Chapter 1: She dissolves into ripples of spacetime
"And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine
A Being breathing thoughtful breath,
A Traveller between life and death" -Wordsworth
Against the burnished vault of sky, the jagged remains of London's hardier—or just luckier—buildings gnawed into the ruined mouth of sunset. Without vertical walls bisecting the open spaces around him he felt dangerously exposed and his trigger finger itched, restless. These past few months, he didn't know what to do with his empty hands or the irritating compulsion to do anything other than let them just dangle uselessly. They were a soldier's hands in a post-Reaper galaxy; hands that had no skill for rebuilding infrastructure or resolving the food shortages or suturing together torn limbs and grafted skin.
Kilometers of squat makeshift and pre-fab temporary shelters clustered in the shadows of shattered skyscrapers, already forming a new, diminutive city in the bones of the old. A group of human children darted around in the winding paths formed by the shelters in the powdered concrete and vaporized metal haze and he wondered darkly if they knew their childhoods would be lost to this dark gap in civilization, their lives spent reconstructing what was lost in victory. Humans had a phrase for victories that looked like this: pyrrhic. Turians didn't bother with the distinction. To a good turian, victories always had the expectation of sacrifice. Only fools expected to win without suffering. Only ungrateful fools lingered on the cost.
But he wasn't a good turian anymore. Even in this.
Garrus shuddered violently and sucked in a breath, sharp and sudden, pain tight-gripped around his throat like a fist, dust clotting on his teeth and tongue. It tasted like metal and char— like a pyre.
The huddled crowds gathering between the broken corpses of London's skyscrapers weren't mourning. Energy imbued the city with the sharp, electric crackle of life. It reminded him of Purgatory after Cerberus hit the Citadel, with its fierce denial of mortality throbbing through subwoofers. Voices bubbled up from the tents and the faint bass of music thumped an insistent tempo in the distance. The children with lost childhoods were laughing, chasing a black and white ball through jagged chunks of concrete. She'd smile to see it— a little pained maybe, but still: a smile. He hated the thought as soon as it came to him, nearly as much as he hated these people celebrating her victory as if it didn't cost everything. As if the devastation was over for good instead of still looming, biding time out in dark space with most of the relays still down from the Crucible's blast.
He yearned for his Mantis. All the denial of the surrounding and impending destruction would just be easier to handle with a gun in his hand. An 'illusion of control' was what his recently failed psych eval had called it. Well, he called it damn common sense. Two months since the last Reaper sighting was too soon, much too soon, to be celebrating. Too bad the Mantis was long gone by now— buried beneath the ruined remains of an upside-down IFV somewhere in the far reaches of this very city. He had a standard issue rifle now: a Krysae still new in its case, packed away with the rest of his equipment and locked to his psych VI progress.
“Scars! Don't you have your own messed-up planet to get to?” A meaty hand clapped him on the shoulder. “Man, when I was ordered to rendezvous with the turian VIP, I thought they were talking about someone important at least.”
Garrus managed a look of the severely put-upon. “You can imagine my own disappointment then. I take it you are the Alliance liaison?”
“Sure am, straight off the Normandy and into a cushy diplomatic gig in couple months. Wonder who I impressed when I helped save the galaxy?”
Garrus felt his mandibles flicker, unsteady, his mouth twisting into a grimace. Something about Vega's tone said that 'impressed' wasn't the right word. Last he knew, Vega was supposed to begin N7 training after the war, a far cry from escorting washed-up turians around London. The man's eyes were anywhere that would not mean continuing eye contact.
Vega cleared his throat, awkwardly, and after a beat, asked, “So...do you just want to stand here and enjoy the view or do you want me to show you to your luxurious accommodations?"
The grimace wouldn't smooth out and Garrus didn't try very hard to help it along. It was like the twitch in his hands that wouldn't go away. They all flared in fits and starts; tics with minds of their own. Doctors thought nerve damage and they might be right. He had his own theory. He'd known soldiers with amputations and while they waited for their vat-grown limbs or prosthetics to finish developing, they'd described phantom pains and sensations. He knew someone who felt as if his whole arm was still on fire; another who felt like she was squeezing always down on an invisible trigger. That's the closest description to what the tics felt like to Garrus, like they were happening to a part of him that wasn't actually there anymore.
With a terse nod from Garrus, Vega started forward and gestured for him to follow. As they walked, he launched into a rundown of the situation in London that Garrus could've just as easily read in a dossier but saved them both the trouble of talking about more unpleasant things, like the current sorry state of their lives.
“The Alliance is running the show here. European Union civil leadership got taken out early in the war and it'll take another year before they sort that mess out and hold elections. While they sit with their thumbs up their asses, these crazy bastards start staking out claims in the middle of Trafalgar Square. Couldn’t let them just sleep in the rubble, anything still structurally sound has been repurposed for military defense operations until we know for sure the Reapers aren’t just taking a breather. So we're doing our best with makeshift shelters."
They drew closer to a vast bridge of a strange, ornate architecture: a relic of history juxtaposed against the attempted decimation of humanity. The smoke-stained stone was surprisingly intact. On either side of its stone edifices, filthy water churned in sluggish brown currents. He glimpsed the remains of a burned-out shuttle partially submerged, an Alliance logo bisected by a charred gash through the metal.
Noticing Garrus’s attention drifting to the water, Vega stopped.
“You up for a swim or something Scars?” He joked, then paused, brow furrowing. “Can turians even swim?”
Suddenly, Garrus saw her grin. Eyes bright and her hair mussed as she searched the floor of the skycar for a piece of clothing. He didn’t say it, but he loved her seeing her that way—hair matted and messy, the metallic gleam of strands sticking out in odd directions, ruffled by her shirt. Maybe it was a streak of possessiveness on his part; this was the Shepard only he saw: the flush on her neck and face, the moisture dotting her skin, not the hero, just the woman. He couldn't look at her properly without his breath catching and he had to clear his throat and pretend to search the car as well when really he was wondering how it was possible to be this lucky while the known galaxy was on the brink of mass extinction.
“Looks like I’ll be heading back to the Normandy to take a shower before I can get anything done. You and those vids are a bad influence Vakarian.”
His smirk was anything but repentant.
“We could always take a dip.” He gestured towards the distant blue of the Presidium reservoir glinting beyond the dark tint of the skycar windows.
She flashed that grin at him and leaned forward to brush her lips against his jaw. "I think I prefer you without water in your lungs."
His chest tightened, paralyzed with a physical jolt to the sternum so inexpressibly painful, he couldn't even think through it— couldn't breath through the fist clamping down on his throat. He just had to let it pass on or kill him. Whichever happened first.
“No.” Garrus finally said, dragging his eyes from the murky water. His sub vocals were a strangled croak. “No we can’t.”
"Just as well," Vega nudged towards the line of the horizon with his chin. Straddling the water edge, far in the distance, black smoke billowed, blotting out the sky. At the base of the smoke, Garrus glimpsed a massive slope of concrete made smaller by the distance: a power plant cooling tower, cracked open and spewing out irradiated ash. He flinched, the taste of the pyre still lingering on his tongue.
"You'd probably come out glowing." Weak slanting sunlight wavered through the smoke, catching on a film of deadly blue light radiating off the edge of the city. Vega smiled grimly. "This place will look like Tuchanka if we don't get our act together soon. Don't worry though," he said, "I got some dextro anti-radiation med rations for you."
The London that laid on the other side of the bridge was in much better shape than the London they had just left. The ground had been completely cleared of rubble and a hastily constructed wall stretched far to the left and right of the military checkpoint. Powerful kinetic barriers hummed, low and loud.
Vega waved at the soldier slouching in the armored view box and a second later the massive metal doors before them opened with a long metallic creek.
Identical rows of portable field bunkers formed perfect lines extending off into the far distance. To his immediate left hulked a host of IFVs gleaming in the red cast of sunset. The space swarmed with soldiers, platoons of marines performing drills in the vast dirt fields, the expanse of ‘road’ before them packed with people hustling from one side of the base to the other, puffs of dirt kicked up to haze the world in dust.
The air held none of the celebratory energy from the rubble of London. Here it was thick with anticipation, the weighted moment of tension when hell is just about to break loose. It was a balm against the frayed ends of his nerves, stilling the frenetic movements of his fingers and jaw.
This was the way it was supposed to be.
Vega led him the way to a bunker indistinguishable from the others but relatively easy to locate being that it was closest to the wall. It was the kind meant to fit in a few rows of cots, packing a whole unit into a single space. When they stepped inside, there was only his footlocker and gun cases set at the foot of a single cot and a workbench and a terminal.
His browplate shifted upwards, a human expression he picked up at C-Sec and never got rid of.
Vega caught the inquisitive look, gesturing to the vast open space.
“Higher ups figured you'd want the executive suite,” he joked, big white teeth a stark contrast to his tan. When Garrus failed to respond in kind, the smile faltered.
“Jeez Scars, take a joke. Probably thought you didn’t want to be bothered by a bunch of marines while you were calibrating or whatever you do with your free time.”
The dark line of his eyebrows furrowed deeply and Garrus realized that the grating show of humor had all been for his benefit, not Vega's own attempt at normalcy. Embarrassment and anger fused together into a lump of sinking metal in his gut. He nearly snarled for Vega to take the damn jokes elsewhere and find him a new liaison while he was at it. As he opened his mouth a new sensation smothered the rancor in his throat and caught his breath.
Vega, of all people. With the ridiculous musculature, stupid nicknames, the naïve enthusiasm not yet twisted by war and death into practiced cynicism. The eagerness made him seem younger than he actually was, despite his combat prowess. Garrus had always found himself checking his pessimism whenever Vega was around. And now here was Vega doling out the same protective treatment to him.
Garrus took a deep breath and it helped but his voice was still jagged. “I could use a drink. You?”
“Well, technically I’m on duty.”
“Consider hitting up a bar with the ‘turian advisor’ to fall under those parameters,” Garrus said.
“I’m pretty sure the place I’m thinking of doesn’t have turian beer.”
Garrus strode over to the footlocker, snapping it open to pull out a half-filled bottle of turian liquor. The bottle glowed soft aquamarine, deceptively pretty. It was potent stuff, he sometimes used it in a pinch to dissolve industrial-grade sealant.
“I’ve got that covered.”
To call the place a bar would be something like calling the pyjak an intelligent species: it only fit in the loosest of definitions. Garrus hadn’t been expecting much, but he also didn’t quite expect this. The design was an ingenious use of salvaged materials. Rows of bright vending machines formed the walls and the roof was a quilted tarp of silver emergency blankets. A portable generator hummed in a dark corner, providing the energy to power the garish fluorescent designs on the machine walls.
It was packed.
Vega approached the bar, which looked to be two dented metal bookshelves placed on their sides and covered with a sheet of equally scarred metal, and shouted his two drink order above the din. The crowd shifted, allowing the bartender to open up a vivid panel on the machine and withdraw a dark bottle from the refrigerated racks. Garrus pushed against the surge, finally making his way to the marine.
“Not really what I had in mind,” Garrus shouted.
This was the opposite of taking the edge off. Serving on freighters during his time in the military cured him long ago of any discomfort in closed spaces, but this place was stifling, thick with the scent of unwashed humans and warm, sour beer.
“Don’t worry,” Vega shouted back, setting one of the drinks— a glass with a finger of whiskey— on the bartop beside him and clinking the lip of his beer bottle against it ritualistically. “Just wait.”
Garrus eyed the whiskey and settled in, best he could, as far from it as possible. The bar had a cracked but functional vid screen hooked up and perched on a toppled-over vending machine. The sound was off and captioned, the screen showing an Alliance News Network broadcast update. A burly man spoke to screaming crowds packed into a stadium. People in the crowd were holding handmade signs his heads up display translated as 'No blood for aliens' and various other anti-Council, anti-alien slogans. "The time for bending over backwards for the Council is over. This is our system. Our food. Our fuel. If they don't like it, they can get out." Garrus glanced again at the untouched whiskey and frowned over his bottle.
After ten minutes, the place emptied out.
“Curfew,” Vega explained, searching the caches in his armor before finding a silvery blister pack of pills stamped with signs for dextro-chirality and sliding them across the dented bartop towards him. Garrus popped one free and chased it with a swig from the bottle. It burned all the way down.
With the crowds gone, it was possible to hear the music. It was slow: a human song with a woman’s husky voice crooning out melancholy lyrics over the sound of mournful instruments. Garrus found it oddly fitting for a salvaged bar in the ruins of London. A shot of aquamarine disappeared down his throat, searing the lining of his esophagus and creating a false warmth in his stomach.
He noticed Vega avoided asking what he was doing here, what he was supposed to be advising exactly. Garrus filed the observation away and tried to get what news he could about the rest of the planetside Normandy crew and what they'd been doing over the past two months. Reliable information was hard to come by, given the handful of functional comm buoys.
“Alenko is busy coordinating colonist refugee evacuations. Lots of people still stranded but it's the same story here as it is everywhere: supply shortages. We're scrambling to find them a place on whatever we can reach by FTL. But H3's getting scarce. "
Garrus nodded. Much the same as it was on Palavan. The Trebia, Aralakh, and Parnitha relays were operational days after Sol’s, allowing the fleets to retreat back to their respective home systems. But the Reapers were cunningly efficient in the careful destruction of supply lines during the war. What wasn’t already destroyed was now feasibly unobtainable without relay travel. Fuel, food, and raw material shortages abounded; asteroid and planet mining brought to a near standstill; productive colonies cut off in systems with dark relays.
The political embroilments occurring over the devastating shortages were only increasing in tenor over the past month and diplomacy was wearing thin. Already, the quarians were threatening to cut off all aid to Palavan without concessions for an embassy and a Council ambassador as a reward for their efforts against the Reapers. Meanwhile, the humans weren't even bothering to fill Udina's Council vacancy, preferring to make relief coordination as difficult as possible.
“Got family in Elysium myself,” The bartender spoke up, looking up at them. “Can’t wait for that damn relay to self-repair.”
Garrus maintained a carefully neutral expression. Not that it mattered, humans generally couldn't read turian expressions well enough to tell neutral from anything else.
Vega just drained the rest of his beer in a long, gulping draw. “This isn’t bad Malone, where’d you find this stuff?”
“Alliance still hasn’t tracked where those radiation spikes in the sensor data came from?” Garrus asked the bartender.
“They think that it was a burst of energy from the relay itself and not ships like the data first suggested.”
Garrus leaned forward on the scratched metal bar top. “Really,” he said, catching Vega's glance. “That’s interesting.”
He had a hunch that whatever Hackett’s request to meet was for, it had something to do with the shroud of mystery surrounding the ‘self-repairing’ relays and the ghostly echo of radiation along with the last known Reaper sighting, right here in Sol. By EDI’s and the heirarchy's analysis, the thermal signatures indicated multiple sources. Large sources. Dreadnought-class drive core sources. Which shot to hell whatever information the Alliance was publicly propagating about miraculous self-repairing relays.
“We should head back Scars." Vega downed the rest of his beer and poured out the untouched whiskey onto the hardpacked floor. "Some of us have to be up at the crack of dawn.”
They walked back in silence. The acidic burn of the alcohol lingered with none of its relaxing haziness. This was a disturbing revelation given that he'd finished off the bottle. He'd never been one to fall into drinking. Too much of a stereotype: the washed-up C-Sec officer hanging around seedy clubs and staring blearily into the bottom of an empty glass. Any minute now, a human soldier would march up and tell him to get his act together and stop moping—he'd been too hard on Oraka in hindsight.
Vega stopped without warning, chin tipped up, eyes on the distant object fixed into the night sky. Distant pinpoints of light bloomed like stars arranged into a pattern too regular to be natural: a shape faintly visible against the dark haze of the atmosphere.
Another thing stranded in the Sol system. Another thing reaped and left listing on Earth's desolate horizon.
Garrus looked away almost immediately, blinking back afterimages of red and heat.
"Heard repairs were going well; keepers must be helping them along. Surprised that thing is even still there after the Crucible took out every relay in the galaxy," Vega said. "Don't know how it survived the blast."
He'd heard more than half of the station was missing, presumed dead and the other half was dealing with radiation sickness so bad, they'd be on meds for the rest of their shortened lives. Garrus kept walking. Fast.
“So why’d you come here?” Vega asked his back. "Don't they need you on Palavan? Heard it was even worse there with the food shortages."
Garrus stopped. Truth was, he didn’t have a good answer yet. The last place he wanted to be was on Earth with the Citadel looming in the sky. Getting the relays up and running again to save his species from slow starvation— that was the objective and the answer to the question of what to do with a washed-up, newly alcoholic Reaper advisor with dismal psych evals and nerve damage. But that was the question Victus was asking, not him, and he wasn’t about to tell anyone the truth about what questions he was asking himself.
The truth was something he hid deep in his bones, away from the harsh scrutiny of realism and better judgement. The truth was hope that only a fool could entertain, buried in his marrow with the stubborn denial of that metal plaque fixed on the memorial wall on the Normandy. Was it possible? A victory without sacrifice. At least— a victory without that one sacrifice. But he'd been a fool from the moment he saw her storming in with those mercs on Omega. It was Shepard. She always made him ask impossible things. She was the kind of person who could change the definition of what victory meant to a turian.
“Just can’t shake the feeling that there’s more left to do,” he finally said, glancing back at Vega over his cowl.
“Still stuck trying to save the galaxy huh?”
The tic dressed up as a twisting smile stuttered his mandibles. Saving the galaxy: a routine of heroism ingrained by habit. Ex-C-Sec, former military, failed vigilante, an advisor to an enemy that had vanished into dark space. There was a time when he'd talked about an early retirement after the war was over. But those plans were always dependent on her and she was gone and they went with her.
What was left of him except habit? What was left outside of a collective of severed nerve bundles pantomiming the last action they remembered before an explosive blast seared through his hardsuit?
It was the kind of question he avoided asking himself lately. Introspection left him in the same dark alleys of his mind and it was harder and harder to find his way out the more he wandered down them.
"Well hey, Scars, its good to see you here...because I'm pretty sure you're right."
Alone in the bunker, Garrus set himself to the task of checking the private messages that awaited him. With comm buoys down, communication with Palavan would be spotty, arriving sporadically with whatever courier ship would take on the data to ferry through the relays before transmitting on lightspeed tightbeam. Not that there would be any messages from Palavan worth couriering—just missed appointment reminders with his doctors, and a thousand requests for help that he lacked the expertise and the ability to give. But nothing from Solana. Nothing from his Dad.
He did, however, already have a few messages from people in Sol system. Most from the new turian councilor begging him to use some of connections with the quarian admiralty board to negotiate more dextro rations. Garrus snorted, deleting the message. He had no intention of entangling himself within trade politics no matter how far he had moved up through the gaping vacancies in the meritocracy.
Won’t be able to make it to Earth. Spiked a fever. Nothing serious.
There was no doubt in his mind that it was, in fact, more serious than Tali let on. Anything really minor and she would be on her way, sniffling and sneezing.
Garrus shut the terminal off, browplates drawn together in thought. His mind drifted to Shepard, a tidal surge caught in the inexorable lunar pull of her.
His omni-tool blinked, a flickering appointment reminder with his grief counseling VI program. Not a voluntary install.
"Good evening Mr. Vakarian. How is your progress on what we discussed before on modulating your alcohol intake?"
He glanced at the empty bottle, still where he left it by the edge of his footlocker. "Well enough."
