Thank you, shretl (girlundone), beta reader extraordinaire!
Turian civil engineers knew the function of architecture was not—and never had been—to take one's breath away. Instead, architecture existed to create an environment that was habitable, elegant, and solid. Or so they claimed. Beauty was a trait shared by nearly every ancient structure that survived into modern times. Cipirtine was scarred and ravaged and worn with age, yet grand on the grandest of scales. Beneath towering, sterling skyscrapers juxtaposed centuries-old columns, curved roofs, and arches, giving the city a timeless allure.
The Remys River, swollen with snowmelt from the Astyanax, foamed over the lower embankments, providing fertile land and bountiful fishing. Thus, Cipritine grew from a prosperous trading town to a bustling port to the planetary capital in several millennia.
Even in the age of intergalactic space travel and gravity-defying cars, ramparts still surrounded the city—high walls that reflected the power and authority of the Hierarchy. But, they were more than a symbol of military prowess. The fortifications were a promise to the citizens whose lives unfolded behind those city walls. They were protected.
The capital was still (mostly) designed to be traveled on foot—an ethos of ancient design principle. Keep everything within walking distance, ensure civilian safety, and provide gathering points for social interaction. Pedestrians strolling on sidewalks and cutting through alleyways could admire curved stonework cut from marble and ironwork polished to a blinding shimmer. Green spaces were abundant. Cipritine's largest public park was divided into manicured gardens, stretches of forest, groves, and patches of wild berries. There were wide open fields full of cheerful wildflowers and shady intimate nooks hidden behind frilled ferns with silver tints. And all over was the sound of fountains running day and night pouring water from the same source as a thousand years ago.
Autumn was only a month away, promising a reprieve from the blistering temperatures that weighed upon the citizens of Cipritine like sweltering blankets. But, unfortunately, the seasons turned abruptly on Palaven, and summer never peacefully retreated. Violent, deafening thunderstorms punctuated the end of the season. And now, more turbulent black clouds menaced the orange sky, and the low rumble of thunder issued a warning that an assault was on the horizon. It was a timely, fitting anthem that sent a shudder through Adrien's bones—the drums of war were beating once again.
No matter how imposing or reinforced, no fortification was built to keep eldritch horrors descending from the abyss of dark space at bay.
"I felt myself on the edge of the world, peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of the eternal night." He thought, listening to the intimate and sibilant whisper of water on stone while glimpsing the mountains beyond. The dark outline of the Astyanax loomed past the skyline, almost indistinguishable from the choppy, stormy sky overtaking the jagged peaks.
The topic of Primarch Fedorian's emergency meeting was not a secret. A reliable source had presented evidence that a great calamity was about to fall from the sky. To gain traction over the imminent invasion, a task force was being organized.
The scale of the Parliament was absolutely humbling, and the building dwarfed all who stood before it. There are no words to describe the feeling of entering the rotunda—the enormity of the enclosure, the gilded dome above evoking a heavenly, ochroid sky. At the center of the half-sphere was the oculus—the moving disc of light that provided the primary illumination for the area. As Palaven turned, sunlight flowed through the circle, bringing awareness of the glory of the cosmos above. The Parliament was breathtaking, having stood since antiquity, and as Adrien passed through the portico with its tall, monolithic columns of granite, he felt its majesty was best admired from the outside.
Adrien was not well-liked by the collective prestige of the Hierarchy officials. But five-star generals didn't need to be liked to be respected, especially when their strategic abilities minimized death and maximized victories. He entered the Senate and managed to slide into his chair just as Primarch Fedorian arrived—a breach of etiquette among his more punctual and pompous peers.
Senator Livia, a withered and ill-tempered woman, suddenly jerked in her seat, his arrival abruptly rousing her from slumber. "Very unbecoming, General Victus!" she quietly hissed. "You're late—"
"That's because I have more important things to do than to sit around with my thumb up my ass all day," he replied without missing a beat. The old crone wasn't reprimanding him for being tardy. Instead, she was scolding him for interrupting her nap.
Livia's cloudy, cataract-ravaged eyes widened before she squawked, "Vulgar!" And an awkward hush fell over the assembly just before the rapping of Fedorian's gavel reverberated through the theater, taking the attention away from Livia's outburst.
After an obligatory introduction, a man wearing a set of silver and blue armor approached the podium.
