "We don't need to be so formal with one another."
"You got it, Doc!"
Kaidan shook his head in amusement.
Shepard answered the question, "Yes, Chief, she was injured when I first found her."
Tali spoke her awe, "So are you telling us you carried Liara all the way from where you found her in the mines, back outside, and then again to the safe point where we picked you up with the Mako?"
Everyone stared at Commander Shepard in a believing sort of disbelief, not doubting her at all.
Wrex knew: "Well, no wonder Dr. Chakwas was worried about you. That's a lot of strain, Shepard."
Ashley snorted. "You're acting like Liara's fat or something. Look at her—she totally isn't!"
"Um, thank you, Ashley," I said, not quite sure what to think.
"Moving on now," droned Shepard. She had a bit of trouble saying my name out loud: "…Liara, what exactly were you doing in those mines? Were you just on a normal expedition?"
"Yes, I was," I responded. "My alma mater had sponsored the dig for me. I honestly did not expect to find anything valuable, as there had been several miners who had picked over everything already. Although, I did manage to locate something… However, I don't think that is why Saren was after me. What I discovered is not particularly relevant to anyone besides the Protheans, their relationships…"
Garrus leaned forward in his seat in interest, asking, "So, then, what did you find?"
Subspace. Control. Sex. Resisting outside influences. Domination.
I struggled not to stumble over my words. "Err, well… L-Like I said, it is not terribly relevant to anything else, and I do not believe Saren would think it valuable enough to find before me! I often spend my time unearthing mundane Prothean artifacts, many of which would be of no interest to anyone outside my field of study… This isn't any different."
"Hmm, is that so?" questioned Tali, not believing me at all.
Kaidan seemed bewildered. "I don't get it, Liara. If you're proud of your work, why wouldn't you want to share it with us? We're all friends here, colleagues. We'd want to know about it."
"Did it have anything to do with the Reapers?" asked Ashley. "You know, how they wiped out the Protheans over 50,000 years ago?"
Tali explained, "There was this recording I found inside a geth's memory core. It was of Saren and your mother Matriarch Benezia boasting about the Reapers' return. The Reapers are a race of sentient machines that seemed to have destroyed the Protheans all those years ago."
"Ah, yes, of course," I recalled. "The original, untranslated Prothean name for them does mean Reaper. Uhm, to answer your question, though—no, I don't believe this had anything to do with that."
Commander Shepard brought the topic back around, "Saren wanted to find you for some reason. Think this has anything to do with your mother?"
"I could not imagine why that would be. My mother and I have not spoken in many years… I strongly disagreed when I heard more recently that she had gone on to work for Saren. That seemed like yet another reason for us to never reconcile. So, no, I doubt this has anything to do with her."
"Well, I'm stumped!" declared Ashley.
"Same here," agreed Kaidan.
Wrex accepted reality: "Guess we'll find out eventually why Saren raided a whole planet to find you."
"We'll shelve this for now," guided Shepard. "Like I mentioned earlier, Liara, I expect your knowledge of the Protheans will help us out on our mission. There was a Prothean beacon on Eden Prime that I came into contact with. Do you know anything about those?"
"The beacons, yes!" I recalled, finding myself standing up with her now. "You interacted with one? Did you see the message they stored away for us? Please, Commander, tell me what you saw!"
"It was…" Commander Shepard rubbed her face, as if concealing her smile. "A lot of it was jumbled up, unclear. I couldn't understand any of it."
Deflating a bit, I knew I should have tempered my excitement. "Oh, yes, of course… The Protheans unfortunately coded their beacons in very specific ways. In order to understand them, you would need to be a Prothean. Or at least, you would need to think like one. That is why we have no living record of what the beacons actually contain… They tend to destroy the minds of anyone who tries to use them."
If Commander Shepard really had used the beacon, then she should not have been able to stand here before me, before all of us, as the image of perfect health.
She had survived somehow.
That same will she had exerted to bring me out from such dangers: the very same had kept her alive, and kept her mind in-tact, when so many others before her had fallen to madness and despair.
"And that's exactly why we need you on this mission," explained Shepard. "You have all of this information that we don't. Information that's suddenly become relevant—about the Protheans and how they existed, along with the Reapers. If we can find some way to decipher that message from the beacon, I think that'll get us one step closer to stopping whatever Saren's up to."
"I will help in any way I can, Commander," I vowed. "Perhaps following Saren's trail will lead us to more solid answers. No doubt he has also interfaced with one of the beacons. He will be looking for a way to understand what he saw as well."
Shepard nodded in her firm agreement. "Wherever Saren is, that's where we need to be," she stated. "Right now, we're following any unusual signs of geth activity that'll lead us to the Conduit he's searching for. The next one is on Feros, a human colony. We'll head there once everyone's settled in. Navigator Pressly should be in touch with you by email soon to ask if there's anything you all need."
She then offered her hand to me, official.
"Welcome aboard, Liara."
I accepted her human custom of shaking hands, uncertain how hard or how gentle I should have been. I ended up defaulting to a normal feel, of feathery lightness, almost. My hand merely existed in hers.
Commander Shepard lightened her own grip to match mine, yet her eyes were no less intense.
Surrounded by so many new people, Shepard, to me, felt as familiar as time itself, even in her own newness, this novelty so pure and untainted. Having her hand in mine, over mine, like this, everything else, everyone else, the Normandy, the blue of the atmosphere around us: all of it faded away as nothing, with this concentration of hers over me so deep, I could have fallen into her, so seismic.