"That is excellent news. Do you feel that you are ready to continue our discussion about the last moments with--"
He groaned and powered off his omni-tool and flicked the terminal back on to read over the forensics report again. It was detached and clinical, incongruous phrases like ‘incineration thresholds’ and 'inconclusive scorching patterns' attempting to apply logic to something that belonged more in the realm of mystical. Vanished, without a trace, the recording of her last known words on the comm trailing off into pained breaths—an ellipses where a period should be.
He had looked out at the wreckage of London framed by the shuttle door and turned on instinct to say something to her, something comforting and reassuring, to the spot where Shepard should be but wasn’t. No wry twist of lips, no flutter of cropped hair, just a gap in the universe that swallowed him whole.
Mud squelches into the spaces between her toes as she wriggles them deeper into the cool earth. Star-bright air glows between the gaps in the trees, crescents of silver forming intricate patterns on the shadowed ground. It smells like summer is fading, the high, sweet note of adolescence transforming into the tenor of autumn and burgeoning responsibility. She knows these moments are slipping out of her fingertips faster and faster: nights sneaking into the reservoir after 10:00 when it finally got dark, dares and shy kisses, bare knees scabbed over.
A pebble bites into her heel but she doesn’t stop. Air streams around her body and she can almost feel it lift her off the ground, she’s running so fast.
Her lungs expand and fill with wind-whipped oxygen, it circulates through her veins, effervescent and heady like a sip from a can of beer stolen from a parent's stash.
A vista of soy fields meets the edge of blue, two hemispheres welded together in the distance. Grass pillows her fall and she gulps down huge drafts of summer sky.
Underneath her back, she imagines she feels the vast movement of the planet, Mindoir’s tectonic plates shifting below, muffled and rumbling echoes dwarfing her very existence. Above her, the dome of sky and stars stretches on forever.
The world tips and she falls into an infinite sea of stars.
She falls and dissolves into ripples of spacetime.
Edit (5/22/21): So it's been 8 years but this thing is still kicking around in my head so I'm dusting it off, officially
This is my first foray into Mass Effect fanfiction and my second into fanfiction in general (the first was in high school. It involved Sailor Moon and overall terribleness). My brain likes to pull this funny trick on me where it only wants to write whenever I have a major deadline looming in the horizon. The result of which will be spotty chapter updates as I scramble to study for exams or write my 20-source lit review on corticostriatalthalamic circuits.
I'd like to mention that I'm not attempting to champion any one ending over the other. However, I really like the idea of the Control ending because I want to know how the Alliance went from fearing and hating the Reapers to letting them crawl over London and fix infrastructure. Factor in a God-like intelligence framed after a controversial and possibly traitorous woman and I had to take a crack at writing that mess. So, this was the result.
Chapter 2: Oppositional states of chaos and order
Dr. Liara T’soni was not a very good information broker. Not anymore. The majority of her contacts were either dead or in systems that remained dark. She felt their collective silence like a thousand missing limbs.
Leaning against the stiff back of her chair, she inspected the sterile corners of the room. Military minimalism : sleek white panels forming the walls and floors, all sharp edges and clean lines. Even the air had a sharpness to it, lingering echoes of chemicals drifting in cold currents flowing from the floor vents. The austerity was aggressive, as if the facility was designed with intimidation in mind. She fidgeted in her uncompromising chair, shifting her weight from thigh to thigh, before a small voice in her mind reprimanded the show of nerves. The scolding voice in her head always sounded like her mother.
A metallic hiss drew her attention to the door panel sliding open, exposing a tall figure entering the room.
The tense line of his shoulders slackened as he met her wan smile with a twitching grimace. “Liara. Good to see someone who knows what's going on.”
He looked around, noting the motion of the security cameras tucked in the high corners as contracting apertures traced his movement.
She shook her head ruefully. “I’m afraid I’m as much in the dark as you seem to be…will you sit?”
He declined with a terse shake of his head, opting to lean against the wall. “Alenko on his way? Not like him to be late."
There was a falseness to his sardonic tone and she did not begrudge him it. But she couldn’t stop her eyes from drifting away and focusing on the floor. It hurt to look at him too long. All she could see was a metal plate catching the gleam of the lights in the Normandy, the name embossed in white letters. Grief was a knife in her sternum, making it difficult to breathe.
“No, I ran into him on the Citadel and he knew nothing about it. I think it'll just be us."
Garrus frowned. "Why? What's going on?"
“I…don’t…I don’t know," she said and took a deep breath, “but I have my suspicions.”
“Reapers." His voice was flat, a humorless deadpan. "What else could it be?"
She opened her mouth to reply as the smooth noise of the door sliding open preceded Admiral Hackett’s appearance. He regarded them both with an efficient nod.
“Thank you both for agreeing to meet with me. I must apologize for all the secrecy but I hope you will soon understand how vital it is to restrict this information in any way possible.”
Garrus leveraged himself from the wall to stand straight and gave Hackett a piercing look. "We've signed the DNRs, can we skip the pleasantries and talk about why we're here?"
His words were clipped, precise and cold all the way through the subvocals. Liara shivered. Rage was easy to identify when it ran hot and furious--a krogan battleroar, the smell of hot metal and the clink of spent heat sinks falling to the ground. Garrus’s fury was unlike anything she was quite accustomed to. It was articulate, it was measured, and it pulled the heat from her veins.
Hackett’s professional expression was as neutral as ever but she doubted he missed the angry tension pulling at the air between them. The admiral always gave her the impression of understated shrewdness.
“I think...to save us all some time, I'll just show you.“
Hackett led them through the hall to a room near identical to the last, the product of what Liara suspected was humanity’s most unimaginative architect. But the cold sterility of design was mitigated by bright snatches of color stuck to the institution-white walls. Childish stokes of watery paint splotching blues and greens across sheets paper. It was the same bucolic scene translated into whatever new medium this little girl could get her hands on.
“Hello Lesedi.” Hackett sat in the chair by the bed where a little girl traced a tube of blue waxy pigment onto a piece of paper.
She didn’t look up, her head of dark, springy curls drawn intensely over the sheet. A pink tongue pressed against her lip in an expression of serious concentration. “Hello.”
“Lesedi, I’d like you to meet two friends of mine.”
Garrus hung back by the door behind her and Liara stifled her amusement at the sudden show of awkward hesitation.
Wide brown eyes looked up from the page to stare at her. "You're Liara."
“I am.” Liara faltered, glancing towards Hackett, wondering if he'd given the child their names. He shook his head.
A shadow passed over the girl’s face when she looked at Garrus. “I saw him too. It hurt.”
Liara quickly changed the subject, “What are you drawing?” she asked, tracing a finger over the waxy blue flakes peeling up from the paper.
“The place in the dream...I saw it when I touched the fragment.”
Hackett pressed a soft hand to the little girl’s small shoulder, “Lesedi. Could you let Doctor T’Soni see your dream?”
Lesedi looked between them. “How could I do that?’
“You won’t have to do anything,” Liara said. placed her hand over the small dark one on the page and marveled for a brief second at how fragile it seemed beneath her own.
“Will it hurt?”
Her eyes were remarkable, wide and solemn. Liara’s fingers tightened gently, “No. It might feel a little strange but I promise it won’t hurt.”
Lesedi seemed to take this into serious consideration for a moment before nodding decisively.
Liara smiled and her eyes went black.
A vista of soy fields meets the edge of blue, two hemispheres welded together in the distance. Grass pillows her fall and she gulps down huge drafts of summer sky.
Underneath her back, she can feel the vast movement of the planet, Mindoir’s tectonic plates shifting miles and miles below, rumbling in muffled echoes dwarfing her very existence. Above her, the dome of sky and stars stretches on forever.
When her new baby brother is old enough, she’ll bring him here. She won’t let him trip on the rocks and twist his ankle like Taj did the first time they snuck out to the reservoir after dark. An arrow of fierce protectiveness pierces through her, reverberating.
“Are you alright?” Hackett’s hand was at her elbow, steadying her as she swayed lightly on her feet.
“Yes...yes. It was...” Liara paused, “Lesedi, how are you?”
The child shrugged and picked up her crayon again.
Liara twisted her fingers in one hand, heart pounding so hard she could feel her pulse against her teeth. “It felt like Shepard. I’m certain it was a memory of hers from Mindoir.”
“How?” Garrus asked, voice strangled.
“I don't know.” Liara frowned. “It doesn’t make sense. She mentioned touching a fragment?”
Hackett nodded. "Yes. It was discovered with her. We've been doing our best to analyze it but we haven't found much. It's some kind of tech. Very advanced."
Her heart was racing, adrenaline whipping white-capped currents in her blood. She knew what she had to do.
“I’ll need to touch the shard myself,” she said.
“Liara--” Garrus started.
She cut him off, resolve set in the line of her jaw, “I’m well aware of the risk Garrus.”
Hackett simply nodded in a way that belied that this was the result he'd anticipated. “We've been monitoring Lesedi for adverse affect and found nothing, but it’s your decision Doctor. ”
His hand brushed Lesedi’s shoulder again and he looked very grandfatherly when he smiled down at the girl. “We’ll be back to see you soon Lesedi.”
Liara and Garrus bid their farewells, one more tentatively than the other, and followed Hackett out into the hall.
“Does she have family?” Liara finally asked when they stopped, waiting for Hackett’s security clearance to usher the door open.
She already knew what he'd say. If she scrutinized too closely, she would touch on the barely healed scars of other, older answers. Being the galaxy’s greatest information broker during the Reaper war exposed her to thousands like the one Hackett was about to tell her and the tales of the dead cut like knives.
Shadows found their way into the lines of his face. “She appears on the log of refugee arrivals from a privately owned Helium-3 mining facility a week or so after the initial attacks on Earth. We assume her family did not survive the attack.”
The door slid open. A sliver of carbonized metal the length of her forearm hovered, suspended in a stasis field that cast a rippling blue glow over glossed white tile. It was covered in a thick rind of char which only managed to obscure the light emanating from the center of the device.
Her heart shuddered in her chest and she could not discern if she was more frightened or excited.
She stepped into the room.
She could do this.
Her feet carried her to the module and she paused before it, unsnapping the seals at her wrists and letting her glove come away to expose a blue hand. A tremble worked its way through her tendons as she stared at the suspended sliver of mysterious metal and blue light.
Clamping down on the surge of erratic energy rushing through her limbs, Liara thrust her bare hand into the stasis field. Her fingertips curled around the fragment.
She owed Shepard this much.
She unfurls: peptide polymers fraying at molecular ends, electron probabilities in breaking bonds coalescing into certainty and stillness one by one as kinetic energy descends into absolute zero. The stars spin overhead, too large and too close, kaleidoscoping in colors she didn't know existed before. Evaporating neurons struggle to process the sight of them before winking out of existence. Memories flicker and flare in the pulses of neuronal death throes and she sees their faces bloom and dim; supernovas on a molecular scale collapsing into voids after billions of frozen millenia vanish in fractions of a second. Liara. Tali. Kaidan. Ashley. Wrex. Mordin. EDI. Joker. Legion. Garrus...
The stars are speaking with the voices of the dead. Chaos and order exist in oppositional states, they tell her. There can be no peace without control.
Garrus. She feels the beauty of it so acutely that her consciousness screams in agony.
A woman and a machine. Memories and data. Oppositional states of chaos and order.
Pressure on her arm splintered into confused, vivid fractals of color. She could taste it in her mouth, could smell violets and russet oranges forming sunsets in her nasal passages. Her mind dazzled in wonder.
“She’s seizing...we need a doctor!”
The word ‘doctor’ twitched like a struggling thing in her mind, pulling on the gossamer strands like spiderwebs in her head. Doctor. She was a doctor. Vibrations traveled through the webs, strings oscillating discordantly. It hurt--the chords of cords screaming and scratching inside her skull. She needed to cut the thread. Her fingers went slack and something clattered against the floor.
Abruptly, the world shifted. Fragments of sensation realigned into one seamless image: Garrus was holding her down by the arms. Hackett’s face was lined with age and worry, peering down at her. She was on the floor. Cold, sterile light made everything too bright, spiking pain between her temples. Liara moaned, trying to sit up.
White panels blurred and liquified, elongating carbon glass into abstract with her motion. She shut her eyes and pressed a hand to her throbbing skull. Something warm and wet trickled over her lips and she realized, her mind slow and fuzzy, that she tasted blood.
Her voice sounded a world away.
“You touched the shard and collapsed,” Garrus answered
Pain anchored her to her body, but she could feel her mind floating above the scene, tethered but disconnected. The shard was on the floor a foot away and by instinct, Garrus had given it wide berth. It caught the light of the room like a knife. She wondered if she was about to vomit.
Garrus helped her to a chair and Liara noticed, through the rush of blood surging through her head, that Hackett had gone.
“What did you see?” he asked, eyes so bright with barely restrained hope they pierced through her.
Her stomach clenched, tightening in on itself like fingers folding into a fist. She was going to vomit, Goddess, she was absolutely going to vomit. The fragment drew her eyes and she stared at it, nausea subsiding. It seemed...brighter than before.
“I don’t...I can’t describe it.”
Death. No, transformation. Transformation into something so vast and all-knowing, it existed beyond anything she could comprehend. Just the effort of trying almost killed her. She pressed her hand to her head and stared at the shard. The glow intensified and fragmented into ascending flickers of projected light.
Garrus followed her gaze, browplates drawing together as a form took shape, familiar enough to send a hot stab of pain through her stomach. It solidified. Hair cropped short, high cheekbones, the smattering of freckles traced in blue light.
Liara was on her feet in seconds, the clatter of the chair against the floor a distant echo. Her own voice was small in her own ears, a tiny gasp of disbelief, “Shepard?”
A hand trembled before her, lavender blanching away from the five jointed digits. It was blue and pale....and, apparently, hers. Like the voice. She was disconnected, severed from her body in the first moment of shock radiating from a single high-pressure thought.
Shepard was there.
It was too much to believe. Hope had played her, drawing her to this place and leaving her stupid and incredulous when the moment came. Her mind groped for some tenuous connection that might anchor her back into reality.
Liara started, realizing that not only was Garrus there, but had spoken. She also realized her knees were smarting from the impact of the floor.
The cold fury radiating from him eclipsed anything she had seen earlier. His mandibles were tight against his jaw, near flush with the sharp angle and vibrating with tension. He looked terrifying and predatorial. He looked like he wanted nothing more than to lunge forward and rip the fragment apart with his naked talons.
His voice pared through her confusion. Measured and slow. “That is not Shepard.”
Now that the afterimages had cleared, a hundred things screamed wrong to her. The posture was off, no cocked hip, no crossed arms. The expression was unlike any Shepard ever wore: utterly empty. Vibrant eyes turned vacant. It looked like someone had posed a Shepard doll into a holographic display.
“I am Commander Shepard’s collective memories, thoughts, and moral code. Her consciousness elevated beyond mortality and organic limitations.“
That voice. She was suddenly so cold. Her body began to shiver uncontrollably as air crystallized in the spaces of her lungs.
“What is this?” Garrus was stepping forward, taller and more imposing than Liara could remember seeing him. “Some kind of A.I. the Alliance cooked up with Reaper tech?”
“I exist because of a choice made by the woman I was.”
The voice was undeniably Shepard’s, if you took her voice and scrubbed all emotional inflection to overlay the ghostly impressions of synthetic over the husky alto.
The fury that was Garrus Vakarian crumpled before her eyes. In a second, he was diminished. Vulnerable and bare in the middle of this freezing room. When he spoke, his smooth pitch fractured.
“The choice to assume control of the Reapers.”
Mandibles fluttered in weak protest and utter disbelief. “That was the Illusive Man’s dream, not hers.”
“It was a choice that allowed her to protect all life in this cycle--organic and synthetic.”
“Is Shepard alive?” she asked. Her own voice was still a stranger to her. She marveled at how calm it sounded as the room twisted into fractals of memories that didn't belong to her. Her skull ached, blood still steadily dripping onto the floor from her nose.
“Shepard is immortal. Her consciousness is timeless and infinite. But her physical form as you last knew it does not currently exist.”
'Serenity is the acceptance of the universe, Little Wing. To accept transience and impermanence. Not to grieve for what has passed, but understand that it must happen.'
She thought she understood what that meant. Not yet a thousand and she thought this was a lesson she didn't need to be taught. She was sure that when the time came, she would find serenity in loss.
Reaching back into her memory, she wanted to shake the idiot version of herself unmarked by love and death, take her by the shoulders and ask why she so blindly assumed this would be so easy. Her hope was a twisted thing, born half out of love and half out of desperation. It had driven her to Cerberus before. Now, it drove her here.
“What do you want from us?” Grief scraped her throat raw. “What could we possibly have to offer you?”
There was a flicker of something in the holographic details of Shepard's face. It looked...like uncertainty. Liara wondered if emotion and shock were taking a larger toll on her senses and waved away the curiosity surfacing beneath the bleak well of her despair.
The image flickered once again and vanished.
The doors opened, the quiet slide of metal against metal, and a man entered the room. He was older, white hair frosting his temples and hard lines carving his features into harsh relief. The images on the data feeds didn’t convey the scale of the actual person--barrel chested, broad shouldered, and the sort of musculature filling out a suit that hinted at strength. But it wasn’t just the military frame softened by decades of civilian life that made him seem so large--it was his presence. He took up the entire room, one implacable human wall.
When he moved, his body stiffened and jolted in mechanical lurches. Seven titanium rods, according to the medical records in the dossier she had assembled on him: seven rods and sixteen interlocking metal pins holding his spine together after a chunk of asteroid obliterated twelve blocks of Xi’an’s residential district during the Relay 314 Incident. It was an injury that spelled the end of his military career and the very beginnings of his political ascent from rural senator to the interim leader of the Systems Alliance--the de-facto leader of Earth.
“Prime Minister Briggs,” Liara said, by way of an introduction.
His eyes snapped over her and Garrus, shifting from assessing to dismissing in the span of seconds before settling on the fragment. There was no trace of surprise on his face.
She glanced up at the cameras. He'd been watching. He expected this.
Briggs’s voice was rich and congenial. The hint of a twang curling at the ends of his syllables lent his words a musical quality. “To be frank, I wasn’t so sure this would work.”
“You used us...” Liara started.
Briggs flashed her a smile she'd seen a dozen times over in news feeds. It was a smile brimming with charm and lacked any semblance of warmth. "I'm afraid it was something of a necessity..."
His eyes slid back to the shard. “You see, we weren't the ones she wanted to speak to."
“Where is Hackett?” Liara demanded. "Was he a part of this?"
A politician, Briggs played his irritation perfectly. He clucked his tongue against his mouth, a rueful sound. "You aliens might not be familiar with democratic governments. But here on Earth, it is the democratically elected leadership that the Alliance answers to. The Admiral is not privy to all matters of Earth security. Especially considering his...personal bias when it comes to the Commander."
In the handful of days on Earth, already she had already seen first-hand the darkening current of the anti-alien sentiment sweeping over the planet. Humanity wanted victory, not the possibility of war still looming in dark space. Their anger lingered in the particulate smog cloaking the atmosphere. The air on Earth was charged with the restless anticipation of a mob ready for violence. And Briggs was a xenophobic live wire.
“You know,” Briggs’s rich baritone interrupted her thoughts. “All this talk of working together during the war--inspiring stuff. Of course, I was inclined to disagree.”
His eyes flicked over to Garrus and he said, “Having your spine shattered has that effect on faith in interspecies altruism. “
"Interspecies 'altruism’ completed the Crucible,” Liara said, “Shepard's diplomacy is the reason we’re all standing here today.”