Garrus Vakarian was passionate yet articulate, whose cerulean eyes had seen more combat than a soldier twice his age. He wore his battle scars as a well-earned badge of honor. Where plebeians would see nothing but misfortune marring Vakarian's face, Adrien saw the wounds as evidence of survival and perseverance. Vakarian presented a series of gripping events that were tragic, sometimes outrageous—and if to be believed—terrifying. And at the center of the tale was a morally ambiguous woman who embodied the qualities of both saint and sinner, caretaker and criminal, blessed and doomed.
His eloquence quickly transformed into agitation when his human commander's validity and pending war crimes were brought up. But the young man took no shit, especially from the politicians who forgot the bitter, bloody-fingered dawns set ablaze by the heat of battle—which meant Adrien liked Vakarian.
And, even if Vakarian's haranguing couldn't impress the bloated egos of a contrary and skeptical congressional body, it struck a chord with Primarch Fedorian. He brought the gavel down in a swift motion that silenced the cynical droning echoing through the chamber and no room for any more discussion and debate.
Primarch Fedorian was extremely popular among both civilians and the military population. He conducted himself calmly, focused on solutions rather than problems, made decisions with conviction, took responsibility for them, and always followed through. He adored his wife, his children, his mistress, and red wine.
Socializing invigorated the man, which was probably why he loved to talk.
Where short sentences—or even single words—would suffice, Fedorian preferred elaborate, lengthy orations punctuated with startling statistics, interesting anecdotes, and concise quotations. His address proved no different today, and after what felt like an eon of posturing, the Primarch ended his speech with, "General Victus, rally the troops for departure. The two of you"—he motioned to Vakarian—"are leaving for Menae immediately to begin preparations for a defensive-offensive operation."
For turians, defense typically involved luring the enemy to vainly attacking a strong, well-chosen defensive position before counterattacking against the exhausted force producing a decisive result. Thus, the objective of defense was to stop the enemy, and the surest way to stop them was to destroy them.
Adrien rose, squaring his shoulders and locking his hands behind his back. "A tactically sound decision, Primarch Fedorian," he said.
A curt nod was exchanged for a crisp salute, and Adrien left the politicians to their wounded pride.
War was like a game of chess—every battle a well-thought-out move on the board. Once it begins, no emotion should be involved whatsoever. But, it was foolhardy to pretend that war wasn't exciting. Both the fear and exhilaration offered soldiers a taste of raw, vibrant life. War was the worst thing in the entire universe—inflicting physical and emotional injuries—yet those who have experienced its carnage often missed it terribly. And somehow, the rush of deployment always reminded him of the day Tarquin was born.
After almost a year, Adrien and Pomona desperately wanted to meet their son and were agonizingly close. For over a day and a half, Pomona labored at the Cipritine Birth Center, and those hours felt longer than the entire length of the actual pregnancy.
"Attending births is like growing grandiflora ," said Fausta Rosi as she massaged Pomona's back, then knelt to rub the arches of her feet. "You marvel at the ones that open up and bloom at the first kiss of the sun, but you wouldn't dream of pulling open tightly closed buds just so they blossom around your schedule."
Rosi was a robust though ancient woman with a bent back whose petite hands had delivered hundreds of babies in her long career. Tarquin would be the last one Rosi eased planetside, or so she declared. Retirement was calling, and she wanted to enjoy the company of her grandchildren before they shipped off to boot camp.
"I can assure you," the old midwife continued with a twinkle in her mossy-green eyes. "Everything comes gradually and at its appointed hour." Her gnarled mandibles fanned out into a smile, accentuating the clefts running across her brown facial plates.
Rosi's reassuring words eased the sting out of Adrien's frustrations. There was something inherently comforting about the woman—something as mysterious, earthy, and sacred as her profession.
Pomona wrapped her slim arms around his neck before firmly pressing her head into his chest. Contractions racked her body—she'd not been able to articulate or stand unassisted for hours but was handling the pain with the courage and grace that Adrien so fondly associated with her.
Surrendering to the birthing experience, she seemed to retreat from reality—mind and body separate from the world, her sphere of attention focused solely on breathing. Adrien locked his fingers around her lower back, carefully rocking her side to side. Occasionally, Pomona would look up to meet his eyes, and that's when he would lean down to softly bump his forehead against her sweaty brow.
It was all he could offer—he couldn't take away her pain, no matter how much he wanted it to stop. Even with her composure and self-control, the longer she rode out the intensity of childbirth, the more agitated she became. At one point, Adrien swore she came close to breaking his hand while gripping it mid-contraction. As a precautionary measure, Pomona's biotic amp was removed before entering the birth center. As she clutched his fingers again, Adrien was grateful for that decision.
