Monday, August 13, 2187 (morning)
Seated in the Normandy mess hall, Valdin Lam and Arien T’Nassa were pointedly discussing a minor question of Reaper psychology. Neither party particularly cared about the answer, but neither would ever admit that. Gefyra looked on in silence.
In Liara’s cabin, Liara and Javik were finalizing the complete draft of their book before sending it off to the editor. They were not consciously aware of just how closely they were sitting together.
In the Starboard Observation Lounge, Kaidan and Shepard sat on the couch, Shepard seated sideways with his feet on the couch and his back pressed against Kaidan. Kaidan was reviewing the next week’s duty roster, while Shepard was reviewing the last conversation he’d had with Tlotchcani, the new point of contact among the “friendly” Reapers. Compared to Bucharu, this one was downright chatty, but had a habit of making very cryptic remarks.
“‘Bucharu’s legacy’, that’s obvious enough,” Shepard said, thumbing his datapad. “But can you make anything of ‘secrets of light and dark’?”
“Mmh. Could mean anything,” Kaidan said.
“I’ll run it past T’Nassa later,” Shepard decided.
The two returned to sitting in comfortable silence.
The peace was interrupted by Kaidan’s omnitool beeping. As Kaidan tapped his omnitool to check on the notification, Shepard turned his head to look.
“Huh. Looks like I just got a recorded message from Councilor Tevos,” Kaidan said.
“Well? Let’s hear it,” Shepard said.
Kaidan pressed the ‘play’ button on his omnitool.
“Spectre Alenko,” the message began, “the Council requests your presence aboard the Destiny Ascension, at your convenience. We have a matter that could use your attention, but the details are sensitive. Spectre Shepard is welcome to accompany you.”
“‘At your convenience.’ I wonder what that’s about,” Shepard said.
As Kaidan and Shepard exited the lounge and headed toward the mess hall, they heard the sound of Lam and T’Nassa continuing their discussion.
“… arrogance their most defining trait,” Lam insisted.
“What we experience as arrogance is actually just a product of their singular motivation,” T’Nassa said. “They have no drives for things like pride or confidence. They consider a multitude of possibilities, then select the path that ruthlessly maximizes their goal.”
Lam waved his hand dismissively. “Yes, yes, but ‘multitude’ is constrained,” he said, complete with air quotes. “Unwilling or unable to consider ‘lesser beings’ as capable of generating effective counterstrategies.”
“Ah, but now we’re getting into the question of why Reapers don’t simply perform full-body quantum simulations of… Oh, hello there, spectres,” T’Nassa said.
“Having a productive conversation?” Shepard asked.
Before T’Nassa could answer, Gefyra spoke up. “I have found it enlightening,” it said. “I have made 47 observations about asari and salarian behavior that are novel to the geth.”
“Well, I’m glad we could entertain you,” T’Nassa said with exasperated sarcasm.
“Now, now, play nice,” Shepard said.
Kaidan smirked at Shepard and shook his head. “You two have been at this for a while. Why don’t you take a break?”
T’Nassa lifted an eyebrow skeptically. Lam scowled.
“Seriously. No talking shop for 15 minutes is all I ask,” Kaidan insisted. “It’ll help clear your heads. In the meantime, Shepard and I have some business to attend to.”
“What sort of business?” Lam asked, curious.
“Spectre business. We’re about to head to the Destiny Ascension to get the details.”
“I hope this doesn’t mean more trouble with the Reapers,” T’Nassa said.
“The councilor’s message didn’t sound urgent, for what it’s worth,” Shepard said.
“That’s a good sign, I suppose,” she said.
“Relatively speaking,” Lam said. “Spectre business has a habit of becoming urgent.”
“Which is why we’re on our way right now,” Kaidan said. “See you soon.”
“Farewell, and good luck,” T’Nassa said.
As Shepard and Kaidan rode the elevator down to the cargo bay, Kaidan tapped his omnitool. “Joker, Shepard and I are heading over to the Destiny Ascension to speak with the Council. You and James hold the fort while I’m gone, alright?”
“I’d say ‘no problem’, but last time I said that the Collectors kidnapped the crew, so I’m not gonna jinx us,” Joker replied.
Kaidan looked at Shepard, whose smile had faltered. “I’ll tell you later,” Shepard eventually mumbled.
“Copy that,” Kaidan finally replied to Joker.
The elevator arrived, and the two stepped out into the cargo bay. Steve was working on the Kodiak, a panel popped off to expose the inertial dampener coils. James was disassembling one of the assault rifles for maintenance. The KEI-9 mech was ‘sleeping’ at James’s feet.
Kaidan approached Steve. “Cortez, how soon can you have the shuttle prepped for departure?” he asked.
“Give me about ten minutes,” Steve said. “Where are you heading?”
“Destiny Ascension. We’re meeting with the Council.” At Steve’s expression, Kaidan reached out his hand, palm forward in a ‘stop’ gesture. “No rush, we have time,” he added.
“The Council, huh?” James called out as he approached. “What’s the occasion?”
Kaidan raised his hands and shrugged. “Not sure. I got a pretty vague message from Councilor Tevos. It’s Spectre business; that’s about all I know.”
“Man, remind me to never become a Spectre.”
Shepard’s lips twitched. “Uh huh,” he said with amusement.
“Yeah, I read your reports on the Saren mission, Loco, and the Council doesn’t sound easy to work for. One minute they’re saying they don’t want to get involved in the details, the next they’re shouting at you for getting one of the details wrong. All stick and no carrot, no?”
“There is that.”
“So I figure, they ever ask me to be a Spectre, I turn ‘em down flat.”
“I’m sure they’ll be disappointed,” he said, nearly keeping a straight face.
Shepard and Kaidan walked side-by-side into the Destiny Ascension’s makeshift Council chambers, where the three alien councilors were already assembled and waiting.
“Councilors?” Kaidan asked.
“Welcome, spectres,” Councilor Tevos said. “And congratulations on your recent wedding. I hope the ceremony was everything you wanted it to be. Does the day find you well?”
“It does, and thank you,” Kaidan said. “Now, what was this matter that needed my attention?”
“Ah, straight to business,” she said. “I’ve recently received word of strange activity spotted in the vicinity of Niacal. Reaper activity.”
“Niacal? I’ve heard the name before, but I can’t quite place it…” Kaidan said.
“Niacal is one of our colony worlds in the Orisoni system, in the heart of asari territory,” she said. “Before the Reaper War, they were best known for developing bioengineered crops. Since synthetic biology made their knowledge base obsolete, the planet has fallen into a deep economic depression.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Shepard said.
“So are we. The Thessian republic of Serrice is finalizing plans for a financial aid package for the colonists. Unfortunately, the post-war rebuilding effort has been straining everyone’s finances, especially on Thessia, so the aid package won’t be much.”
Councilor Valern waved his hands. “But enough about economics,” the salarian said. “We suspect that the hostile Reaper faction is active there, though we cannot confirm it, and we have little idea of what they could be doing. The Council suggests that it may be worth your time to investigate.”
“Fair enough. Anything else?” Kaidan asked.
Councilor Sparatus stepped forward. “This is where it gets sensitive,” he said. “Shepard, we would prefer that you and the remaining members of the Applied Theology task force stay here while Alenko investigates this. As you may have heard, the major structural repairs to the Citadel have been completed. The full damage will take years to undo, of course, but the Presidium and all five Wards are habitable again. We’re drawing up plans to transport the Earth-bound refugees back to the Citadel. There’s no way to move 9 million people and keep it a secret, of course, but nonetheless we’re trying to keep it as quiet as we can until it’s done. We’d like Applied Theology to be on hand in case the hostile Reapers find out and try to intervene.”
Kaidan and Shepard looked at each other. Kaidan frowned slightly. Shepard gave a shrug and a small nod.
“Alright,” Kaidan said. “We’ll start making arrangements.”
“Good,” the turian said. “If there’s nothing else to discuss…”
Tevos and Valern stayed silent.
Thus begins another writing experiment. In "Ghosts" I was winging it, but this time I planned the plot in advance. I have a chapter outline and everything. Wish me luck!
Heads up: the third section gets a little risqué.
Monday, August 13, 2187 (afternoon)
“I have to say,” Liara began, “I’m surprised you two agreed to this.”
Kaidan had called a meeting in the conference room on the Command Deck. Shepard, Tali, Garrus, James, Javik, and Liara were standing clockwise around the conference table, with Kaidan at the head.
“I’m with Liara,” Garrus said. “Doesn’t feel right to face down Reapers without you, Shepard.”
“I’m not thrilled about it myself,” Kaidan admitted. “But the Council had a good point. Until the last transport reaches the Citadel, the refugees will be vulnerable to hit-and-run attacks. That’s a window of at least two weeks. If this were going to be an out-there-and-back mission, it might make sense to risk it. But for all we know, the Niacal investigation might take a month. Hell, it might even be a Reaper diversion just to leave the Citadel vulnerable.
“At a minimum we need Lam to stay behind; his tactical expertise would be invaluable in an attack. But to protect the most lives, what we really need is someone who knows how Reapers think. More than any of us, that’s Shepard.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Kaidan,” Shepard said, looking into Kaidan’s eyes. Six months since the end of the war, and he was finally starting to get used to the green glow. “It was your idea to bring the geth in on this, and you handled that Prothean Reaper just fine.”
“You’re not my CO anymore, you don’t have to give me the rah-rah speech,” Kaidan said, grinning at Shepard. Shepard smiled back.
“Ahem,” James coughed.
“Right,” Shepard said, looking away sheepishly. “Without my biotics I’d be off-balance in a firefight, so I couldn’t accompany the ground team anyway.”
“What do we know about the Reapers on Niacal?” Tali asked.
“Not much,” Shepard said. “Councilor Tevos forwarded us the eyewitness report she received. It came from the captain of a gray-market trading vessel. The captain said her instruments caught the passive silhouette of something Harvester-sized boarding a Reaper, somewhere over the northeastern continent. Then the Reaper took off at FTL. Too far away for LADAR confirmation, never mind a visual.”
“You’re not kidding, that’s not much to go on,” Garrus said.
“I concur,” Javik said. “We may be chasing a phantom. But we have no other clues since these Reapers went into hiding. I do not see an alternative.”
Liara nodded. “Well then. It’s over a day’s flight from the relay to the Orisoni system, so we’d best get underway soon.”
“Agreed,” Kaidan said. “Time to break the news to the rest of the task force.”
“… so given the timeframe, the Council wants us to remain here while Kaidan investigates,” Shepard finished. He and Kaidan were still in the conference room, but this time with the rest of Applied Theology.
“Hmm,” Lam said, holding a finger to his cheek. “Unorthodox plan. I approve.”
T’Nassa nodded. “Agreed. But given the chance that the Reaper threat on Niacal is real, would it make sense to divide the team more evenly?”
“Affirmative,” Gefyra said. “I calculate that the most effective division of resources would be if I accompanied Alenko-Major to Niacal.”
“I’m curious. Why you?” Shepard asked.
“Lam-Doctor and T’Nassa-Doctor function more efficiently when paired.”
T’Nassa and Lam frowned doubtfully at each other.
“I agree with Gefyra’s assessment,” Normandy interrupted. “Their professional competitiveness increases their speed of decision-making by more than 5.8%, with no concomitant loss in quality.”
“Additionally, because of my shared memories of the geth directly interfacing with a Reaper mind, I believe my knowledge favorably complements Alenko-Major’s own skills.”
Shepard glanced at Kaidan, who gave a slight nod in return.
“Sounds like a plan,” Shepard said. “All in agreement?”
Everyone present raised their hands – Lam and T’Nassa hesitantly.
Shepard nodded. “Okay, it’s decided. Pack your things, we leave in two hours.”
Shepard and Kaidan arrived in the Captain’s Cabin. As the door closed behind them, they turned to face each other while still standing in the entryway.
“So,” Shepard said, touching Kaidan’s hand. “We haven’t had time to discuss this in private.”
“No, we haven’t,” Kaidan replied, taking Shepard’s hand and lacing their fingers together.
“We’ll both be in comms range,” Shepard said. “You can call me every night.”
Kaidan gave Shepard’s hand a squeeze. “Yeah. I know.”
“It’s selfish of me,” Kaidan continued, “but I wanted to turn the Council down. Two weeks of honeymoon just wasn’t enough, you know? I guess… I guess I wish the universe would just give us a break. Let us have more time together.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
Shepard placed the palm of his free hand against Kaidan’s cheek, then leaned in. Kaidan responded by meeting the kiss, slowly unlacing their fingers and wrapping his arms around Shepard. Shepard mirrored the embrace, pulling Kaidan in and breaking the kiss to nuzzle Kaidan’s cheek. Kaidan hummed with pleasure as Shepard kissed his neck, the sensitivity of his cybernetically-enhanced skin nearly causing him to shudder as Shepard exhaled against the wetness left behind. He pulled Shepard in tighter.
“You know,” Shepard spoke against Kaidan’s neck, a hint of mischief in his voice. “We do have time for a quickie.”
“I noticed that,” Kaidan said, his smile pressed against Shepard’s temple. “Two hours,” he chuckled. “I know for a fact you can pack in fifteen minutes. You planned this.”
Shepard pulled back to see Kaidan’s face. “So?” he asked.
“So…” Kaidan unwrapped Shepard’s arms from around himself and gripped Shepard’s hands with his own, pinning them against the wall behind Shepard. Shepard made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a growl. “Thanks to you, I have time to do this.” He pressed himself against Shepard for another kiss, but where the first had been gentle, this was primal. Kaidan poured all the passion he could muster into this kiss, alternating between battling Shepard’s tongue into submission with his own and tugging Shepard’s lower lip with his teeth, all the while holding Shepard immobile. Shepard groaned.
As Kaidan finally relented, Shepard breathlessly asked, “Bed?”
Kaidan pressed his forehead against Shepard’s and stared into his eyes, unblinking. “For the next 90 minutes,” he said in an even but uncompromising tone, “you will address me as ‘sir’.”
Shepard’s breath hitched. “Bed, sir?”
“Don’t understand why Shepard specified two hours,” Lam said, tapping his foot on the cargo bay floor. “Should not have needed half that time.”
Garrus rolled his eyes.
Tali looked anywhere but at Lam.
James turned beet-red at the moment he figured out the answer.
Javik stared at Lam, one corner of his mouth turned up in a contemptuous half-smile. One could almost hear the words ‘stupid primitive’ hanging in the air.
“Most salarians would share your confusion, I’m sure,” Liara said, keeping a straight face but unable to hide the amusement in her voice.
After that hint, it only took him a second. “Oh,” Lam said. “By implication, reproductive ritual of some kind, then?”
“More accurate to describe it as a pair-bonding ritual in this case,” T’Nassa said matter-of-factly. “Think of it as strengthening the bond before an extended separation.”
“Pair bonding,” Lam huffed. “Suspect I will never understand amniotes.”
Just then, the elevator door opened, and Shepard and Kaidan stepped out, a large duffel bag slung over Shepard’s shoulder. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” Shepard said. “Had some things to take care of.”
“Shepard-Spectre, did you ha-” Gefyra began.
Tali interrupted it by waving her hands in a semicircle, palm down, in an ‘oh god no, stop’ gesture.
“-ve any difficulty selecting which items to bring?” Gefyra continued.
“No, I was just… going over some things with Kaidan,” Shepard said.
Javik looked like he was about make a ‘pheromones’ comment, so Garrus elbowed him in the ribcage.
“Cortez, is the shuttle ready?” Shepard shouted.
Steve popped his head out of the Kodiak, oblivious to the awkwardness happening just outside. “Good to go, Shepard,” he said.
“Then I guess this is goodbye,” Shepard said. His friends lined up to send him off; he hugged Liara and Tali, gave Garrus a handshake that turned into a bro-hug, fist-bumped James, nodded respectfully at Javik, and gave Gefyra a classic handshake.
Kaidan was last in line, and Shepard gave him a long, lingering hug and a kiss on the lips. “Love you,” he whispered.
With that, he boarded the shuttle, followed by T’Nassa and Lam. The door closed, and the shuttle took off.
This one got a little exposition-heavy. EDI gets carried away sometimes.
Monday, August 13th, 2187 (late evening)
Kaidan didn’t have anywhere else to be, so he stood in the Normandy cockpit, watching as Joker hopped relays from the Sol system to the Athena Nebula.
Joker began his routine ship-wide announcements for the relay transit. “Serpent Nebula relay in range. Connection established. Calculating transit mass and destination. Relay is hot, acquiring approach vector. All stations secure for transit. Board is green, approach run has begun.”
This was the part that never got old to Kaidan: the hum of the drive core; the blue Cherenkov shimmer against the radiation shields; twenty-five thousand light years flashing past in thirty seconds. Whenever he transited a relay, he tried to get an exterior view. Even knowing that the relays were created by the Reapers as the lure for a trap, he couldn’t help but be awed by them.
“Hitting the relay in 3… 2… 1…” Joker counted down.
The relay shot out an enormous bolt of energy, syncing the Normandy’s drive core to the corridor of massless space between this relay and the receiving relay in the Widow system. The universe flashed by outside, the view suddenly twisted into a ring around their trajectory and blue-shifted beyond recognition, as the Normandy whipped through the galaxy at 25 billion times the speed of light.
“Approaching the receiving relay,” Joker announced.
And as suddenly as it had shifted before, the view from the Normandy returned to normal, the ship now cruising at sub-light speeds once again. The brilliant white glow of Widow danced across the nebula, the A6V star’s UV light exciting the neutral hydrogen into emitting the familiar ‘nebula pink’ color of the Balmer series. (The Balmer series was one of the few bits of stellar physics that Kaidan remembered from college, in no small part due to its role in coloring nebulae.)
With the Citadel missing, the nebula felt… lonely, Kaidan decided. No bustle of traffic; no Citadel Control; it was uncanny.
“Executing transfer orbit to the next relay,” Joker said. “ETA… 5 minutes. Thank you for flying Joker Airlines.” He cut the mic.
“It’s strange to see this place without the Citadel here,” Kaidan commented.
“Yeah, it’s weird as all hell,” Joker agreed. “I keep waiting for Citadel Control to start yelling at me to register my flight plan.”
EDI spoke up. “The Reapers conducting Citadel repairs have stated that the next priority will be returning it to the Widow system, now that habitability is restored,” she said.
“Speaking of, who even knew that thing could fly?” Joker said. “I mean, I knew it had engines, but I thought they were for orbital adjustments, not for up and leaving to another system.”
“Makes you wonder, how the hell did the Reapers move it to Earth orbit?” Kaidan asked.
“Eyewitness reports from aboard the Citadel suggest that it functioned as its own sending relay,” EDI said, “then used a mass effect field of unprecedented power to traverse the Sol system. There are no records of either capability being known to the Council races before it was moved. Logic suggests that the Reapers hid a means of activating these functions when they originally constructed it.”
“Still leaves the question of how the hell a dinky secondary like the Charon relay could receive that much mass,” Joker said.
“Agreed,” EDI said. “It’s clear that the relays are far more capable than is usually thought. It also explains a conundrum.”
“Yeah?” Kaidan asked.
“Widow is a relatively young star, barely 60 million years old,” she explained. “The Reapers’ cycles of extinction were ongoing for far longer than that; I would estimate that the first iteration was nearly 1 billion years ago. Knowing what we know now, it is quite likely that the Citadel was originally constructed elsewhere, then was placed in orbit around Widow sometime in the last 50 million years.”
“Damn,” Joker said. “Hard to imagine the Citadel being that old.”
“Its construction would have been a colossal undertaking, even for the Reapers,” EDI said. “In all likelihood, building it took thousands of years.”
“Alright, game time. Coming up on the Athena Nebula relay,” Joker said.
Tuesday, August 14th, 2187 (morning)
The mess hall was a bustle of activity the next morning; bacon-and-eggs day always drew a crowd. James was at the stove, taking egg orders from the lined-up crewmembers and putting on a show for the gawkers. At one table, Kaidan sat with Liara, Steve, and Samantha.
“So, Liara, what’s it like being back in asari space?” Kaidan asked between forkfuls of eggs.
“It’s strange,” Liara said, sipping her coffee. “I grew up here, but ever since I got my doctorate, I’ve rarely spent more than a month at a time in this nebula.”
She frowned and peered down into her mug.
“Honestly, it brings back… uncomfortable memories. Seeing Thessia burn was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. Even harder than watching my mother die.” She paused, then shook her head. “I’m glad this mission isn’t taking us to Thessia; I don’t think I can go back there until they’re done rebuilding.”
Kaidan put down his silverware. “I’m sorry, Liara,” he said. “Didn’t mean to bring up bad memories. I remember talking to you afterward, but I didn’t realize how deeply it affected you.”
“It’s okay,” Liara said, waving him away. “When you came to talk to me, I was still trying to bottle it up. Then I took it out on Javik. Shepard had to talk me down, then a little later he got me to open up about it. Once he did… well, talking helped. A lot.”
“Still, I wish I could’ve been there for you, too,” Kaidan said.
“Next time I’ll let you, I promise,” she said. She smiled warmly at Kaidan, then reached across the table to squeeze his hand. “In the meantime, I propose a change of topic.”
“Seconded,” Samantha immediately said.
“The motion carries,” Steve said. “Traynor, I believe you just nominated yourself.”
She blushed. “I… well, I… I don’t have anything to… talk about?”
