Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (afternoon) — 25:05 Daleri local time
After meeting with Mistress Mirala, Kaidan had pulled out the ground teams early so everyone could share findings. The eight of them were standing together in the Normandy’s comm room, crowded around Shepard’s hologram.
“I agree with Kaidan’s assessment,” Shepard said. “From the recordings, I’d say those acolytes were probably indoctrinated. It’s a little odd, though. They were pretty high-functioning: usually by the time people are experiencing shared memories, they’re also seeing invisible spiders crawl out of the walls.”
“Maybe synthetic biology changed how indoctrination progresses?” Tali asked.
“It’s possible,” Shepard agreed. “As for Mirala, I couldn’t tell if she was indoctrinated or not. If she is… well, if Saren and the Illusive Man are guides, then she must’ve been indoctrinated slowly, over the course of a month at least. That seems to be the only way to preserve intelligence during indoctrination.”
“Given the date on that receipt Tali found this morning,” Kaidan began, “they must have started indoctrinating her right after the war ended. The bastards have been planning this from day one.”
“The receipt reminds me, did you ever go back for a sample of that nanotech?”
“Yeah,” Kaidan said. “Adams and Chakwas are doing a preliminary analysis as we speak.”
“Good. Samara, you’re sure Mirala wasn’t the Ardat-Yakshi?”
“I am not sure about anything,” Samara said. “However, I am less convinced now than I was when we spoke to Tayna earlier today.”
“Hmm. You said she was in the matriarch stage. How many matriarch-aged Ardat-Yakshi have you encountered in your career?”
“None. In fact, I cannot recall even hearing of one secondhand. The typical Ardat-Yakshi leads a violent life with a violent end. It is unheard of for one to survive to such an age.”
“I seem to remember that you once said an Ardat-Yakshi’s desire to kill is a twisted mirror of a healthy asari’s instinct to mate. Don’t asari lose their mating instinct once they reach the matriarch stage?”
“Yes,” Samara said. “You make a good point, Shepard. A matriarch retains her sex drive, but the urge to reproductively meld fades as age advances. In its place, she gains a powerful instinct that drives her to be useful to her community. If she neglects it, she begins to feel lonely and purposeless. If an Ardat-Yakshi were to reach such an age, it stands to reason that this instinct could change her hunting patterns.”
“Which would explain why this one hunts victims without that ‘spark’ you mentioned yesterday,” Kaidan added. “She’s not hunting victims she’s sexually drawn to. She’s adding sheep to her flock.”
“Perhaps,” Samara said. “It might even explain why the Reapers are working through her.”
“Sure. Lure them in with a matriarch’s charisma, then indoctrinate them slowly without needing to hold them captive,” Shepard said. “It’s a good way to operate under the table, beneath the notice of law enforcement.”
“My thoughts precisely,” Samara said.
“On to other business,” Kaidan said. “EDI, Liara, you got the Daleri Control sensor records?”
“Yes,” EDI said. “The data we retrieved had been faked, but I was able to identify the seams between the false data and the true data. The tampering was confined to a period from 05:20 to 07:45 Daleri time. I cross-indexed those times to our activities yesterday and determined that there is a strong temporal correlation between the start of the faked data and the time when the shuttle picked up you, Liara, Samara, and myself. In that timeframe, you and Garrus discussed your findings from Vin Hartne’s sensor data. The most probable scenario is that the indoctrinated forces were eavesdropping on that conversation.”
“Did they bug the shuttle?” Shepard asked.
“Unknown. There are a number of more subtle techniques that would be available to them, ones not requiring physical proximity to plant a listening device. The one with highest likelihood is an interferometric laser microphone,” EDI said. “Such a setup would require a high vantage point, likely a rooftop, but would allow the eavesdropper to listen in from a significant distance.”
“So we scan the shuttle for bugs, then we watch for rooftop activity. We might get lucky and catch them red-handed,” Kaidan said. “Maybe even get a chance to feed them disinformation.”
“Correct,” EDI said.
“You identified when the evacuation took place,” Kaidan said. “Did you manage to narrow down the destination?”
“Unfortunately not,” EDI said.
“I think that’s our cue,” Garrus said, nudging Tali.