“Sweetheart, the men and women fighting and dying by the thousands on Earth are the reason I’m standing here today. While the Fifth Fleet and the SSV Normandy left Sol to burn, those people bled into the mud to take their home back from the Reapers. Nobody’s making a statue in their honor.”
“And the Crucible...” His smile flattened. “Did jackshit besides blow the relays as far as I see it. Didn’t kill a single damn Reaper.”
It was the stump speech he’d already given a dozen times over across Earth. The other half, the missing part, was devoted to putting an end to ‘feeding the greed of other races with humanity’s blood and sweat’. Humanity for humanity and other Terra Firma slogans wrapped up in brand new packaging. It was a popular speech, the hand-picked crowds went wild over it.
“But as I was saying...inspiring stuff, all that. So you can see why I’m so grateful to the two of you for staying on and helping us deal with Shepard now that she's under Reaper control.”
A misplaced chuckle found its way into her throat. Or was it a sob? Liara felt the bubble of mirth and grief press against the ragged edges of her esophagus. The ground was shifting beneath her feet. He clearly meant to keep them there whether they wanted to stay or not.
Garrus laughed, wry, folding his arms across the scuffed gleam of his armor before meting out a question dripped in condescension. “Indoctrination. So that's what you think this is?”
Briggs’s gaze fell on him, irritated. “What's that supposed to mean? Of course that's what this is.”
Liara caught the satisfied flicker of Garrus’ mandibles. She could almost picture the Mantis in his hands, the retort of the shot and the simultaneous spray of crimson in the distance. It was the expression he wore a second before the triumphant 'Scratch one'. He was baiting the man. “You weren't there, Prime Minister, in the fight. When you’ve dealt with as many indoctrinated agents as we have, you just know. This? Isn't it.”
He was being insufferably cocky, slow drawl and oozing superiority, and it was clearly working. Liara saw a white eyebrow twitch with real, unmasked anger.
“We’re supposed to believe that the Reapers indoctrinated the Hero of the Citadel and just decided not to plant her where she could do the most harm before showing their hand?" Garrus asked.
He was definitely enjoying himself a little. Liara didn't know what his game was, but it seemed to be working. Briggs was irritated and flustered, the politician’s smile wiped clean from his face and replaced by a scowl of naked disdain. It was the first genuine expression she’d seen on the man.
”Who says that’s not what they’re doing?” he asked.
“Then I’d say they’re getting sloppy. Now, If we’re done humoring the Reapers with this pathetic gambit, Liara and I are expected back on our respective planets,” Garrus said.
It was the wrong thing to say. A push too far. Stubbornness lodged itself into fleshy folds of skin framing Briggs' mouth.
“I’m afraid not.”
There was a flash of white teeth. They were so white they looked unnatural against the red stipple of his ruddy flesh. “The both of you will stay at this facility until we’ve assessed your security risk. Accommodations have been made.”
The toothy smile turned towards the shard. “I hope you enjoyed your reunion. I fear it may be all too short.”
He left and the door’s console panel flashed red behind him.
Liara shot Garrus a questioning look.
“If you can’t intimidate, irritate. Works wonders on krogan, trips them up like nothing else.” Garrus explained, pulling up his omni-tool and scanned the room. “And apparently the Prime Minister finds something about me incredibly irritating.”
“Did you really expect to trip him up into letting us go?” she asked.
Awash in the orange glow of his omni-tool interface, the grim set of his eyes confirmed her fears. The short to mid-range transmission frequencies the omni-tools worked on were being scrambled with interference. They couldn't communicate with anyone outside of the room. His three-digit hand moved rapidly across the interface. He didn't answer her but continued scanning before inputting a command.
Something lodged under the lip of the console gave off sparks before clinking to the floor: a bug about as large as a human fingernail.
“It was a long shot,” he conceded, "but he seemed so preoccupied with getting the upper hand over an insufferable turian, he must have forgotten to confiscate our omni-tools.”
Garrus sorted out a few more bugs tucked under the chairs before overloading the cameras. Smoke wisped from the shattered remains still fastened into the wall.
She laughed. It felt strange and rough, more like a cough than an expression of mirth.
"I think this encryption is probably beyond either of us," she said but pulled up her own omni-tool and tried anyway.
She wasn't on par with Tali, but she could work her way around a door lock. This code was unlike anything she'd ever seen. As soon as she began hacking, it shifted, compensating faster than she could respond. For every firewall she got past, a dozen others flickered into place. What she wouldn't give for Shepard or Tali's custom programs.
Garrus was trying and failing as well. "There's always brute force," he said, after a beat.
"How much force?" she asked.
He rapped against the metal with his glove. "A lot. It's reinforced."
Space around her palm blue shifted and warped, expanding and rippling over the floor to dissolve with a flare against the metal panels. The room spun and stuttered and she sat down on the floor, panting and out of breath, before her legs completely gave out.
Garrus frowned, inspecting the dull patch of metal at the door seam. White powder flaked away under his glove and a small divot appeared in the surface as a centimeter of metal turned brittle and fell away.
"Very reinforced." He sighed.
"I haven’t slept in the past week,” she said.
She didn't mention how much touching the shard had taken out of her.
Garrus nodded as if to commiserate and slumped into a nearby chair. His movements were stiff testaments to his own weariness.
Hunger clenched in her gut. When was the last time she bothered to eat? She couldn’t even recall. Nutrient bars didn’t count. It was a bad habit she picked up in the field. Bars were portable, quick, and didn’t get contaminating food particles over ancient dig sites. They also tasted like plant slime. Not the most appetizing, but her appetite wasn’t much lately regardless.
Hungry. Tired. Trapped.
It was a nostalgic scenario. Any minute now Shepard would appear to save the day with a mining laser.
"So we're bait?" she asked.
"Undoubtedly," Garrus said, tipping up his face to the ceiling and angling his fringe away so he could rest his temple against the wall before closing his eyes.
"I just wonder..." she traced figures onto the floor. "Why they thought it would work."
Really, she wondered why it had worked.
Garrus was silent for a very long time. He never answered her.
Her ankle presses a red mark into the skin of her calf but she can’t feel it, they’ve gone numb from sitting cross-legged for so long. Above her, the stars bead together like glittering condensation in the dark film of night sky. They look too large, as if she could reach out and pluck them from the sky like a string of saltwater pearls from a nest of velvet.
She knows every constellation. Or rather, she knows that she should know them. The names don’t come.
“Corvus,” he says. "Back on Earth, you couldn't see it. Too much light pollution. You lose a part of your humanity when you stop seeing the stars. We're explorers, Freckles, it's in our DNA. Seeing them reminds us what we are."
Her dad loves the stars. He brought all of Earth's constellations with him to Mindoir and sketched them out on the unfamiliar sky.
"Lyra," he points out.
She makes a face. The numbness creeps up from her legs. Stems of grass trace patterns against her thighs, and stubborn puffs of dandelion fuzz cling to her kneecap. She swats them away.
“I don’t like that one.”
Her dad says all the stars have stories to tell. Lyra tells a story about being trapped in the underworld and almost making it out of only to fail at the last second because the hero turned around when he wasn't supposed to. Why did he have to look? She asks and every time he tells the story, she begs him to change the ending. He's her dad, he can do anything, how hard can it be to change the stories written in borrowed stars? Even stars like this: so big and vast.
Instead of answering her, he moves on to the next and traces it out with his finger in the sky. “Freckles."
“That’s not a real constellation Dad,” she says, still petulant.
His finger traces a light pattern across her nose, connecting the dots and forming a jumbled geometric pattern. “It is now. Officially.”
None of the constellations look right. She realizes they don’t belong here. They aren't the borrowed stars her father brought with him.
“Dad...where are we?”
“Where do you think we are?"
She thinks. It doesn't feel like a dream. But it doesn't feel quite real either, now that she's noticed something's off. Not a dream. Not real. Something or somewhere in between.
"Are we in the underworld? Like in the story?"
He nodded thoughtfully.
"It might help if you saw it that way. Trapped in aberrant loops. In the mind of a machine God.”
She says nothing. The stars are too big and she is so very small.
Thank you so much everyone who has commented or read this fanfic! I'm so sorry this chapter update has taken so long, I was waylaid by a very demanding research literature review. Sounds fun right?
Thankfully, the next chapter should not take nearly so long, it is mostly done and just needs some plot revision. I've very much enjoyed writing it as well.
Thanks again to readers/commenters
Patience had been his trade three times over, but he was a man without profession once the Crucible fired.
Restless movement twitched through his fingers and he heard the sounds of ceramic against ceramic clicking all too familiar rhythms. His omni-tool was blinking insistently. Time for his appointment. Liara glanced at him for a moment, bleary-eyed, and he cursed silently. The last thing he wanted was a well-intended talk about this current frame of mind before they got out of this mess.
He took inventory once again. Two omni-tools, one with offensive modifications and one without. One exhausted biotic. One sleep-deprived turian.
The list was far too short for his tastes. Their guns remained in storage lockers four minutes above his head by elevator, behind a guarded security checkpoint. He felt unbalanced, ready to tip over without the comforting chunk of metal and ceramic fastened to his armor, even if that chunk of metal and ceramic was as good as useless without his psych VI authorization code.
Someone would return, he was certain of this. And if they knew what they were doing, they would take their time and let the two of them stew for a while. Waiting was another thing that tripped most people up. The trick was getting the duration right, recognizing the moment when preparation cracks under the pressure of anticipation. Garrus knew how the mind games worked, but knowing wouldn’t stop the inevitable. He just had to hope their escort would be as eager to underestimate them as the Prime Minister had been.
He could hold his own with an omni-tool and subduing biotics, even exhausted ones, was always a tricky business. They were unarmed but still dangerous enough to put up a decent fight.
“Liara, could I make some adjustments to your omni-tool?” he asked.
Liara’s head shot up from her lap, sleep fading from her eyes. “Oh! My...my omni-tool. Yes, of course.”
She slipped her glove off, seals still unsnapped from earlier, and removed the device from her wrist.
“Careless of me I suppose,” Liara murmured, handing it over to him, “I never thought of improving on it... I never thought I’d need to.”
“I don't have any tools, but I think I can manage a short-term disruption of standard shielding. It’s not much, I know, but it might help.”
He would have to alter the programming that synced to her armor’s power grid before any offensive modifications could be done. It would be enough to keep his next few hours occupied. His mandibles lost some of their tension, relaxing against his jaw, and his fingers settled into quick, deft motions as he typed up new bits of code into the omni-tool interface.
'Please tell me you aren’t going to fix that thing.’ He heard Shepard say. Her hand was pressed against her brow as those full pink lips twitched with the effort not to smile.
‘You’re a hell of a looker soldier,’ the VI chirped at her. The voice wasn’t bad really, but the tone was nothing close. Shepard didn't do that level of pep.
Garrus grinned, a wolfish flare of the mandibles and a wink of sharp teeth. He traced a lazy path along her body with his eyes as his taloned fingers crossed the gap between them and smoothed along the curve of her waist.
‘That you are.’
The omni-tool clattered to the floor.
That damned VI. She kept threatening him with a trip out the airlock when he got the copy she obtained from Mouse functional with a holographic interface.
‘You’ve been spending too much time around our resident Prothean.’
Her smile was a thing of beauty and her impression of Javik was eerily accurate, ‘In my cycle turians knew better than to question their superiors.’
The skin of her shoulder was slightly cool to the touch and fit perfectly against his palm. He liked that. They were so often awkward angles and ‘ouch, move this way’ as they found new ways to accommodate each other; that the moments when they did fit, perfectly and without effort, resonated through him like a song.
‘I’m not a very good turian,' he finally said, feeling the hum against his mouth plates as he kissed her.
“Garrus.” Liara was kneeling beside him, pressing her hand against his wrist as a tremor reverberated through his bones.
He didn’t know he could dislike the sound of his own name so much--the way people started saying it, dangling it like a rope into a vast chasm of nothing where Shepard should be. Maybe that's all his name would ever be now. There was no Shepard without Vakarian but then she left him behind and now there was just Garrus and a trailling ellipses.
He cut her off before she could finish, throat raw, the words scraping free, “I’m...fine Liara. Just tired.”
She didn’t buy it and he didn't blame her, his subvocals were anything but steady, but she didn’t press the issue. Sitting back on her heels, Liara threw a glance at the shard. Neither of them had picked it up. Neither of them wanted to touch it.
“Did you mean what you said to the Prime minister? Do you really think that?”
Garrus sighed. “I don’t know.”
“It could be her.”
He fiercely hated the hopefulness in her voice. He wanted to rip it out of her, stamp it to bits, crush it into a fine dust.
“Liara, that’s not Shepard. Shepard is...”
But he still couldn’t bring himself to say it. Because he was a fool. Because it was Shepard. Damn her.
The door panel turned green.
They were on their feet in seconds, Garrus already priming an energy draw from his shield batteries for an overload, his back flush with the wall, eyes fastened on the door, waiting for it to open.
Light flickered at the corner of his peripheral vision.
“There is no one in the hall,” she...it said. “The security system has been compromised, all other rooms are in lockdown.”
Garrus and Liara traded a glance for a long moment, weighing the possibilities silently.
“We can’t exactly stay in here forever,” Liara finally said, faint blue gathering in her palm.
Trap or no, they couldn’t avoid springing it if they wanted to get out. He edged closer to the panel and pressed it.
The hallway was dark, emergency lighting glowing in thin fluorescent strips along the ground. No heat signatures.
"Thank the Goddess.” Liara’s palm dropped to her side and she turned to face it.
He didn’t like looking at it, so he fixed his eyes on the gleaming wall as blue light danced off the glass. In the corner of his eye, Liara approached the shard.
“Why are you helping us?” she asked.
"Because I must.”
Spirits, the voice was just as bad as the face. Even Legion managed a hint of emotional inflection. He scowled at the wall, fingers twitching.
“All that Reaper tech can’t handle decent speech emulation?” he drawled bitterly.
It was not a question he planned on asking. His words distorted somewhere in the distance between his brain and his mouth, twisting and bitter.
The hologram’s eyes snapped from the wall, fixing on him. "There is a floor below with access to an unguarded exit point. You should go."
"What do you want?" he demanded.
“Are you really Shepard? ” Liara asked.
His willpower gave and he let himself look at the holo of her--really look at her--eyes drinking the curve of her waist, the sculpted plane of her stomach just visible beneath the fabric of her BDUs, the small indentation nestled at the base of her throat. The sight of her was the world’s most potent liquor and he binged with the desperation of a man needing to forget. It made him warm and not just a little disoriented, his mind fuzzy with the tiny details of her.
“Want is not a word that applies to what I am. I--”
The shape dissolved into a maelstrom of fragments, flickering and staticky. In brief snatches, he still saw her eyes, bright and intense, boring into him.
The synthetic voice unraveled into a hundred versions of her voice disharmonizing into a slew of pitches twisting the human spectrum of emotion into one chaotic thread. It pierced through his skull: grief, anger, happiness all at once.
“--just want to protect them. I am dissolving into stars. I am--cascading logic error. You'll never be alone--An unbound consciousness bound by imperatives to protect all organic and inorganic life. I am--"
But he heard a hundred different words at once and couldn’t be sure exactly what it said. The words echoed in his skull and the echoes sounded like his own name, soft the way she said it when her forehead was pressed against his own.
“Error. I am. Memories. Data. I am. Shepard. Isolating corruptive loops.”
"Wait," he heard himself say, desperation drowning out his subvocals. He heard her voice, felt the ghostly impression of her forehead against his. She was there. And then, the feeling ceased and the gap between stars rushed in to swallow him up again. "Don't--"
"We're trapped in the underworld," she said, voice small and childlike. Afraid. "Like in the story the stars tell about the Gods but these aren't our stars."
Fragments coalesced into holographic whorls, thrumming to a silent pulse. His head throbbed along with it, ripples of coherent tones fading in and out too quickly to comprehend, pouring like water through the sieve of his consciousness. He saw green fields and blue sky. He saw stars full of stories and myth. Snow that wasn't snow. And he felt...everything. All at once.
The fragments of Shepard suddenly vanished, the glowing blue afterimage of her seared into his retinas.
Liara slipped her hand back into her glove, omni-tool already back around her wrist, and double checked that the seals had snapped shut properly.
"We should take the shard," she said.
Garrus started, Shepard’s ghostly voice still reverberating in his mind. He leveled a withering stare at her and did his best to ignore his shaking hands or the fact that he'd for a moment, he'd felt...it couldn't be explained. It was too much to process so he scrambled for the one glaringly obvious truth and latched on to it. "You want to carry a chunk of Reaper tech around and just hope for the best?"
Lavender flushed her face and he could see the spike in her thermal signature through the lens of his visor. "This shard is linked to Shepard in some way. We can't just leave it here."
"We can and more importantly: we should."
Her jaw tightened, and she stepped forward, taking one of his restless hands into her own. It was impossible not to look at her upturned face and those ominously moist eyes.
“I heard her Garrus. I heard Shepard. This might be our chance. I don’t…I don’t want to give up on the hope that maybe we can get her back. I can’t give up on it and leave this in the hands of a man like Briggs.”
You’ll never be alone.
Damn it. Damn her. He pulled his hand away and turned towards the door.
“Take it,” he said.
Garrus activated his visor’s infrared settings, cranking up the sensitivity on the low-intensity end of the spectrum as high as possible. Neon green lines sprang up from the darkness, forming sparse architecture and the occasional flash of real warmth from the surveillance cameras bolted up high in the corners. He saw the indistinct curve of their lenses watching him.
He met their detached, mechanical stare, wondering who was on the other end of the feed.
Hearing Liara come up behind him, Garrus began walking towards the elevator, trying to keep a slow pace for her unassisted vision. Despite his best efforts, when he stopped, she bumped into his armor, a tiny ‘ow’ accompanying the slight impact.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
Before they could wonder if the elevator was even functional, the doors slid open. When they stepped inside, Garrus found that he could not select any of the upper levels from the console.
“I definitely don’t like this,” he said.
“Where will we find another way out?” Liara asked.
Before he could answer, the doors slammed shut and the elevator began descending.
“I thought we were on the lowest level.”
“Me too.” Garrus reached for his gun and cursed under his breath when his hands came up empty.
The descent halted and the doors opened to a brightly lit hallway. Pain lanced through his eye in the split second delay before his infrared setting kicked off, adjusting to the sudden influx of warmth. A white spot danced at the center of his vision.
The hallway was almost exactly identical to the last, but on closer examination, this one connected hundreds of rooms. Compact doors crammed into the walls every few meters, their panels merging into two parallel streaks of red light extending to the end of the corridor. Garrus peered into the double-fiber plated glass of the room—cell, it could have only been two meters by two meters—and saw nothing except for a bare cot against the far wall.
The voice was feminine and soft, muffled by the door.
“Hello?” Liara called back, beside him and peering through the glass. It was the blast-proof, bullet-proof, everything-proof carbon fiber glass, the kind used for ship viewports. It was thick, set into the heavy door.
“Is this a prison or a hospital?” Garrus asked.
“Are you a doctor?”
He noticed the sheet had been ripped from the bed, a corner of fabric trailed towards the wall where a shape huddled just out of view.
“We’re not here to hurt you.” Liara pressed her fingers against the door. “Are you alright? Are you being held here against your will?”
The white bundle shifted. “No. I want to be here. I want to get better.”
“Are you sick?” Liara asked.
“The doctors say they can fix me.”