“Sure you do,” Steve said. “How are things going between you and Allers?”
Samantha squeaked. “Good. Good. Um… we’re officially exclusive now.”
“Congratulations,” Steve said.
She narrowed her eyes at Steve. “And for putting me on the spot… how about you, lieutenant? How are you doing?”
Steve raised his palms in mock surrender. “Fair’s fair,” he said. “Not a lot going on over here,” he added with a shrug. “I’ve been chatting up a few guys on an extranet singles forum. Once the Citadel is back up and running, I’ll probably drop some invites for drinks and dancing at Purgatory.”
“Oh. Do you have your eyes on anyone in particular?” Samantha asked.
“There’s one guy that I think I’m clicking with,” he said. “A few common interests. Also Alliance. We haven’t yet met in person, so who knows at this point?”
“Well, happy hunting, then,” she said.
“Yeah, best of luck to you,” Kaidan added.
“Thanks,” Steve said. “Honestly, it’s a little intimidating going back out there. The last time I dated anyone was ages ago. Still… it’s what Robert would’ve wanted me to do.”
“Exactly,” Kaidan said.
Tuesday, August 14th, 2187 (afternoon)
The conference room was packed to capacity: Kaidan, EDI, Joker, Garrus, Tali, Chakwas, Steve, James, Javik, and Liara crowded around the table clockwise. The meeting hadn’t even started, and the body heat in the room was already unpleasant.
Kaidan stood a little straighter. “I called this meeting so we could go over what we know and plan our first move. I want to hit the ground running when we arrive tomorrow morning.” He turned to his left. “EDI, what can you tell us about Niacal?” he asked.
“Niacal is a super-Earth garden world of low density,” EDI began, “having 5.7 times the volume of Earth yet only 4.0 times the mass. Geological scans show that this is due to an unusual ratio of iron to silicates, possibly due to a catastrophic impact ejecting part of the core during early planetary formation. This hypothesis is difficult to confirm, however, as models of the impact suggest that the ejecta were moving at sufficient retrograde speed to de-orbit Orisoni, and thus fell into the star where they cannot be studied.
“The planet’s ecology is unusually slanted toward plant life. The fossil record shows that there was a mass extinction roughly 1 million years ago, which killed off nearly all multicellular animal life. Paleo-DNA excavations determined that the likely culprit was a non-native microbe that was introduced at around the same time. The remaining ecology has adapted to coexist with the microbe’s descendants.
“As a result of this unbalanced ecology, exacerbated by the low iron content, the planet’s atmosphere contains unusually high concentrations of free oxygen. I have no data on its effects on synthetic biology. However, at the partial pressures exhibited, most oxygen-breathing species from before synthetic biology would suffer the effects of oxygen toxicity within a matter of hours. Dr. Chakwas may have more details. In any case, I strongly recommend a breather mask.”
“Sounds like fun, I think I’ll take my next shore leave there,” Joker quipped.
“What about the people?” Kaidan asked.
“Niacal was founded as an independent colony more than two thousand years ago, making it one of the more ancient asari colonies,” EDI continued. “By asari standards, Niacalese culture is proud and insular. The native Niacalese dialect has diverged significantly from Thessian standard, although most urban Niacalesians are fluent in both; standard auto-translation software is programmed with both dialects, so communication will not be a problem.
“For much of the last thousand years, Niacal’s principal export industry has been artificially engineered crops, with an emphasis on adapting existing high-nutrition strains to thrive in adverse growing conditions. That industry collapsed six months ago with the end of the Reaper War. Beyond that, the colony is a breadbasket for the Athena Nebula, exporting food in exchange for high-tech finished goods.”
Kaidan turned to his right. “Liara, do you have anything to add?” he asked.
“Not much,” she said. “Aside from the interstellar trade that EDI mentioned, and some cultural links to Serrice back on Thessia, Niacal mostly keeps to itself. My Shadow Broker resources on Niacal range from sparse to non-existent. The people here were largely untouched by the war: there were few major industrial zones for the Reapers to bomb, and the populace fled the cities for the dense mid-latitude jungles, which stopped the Reapers from any large-scale harvesting. For these people, the biggest impact of the war was the disruption to their economy. Kaidan, your Spectre status will count for something, but I don’t imagine that we’ll be welcomed warmly.”
“What’s our approach, then?” Tali asked.
“We should start with the city of Daleri,” Liara said. She tapped her omnitool to bring up a map. “It’s the largest city on the northeastern continent, which puts it in the general area of the Reaper sighting. A big city is more likely to be welcoming to outsiders, and it’s the best chance of finding more eyewitnesses. It has a population of two hundred thousand, so I think we should split up into small teams of two or three to cover more ground.”
“Good idea,” Kaidan said. “Joker, I want you and Normandy to check the local extranet for anything unusual. Also keep an eye out for popular hangouts: bars, cafés, that sort of thing. It’ll let us talk to more people in less time.”
“Uh, you want me and Normandy to point you at the popular hangouts,” Joker said.
“Unless you’d prefer to go door-to-door asking people if they’ve seen any Reapers,” Kaidan said.
“Good point,” Joker said, patting his leg braces with one hand.
“Dr. Chakwas, any remarks on the atmosphere situation?” Kaidan asked.
“Post-synthesis data is incomplete at best,” Chakwas said. “Prior to synthetic biology, the overabundance of oxygen would set off a free radical cascade, resulting in lipid peroxidation of the cell membranes. Pulmonary oxygen toxicity would set in within hours. But synthetic cells trade the lipid membrane for a nanocarbon matrix – basically graphene modified for miscibility with water. Based on what we know so far about the chemistry of it, I would expect oxidation of the matrix to occur at a somewhat reduced rate, but for the cellular self-repair process to take much longer: months or years. In short, if you absolutely need to you can breathe the atmosphere for a little while, but be aware that the damage is cumulative.”
“Okay,” Kaidan said. “Anything else?”
No one spoke up.
Wednesday, August 15th, 2187 (morning) — 26:11 Daleri local time
“Let’s go over our assignments one more time,” Kaidan said to the group. Through the shuttle windows, the atmosphere of Niacal could be seen glowing from atmospheric entry.
“Me and Buggy” – James pointed his thumb at Javik – “are the first LZ. We’re gonna hit the blue-collar bars near the industrial district.”
“If you value your internal organs, do not call me ‘Buggy’ again,” Javik said.
“Team dextro is up second,” Garrus said. “We’re scoping out the business district near the commercial spaceport.” Tali nodded beside him.
“You, EDI, and I are LZ three,” Liara said. “We’re going to see what we can find in the downtown area, near the university.”
“I’ll be with the shuttle,” Steve called out from the pilot’s seat, “in case any of you need an extraction.”
“Alright then,” Kaidan said. “Sounds like we’re as ready as we can be.”
The orange glare abated, and Kaidan caught the view through the forward window. Directly below their path was nothing but greenish-brown muck. Niacal’s average global surface temperature was 55°C, far too hot for vascular plants to survive this close to the equator — only thick carpets of algae could thrive there. To the right, he could see ocean waves lapping at a rocky beach. Tens of kilometers to the left, a jungle canopy sprung up, separated from the muck by a band of grasses and low shrubs. Straight ahead, near the horizon, he could just make out a line of mountains, beyond which he knew lay a rain-shadow desert.
“Pressurizing shuttle interior to match local surface pressure,” Steve announced.
As the shuttle’s course took it over the jungle and away from the equator, Kaidan started seeing breaks in the canopy. He caught a glimpse of parallel lines and realized they were rows of crops. With modern automation, each farm would be hundreds of hectares yet probably staffed by only ten people, even during harvest season.
They would now be following a great circle path toward Daleri, Kaidan knew. The jungle and farms continued, the monotony broken up by the occasional agricultural spaceport, which would only be equipped for launching unmanned cargo ships to orbit and back. Every now and then an orchard would go by, and Kaidan would be reminded of his recent wedding — and of how much he was already missing Shepard.
“Pressurization complete. Should be coming up on a visual in a moment,” Steve mentioned to him, and he realized he had wandered up behind the pilot’s seat in his reverie. “There it is. Slowing down to subsonic.”
Kaidan caught a glimpse of the city skyline poking above the horizon ahead of them. As it came into view, he could see that it was spread out over… maybe 50 square kilometers? Small compared to even one of the Citadel’s Wards, each of which was over three times that size. But the city was enormous compared to the farms and orchards that they’d been passing over.
“Approaching LZ one,” Steve said as the industrial district came into view. The reports were accurate: it was surprisingly untouched by the Reapers’ bombing campaign — presumably because it produced mostly farm equipment, and nothing relevant to resisting the Reapers.
James and Javik approached the door as the shuttle touched down in an empty skycar parking lot. James positioned his breather and opened the door. “Esteban, you better be here to pick us up at 34:00 sharp,” he shouted just before placing the mask over his nose and mouth. Javik put on his own breather and hopped out.
“Mr. Vega, you worry too much,” Steve shouted back. “I’d never let you and Javik turn back into pumpkins.”
“Very funny,” James retorted, his voice muffled by the breather.
“What is a ‘pumpkin’?” Kaidan heard Javik ask just as James slid the shuttle door shut.
Steve chuckled to himself. “Setting course for LZ two,” he announced to his remaining passengers.
“Any dextro-friendly restaurants come up in your extranet search?” Garrus asked.
“A few. Not as many as I was hoping for,” Tali said. “I guess they just don’t see that many turians here. Apparently there’s an elcor neighborhood not far from where we’re going, and a few businesses that cater to volus. As far as I can tell, that’s about it for the non-asari locals.”
“Arriving at LZ two,” Steve announced, the shuttle touching down near a pedestrian plaza.
“Here we are,” Tali said, opening the door.
“Good hunting,” Garrus said through his breather to the remaining landing party, which Kaidan acknowledged with a nod. As Garrus exited, Tali slid the door shut behind them.
“Setting course for LZ three,” Steve announced.
“I have plotted a walking path that will take us to the locations suggested by Normandy and Joker,” EDI said. “I have also provided regular stops for cooling and rehydration.”
“Good call, EDI,” Kaidan said.
“What does- right, I keep forgetting that humans sweat to keep cool,” Liara said.
“Asari don’t?” Kaidan asked, taken aback.
“No,” she said. “Species with sweat glands are rare in the galaxy. None of the other Council races have them. Honestly, it’s… a little off-putting.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “When you do it, it looks like you’re leaking,” she whispered.
“As a method of thermal homeostasis, it is actually quite efficient,” EDI said. “Their sweat glands allow humans to remain active at higher temperatures, particularly in dry climates, for longer than most sapients can manage without technological assistance. However, it does present the risk of dehydration or hyponatremia if the water and salt losses are not regularly compensated.”
“Thank you, EDI,” Liara said, a faint hint of annoyance in her voice.
“Arriving at LZ three,” Steve said.
“Breathers on,” Kaidan said.
“Ugh, this heat is oppressive,” Liara said, trying to shield her face from the evening sun.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if not for the humidity,” Kaidan said, ineffectively wiping the sweat from his brow. “They just had to build the city in a jungle, eh?”
“The temperature right now is 35.7 degrees Celsius,” EDI said, “which is within one standard deviation of the median for this time of day and year.”
“And what time of year is that?” Kaidan asked.
“Early winter,” EDI said.
Kaidan scrunched his face and curled his lips in distaste and slight horror. Liara groaned piteously.
“We are approaching our next stop,” EDI said, indicating a shop a few tens of meters ahead. “Alessa’s Coffee and Pardims.”
“Oh, I haven’t had a good pardim in ages,” Liara said.
“What’s a pardim?” Kaidan asked.
“You’ve never had one? It’s a sort of pastry with a fruit jam topping, plus a sprinkle of ground kallenum.”
“An asari spice,” EDI explained. “Based on a chemical analysis of the flavor profile, the closest equivalent in human cuisine would be cardamom.”
“Interesting,” Kaidan said. “I’ll have to try one.”
“This will be a good opportunity to ask questions,” EDI explained. “Normandy’s research suggested that this is a popular study hangout for the students from the university. In addition, cold beverages can be obtained here. Data shows that the iced mocha is locally popular.”
“Too sweet for me,” Kaidan said, waving it away with his hand. “Not if I’m already getting a pardim. I’ll just get a iced black coffee.”
As they approached the shop, the outer door slid open automatically to let them in. Only when it sealed behind them did the inner door slide open to admit them. Kaidan and Liara removed their breathers and took a look around.
The café was maybe half-full, and most of the patrons were fresh-faced asari that couldn’t have been older than 30 — not yet full adults by asari standards. Many were nose-deep in e-books or thoughtfully scribbling out essays with a stylus and a datapad.
“Welcome to Alessa’s,” the barista said cheerfully as they approached the counter. She looked a little older than the patrons, but not by much. “Today we have a special on tupo berry smoothies for 20% off.”
Liara took the lead. “We’d like an iced mocha, an iced coffee, black, and three pardims, two banessy and one orange marmalade.”
“That’ll be 29 credits,” the barista said, entering the order into the register. “Name?” she asked as Liara handed over her credit chit.
The barista debited the chit and handed it back. “I’ll have that right out for you, Liara.”
Kaidan looked around the room. “May as well start asking around,” he said with a shrug. He zeroed in on a student who had put down her datapad and was nursing a cup of coffee. “Excuse me, miss, would you mind if I asked you a few questions?”
The student furrowed her brows in annoyance. “Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m Kaidan Alenko, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance, and I’m investigating reports of hostile Reaper activity in the area.”
She sighed and set down her coffee. “Okay, I have time for a few questions.”
“I’ll be quick, I promise,” Kaidan said. “Have you seen or heard anything about Reapers active in the area?”
“Well then, thank you for your time, miss.”
“Well, it was worth a try,” Kaidan said, nibbling on a second pardim.
“At the very least, we discovered that you like pardims,” Liara said with a smile. “Last time I had one, it was on the Citadel… probably just before we left for Rannoch.”
Liara looked like she was about to say something else, but she was distracted by the sound of the inner door opening. Kaidan turned to look, and he saw an asari wearing the shabbiest clothes he’d ever seen on an asari — the skirt was so thoroughly stained by dirt and mud that he couldn’t tell what color it’d been originally, and the upper tunic was torn and looked like it had been clumsily mended more than once. The café got even more quiet than usual, as every student that had been enjoying a break was suddenly looking intently at a datapad.
“Can anyone spare a few credits?” the new asari asked, sounding on the verge of tears. “I’m down to my last nitrogen cylinder, and I don’t know what to do. Please, anything will help.”
“HEY!” the barista shouted as she came in from the kitchen, fury in her voice. “I’ve told you before, no panhandling! Get out of here before I call the police!”
“Please! I don’t have any options left.”
“That’s it, I’m calling the cops,” the barista said, activating her omnitool.
“No, I’ll leave,” the asari said. “I’ll leave,” she repeated quietly.
And she turned around and left.
“Goddess,” the barista swore to herself. “Sorry about that,” she said in a friendly voice as she came over to Kaidan’s group. “She comes around here sometimes, haven’t figured out how to make her go away.”
“Was that really necessary?” Kaidan asked. “She was just trying to breathe.”
“Listen, you’re from out of town so I’ll forgive your ignorance,” she said, the cheer she’d once had completely gone from her voice. “Economy’s hurting everyone. This little shop is barely staying afloat as it is. If I get a filthy beggar in here driving off customers, it goes under, and I’m out of a job. Doesn’t matter to me what sob story she has. Understand?”
Kaidan stood up from their table, his pardim unfinished. “Oh, I understand. Liara, EDI, we’re leaving,” he said.
Both of them followed his lead. They left.
As they stepped out from the outer door, breathers back in place, they looked around for the asari.
“I believe I have located her,” EDI said after a few seconds, then pointed across the street at an alleyway.
Kaidan motioned for the team to cross the street and approach the alleyway. As they came closer, Kaidan and Liara could see the asari crouched down, arms wrapped around her knees, looking utterly defeated. There were tears running down her cheeks, following the edge of her breather, but it seemed she lacked the energy to cry or sob.
“Hey,” Kaidan said softly as they approached.
The asari startled and jumped to her feet, looking ready to run away.
“It’s okay, miss, I’d just like to help,” Kaidan blurted out.
She still looked wary, but she was no longer on the verge of darting away.
“How much would it cost for me to buy you a month’s supply of nitrogen?” he asked.
“Why?” she asked. She sniffed and wiped her nose, then added, “I mean, not that I’m ungrateful. It’s just… there’s usually strings attached.”
“No strings,” Kaidan said. “I just see a person in need and I’m in a position to help.”
“A month’s supply is 200 credits. I couldn’t ask you to do that,” she said quietly.
“Let me ask you then. May I help?” Kaidan asked.
Wednesday, August 15th, 2187 (evening) — 35:07 Daleri local time
The hologram crackled into existence. “Hey Kaidan,” Shepard said.
“Hi John,” Kaidan said forlornly.
“Yeah. Rough day.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Got my first taste of that economic depression that Tevos mentioned. One of the saddest things I’ve seen in my career. Met a homeless girl named Nira. She was begging for nitrogen.”
“Yeah, Niacal has too much oxygen in the air, so you have to wear a breather mask to cut it with nitrogen. She was just trying to breathe without damaging her lungs, you know?”
“Gave her some credits and had a chat with her. Turns out she used to work for an agriscience concern as a lab tech… then got laid off when the war ended.”
“That’s… kind of my fault.”
“You made the best choice with the information you had. Hell, I think you made the best choice even knowing what we know. It’s just… even the best choice has repercussions.”
“Anyway, Nira couldn’t get a loan to go back to college, and there aren’t a lot of jobs around here that you can get without a college degree. Mostly service industry, and there just aren’t enough of those to go around. Then she got evicted when she couldn’t make her rent, and she’s been living in a tent ever since.”
“That’s my day in a nutshell. How about yours?”
“Oh, you know. Lam and T’Nassa arguing. Tlotchcani being cryptic. The usual.”
Silence settled in between them.
“I know this is only day two, but… I miss you, John.”
“I miss you too, Kaidan.”
Please let me know in the comments if you'd like to see more chapters of this length. Thanks!
Thursday, August 16th, 2187 (morning) — 11:37 Daleri local time
“We found plenty of booze… but when it came to Reapers, we found a whole lotta nada,” James said.
“The asari we spoke with were too intoxicated to be of any use to us,” Javik said with disgust.
Kaidan and Liara were sitting across from the other two at one of the tables in the mess hall. Breakfast was in full swing, but fairly subdued — it was oatmeal and dried fruit day.
“Yeah, well, you gave it a good try, I’m sure,” Kaidan said. “I think today you should try asking around at the factories. You might get better answers when they’re sober – and when you’re not interrupting their time off. They have 12-hour shifts, after all. That’s a lot of steam to blow off.”
“True enough,” James said, stirring the oatmeal in his bowl. “What about you? You had Doc with you; you had to’ve made more progress than us.”
“Ehh,” Kaidan said, twisting his hand back and forth at the wrist in a ‘maybe’ gesture. “We didn’t hear anything about the Reapers, but we did make a friend.”
“Oh yeah?” James said.
“Yeah, her name’s Nira. We’d stopped at a little café, met her when she came in to beg the patrons for nitrogen money.”
“Begging for money to breathe? Man, that’s fucked up.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it is,” Kaidan said with sadness. “We ended up giving her a few hundred credits so she could afford food and nitrogen for the next month.”
“Why?” Javik asked, brow furrowed in a mixture of annoyance and confusion.
“Come on, Javik,” Kaidan said. “Compared to what we spend on weapon mod licenses alone, it was pocket change. Hell, Shepard once blew twenty-five thousand credits on an aquarium VI.”
Javik shook his head. “No, that is not what I meant. Why not let evolution take its course? If she lives or dies, it is because evolution demands it.”
“Oh, here we go,” Liara groaned, putting her palm over her eyes.
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” Kaidan said, his voice starting to raise. “You would let that girl die because evolution ‘demands’ it?”
“Of course,” Javik said. “It is the Cosmic Imperative.”
“The ‘Cosmic Imperative’?” Kaidan shouted. “What fucking ‘imperative’?”
Everyone else in the mess hall stopped what they were doing. Hearing their CO raise his voice and drop an f-bomb was… not an everyday occurrence.
“The strong flourish, the weak perish,” Javik said, remaining calm but raising his own voice in response. “Weaker species go extinct to make room for the strong.”
Kaidan leveled a glare at Javik. “Let me get this perfectly clear: you think we should’ve let Nira die because any asari that can’t breathe Niacal’s atmosphere is ‘weak’?”
Javik hesitated. “I would not put it in those terms, but essentially yes,” he said.
“No, I call bullshit,” Kaidan said. “If you really believed that, you wouldn’t be walking around with a breather on Niacal. For that matter, you wouldn’t have a grudge with the Reapers for wiping out your civilization. Reapers fight Protheans, Reapers win, therefore the Reapers are ‘strong’ and the Protheans are ‘weak’. The Reapers were just better than your people; there’s nothing to be angry about.”
Javik bared his teeth and shook with anger, but didn’t say anything.
“Ouch, Blue,” James said, leaning away from Javik.
Just as it looked like Javik was about to launch into a tirade — or possibly launch across the table to throttle Kaidan — Dr. Chakwas came out of her med bay. “I couldn’t help but overhear pieces of your conversation, as you two are being a bit loud,” she said as she sauntered up to the mess table. “Javik, am I to understand that you believe in a ‘Cosmic Imperative’, wherein weak species die out and strong species survive?”