“We have something that should help,” Tali said. “We were able to collect pristine sensor logs from an elcor trading vessel. We didn’t know what to look for, so we downloaded everything in the suspect time range. But if we cross-reference the manipulated records from Daleri Control with the clean elcor ones, we should be able to pinpoint which ships were erased from the records, where they came from, and where they went.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” Garrus said. “Shepard, Captain Selyn was a big fan. She gave me her contact information on the off chance that you’d be willing to call her up and say ‘hello’.”
Shepard wrinkled his brow and scrunched up his nose, his mouth open slightly in disbelief.
“She did give us a major break in the case,” Garrus pointed out.
Shepard closed his mouth and shook his head. “Point taken,” he finally grumbled in defeat. “Send me the contact info.”
“James, Javik, anything to report?” Kaidan asked.
“Nothin’,” James said.
“There were no traces of an Ardat-Yakshi near the nightclubs,” Javik said.
“Alright then,” Kaidan said, rubbing the temples of his head. “Crew dismissed. John, I’ll call you tonight.”
Concern flashed across Shepard’s face for a moment. “See you then, Kaidan,” he said.
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (afternoon) — 25:58 Daleri local time
“Mistress?” Acolyte Pelina said over the intercom.
“Yes?” Mirala said.
“We have a new one at the gate. Says her name is ‘Nira’. Shall I see her to you?”
“Immediately,” Mirala said. The intercom cut out, and she pointed at one of her attendants. “You. Fetch the tea.”
“Right away, mistress,” the acolyte said.
Mirala settled into her chair. Mmm, my favorite part, she thought. With the gentlest of compulsions — barely a suggestion, really — she’d lured the girl here. Now it was time to break the girl down, to shape her into a properly obedient follower. This Nira was a soft little thing as it was. That she was also suffering a crisis of religious faith — well, that was the icing on the cake, as the humans said.
Mirala thought of the Reapers and smiled. How torn I’d been when I had to choose between lovers and followers! Now each girl could be both, first one then the other. Once she was cleaned up and presentable, Nira would make such a delectable morsel.
The attendant with the tea arrived, and not a moment too soon. As she placed it on the table and returned to her position, Mirala could already hear Pelina and the girl approaching.
“Mistress, this is Nira,” Pelina said as both entered the room. “Nira, I present to you our Mistress, Lady Mirala.”
“H- honored, Mistress,” Nira quaked out. The surroundings were intimidating her. Good.
“Nira, welcome,” Mirala cooed lovingly. “I am pleased that you came. Please, take a seat. May I offer you some tea?” The attendant began to pour a cup for Mirala.
Nira sat. “Yes, please,” she managed to squeak out. Mirala signaled to the attendant, and she poured another cup for Nira. Nira accepted it gratefully and took a sip.
“I hope that you are feeling better, Nira,” Mirala said. “You were quite upset this afternoon.”
Nira looked up from her tea. “I am feeling better, Mistress. Thank you for talking with me. It helped.”
“Nira, as I recall you were having a crisis of faith. Would you like to speak more about what it was that upset you?”
“I… I overheard an offworlder talking about the Goddess,” Nira said softly. “He said she was a Prothean.”
“Are you a follower of Athame, Nira?”
“I… no, not really. But Athame… she…”
“What do you believe?”
“I… never really thought about it. I guess I’m siari-ist? But…”
“But Athame is a symbol for you, isn’t she, Nira?” Mirala completed. “She puts a face to your faith. A comforting name to invoke in prayer.”
Nira nodded and took another sip of her tea.
“It’s a common enough belief, but tonight I will show you that she is not necessary,” Mirala said. “Whether Athame was a goddess, a Prothean, or even a myth does not truly matter. What matters are our connections to one another. Siari is truth, Nira, and the truth endures all.”
Nira nodded. “Yes, Mistress.”
“Now, you are probably wondering why I made you the offer that I did,” Mirala said. “You want to know whether it came from compassion or from another motive. The truth is a bit of both: I was moved by your plight, but I also saw potential in you — potential that was tragically going to waste. While you are here tonight, I will be evaluating you as a candidate to join me as one of my acolytes. Would you like that, Nira?”
“I- I don’t know,” Nira said, a flash of worry crossing her face.
“You needn’t answer tonight,” Mirala quickly added. “You will meet the other acolytes while you are here. They will agree, I’m sure, that becoming one of my acolytes is a great honor. In the meantime, I will see to it that you are comfortable, Nira. When you are finished with your tea, an acolyte will see you to the showers and provide clean clothes. Dinner is served at 28:00, and evening contemplation begins in the observatory at 29:30. If you get lost in the house, just ask any of my acolytes for directions. Any questions?”