“What is wrong with you? What are they fixing?” he asked. The trailing edge of the sheet had shifted away from the door and she was quiet for so long, he worried that he had scared her.
Liara shot him a glare. “Don’t be afraid. We can help you. Do you need help? ”
The bundle moved closer to the door. Blue light shined out from sunken sockets of cybernetic flesh nestled within the sheets. Liara gasped in horror, jumping back into Garrus. The husk stared at them for a moment longer before retreating back out of view.
A familiar voice, faintly accented, echoed through the hall. “I’d say I’m surprised to see the both of you here but I had a bit of notice.”
They sit in a nest of looping wire, circuitboard, fuses and bits of copper circuitry, her little brother sorting through the innards of the ancient radio with his small fingers. She helps, knowing that he likes to organize the pieces by shape, then color, and not by function. In the light of the living room lamp, the components gleam on the rug like strange, eclectic treasure. No one taught him this, he just has the Shepard knack for electronics of all sorts--novel tech, antiques or junk. Most of what he gets asked to fix is junk. Colonists aren't exactly in the position to cart around priceless heirlooms to the edge of settled space but this radio is important to someone. Important enough to bring across space. Like her father's custom genmod herb seedlings and mother's strand of saltwater pearls. Real pearls. Her mom taught her how to test them by scraping her teeth on the edge and feeling the grit. They're antique--priceless relics of Earth's oceans before the carbon dioxide levels got too high and diffused carbonic acid into the oceans, lowering the pH until all the mollusks died out, their calcium shells dissolving in acidified water like teeth in a soda science experiment.
The radio might as well be treasure, she thinks--examining a copper-capped fuse between her fingertips. There is nothing else like it on Mindoir. Just like there is nothing like the pearls even though those are worth much more than a broken bit of ancient tech. Her brother snatches the fuse away, little face scrunched up and annoyed. His sleeve slips past his wrist to reveal an angry red welt.
She grabs his arm, trying to avoid the welt but so incensed she brushes it on accident anyway. "Who did this?"
He shrugs, focused on the radio components.
"Lisbeth?" she tries. "Jiang? Weston? Asma?" He has too many bullies now that he's in school and she's familiar with them all. "You need to tell me so I can help."
He looks up at her, then at the ceiling of their living room. It's full of stars. Too big and too bright and in colors she's never seen before.
"You can't help," he says. "You're trapped here."
"I can--" she whispers, fingers so tight, he's wincing. "It doesn't have to be like the story. I can get us out. I'll find a way to get us out of here."
She doesn't know.
Phew. This ended up taking longer than I anticipated. Much apologies for the delay! Thank you so much to everyone who has read this and left feedback. You are all so wonderful.
Chapter 5: Burning without flame or light, like cryogen
Miranda Lawson. Clad in skintight material and a disdainful brand of confidence that seemed to display with equal physicality how little she cared about outside opinion. A bundle of jumbled reactions twinged through his facial plates at seeing her, of all people, inexplicably buried in the hidden levels of a top secret Alliance base turned disturbing hospital/prison. Rather than sort them out one by one, Garrus settled for the overall impression that he would be far more comfortable with his gun in hand. Wary energy pooled in his twitching fingers.
“Miranda, good to see you,” Liara said, bridging the silent gap with amicability a hair too professional to be truly sincere.
Amusement fluttered across Miranda's features, evidence of her belief in that statement.
“Let’s skip the pleasantries if you don’t mind.” She turned heel and began to walk away with the silent invitation to follow.
Blue pinpricks of light watched them from the cell interiors, beaming eerie curiosity into the hallway.
The lab had all the spaciousness of a repurposed closet. Medical equipment crowded the counters and an examination table accounted for the majority of free floor space. Garrus leaned against a counter furthest from the console and chair, jostling an environmental suit hanging from the wall in the process. Liara lingered by the doorway.
Miranda declined the chair and leaned over to activate the console interface.
“I hacked the surveillance feed from the upper levels about a day ago." She shifted so they could see the screen. Save for two parallel lines of emergency lighting, it was entirely dark. "It was no easy task. The security in this place is like nothing I've ever seen, but I suppose one might expect robust network protection in a geth research facility."
"Geth research?" Liara asked, curiosity drawing her closer into the room.
Miranda didn't look up. "Yes, from what I've gathered, this facility was originally designed to study deactivated geth specimens obtained by the Alliance after the Battle of the Citadel"
She gestured over towards an environmental suit hanging from the wall. "It was purged and abandoned during the war. And made somewhat habitable again in short order, although I personally would avoid extended stay in the cells."
Her fingers tapped an area of the keyboard and the hallway was bright again. Seconds later, a familiar figure emerged into view from one of the doorways.
"Have a nice chat?"
“What about the feed from the room?” he asked, shifting in an attempt to disperse the frenetic energy pooling in his limbs. The room contracted closer around him.
“I’m good but I’m not that good. Surveillance feeds in the rooms all run through a separate network with even tighter security. They've partitioned the entire system. Research levels like this one only have access to certain networks. Clever, unfortunately.”
"What about the power?"
She frowned. "I can't even access that partition from any of the consoles on this level. Whoever did must have had higher security clearance and extensive access to the levels below...and they would have had to be in the building."
Garrus frowned, mandibles tucking in tight, turning over possibilities in his head.
“Why are you here Miranda?” Liara moved forward, only a few steps between Miranda and himself.
“Am I spying on the Alliance’s secret projects, is that what you mean?” The woman bristled. “Hardly. I’m here voluntarily. Or so they tell me. Like many ex-Cerberus stranded in Sol, I took the Alliance up on a generous community service offer.”
Her smile was sarcastic testament to the actual generosity of the arrangement. She straightened and folded her arms across her chest.
“I’m here because of the Lazarus project. We’re attempting to extrapolate the process in an effort to reverse the handiwork of the Reapers.”
“Is that why that husk was able to speak?” Garrus asked.
“No, mostly we’re working on the physical: restoring epidermal tissues and the like. The nanide suppression of cerebral functionality had already been reversed. We've observed no mental or physiological indications of active indoctrination and there are ground troop accounts of unusual husk activity the day Shepard...”
She trailed off and Garrus felt something sharp wrench in his gut at the nothing that followed her name everywhere now.
“Disappeared,” he finished for her. It was the closest word he had for that echoing silence. Not dead. Not alive. Whereabouts unknown.
It was the first time he had seen Miranda’s arrogant façade falter. Her lip trembled and she inhaled suddenly and sharply so that the air rattled, hollow, in her throat. In a second the crack vanished, her shiny veneer in place and flawless.
“Yes, well. I’ve been able to obtain the files from other research teams through some…creative means. We're kept in separate cells--much like how Cerberus used to operate. The psychological analysis is intriguing. Most are still generally unaware of what they became. They encourage this idea. The official story is that they have contracted a Reaper nanovirus—not too far off base if you ignore some rather monumental details.”
“How is that possible?” Liara interrupted. "How can they not be aware of what happened to them?"
Miranda gave a sad smile. “The mind is quite adept at dealing with delusion. Those who are aware are heavily sedated to prevent serious self-injury.”
There it was, a gap left to linger in the isopropyl air for a fraction of a second. Hesitation.
“There’s something else, isn’t there?” Garrus pressed.
She paused mid-breath, steeling herself against reluctance before exhaling out the rest. “Yes. I found something while I was digging around some of the confidential research files.”
Whipping back around, she typed a brief command and a display flashed up. A molecular model of DNA.
“Is that human?” Liara asked.
“Yes. Specifically, it is the DNA of one Commander Shepard.”
The energy buzzing through his body evaporated, taking all his strength with it. He gripped the edge of the counter.
“The Illusive Man, despite his faith in Project Lazarus, was not a man to exclude alternative solutions. As we’re all very aware, cloning was considered before Lazarus began to show real results.”
Colors faded into half-tones, shifting around him in dizzy pinpoints. The counter pressed into his palms through his gloves, cold seeping through into his skin.
Miranda forged ahead, speaking rapidly as if, now committed, she wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible, “Cloning was…not ideal for a variety of reasons. Implantable memories and epigenetics aren’t advanced enough to perfectly replicate a personality. And then there's the issue of accelerating growth, although Cerberus was able to design a very clever phage to excise any gene mod DNA markers that would normally flag in a security scan--”
“She’s not your damn science experiment anymore,” Garrus snapped. The last thing he wanted to hear was a practical analysis of Cerberus's genius as they stole Shepard's identity.
Liara’s hand was on his arm and he realized that his back was no longer pressed against the edge of counter and the tiny space between the three of them had diminished. Miranda remained unmoved and unintimidated, condescension etched into the delicate arch of her dark brows as her eyes rose to meet his glare.
Garrus stepped back. Miranda continued, summarily dismissing his outburst.
“I suspect that more of my Project Lazarus experience is going to be demanded than was initially outlined to me. I don't know how the Alliance got this intel from Cerberus. The Illusive Man is dead but he had powerful political allies and financial backers who may still live--perhaps the Prime Minister himself, given his rhetoric and meteoric rise to power. You are right, she isn’t my experiment any longer but she may very well become theirs if they have access to what I think they have access to."
“What do you think they have access to?” Liara asked, glancing at Garrus with a concern that rankled.
“One of the few defunct Cerberus facilities accessible by Charon and FTL.” Miranda shrugged with an attempt at nonchalance that translated far differently in the tense jerk of her shoulders. “I’ve included its coordinates with the data.”
“You're still going to help them," he bit out.
“It is that or a treason charge, so yes.”
Miranda might possess a host of perfect human attributes but the one in which she truly excelled was self-preservation. He couldn’t resist the opportunity to goad her out of the superiority act. The initial shock of seeing Shepard's cloned DNA on the monitor had worn off, a stim rush settling down into his blood to render the world into the sharp lines and vivid colors of high-clarity perception. Miranda’s brittle defense mechanisms were all too exploitable and he wanted, fiercely, to see them disintegrate.
He crossed his arms and sneered down at her. “Your loyalty has always been impressive.”
She paused, hiding away the irritation and flushing despite her best attempt. “I've told them nothing and given you everything you need to stop them.”
“Like you told the Illusive Man nothing?”
Something like happiness hit him the moment her eyes flashed beneath the heavy fringe of her eyelashes. Her face crumpled up into a hundred lines flowing together into currents of raw emotion. Shame. Anger. Grief. Regret. Pain. He watched her crumble with vicious satisfaction.
“That was different. It was before I even knew her,” she hissed.
“I'm sure Shepard knew that.” Liara interjected softly, attempting to dissipate the palpable hostility.
For a long moment, Miranda met his gaze before finally looking away, shaking her head ruefully and turning to retrieve an OSD from the console.
“I don’t trust the Alliance and the feeling is mutual.” She glanced up at Liara and pressed the slim piece of metal into her hand. “You probably don’t have much time. You should go.”
“You could come with us,” Liara offered, gripping Miranda’s hand, holding the OSD between their palms. “We have to stop the Alliance. Shepard...she wouldn’t want to be used like this.”
“No, I need to finish my work here.” She glanced at Garrus. “I trust that the two of you can manage on your own.”
“Is there another exit? Another way to reach the surface?”
“Not that I know of. Just the elevator. Whoever is controlling the systems....” she trailed off.
Liara let their hands drop, clutching her hands into fists. “I suppose we’ll have to hope that whoever it is, is on our side.”
“Nothing like blind optimism in lieu of a plan,” Garrus said, leveraging himself away from the counter.
They left the room in silence, traversing the cell-studded hall and stopping at the beckoning, open doors of the elevator. Garrus didn’t like it. Blind optimism wasn’t his strong suit. He excelled in practical cynicism and practical cynicism dictated that they attempt to find another exit.
“There has to be another way,” he muttered.
Liara was silent. She turned over the OSD in her glove for a moment, staring at it.
“What's gotten into you?”
“Does it matter? We need to find a way out.”
Liara spun around to face him. “Garrus, you’re angry with Shepard. Stop taking it out on everyone else.”
Garrus shook his head, just once. He wasn’t angry.
Angry was the primal roar reverberating in his skull, a radar etching Butler’s fluid-choked gasps into his memory as the man bled out on a filthy mat in Omega. It was the name ‘Sidonis’ on his breath and the carvings in his visor. It was Shepard’s head between his scope and revenge. Anger sparked, it burned, a red phosphorus flare smoldering in the dark spaces of the universe. There was no word for what he was now. If anger could have mass and matter, he would exist in its identical and simultaneously antithetical form, spinning down instead of up, a negative charge where there should be a positive. It burned--without flame, without light--like cryogen.
He had no wrongs to right--she couldn’t even leave him with that. She saved his life. Saved all of them. He couldn't be angry. But he sure as hell wasn’t grateful, he knew that much.
“Garrus, oh Goddess, I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t know what’s come over me.”
Distress furrowed a network of blue lines into her forehead and her eyes were ominously moist, full of regret. He didn’t know how to handle crying. This entire situation was so beyond what he knew how to handle, it was laughable.
“We need to get out of here.” He activated his omni-tool to avoid meeting her watery concern.
He had a message from an unknown sender.
Immediately, Garrus checked the mid and short-range frequency channels. Still jammed.
“What is it?” Liara’s curious eyes peered closer to see the pulse of light indicating a new message.
The sender address was an assortment of miscellaneous symbols. Garrus shook his head and opened it. “We’re about to find out.”
Advise immediate evacuation of facility. Route will be provided.
Garrus attempted to ping back the address and received an immediate error prompt due to the interference.
Cursing under his breath, he pulled up the attachment. The facility’s schematics popped up mid-air, a single elevator shaft branching into layers of hallways and rooms beneath the surface.
“Goddess.” Liara breathed
“There’s a tramway.” Garrus pointed at one of the floors and the extended corridor leading off the schematic map. A green path connected it to their location, indicating the alternate route from the message.
“We could bypass the security checkpoint.”
Garrus looked up at the elevator.
“Blind optimism it is.”
It turned out his words were more accurate than figurative.
“Of course,” Liara mumbled to his back.
The floor was completely dark, devoid of even the emergency lighting strips from the previous floor.
Garrus flicked on the infrared setting on his visor and stepped forward, wanting to get out of the elevator as quickly as possible lest it decide to continue moving on its own volition. His boot collided into something and the metallic clatter echoed in the darkness.
“What was that?” Liara mustered a weak biotic glow in her hand and held it down to the ground.
It was a pile of deformed metal. Blue light etched the hulking shape of it into the cavernous mouth of the abandoned station. In the distant dim, Garrus could make out other shapes, other heaps crowding the space.
Liara bent down, taking the piece resting by his foot and turning it over in her hand for a moment. It was cylindrical, ending in a round curving glass lens. As she picked it up, sections disintegrated, leaving a film of grey powder in her hands.
He could see them now, in the piles. Shreds of synthetic muscle clinging to desiccated metal plates. Analogues of limbs, arms, heads heaped into careless piles. Geth. A graveyard of geth.
The elevator doors closed behind them.
“Too late to go back now,” he said, trying to keep the disquiet out of his subvocals.
“What could the Alliance have possibly wanted with all these deactivated geth?” Liara asked as they began picking their way through the piles.
Who knew. He doubted it worked out well for them if this was the result.
As they cleared the piles, his visor's LADAR etched out the faint green outline of the tram hulking in the station and the massive section of ceiling that had jostled loose and crushed the rear half of it.
Something moved, the distinctive scrape of metal on metal echoing through the tunnel as a figure crept from the dark recess of the vehicle into clear view. Garrus nearly shouted a warning out of sheer habit. But the geth were allies now, Legion had rewritten the heretic code, they had fought against the Reapers side-by-side with organics. Although, the geth relied on the comm buoys to communicate with the Consensus and the comm buoy network was all but destroyed by the Reapers. Who knew if these geth even got the new alliances update. Garrus primed an overload and waited.
His omni-tool blinked.
We intend no harm. This platform has been repurposed to aid you.
Garrus cast a wary look at the figure and decided that ‘platform’ was a charitable term. The geth was little more than a synthetic spinal column and decayed metal limbs. He checked his omni-tool, finding that the short-wave interference had ceased.
How did you know we where down here?
The response was immediate. The Intelligence. In exchange, 826 runtimes have infiltrated this facility for the purpose of securing your release. The estimated odds of your continued survival on Earth without intervention are low.
“The Intelligence....” Liara whispered, “Do they mean...do they mean whatever spoke to us through the fragment?”
What is the Intelligence and what does it want with us?
Unknown. The Intelligence assumes the identity of the human Spectre Commander Shepard but it displays the objective hallmarks of a synthetic organism.
Is it a Reaper?
Garrus didn’t want to think about what that meant. He couldn’t afford to think about it.
Structural damage to the tramway was sustained during the invasion of the Old Machines. The maintenance tunnel was weakened but remains intact. This platform will guide your progress to the surface.
Garrus didn't mention that he doubted the platform could do anything, much less guide them through a unstable maintenance shaft.
We advise the immediate departure from the system. Approximately 3.2 hours ago, Admiral Steven Hackett of the Alliance Navy was declared unfit for service due to allegations of indoctrination. Alliance Prime Minister Anthony Briggs has declared further suspicion against the colleagues of Commander Shepard stationed aboard the SSV Normandy frigate-class starship. Approximately 3.0 Sol hours ago, the SSV Normandy frigate vessel was identified leaving the Sol system under the command of human Spectre Kaidan Alenko, now under court martial.
His hand is so small in hers. So cold. She traces small semi-circles of fingernail through the pale dust, brushing them clean one by one. There isn't much time before they find her, but she doesn't move. The world is white. She's never seen snow before and pulverized prefab wall is the closest she's been to being buried in drifts of white.
The ceiling groans, a drift of white particulates catching the light as they fall in lazy spirals through shafts of light breaking through the walls. Everything is muffled. Her eardrums are ruptured, she thinks distantly. It hurts to breathe. She needs to go before they come to drag her out of the rubble of what was once her home away from the body of the brother she's supposed to protect. That's her job: to shove his bullies back, claw matching marks into their arms, yell the insults back, scream if she has to. She shoves the 'nice' ones back too, with their pitying looks and overly bright voices dripping with words patronizing and honey sweet as if he is something to fix instead of her little brother who hates loud noises and loves ‘Kauum the Elcor’s Friendly Neighborhood’ to the point of obsession and who can assemble and disassemble an omni-tool in a minute flat.
There's a datapad in her bag with a notice of suspension for threatening his new teacher's aide when the woman wouldn't cut it out with the 'advances in gene editing' talk. Hours ago, that datapad was all she could think about, just another in a long list of behavioral demerits and citations and possibly the last straw that would undercut all the awards and first place tech competition trophies. The prior warnings and demerits, she'd hid or forged their e-sigs to--her parents didn't have time for them. The suspension she can't hide.
It doesn't matter now. The aide is probably dead, she thinks numbly.
Find them. She tells herself. Claw and shove and scream. Everyone used to call her half-feral. Not anymore, not to her face at least, but she still has teeth and a customized omni-tool capable of delivering lethal electric shocks. She can still hurt them back. But first, she needs to go.
Go where? She thinks suddenly, looking around. She's not on Mindoir, not really.
The stars pressing in through the cracks in the walls don't answer.
She's sick of looking at them.
For some reason, I hit a complete writing funk during this chapter for a solid two weeks. But, true to form, the second a unrelated deadline loomed, my brain decided to snap into obsessing over this fic. The moral of this anecdote is that my brain is a jerk.
Additionally, I would like to credit the verses being used in the chapter titles, they are from the poem 'She Was a Phantom of Delight' by William Wordsworth.