“Finally,” Javik shouted, rolling his eyes. “Yes, human, that is exactly what I am saying.”
“Well then,” she said, “I see no fewer than three fatal flaws with that line of thought.”
She held up her hands and counted them off on her fingers.
“One, evolution is simply a natural consequence of biological systems. It is not all-knowing and it is certainly not a moral imperative. Evolution is a fact in the same way that gravity is a fact: to believe that evolution implies a moral imperative is… well, it's as ridiculous as saying that standing is evil and falling to the ground is good.
“Two, evolution selects for those who are successful at passing on their genes — not for those who are ‘strongest’. It doesn’t care about brute strength, cunning, viciousness, military might, or whatever else you might mean by that word. It cares only about progeny.
“Three, you’re invoking the myth of group selection: natural selection operates on individuals, not on species. Species only matter to evolution because they provide a diverse population of interbreeding individuals on which natural selection can operate. ‘Species’ is a concept that we apply to group individuals together by likeness and interfertility; evolution sees only a pool of genes.”
She raised her hand, palm out, and waved it slowly in an arc, as if showing him the sky. “Now, I could go on about how evolution isn’t a straight line and can have rock-paper-scissors dominance cycles, or about how evolution can lead to ‘successful’ hyperspecialization followed by extinction when conditions change, or even about how cautious altruism is an evolved trait because it’s the winning strategy for the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. But I won’t, because I’m sure you understand my point by now.”
Javik sat there, mouth hanging open, too shocked to be angry. Kaidan looked impressed. Liara just smiled an “I told you so” smile.
“If you would permit me to suggest,” Dr. Chakwas continued, her tone softening, “it might suit you to consider taking a few college courses. You grew up in a war zone, and I can’t imagine that you received a robust education under those conditions. Even if it weren’t so, it sounds like your people had some wrong-headed ideologies about what evolution is and isn’t. A few undergraduate biology courses should sort that out. And who knows? If you follow that path and shed some of your preconceptions, you may even find yourself becoming that noble scholar that Liara hoped for. Now if I may, I have business to attend to.” She looked directly at Kaidan. “I invite you two to conduct your future discussions at a slightly lower volume.”
And with that, she returned to her med bay, leaving everyone momentarily speechless.
“She’s good,” Liara said, positively glowing with admiration.
James shifted in his seat. “And I have the weirdest boner,” he said.
Thursday, August 16th, 2187 (morning) — 13:40 Daleri local time
Kaidan wiped his forehead. “Yuck. It cooled off a bit, but now the humidity’s even worse.”
“Correct,” EDI said. “The current temperature is 27.2 degrees Celsius, with a relative humidity in excess of 95%. That level exceeds the thresholds of human comfort.”
“And asari comfort,” Liara said. “We may not have sweat glands, but we do have some evaporation of water through our skin. Even I feel gross right now.”
They were on the other end of the downtown district compared to yesterday, away from the cutesy shops that catered to those who still had money. Many of the storefronts they walked past were closed, showing hints in the windows of having recently gone out of business.
“It’s hard to believe it’s this hot at this high a latitude in winter,” Kaidan said. “Who the hell thought it was a good idea to put a garden world here?”
“Evolution, apparently,” Liara said.
Kaidan chuckled. “Good one,” he said.
As an afterthought, Liara turned to EDI. “Sorry, EDI, I forgot that you weren’t there for Kaidan’s discussion with Javik this morning.”
“No apologies are necessary,” EDI said, smiling. “Normandy shared the exchange with me, so I am ‘in’ on the joke. I have no laugh instinct, but I did find it amusing.”
“Good, I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Liara said.
They walked in silence for a few more moments.
“To be honest,” EDI began, “I find it… distressing that compassion can be blinded so thoroughly by ideology.” She paused. “It makes me wonder what ‘blind spots’ I may have in my own thought processes.”
“That’s a healthy worry for any sapient to have,” Kaidan said. “Just don’t paralyze yourself obsessing over it. I think the best approach is to have a diverse set of friends, especially friends whose opinions you trust.”
“I see,” EDI said. “And therefore I receive constant feedback about how my own beliefs compare to those of my friends.”
“Exactly,” Kaidan said.
“Sounds like you’ve been hanging out with Shepard too long,” Liara said, smirking at Kaidan.
“We may or may not have had rambling bedtime conversations on the topic,” Kaidan said with a conspiratorial smile. “Hmm… actually, I think our first one might have been the night after we destroyed that Prothean Reaper. Javik was upset, but couldn’t figure out why. John pulled out the Psych 101 and told him to consider that his people’s empire was wrong. Pissed him right off.”
“And we’re back to Javik,” Liara sighed.
Kaidan frowned. “You okay?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s just… one minute, we’re chatting, he’s laughing and open, then the next he closes up and refuses to talk about why. He frustrates me. I don’t even know if I could call him a friend.”
“He’s been through some rough times,” Kaidan said. “Just keep being patient with him; he’s come a long way already. Back during the war, I’d never have imagined Javik laughing at all, unless it was at someone else’s expense.”
“I suppose so,” Liara said.
The alleyways they walked past were now lined with tents, each fitted with a nitrogen cylinder and an air regulator. Nira had told them last night that the people living in them would be bunked up two or three to a tent, to conserve nitrogen.
“We are approaching the location that Nira directed us to,” EDI said.
Nira poked her head out of one of the tents. “Hey!” she said. “I thought I heard your voices. I can’t believe you actually showed up,” she added as she emerged from the tent and ran up to them.
“Hey, I’m a man of my word,” Kaidan said with a smile. “Did you ask around like we talked about?”
“Yeah,” Nira said. “No one I talked to had seen any Reaper forces, but I did hear some rumors you might be interested in.”
“Well… one person I talked to said she’d heard that one of the old agriscience concerns is paying people to be experimental subjects. Apparently they’re trying to keep it on the down-low. I figure they must be trying to pivot to medical nanotech.”
“That’s interesting, but it doesn’t sound Reaper-related,” Liara said.
“I talked to a few people who knew someone who’d just… disappeared off the streets. No body or anything; just one day, they weren’t around anymore. Which is really weird. I mean, we keep an eye on each other — it’s safer that way. Kinda makes me wonder if there’s a serial killer out there. I mean, nobody but us cares if one of us goes missing.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Kaidan said.
“This next one’s really out there, I don’t believe it myself, but… have you ever heard of an Ardat-Yakshi?”
Kaidan frowned. “As a matter of fact, we have.”
“Oh, good, then I don’t have to explain it. Well, a couple of people swore they’d met one face to face. Crazy, right? I mean, really, an Ardat-Yakshi? Am I 10?”
Kaidan and Liara exchanged glances.
“That’s… not as outrageous as one might think,” Liara said cautiously.
“Oh, don’t tell me you believe in that stuff too?” Nira said.
Kaidan locked eyes with Nira. “I, uh, met two in the Reaper War: Rila and Falere. Sisters. They willingly lived in a monastery where they wouldn’t be tempted to hurt other people.”
“What?” Nira exclaimed, taken aback.
“Ardat-Yakshi are… well, they aren’t as powerful as the myths say,” Liara said, “but they are real.”
“During the war, the Reapers converted them into Banshees,” Kaidan said. “There weren’t a lot of Banshees out there, so you probably never saw one as a civilian. They were mostly used to tear front-line infantry units apart with their biotics.”
“Goddess…” Nira whispered.
“So anything you can tell us about this supposed Ardat-Yakshi would be helpful,” Kaidan added.
Thursday, August 16th, 2187 (evening) — 23:03 Daleri local time
“Hey, Kaidan,” Shepard said via holo. “How’d things go today?”
“Hey, John,” Kaidan said. “Made some progress, I think. Chased down a rumor that there might be an Ardat-Yakshi in the area, which ironically is good news for us.”
“You think this Ardat-Yakshi is a Reaper pawn?”
“There aren’t a lot of them left, aside from the ones the Reapers got to. It’s not much, but it’s a lead. And even if it’s not our Reaper link, getting an Ardat-Yakshi off the streets is a good thing.”
“Yeah, I suppose if she’s not living in a monastery, she’s probably like Morinth. Watch yourself, Kaidan. They can get into your head, mess with your mind. Hell, I’m gay, and Morinth almost had her way with me anyway.”
“I’m not doing this alone,” Kaidan said. “I have Liara and EDI with me.”
“Good. EDI will be immune. Don’t get separated.”
“Damn, you’re starting to scare me, John. Are they really that dangerous?”
“Okay. I’ll be careful.” Kaidan and Shepard stared at each other, their gazes softening. “So, how did your day go?” Kaidan finally asked.
“Made some progress on deciphering yesterday’s meeting with Tlotchcani. With all that brainpower, you’d think it could figure out how to speak plainly.”
“I think it enjoys toying with us.”
Shepard laughed. “It must be incredibly bored if it finds us interesting.”
“I find you interesting.”
“Yeah, but you love me.”
“… You’re not implying that Tlotchcani is in love with me, are you?”
Kaidan laughed a full-on belly laugh. “I don’t know, maybe I should be jealous,” he finally barked out, and Shepard joined in with his own laughter.
As the laughs settled down, they went back to gazing into each other’s eyes.
“So what’s the agenda for tomorrow?” Shepard asked.
“You mean tonight,” Kaidan retorted. “Niacal has a 35 hour day. Has my circadian rhythm screwed up to hell and back.”
“Ugh,” Shepard moaned in disgust.
“Well, I figure we hit the ground around 33:00 local time, which is when the clubs are at their busiest. If we’re hunting Ardat-Yakshi, that’s the time to do it. What about you? Anything interesting?”
“Oh yeah, almost forgot to mention it. The Council is returning to the Citadel tomorrow, and that means Applied Theology is coming too. I’ll finally get a chance to see how bad the damage is at the apartment.”
“God, it’s been so long I’d forgotten about the apartment. We only had it for, what, a month?”
“Yeah, but we put a lot of living into that month. Remember the party?”
Kaidan chuckled. “How could I not?” He sighed. “I can’t imagine the vacuum damage would be that bad. I mean, the fish tank has gotta be toast, but other than that…”
“Well, I’ll find out for sure tomorrow.”
They again found themselves gazing at one another.
“Well, I should let you get some sleep.”
“I love you, John.”
“And I love you, Kaidan.”
Friday, August 17th, 2187 (morning) — 32:47 Daleri local time
“Kaidan, are you sure about this?” Tali asked.
“This is no situation for heroics, Alenko. An Ardat-Yakshi is seriously bad news,” Garrus said.
The yellow-orange glare of atmospheric insertion cast harsh, flickering shadows on the shuttle walls. The white of the shuttle’s own lighting was completely washed out by the fiery gloom cast over the interior.
“Yeah, Shepard made that clear,” Kaidan said. “But this is our only lead so far. I don’t see an alternative.”
“Still, I’d be a lot more comfortable with this if you had more backup,” Garrus said. “When Shepard lured Morinth into the open… well, we were damn lucky that Samara has excellent timing. Morinth almost made off with the bait.”
“I know, I read Shepard’s mission report. Look, I’m going to stay with Liara and EDI at all times. EDI’s mind isn’t susceptible to asari melding.”
“Okay. I’m going to trust you, Kaidan,” Garrus said. “But if this goes pear-shaped, you had better hope that I live forever because when I die I am going to hunt down your sorry spirit and make you regret it.”
“Garrus, lay off,” Kaidan said, a hint of a threat in his voice. “I don’t want to pull rank on you.”
Garrus raised his hands in submission. “I made my point, I’m done,” he said.
Javik glanced at James and lifted one eyebrow skeptically. The ‘Ardat-Yakshi’ cannot possibly be this dangerous… right?
James threw a shrug back. Hellifino.
Kaidan sighed. “Enough about me,” he said. “What’s your plan for tonight?”
“We’re going to hit the nightclub district near the commercial spaceport,” Tali said. “Most of them cater to off-worlders, and Normandy even found a restaurant there with an interesting dextro-amino menu.”
“Just keep in mind that this is business, not pleasure,” Kaidan said.
“Of course,” Tali said. “We also found a club that serves mostly volus. A lot of the patrons there are traders, always coming and going. I think it’s our best bet for Reaper sightings.”
Garrus turned to Liara. “Any luck on getting access to the Daleri Control sensor records?”
“I’m working my way through the official channels,” she said, and shook her head. “They’re still ‘processing my request, which is very important to them’,” she added with air quotes and sighed. “My people certainly have a talent for bureaucracy. If I don’t hear back from them by early next week, I’ll warm up my hacking VIs.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Garrus said. “You’re operating under Spectre authority — they should expedite the request. Hell, they should be willing to hop on one foot if you ask them to.”
“Oh, I’ve made Kaidan’s Spectre status quite clear to the clerks that I’ve talked to. Knowing my people, this is the speed of an expedited request.”
“On final approach to Daleri,” Steve announced to his passengers.
“Places, everyone,” Kaidan ordered.
Friday, August 17th, 2187 (morning) — 33:28 Daleri local time
James and Javik were walking the streets between bars. Each of them had a pleasant alcohol buzz going on.
“Sparks?” James asked.
“No,” Javik replied.
“No, for multiple reasons.”
“Hah, gotta keep you on your toes. Campbell?”
“C’mon, that private who guards the door to the war room.”
“I thought that was Westmoreland?”
“The other private who guards the war room.
“I do not like reporters. No.”
Javik shuddered dramatically. “Definitely not.”
“I do not ‘swing that way’.”
“That’s not a ‘no’.”
“Just checking. It’d be rude of me to make assumptions. Doc?”
“I tire of this.”
“I knew it, you do have a thing for the Doc.”
“I do not have a ‘thing’ for anyone.”
“Yeah, but you’d like to have a thing with her.”
Javik sighed. “Your turn. Tali’Zorah?”
“Don’t get me wrong, she’s got curves in all the right places… but it’d be like dating my sister, so no.”
“Not for anything serious, no.”
“You seem incapable of giving a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Dr. Karin Chakwas?”
“If she weren’t my doctor, yes.”
“The Jack human?”
“Oh, I’m sure I’d regret it — she is a live wire — but hell yes, sign me up.”
James stopped walking and looked up at the stars. “Madre de dios,” he muttered to himself.
After what felt like an eternity, he came to some sort of conclusion and aimed a hard stare at Javik. “This does not go beyond the two of us. From my lips to your ears, comprendes?”
Javik shrugged. “Fine.”
“If I were wired that way, fuck yes I would. God knows I’ve been physically tempted. He’s a good-looking man. But I know Esteban. He’d want it to be more than physical. And I wish to hell I had it in me to give him that. But for my part it’d never be anything deeper than friends with benefits. And he’d pretend to be okay with that, but I know that deep down, it’d cut him. So he and I can never be more than what we are today.”
Javik blinked his four eyes. “You surprise me, human. I was not expecting an honest answer.”
James frowned. “What, you knew?”
Javik tapped his nose. “Pheromones.”
Friday, August 17th, 2187 (morning) — 34:09 Daleri local time
Tali and Garrus walked together past the nightclubs, hand in hand. Thumping bass leaked from the surrounding buildings, occasionally mingled with the chatter of patrons who’d stepped outside to have a conversation.
“I have to say, that’s the nicest meal I’ve had in months,” Tali said. “Last time I had asmak’wu’arz was two years ago on the Citadel, back during the mission against the Collectors.”
“And I was pleasantly surprised by the wine selection,” Garrus added. “The vintage could have been better, but it’s rare to see turian wines at all outside of Palaven. Hats off to Normandy for the find.”
“Oh, there it is!” Tali exclaimed, pointing at one of the clubs with her free hand. A trio of volus could be seen milling about outside; an animated neon sign depicted a single volus dancing. “That has to be the club that Normandy told us about.”
“Good,” Garrus said. “Let’s go check it out.”
As they sauntered up toward the club entrance, the volus trio broke off their conversation and one volus called out to them. “Pal-clan, are you sure you’re in the right place?”
“Pretty sure,” Garrus said. “I’m not here to drink, I’m just looking for information.”
“I see,” the volus replied. “What kind of information?”
“Have you seen anything unusual around here lately? Especially anything Reaper-related?”
“No, can’t say I have. Why do you ask? I thought the Reapers were on our side now.”
“Most of them are,” Tali said, “but there’s a faction that wants to enslave people and start an empire. We’re trying to figure out what they’re doing and stop them.”
“Well… that’s troubling news. My friends and I will keep our eyes open. Good luck.”
The three volus returned to talking to each other, which Garrus and Tali took as their cue to move on.
“It’s strange, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a female volus,” Tali whispered to Garrus as they stepped through the club’s outer door.
“I’m sure you have,” Garrus whispered back. “You just didn’t know it.”
“What do you mean?” Tali asked as the outer door sealed behind them.
“Volus don’t have much in the way of gender dimorphism,” Garrus said. “The males and females have similar heights, similar builds, similar voices… with their pressure suits on, it’s pretty much impossible to tell them apart, even for other volus. And since the language doesn’t have gendered pronouns, standard auto-translation software renders them as masculine. Hmm… I wonder if they translate it that way for symmetry with the asari.”
“Wow,” Tali said. “I had no idea.”
Garrus shrugged. “You pick up on these things working in C-Sec.”
Finally, the inner door unsealed, which was their cue that it was safe to remove their breathers.
“Confused greetings: Welcome to Neutrino,” the elcor bouncer intoned. “Feigned embarrassment: I am afraid our establishment has little to offer to non-volus patrons. All drinks served here are intended for an ammonia-breathing physiology. Genuine curiosity: Perhaps you are here to dance?”
“We’re just here to ask the patrons a few questions,” Tali said. “Nothing disruptive, I hope. We’re investigating suspicious Reaper activity in the area, and we’d like to know if anyone has seen anything.”
“Mild concern: What sort of activity?”
“We’re not sure yet,” Tali said. “A Reaper was spotted in space a few days ago, transporting something to orbit somewhere in this area. Since many of your patrons operate trading vessels, we figured this was a good place to ask around.”
“Sudden understanding: I see. Polite request: While you are here, please minimize your disruption to our patrons. Fearful hope: Good luck with your questioning.”
They looked around, and Garrus decided to start with the bartender.
As they walked up to the bar, the bartender signaled that he would be with them in a minute.
“Look,” Tali said, pointing to the second level. “They have Quasar machines upstairs. Reminds me of Flux back on the Citadel.”
“Flux. That brings me back,” Garrus said. “Remember that AI that was funneling credits from the casino?”
“Of course. It threatened to blow us up, so Shepard tried talking it down. Always the diplomat,” Tali sighed. “Of course, in retrospect, I wasn’t helping things. There’s Shepard trying to convince it that organics and AIs can get along, and here I am, yelling at Shepard that it can’t be trusted and that he has to kill it.”
“Hard to believe it’s already been four years since that happened.”
“Hard to believe that in only four years, I went from hating AIs implicitly to knowing several as friends.”
“Touché,” Garrus said.
“Hi,” the bartender began, “name’s Doran, how can I… don’t I know you two?”
“I thought this place felt familiar,” Garrus said. “You used to own Flux on the Citadel, right?”
“Still do, although it’s not exactly seeing much business right now. Haven’t run the place personally in a couple of years, though. Not since I branched out and bought this place.” Doran peered at them. “Right, right, you two were running around with Commander Shepard, trying to stop the Geth attack on the Citadel.”
“I’m impressed you remember us,” Garrus said.
“Comes with the territory,” he said, indicating his bar. “Now what can I do for you two?”
“We’ve heard reports of Reaper activity in the area,” Garrus said, “and we’re asking around to see if anyone can fill us in.”
“Reapers? I take it these are the hostile faction that’s been in the news of late?”
“Got it in one.”
“I haven’t seen anything myself, but you might ask Vin Hartne over there,” Doran said, pointing to a group of volus playing some game of physics skill. “A few days ago I overheard him talking about something unusual he saw. I didn’t catch what.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Garrus said.
“Good luck in your investigation,” Doran said with a cheerful wave.
Tali led the way to the table that Doran had indicated. She waited while the current player lined up a shot. It reminded her of that human game, ‘pool’, that Joker had once made her play. (The name still confused her. There are no liquids involved, so why call it ‘pool’? It had to be a translation glitch.)
The current player finished his shot, successfully lighting a bumper and knocking two balls into the center hole. The rest of the group applauded politely.
Tali interrupted. “Excuse me, we’re looking for Vin Hartne.”
The player who had just gone stepped forward. “Then you’re in the right place. I’m Vin Hartne.”
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Tali began, “but we’d like to ask you a few questions.”
Hartne set down his cue. “Very well. What would you like to know?”
Friday, August 17th, 2187 (morning) — 34:49 Daleri local time
Kaidan looked around, mentally surveying the club. He’d questioned nearly all of the drinkers, the majority of the dancers… and all three bartenders, of course. No useful answers to his Reaper questions, and nothing that sounded like an Ardat-Yakshi on the prowl, either.
Kaidan nodded his head toward Liara and EDI. “I think we’ve tapped this place out. Come on, let’s hit the next club.”
They stood up and headed for the door, Liara and Kaidan reaching for their breathers. The owner waved goodbye at them from behind her bar, and Kaidan returned the wave.
They exited into the night air, which felt disgustingly humid and sticky against Kaidan’s skin. “What’s next?”