From the expression on Nira’s face, she was uneasy but not quite sure why. “No, Mistress.”
“Alright. I’m sure you feel nervous right now. I know it’s a little overwhelming, but you can always come to me with any concerns,” Mirala said. A lie, of course. Nira wasn’t uneasy because she was nervous. No, Nira was uneasy because Mirala was already issuing orders to her, however gentle the phrasing might be.
Nira creased her brow and frowned. Mirala could see it clearly: the girl was torn between doubting Mirala’s interpretation and doubting herself. A moment later, there it was: Nira nodded to herself, accepting Mirala’s reality. Now that Nira was emotionally invested, she was started down the path of obedience.
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (afternoon) — 26:21 Daleri local time
Shepard sighed and turned toward the hologram of Tlotchcani. “Tell me again why you only speak in riddles?”
RAINDROPS FALL ON THE GARDEN. THE TORRENT SCOURS ALL.
“Right, the torrent is a no-go,” he said with a head shake. “But surely there’s a middle ground?”
SEEK NOT THE FLOOD THAT NURTURES THE POISON VINE.
Shepard rolled his eyes. “Ooohkay, forget I asked,” he said. “Where were we, again?”
THE PATH OF RUIN LEADS TO THE END OF THE BEGINNING.
“Yeah, the Citadel, got that. What is the ‘path of ruin’?”
SECRETS OF LIGHT AND DARK. THE LIGHT SHALL PIERCE THE DARK OR THE DARK SHALL EXTINGUISH THE LIGHT.
He pondered this for a moment, then decided there weren’t any hidden tidbits to this one. “Can you be more specific?”
THE DOOR IS NOT YET OPENED. DARK ENVELOPS ALL POSSIBILITIES.
Shepard scoffed. “Well, that’s a ‘no’ if I ever heard one.”
THE RAIN MUST FALL. BUCHARU’S LEGACY DAMNS US ALL.
With his palms outstretched, he shrugged his shoulders. “How? How does it damn us?”
THE MUSICIAN HAS CEASED YET THE MUSIC CONTINUES. THE DANCERS ARE ANGERED. THAT SONG WAS PLAYED TOO SOON.
He chewed on that for a moment. “Which song? Bucharu’s death?”
IT IS THE MUSIC OF RAINDROPS.
“The song is ‘understanding’?” He scrunched up his face. “Is this about the anti-Reaper weapon that Bucharu helped us develop?”
THE INSTRUMENT IS NOT THE MUSIC.
Shepard nodded. “Bucharu gave us ideas that the other Reapers weren’t ready for us to have.”
A RIVAL TUNE PLAYS IN THE DARK. THE DANCERS ARE SWAYED.
He tilted his head. “What’s the rival tune?”
THE HOWLING WIND CARRIES THE SNOW. THE SOIL IS FROZEN, THE GARDEN DEAD.
He frowned. “Are you saying they want to do that to the Citadel? Or did you just find a very elaborate way of saying ‘go fish’?” he quipped.
THE FISH CARES FOR ITSELF.
“Riiiight,” Shepard drawled.
THE DANCERS WILL COME TO THE PLACE OF CALLING. THE END OF THE BEGINNING WILL BECOME THE BEGINNING OF THE END.
“How can I stop that?”
THE DREAM IS DREAMT BY THE DREAMER, NOT THE DREAMED.
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (evening) — 29:00 Daleri local time
Nira took a cautious step into the observatory. All the acolytes turned their heads, and she felt their eyes on her. She closed her eyes and forced herself to ignore them. When she looked again, she focused on the telescope in the center of the room. It was enormous, at least two stories tall. Through the open ceiling dome, she could feel the Daleri evening heat at full force, not moderated by any climate control. She wondered why that was.
The acolytes were kneeling on cushions, arranged in concentric half-circles around the telescope, with the floor slanted in a cone shape so that the back rows could see over the front ones. Beneath the telescope, there was a holographic display sharing the telescope’s view for everyone to see. Nira made a tiny gasp — the holo display was a full-color hologram! Those were incredibly expensive. Back when she’d had a job, she’d once looked up prices on the extranet out of sheer curiosity. Even the low-end full-color displays ran in the hundreds of thousands, and a high-res one like this probably cost a million credits or more. It had to be the single most expensive thing in Mistress Mirala’s home.