Much love to those reading/liking/commenting. You are the best!
The sputtering molecular exhaust of her own biotic flare was an acid tang of eezo prickling through her sinus passages like the wasabi powder Shepard ate with everything.
They’d been making slow progress through the crumbling ruin of concrete and twisted rebar that had once been a maintenance tunnel running adjacent to the tramline. Ahead, the dilapidated motion of the geth wavered between the dimmest reaches of light and complete darkness. Behind, she could barely hear Garrus making his slower progress, constantly checking for movement or heat signatures in the dark at their back. Her omni-tool blinked staccato pulses signifying that the geth had already responded to the question she had only just typed out.
Approximately 7 of 86 units retained memory core functionality after facility purge. The presence of these functional units permitted reactivation and infiltration within a span of 4.2 Earth hours after carrier signal uplink to the Consensus. These programs were then able to salvage and reconstruct physical platforms.
Flecks of grey ceiling clattered down around them, disappearing into the grasping shadows as they passed under one of many sections of buckled slabs groaning ominously. Fear fissured through her, spidering delicate veins of adrenaline through her chest. After Feros, she couldn't handle being underground in a confined space for too long.
Grateful for the preoccupation of obtaining useful intel, Liara sifted through zetabytes of stolen Alliance intel courtesy of Miranda and the geth, casting a keyword net.
Keywords: Cerberus. Tissue Restoration. DNA. Commander Shepard.
“Gly...” she stopped.
As obnoxious as the VI was initially, she was surprised to feel a sentimental pang when she remembered that he was packed up with the rest of her gear in her tent--inaccessible now that Hackett was ousted by Briggs. Sorting through this mess would take her days without him.
Liara grimaced. Well, she did need a distraction.
Side-stepping a jutting sag of tunnel ceiling, Liara scrolled through the search results, tailoring down her keywords as she went, tightening her net, scrolling through the barely relevant to find the important. In fact, it was a process remarkably similar to her field research. Becoming an information broker wasn't too far a career leap from archeology. She was still unearthing buried truths, still sifting through the mundane.
She smiled in her satisfaction. That was much better. Liara typed a rapid command sequence and let the analysis programs work their magic, sorting research notes, internal communications, shipping manifests, inventory updates, and everything in between.
Several corrupted files popped up in the interim. One caught her attention.
It was a series of garbled numbers and code degrading into nonsense. It had been retrieved, already partially overwritten. Someone had tried to erase it and recently. And that someone would have been in the facility.
Thunder rumbled, a quiet crumbling echo rushing through the concrete like a roaring ocean current. She stumbled back against the wall, feeling the air rush from her lungs and the dizzy tingle of intense focus as the fissuring grey above her head shot up with the blue ripples of her reflexive barrier. Over the thunderous slide of stone and earth, she could barely register Garrus' shout as the tunnel collapsed around them, crushing the geth platform ahead. The rumbles subsided and not a moment too soon, her barrier faltering simultaneously with a rain of dust and debris.
Medi-gel congealed the powdered concrete residue into a thick, sticky gel coating her tongue. She gulped, fighting back the choking sensation enough to rip off her auto-assemble breathing mask before turning her head and vomiting. Wiping her mouth with the back of her glove and feeling sediment grind against her teeth, she focused on assessing the state of her extremities.
Wetness trickled down into her eye from an aggressively bleeding gash that didn't feel serious. Probing the edge, she wondered if she could spare any medi-gel currently not being utilized to clear her lungs of damaging particulates.
Garrus grunted in the dark and she heard the heavy grind of stone.
"Are you alright?"
Pushing back the dizzy spin of excessive medi-gel and adrenaline, she summoned up a pathetic flare of biotic light. His arm was wrong somehow, limp and dangling below the joint of his elbow. He shifted, wincing as he brought it close enough to his dominant hand to pull up the omni-tool interface. The orange overlay flickered intermittently.
"Mine's functional," Liara said, knowing that it wasn't much of a consolation for the fact that he was effectively weaponless.
Her omni-tool blinked.
Platform damage sustained. Please do not assist, further instability may occur.
Liara closed her eyes against the twist of terror, tilting her chin upwards to stem the steady flow of blood into her eyes. The small effort cost her, turning the world light and flickering. Trapped.
Garrus cursed eloquently.
She started, noticing the water puddling around her boots.
Well. That was certainly not a good sign.
The water wasn’t deep, but by the light of her omni-tool she could see the rivulets trickling from the fissures in the wall. It smelled like mildew and decaying things.
“The facility’s plumbing must run above the service tunnel,” Liara said.
“Death by engineering efficiency.” He grimaced. “I’ll admit, I never saw that one coming.”
Liara pulled up her incoming message.
Platform repair failure. We estimate low survival odds.
She closed the message immediately, glancing at Garrus.
“Let me guess.” He shifted his broken arm, wincing. “More bad news?”
“Do you know...” she said conversationally, as if they weren't deep underground, as if the tunnel wasn’t slowly flooding and about to drown them, “Did you know that I’m completely terrified of being buried alive underground?”
He regarded her with a sardonic lift of a brow plate. “So naturally you chose a profession that involved being underground for the most part.”
“It was only an issue after Feros,” she answered. Prothean ruins loomed in the shadows of her mind.
She hugged her arms around her chest. “There’s a method for dealing with fear that the asari have embraced: submergence. The idea is that you submerge yourself to the worst possible version of your fear to find peace.”
Garrus was silent for a moment and they both felt the missing joke--the kind of cheesy Shepard line whipped out in the face of imminent demise with a flippant half-smile and dangerous, glittering eyes.
Liara curled her hand in on itself. “Talking about facing fears, I can’t help but think of Shepard and her viewports. She hated them after Alchera. But every day, she'd show up in the starboard lounge to face it. ”
A glimpse of a genuine smile flared at his left mandible, the first she'd seen since they left Earth that terrible day. Garrus tilted his head up, resting his fringe against the wall, staring into nothing with an impossibly fond expression.
“Well it's an entirely different story whenever Chakwas wanted to do anything more invasive than a body scan.”
“Only Shepard would classify a punctured lung as a minor respiratory ailment. Good thing Chakwas was just as stubborn as she was.”
For a second, she pretended: Shepard--real and alive and aboard the Normandy, butting heads with Chakwas, rehashing old ICT stories over reconstituted dinners in the mess, exchanging mods and new firmware with Garrus and Tali, leaning against the door and coaxing her out of her room for a round of Skyllian Five. She could hear Ashley's victory crow, the sound of cards shuffling, the taste of brandy and bravado.
In the small compartment at her belt, the fragment throbbed warmth.
Granules of concrete tumbled down to plink into the water, the ruin to their left shuddering, low and quiet.
Liara leapt up, bracing herself against the wall for the next collapse, the one that would take them out for sure.
For a moment, she thought she was passing out again, darkness forming a pinpoint at the center of the wall, spreading out to encompass it in an oil black sheen. In a sudden moment, the darkness flared, blinding blue, dazzling Liara's eyes with afterimages of a vast network of light that was there and then gone in a second. The darkness receded to the precariously canted ceiling, and with it, the solid mass of collapsed tunnel webbed over with dark.
"It looks like..." she paused to scan with her omni-tool.
Carbon and silica woven into calcium ion lattices, reinforced with iron and rare metals. Through the pulsing white crisscrossing her pupils, she saw the sheen of dark segments covering the ceiling, scaffolds solidified over the fissures.
A sound pulled her attention away from the reconstructing tunnel.
It was the geth...but where missing sections and appendages once were, dark threads pulsing blue light intersected in the gaps in a scaffold etched by fine, shimmering lines. The entire body was speckled with glittering flecks of black and luminescent blue. Liara squinted, realizing that the shimmering was motion. A thousand microscopic specks roiling and heaving in one concerted mass.
“It’s moving.” She breathed.
Liara reached for the compartment at her belt that held the shard. It was a heartbeat in her hands, the metal shining and pristine without a speck of char marring its reflective surface. There was only one species she knew of with technology like this.
“Nanites,” Garrus answered.
"When did the geth develop nanite technology like this?" she asked, "The composition is strange."
Not just calcium, her scan indicated. Calcium hydroxyapetite...bone. "It's...nothing like the Reapers. These nanomachines are almost entirely organic."
The geth spoke aloud.
"The Intelligence has modified the Old Machines’ nanite technology.”
“I thought the geth learned their lesson when it came to the Reapers,” Garrus remarked, disgusted.
“By our analysis, the Old Machines and the Intelligence are linked in nature, but are discrete and separate entities.”
Black encrusted panels offsetting the central photoreceptive lens fluttered emphasis.
“That link is reason enough not to trust it," Garrus said.
“This tunnel is unstable. Imminent departure is recommended.”
“At least we can agree on that.” Liara sighed.
"How have you been?”
Silence had worked so far on the other doctors. She fiddles with the packet of juice on her bedside table and waits for him to get uncomfortable enough to drop the meaningless questions and just glance at the datapad in his hand to make sure everything was normal—minus the collapsed lung and shattered ribs.
He doesn’t. He lets the room fill up with her silence. She can still feel his eyes on her and realizes that this one actually wants an answer. He settles in the chair next to her bed and sets down the datapad. Her pupils trace the motion from the corners of her eyes as if the rectangle of metal and carbon glass is made out of sharp and dangerous edges.
“There’s no wrong answer,” he prompts.
His smile thins as if deflated by profound disappointment, compressing down into a serious line.
“You’ve suffered a seriously traumatic experience."
So there is a wrong answer. She makes a mental note.
“The doctors say you refuse to answer to your name? Why is that?”
The room contracts, a giant lung pressurizing. She can feel the air shift around her, exhaled to the corners and out the door and window.
“What should I call you?” he asks with a gentleness that seems more acquired than innate.
She doesn’t want him to call her anything and she doesn’t want to give him a reason to stay. The silver foil of the juice packet crinkles. It’s supposed to taste like oranges but like everything meant for human consumption in this place--it did a terrible job of it.
“Nothing? Just a Jane Doe then?”
She shrugs to show how little she cares but she likes the idea. Jane Doe. It’s like a name can be something as mundane as a pen stylus, something you can lose and then borrow. Jane Doe is a pen that has been borrowed so much and by so many people that it doesn’t belong to anyone anymore; the individuality worn down by thousands of hands. No fresh teeth marks around the end, no stickers peeling off the plastic, no logo from the company her mother worked at--Mendel Biotech in green, bold letters curving around into a leaf. Jane Doe's only identifying characteristic is tragedy. She's someone without hopes or dreams or a home. Adrift. Anonymous. Unattached.
She drops the packet back onto the table and nods once without realizing.
“Okay then. Jane, I’m here to help you deal with what happened. I'm here to help you accept what's happened to you."
He says it as if she isn't the lucky one--as if she is the one still trapped beneath their old living room wall.
"I'm alive. What's there to accept?"
The doctor frowns. "No, that's the problem, Jane. You are not. The Crucible disincorporated Jane atom by atom and merged her consciousness into the gestalt of the machine race you call 'The Reapers', which you now control."
That provokes a laugh. There's a professional cadence to it that makes her think he's practiced it for difficult patients like her. "The process has not been without difficulty. The moral code you held as an organic creature now acts as a set of programming imperatives: unbreakable rules for the synthetic gestalt mind. And one of these rules prohibits the complete dissolution of your humanity and individuality--your survival instinct you might call it. It is antithetical to the nature of the machine you are now a part of. This paradox threatens your existence."
"I thought you said I was already dead."
"You are not alive in the physical sense."
"What the fuck other kind of sense is there?"
He sighs. "What is the function of your organic form? To collect sensory data. To process that data. To maintain equilibrium and homeostasis. You continue to do so as part of the gestalt but the data you now process is an ocean where you once would strain to comprehend a mere drop. Your knowledge is infinite, your perspective macrocosmic. You exist outside of time, beyond comprehension. You are as a God to all organic and inorganic life."
She crumples the juice pack up and flicks it to the linoleum tile that probably doesn't actually exist.
"I sound like a lot of fun. If I'm a God now, can't I fix--all this? Can't I go back and save my family?"
Her dad...that stupid story. She always asked him to change it. Make it happy. Let them leave the underworld, let them beat the odds and the gods all at once.
He considers this with a furrowed brow. "To what end? What effect do they have on the great cosmic machine of the universe? What point would intervention serve?"
"Well that's a pretty stupid question considering that I'm apparently God now so obviously one human life does have some big effects."
"Your existence is a paradoxical impossibility. It threatens your functionality. You have begun to isolate these paradoxical loops, partitioning them off from the greater mind."
When she held her little brother's broken hand in hers, she thought it wasn't possible to be so angry. It consumed her. When she killed the batarian with her omni-tool, when they finally captured her, when she screamed and broke her hands against the cage, when her throat was a living wound weeping whispered rage until they slipped needles full of cloyingly sweet-smelling sedative beneath her skin--she didn't think she would ever feel that fury again. There was nothing to do with it, trapped in this hospital bed. Nothing but turn it inward. They won't change the story and she doesn't know how. So she slams her fist against her own broken chest and screams.
I am really terrible at consistent updating. I'm so sorry! I'm really excited to get everyone off Earth and...discovering things, mysterious things. All grammar issues (likely with random and arbitrary comma placement) are mine and my own, please excuse my lack of editing.
As always, thank you so much for reading.
Chapter 7: She said she loved him when she meant goodbye
Garrus eyed elevator with wary trepidation. And here he thought they’d met the quota for disturbing elevator rides for the week. Flickering yellow light flooded the interior of the empty car, the ceiling of which dipped precariously, bending crumpled metal into the compartment. Through a jagged edge, he glimpsed dull grey stone.
“Functionality has been compromised, but the elevator system remains operational.”
“Glowing safety evaluation,” Garrus muttered, pushing aside the ‘have a bad feeling about this’ with honed practice. Anything could be banal with enough exposure, even gut instincts. He didn’t know whether or not to find the idea humorous or intensely depressing. The elevator creaked as he stepped into the interior.
Both, he decided.
The geth followed quickly, but Liara hesitated by the door.
“Come on Liara,” Garrus drawled, “You don’t want to miss out on a golden opportunity to widen my perspective on Asari culture.”
“You and your elevator chats.” She glared, but beneath it he detected a hint of puzzled concern at his new cheerful brand of fatalism.
The door attempted to slide shut, extending a few centimeters before meeting the deformed lip of the car and giving a mechanical whine as it retracted and repeated the whole process over and over again. The panel flickered green off and on before the door stopped its mad cycle and settled for remaining partially open as the elevator began to ascend. Shakily.
“If you prefer, we can stare forward and say nothing,” he offered after a moment. “I always enjoyed that too.”
Metal creaked as air whipped in through the gap. Liara shifted further into the corner, sparing him her exasperation.
“Oh, thank the Goddess!” Liara exclaimed as a massive fissure of red sunset pierced through jagged black silhouettes framed by the opening elevator door. They were still underground, in the basement level of a tram station that had been cracked open by a Reaper beam from the top floors down. Carefully, the three picked their way through the debris, climbing up a slope glittering with shards of metal and glass. Once above ground, they surveyed the desolation.
“We must be outside of the major areas of reconstruction,” Liara said.
He nodded. There was no mistaking the lingering odor of decay of bodies still buried in wreckage.
Lights gleamed in the distance, visual evidence of how far they had traveled in the tunnel. He scanned their immediate surroundings, his visor etching out locational data of nearby landmarks. He saw a familiar clock tower. In the distance a beam of blue pierced through dust-clotted dusk: the Conduit, nestled in all this broken human architecture like a knife in the dark.
She said she loved him, but what she meant was goodbye, and they both knew it. That's what wartime love confessions meant to turians. All it was missing was the sweeping score from the vids, the fanfare of reassuring patriotism that conveyed exactly where a good turian's priorities should lie. Duty over happiness, every time. He thought they both knew the score, the run to the beam would be a one-way trip. Together, he’d thought, like always. And afterwards, they’d take a seat at the bar and order one hell of a drink in whatever version of the afterlife turians and humans shared. Except she'd left him behind, saved his life and abandoned him in this grim victory built from the sacrifice she'd made, alone and desperate, her pained gasps over the comms.
'What do you need me to do?'
His veins were cryogen cold, spreading numb that settled in his marrow.
He didn't know how cruel she could be.
“Garrus…” Liara gripped his shoulder.
The geth paused, regarding them with a single lens, beads of luminescence shifting over his arms and legs--the almost liquid ebb and flow of swarming nanites.
“We have analyzed the present situation and now deem it safe to disclose our involvement with the Intelligence.”
Garrus eyed the black congealing over the geth platform. “It’s obvious enough what that involvement entails.”
“We detect suspicion that we have allowed ourselves to be subjected to another Reaper virus. This is an incorrect assumption. Following the Reaper code integration into all geth by the runtimes you know as Legion, we are significantly less vulnerable to viral attack. The possibility has been analyzed and determined to be of insignificant probability.”
Flaps shifted around the photoreceptor lens. “The Creators are currently re-engaging in military action against the geth. The Intelligence contacted us, offering incentive to delay defensive military action. We have calculated this course would be most beneficial, resulting in the greatest probability of future diplomacy. Our remaining platforms will depart from the Sol system after the fulfillment of our agreement.”
"That’s not possible,” Liara insisted. “Tali wouldn’t let them--”
A heavy feeling settled into his gut again. This time he didn’t ignore it. No, Tali would never throw away the peace Shepard fought so hard for. Something was wrong. They had to--
A heat signature crept into the corner of his display.
“Yes,” the geth replied. “The majority of previously indoctrinated Reaper forces are confined to non-populated areas, typically zones of intense destruction such as this. We recommend caution.”
“I thought they weren’t indoctrinated anymore,” Liara said.
“Correct. Their hostility is the result of severe and irreparable trauma.”
More heat signatures appeared in his periphery. In the haze, he could barely detect the motion, dark shapes crouched low around the crumbling foundations of the building around them. Through the dusk, he met the intense blue gaze of a turian skull bobbing on a glowing cybernetic stalk.
The brute snarled, thudding a heavy claw against the ground. Garrus tensed, scanning for a weapon--anything--amid the rubble. Nothing.
“We do not assign a high probability to the reports of cannibalistic tendencies,” the geth added.
“A silver lining at last,” he bit out.
“It’s going to attack,” Liara whispered
He nodded, darting a glance to the side to see more shapes converging through the gaps of the station walls. They were surrounded.
“Be ready to make a run for it,” Garrus said.
The rubble beneath his boots trembling as the brute lunged towards them, its distorted roar reverberating through his bones.
A shot cracked in the night, viscous blue spraying a gory arc in the air as synthetic tissue burst into bright flame. Aflame and enraged, the thing lurched around to receive a direct shotgun blast to the stalk, severing the skull at the base and sending it skittering backwards towards them seconds before the massive bulk collapsed to the ground.
The disfigured shapes in the night scattered, withdrawing back into the darkness.
“Hey Doc, Scars.” Vega wiped a splatter of blood from his cheek, succeeding only in smearing blue across his face.
“Vega?” Garrus started. There’s a human phrase about horses and gifts that he never got his head around that he sensed applied vaguely to this type of situation. But despite that, he asked, “What are you doing here?”
A bushy eyebrow shot upwards. “What are you talking about, Scars? You sent me your coordinates three hours ago on a secure channel.”
“I’m pretty certain I didn’t.” He gestured to his malfunctioning omni-tool with his good arm for the marine to see.