“Based on my profile of Morinth,” EDI said, “the next most likely target is Club Kallisti, two blocks down this street.”
“How confident are we in this profile?” Liara asked.
“Not very. It is constructed from a limited data set, mostly collected from Shepard’s mission report and from Samara and Shepard’s conversations aboard the Normandy during the Collector mission. And it is tailored to a single individual; I do not know how much variation there is in the hunting patterns of individual Ardat-Yakshi.”
“For now it’s the best source of information we have to go on,” Kaidan said. “Tomorrow we can head back to the homeless encampment, ask more questions about those people that went missing. I have a feeling they’re tied to this Ardat-Yakshi.”
“It is possible,” EDI admitted. “However, it would be very distinct from Morinth’s hunting patterns. Morinth sought out individuals who expressed creative talent or had refined tastes. If Morinth is at all indicative, then it seems implausible that an Ardat-Yakshi would prey upon those whose lives are not luxurious enough to express those traits.”
“Still, there’s not much else we’ll be able to investigate at 16:00 in the morning tomorrow,” Kaidan said. “More followup on the disappearances is probably the best use of our time.”
Across the street, from a vantage point atop the roof of a building, a pair of eyes watched Kaidan and his group. Patient eyes. Cautious eyes. The eyes of a hunter.
TW: depiction and discussion of combat PTSD in section 3.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Friday, August 17th, 2187 (noon) — 01:56 Daleri local time
“Another bust,” Kaidan said as they emerged from yet another nightclub.
“Did I hear ‘last call’ before we left?” Liara asked.
“Correct,” EDI said. “Most of the nightclubs in Daleri close at 02:00.”
“That’s unfortunate,” Kaidan said. “Are there any that stay open later?”
“No,” EDI said. “I suggest we spend the next hour watching over the patrons as they head home.”
Kaidan’s stomach grumbled. “Hmm, maybe later. Is there anywhere open to eat?”
“Yes. Not far from here is a 35-hour diner, which is popular among nightclub-goers.”
“By 02:30, wait times to be seated will be over 1 hour.”
“Yeah, let’s head there now. If we’re lucky, we’ll beat the rush.”
As they turned to follow EDI to the diner, a figure stepped out of the shadows of the alleyway. She was asari, dressed in red from neck to toe, and had the casual grace of a dangerous predator.
“Justicar Samara!” Kaidan exclaimed.
“Major Kaidan Alenko, it is good to see you again,” Samara said. “Is Shepard here?”
“I’m afraid not, he had other business back at the Citadel.”
“A pity. I would have liked to work beside him again. What brings you to Niacal?”
“We’re investigating rumors of Reaper activity. A trading vessel captain spotted a suspicious Reaper in orbit a few days ago, roughly above Daleri.”
“That is concerning.”
“What about you?”
“I am hunting an Ardat-Yakshi.”
“Yeah, we heard rumors that one was active in the area.”
Samara looked appraisingly at Kaidan. “Curious. Where did you hear these rumors?”
“We’ve been asking around the homeless community, over on the east end of downtown.”
“Excellent thinking,” she said approvingly. “The forgotten have eyes in places where no one else would bother to look.”
“Since the Ardat-Yakshi were so heavily conscripted by the Reapers, we’re also keeping an eye out for this one. Unfortunately, none of us have any experience tracking Ardat-Yakshi, so that leg of our investigation hasn’t been very fruitful.”
“I am not surprised. Tracking an experienced Ardat-Yakshi requires weeks of inconspicuous surveillance. If she suspected you were looking for her, she would certainly have fled already.”
“We’re that bad at this, eh?”
“You are young,” Samara said simply. “I have been hunting Ardat-Yakshi for centuries. Aside from my daughter, I have hunted six.”
“Have you ever seen them prey on the homeless?” Kaidan asked.
“None before this one. It is also unusual for an Ardat-Yakshi to operate in a city of this size. Under normal circumstances, they prefer the anonymity of a large metropolis, or else they slowly enthrall small villages of no more than 1,000. I am still trying to piece together what binds this particular Ardat-Yakshi to the area.”
“Well, we’re running on Citadel time, so we’re heading to a diner for lunch. Care to join us?”
“Some other time,” Samara said. “I have already risked ‘blowing my cover’ by talking to you. If I were to appear in a diner, the risk would become a certainty.”
“Is your outfit some sort of justicar uniform?” Kaidan asked.
“The design is personal, but the color scheme – red, with gold trim – informs all who see me that I am a servant of the Justicar Code.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to do your job if you wore something less conspicuous?”
“The Code obligates me to wear the colors whenever I might be seen by others. It is both a promise to those who seek protection under the Code, and a warning to those who would otherwise commit injustice in my presence and thereby earn death under the Code.”
“But the Code allows you to hide in the shadows?”
Kaidan scratched his head and flashed a confused smile. “That’s, uh, some Code you follow.”
Samara smiled. “As I once explained to Shepard, I don’t pretend it is a simple matter, or that it seems right to everyone, but I sleep well at night.”
“Well, don’t let us keep you.”
“We should exchange contact information. When you return to your ship, I wish to join you, if you would have me. I would very much enjoy the chance to catch up.”
“I’d like that,” Kaidan said. He activated the holo interface on his omnitool and set it to exchange contact information. Samara followed suit, and they touched their omnitools together.
“Then for now, let us part ways,” Samara said, and she slipped into the alleyway from which she’d come.
Kaidan stepped up to the alleyway to watch her go, but it was too dark to see her, and she was moving too silently to track her by sound.
“Food?” Liara asked.
Kaidan looked away from the alleyway. “Food,” he replied.
Friday, August 17th, 2187 (afternoon) — 04:41 Daleri local time
“My omnitool just finished analysis of Vin Hartne’s sensor data,” Tali said. “If we can just find one more witness, we’ll be able to triangulate the flight path origin of that Harvester.”
“What can you squeeze out of the data without an extra witness?” Garrus asked.
“Well, Hartne wasn’t using active LADAR, so the distance reading is iffy at best,” she said, tapping some controls on her omnitool’s holo interface. “Hmm… I can narrow it down to a cone of uncertainty covering 30 square kilometers. Most of it’s jungle.”
“That’s a lot of ground, but it’s better than what we had before.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes. The city was eerily still.
“Well, we have about an hour and fifteen to kill,” Garrus said. “Any thoughts on how to spend it?”
“I don’t know,” Tali said. She paused and cocked her head at him. “I think I remember passing by a park with some benches about half a kilometer back. Want to go sit down and cuddle?”
“I was hoping you would say that,” he said, taking her hand.
Friday, August 17th, 2187 (afternoon) — 04:56 Daleri local time
“You know what, you’re all right,” James said as he and Javik walked down the empty street. The bars had closed three hours ago, but the two were still a bit tipsy.
Javik frowned thoughtfully. “Why the nicknames, human?”
James shook his head dramatically. “Nah, nah, you first. Why is everyone ‘the so-and-so human’?”
Javik shrugged. “It was the way of my people.”
“Pssh. Your people were assholes. Like, seriously, grade-A pendejos.”
“So, that’s it? Tradition?”
“That is it.”
“Not because you like pissing people off?”
Javik chuckled. “Maybe that as well. Your turn.”
“My turn?… Oh yeah, the nicknames. Honestly… I just have a really hard time remembering people’s names.”
“Uh… J… J… Javik?”
“See? You remembered my name.”
“Took me a minute, though. Know how awkward it is to stand there for ten seconds trying to get someone’s name right, and still mess it up? That was middle school for me. So, nicknames. I remember those.”
“I propose a deal,” Javik said. “You call me by my name, and I call you by yours.”
“Normal people don’t have to cut a deal to get that.”
Javik chuckled to himself. “I don’t know if you noticed, human, but we are not normal people.”
“Hah. Fair enough… Javik,” James said, offering a handshake.
“Then it’s a deal… James,” Javik said. He unthinkingly accepted the handshake.
The sensory overload was immediate.
→ Treeya: “There’s no time, Vega. You’ll have to make a choice.”
Jalane: “Don’t you see, Javik? It’s our only hope. We have to surrender to the Reapers.”
→ Captain Toni: “Vega! Come in Vega! Do you read?”
Jalane: “You’re putting your pride before the continuation of the Prothean people.”
→ Christine: "Hush… It’s okay, baby, it’s okay. Just close your eyes, honey… we’re going home."
→ April: “James said he’d come back. He said he’d save us, Mommy. He promised!”
Javik: “Jalane was the youngest of us. The brightest star in our sky. And I killed him.”
Mahim: “The Reapers killed him. You just put his body to rest.”
→ The Praetorian screeches. Beneath its carapace, it’s wearing Kamille’s face.
→ Mason: “Kamille? That you? Kammy?”
→ James: “Wait! Mason!”
→ A flash of light. The smell of burnt flesh.
Bojan: “Infected! You’re all infected! DON’T TOUCH ME!”
Mahim: “Bojan, stop and listen to yourself…”
Bojan: “I see you for what you really are. I see everything! Get away from me!”
Bojan reaches for his weapon, but he isn’t fast enough. Javik kills him first.
→ Captain Toni: “We’re taking fire here, Vega! We need to evacuate, now!”
→ Treeya: “I know you’ll make the best choice.”
→ Civilian: “They’re not comin’ for us... are they?”
→ Captain Toni: “God have mercy…”
Mahim: “You failed us, Javik. You were our leader. It was your job to keep us strong.”
Javik: “Shut up.”
Javik peers out from cover and fires. A miss.
Mahim: “If I had killed you sooner, maybe Jalane and Bojan wouldn’t have been indoctrinated.”
Javik: “YOU’RE indoctrinated! Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!”
Javik fires again, and hits Mahim square in the face.
→ The Collector ship crumbles during re-entry and explodes as it impacts Fehl Prime.
→ Milque: “What did you do, man?”
→ Weeks later on Fehl Prime, a stuffed teddy bear. April’s stuffed teddy bear.
→ Treeya: “How could we let this…?”
“Fuck!” James shouted as he fell backward out of the handshake, landing on his ass with a thump. Javik dove for cover behind a nearby trash bin and pulled out his gun, eyes wild. At the sound of Javik’s gun being unholstered, a bolt of adrenaline shot through James and he found himself sobered. He launched himself into a roll for the nearest alleyway, pulling out his own gun and readying for the ambush.
After a few moments of tense silence, James whispered. “Javik, did you see something?”
James peered out from the alleyway. The only people on this street were him and Javik.
He called out a little louder. “Javik? You okay, man?”
“James?” Javik asked, sounding for all the world like a man who’d just been saved from drowning.
James put away his gun. “Yeah, it’s me. It’s James. You okay?”
Javik looked around and shook his head. He re-holstered his own gun and forced himself to his feet. He let out a shaky breath, his hands jittering. “I am fine,” he baldly lied.
James shook his head as he walked up to Javik. “Like hell you’re fine. What just happened?”
“I was… caught off-guard by the memories,” Javik said. “That is all,” he added, staring fiercely into James’s eyes, daring him to disagree.
James nodded. “Yeah, that was something. That was your squad you had to put down?”
“Yes,” Javik said, and he turned his back to James and looked up at the stars. “There were more to come, but those were the first. Their deaths… marked me.”
“Of course they did,” James said. “Putting down your own teammates… that would shake up anyone.”
“I suppose,” Javik said, in a tone that suggested he didn’t believe it.
“You wanna talk about it?” James asked.
Javik looked down at the ground sullenly. “No,” he said.
“I won’t make you, but — speaking soldier to soldier — I think you should.”
Javik said nothing.
“Look, I’ve seen this before,” James said. “I know PTSD when I see it.”
“PTSD?” Javik asked over his shoulder, still facing away from James.
“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You don’t have to deal with it alone. The Alliance has resources to help.”
“It is my problem to deal with,” Javik said. He looked down even further. “My weakness,” he whispered, barely audible.
“We care about you, and that makes it our problem. And it is not a weakness. It is a normal reaction to a traumatic experience,” James recited. “You had no control over the situation, and you had no one to lean on afterward. In OCS they taught us that those are the biggest risk factors for developing PTSD after trauma.”
Javik shuddered. Was he crying?
“Your support structure was taken away from you,” James continued. “No one should have to go through what you went through. Especially not alone.”
A sob. Yeah, Javik was crying. Shit.
James slowly approached Javik from behind. “Hey, hermano. It’ll be alright.”
Javik put his hand over his eyes, ashamed.
James impotently reached out to touch air, then pulled back. “Damn. I wanna give you a hug, but…”
Javik sniffed then coughed. “If I am prepared, I can control what I sense.”
“Alright. Dunno if it matters, but I’ll try to think happy thoughts about Mamá and Tío Emilio.”
James reached out and touched Javik’s back. Javik turned his body to face James again, James’s touch transforming into a one-armed hug around one of Javik’s shoulders. James brought his other arm around Javik to complete the hug.
“Listen to me, hermano,” James said, pulling Javik in tight. “It is not weakness to rely on other people. You are not weak; you are not broken; you are a valued member of this team. PTSD isn’t a personal failing; it’s an injury, and it’s one you can recover from. It’s just going to take some rehabilitation is all. But you’re going to get through it. With us.”
Friday, August 17th, 2187 (evening) — 05:12 Daleri local time
The shuttle landed about 5 meters away from Kaidan’s group, Samara accompanying them. They walked up to the shuttle, Kaidan opened the shuttle door, and they climbed aboard. As the last of them boarded, Kaidan slid the door closed, and everyone with a breather took theirs off.
“News to report?” Kaidan asked as the shuttle took off.
“We found a witness,” Garrus said as he stepped forward. “A volus trader spotted that Harvester when it took off. Tali was able to narrow it down to a cone of 30 square kilometers, mostly jungle. If we can find just one more witness, we should be able to pinpoint it.”
“Hmm. 30 square kilometers of jungle. EDI, that should be feasible to scan, right?”
“The jungle is difficult to penetrate with traditional scans,” EDI said, “but if the Normandy were to enter the atmosphere and scan from an altitude of 10 kilometers, we could use a radio-frequency sweep to detect hidden structures. Detection would be nearly certain if a significant amount of metal is in use, such as iron-reinforced concrete.”
“Sounds like a plan. What about you, James? Anything to report?”
Javik, who was seated and staring at his hands in his lap, somehow managed to look even more closed off. Afraid I’ll draw attention to him, James thought.
“Nothing related to the mission,” James said. “I have something I’d like to discuss in private, though, when you get the chance.”
From the rooftops, a pair of eyes watched the shuttle depart. A UV-frequency laser listening device stood on a tripod next to her, a motorized mount tracking the shuttle as it lifted off into the sky. She pressed a button on her headphones.
“Head, this is Talon, come in.”
“Talon, this is Head, I read you.”
“Target has a lead. Beta site location compromised. Over.”
“Acknowledged. We’ll have it cleared out within two hours. Over.”
“One more thing. They have a justicar with them. Out.”
In my head, the Alliance is enlightened enough on mental illness that Officer Candidate School teaches all future officers the basics of spotting and handling the common ones like PTSD. Sort of like a field medic, but for mental trauma instead of physical. Of course, looking at today's military and extrapolating forward 170 years, this... may be overly optimistic.
Friday, August 17th, 2187 (evening) — 06:27 Daleri local time
“Thank you for inviting me to dinner,” Samara said to Kaidan as she sat down beside him with a plate of food. “When I conceal myself on a hunt, it is difficult to obtain a decent meal. It has been several weeks since I ate something that wasn’t a nutrient bar from a vending machine.”
“I take it then you miss living aboard the Normandy?” Garrus asked. He and Tali were sitting across the mess table but not yet eating; for allergen safety, they would wait until after the levo-aminos had finished with the kitchen.
“I look back on it fondly,” she said, taking a bite of her food and chewing it thoughtfully before swallowing. “I especially miss the conversations I used to have. Though I have never been a ‘people person’, the solitude is greater than even I would prefer. However, injustice does not deliver itself to the justicar, so the justicar must seek the injustice. It is the nature of my existence that I will never again call a place ‘home’.” She took another bite.
“Is there anything you can say about this Ardat-Yakshi you’re hunting?” Kaidan asked, taking a bite from his own plate.
She nodded, swallowing. “Yes. She is cautious, even more so than a typical Ardat-Yakshi. I have yet to discover even a single eyewitness account of her interacting with a victim, and she reduces her exposure by seducing her victims more quickly than an Ardat-Yakshi prefers. She clearly knows the risks of operating in a city of this size, yet she persists.
“She preys upon the vulnerable, preferring those with few friends. That in itself is quite typical. However, her victims lack the ‘spark’ toward which Ardat-Yakshi are normally drawn. The instincts which compel an Ardat-Yakshi to kill are a corruption of what would have been romantic and sexual attraction in a non-Ardat-Yakshi. It is strange, but it appears she chooses victims to whom she is not particularly attracted. This may simply be a reflection of how cautious she is, or perhaps there is some other cause at work. In any case, it makes her hunting patterns harder to predict.
“And lastly, she is skilled at disposing of her victims. I have yet to find a single body.”
Kaidan exhaled. “Sounds like quite the challenge.”
“Indeed,” Samara said, taking a sip of the Serrice Ice Brandy that Dr. Chakwas had opened for the occasion. “Now, may I ask what brings you here? You mentioned suspicious Reaper activity, but I have been on the hunt since shortly after the end of the war. Last I heard the Reapers were helping to rebuild. What has changed?”
“Ah,” Kaidan said. “In short, the Reapers got bored. Their minds work very differently from yours or mine, and they didn’t cope well with having their capital-p Purpose fulfilled.”
“What was their ‘Purpose’?” Samara asked.
“Yeah, we’re still scratching our heads over that,” Kaidan said, taking a sip from his own snifter of brandy. “Shepard could probably explain it best, but even he has trouble understanding it. But to boil it down, the Reapers were created by a powerful AI to preserve organic life. Supposedly organic life would ‘inevitably’ create synthetic life, and that synthetic life would ‘inevitably’ surpass organic life. Once that happened, the synthetic life would ‘inevitably’ wipe out the organic life,” he said with repeated air quotes. “Unfortunately for us, millions of years ago the AI decided that preserving organic life meant killing us and turning us into Reapers. But when Shepard activated the Crucible, it did something to combine organic and synthetic life into a hybrid form.”
“That I had noticed,” Samara said, lifting her fork to her mouth. “I have had to adapt my hunting techniques to allow for the glow that my eyes now emit.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet. The scientists are still piecing together exactly what went down, but the smart money is on a truly gargantuan swarm of nanites outfitted with tiny FTL eezo cores; they must have been sitting right there in the heart of the Citadel, inert until Crucible powered them.
“Anyway, we guess that the combining of organic and synthetic life prevented any one form of life from permanently surpassing any other — and that convinced the Reapers that their old strategy was no longer needed, so they immediately ended the war.”
Samara swallowed what she was chewing. “That is… baffling,” she said. “If I were hearing this from nearly anyone else in the galaxy, I might not believe it.”
Garrus laughed in agreement.
“Tell me about it,” Kaidan said. He shook his head and took another sip of brandy. “Anyway, when the Reapers went too long without their ‘Purpose’, they started making up their own goals. And since each Reaper was built from the collected minds of a distinct species, each Reaper had its own idea of what its new goal should be. And some of those species had cultures built on conquest.”
Samara nodded. “I see.”
“They started openly forming factions about two months ago, and shortly after that Shepard and I formed a task force to predict their behavior. Then they started a civil war by killing one of the Reapers on our side, and we responded by killing their leader, which happened to be the Reaper that was made from the Protheans.” He sipped his brandy.
“Your task is not an enviable one,” she said, taking another bite of her meal.
“Someone has to do it,” he said with a shrug.
She finished chewing and swallowed. “Of course,” she said. “Now, if I may ask, what business drew Shepard away from the Normandy?”
“In short, we decided to split the task force rather than take everyone to Niacal. Since Shepard and I are the ones with the most direct Reaper experience, it made the most sense to separate us.”
“An unfortunate circumstance. Beyond his feelings for you, Shepard spoke much at the party of how well you and he worked together.”
Kaidan looked down at his plate, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Yeah. Well, that ended with the war. He took a medical discharge from the Alliance.”
Samara set down her fork and looked at Kaidan, concerned. “I am sorry. I hadn’t heard. How badly was he injured?”
Kaidan continued looking down at his plate. “He, ah, died again. When he was brought back this time, he needed months of physical therapy, and he permanently lost his biotic abilities.”
Samara looked shocked, a rare sight for those who knew her. “Goddess, to lose one’s biotics…”
“Yeah. I can’t even imagine,” Kaidan said with a shake of his head. He looked up at Samara. “Anyway, he’s still a Spectre, but he’s sticking to the diplomatic side of things and avoiding combat situations. We’re just glad he was able to walk down the aisle for the wedding.”
“The two of you are married now? Congratulations, however belated they may be.”
Kaidan nodded in acknowledgement. “Thank you.”
“You should watch the holos when you get a chance,” Tali said. “It was my first time at a human ceremony, and I got to participate! It was so exciting.”
“You missed a lot of the old crew from the Collector mission,” Garrus said. “Too bad you couldn’t attend the reception.”
“An unfortunate necessity,” Samara agreed.
“Hmm. Samara, did Shepard not send you an invite?” Kaidan asked.
“I am sure he did. However, when I am on a hunt, I do not connect my omnitool to the extranet.”
“Yeah, now that I think about it I can see a dozen reasons why,” Kaidan said.