During those long months of waiting, Adrien watched Pomona transform—her spirit stretching along with her body. Her sapphire eyes sparkled. Her smile became contagious. And when she spoke, unalloyed joy transformed her voice into something more harmonious than the sweetest melody. Pomona carried the future inside her womb, and an ethereal quality surrounded her like a holy veil shrouding a private, inner secret.
Pomona took his breath away—took his heart too. Yet, his soul felt reborn each time Adrien saw her—falling in love again and again.
Since entering the birth suite, Rosi had cupped Pomona's beautiful round belly dozens of times. Now her hand slipped inside her flimsy open robe, carefully exploring the place where their baby would soon enter into the world. Adrien suddenly understood why her blunt talons were filed down past her fingertips.
After checking Tarquin's heartbeat with the omni-doppler, Rosi hummed thoughtfully, and then as if invoking a blessing, whispered, "Mama, you can start pushing. Your son is ready to see you."
Gravity had worked in their favor—the upright position helped guide their son down—but Adrien was relieved when Pomona gestured to the bed. For hours he held her upright, only resting when his wife sank to the floor to squat, pulling him down with her.
Adrien could feel the power and force that flowed through Pomona's body while in her birthing trance from their reclining position. Each contraction accumulated like clouds on the horizon and then passed through, ushering their child closer to their arms.
"I want you to push three times during each rush,"—Rosi pulled a stool under her and sat between Pomona's open legs—"Adrien, hold her knee, and ease it towards her chest, but only during the contractions." Her stern tone was a reminder that before becoming a Certified Nurse Midwife, Rosi was a Combat Medic Specialist. "And remember to breathe."
Adrien nodded, thankful for her instruction. Military training helped steel his resolve against unavoidable combat stressors. The skills he developed were designed to keep him fighting long after reasonable circumstances. Hypervigilance kept him alive in dangerous situations, and emotional numbing allowed for feelings to be put aside to do whatever it took to survive.
But this was an entirely different sort of stress than the rigors of the battlefield. Watching Pomona—the woman he loved—suffer as she worked to bring Tarquin into the world hurt Adrien more than any offense brought on by warfare. Worse yet, he couldn't even fully comprehend her struggle and was helpless to alleviate her agony.
Headstrong and intuitive, decisions concerning the pregnancy and birth were left to Pomona's judgment. Adrien knew that her needs and desires were paramount to not only her emotional and physical well-being but to their fledgling as well. But, after an hour of pushing, Pomona's low moans were becoming as thin as her patience.
Adrien dipped his head and planted a tender kiss on her bare shoulder. The muslin robe meant to offer some semblance of modesty had slipped down to hang around her elbows hours ago. Pomona braced herself against Adrien, riding out another contraction, pushing with all her might, and this time, he felt a shift in her energy—like a breaking wave reversing the direction of its curl, suddenly foaming then swirling back into the sea.
From his vantage point, he could see straight down just past the edge of the bed. Whether through delirium, or exhaustion, or wishful thinking, Adrien thought he caught a glimpse of a wet dome peeking, then retreating back into the sanctuary of Pomona's body.
Rosi leaned in, a hot towel draped between her hands. "He's crowning!" she exclaimed, confirming what Adrien witnessed. "You're close! Just a little while longer!"
Pomona perked up, then laughed—the sound of her happiness rejuvenating and grounding him all at once. Ceaseless joy set his heart ablaze with love as he lost himself in the wonder of his courageous wife. "You're amazing," Adrien said, not recognizing the sound of his own voice. Surely it had never choked with such vulnerability before. "I love you."
Pomona took a deep breath—pushing once, twice—and before the exhale was complete, Tarquin was born, gently, slowly, graciously. The whole world stopped in perfect alignment. There was nothing else but this single fragment of time, with the seed of love they had planted within the fields of eternity.
Tarquin wailed—shrill and clear—as he was placed in his mother's arms. She cradled their fledgling, trembling as the adrenaline still coursed through her veins. Their newborn immediately sought shelter in the valley of Pomona's cowl, nuzzling into the warmth of her slender neck and décolletage.