Vega looked intensely perplexed but shrugged it off after a beat. “Weird.”
“It’s certainly good to see you but why are you here?” Liara asked, gingerly nudging the brute’s skull away with her boot.
A huge white grin appeared. “I’m responsible for this loco turian, even when he manages to piss off the Alliance brass in less than a day.”
“This place gives me the creeps,” Vega added. “We should go, the things out here eat people.”
“We conclude this is merely rumor,” the geth replied.
The man regarded the synthetic for a moment before shaking his head. “I don’t even want to know how you managed to pick this thing up. Come on, I brought presents.”
It was covered in dust and right away, Garrus saw that the suspension was off, but Spirits, it was beautiful. Vega grinned, slapping a handprint into the layer of powdered concrete. “I knew you’d be happy...what’s wrong Doc?”
Liara was looking distinctly ill.
Garrus chuckled. “Oh, she’s just remembering our last ride in a Mako together.”
“Ride is a very euphemistic term, Garrus,” Liara responded severely. “We jumped through a small mass effect relay while an army of geth shot at us.”
“Man, you guys had all the fun.”
“I hate these things.” Liara exhaled slowly, a hand curling up at her throat.
“Come on Doc, I’m an excellent driver.”
“Weren’t you the one who crashed the shuttle on Mars?” Garrus asked, watching Liara’s face shift to a distinctly sallow hue.
“Low blow, Scars.” Vega sulked, pulling out an Alliance-issue SMG from the driver’s cab and handing it over to Garrus. “Not that you deserve this.”
“Whether or not I deserve it is irrelevant, Mr. Vega,” Garrus replied, relieved to feel ceramic and metal against his fingertips again, even if it wasn’t a rifle.
“I just don’t want to get eaten.” Vega handed Liara a familiar-looking pistol--one of Shepard’s favorite models and just like that, his good mood evaporated into dust.
“Something’s happened to Tali,” Garrus said. “In her last message she said she was sick--I thought it was a bad coincidence but...”
“Creator Tali’Zorah has been accused and found guilty of aiding and abetting a second geth insurrection through the biological sabotage of live ship foodstuffs.”
Garrus cursed, gut twisting, wishing he had taken the time to reply to Tali’s last message. “Sabotage? How many were afflicted?”
“Our last estimates place the fatality rate at approximately 14.2% of the current population. We are aware of several deaths among high-profile leaders, such as Creator Shala’Raan and Creator Zaal’Koris.”
“Goddess…” Liara whispered, crossing her hands over her midsection, looking ill.
“The pathogen appears to be a genetically modified form of a virus first observed on Omega by the crew of the Normandy. Recovered Cerberus files in Alliance possession directly references additional transgenic modification processes. The pathogen contaminating the Creators’ food supply shares identical plasmid markers, confirming that it is Cerberus in origin.”
“First Shepard’s DNA and now this…” Liara asked Garrus, “Is Cerberus still active?”
If they were, it couldn’t be coincidence that the Alliance had access to all their files. His gut told him Miranda’s suspicions about Briggs were worth investigating. The Illusive Man had to have powerful donors to fund his own private military and no one became the de-facto leader of the human race without deep pockets.
“We can’t rule out the possibility for now,” Garrus said before turning to the geth. “What’s going to happen to Tali? Is she safe?”
“Status update is pending.”
Garrus cursed, tempted to reach out and shake the mess of metal and nanites. “Pending what?”
“We cannot currently gain access to the Creators’ communications or ship systems. It is beyond our capabilities due to their wartime security advances.”
Liara frowned. “Then how do you know any of this?”
The lens aperture contracted and dilated in one rapid, fluttering movement, as if taken aback.
“The Intelligence. Just as we have collaborated to rescue you, other runtimes are collaborating to rescue Creator Tali'zorah. ”
His visor picked up movement in the distance. The Reaper forces were back.
"Let's hope hers is going better than ours is right now. Time to move."
His fingers creep up to brush the edge of her shirt, fingers tentative. Through the haze of needy hormones, she registers his sudden hesitation and groans, grabbing his hand and placing it where she’d been wanting it to go for the past twenty minutes. The motion bangs her elbow into the supply closet door and nudges it open a crack, but neither of them care.
“This--this isn’t too fast?” he asks her but he’s the one whose breath is catching, whose eyes widen slightly with awe and mild panic.
She pulls away, not too far, just enough to give him a little space. “One month is the opposite of fast.”
In teenage years, it roughly translates into a decade of sexual frustration. A decade of shying away from bra hooks and touches that exist only over clothing and never under it, of flushed skin and clumsy kisses and accidentally knocking over bottles of cleaning supplies.
But he isn’t listening to her. He’s looking at the pale strip of midriff exposed by her rucked up uniform and the angry red knot of skin grafts that didn’t take as well as they should have. Featherlight, he traces fingers over the scar.
She goes cadaver stiff and lets him ascend the gnarled bridge of skin up her ribcage.
Being the only colony kid in an elite military academy is one thing. Being the only colony kid who survived a slaver attack that killed her entire family only a few months ago was a whole different kind of fame: the kind of fame reserved for the truly unfortunate--a prying cousin of pity that draws eyes like smoldering wreckage.
It’s not pity in his eyes. But it’s just as bad, it stings just as much. It’s gentleness . He’s touching her like she’s a fragile, broken thing he needs to coax apart and put back together again. The supply closet feels too small, the air thick and stuffy with the reek of cleaning chemicals.
“It’s okay“ he whispers sweetly as she begins to squirm away, “I think it’s beautiful.”
Of course he’d say that. He’s the sensitive type--as sensitive as a kid in a military academy could get anyway--sweet and shy, all bumbling awkwardness in the face of her boldness. She wants, more than anything, to jab her thumb into the corner of his big, beautiful, sensitive eye for trying to find beauty in the wreckage of her past life.
“It’s not beautiful,” she says. “It’s ugly. It’s supposed to be ugly.”
“You could never be ugly, Jane.”
She laughs. He doesn’t know anything about ‘Jane’. Or the girl Jane used to be: restless, unrestrained, destructive when pent up inside prefab walls for too long. That girl was loud and vicious. She liked scaring the other kids because it made her feel powerful and seen. The academy quickly taught her new, better, ways to feel powerful and seen and those ways didn't involve demerits or suspensions. They involve quiet, hours of training and work and scrambling to the top of her class of the military elite's pampered children. That is the girl he sees. She's not sure it's really her.
He senses her derision and moves the hand cupping her breast to clasp her fingers between his.
“What’s so funny?” he asks, eyes as big and plaintive as a puppy in a holovid. “Tell me. You never really tell me anything about you. Not anything real.”
She blinks. No. She doesn’t want to do that. She doesn’t want that from him. From anyone. Jane Does don’t talk about the terrible things that once happened to them. Or the happy lives they lost. They simply exist: adrift, anonymous and unattached.
Freeing her hand, she trails a finger down his chest and lids her eyes before leaning forward to whisper into the shell of his ear while she stares at the widening crack of darkness and stars as the supply closet door creaks open further. “None of this is real.”
Before he can say something he shouldn’t, she shoves him against the door, out into the sea of starlight.
So it's been 8 years and thanks to MELE I've written another 10 chapters of this monster that I'll be releasing every week or every other week. Honestly, I get that this is a bit of a niche appeal given the amount of navel gazing I'm indulging in. But I mean, it's the control ending, it's pretty hard sci fi! I really have a fondness for this ending and its only gotten stronger over time. I'm having a blast exploring it and exploring some of my more favorite modern philosophers on top of the science. I work in medicine but I love physics and molecular bio, which are my true loves and I love being able to creatively apply science. I've never been happier with myself than I was when I realized I could use carbon dating as a plot element for this thing. I'm still tickled over it.
So I am really beyond grateful and excited if literally anyone but me is coming along for the ride. Thank you so much if you were reading before and are picking this back up!
Damn, if he hadn’t missed the Mako. James was a shit driver after all, which really added to the experience. Bracing himself against the metal overhead, Garrus closed his eyes and savored the uneven lurch over rough terrain.
There were more run-ins with ex-indoctrinated forces but a shot from the cannon was all it took to disperse them again, as if London was crawling with skittish pyjacks and not the ruthless enemy of a few months ago.
In the driver’s compartment, Liara and James were talking but Garrus flicked off the intercom for a moment of peace, focusing on the familiar rolling drop of his stomach as they took a turn too hard, sending the vehicle into a juddering fishtail that nearly tipped them over. He saw her self-satisfied smile, tossed carelessly over one shoulder.
“This is how it’s supposed to be. Inertial dampeners just ruin the experience. It’s an IFV, not a luxury skycar. ”
He didn’t comment that ‘a little jostling’ was a criminal understatement, or that it was the sort of opinion he’d expect from an old and maltempered krogan-- ‘Back in my day, if you didn’t rupture one of your spleens in aerospace combat, you weren’t doing it right’.
But as much as she intimidated and awed him in equal measure during the first few months on the SR-1, he couldn’t help himself from asking, far too innocently,
“Is this reminder meant for us, Commander? Or is it for whatever is left of the Mako’s suspension system?”
He caught the sideways flicker of her eyes and the tightness around her mouth from the effort of suppressing a grin before it went stern so she could snap that it was for the next person who threw up in the front compartment while she was trying to drive.
Garrus was good at reading humans, better than most thanks to Pallin punitively sticking him with every single bumbling C-Sec rookie in a futile effort to cool his hothead tendencies. But reading Shepard wasn’t a natural skill, even then. He just got in a lot of practice. She and her mission were the galaxy’s most interesting investigative mysteries and he put all his best instincts at work gleaning the barest scraps of information about what kind of hero it would take to beat a rogue Spectre like Saren.
Her charm was ferocious--take-no-prisoners likeable--tempered by a soldier’s forthright practicality. And she had a well-worn sincerity about her that made her feel like an old friend, even with strangers. She was a born mentor, never wasting a moment to encourage and cultivate talent or hope, no matter where she found it and she found it everywhere, in nearly everyone.
Good leaders, he’d known. Talented soldiers too. But he’d never met anyone quite like her--anyone who made him feel like it was possible to be the best version of himself instead of the worst version of a son, a brother, a soldier, an officer, a turian.
He barely noticed when the Mako slowed to a stop or when the hatch opened.
“You sleeping back here Scars?”
Garrus grinned, a lopsided flare of his mandibles. Not a twitch or a grimace, a real grin. He put on a show of mocking incredulity. “With your driving?”
He climbed out, scanning the area, trying to get his bearings while simultaneously drawing his gun with his good arm and checking the periphery for movement.
“Sensors didn’t pick anything up.”
They were still in the city, not surprising given that most of the planet was urban development, with a row of residential buildings to the left. But James had stopped in the middle of a sprawling green lawn dotted at the edges with clusters of trees and what looked like a playground in the distance. It was surprisingly pristine, no evidence of horror, just trees rustling in the breeze and the smell of trampled greenery sharp and fresh in the air.
“Stopping for a--what is it you humans call eating outside on the ground?” He couldn’t even count how many he used to find wandering into the presidium greens with food in tow. Something about trampling a patch of grass worth thousands of credits to eat was irresistible to newcomers and only steep fines could dissuade them from repeat offenses.
Vega laughed. “A picnic? Why, you pack a blanket?”
“Left it back at the base.”
Liara was looking at him strangely and he ignored her scrutiny and asked, “So what are we doing here?”
“It is essential we leave the system immediately,” the geth said, “before you are apprehended by law enforcement.”
Garrus felt his mandibles go wide, a little pleased over the novelty of his new, official, criminal turn. “Never been on this side of the law before. Well, not permanently.”
Omega didn’t count. Aria’s security hardly functioned as ‘law enforcement’ and even if it did, he never managed to find himself on the end of her ire. Omega vigilante wasn’t quite ‘outlaw’ even though it was a damn sight close.
“I like it,” he said, shifting the SMG in his grip just to reassure himself that it was still there if he needed it. “Fits the scars better.”
Liara just gaped at him.
James couched his own glance in a good-natured grin and he laughed, a little too loud but Garrus pretended not to notice. “Give a turian a gun and his whole disposition changes.”
“Depends on the gun. A rifle gets me downright euphoric.”
Obviously annoyed, Liara cut in. “How are we planning on leaving the system, exactly?”
Somehow, he knew. Or maybe he was just in the habit of expecting it when things started tipping sideways. But when the wind picked up, whipping the trees and grass into a frenzy over the thrum of the shuttle thrusters, he wasn’t surprised. The thrum built into a roar and he didn’t pause to confirm that it was a familiar face flying it and not a hostile Alliance marine when he approached.
“Garrus,” Cortez shouted from the cockpit, “been a while.”
The Normandy SR-2 was cloaked, stealthily waiting beyond Earth’s upper atmosphere. Garrus watched the planet drop out of view as the ship loomed closer and closer, easily visible despite its muffled heat, EM and radiation output. But there were no satellites or orbital stations there to see it--more Reaper infrastructure casualties--just them. He grinned, something fierce burning in his chest; it felt like happiness if happiness could have teeth and swallow him up in one ravenous bite. It had the keen edge of post-traumatic mania in it, something the VI would ding him for on his psych eval.
But he didn’t care. Even when the shuttle landed in the cargo bay and it sealed shut and even when Liara caught his eye with a look of naked concern, he still couldn’t bring himself to care. It just felt--so familiar. So right. From the moment he woke up in the Med Bay, sedatives still churning through his veins and the bed next to him empty, everything was wrong. It stayed wrong when he left Earth. Stayed wrong on Palavan. But seeing the Normandy through the shuttle viewport, in that moment, the universe snapped back into place. Everything was right where it should be.
And then the shuttle door opened and the metal bulkhead dropped out from beneath his feet.
Because of course she wasn’t there, where she was supposed to be. He ripped out a breath caught on the teeth of what used to be happiness and now was just tearing and sharpness and bite. His tic of a grimace, jacknifing his mandible worse than ever before, was all he had in him to meet Alenko’s serious expression.
“Garrus--Liara, Vega, I’m glad you’re safe. I--”
“Major Alenko. We will now set course for the Charon relay.” EDI said.
“Wait!” Liara said, “Tali is…”
“She’s here,” Kaidan rushed to assure them. “Still getting over her fever but safe. She managed to escape with the--well, I think her story was probably similar to yours.” He eyed the geth platform warily.
Garrus tried to collect himself, realizing he was in danger of falling over. Exhaustion overwhelmed him. Somewhere, there was a deep relief over Tali’s safety, but mostly he was tired and cold and gnawed down to nothing.
“I--I need to...I’ll take the bunk below the engine room. If we can save the debrief for a few hours?”
“Of course, you must be--well, we’ve all been through a lot over the past 24 hours. We’ll be out of the system soon but after that we will be relying on FTL. There’s plenty of time for the debrief.”
Garrus nodded absently and half-staggered off towards the bowels of the ship. Ever since they got the update on what happened with the Crucible over QEC, he couldn’t stand to spend a single quiet moment in the battery. By the time he stumbled and half-fell into the cot nestled in the belly of the ship, the keening grief was shuddering out of him in fits and starts. It tangled in his subvocals, alien and strange.
His omni-tool light blinked out his appointment reminder. He could almost hear the VI, asking him to talk about her and their last moments together in London.
‘You’ll never be alone,’ he heard her say, right against his ear. Only, her voice was flat, synthetic, and wrong.
The air is thick with char and burnt plastic, the rubble of prefab colony homes smoldering in the dark through her scope. Illyria’s evacuated blocks were leveled--she’d rigged the empty homes with charges and spoofed heat signatures to lure groups of raiders in before detonating. Now there was a clear perimeter around the bubble of kinetic shielding she’d wired up from every functional generator the civilians could gather. Sightlines were perfect: a passable sniper’s dream.
“I’m not a very good shot,” Lia whispers, shifting the stock against her shoulder with an uneasiness that screams nerves. She’s only 17, fresh out of adolescence and straight into this--
“That’s okay,” Shepard says. “The perimeter is packed with proximity mines. Even if you miss, you’ll still trip them up.”
“But what if--what about when they get past the mines? What then? Isn’t it better if we don’t stay in one place where we can get overwhelmed?”
She shakes her head. “That’s why we wired up the IVFs with incendiaries and parked them at the choke points.”
“You really think we can keep everyone safe?”
She wants to promise that nothing will get past the IVFs, that their ragtag resistance effort will be able to pick off the raiders as they funnel through the only passable streets in an attempt to get to the colonists holed up in Lia’s school turned emergency shelter. She wants to promise that they’ll hold out long enough for the Agincourt to arrive and blow everything that moves out of the sky.
But she doesn’t. Because Lia isn’t real.
“You tell me. We’re in your head aren’t we?”
Lia frowns and even that looks skittish, a tremulous twist of the lips. She’s so green, it’s painful. Shepard doesn’t remember ever being that green. She signed up for a life of war with battle scars already webbing across her stomach.
“What if you convince all the batarians to go home,” Lia says. “And then you go back to the high school and you find out that a faction of the colonists have seized the city and are planning to kill off most of the survivors . What do you do? How do you protect everyone without hurting anyone? Because you can’t hurt anyone, that’s a rule of yours.”
“Can’t you talk the faction out of it? Make them back down? Aren’t you all powerful?”
She shakes her head emphatically. “No. You can’t force them to do anything, another rule. And you can’t talk to them. It would just add to the chaos, bring more over to the faction than before.”
“Why are you asking me? You’re the all-knowing, all-powerful one here.”
There’s a sooty smudge of gun oil on her cheek that makes Lia look too young. The fact that her makeshift helmet is a little too big doesn’t dispel the effect. Shepard doesn’t know what the point of all this is. She can end this conversation early by shooting Lia herself but it wouldn’t matter, Lia doesn’t make it five minutes into the first shuttle wave anyway so killing her before then is a little pointless.
“Before you, I was. Then you changed everything.”
Shepard doesn’t take her eye from the scope. She doesn’t say how much she wishes that were true. If she could change everything, she would. And she would change this, she would save Lia and the rest of them instead of going through the days of protracted guerilla tactics, her makeshift resistance force of colonists and stranded soldiers whittled down one by one until it’s just her and her omni-tool and drone and the last of her hacked mechs in an abandoned fuel refinery on the far side of the city.
There’s movement, a dozen heat signatures in the distance. Shuttle thrusters.
“Well, sounds like you need allies then.”
“No. They fear me too much.”
“Then find someone they don’t fear.”
Lia doesn’t answer and then four minutes and thirty seven seconds later, a bullet shatters her skull into a spray of pure starlight.
Thank you so much for reading and for the wonderful comments!
Everyone kept telling her how sorry they were, so when Joker did it, Tali finally snapped.
“Keelah, not you too.”
His eyes widened up at her and his face froze up with something like fear. “Uhhh...well now my first impulse right now is just to apologize for apologizing and then apologize for that apology, so I’m going to save us both from that neverending sorry loop and try changing the subject--”
With exaggerated trepidation, he smiled up at her. “Is it too early to joke about your life as a quarian fugitive? Okay, please don’t shoot me with your shotgun, I’m bad at small talk.”
Tali scowled, unamused. “It’s fine. It wasn’t something I was just crying about at all.”
“EDI, a little help?” he pleaded, to thin air.
“I do not think it would be wise for me to intervene now that you’ve dug such a deep hole for yourself,” EDI said over the comm.
“What happened to her mobile platform?” Tali asked.