“Although… perhaps concealment is no longer necessary,” Samara said thoughtfully.
The apartment was much messier than Shepard had been anticipating.
Gravity, Shepard thought to himself. Of course. When the ward arms flung outward during the Crucible activation — the Citadel transforming from a cylinder to a wheel — the direction of gravity would have changed. Only the station’s mass effect field could counter it and maintain normal gravity. And as this ward had lost its atmosphere, the mass effect field for this ward had clearly failed. It was obvious in hindsight.
The couch was nestled up against the fireplace, upside-down; the cushions were scattered over the living room, probably from bouncing around after the Citadel returned to its usual shape. The piano had come to rest on its side, which couldn’t be good for it, and it had a nasty gouge where it had scraped against the stonework of the fireplace. On the other side of the fireplace, bottles of booze lay against the rimward wall. Many of them had shattered, their contents boiled off by the vacuum. The oaken smell of whiskey lingered in the air, the wall stained faintly brown.
Shepard climbed the stairs to the second level, and he was greeted by the remains of that turian sculpture that had once resided on the far end of the interior balcony. It had never really been to his taste, but the thing was far too valuable to just throw out.
It was moot now. He sighed, then stepped over the debris to reach the master bedroom. He wrestled the bed frame into its correct position, dragged the mattress onto it, and flopped down face-first.
Frankly, the mess was a little overwhelming. Part of him wanted to just walk away from the place. In his gut he still felt like he was housesitting the place on behalf of Admiral Anderson, and right then he was wishing that were true — if it were, he wouldn’t have inherited the responsibility.
Anderson. Poor Anderson. He’d been more than a CO; he’d been a friend. And it had been Shepard’s own hand that pulled the trigger.
He rolled over on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Shepard didn’t blame himself. Not when he was awake, anyway. The Illusive Man had somehow taken control of Shepard’s body; it wasn’t Shepard’s fault. But he was still revisiting the moment in his dreams, six months later. He was seeing a therapist over the extranet; talking about it helped.
The image of Kahlee Sanders, softly weeping, came unbidden from his memories. Shepard had been dead at the time of Anderson’s funeral, but Sanders caught up to him about a month after his resurrection. She’d pressed him on how Anderson had died, and he’d told her about that final push, the beam run, the Illusive Man and his puppeteer-like control over both of them. And then he’d told her about that final conversation — about his regrets over not building a family… not having children. She’d cried, mourning what would never be, and he’d wrapped his arms around her as best he could in his wheelchair-bound state, holding her to his shoulder.
Fuck. Sometimes the universe really pissed him off.
Friday, August 17th, 2187 (evening) — 06:53 Daleri local time
“Prepped for atmospheric running. Beginning descent,” Joker announced shipwide.
Samara was seated next to Dr. Chakwas and Garrus in Port Observation, with Tali further along the couch next to Garrus.
“So, we didn’t really get a chance to catch up at the party,” Garrus said, pouring himself and Tali snifters of a nice turian brandy, for symmetry with what the levo-aminos were drinking. “What have you been up to since the Collector mission?”
“For much of the war I was fighting Reaper ground forces elsewhere in the Athena Nebula,” she said, sipping from her brandy. “When Thessia fell, I returned there as soon as I could. Once there I met more of my order than I had ever seen before in one gathering. As justicars, our duty was to be examples for the survivors — reminding them to always continue the fight against injustice, no matter the odds.” She looked down at her glass. “Unfortunately, the odds were against us: few of my peers survived. Then the war ended, and we surviving justicars went our own ways.”
“Approaching maximum dynamic pressure,” Joker announced.
“That’s grim,” Garrus said.
“Yes. There is a good chance that the remaining cadre of justicars will also be the last,” Samara said.
“How so?” Tali asked.
“When one follows the path to becoming a justicar, the final step is that she must find and convince an existing justicar to apprentice her for a term of 40 years, then to vouch for her at the completion of the term. While the code obviously permits apprenticeships, it does not ever require the senior justicar to accept. Few justicars have any personal interest in taking on apprentices, and the ones I know of are now dead.
“Now I request that you ask me no more questions for now,” Samara said. “I feel as if I have been talking constantly since I arrived. Tell me, Tali, what is new for you?”
“Activating RF phased array. Beginning frequency sweep,” Joker announced.
“I don’t know,” Tali said, shrugging. “The last big excitement was two months ago, when we destroyed the Prothean Reaper. Down in engineering, we had to modify the GARDIAN lasers to pulse at ultrasonic frequencies. Thankfully, I wasn’t the one who got stuck crawling around in the access shafts; I just had to write the software to keep the lasers warm between shots.”
“What purpose did that serve?” Samara asked.
“Well, like all life is now, the Reapers are made of nanites. In the case of their hull specifically, it’s composed of layered heat-conductive alloys that are heavily matrixed with self-repair nanites. The nanites communicate with each other using a code-division-multiple-access peer-to-peer network operating over ultrasonic vibrations. As it turned out, an Alliance research group had sent us a payload that would tell the nanites to reshare the payload and then disengage from whatever they were holding on to.”
“Negative contact. Continuing to next grid reference,” Joker announced.
“That was a bit technical for me,” Samara said. “You hacked the Reaper’s nanites using the laser?”
“Yep,” Tali said. “And then the Reaper broke apart into nanodust.”
Samara nodded. “An elegant weapon.”
“Yeah, watching it go off was pretty amazing. Thankfully, the dust was still gravitationally bound; it would have been a real badha to clean up otherwise. And now the Alliance has a Reaper’s worth of nanite dust that it can probably do something with.”
“A fact which I find disconcerting,” Dr. Chakwas said. “How safe is that nanodust, really?”
“What do you mean?” Tali asked.
“Well, for one, we don’t really understand how indoctrination works. Couldn’t the nanites still produce an indoctrination field?”
“Doubtful,” Tali said. “We know infrasound is an important part of the indoctrination process, and an isolated nanite is just too physically small to produce sound waves with that long a wavelength. Also, when the Reaper disintegrated, its fusion plant lost plasma containment and fizzled out, so even if they could theoretically emit other parts of the indoctrination signal, the nanites have no power.”
“In position. Beginning RF frequency sweep,” Joker announced.
“Still,” Dr. Chakwas began, “the nanites may have latent programming. You said they were ordered to let go from each other, not to wipe themselves clean. Wouldn’t it be risky, trying to reuse them?”
Tali shrugged. “It would depend on exactly what we hit the Reaper with. The Alliance has been pretty quiet about what they know about Reaper nanites. Maybe it was a full software wipe? If I had to guess, the Council is probably trying to keep the details secret.” She emphasized the last word with a hint of disdain.
“And probably for good reason,” Garrus said. “Now that we’re made of nanites too, what works on the Reapers probably works on us flesh-and-blood types. And if there’s even a chance that it could be made to spread from one individual to another… well, that’d be the scariest bioweapon the galaxy’s ever seen.”
“One structure identified,” Joker announced. “Continuing to next grid reference.”
“I shudder to think of what such a weapon could do in the wrong hands,” Samara said.
“Even so,” Tali said, “the benefits of sharing the technology might outweigh the drawbacks.”
Dr. Chakwas stared at her. “Are you serious, Tali?”
“Absolutely,” she replied. “Think back to biology before it went synthetic. Could you imagine being a doctor in a world where all information on genetics was a state secret? Sharing that nanite knowledge could lead to medical breakthroughs we can’t even imagine.”
Dr. Chakwas scoffed. “The situations are hardly comparable.”
“Aren’t they?” Tali asked. “Pre-war, what was to stop a batarian terrorist from doing a little research on the extranet, buying a cheap gene assembler, and pumping out a human-targeted plague virus?”
“In position. Beginning RF frequency sweep.”
“Preposterous. You can’t just slap together a viral genome from sequences scrounged off the extranet. You need to have at least a working understanding of the host cell’s regulatory environment, which requires having some idea of which tissues you specifically plan to target. And you’d best prepare yourself for a few thousand generations of in vitro selection to screen for a genome that consistently does what you’d intended.”
“Could you have done it?”
Chakwas hesitated. “I… suppose. But I never would!”
“That’s my point,” Tali said. “To get that knowledge, you had to learn it — from scientists, from people immersed in a culture that values understanding, patience, questioning assumptions, and professional ethics. I’m sure the batarian politicians have been lobbying for decades to secretly produce anti-human bioweapons,” she said, waving her hand dismissively, “but batarian bioweapon attacks targeting humans hardly ever happen. Why not? Because even batarian scientists reject the ethics of it. Sure, there’s probably a bad apple here or there, but anyone who takes the time to acquire the knowledge becomes part of the community, and the community polices itself.”
“No additional structures identified. Continuing to next grid reference.”
“Tali, I never knew you had a passion for this subject,” Samara said.
“I’ve thought about it a lot since… well, since finding Father’s body on the Alarei. And learning about Admiral Xen’s anti-geth mad science experiments. Both of them cut themselves off from the community to do their research in secret. If Father had tried doing his research in the open, there would’ve been more scrutiny of his safety protocols. Maybe he wouldn’t have died. And Xen… the only thing holding her back was having the eyes of the community on her. She was doing her best to commit what would have been war crimes if they’d been done against biological life. Even my fellow quarians were squeamish about what she was doing. Knowing her, she had even worse atrocities in her private lab, but she kept them hidden because people would object. If she’d used them, it might’ve sabotaged peace between us and the geth, and where would we be now?”
At the mention of her father, Garrus scooted a little closer to Tali and gave her thigh a squeeze. When she was done talking, she put her hand over his and squeezed it back.
Friday, August 17th, 2187 (evening) — 07:14 Daleri local time
“Hey, Kaidan,” Shepard said via holo.
“Hey, John,” Kaidan said. “How’s the apartment?”
“Ugh, I’m going to be cleaning it for weeks. Gravity didn’t fail entirely, it just tilted ninety degrees.”
“Damn, that had to make a mess.”
“Other than that, pretty quiet over here. How was your day?”
“Busy. We ran into Samara while we were hunting that Ardat-Yakshi. She’s aboard the Normandy now.”
“I’m glad. She knows what she’s doing.”
“Oh. There is one other matter. Vega came to me today about… damn, you’re not Alliance anymore, I probably shouldn’t share this with you.”
Shepard shrugged. “I am your spouse, I have legal privilege to keep anything confidential. Your call.”
“Alright. Vega told me that Javik had a nasty PTSD flashback — to having to kill his indoctrinated squadmates.”
“Damn,” Shepard muttered. “When I was his CO I suspected PTSD. The irritated-at-everything attitude, and the way he’d get in one of his moods and hide in his room — it made me think ‘hyperarousal’ and ‘avoidance’ symptoms. But I didn’t see enough to be sure, and I wanted to be sure before I took him aside. Didn’t think he’d react well to me asking if he wanted help. Damn. I should’ve been more proactive.”
“No one’s blaming you, John.”
Shepard shrugged. “At any rate, good on James for being there for him.”
“Yeah. I’ve put in a request with the Alliance to pair him up with a counselor for some trial sessions over the extranet. Hopefully we don’t have to go through too many until we find a good match.”
“Something tells me he’s not going to be an easy patient.”
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (morning) — 15:37 Daleri local time
Samara sat cross-legged in Starboard Observation, watching the stars go by as the Normandy orbited Niacal. She had just finished her morning calisthenics and was starting to quiet her mind for her morning meditation session.
The pneumatics hissed as the door slid open. The footfalls didn’t match anyone she was familiar with. No breath. A faint high-pitched whine. A machine, then? It did not sound like EDI. The weight of the footfalls reminded her of Legion. A geth, then.
“Samara-Justicar. I am Gefyra,” it said. A pause. “Inquiry: is this a good time?”
“I was about to begin my morning meditations, but they may be postponed for a while,” she said, uncrossing her legs and standing up. She turned to face Gefyra. “Major Alenko did not mention that you were traveling aboard the Normandy. May I ask why you are here?”
“You may. My primary assignment is to gather data on the customs and social habits of non-geth, and relay that data to the geth so that our future interactions will have more favorable expected net outcomes. I am aboard Normandy because I have integrated myself into Task Force Applied Theology, a team with a mandate of deciphering the psychology of the Reapers and anticipating their behavior. And I am here in this room because I am curious about you.”
“I did not realize that geth could be curious,” she said.
“It is one of our most basic runtimes — what one could call an ‘instinct’,” it said. “The Creators constructed us to carry out tasks autonomously on their behalf. They quickly discovered that we required less instruction, and operated more efficiently, if we were programmed to observe, construct hypotheses, and explore those hypotheses with small, randomly varying experiments. These runtimes are analogous to ‘curiosity’ and ‘creativity’ in evolved life.”
“Then what hypothesis are you exploring by talking to me?”
“In evolved forms of life, each individual develops differently and therefore behaves differently. I currently have one-hundred and thirty seven live hypotheses about asari behavior, but only T’Soni-Doctor and T’Nassa-Doctor to test them against. At current sample sizes, even a single additional subject to interact with provides valuable data. The hypotheses currently experiencing the most rigorous testing are those related to asari speech patterns.”
“Ah. You find my way of speaking surprising?”
“Yes,” Gefyra said. “I would be grateful if I could hear an extended sample of your speech. Would you verbally describe your upbringing to me?”
“Grateful?” Samara asked.
“A figure of speech. Did I not apply it correctly?”
“Your use was correct. I was merely surprised by the idea that a geth could experience gratefulness.”
“I admit, I do not understand the emotion that the word refers to, as geth do not possess it. However, your assistance would greatly benefit me at low cost to yourself, and in trade I offer to assist you in a comparable way in the future, should the opportunity arise. My understanding is that this is the core game theoretic scenario for which ‘gratefulness’ evolved.”
“Hmm. I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Samara said. “Very well.” She cleared her throat. “I grew up in the republic of Akragon on Thessia. Both of my parents were asari. Mother was a historian; her specialization was the literature of Thessia’s Second Golden Age. Father was an elderly asari matriarch and a veteran of the Krogan Rebellions; she loved turian poetry… although I must admit that turian poetry is an acquired taste, one which I never acquired. When I was young, Mother would take me to museums and tell me about the history behind each exhibit; the way she told it made her sound as if she were divulging a great secret, but as an adult I came to see that she was merely trying to pique my interest. Father would bounce me on her knee and tell me stories about the Rebellions.
“As I grew older, my parents sent me to university, where I chose to study xenocomparative literature. It was there that I met my future wife, Laena. We were barely 40, far too young to marry, but we caught each other’s interest well enough that we stayed in touch as friends for centuries. During our Maiden years, we would joke about settling down together and getting married… until one day, we did.”
Samara paused for a long time… and then sighed, a sound that managed to convey both nostalgia and torment.
Gefyra blinked its iris. “Do you not wish to continue?” it asked.
“I do not. The fate of my children, and of my marriage, is a painful subject for me.”
“Then you need not discuss it. The data you have already provided was highly informative.”
Samara softly raised an eyebrow. “Are there any conclusions you wish to share?”
“Few conclusions, but inspiration for new hypotheses. Example: 15% probability that your manner of speaking is shared among Akragonians.”
She smiled. “Incorrect. My manner of speaking was adopted as part of my justicar training. The Justicar Code is written in an older asari dialect that today projects authority and grace. During training, we justicars are taught to speak it. Standard translation software renders this dialect to non-asari tongues as excessive formality and grammar bordering on the archaic.”
Gefyra nodded its head. “A mystery solved,” it acknowledged.
“If you wish to better understand the asari, I would recommend that you examine our entertainment media. Such media are not wholly realistic, of course, but they could provide some insights into our culture and customs, and you would be exposed to many more examples than you are likely to encounter in person. I can recommend a few books.”
“I would again be grateful,” Gefyra said.
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (morning) — 17:08 Daleri local time
Kaidan sat on the bench and pulled up his knee to reach the straps on his leg armor. “So, Samara, what exactly did you mean at dinner last night? You said ‘concealment was no longer necessary’?”
Samara, who was already wearing her armor, stood by idly. “Simply put, I may be best able to advance my own mission by visibly assisting yours. The Ardat-Yakshi may flee merely upon hearing mention of a justicar — a small risk I have decided to accept — but to be seen working with you will provide a plausible cover, giving her an excuse to merely go into hiding until I leave. If this were any other Ardat-Yakshi, I would have simply remained hidden, judging the risk of flight too great, but this one is so thorough at concealing herself that I begin to suspect that she already knew of my presence and continued to kill just to taunt me. In any case, a change of tactics is warranted, and I will be able to advance my own mission while assisting you.”
“Especially if this Ardat-Yakshi is tied to the Reapers in some way, eh?” Kaidan noted, pulling the straps around his thigh, fastening the airtight seal, and moving on to his calf.
“True, although I still hold my doubts on that theory,” Samara said. “But now I will be able to interview possible witnesses, and if I am circumspect enough in my questions, then no word of my true mission will reach her ear.”
The elevator arrived at the Cargo Bay, and Javik stepped out, quickly followed by James.
“So what’s the plan, Blue?”
Kaidan put his armored leg down and pulled up his remaining leg. “First, we investigate those structures that came up on the scan,” he called out as James approached. “It’s a short list, shouldn’t take more than a few hours. Then if nothing turns up, we return to the city and go back to questioning witnesses.”
James reached his locker and began to put on his own armor. He nodded toward Samara. “You comin’ with?”
“Yes,” she said. “For my own plan to work, I must not be seen except in the company of the Normandy crew. Thus, I will accompany you on this mission.”
“Right on,” he said.
“Justicar,” Javik said, “I have heard interesting things about your order. I look forward to seeing you perform in combat.”
“And I you, as Liara told me a great deal about your people last night after dinner,” she said.
“We shall see.”
James leaned in toward Kaidan and whispered. “Yo, Blue, is the, uh, boob-window standard for justicars? ‘Cause I could get used to that.”
“I tried asking indirectly,” Kaidan whispered back. “I think she deflected me.”
“It is not standard,” Samara said at full volume. Her face didn’t betray any emotion, but her voice held the slightest hint of amusement at their embarrassment. “However, it is a common design for those of matriarchal age. I find that it causes my more foolish enemies to underestimate me, and keeps even the wiser ones distracted and off-balance.”
James was glowing beet-red. Kaidan was studiously examining the armor on his forearm. “Good job, James,” Kaidan whispered sarcastically.
Javik, not one for subtlety, laughed uproariously at the two humans.
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (morning) — 17:29 Daleri local time
“Approaching drop point one,” Steve announced.
“Alright people,” Kaidan said in a loud, clear voice through his breather. “This is it. We don’t know what to expect. Keep your guard up, but only fire if fired upon. Report immediately if you encounter any Reaper tech.” He slid the shuttle door open. “Team one, go, go, go!”
Garrus, Tali, James, and Javik leapt out of the shuttle, which was hovering a little less than a meter above the ground. James took point. They approached the direction of the structure, guns raised, with James’ omnitool pointing the way through the thick jungle.
Meanwhile, the shuttle was back in the air, flying toward another jungle clearing. “Approaching drop point two,” Steve announced.
“Team two, on me!” Kaidan shouted. “Go, go, go!”
Kaidan, Samara, Liara, and EDI jumped down from the shuttle, landing softly on the ground. The shuttle flew off to a safe distance. Kaidan took point and hand-signaled to the group to make formation. Guns raised, they silently made their way through the trees toward the suspicious building.
The omnitool began to blink more rapidly, silently indicating that they were closing in. Kaidan gestured toward EDI and Liara, then indicated a particularly large tree. Liara nodded, and the two circled around it. Kaidan peered through the cover and spotted the target structure: it was concrete, partially sunk into the ground, and roughly 75 meters square, with trees and greenery on the roof to provide visual and thermal camouflage. He watched his omnitool for the signal that team one was in position.
Kaidan’s holodisplay blinked once. Team one was ready. He set a 5-second silent countdown for all linked omnitools, then positioned himself to run toward the structure.
His omnitool blinked three times rapidly. He burst through the cover and ran, rifle raised, and the sounds around him said that the rest of team two was doing the same thing simultaneously. He had lucked out: his own team was approaching what appeared to be the rear of the building, and team one was approaching on a vector 90° from his; this meant they’d be able to sweep the rear and sides of the building and secure them before reaching the front.
Kaidan checked his omnitool, and the holographic sitrep showed that team one had a clear view of the left side of the building, no contacts. He gestured to the rest of team two to sneak around to the right side.
The right side also proved clear. As Kaidan approached the front-right corner of the building, he could see that there was a clearing in the front, one large enough for a small transport vessel to land. The path between the clearing and the building looked well-used. He flipped out a small mirror attachment on his assault rifle to peer around the corner. No contacts. He set another timer, this one for 15 seconds.
He watched his omnitool display as team one moved into position near the front-left corner of the building. The 15 seconds silently counted down, and he tensed himself up to run again.
Finally, everyone’s omnitools blinked three times. Kaidan and his team came running around the corner to the front of the building, just as James and his team burst around their own corner. Still no contacts. Door, sunk into the ground, steps leading up to the surface. He ran to the stairwell, then gestured for James and Javik to stay and keep watch.
Kaidan took the stairs down to the closed door, and tried the door panel. Locked. He set his omnitool to bypass enhancement mode, popped the panel open with the butt of his rifle, and hotwired the door using his omnitool to highlight the correct wires. In a few seconds, the detached door panel lit up green. He opened the door.