Drops of sweat glistened on her alabaster plates like dots of dew on morning petals. Aureate light seemed to surround her, a resplendent halo wrapping her in a diffused rosy haze. Awash in Pomona's dazzling light, Adrien felt beams of amber sunshine soak through his hide and throw golden flecks into his eyes. He couldn't escape the awe of her beauty—nor did he want to.
She was his dawn of bliss, and Tarquin was his sun in the newborn topaz of heaven, bringing warmth, happiness, and light into Adrien's life. To bask in his splendor was proof that love at first sight existed. His son was gorgeous and healthy, warm, wet, soft, and smelled sweet. Twice Tarquin opened his eyes, staring straight up at his father. Adrien suddenly felt exhausted and terrified and overwhelmed and so very much in love.
"Can I hold him?" Adrien asked, barely above a whisper.
Pomona rolled her head against his shoulder, her mandibles spread wide, gracing him with a smile in full bloom. "Of course." Her voice sounded raspy, raw, and perfect. "He's your son, too."
Adrien took Tarquin from her quivering arms as Rosi started tending to Pomona's aftercare. It was too early to tell who Tarquin favored with his enormous, dark eyes and set of minute mandibles. A thin coating of waxy-white vernix covered his soft, almost translucent plates and smooth hide. A tiny hand curled around his finger, rendering Adrien speechless—profoundly caught up in the magic of life. He could feel the map of his own bones within Tarquin's body and smell the scent of his own plates in the nape of Tarquin's neck. A part of him couldn't believe that his son was actually in his arms. Yet, another part insisted that he had known Tarquin his entire life.
Cushioning his newborn, Adrien was abruptly struck by the strange duality of war—the most destructive and pitiless of all sapient activities. The future was a terrifying prospect. The brutality of the Relay 314 Incident was still fresh in his mind, even though almost a decade had passed since Adrien set foot on Shanxi. Yet warfare had an oddly compelling effect on those who fought. Combat killed, maimed, and terrified, but also revealed the power of home, kinship, and an altruistic sense of purpose.
Adrien gently stroked Tarquin's cheek, prompting the infant to turn towards his hand. From the deep wellspring of his heart pulsed a determination that spurred his spirit into action. He prayed for the strength to protect their son and then silently promised to provide Tarquin with any means available to make his dreams come true.
After a few moments of guidance, Rosi quietly left them alone with the remaining night. Pomona held their son as Adrien huddled around her until the first light of day permeated the sky. A gentle rain began to pitter-patter against the windows, reminding Adrien to be still and quiet in the moment of his own private miracle.
The sky went from dark gray to almost black, and a resounding thunderclap accompanied the first harsh, sparse drops that fell across the ground in a long sigh. They were as big as buckshot, warm as though fired from a gun. Adrien breathed in the pungent scent of petrichor, and a bittersweet tang settled on the back of his tongue. The smell of rain—it always reminded him of that fierce first love that Pomona set ablaze in him, a love that time would eventually extinguish, then wash away into nothing but disinterest and then resentment. Of course, there were pleasant memories—she was the mother of his child, always would be—but Adrien was no slave to the burden of nostalgia.
When the divorce was finalized, they were both relieved.
He took another drag from his cigarette, blowing a stream of acrid smoke upward. Until recently, his cravings for nicotine were virtually nonexistent until he woke up yesterday morning with an irritating little itch nagging at his plates. On the way to the naval station, Adrien picked up a carton of Lucky Strikes. An expensive import from Earth, but worth every credit. The toasted tobacco tasted delicious, and he had indulged in unabashed chain-smoking ever since arriving at the spaceport.
His smoking habits seemed to be one of the few things that his son didn't try to emulate. Gone was the boy who spun himself dizzy or stomped in mud puddles or dug through dirt to collect rocks. Tarquin was a man now, eager to serve the Hierarchy and prove his grit against the harsh demands of military life. Adrien muttered the same prayer he inwardly recited to his infant child all those years ago. But this time, it was for Tarquin to have the strength to protect himself and inevitably confront the true reality of killing.
War was a complex, physically, and morally demanding enterprise. Battle was gruesome yet vigorously alive. Veterans knew that the aftermath was the worst of it—adrenaline fades, a terrible hush sweeps in, and there's nothing to distract from the mess of bodies and disturbed earth seeping blood and gore. To take life away from others was to breach one of the most fundamental moral values of society. It was a frightening thing—a horrible thing. But once the taste was acquired…nothing else came close to the thrill and satisfaction.