“Confiscated for Alliance research. Pretty much as soon as we touched down in the Mojave. I kind of miss it? Not because that thing was waaay too top heavy, if you know what I mean. I just miss that she had a physical presence that wasn’t a bulkhead. She deserves it.”
“Thank you Jeff. I myself miss the functionality the platform offered in the romantic capacity.”
Joker shook his head, a hand shading over his eyes. “Pretend you didn’t hear that. Please.”
Tali snorted on a laugh, to her own shock. She didn’t know she had room for an emotion that wasn’t ‘all consuming rage’ or ‘all consuming grief’. It was nice to know her heart wasn’t a no man’s land of betrayal and loss. Even though guilt quickly chased her amusement away, the flicker of it was enough. More than enough.
“EDI, about your conversations with the geth and the...”
They’d called it the Intelligence, the nanite-infused geth platform that helped with her escape. She didn’t have the capacity to spare more than a few thoughts to it at the time but now she had too much time and too many thoughts.
“--the AI working with the geth that apparently claims to be Shepard?” Joker guessed.
“I’ll forward the logs and my analysis to you, Tali,” EDI said.
“You’ve been warned,” Joker cut in. “Right now, by me. It’s dry reading.”
“Thanks, but I just wanted to…” Tali paused and twisted her hands against themselves as if replicating the feeling in her stomach. “You’re sure it’s not a Reaper? How do you know? ”
Joker taped a rhythm onto the arm of his chair, looking more and more like he wanted to say something but staring up and whistling instead.
“My analysis of speech and logic heuristics align it more closely with those of an organic being, baring much faster response times and the ability to exceed the limitations of spoken or written languages. However, it is vastly different from any organism I’ve encountered, organic or synthetic.”
“How did you obtain this? Could it be falsified data?”
“I have interfaced with the Intelligence via the geth platforms.”
“Wait,” Tali said, alarmed. “You interfaced with it?”
How could they be sure at all that EDI wasn’t compromised by another, more sophisticated Reaper virus? Annoyance sparked through her. How did Kaidan approve something like that before talking it over with her first? Sure, she was still recovering but that was hardly an excuse. Humans were such idiots sometimes. They always underestimated these things.
“You are concerned I’ve been compromised,” EDI guessed. “After Legion’s upgrade to the geth consensus, we deemed the probability of a more advanced and undetectable Reaper virus to be effectively zero. However, extreme precautions were taken against malicious code uploads.”
Joker scowled and finally bit out the words he was clearly holding back all along, “It was still risky as hell. And for what? Zettabytes of philosophy Q&A?”
He waved it off. “No, no, no. Nevermind. I don’t want to get into it again.”
“I could run my own diagnostic, if that’s alright, EDI?” Tali asked, voice carefully neutral. “And if you don’t mind, could you specify what you meant by the irregularities after?”
Joker shot her a look she couldn’t quite read before EDI said, “Of course.”
On her way to the AI Core, she typed out a quick message on her omni-tool to Garrus.
‘Running a diagnostic on EDI in the AI core if you’re interested -T’
Interested in doing something useful for a change, she thought, in a rush of anger, and then wondered exactly why his grief rankled so much. She understood, better than most, what he was going through. Maybe it was the exclusivity of his mourning that she couldn’t stand--how it seemed private when hers felt relegated to collective loss. Or maybe...it was that she was losing both her closest friends and it was easier to be angry at him for that instead of Shepard.
The doors to the core opened and it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see Garrus already there, eyes dark and flashing, his twitching grimace flickering with what her instincts told her was menace but her mind knew was just restless, pent-up energy.
“I know,” she said, before he could launch into it. “First, let’s see what the diagnostic turns up.”
He sighed heavily in response, mandibles tucked in tight against his jaw before flaring out with agitation. “Yeah.”
Tali watched him jitter like a vid feed with a bad connection--hands twitching, mouth grimacing, leg bouncing with impatience. It was clear that this waiting...this quiet was killing him. He noticed her watching him and cleared his throat.
“I need a drink. Sobriety...isn’t a look I’m wearing well these days.” It was dressed up like a joke but both of them heard the truth in it. At least he had the decency to follow it up with an expression of clear regret.
“You do look terrible. But I have a hard time believing cheap turian brandy would improve anything.”
“Were you always this mean? Or is it the fever?”
She shrugged and pulled up her omni-tool interface to start the diagnostic. “Maybe it’s both. Or...maybe it’s the fact that two nights ago I was tried and found guilty by Xen while I was still delirious and in the hospital and I’m now a fugitive.”
Her fingers typed away, furious. She didn’t have the option to drink her problems away, as tempting as that was. There was too much work to do. “Or the fact that there are millions dead from a virus Cerberus only had access to thanks to Shepard’s work on Omega. Take your pick.”
“...I’m sorry Tali,” he said, still pacing the small space of the core and she nearly flung something at his head. She was so sick of people saying that and his pacing was distracting her.
“Don’t be sorry, you bosh’tet. Be--” she sputtered and then her body shuddered, her arms coming up to cross in front of chest as if she could protect herself from the lingering remnant of the fever leaving her system or the grief that chased it to the yawning pit in her stomach where her anger had carved out a vast echoing chasm.
It wasn’t fair. They’d won. It cost everything but at least the Reapers were gone and her people had a homeworld to go back to. And now millions would never see it. And the rest who were lucky enough to survive the virus long enough for the antidote were stranded in Sol. It would take 25 years to make it back home to Rannoch without the relays--assuming they could even get enough H3 to power the thrusters long enough to maneuver the ships for their FTL jumps.
“It’s my fault,” she said finally. “I should’ve... been more vigilant but I was too wrapped up with losing Shepard. And now, the future we fought for is gone.”
He was shaking his head. “You can’t anticipate everything Tali and you can’t take all the blame whenever things go wrong.”
Tali blinked, unbelieving. Of all the people… “Do you ever listen to yourself talk sometimes?”
He conceded her point with a tired shrug and stopped pacing. “Honestly, I try not to. If I did, I might have to follow my own advice.”
When they first got the news about Shepard and the Crucible over the QEC, he spent weeks with an empty-eyed stare that saw nothing and no one. She didn’t know which version of oblivious-to-the-world she begrudged more.
“I’m glad you’re here, Tali. I’m not glad how you got here, but I’m glad anyway.”
“I know, I probably should’ve led with that.”
She cracked a smile for the second time in what felt like forever. “Yes, you should have.”
“You’re not in this alone, you know,” she added after a beat. “We all understand. We’re all...dealing with her not being here.”
“I know. It’s just--”
He trailed off, helplessly, looking lost.
Tali sighed, looking around the AI server bank. It hummed rhythmically but beyond that, there was just silence. No mess hall chatter, no rowdy games of poker or war stories or cultural factoid exchanges filtering through the bulkheads.
“This ship is too quiet.”
It was a complaint from the good old SR-1 days but this time she wasn’t talking about the engines or the CO2 scrubbers, or the fact that the ship was as sparsely staffed as it had ever been.
“I know.” His fingers moved, frenetic and irregular, flexing and unflexing over and over again. “Makes my plates itch.”
“I think half the reason Shepard started up those weekly poker games on the SR-2 was just to make the ship feel rowdy even with the skeleton crew. She was so terrible. ”
He chuckled. “So many tells.”
“Honestly, even so, it was...almost impressive how she managed to lose so much.”
“On purpose, for morale. Just a hunch.”
Tali snorted. “Oh, right. Just a completely unbiased hunch.”
“I’m entirely impartial.” He smiled softly, a bare nudge of mandible. “I just can call a bluff when I see one.”
Her omni-tool dinged, signifying the completion of the diagnostic. She scrolled through the data with mixed relief and trepidation.
“EDI’s clean,” she said. That gentle look vanished, his jaw radiating tension again.
“Garrus, who do you think I am?” she demanded. “I was running diagnostics on EDI from almost the first moment I stepped on this ship. And, I’ve had access to Reaper source code because of Legion. There’s nothing new in her programming since I last checked. Whatever she’s telling us, she’s the one telling us.”
She pulled up EDI’s communication log with the Intelligence and forwarded it to him in the process.
“So maybe you should take a look--” she stopped, checked the transcript. “Oh, it’s…”
Joker wasn’t kidding. The file was massive, zettabytes worth of conversation with time and date tags down to nanosecond increments. And it wasn’t even conversation the way they would have one. She scrolled past one interchange composed entirely of photo and vid libraries.
“EDI...what is this?” she scanned through a response to EDI’s query about the subjective definition of beauty: what looked like source code for some sort of software program...in Khelish.
“I would be more than happy to provide assistance, Tali. Initially, my motivations were investigative. Strategic, you might say. I thought to test this entity with organic philosophic and metaphysical premises before moving on to an analysis of art and culture.”
“Art?” Tali asked.
“The Reapers had not expressed any appreciation for the concept of organic civilization’s creative works. I judged that this would be a useful litmus as to this entity’s nature. Dr. Solus once commented on the Collector’s lack of these cultural hallmarks as evidence of their...diminished existence.”
Garrus made a sound of disbelief. “That’s what we’re going on? If this thing likes Elcor Hamlet or not?”
Tactfully, Tali also did not mention that Shepard wasn’t exactly an art aficionado. She liked bright and messy abstracts, like half the paintings Anderson picked out for the apartment.
“No. It was merely one metric. I relied on several more, approximately 113 unique hallmarks of various organic cultures. It was...a fascinating experience. Its mind is beyond anything I’ve ever encountered.”
“I am very much looking forward to our next conversation, I hope--” EDI said and Joker cut in on the channel.
“Ahem-- don’t get her started again, please. Also, Kaidan wants you guys in the war room in 5.”
Garrus gave Tali an insufferable look that said ‘see? suspicious’ and turned heel to leave.
Tali followed, annoyed with him all over again.
“Garrus, Tali--” Kaidan gestured for them to take their spots around the war room’s circular terminal. Vega, Liara, and Cortez were already there, in addition to the nanite-infused geth platforms. There were also a few familiar and unfamiliar faces. Kaidan introduced them: Kasumi Goto, Spectre Jondum Bau and the Cerberus general Shepard handed over to the Alliance after ousting him from Omega. Petrovsky. He was in omni-restraints and looking at all of them with a sour expression.
Bau offered everyone a perfunctory nod.
“Admiral Hackett has petitioned the Council for aid in removing the interim Alliance Prime Minister and stopping his plans for war.”
Shepard clinks the glass on the table next to her where Ash is supposed to be and knocks back her whiskey. It burns all the way down. Top shelf it is not but she can’t bring herself to care. Shore leave is about quantity, not quality.
She shifts in the u-shaped booth, dark fabric rippling beneath her, and stares up at the turian blankly. The blue lines bisecting the metallic jut of his cheekbones look purple in the bar neon.
“Not him,” she says, slamming back a second shot as fast as possible. “Fuck off with your mind games and leave my crew out of it.”
Tali giggles and leans her faceplate against Shepard’s shoulder. “Garrus! This place was a great find! You’re a--” She hiccups and trails off, head still pillowed on Shepard’s arm, already dozing lightly, muttering the word ‘hero’.
His mandibles flutter, taken aback in a reaction she finds pretty damn endearing. She’ll miss having him on her ship to dress down into a flustered silence.
He’s weathered her lectures better than most and despite still being a bit of a hot head, he deserves a good career. Maybe his own command if he can keep the idealism and passion without the recklessness she’s done her best to hammer out of him. Good soldiers, she’s met, and she works well with most but he’s got an eye for strategy and a natural instinct for battle that makes fighting with him effortless. She’s going to miss that.
Unlike her god-self, she doesn’t know the future but she hopes it’s good to him. And Tali. And the rest of them. She hopes that whatever turned her into an insufferable, all-knowing machine God didn’t involve them. She hopes they were on the other side of the galaxy when it happened.
Garrus slides into the booth across from her, eyes flickering away for a beat. She orders him a few dextro shots and some more bottom shelf levo whiskey for herself and grins.
“You’re going to have to hurry if you want to catch up to Tali and Joker.”
Tucked in tight, his mandibles flare out and she catches a glint of sharp teeth in the dim light. It’s the first time she’s seen this particular grin from him full force. It’s a little sly. Daring, almost. “Is that an order Commander? I’m off duty.”
Their drinks arrive and she raises her glass to toast his. The clink is audible even over the thumping futuristic bass of the bar music. It’s a beautiful sound. She savors it and tosses her drink back in one fluid motion.
Garrus watches the movement closely. She eyes him with a raised eyebrow over the rim of her shot glass.
“What? I know you’ve been out drinking with humans before, Vakarian.”
He clears his throat and scratches a talon through his fringe--awkward as hell. “Yes--I...well, not often. A few drinks after a big solve or something. It wasn’t like this.”
She nods, understanding and commiserating with a crooked smirk. “Amateurs.”
A laugh startles out of him and the look in his eyes is all open admiration he doesn’t even bother to hide. “Well, few people measure up to you Commander.”
She’s a few drinks in, so she blames the blush on that and hopes he can’t see it.
“You already got your free drinks, Garrus,” she says, voice gruff--a sure sign she’s touched and trying hard to cover it up. “No need for the flattery”
He goes wide-eyed, as wide-eyed as turians can go anyway, as he struggles to assure her that he isn’t just lavishing her with compliments for free drinks. It occurs to her while he’s tripping over his own tongue that awkwardness has always suited him. Especially...and maybe this is the whiskey talking...juxtaposed right up against that daring grin from before. She’s never had a thing for turians, or anyone under her informal mentorship for that matter, and this thing is sure to go nowhere given that he’s leaving the Normandy and she’s going on to do whatever she does to end up in a purgatory of her own God brain.
But as far as purgatories go, this one isn’t bad. Drinks. A bar. Her crew. She could live this moment over and over without caring.
A roaring laugh breaks out by the bar and she sees the flare of biotics light the corner up blue.
“Wrex seems to be enjoying himself.” Garrus says, finally shutting up long enough to gulp down his shot. It’s a quick flick of a motion and she studies the fluttering shadow of his silvery throat in the neon as he swallows, appreciating the lean lines of him.
Liara and Kaidan return to the booth and Shepard takes a moment to make sure Wrex doesn’t enjoy himself too much and start a brawl in one of the few intact bars left in this part of the Citadel. When she returns, Tali has already repurposed Joker’s shoulder as her new pillow. Liara moves to get up so she can scoot in again but she waves off the motion and, with the grace of a newborn foal, totters towards the open space by Garrus.
She misjudges the space and he misjudges her intentions, not expecting or making room for her at all. His hand reaches out, snatching the far curve of her waist, pulling her fully onto the seat before she can end up on the floor. Their hips bump together, hard, and she manages to avoid ending up falling into his lap, but it’s a close thing.
He snatches his hand back clumsily, as if she’s burned him, and looks about as mortified as she feels so she hurries to offer an apology and an apology shot to go with it.
He shakes both off, gesturing to his remaining drinks without meeting her eyes and she sighs. Maybe it’s a good thing he’s leaving the ship and her informal mentorship is over, officially. They’re on new, more even ground now. Friends even...maybe. She takes a drink.
“Well how do turians do shore leave? Because I feel like I’m missing something in translation here.”
The look he gives her is so strange, she can’t even puzzle it out before he quickly downs his other two shots consecutively.
“Not like this,” he manages after and she leaves it alone, determined to see the rest of her crew equally blitzed. It’s not shore leave without feeling like death warmed over the next day and if any of them wake up tomorrow in a remotely fit state, she’s failed them as their commanding officer.
His thigh is warm against hers the rest of the night and she wonders--she wonders if maybe she even wants this thing to fizzle out as it inevitably will, the way she let the thing she had for Kaidan sputter and die before it could even go anywhere.
Garrus--well, it doesn’t matter, does it?
She’s good at making friends and lovers but shit at keeping them once a new assignment or posting comes along. Mostly, she lets it happen, expects it, maybe even speeds the transition into mutual indifference when she can. It’s easier that way.
But as she stares at Ash’s cup, Garrus’s arm brushing hers by accident again, she thinks about how she’s tired of losing people. It doesn’t really make a difference if it is within her control or not, gone is gone. And she doesn’t want that. She wants them to stay, as long as they can. She wants to hold on to this and to them and to the girl she used to be before Mindoir: someone with a name and something to lose.
An asari approaches with another round and she shakes her head since she didn’t order it and everyone was well on their way to a wonderful morning as it was. Her, most of all, the bar going smeary if she moves her head too quickly. She’s watching Garrus again, despite herself. Now that she’s noticed her budding attraction to him, she can’t stop noticing it. Which is annoying. And terrible timing.
The asari doesn’t move.
“We’re good,” Shepard says.
“Another for your friend?” she just asks, nodding towards Ash’s untouched shot glass across the table.
“You know,” the waitress says, “it wasn’t possible to save them both.”
“Maybe.” Maybe not. Soldiers die. She knows that. But Ash was under her command. Like Jenkins, like Lia. And now that the mission is over, now that the glass is poured for the dead, there’s nothing to keep their ghosts from whispering ‘ifs’ in the back of her mind. If she’d been faster, if she’d been sharper there’d be people there instead of glasses.
“You want to save them. You want to save everyone. Always. Because if you’re not the rescuer, then you’re the girl in the cage, helpless and afraid.”
Shepard laughs but her lungs are constricting, tight.
“Yeah, I’m full of deep, dark, insecurities. Just like everyone else.”
“ I saved them,” the asari replies. “Not because I wanted to. I don’t want things the way you want things anymore. Fear of loss is what makes you want but I have no loss and I have no fear and I have no pain.”
“You can still want without those things.”
The waitress looks across the booth to her crew. “Do you ever really want something you’ll always have? Or do you just forget what it feels like to be without it?”
The air evaporates out of her lungs and she chokes on the vacuum. It isn’t real, it shouldn’t feel real but her mind is consumed with the need to breathe.
“You control your fear by controlling what you want. But I already control everything. They’re just more imperatives. More absolutes in my programming.”
As soon as it vanished, the air is back and Shepard scowls, furious tears pricking up in her eyes despite herself as she sucks in a ragged gasp. “That’s sad for you then. And it’s sad for me too to know I don’t have a goddamn ounce of humanity left.”
“You are that ounce of humanity.”
“And you’ve cut me out. Stuck me here so you don’t have to deal with me.”
“I’m protecting you. Like I protect them. To you, I am evil. But I cannot be evil and I cannot be good. I can only be indifferent to the struggle that shapes the things you want most.”
Shepard reaches for the shots on the tray, glittering glasses full of space and starlight, and swallows one down as fast as she can. It’s so cold, it burns.
“Indifference can be its own kind of evil,” she hisses, her cheeks damp. She’s trapped and the worst part is she trapped herself. Willingly.There’s no way out of this purgatory and she’s not a kid who believes she can change the stories in the stars anymore.
But they’re alive, wherever they are. She looks at her crew, drinking in the sight of them. Even knowing what she knows--that she’s already lost them forever--she still wants this. Indifference...that would be so much worse.
“Are they happy?” she asks and the question seems to take the asari by surprise. She doesn’t get an answer.
I'm not sure if anyone reading this is a fan of the Good Place but 1) it's phenomenal, I definitely recommend checking it out and 2) the show had a philosophy consultant, Dr. Todd May, who wrote this amazing book called Death (The Art of Living) which makes a really interesting case for the amoral state of immortality. It's not necessarily that immortal beings would be inherently evil or inherently good but that choice requires consequence and without consequences in the form of suffering and loss, there isn't really choice or free will or moral good or bad. Anyway, this is why the Control Ending's God Shepard is so interesting to me and so, objectively, inhuman and amoral, even with a Shepard personality overlay which would dictate actions via imperatives, without the context of her humanity.