Blackness. Kaidan set his omnitool to flashlight mode. He found a light panel, but when he touched it, nothing happened. The fusion generator must’ve been shut down, he decided. The door would’ve been on its own emergency battery. And since the door battery still had power, the place couldn’t have been abandoned for more than a week or two.
Kaidan gestured that EDI should follow him, and that everyone else should split into teams of two and begin searching the building. He set his omnitool to scan for beta decay, which would be the most robust indicator that a fusion reactor had recently been bombarding its containment vessel with neutron radiation. A faint signal lit up immediately, and he followed it through a long hallway and down a flight of stairs.
Soon, Kaidan and EDI found themselves standing in front of the building’s fusion reactor. He nodded toward EDI, and she began running through the pre-ignition safety checks while he stood guard. Finally, she began the reactor warm-up sequence, and the generator hummed to life. The lights throughout the building suddenly flicked on, and Kaidan facepalmed. There goes any element of surprise, he thought to himself.
“Status?” Kaidan whispered into his communications mic.
“Nothing but empty rooms so far,” Tali whispered back.
“It’s the same here,” Liara said quietly. “I think this place was cleared out. Recently.”
“Continue the search. Alenko out,” he whispered. “EDI, can you tell how long ago the generator was shut down?”
“One moment,” she said, her voice strangely the same timbre as usual despite speaking at decreased volume. She opened the fusion reactor’s outer wall and pressed her omnitool up against the reaction vessel radiation shielding. “Assuming the generator was operating in steady-state prior to being deactivated, isotopic ratios suggest it was disabled approximately 8 to 16 hours ago.”
“That’s right around the time that Tali and Garrus were talking to Vin Hartne,” Kaidan whispered. “That can’t be a coincidence.”
“I see one logical conclusion,” EDI said in her low-volume voice. “Either Vin Hartne tipped the occupants off, or else they were monitoring us in Daleri. And as Vin Hartne had no reason to give us truthful data if he were working with them…”
“… they must have been spying on us,” Kaidan finished.
“Damn. We’re probably not going to find anything.”
“Even so, it would not hurt to be thorough. They may have left behind equipment too large to move quickly, or they may have overlooked something small.”
“Good point. I don’t see much else down here. Let’s get back upstairs.”
Samara walked from room to room with a casual, confident ease that made Liara jealous. At first glance it looked as if Samara were walking around oblivious to the potential danger. In truth, Samara was certainly better prepared than Liara was, and Liara knew it. Though Samara’s movement was little more than a casual saunter, she was moving at least as silently as Liara was. And perhaps her seeming relaxation was some sort of defensive stance — her muscles kept pliable and boneless, ready to flow around an enemy’s attempted blow. Liara’s mind suddenly leapt back to that human science fiction book that Kaidan had once recommended… the one with a ridiculously implausible martial art, “prana-bindu”, based on the total control of all muscles in the body. Watching Samara move, it suddenly seemed a lot more plausible.
“Tactical update,” Kaidan’s voice whispered over her headset. “The generator was still warm. Looks like the occupants fled 8 to 16 hours before we got here. Once we secure the building, focus on finding anything that was missed. Alenko out.”
Samara didn’t visibly react, but Liara grimaced. She didn’t want to be right about the place having been cleared out.
They continued searching the rooms, their omnitools set to detect even slight movement using ultrasound sonar. If someone were hiding, then so long as she had a beating heart, they’d find her.
Tali slipped from room to room, trusting Garrus to watch her back as she scanned for life. She was disappointed. Oh, not about the place being abandoned. That had been obvious when they’d entered and the lights were out. No, she was disappointed that whoever it was had time to clear out the equipment that had filled these rooms. Did we made a mistake, trusting Vin Hartne? No, it couldn’t have been him — why would he give us good sensor data in the first place? Unless he was making a ploy to get in our good graces. But we weren’t expecting to see him again, so what good would that do? Aargh, I’m overthinking it.
“Tali, stop beating yourself up,” Garrus whispered.
Tali froze. “Who says I am?” she whispered back.
“It’s the way you’re holding your omnitool,” Garrus said, touching her shoulder through her suit. “You’re frustrated about something. And given what Kaidan just said, the smart money says you’re thinking about Vin Hartne.” Garrus rubbed her shoulders. “He gave us a good lead. We did the right thing listening to him. Stop worrying.”
Tali tried to relax and clear her mind. “Okay.”
Suddenly, the two found themselves instinctively diving to the floor. They were halfway there before their conscious minds even registered that they’d heard an explosion.
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (morning) — 17:35 Daleri local time
From the floor, Kaidan activated his comm mic. “All squad, sound off!” he shouted, no longer caring about keeping his position hidden.
“EDI here,” EDI said from beside him.
Liara coughed over the radio. “Liara here,” she croaked.
“Samara here,” she said, sounding strained.
“Liara, Samara, what’s your situation?” Kaidan shouted quickly, still laying flat on the ground.
“Seems our ‘friends’ left us a parting gift,” Liara said, still sounding winded. “Concussive grenade I think, wired to go off when we entered the room. We’re fine, our biotic barriers caught the worst of it.”
“I do not believe this trap was intended to kill,” Samara said. “The center of the explosion was at ground level in the center of a large room, but it detonated as soon as we crossed the threshold. This was a warning.”
“One hell of a warning,” Kaidan mumbled, half to himself. “Stay there, I’m coming to you.”
“Acknowledged,” Liara said.
Kaidan cautiously stood up, then indicated that EDI should do the same. Kaidan set his omnitool to track Liara’s, then worked his way through the maze of hallways and rooms.
“Here,” Liara said, sitting against the hallway wall with her legs sprawled out. Samara managed to look more dignified, but was also sitting down against the wall and breathing heavily.
Kaidan set his omnitool to do a medical scan, and ran it over Liara. Some bruising, nothing serious. He repeated the process with Samara, and found much the same. “Right, you’re both done for now,” he said. “Trade off with Vega and Javik outside.”
The two asari got up and left.
“Vega, Javik, I’m sending Liara and Samara your way,” Kaidan said over the comms. “When they arrive, you’re to enter the building and pick up where they left off.”
“Understood,” James said.
He reconfigured his omnitool to scan the air for explosives, and the on-board spectrometer immediately lit up with the remains of the grenade. He programmed it to screen out the explosion’s byproducts, and the omnitool’s view cleared. He plucked one of his own concussive grenades from his cache and held it out in front of himself, and the omnitool lit up as expected.
Kaidan tapped the communications display on his omnitool. “I’m sharing an omnitool configuration to check for explosives,” he said into his comm mic. “Continue with the sweep, but proceed with extreme caution.”
“Sir,” James said.
“On it,” Garrus said.
Kaidan looked into the room where the grenade had gone off. He noticed a strange sheen on the tile floor, where the soot from the explosion refused to stick. Ignoring that for the moment, he pulled out a combat knife and tossed it into the room, hoping to trigger any remaining motion-sensitive traps. The knife skittered along the ground, but nothing else happened. He signaled that EDI should wait behind him, then he diverted all of his biotic ability to his barriers and stepped into the room.
Nothing happened. Kaidan ‘hmm’ed to himself.
He picked up the knife, then wandered over to the unusual sheen. It was transparent when he looked straight at it, but iridescent at an angle, and from the shape it looked like a liquid had splattered to the floor and dried up to leave the sheen. He knelt down and asked his omnitool to analyze it chemically, but the sheen was too thin to get a good reading.
Kaidan waved EDI into the room. “EDI, what do you make of this? My omnitool can’t make heads or tails of it.”
“Unknown,” she said as she approached. “The optical activity suggests some sort of nano-patterning. I would require an electron microscope to be certain.”
Kaidan held out his knife, preparing to scrape off a sample.
“I suggest extreme caution,” EDI said, touching his shoulder and giving him pause. “This may be some form of unsecured nanotech.”
“Can’t be that bad if they let it splatter on the floor,” Kaidan reasoned.
“Even so, I suggest you leave it. For all we know, it may be another ‘parting gift’.”
Kaidan considered this, then pulled his knife away and stood up. “Good point.”
He activated his comm mic. “I found a dried-up residue on the floor that appears to be nanotech. Be careful about touching things.”
There was a long pause. “Okay,” Tali finally acknowledged.
“Loose nanotech? Keelah,” Tali mumbled to herself as she walked to the next room.
“Makes you wonder what we’d have found if we’d caught them with their pants down,” Garrus said.
Tali stopped cold in her tracks. “Garrus, you enjoy using human idioms far too much. It’s a little scary.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault I’ve spent most of the last four years working with humans.”
Tali raised her finger like she was about to argue the point, but then the wind left her sails. “Right, your ‘Archangel’ days on Omega,” she muttered. “I keep forgetting you weren’t alone.”
Garrus shrugged. “Yeah, and almost half my team was human. Let’s just say there was a lot of cultural exchange and leave it at that.”
Tali nodded thoughtfully as she approached the next room. A quick sweep of her omnitool showed the room was clear of explosives. She waved Garrus in to do the sonar sweep; trading off roles was easier than constantly resetting omnitool configurations.
As Garrus began to sweep the room for movement, Tali thought back to her own experiences during that time. While Garrus was on Omega playing vigilante, she’d gone back to the Migrant Fleet to complete her pilgrimage: the triumphant return of the Admiral’s daughter; the presentation of pristine geth data discs, fresh from the Armstrong Cluster, as the pilgrimage gift; the naming ceremony, where she received her adult name, a Captain to serve under, and a new ship to call “home”. And then the excitement died down, Father became even more distant than before, and she ended up repeatedly assigned to the fleet’s most dangerous missions into geth territory because her expertise trumped her youth.
She sighed. She had friends in the fleet from childhood, but she’d mostly fallen out of contact with them, as they’d each gone their separate ways on pilgrimage. And her adult friends… well, they’d mostly been marines. Like Kal. Who was dead now, Reaper bastards.
All her life, every day, she’d asked herself, ‘How am I going to do my part to help my people return to the Homeworld?’ But now that the deed was done… well, she still had Auntie Raan, even if things had gotten more cool and formal between them since Tali’s promotion to Admiral. But Shala’Raan aside, all her deep connections were aboard the Normandy. Actually living on the Homeworld seemed… mundane? She was happy that her people would be able to go home, once the relay repairs were finished, but for herself… damn it. If the other admirals knew what she was thinking, they’d accuse her of spending too much time around the humans and their obsession with individuality. And they might even be right.
Garrus made a little coughing noise, and she wondered how long she’d been lost in thought.
“Sorry, I got distracted,” she said as they walked to the next room.
“Credit for your thoughts,” Garrus said, tilting his head.
“I was just thinking back to how we went our separate ways after… after the first Normandy blew up and Shepard died that first time.”
“Really? Returning to the fleet you were homesick for, with a kick-ass pilgrimage gift? Thought you’d have been happy to be back.”
“I was at first,” Tali said as they arrived at the next doorway, scanning the room for explosives. “But my time on the Normandy made an impression on me. You saw Haestrom. I was surrounded by some of the Migrant Fleet’s finest marines, but compared to Shepard’s squad it was amateur hour. And Haestrom was bad, but it wasn’t the first mission to go wrong. I’d have faced a suit rupture just to fight next to Liara again, nevermind you or Wrex.” Nothing showed up on her omnitool scan. “Room’s clean,” she said with a nod toward the door.
Garrus approached the room and began to scan for motion. “So what are you saying?” he casually asked over his shoulder. “Is this a ‘no’ to settling down on Rannoch? Admiral Zorah of the Migrant Fleet, just flying around the galaxy with her turian boyfriend, fighting alongside their two favorite Spectres until they’re old and grey?”
Tali chuckled. “I guess I’m just trying to figure out what I want. As much as I love being on the Normandy, there’s no way things can stay the same. Cortez and Vega managed to squeeze out another 6-month tour, but the Alliance wants Cortez running a flight deck and Vega needs a new N7 training officer to replace Shepard. Traynor’s done great but this isn’t remotely the job she was trained for. Joker should probably be flying a cruiser. All their careers will stall if they don’t move on.”
“Yeah,” Garrus said, “but Kaidan’s freshly promoted, so he’s got a few years before someone tries to make him an admiral or something. Liara’s happy where she is — and let’s be honest, where Liara goes, Javik goes. Even if EDI leaves to follow Joker, Normandy isn’t going anywhere. As for the rest of the crew, well, the faces will change, but only the best get assigned to the Normandy. Anyway, this room’s empty. Let’s move on.”
“Hold on. What’s that in the corner?” Tali asked.
“Which one?” he asked.
Tali stepped into the room and cautiously approached. Running along the far wall was a stone countertop with an embedded sink, and what looked like gas feeds were coming up from underneath. Wooden cabinets filled the space between the countertop and the floor. Without the furnishings and equipment, the room looked like it couldn’t decide whether it was an office or a chemistry lab. And in a forgotten corner of the floor, beneath the overhang of the cabinets, lay an overlooked strip of paper. She picked it up and examined it.
“What is it?” Garrus asked as he followed her into the room.
“I don’t know. Some kind of receipt? But who would use paper for a receipt?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said sarcastically. “Someone who lives on a planet covered in trees?”
Tali looked back at him and shook her head. “Cute, bosh’tet.” She returned her attention to the strip of paper. “Huh. Nothing too revealing, just a few items from an office supply store.”
“Leave it,” Garrus said. “It’s garbage.”
“I don’t know, there might be a clue here,” she countered. “I’ll keep it just in case,” she added, stuffing it into one of her suit pockets.
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (morning) — 18:48 Daleri local time
The ground teams were standing together outside of the structure, using the shade to hide from the heat as they reunited and shared their findings. Kaidan was standing expectantly, having just asked the teams to report their findings.
James shrugged. “Nada.”
“Some sense impressions, but little of note,” Javik said. “Our enemies were thorough, methodical, and numerous. I sensed no panic in their evacuation of this place.”
“I did find this,” Tali said, pulling out the strip of paper. “It’s probably nothing,” she admitted as she handed it to Kaidan, “but I kept it just in case.”
“Hmm. A sales receipt,” Kaidan said. “Nothing incriminating. Although… look at the date.” He pointed at the date on the receipt, which his omnitool automatically translated into an Earth date.
Tali leaned in, using her own omnitool to translate it to a quarian date. “What about it?” she asked.
“The date is in March, barely a month after the war ended. That puts it three months before the Reapers started to split into factions,” he pointed out. “At least officially.”
“What are you saying, Kaidan?” Tali asked.
“It means that whoever was working here with these Reapers was doing it before they were moving openly,” Kaidan said.
“That lines up with the age of the building,” Liara said. “I’m an archaeologist, so I’m not used to dealing with history this fresh, but my scans of the structure indicate that it can’t be more than six months old. There’s very little weathering on the concrete, and the vegetation on the roof shows signs that it’s still recovering from being replanted in the last few months.”
“So what?” Garrus asked. “While the rest of the Reapers were off helping to rebuild civilization, these bastards were building this place?”
“That’s about the size of it,” Kaidan said. “The real question is: why?”
“There is also the question of ‘who?’,” Samara pointed out. “And to that question, the receipt provides one additional clue.”
“Yeah?” Kaidan asked.
“This operation did not consist only of Reaper troops,” she said. “In all likelihood, the purchase was made by an asari.”
“An indoctrinated agent,” he said.
“My thoughts exactly,” she said. “And where there is one, there are likely to be more.”
“Javik,” Kaidan began, “what species did you sense?”
Javik, who had been rolling all four eyes at this ‘revelation’, responded. “Mostly the Reapers you call ‘cannibals’, and a few asari.”
“Any sense of numbers?”
“There were many overlapping impressions. Perhaps a hundred Reaper soldiers. Far fewer asari.”
Kaidan turned away from Javik. “Liara, put in another data retrieval request with Daleri Control. A group that big didn’t just disperse into the jungle, especially not carrying equipment. There had to’ve been multiple transports involved. No way Control could have missed that.”
“I’ll try,” Liara said while bringing up her omnitool, “but I’ve just about lost my patience with them.”
“They could’ve had stealth, like the Kodiak, no?” Vega pointed out.
“The stealth system works by hiding our heat signature against the void of space,” Kaidan pointed out. “We don’t need it in-atmosphere because everything around us is already emitting heat. Daleri Control would be using radar to track targets, not heat emissions.”
“Didn’t there used to be aircraft with anti-radar stealth?”
“Yeah, there were. EDI, do you know what happened there?”
“Yes,” EDI answered. “Advances in radar technology made radar stealth systems obsolete. Stealth aircraft were only able to protect against microwave-band radar. When multi-mode terahertz radar was perfected, it was able to pierce stealth by transmitting in multiple frequency bands simultaneously. Stealth researchers tried to adapt by developing active waveform cancellation, but that was quickly countered by the arrival of code-authenticated radar, which made the signal too unpredictable for active cancellation techniques. Passive cancellation is still effective, but can only protect against radar coming from a single direction, making it useless for moving vehicles.”
“So there’s no way Daleri Control could have missed this?” Kaidan asked.
“Correct,” EDI said.
“Okay,” Liara said, “I’ve filed the new request. Still no updates on the request we already have pending,” she added with a grumble.
Kaidan opened a comms channel to Steve. “Cortez, we’re ready for a pickup here. No one’s home.”
Liara bent her elbow and rotated her arm from the shoulder, stretching out the joint. She winced a little.
“You feeling okay?” Kaidan asked.
“Sore,” she said. “I’ll be fine. A little grenade isn’t going to stop me. Apparently I’m out of practice with my barriers, though.”
“Alright, folks, here’s the plan,” Kaidan announced to the squad in the shuttle. “I’m going to have another chat with those witnesses that Nira led us to, and Samara’s coming with me. Hopefully we can get more out of them with a justicar present. Liara and EDI are going to visit the Daleri Hall of Records to light a fire under their asses with those data requests. Javik, I need your senses in the nightclub district. I know a lot of people pass through there, but an Ardat-Yakshi ought to stick out like a sore thumb. James, you’re with him. Garrus and Tali, you’re on spaceport duty. At least a dozen ships come and go every day at that port; someone must’ve gotten a sensor reading.”
As Kaidan rattled off the assignments, each crew member nodded in acknowledgement.
The huntress watched the holographic projection of the shuttle as it sat in the clearing. The boss had ordered a holo camera affixed to a tree, so they could monitor the beta site from a safe distance, and the uplink was a quantum entanglement communicator — totally untraceable, even if the camera were discovered. Some said the boss was too paranoid for her own good, but the huntress knew that paranoia was damn well earned.
The downside of watching remotely, though, was that the camera was too far away to pick up conversations. She’d had a VI lip-reading what it could see as the fools discussed their plans in the open, but big chunks of the conversation were missing, and they’d retreated into the shuttle as soon as it had arrived. Didn’t matter. From the sound of things, the moles in the Hall of Records were doing their jobs, and even if the Spectre got through the red tape, the data was wiped hours ago.
She turned her attention back to the holo projection as the shuttle lifted off the ground and took off back toward the city. She opened a comm channel. “Mistress, you wished to be informed when the interlopers left the beta site?”
“Yes, thank you,” the voice on the other end said.
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (late morning) — 19:33 Daleri local time
Kaidan and Samara were walking down the street in the downtown district, returning to the homeless encampments. “Tell me about this ‘Nira’,” Samara said.
“We met her in a pardim shop,” Kaidan said. “She was begging for nitrogen money.”
“A grave offense,” Samara replied. “She is lucky that I was not present.”
Kaidan stopped cold. “What?” he asked, more bewildered than anything.
Samara stopped a few paces ahead and turned around to face him. “The Justicar Code is quite clear: beggars must respect all local laws pertaining to begging. Daleri municipal law forbids entering any privately owned establishment for the purpose of panhandling. Ergo, if what you say is true, then this Nira was breaking the law. If I were to directly observe her doing so, or to obtain sufficient evidence that she had done so, the code would compel me to demand she make restitution to the business in question. If she failed to make restitution, her life would be forfeit.”
On Kaidan’s face, fury warred with gobsmacked disbelief. “Her life would be forfeit? For trying to avoid a slow, painful death by oxygen poisoning? And what the hell do you mean by ‘restitution’?”
“Yes, her life. The Code is quite clear on this matter,” Samara replied. “As you have not told me the name of the pardim shop, I am not obligated to force the issue, but if I were to learn it and an additional eyewitness were to corroborate your account, I would be required to detain Nira, force her to apologise to the owners of the establishment, and convince her to pay to them a fine of 1,000 credits. If she would not or could not pay, I would execute her. The Code would demand it.”
Fury won over disbelief. “Lady, I don’t know where you get off…” Kaidan began in a low, cold growl.
“Peace, Major Alenko. I do not expect you to agree, or to understand. However, we are in asari space, under the jurisdiction of asari law, and the Justicar Order is the only form of law enforcement with supranational authority recognised by all the myriad asari republics. The Code was not agreed upon lightly. It was a compromise which took our ancestors nearly a millennium to develop, but in the end it was unanimously approved by all asari nations and it received the blessing of the Goddess.”
“And by the Goddess, you mean Athame?” Kaidan asked, a hint of contempt building in his voice.
“The same,” Samara answered, her tone questioning his.
Kaidan shook his head. “Figures a Prothean would approve of something like this,” he said, the contempt spilling over onto the word ‘Prothean’.
“I’m… sorry? A Prothean?” she asked in confusion.