Naval Station Egeria was Palaven's largest naval base and the homeport to the Hierarchy's collection of aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, dreadnaughts, and a range of supply and logistic ships. It was a historically significant site that dated back to the Classical Era of turian civilization. Where once ancient galleys set sail across uncharted seas, now docking bays, warehouses, fuel storage facilities, training stations, barracks, and recreation areas stood.
Departure was less than half an hour away.
Those thirty minutes should have been a moment of respite—one last chance to mingle with friends or relish the embrace of loved ones. But, spare time was just an opportunity for another supply or weapons check—anything to keep the stress, exhilaration, or boredom brought on by the limbo of anticipation at bay.
Tactics were only a small part of generalship. The best leadership—whether in peacetime or war—was borne as a moral obligation to serve. There were many qualifications, some natural, some acquired, required to be a successful general. At times, it was necessary to be gentle, brutal, straightforward and clever, capable of both caution and surprise, generous and cruel. Soldiers needed to be led in ways that inspired—rather than required—trust and confidence.
Close friends became further and fewer between with every decoration, commendation, service medal, and ribbon pinned to the front of his uniform. Adrien was a servant to his followers, but he wasn't their friend, nor could he ever be. A solitary life needn't be an isolated one, but it could often be lonely.
Adrien spotted Vakarian standing with his gear and rifle case near one of the entry gates leading to transport. He possessed a presence beyond his appearance—serene brutality not unlike the ocean, with its tides, depths, and stormy temper.
Throngs of soldiers parted for him while straightening their backs and saluting. It was respectful, expected, and tiresome. To have an acquaintance of equal standing would be a welcomed change.
Garrus looked up from his omni-tool as Adrien approached, "General Victus."
"Vakarian," he greeted, then offered him a cigarette which was politely declined. "Hard to believe the day of wrath is fast approaching," Adrien cordially mused as more thunder rumbled overhead.
"Story of my life," Vakarian said with a dry chuckle. His laughter sounded pleasant, even if tempered with sarcasm.
Adrien took another drag, then flicked the ashes. "That must be the reason you're our expert advisor on this mission."
"Yeah, well. That remains to be seen," Vakarian replied, glancing back down to the omni-tool. There was a noticeable droop to his mandibles. "Don't have much to offer, but if nothing else, I'm a damn good shot."
"Expecting a call?" Adrien asked, placing his spent cigarette butt into the pocket ashtray to join the other stubs. The steel reciprocal was almost full—smoking was a dirty habit, but littering was worse.
"Just trying to get a hold of an old friend." He dropped his arm, defeated and disappointed. "Luck does have a funny way of always seeming to belong to someone else."
Adrien snapped the circular lid shut between his forefinger and thumb. "Despite what you may think, good luck is more dangerous than bad luck. Bad luck teaches valuable lessons about patience, timing, and the need to be prepared for the worst," he said. "Good luck deludes you and makes you believe your brilliance will carry you through. When your fortune inevitably turns, you'll be completely unprepared."
"...that sounds like something she would say."
Despite his ambiguity, Adrien knew to whom Vakarian was referring.
Lightning spiked through the clouds as a moist wind carried the briny scent of the harbor through the air. The deluge drowned out any more conversation. The rain was deafening as it poured, flashing curtains of water caging them under the steel awning.
As a child, Tarquin loved playing in the warm, gentle showers of late spring. The light caught in water droplets clinging to his fringe, casting darts of rainbows as he skipped barefoot through the grass, searching for gossamer-winged treasures feeding on nectar-rich flowers. Like precious jewels, Tarquin handled the metallic blue papilionis and electric green coleopteri with the utmost care. He cherished those shimmering insects and would gaze transfixed at their radiant colors in his open palms. Then, as they fluttered away from his gentle hands, he would laugh, overcome by sheer joy.
Tarquin had been a benevolent giant.
The reapers were incapable of such charitable emotion.
Was all organic life truly damned to be trampled into the cold, heartless regions below the dark earth by the cruel machinations of mechanical constructs? Would the lush worlds of the universe have another chance to assume their verdure garments, or would the reapers leave decay over mottled ground from which no life could generate?
"No," Adrien told the storm, rumbling and roaring with the magnificent indifference of nature for the tangled passions of sapient existence. "Life accepts endings but doesn't surrender to them." He assumed he couldn't be heard over the downpour, but from the corner of his eye, he saw Vakarian smile.
End Chapter One
"I felt myself on the edge of the world, peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of the eternal night."-HP Lovecraft