Nira shook herself out of her reverie and looked around for an open cushion. There was one in the back row, and she approached it. “Hi, I’m Nira. Is this seat taken?” she asked the acolytes next to it.
“Hi Nira, I’m Ciele,” said one of the acolytes. “You’re welcome to take it.”
Nira knelt down on the cushion. “Ciele… that name sounds familiar,” she said.
“Before I became an acolyte, I was living on the streets,” Ciele said. “Mistress Mirala found me. She gave me purpose again.”
“Uh… what’s it like, living as an acolyte?”
“Oh, you know… when our Mistress has a job for us to do, we do it. In the meantime, we replay her lectures, studying the wisdom she has to offer.”
“It… sounds kind of boring,” Nira said.
“Not at all,” Ciele replied. “The Mistress always finds something useful for us to do.”
Before Ciele could answer, Mirala entered the room and an expectant silence fell upon the acolytes. She stood silently at the center of the room for a moment, building the anticipation for her to speak.
“In the beginning, there was energy,” Mirala finally said. “A riot of subatomic particles arose from the quantum foam, only to annihilate one another and return to the foam. In this cacophony, the song of matter could not be heard.” A hologram depicting the energetic quantum foam filled the room behind Mirala.
“But the foam was unstable. Quintessons arose from the foam, causing the bubbles of quantum space-time to divide and grow. For the briefest moment, space-time grew at an unfathomable speed, diluting the energy and spreading it evenly across the newborn universe. The riot subsided, and only matter and light remained.” The hologram updated, showing the bubbles of space-time dividing and growing, reminiscent of biological cells.
“For the first time, gravity stretched its hands. The universe became uneven. Quantum fluctuations in the matter started small but began to grow: places with less matter lost their matter, and places with more matter gained yet more. The matter collapsed to form stars; the stars grouped together into galaxies; the galaxies swarmed to produce superclusters; and the superclusters pulled matter out of the great voids, leaving all matter clustered into great filaments.” The hologram followed Mirala’s words, showing 3D images of the universe that zoomed out from an individual star all the way out to the filaments.
“This hierarchy is a fundamental truth of the universe. As the planet orbits the star, so does the star orbit the center of the galaxy, and the galaxy orbit the center of the supercluster. Reflect on this.” The hologram showed a star with planets, asteroids, and comets whirling around it.
Mirala paused, giving the acolytes time to consider her words. Nira squirmed on her cushion, not sure where Mirala was going with this, but knowing that it made her uncomfortable.
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (evening) — 29:47 Daleri local time
In the Captain’s Cabin of the Normandy, the hologram of Shepard flickered to life. Per Kaidan’s request, the cabin lights and the hologram’s brightness were both dimmer than usual.
“Hey, Kaidan,” Shepard said.
“Hey,” Kaidan said. “How’d today’s meeting with Tlotchcani go?”
“Cryptic as usual. I think that Tlotchcani warned me about an attack on the Citadel, but he was pretty vague about how or when.”
“Sounds like fun,” Kaidan deadpanned.
“All he would give me was: ‘The howling wind carries the snow. The ground is frozen, the garden dead.’ I’m pretty sure ‘the garden’ was a metaphor for learning or curiosity. Maybe he was warning about mass indoctrination?” Shepard shrugged. “Hard to say.”
Kaidan nodded, but he was staring at the wall behind the hologram. “Sounds like you have your hands full,” he said.
“You okay?” Shepard asked.
“I’m alright,” Kaidan said with a shake of his head. “It’s just… well, today was one hell of a day. Raid on a possible Reaper stronghold, risk losing two squadmates to an explosive device, rescue a woman from thralldom, go toe-to-toe with an Ardat-Yakshi in her own house… yeah, one hell of a day.”
“I wish I could be there with you,” Shepard said. “Sounds like you could use a backrub.”
“Mmm,” Kaidan murmured. “That sounds really nice right now.”
“I feel a migraine building up, probably from having my biotic barriers up all day. Dr. Chakwas gave me some medication that should help, but as soon as I hang up, it’s lights out for me.”
“I’m sorry. Wish I could help somehow.”
There was a long silence as they gazed at each other, trading soft smiles.
“Well, I should let you go,” Shepard finally said. “Love you, Kaidan.”
“Love you, John.”