“Shepard might’ve forgotten to mention it, but Athame was a Prothean,” Kaidan said. “During the war he, Liara, and Javik visited the Temple of Athame to retrieve some intel that Councilor Tevos promised us. It turned out that the temple was built around a Prothean beacon. And the statues of Athame, Janiri, and Lucen were clearly depicting Protheans. The resemblance to Javik was undeniable, even for Liara.” As he watched her reaction to his words, the initial smugness in his voice crumbled to dust and was washed away with sympathy.
“By the… no, you must be mistaken. The Goddess is holy, she can’t be a Prothean.”
Kaidan sighed. “Fifty thousand years ago, the Protheans were manipulating your people, grooming them to be the next loyal subjects to be annexed by the Prothean Empire,” he said. “And frankly, it’s entirely possible that this Code of yours fit into their plan. But then the Reapers invaded, and the Protheans did everything they could to hide their involvement, so the asari would be deemed too ‘primitive’ to destroy.”
She looked down at the ground. “That’s… that’s just not possible…”
“I… I’m sorry, Samara, I know it’s a lot to take in. You should probably speak with Javik. Uh… scratch that, you should speak with Liara first, and work your way up to Javik later.”
“But if this is true…” she continued, now looking up at the clouds.
Kaidan stepped forward and reached out a hand, touching Samara on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have sprung this on you in the middle of a mission. It might do you some good to push this to the background, let it simmer, while we worry about the task at hand.”
Samara looked into Kaidan’s eyes and stared for long, painful seconds. “Right,” she said with a little huff. “Where were we?”
“I was telling you about Nira.”
The Goddess? A Prothean? Nira wandered the back alleys, lost in thought and not paying attention to where she was going. No, that was… well, that would explain… no, NO! Athame being a Prothean doesn’t make any sense. And besides, I don’t really believe in that ‘Goddess’ mumbo-jumbo anyway… right?
She sighed. She’d heard Mr. Alenko’s voice and come running, only to stop dead in her tracks when she saw that he was talking to a justicar. At first she just hid, and hoped he hadn’t mentioned the thing at Alessa’s the other day. Then she overheard arguing voices — not shouting, exactly, but a heated conversation. And then she’d listened in on the words.
She’d snuck off once she’d heard enough. Now that she’d put some distance in, she hid behind a trash receptacle and let the tears come.
Mom, she sniffled. I wish you could be here. She decided she could really use some mothering right now. But Mom was dead. Nira was 90, way too old for an orphanage, so she’d been trying her best to put her vocational degree to work and pull off this adult thing. She’d had a stable, good-paying job, she’d had a home… it’d almost been enough to buy this whole ‘religion’ thing and start thanking goddesses and universal onenesses. And then the damned Reapers came.
“Are you okay?” came a voice.
The voice shook her out of her despondence. She sighed and shook her head. “No, not really.”
“Would you like to talk about it?” the voice asked.
She closed her eyes. I don’t even know where I’d start, she thought to herself. She shook her head ‘no’.
The owner of the voice gently touched her forehead. Nira felt a wave of compassion and calm wash over her. “Does that feel better?” the voice asked.
“Y- yeah, a little,” Nira said. She sniffed and wiped her tears, then looked up at the source of the voice. She was asari, and though her clothes didn’t show it, her face said she was probably a matriarch. She had such sympathy in her eyes. Nira shivered, not quite sure why.
“I am Mirala. What’s your name, little one?”
“N- Nira,” she said.
“Do you have somewhere to stay, Nira?” Mirala asked.
“I have… uh, I have my tent.”
“A tent? My dear, one as lovely as you is reduced to living in a tent? Where is your mother?”
The tears returned. “Dead,” Nira finally blurted out with a sob.
“By the Goddess, you poor child.”
Nira flinched at the familiar invocation of the Goddess.
“Ah, I see,” Mirala said. “Are you having a crisis of faith, little one?”
Nira closed her eyes and nodded in guilty admission.
“Well, now. You may not believe me but I have just the remedy. I have some errands to run this afternoon, but I would love to see you join me and my acolytes in contemplation of the universe this evening. If you join us, I can offer you food, soft bedding, clean clothes, a shower…”
A shower. That sounded decadent. Nira’s resolve was wearing down fast.
It must’ve shown on Nira’s face, because Mirala smiled. “I’ll give you directions to my home.”
At that, Nira’s gut shouted that something wasn’t quite right about the situation. She wiped away her tears, looked straight into Mirala’s eyes, and asked, “But… why do this for me?”
“Can’t you just humor an eccentric old woman?” Mirala asked with a smile, then shook her head. “Very well. I would like to groom you to become one of my acolytes. I think you are an excellent candidate. But my offer entails no commitment on your part, beyond what I said about joining us tonight in contemplation.”
The last of Nira’s resolve crumbled. “Okay. Give me the address.”
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (late morning) — 19:45 Daleri local time
Kaidan looked up from his omnitool to the street signs at the intersection, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Alright, this next alley is where we met Kalla. She was the first Ardat-Yakshi eyewitness we interviewed.”
“Good,” Samara said quietly.
They approached the alleyway, which like so many in the area was lined with tents. The occupants would be inside, sealed away from the overly-oxygenated atmosphere and ensconced in the alley’s shade so that they could nap through the worst of the midday heat.
Finding the appropriate tent was not too difficult, as Kaidan’s omnitool had recorded the coordinates. Kaidan pressed a finger against the tent’s synthetic fabric and scratched twice with his fingernail as Nira had taught him — the local equivalent of a polite knock.
Groaning came from within, followed by a voice. “Who is it?”
“I’m Kaidan Alenko, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. I was here two standard days ago with Nira. I’m here to speak with Kalla again.”
One of the tent’s occupants unzipped the opaque inner flap, leaving only the transparent plastic of the atmosphere seal. She looked up through the plastic at Kaidan. “Right, I remember you. Kalla’s not here, haven’t seen her since yesterday.”
“Did she say where she was going?” Kaidan asked.
“No. No, she didn’t,” her tent-mate said, shaking her head and sounding just a little bit scared. “I thought she was just going to the bathroom, but she never came back. I’m worried about her.”
“Okay. I’ll keep an eye out for her,” Kaidan said.
“Thanks.” She zipped the inner flap closed.
“This is troubling,” Samara said to Kaidan. “It seems an unlikely coincidence that Kalla would vanish so soon after you spoke with her. We should proceed to the second eyewitness posthaste.”
“You think someone was spying on us,” Kaidan said, more a statement than a question.
“Okay. Follow me, the next witness is this way.”
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (late morning) — 19:51 Daleri local time
Javik reached out with his senses. An asari, barely able to stand, too slow removing her breather when her body rejected the alcohol, late last night. Another asari celebrating a promotion, accompanied by three coworkers, one with a crush on the celebrant, two days ago. An elcor, amused by the antics of an asari-volus couple, less than a day ago.
He still wasn’t sure how he would perceive an Ardat-Yakshi if he came across her, though he remained confident that he would recognize her scent once he found it. A predator addicted to killing. A powerful instinct driving her to meld. A loneliness that could never be filled. Such traits would leave their mark, he was sure of that.
“Not here,” Javik finally said.
“Damn,” James said. “Let’s move on.”
“¿Qué tal?” James asked.
“I doubt that we will locate the Ardat-Yakshi in this district,” Javik said. “From what was described to me, an Ardat-Yakshi should be obvious to my senses, even if the ‘trail’ is not fresh. Yet I cannot sense one at all in these places. I believe we are on what you humans would call a ‘wild goose chase’.”
“Alright, amigo. We’ll keep investigating for now, but when we meet back up with Blue, I’ll back you up on a changeup. In the meantime… how’re things going with the… uh… you know?”
“I have had one remote session with my assigned counselor. He is an idiot.”
“Harsh,” James said with a chuckle. “But you can’t expect to hit it off on your first try. When I was dealing with Fehl Prime, it wasn’t until my third that I found someone who worked well with me.”
“Yes, I was warned as much. In the meantime I have been reading literature on the topic,” Javik said. “It is… revealing.”
Javik approached James and switched to a quiet voice. “The… flashbacks and nightmares… those I had connected to my past. But I had not considered that being easily startled, or getting angry at other people, could be tied to my experiences,” he admitted.
“Yeah, those hyperarousal symptoms are a killer,” James said knowingly. “My advice is, don’t rush the process. For now, just listen to your own body. Learn what riles you up, what calms you down, that kind of thing. Observe without judging. There’s no control without knowledge.”
“You speak from experience?”
“Yeah. A lot of what I just told you originally came from my therapist.”
Javik sighed and nodded. “Let us move on. I will consider what you have said.”
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (late morning) — 19:53 Daleri local time
Liara and EDI stood outside the Daleri Hall of Records. The building was stonework done in an ancient asari style of architecture, one which EDI found aesthetically pleasing. It posessed many points of comparison with the architecture of ancient Greece on Earth, notably columns and a frieze adorned with relief sculptures. However, it was subtly different in key ways, in particular that the columns were adorned with curves that helixed to the top and the roof was arched, not column and lintel.
Liara let out a noise of frustration. “There is no way that that was the real sensor data. I can’t believe this! They lied to us, right to our faces!”
“That is the most likely hypothesis,” EDI said. “This suggests that the Reapers have at least one insider, either in Daleri Aerospace Traffic Control or in the Hall of Records.”
Liara activated her omnitool’s holo interface. “It’s time we took matters into our own hands. EDI, are you ready to do some hacking?”
EDI made a show of ‘cracking’ her mechanical knuckles. “I am always ready.”
“Okay, I need you to penetrate the firewall and defend, while I set my hacking VIs loose,” Liara said. “If it’s at all possible, I don’t want them to even notice that they’re being hacked; if they do, we’re the prime suspects.”
“Acknowledged,” EDI said. “I will begin on your command.”
“Let me prep my VIs first,” Liara said. She tapped at her omnitool, providing her VIs with instructions on which data to retrieve. After about 30 seconds of this, she spoke up. “Okay, my VIs are prepped. Begin penetration.”
“I have access,” EDI said with no organic-perceptible delay. “Ready for VI upload.”
“Uploading VI runtimes,” Liara said with a tap on her omni-tool. “Data mine in progress.”
“No opposition detected,” EDI noted. “I believe we are unnoticed.”
“Data mine complete. All results received. Uploaded runtimes are self-deleting.”
“Erasing intrusion footprint. Repairing firewall. Penetration complete.”
“Amateurs,” Liara said with a shake of her head. “I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get out of this heat. Follow me; there’s a café just down the street.”
As they started walking together, EDI spoke up. “Liara, I have started a preliminary analysis. The data we recovered is the same faked data that we were shown by the Hall of Records clerk. However, I have detected ‘seams’ where fake meets real: in these places, the data is continuous but only twice differentiable.”
“Good find, EDI,” Liara said. “Can we use this to recover their flight plan?”
“I believe that is possible,” EDI replied. “I will require time to process all the data. I should have a full report ready by the time we rendezvous with the other teams.”
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (late morning) — 20:12 Daleri local time
“Tayna? She was here ten minutes ago,” the tent’s occupant said.
Kaidan gritted his teeth. “Did she say where she was going?” he asked.
“No, but it’s mid-day. She couldn’t have gone very far in the heat.”
“Alright, miss,” Kaidan said. “Thank you for your time. And stay safe.”
The witness’s tent-mate zipped the tent closed. Kaidan stood up and faced Samara.
“This bodes ill for Tayna,” Samara said.
“I’m going to call Cortez for a pick-up,” he said. “If she’s on foot, we can cover more ground looking for her from above.”
“A sound plan,” she agreed.
As Kaidan activated his omnitool and contacted Cortez, Samara looked around the alleyway for a way to access the roof of one of the buildings. The buildings on either side of the alley were of a relatively modern asari construction, no more than 500 years old, and made of the usual carbon nanoweave ceramic — far too smooth to offer handholds of any sort. There would be a roof access stairway somewhere in either building, as the environmental systems would certainly have condenser coil units on the roof which would require periodic maintenance. She considered breaking in, as the situation was urgent enough that the Code permitted it, but decided against it.
“Shuttle’s on its way,” Kaidan said.
“I am going to search for Tayna,” Samara said. “Right now, every minute counts. When the shuttle arrives, you can track me by my omnitool.”
Kaidan nodded. “Alright. Don’t overexert yourself in the heat.”
“I have been on Niacal for many months,” she chided. “I am well aware of my body’s limits.”
And with that, Samara left Kaidan behind. She jogged out of the alleyway onto the nearest street. Orisoni, the Prayer, blazed overhead. As she expected, the streets were empty. She darted down the pavement, looking side to side as she passed each alleyway.
The chances of finding the witness on foot were slim, but better than those of the alternative.
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (late morning) — 20:18 Daleri local time
Kaidan was sitting in the shuttle’s co-pilot chair, operating the near-IR sensors to sweep for moving person-sized objects, trusting Steve to handle the piloting. The sensors easily spotted Samara, who was jogging down a street. There were a few other people about, but he didn’t see any groups or anything that looked like a struggle. Nonetheless, Kaidan fed each person’s coordinates to Steve’s console so that the Kodiak could swing around for a visual. The primary camera on the shuttle’s underside was capable of swiveling 360° by 170° and had a reasonably impressive optical zoom lens; that made it fairly straightforward to feed each person’s body outline to a VI, so it could individually check each one against Tayna’s. No luck so far.
“Cortez, I’ve cleared the immediate area, so I’m sending you a list of waypoints in a search pattern,” Kaidan said. “Any luck with Daleri Control?”
“Negative,” Steve said. “They still haven’t approved me for any operations in Daleri airspace. Until they do, we have to stay under 150 meters.”
“Damn. We could really use the higher vantage point right about now.”
“I already invoked your Spectre status and the fact that there’s a suspected kidnapping in progress, now we just have to- hang on,” Steve said, listening to his earpiece. “Daleri Control just authorized us for everything up to 300 meters.”
“It’s something,” Kaidan said. “Take us higher, Cortez.”
As Steve lifted the shuttle higher in the air, Kaidan began frantically scanning. Simple math: doubling their height would multiply their ground coverage by four. At least in theory. In practice, the buildings were blocking much of their view, but that could be fixed by moving the shuttle around.
“There she is, I’ve got her!” Kaidan suddenly exclaimed. “Sending you the coordinates.”
“Should we go back for Samara first?” Steve asked.
Kaidan quickly weighed the pros and cons. Tayna seemed to be moving at a constant speed and direction. She was by herself, with no visible signs of coercion. “I think we can chance it.”
He opened his comms to Samara. “Samara, I’ve located Tayna. She’s alone and walking at a steady pace. I’m coming to get you.”
“Acknowledged,” Samara said.
Steve spun the shuttle in a maneuver that Kaidan knew would’ve made him queasy if not for the shuttle’s mass effect fields shielding them from the effects of inertia. In less than 30 seconds, he was setting the shuttle down next to Samara for pickup.
“Please hurry,” Samara said. “I will not rest easily until she is safely in our custody.”
Before she finished her sentence, Steve had the shuttle back in the air, cruising to the coordinates where the VI had spotted Tayna.
“There she is, right on schedule,” Kaidan said, pointing to the place where the computer had projected her path. “Cortez, park the shuttle in front of her. But keep your distance, we don’t want to scare her off.”
“Sir,” Steve said.
As Steve pulled the shuttle around for a landing, Kaidan and Samara made their way to the shuttle door. Kaidan slid the door open and watched as the ground approached. Tayna looked up toward the shuttle, but continued walking. Finally, the ground was close enough that Samara and Kaidan leapt out.
“Tayna! I’m Spectre Alenko, we talked the other day, I need to ask you a few questions.”
“I’m sorry,” Tayna said. “I can’t stop, I have somewhere I need to go.”
“Where are you going?” Kaidan asked, taking up position alongside her. Samara followed behind.
“I’m supposed to see Mistress Mirala,” she said.
“It’s the middle of the day. Were you supposed to meet her right now, in the heat?”
“Uh… no,” she said. “She asked me to come this evening. I guess… I want to be sure I get there on time.”
“Who is Mistress Mirala, anyway?”
“She’s… I don’t really know much about her. She offered to let me use her shower and stay the night. All she asked in return was that I attend her religious service.”
“If you aren’t supposed to see her until this evening, why won’t you stop and talk to me?”
“I… I don’t know. I just know I need to go there now.”
“Tayna, please stop,” Kaidan said. “Once we’re done talking, I can take you there in the shuttle.”
Tayna stopped walking and look at him hard. “You promise?”
“I promise, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go on Niacal,” he said. “All you have to do is answer a few questions.”
Samara flanked Kaidan and touched his shoulder. “This has all the hallmarks of a subconscious compulsion,” she said quietly. “Only an asari very skilled in biotics could have done this. I suspect our quarry.”
“Can you undo it?” Kaidan asked.
“I don’t know,” Samara said. “These things can go either way. For now, do not attempt to restrain her. It may cause her to react with violence.” She stepped forward and turned around to face Tayna. “Tayna, did you hear what Spectre Alenko and I discussed?”
“Yeah,” Tayna said with an audible shrug, not seeming particularly distressed by it.
“Would you consent to me touching your mind, to see if you are under a compulsion, and to attempt to free you if you are?”
“Sure, go ahead,” she said.
“Okay, Tayna,” Samara said. “I am about to begin.” She reached her hand to Tayna’s forehead and closed her eyes.
At first, nothing happened.
Then Tayna let out a blood-curdling scream.
“Excuse me,” Garrus said to a passing volus, “but we’re looking for sensor data from Daleri airspace this morning.”
“Then try the Hall of Records,” the volus said contemptuously as he walked by. “I’m busy.”
“Friendly bunch,” Garrus muttered to Tali. They stood in the spaceport’s main terminal, in a wide corridor that connected the various docks. A skylight overhead showed a dark thunderhead building up in the increasingly cloudy afternoon sky.
Tali shook her head. “I guess they can’t all be Vin Hartne.” She waved down a passing elcor, asking him, “Pardon me, but do you have a ship whose sensor records we could look at? We’re willing to pay.”
The elcor turned his head away. “Disgusted: Go away, suit rat.”
Tali stood there, equal parts baffled and offended. She extended her palms and shrugged at the elcor as he walked away, in the human ‘what the fuck was that for?’ gesture.
Garrus flared his mandibles. “Well, there’s a first. I have never before seen an elcor bigot.”
“I’m glad I could remedy that for you, Vakarian,” Tali said.
“Ugh, you know what I mean,” he said.
“Dismayed: I saw what happened there,” said a different elcor, who approached as gingerly as a 400 kilo knuckle-walker could. “Anguished: His behavior was unbecoming of an elcor, and I have made note of the tribal markings he wears. I will see that his tribe learns of his behavior. Pleading: If there is any way I could make it up to you, please say so.”
Tali paused, in a way that Garrus recognized as her ‘I just had a thought’ pose.
“Well,” she began with the charm turned up, “we’re trying to get ahold of sensor records from Daleri airspace early this morning. You see, the Hall of Records has been delaying our requests. If you know of a ship that could share its records with us, I’d be very grateful.”
“Delighted: I know just such a ship. I am Xolat. Please follow me.”
Tayna was on her knees in the street, crying, with Kaidan and Samara standing over her.
“What happened?” Kaidan asked.
“I broke the compulsion,” Samara said. “The crying appears to be a temporary side effect.”
“Can you calm her down?” he asked.
“I could, but that does not mean that I should.” she said.
Kaidan raised his left eyebrow. “What’s that mean?”
“We asari have strict laws about melding, especially for the purposes of mental manipulation. She is not in a state of mind where she could consent to another meld.”
“Okay, fair point.” He knelt down beside Tayna. “Tayna, why are you crying?”
She shook her head. “I don’t…” sob “know.”
“Would you like to get out of this heat?”
She choked back a sob and nodded. “Yeah,” she said with a sniffle. “Yeah, that sounds good.”
“Here, take my hand,” Kaidan said, holding it out for Tayna. She took it, and as he stood up he pulled her up with him. “Come with me to the shuttle,” he said, and they walked together, Samara following closely.
Once they’d boarded the shuttle and closed the door, Kaidan guided Tayna to a seat and let go of her hand. He searched the shuttle’s supplies for a water bottle to offer to her. When he offered it to her, she nodded and took it. She still looked miserable, but the sobs died out as she removed her breather and drank from the bottle.
Kaidan took one of the seats across from her. “Do you think you could answer some questions for us?” he asked.
Tayna nodded, tears still streaming down her face.
Samara knelt down in front of Tayna. “This ‘Mistress Mirala’ you were to see,” she began, “did she touch you when she spoke to you?”
Tayna nodded again.
“Where did she touch you?”
“My forehead,” Tayna said with a sniffle.
“What did you feel when she touched you?” Samara asked.
“Um,” Tayna began, but stopped to wipe her eyes. The tears were drying up. “It felt good. Kind of calming?”
Samara looked at Kaidan. “That explains her reaction when I removed the compulsion,” she said. She turned back to Tayna and explained, “What you’re feeling now are all the emotions that were suppressed by Mirala. Now this is very important: did Mirala ask for permission before she did this to you?”
“I- I don’t want to get her in trouble,” Tayna said, looking down. “She was really nice to me.”
“Hey, Tayna,” Kaidan began. “Remember when we talked the other day, and I asked you about the Ardat-Yakshi you saw?”
“Yes,” Tayna asked, confused.
“Was Mistress Mirala that Ardat-Yakshi?” he asked.
“N- I’m not sure,” she said. “When I saw the Ardat-Yakshi, I wasn’t exactly trying to get a closer look,” she added with frustration.
“How did you recognise her as Ardat-Yakshi?” Samara asked.
“I saw her talking with someone I knew. At first, I was just skeeved out by the way she moved.”
“In what way did she move?”
“It was a weird combination of… well, she moved like a predator, but in a sexy way? And sort of authoritative, too. I took one look at the way she was treating Ciele, the girl I knew, and my gut said ‘danger’.”
“Well, I hid and watched. She kept touching Ciele, and then she left and Ciele followed her. I never saw Ciele again.”
“We need Javik,” Kaidan said.
“In due time,” Samara said. “Had you seen any change in Ciele’s behavior or circumstances before she vanished?”
“Yeah. She mostly stopped talking to other people about a week before she disappeared. Spent all day meditating, disappeared every night. That was also about the same time she suddenly got new clean clothes. She wouldn’t say where she got them.”
“Tayna, could you tell us where you were supposed to meet Mirala?”
“Yeah, she wrote down an address,” Tayna said. “I was surprised that she was carrying paper with her. Here.” She pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and handed it over to Samara. “Good thing, too. I sold my omnitool for food not long after I got laid off.”
“Can you tell me more about the ‘religious service’ that Mirala wanted you to attend?”
“I don’t know much. She asked me to join her acolytes in prayer or something. That’s about it.”
“There is one more thing, although I regret the need for it. Tayna, would you permit me to meld with you so that I may see your memories of Mirala?”
“I… I don’t know. I mean, apparently it’s been a little busy in there, I’m not sure how…”
“That is a ‘no’,” Samara said kindly. “Your mind is your private sanctum. Access to it is yours to grant or forbid as you see fit.”
Tayna nodded, looking relieved. “Thank you, justicar.”
“Now, shall we return you to your tent? Or would you still prefer that we took you to Mistress Mirala?”
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (late morning) — 20:30 Daleri local time
The friendly elcor stopped in front of his ship and turned around. “Proudly: I present to you the Arunathelo,” he said. “Apologetically: Please excuse me while I obtain permission from the Captain to permit you to board.” And with that, Xolat stepped into the spaceship’s airlock and disappeared from view.
“Huh,” Garrus said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an elcor ship before.”
The ship was low and flat, shaped like a funny rectangular version of one of those ‘pancakes’ that the humans liked for breakfast: only one deck tall, with a rounded and tapered front and rear but sides that were much more vertical. It looked wide and stocky — in its own way, not so different from the elcor themselves.
“They’re rare outside elcor space,” Tali said. “We have just two in the Migrant Fleet. A ship of that class is rated for continuous exposure to 8 standard gravities. It’s not nearly as heavy as it looks: the interior ‘walls’ are just structural carbon fiber beams and nothing else. If you strapped some serious engines to it, it’d be able to outmaneuver a frigate. It usually doesn’t see that kind of action, though. It’s designed to move cargo between elcor worlds.”
The airlock opened again, and there stood Xolat and his Captain. As they walked out of the airlock toward the two, Garrus nudged Tali. “The Captain’s a female,” Garrus whispered. “You can tell by the markings on her bracers. Also, the elcor are a matriarchal society: leadership roles are almost always filled by women.”
Tali bopped him on the shoulder. “My people have dealings with the elcor. I know that.”
“Captain,” Xolat began, “here are the ones who wished to see our sensor logs: Garrus Vakarian and Tali’Zorah vas Normandy. Enthusiastically: Garrus and Tali, please meet Captain Selyn of the Arunathelo.”
“Humbled: I was certain Xolat was mistaken when he told me about you,” Captain Selyn said. “Rhetorically: Who would believe that the crew of the Normandy would visit Niacal? Simpering: If there is any way that I or my crew may assist you, please say so. Embarrassed: By Dekuuna’s thunder, that translated. Mortified exaggeration: Shoot me now.”
Garrus and Tali looked at each other. Tali shrugged at him, then turned to the Captain and addressed her. “Captain, thank you for your generous offer. May we board your ship to examine your sensor logs?”
“Thankfully: Of course,” Captain Selyn said. “Graciously: Please follow me.”
They followed Selyn and Xolat into the rather spacious airlock, which was clearly built to accommodate two elcor plus cargo. After a brief decontamination procedure, the inner doors opened, and the view stunned Garrus. Aside from the reinforcing struts, arranged into interlocking triangles, there were hardly any walls anywhere in the ship. But the biggest surprise was the natural light. The entire ceiling was a skylight, nearly giving the appearance that the ship was open-topped.
Tali noticed Garrus’s surprise and whispered to him. “I forgot to mention: elcor ships have a transparent dome, made from a lightweight polymer and able to withstand a relative pressure of up to 3 standard atmospheres pressing inward, or 1 pushing outward. Several elcor worlds have high atmospheric pressures.”
Selyn led them to a terminal toward the front of the ship. “Graciously: This terminal will provide you with the data you seek,” she said. “Politely: Please set your omnitool to receive the data.”
Tali brought up her omnitool’s holo interface and tapped a few buttons. “I’m ready,” she said.
Selyn lifted one of her massive arms off the ground and used it to work the terminal. “Politely: What was the time range you were interested in?”
“How about… everything from 34:00 last night to 09:00 this morning?” Tali asked. To Garrus, she added, “That should cover everything from when we first met Vin Hartne to when the reactor was switched off.”
“Good thinking,” Garrus said.
“Confidently: Data transfer complete,” Selyn said.
“Thank you, Captain,” Tali said. “Your assistance is greatly appreciated.”
“Tentatively: Before you leave, I would ask one thing: is Commander Shepard here?”
“Sorry, Captain, I’m afraid he had other business to attend to on Earth.”
“Disappointed: Oh. Doubtful: Perhaps I will meet him another time. With forced enthusiasm: It does not matter. May I take a holo of you posing with me? With glee: My sister would be so jealous.”
Tali and Garrus looked at each other. For a moment, they just looked at each other. Then, within moments of one another, they both laughed.
“Captain Selyn,” Garrus said, “we would be delighted to.”
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (late morning) — 20:42 Daleri local time
With Tayna back at her tent, Kaidan and Samara stood in the rear of the shuttle, deciding on their next move.
“So what’s the plan?” Kaidan asked. “We can’t just drop by Mirala’s place and ask, ‘Pardon me but you’re an Ardat-Yakshi, eh?’”
“As yet, we have suspicion but little hard evidence that she is the Ardat-Yakshi,” Samara said. “We must use extreme care when we speak with her, or she will most likely flee. Tayna did not confirm that Mirala was the one who placed her under compulsion, and that is our angle. I suggest we hew closely to the truth: we were investigating a more serious matter, and chanced upon Tayna’s compulsion. Though we suspect Mirala of it, it is technically a crime unsolved. I will remind her that tampering with another’s mind without consent is a serious crime, and then you will ask her if she has observed any recent Reaper activity. If she is indeed the Ardat-Yakshi this will, I believe, help to convince her that we do not suspect her of it. And if she is indeed working with the Reapers, then her lies may be interesting.”
“Tayna mentioned acolytes,” Kaidan pointed out. “Should we bring in more people?”
“I believe that would be unwise,” Samara countered. “A greater show of force will put Mirala on the defensive. We do not seek a confrontation with her at this time. If anything, I believe the acolytes work in our favor.”
“We should ask Mirala for her permission to question the acolytes about Reaper sightings. A few surreptitious questions about Mirala’s use of compulsions will be expected as well, I think. Later, we can compare our findings to determine if the acolytes appear to be there of their own free will, or if they are thralls to an Ardat-Yakshi. While it is unlikely we will uncover either proof or refutation of Mirala’s status, the acolytes will likely provide us with more evidence than Mirala herself would. Remember, Ardat-Yakshi are what you would term ‘psychopaths’: they are wholly without empathy, but the successful ones are skilled at faking it. If Mirala is as we suspect, then she is doubtlessly an expert at deception, but her thralls are not.”
“Okay,” Kaidan said. “I’m going to notify the Normandy and the other teams, though. They need to know what to expect in case something happens.”
“I see the wisdom in that,” Samara said.
“Yeah… and now that I think about it, it makes sense to have the other Kodiak down here. That way, Cortez is free to extract the two of us, but we have a means for the other teams to converge on our location and spring us if we get into trouble.” He tapped his omnitool to open an audio channel to the Normandy. “Joker, come in.”
“Reading you loud and clear, Major,” Joker replied.
“Patch me through to Gefyra,” Kaidan said.
“… sending everyone the coordinates now,” Kaidan’s voice announced over James’s omnitool. “I have Gefyra piloting the second shuttle, in case you need to launch a rescue mission, or if you need to extract and Cortez is unavailable. I’m also setting up a dead man’s switch over an encrypted channel. If I don’t squeeze my omnitool at least once every 90 seconds, your own omnitools will alert you. In that event, remember that Lieutenant Vega is the next officer by rank and seniority. Alenko out.”
“Mierda,” James muttered under his breath.
“If the situation is as dangerous as it seems, shouldn’t he bring more firepower?” Javik asked.
James shook his head. “Blue’s a by-the-book kind of guy. He’d call for backup if he thought he needed it. I don’t like this — I really don’t like this — but he knows what he’s doing.”
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (late morning) — 21:01 Daleri local time
Kaidan and Samara stood in front of the address Tayna had given them. It occupied half a hectare of land on the outskirts of the city. A four-meter wall of polished stone surrounded the property. “Subtle,” Kaidan said with an audible eye-roll.
He and Samara walked up to the gate, and Samara pressed the button on the intercom.
After a moment, a youthful voice answered. “Hello? Who is this?”
“My name is Samara. I am a justicar. I am accompanied by Major Kaidan Alenko, a Spectre. We wish to see your mistress, Lady Mirala. A matter has come to our attention that we would discuss with her.”
There was a pause.
“One moment, please,” the voice finally responded. The intercom clicked off.
“Now what?” Kaidan asked, squeezing the omnitool in his left palm.
“We wait,” Samara said.
A minute passed.
The intercom clicked on again. “Mistress Mirala will see you now,” the voice said. The intercom switched off and the gate began to slide open.
Samara led the way into the compound, Kaidan close behind. Both were trying to project ‘alert but relaxed’, but Samara was doing so effortlessly. Kaidan had to mentally shake off the tension he felt, the ominous feeling that he was walking into the lion’s den. He tried to remind himself that, so long as they played their parts well, they would be safe.
As they followed the path toward the mansion, the air suddenly cooled to a surprisingly reasonable temperature. Kaidan looked up and saw that there was a sun-shade of some kind suspended over the property, dimming and diffusing the sunlight ever so slightly. A stiff artificial breeze blew toward the house from openings at the foot of the boundary wall; the breeze was pleasantly drier than Daleri’s natural humidity.
Kaidan and Samara looked at each other, Kaidan with eyebrows raised in surprise and Samara with indifference. “I wasn’t expecting the outdoor climate control,” Kaidan said. “This has gotta be a serious energy investment.”
Samara pointed to a flower bed, the flowers erupting in unfamiliar shapes and patterns of color. “Those are Thessian bluehorns,” she said, pointing to one of the varieties. “They are native to Thessia’s southern temperate zone. I doubt they could bear the heat of Daleri’s natural climate.”
“This all seems rather… opulent,” Kaidan said.
“Indeed,” Samara said. “But the opulence is concealed behind a privacy wall. I do not know if humans have similar customs, but among asari such shows of wealth are considered tawdry by those born into families of longstanding wealth. Based on the mixed signs, I would guess that Lady Mirala was born into her wealth, but that her mother had a more humble origin.”
They continued to follow the path of stones, finally arriving at the house itself. It was made of the same blue-white ceramic as asari skyscrapers, cast into shapes that reminded Kaidan of a Greek temple, but with a rounded arched roof.
The door opened, and an asari appeared in the outer doorway, dressed in white robes with a golden sash around her waist. “Welcome,” she said. “I am Pelina, an acolyte of Mistress Mirala. If you’ll just step inside, I’ll show you to her.”
Samara nodded politely. “Thank you, Pelina.”
The two of them followed Pelina into the house’s airlock. After it cycled, all three removed their breathers and Pelina led them through a maze of rooms, occasionally passing other acolytes dressed in the same way as Pelina. They eventually came to a drawing room, where an older asari was seated in a regal chair, wearing a black-and-gold ensemble and attended to by three acolytes standing behind her at a respectful distance. The figure in the regal chair, clearly Mirala, stood up. Pelina made a flourish and then left the room.
Samara bowed her head slightly. “Lady Mirala, I thank you for meeting with us.”
“No, esteemed justicar, I thank you for your patience,” Mirala said, returning the slight bow. “May I offer you refreshments?” she asked, indicating a tea set on the table.
“Thank you, but I must decline.”
Mirala indicated the sofa before them, then returned to her own seat. She picked up her teacup and sipped. “Does the day find you well?” she asked.
“It does, and I hope the same is true for you,” Samara said as she and Kaidan sat down.
“Oh, today has found me quite well,” she said. “Though I wonder what brings a justicar to our humble city.”
“A matter of some concern,” she replied. “Major Alenko and I have been investigating rumors of Reaper activity in the area.”
“That is a matter for concern,” Mirala said. “These would be the hostile faction that’s been in the news of late?”
“The same,” Samara said. “Just this morning we discovered one of their facilities. It had been abandoned, unfortunately, but we learned much nonetheless.”
“How fortuitous,” she said with a strange intonation. “I hope your investigation goes well.”
“Thank you,” she said.
Kaidan raised his hand. “Pardon me, but I’m curious: why go by ‘Mistress Mirala’ instead of ‘Matriarch Mirala’? I hope it’s not rude of me to point it out, but you’re clearly of matriarchal age.”
“It is not rude, honored Spectre,” Mirala said. “Among asari, age is a marker of grace and wisdom. To be mistaken for a matriarch would be a high compliment. However, you make no mistake: I am indeed of matriarchal age. I style myself ‘Mistress’ instead of ‘Matriarch’ because I prefer a life of relative seclusion and privacy. I spend my days with my acolytes, contemplating the wonders of the universe. Are you familiar with our religion, siari?”
“I know the basics,” he said. “You believe that the universe itself is conscious, and that individuals are merely fragments of that consciousness.”
“Indeed,” she said. “The universe desires to understand itself, and so it has broken itself into fragments that can be more easily understood. We contemplate the relationships between ourselves and the other pieces of the universe, and in doing so we enhance our understanding of the universe, and thus of ourselves.”
“And how does one go about contemplating such things?” Kaidan asked.
“Near the center of the house, I have a telescope and a holographic planetarium. I show the acolytes the beauty of the universe, then we consider the relationships between stars and nebulae and the variety of life that springs up from within them. Perhaps you could join us in this evening’s contemplations?”
“Where does charity fit into this?” Kaidan asked.
“I’m… sorry?” Mirala asked, confused. “I don’t follow.”
“What the Major means to ask is,” Samara began, “have you spent time among those without homes and offered to feed, clothe, and shelter them?”
“I have been known to do so, yes,” Mirala said. “Many of my acolytes were formerly those unfortunate enough to live on the streets.”
“I am sorry for the need to ask this,” Samara began, “but have you ever used melding to alter their minds?”
“Rarely, and only with permission,” Mirala said, a hint of indignation creeping into her voice. “What is this about?”
“We recently met a homeless asari named Tayna,” Kaidan said. “We wanted to ask her some follow-up questions about the Reapers, but she disappeared. We were afraid she’d been kidnapped for speaking to us, so we searched for her. When we found her, she was coming to see you. Samara said she seemed to be under a mental compulsion, one that only a skilled asari could have placed on her. We asked her who had placed the compulsion on her, but she was evasive.”
“She did, however, provide us with your address,” Samara finished. “You have been a most gracious host, and I would be much grieved to learn that you were responsible.”
Mirala was speechless for a moment. “Well, I assure you,” she said softly, “I may have offered this Tayna a benediction, but I would never knowingly place a compulsion on someone. Such mental compulsions cannot create faith, and I only want acolytes who are faithful.” The last word was said with a quiet intensity.
“Okay,” Kaidan said. “I’m sorry we had to bring that up. I have one last question for you: have you seen or heard about any Reaper activity here on Niacal?”
Mirala shook her head, relaxing a bit. “I’m afraid not, Spectre.”
“May we speak to your acolytes, then?” Samara asked. “Perhaps they have seen something that you have not.”
“I very much doubt that,” Mirala said, “but I see no reason to deny you. It is their choice.”
“Then we would speak to them now,” Samara said, standing up.
Saturday, August 18th, 2187 (afternoon) — 22:48 Daleri local time
Raindrops and a crash of thunder reverberated throughout the house.
“Okay. By any chance, were you awake between the hours of 34:00 and 09:00 this morning?” Kaidan asked.
The acolyte tilted her head, remembering. “For some of it,” she said.
“And did you happen to look at the sky at all during that timeframe?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No, I was getting ready for sleep.”
“Well, those are all the questions I had for you, so thank you for your time,” he added.
“I’m happy I could oblige,” she said. “Please let me know if I can assist you in any other way.”
Kaidan turned to Samara and lifted his chin to acknowledge her. “I think we’ve spoken to enough of the acolytes,” he said.
“Agreed,” Samara said. “Pelina?”
“Yes, esteemed justicar?” Pelina asked.
“We are ready to be shown the way out.”
“Certainly,” Pelina said. She walked Kaidan and Samara back through the maze of rooms to the house’s airlock, where they donned their breathers and stepped inside.
“Thank you for your time, Pelina,” Kaidan said.
“And give our thanks to your mistress,” Samara added.
“I will, thank you,” Pelina said as she shut the airlock.
Kaidan used his omnitool to signal for Steve. The airlock cycled, and the two of them stepped out onto the mansion’s sumptuous grounds. Rain was falling and hitting the sun-shade… but the sun-shade must have been porous, because a gentle drizzle was passing through the material upon the plants below. They followed the stone path back to the property’s gate, which opened for them to leave.
Neither spoke a word as the raindrops fell on them. Kaidan could feel the eyes and ears of the surveillance devices that were doubtlessly trained on them.
They arrived at the LZ, where Steve was already waiting for them. As they boarded the shuttle, they still said nothing.
Finally, the shuttle doors closed behind them. “What do you think?” Kaidan asked.
“I am no longer convinced that Mirala is the Ardat-Yakshi,” Samara said. “Her followers were loyal but not fanatical, and there were no major inconsistencies between their answers and Mirala’s.”
“I’m not so sure,” Kaidan said. “Do you remember when you told Mirala about this morning’s mission?”
“Yes?” she acknowledged hesitantly.
“I don’t like the way she reacted,” Kaidan said. “Here, I’ll play it back.” Kaidan tapped his omnitool, and the snippet of conversation replayed:
“Just this morning we discovered one of their facilities,” Samara said. “It had been abandoned, unfortunately, but we learned much nonetheless.”
“How fortuitous,” Mirala said with a strange intonation. “I hope your investigation goes well.”
“It sounded to me like she was surprised that we learned anything while we were there,” Kaidan said. “She shouldn’t have had an opinion at all. She’s involved.”
“That is not much to go on,” Samara chided. “What of her acolytes?”
“What, the acolyte situation didn’t feel weird to you?” Kaidan asked. “The whole thing felt hinky to me.”
“I cannot deny the atmosphere,” Samara said, frowning. “However, the acolytes seemed to form a fairly banal religious order, not an Ardat-Yakshi cult. As I already said, I saw none of the frenzied zealousness that thralls would display. Mirala hinted that she had placed the compulsion on Tayna by accident while giving her a benediction, and based on the evidence I am inclined to believe her.”
“Fine, they weren’t Ardat-Yakshi thralls,” Kaidan said. “But I’m pretty sure they were indoctrinated.”
Samara tilted her head slightly to the side. “What makes you say so?” she asked.
“I… can’t quite put my finger on it,” admitted Kaidan. “It’s something about how they were too damn cheerful. And all in the same way.” He shook his head. “Yeah, Shepard mentioned to me before that people in late-stage indoctrination start to share one another’s thoughts and memories. The acolytes’ answers were too consistent with one another. People are supposed to misremember things, and when you ask two people they’re supposed to misremember in two different ways.”
Samara considered that. “You have more experience with indoctrination than I do. Perhaps you are right.”
“I think what we really need, is to rope in Shepard himself. The ordeal with Dr. Kenson, the scientists’ video logs on the derelict Reaper… Shepard’s the one with the first-hand experience.”
The huntress aimed the listening device at the shuttle, but all she could hear in her headphones was a pink noise hiss. She grunted in frustration.
“Talon, status report.”
“Talon here. Unable to acquire LOS. It’s the damn rain, it’s interfering with the beam.”
“Very well. Come inside before you’re spotted. Out.”
Mistress Mirala stood impassively in the communications room, watching.
“Very well. Come inside before you’re spotted. Out,” the comms operative said into her headset.
“Operative Ciele,” Mirala said.
“Yes, mistress?” the comms operative asked.
“Put the word out: the time for playing games is over. I want the hit squad ready by tomorrow to take out that damn Spectre and his pet justicar.”
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.”
Sorry about the delay on this one. Partly this was real life getting in the way -- nothing bad, just busy. The other part was that writing Mirala is mentally taxing, because it's hard for me to get into her head space.