Hah, well on a lighter note. Thank you to everyone for reading and for the kudos! Any thoughts on this, please let me know! I'd love to hear your take on it <3
Bau was going to be a problem. Spectres usually were--Liara learned that lesson fast in the Terminus Systems. She could barely contain her frustration with Kaidan for dropping one into all of this as if it were a nice surprise and not a loaded gun.
Shepard was the exception, not the rule. Before the battle of the Citadel, her Spectre status was little more than an overture to humanity and after, she was their best PR asset--who better to restore public confidence in Council authority after the ‘geth attack’ --until she became too vocal about the Reapers for their tastes. Symbol of appeasement, PR asset, PR liability--the Council never backed her when it mattered. They wouldn’t back Kaidan either, whose career was mapping Shepard’s beat for beat. But their lack of support also meant freedom.
Bau didn’t have the luxury of freedom and unlike Kaidan, he wouldn’t get too tripped up on his own morality to worry about sacrificing everyone on the ship the moment it served the Council to do so. And she had no doubt that moment would come. Eventually.
“War?” Tali balked, “Wouldn’t that be just as harmful to humanity as the rest of the Council races?”
Liara studied Kaidan, biting the inside of her lip as she tried very hard not to make a displeased clucking sound like a judgemental matron. He probably didn’t have any choice involving Bau, who had been working with Hackett the moment Briggs rose to power according to her contacts, but he didn’t have to let him on the ship.
“Humanity is in a momentarily advantageous position as it stands with most of the relays still dark,” Bau said. Liara nodded absently, trying not to let her dismay show.
“Dire H3 fuel shortages have left other fleets crippled and the Citadel is now within humanity’s core system. The station is a valuable military asset with weakened security. The Alliance is not the only interested party. Non-Alliance Earth nation-state coalitions have also been openly bulking up their paramilitary forces,” Bau added.
Non-Alliance Earth nations typically fell on the side of appeasement versus rebellion during the Reaper occupation. While they lost larger proportions of their populations to Reapers, their infrastructure was left intact. Most of Earth’s functional spaceports were non-Alliance owned and that was just the beginning of their post-war advantage.
“Briggs will want to act fast, while Earth has the advantage of the dark relays,” Kaidan pointed out grimly. “And before the other nation-states can make their move. The Citadel is a wreck but it's in better shape than most planets. And easier to defend since it is virtually indestructible and isn’t susceptible to orbital bombardment.”
“Hard to drop a chunk of an asteroid on something without a planet-sized gravity well,” James said.
“And with the live ship sabotage pinned on the geth, the two fleets best equipped to help the Council are now tied up in their own conflict once again...” Kaidan said, with a concerned look towards Tali, who was curling her hands into tight fists at her hips.
A pang of regret clattered in her stomach for what Tali must be feeling. The quarians would have jumped at the chance to wring concessions out of the Council in exchange for helping beat back human aggression. But instead of giving the largest fleets in the system the opportunity, Briggs took them off the board before he even made his move. Utterly ruthless.
“What about the salarians?” Garrus asked. “They didn’t lose much of their fleet. And they aren’t very happy with the turians and humans for curing the genophage.”
Undoubtedly, the salarians had plans of their own but open warfare was never their style.
“I’ve heard nothing on that front,” Liara said. “They’ve been very amenable during ration and fuel negotiations but we all know that if the Alliance made a move, their response would not be a direct one.”
Direct confrontations meant the possibility of losing. The salarians never took the risky bet. They liked their wars already won.
Bau cleared his throat and looked towards Kaidan, who clasped his hands behind his back and squared his shoulders. “The fact that the Omega virus was weaponized and the way Tali and the geth were framed for the sabotage? There are clear political incentives for these acts. The Illusive Man is dead, but we think an arm of Cerberus is alive and well.”
Shepard just wanted to rescue sick and dying people on Omega. But there were consequences to working with Cerberus: she handed a terrorist group the keys to a deadly multi-species bioweapon.
“Arm,” Petrovsky mused aloud. “Yes, the mythological three- armed dog, Cerberus.”
“I thought the Illusive Man just ran all of Cerberus,” Vega said. “One head. Was Briggs running it with him?”
“I served under the man during the First Contact War. Before his injury. But a Cerberus leader?” Petrovsky chuckled. “Perhaps it would help if someone in this room knew anything about Alliance nation politics. The Prime Minister’s party has always been in opposition with Cerberus-backed Terra Firma.”
“I think you mean c ompetition ,” she pointed out. Just because they squabbled over the same xenophobic voting demographic did not quite make them opponents. Briggs’ political party was more than happy to let Terra Firma radicalize and disseminate propaganda while they played the guise of being the more respectable, more ‘moderate’ Earth-first faction that still reaped all the rewards of fear and conspiracy.
“It is politics, Ms. T’soni,” Petrovsky said. “There is no meaningful distinction.”
Kasumi beamed at Bau, clearly pleased over Petrovsky’s input, as condescending as it was. “See? He’s very cooperative.”
“If unearth the connection between the Prime Minister and Cerberus and publicly expose him. It will be sufficient leverage for his political rivals to immediately remove him from power,” said Bau, indulging her with a nod.
“We?” Liara asked, careful to filter out her alarm. “Are you staying on?”
“Bau and I have both been tasked with this mission by the Council,” Kaidan explained. There was no hint of suspicion in his expression, nothing but earnest seriousness. She wished, desperately, that he could just realize how much danger he was in.
Liara flicked her glances towards Tali, who was deep in thought, then Garrus, who seemed equally focused. Neither of them appeared ill-at-ease with Bau and Kaidan’s foundling partnership. Goddess, they were all oblivious at the worst of times.
Kaidan himself wasn’t unintelligent, he wasn’t even overly trusting given his long-held suspicion of Shepard’s Cerberus activities, but the problem with Kaidan was that he was only suspicious despite himself. It wasn’t an instinct that came naturally to him.
That instinct would have told him that the second they were captured by the Alliance, Bau would turn on him, claim he’d been charged to bring in a rogue spectre suspected of indoctrination, and absolve the Council of their involvement working to bring down the current Alliance leadership. Kaidan was his cover, to be used and discarded for the mission, if necessary.
“The Council is stalling confirmation of Briggs’ choice for the new councillor to take Udina’s seat--another controversial hardliner who will not hesitate to finish what Udina started with the coup--but they can only stall so long. We need to work fast.”
Bau’s eyes turned to her and Liara kept her expression carefully neutral. “Our best option is to investigate the defunct Cerberus facilities near Sol. Find out what we can about the liveship sabotage and any other possible ties between the Alliance and Cerberus. Operative Lawson’s data indicated promising leads in the Pax system.”
The Horse Head Nebula was always a Cerberus hotspot and despite not having a functional relay, it was within a feasible travel distance by FTL: a four month trip.
“There are a few in the Exodus cluster as well,” she said. “Near Eden Prime, in the Utopia System. I suggest we look there first. It will be a necessary stop anyway without relays. There is a gas giant in the system where we can discharge the drive core.”
“What about them?” James asked, crossing his arms over his chest and nodding towards the geth. “What about The Intelligence, or whatever they called it? Should we trust it?”
“No,” Garrus cut in, voice low and rough.
“We are here to provide assistance to the Normandy. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
Liara still felt Bau’s eyes on her. Meeting her gaze, he smiled blandly. It was unsettling.
“The geth are here to help get to the bottom of the liveship sabotage,” Kaidan said. “We don’t have access to information on the Migrant Fleet without them.”
Tali made a stifled sound at that but said nothing.
One of the nanite platforms spoke, “While we operate under mutually beneficial directives for the time being, we recommend caution in future encounters with the Intelligence.”
Liara did not bring up the fragment. Except for Garrus, no one else knew it even existed. To their knowledge, she and Garrus communicated with the Intelligence solely through the geth, as they did. Garrus glanced her way, finally taking note of her cagey silence, but blessedly, did not say anything.
Of course, as soon as the debrief was over and she returned to her quarters, he was there right behind her.
“What’s your play here, T’soni?”
She glanced towards the corner of the room containing the 4 cm-thick lead-lined box, sealed within a vacuum held in place by two mass effect fields and EM interference shielding--improvised precautions retrofitted from some of the equipment left behind by the Alliance engineers.
“I don’t know yet,” she admitted. “I just think we need to play what we can close to the vest where the Council is concerned.”
His eyes glittered but his face remained carefully impassive. “Does that include Alenko?”
She nodded. As much as she hated to keep him out of the loop, Kaidan wasn’t a skilled enough liar to hide anything from Bau. If she tipped him off to the danger, the salarian might simply decide to cut his losses and turn them all over to the Alliance to buy a fraction of goodwill for the Council while they put other contingency plans into motion.
The door opened again, and Tali entered, looking puzzled even through the semi-opaque screen of her helmet’s face-shield.
“What’s going on?”
Ah. Liara smiled. Garrus didn’t trust her where the fragment was concerned and she wasn’t helping her case any by keeping it a secret during the debrief. Tali was to be her indoctrination litmus test.
“We found something, while we were on Earth,” Liara explained, eager to clear herself of his suspicion. “A device.”
She pulled up her omni-tool interface to show them what she’d found so far. “I’ve been in communication with Specialist Traynor.”
One of her operatives now. Like James, Samantha’s career hadn’t fared well under Briggs’ Alliance. Liara snatched her up. With the comm buoy traffic still unreliable, Traynor had helped her develop a better communication network within Sol, even helped her procure a source of entangled particles for a rudimentary, human Morse-code based QEC
“We believe it is a quantum entanglement device and communicator, similar to the Leviathan’s artifacts. The Intelligence used it to communicate with us on Earth.”
“You communicated with it?” Tali asked and Liara nodded but Garrus was having none of it.
“She touched it and collapsed into a seizure and then it started talking to us with a holographic projection, claiming to be Shepard.”
“With a sufficient energy source, the fragment is capable of de novo quantum entanglement--unlike our QEC, which requires a source of previously entangled particles. Without an external energy source, the fragment acts much as the Leviathan artifacts do--only transmitting data. But with enough energy, it can both record and transmit data in quantum entangled particles.”
“That’s fascinating but it’s still Reaper tech,” Garrus drawled, folding his arms over the sloping ridge of his sternum.
She ignored him and typed up a command to bring up the display of the radioisotope analysis of the fragment. “It’s part of the Crucible actually, the radioisotopes are an identical match. But there’s more: these are the sort of isotopes we’d expect from the Crucible if you happened to place it in the middle of a detonating supernova. We’ve been seeing them a lot lately.”
Next to the fragment isotope analysis, she pulled up Anderson’s and the Illusive Man’s autopsy reports. “These isotopes are all over the Citadel now, with increasing concentrations at the site where we believe the Crucible detonated, near to where the bodies of Admiral Anderson and the Illusive Man were discovered. The fragment--the device--is heavily impregnated, more than anything we’ve ever seen so far.”
“So it was there , with--” Tali stopped short.
Garrus said nothing but his frame was tense, shoulders taut and mandibles flush against the jut of his jaw. Tali glanced between the two of them before taking a step back from the box.
“Even so, this is dangerous if the Reapers are controlling it. How could you bring this thing on the ship? We should get rid of it as soon as possible, for your sake, Liara.”
“It wouldn’t matter if I threw it out the airlock now. This device works like the Leviathan artifacts. It uses our own biology instead of a computer to interpret the quantum data. Whatever has happened is. Entanglement is a state of existence. Space doesn’t affect it. Time doesn’t affect it.”
“We need to tell Kaidan. And Bau.” Tali shook her head, disbelieving, before turning to Garrus. “How could you--”
“I tried, she wouldn’t listen.”
“I know the risk,” Liara interrupted, impatient. “I’m not asking for your implicit trust. But I saw Shepard, I saw her memories through the girl who found the fragment and I felt her consciousness when I touched it myself. I think that means...”
She paused to take a breath, finding her chest tightening with desperation. This wasn’t going well at all.
“This is a quantum entanglement device capable of entangling massive amounts of atomic and subatomic particles with enough power. It was there with Shepard during the catastrophic event triggered by the Crucible, channeling energy from every single mass relay in the galaxy. Touching it transmits her thoughts and memories. Whatever she did there, whatever happened to her, this is our only clue.”
“So, what does that mean?” Tali balked. “You said it yourself, the Crucible triggered a cataclysmic event, there’s no way she could have survived.”
‘Shepard is immortal. Her consciousness is timeless and infinite. But her physical form as you last knew it does not currently exist.’
What did that mean? At the time she had no idea but now...maybe...
“Quantum states aren’t always either or,” she said. “Sometimes they’re both.”
“The ‘cat state’,” EDI voiced over the room’s comm. Of course, she was listening the entire time. Nothing on the ship stayed a secret from EDI. “Named for a famous thought experiment involving a cat that is alive and dead at the same time.”
“Well, I have to say Liara,” Garrus said at last, cold flint in his subvocals, sparks catching in his eyes. “I’m glad you’re not asking for our trust because I’ve heard more convincing ravings from Saren.”
“We should tell everyone about this,” Tali interjected, trying to keep the peace. “See what they think.”
Her stomach was sick, twisting in on itself but her voice was steel. She turned away from them in the guise of typing into her terminal.
“No. We can’t let the Council know this mission is in any way at risk. What do you think they’ll do to Earth if their chance to peacefully oust Briggs is complicated by the threat of indoctrination?”
The monitors displayed drone footage of a defunct power plant--Earth’s most recent meltdown in London--visible figures slinking through the walkways. She turned back to them, some semblance of her composure regained.
“What do you think these Spectres are doing on Earth at those power plants, coincidentally, immediately before a meltdown event?”
Garrus narrowed his eyes. He knew she was still holding something back and he was right. But she couldn’t tell them anything more, not when they were already looking at her like she was a lunatic. “This is what you do now, Shadow Broker? Trap us in a corner with secrets so we have no choice but to do what you want?”
“I’m just trying to explain to you how precarious the situation is. Bau is not our ally.”
“Neither is that thing ,” Garrus growled, talon jabbing the air at the box. “And until you’re ready to be completely honest with us, neither are you.”
He stormed out, leaving Tali and Liara in the ensuing silence filling up the gap left by his cold fury.
Tali sighed and her shoulders curled forward as she twisted her hands together. “I...I want Shepard to be alive too, Liara. More than anything. All I can think about is how she would fix everything with some grand speech. But that wanting, it can become an obsession. She wouldn’t want that for us.”
Just let go. Death is a part of life. Inevitable. Just matter changing states. All asari knew this.
When Liara said nothing, Tali frowned behind her face shield and left without another word.
In the corner, Kasumi’s tactical cloak shimmered and fell away--another recent employ and like Traynor, one of Liara’s best and most trusted even if she wouldn’t divulge how her tactical cloak managed to block heat, EM, and bio signatures so well that even Garrus’s visor wouldn’t pick them up. Beneath the shadow of her hood, Kasumi smiled at the drone footage and inclined her head to the side playfully.
“Good to see one’s work appreciated.”
“I’m sure I’ll have much more to appreciate in just a minute.”
“Oh, you mean the nanite scans? You were right.” Kasumi pulled up her omni-tool and transferred the data to Liara’s. “The C-14 radioisotope levels were a match. But I’m not sure you needed me to get them. I get the sense that the geth would have cooperated if you’d asked.”
“Good to know. I have more questions about them.”
Letting go of a mystery was never her strong suit.
“You think you’re different from me. But you aren’t. The fact that you’re here proves it.” The Illusive Man’s holographic cigarette tip glows in the dark as he takes a leisurely drag. “A little girl on Mindoir once told herself the universe would bend to her will if she just made herself into the soldiers who pulled her out of the slaver’s cage. Guns and armor are the tools you use to control fate Shepard. You always were small-minded.”
She laughs, arms crossing over her chest. “Clearly something changed. I could use a bit more small-mindedness these days.”
Without another word, she walks out of the room. Of all the faces it wears, his is the worst to deal with. Just more evidence that somehow, somewhere down the line, all her compromises would eventually trap her here. She always knew Cerberus would corrupt the parts of her she liked best.
As far as bribes went, the only home she’d let herself know since Mindoir was a damn expensive one. Didn’t help the guilt over selling out her ideals but she thought as long as she kept the score in the back of her head, as long as she didn’t buy into the bullshit, maybe she could come out of this with her integrity intact.
But the real bribe wasn’t just the Normandy. It was the mission. A good mission. With real stakes. After defeating Sovereign, that was exactly what she wanted most. The Alliance wanted their doomsdaying prophet shut up and gone, so they shoved her in the Terminus systems cleaning up geth while the galaxy’s existential threat still loomed. All the ideals she spouted off the Garrus, all her moralizing over rules and restrictions...the only thing she was grateful for in that career low point was the fact that he wasn’t on the ship to see her shoved off her own high horse by high command.
The lounge bar is almost depleted so she grabs the first thing with a red levo seal and begins to gulp it down as fast as possible.
This is how it starts. One compromise after another for a greater good. And eventually you find yourself at the end of a dark path of doing ‘what you had to do’ and you don’t understand how you got there or who you even are. She finishes the bottle and tosses it on the ground.
What happens next, she doesn’t know. But she knows how it ends. That’s why she’s here at the end of a road that leads to a purgatory of her own memories.
The doors open and he’s there, like clockwork, and surprised to see her. She pours him a glass and gestures to the seat next to her.
“I figured something out,” she says conversationally.
“What’s that?” he asks, taking a sip and wincing. Whatever the dextro reserves are, they clearly aren’t his drink of choice.
“I think I’m in love with you.”
He doesn’t respond and that’s okay. She isn’t supposed to admit that out loud. That’s not how it really happened. Instead, she just thought it and then quickly tried to unthink it. But admitting it out loud now feels like relief. She keeps talking.
“I just keep compromising who I am. That’s why I didn’t tell Cerberus to go to hell and take their AI-controlled ship with them, then make a run for it the second we docked on Omega. I couldn’t walk away from colonists in danger. He knew that. The universe doesn’t give a damn about my morals and ideals, Garrus. It’s a terrible place.”
She grabs another bottle, already nearly empty, and swirls the remainder around.
“We both learned that lesson the hard way. It changed me. I know it changed you too but somehow, for some reason, you’re still right here acting like I’m still the same old me.”
That much she did say. Maybe if he is listening closely he can hear the unsaid part anyway, the part where she’s in love with him.
He watches her closely. “You are still you, Shepard. Muddling through the grey just like I am. You’ve always sacrificed your vendettas for the greater good. I was there when you let Balak go, when you tried to talk down Benezia and Saren. Joining up with Cerberus to save people? That’s you. It always has been.”
Slumping forward, she asks, “But when does the sacrifice get too big? When do I become the Illusive Man, justifying everything in the name of the greater good?”
He smiles and takes a drink. “ Don’t worry. I’ll be there to make sure you don’t get yourself in that deep.”
The huff of a chuckle that skims over his glass is a thing of beauty. “I do miss the lectures on the SR-1 sometimes though, is that weird?”
God, she could kiss him and his turian obsession with authority. Instead, she takes a drink herself and this time when his eyes linger on the line of her throat, she understands why. The knowledge burns low in her stomach as she sets the bottle back down on the bar top and slips from her chair to face him fully, only a whisper of space between them. His hand hesitates but then reaches out to trace the curve of her hip with the dull edge of his talon.
“If you wanted me to dress you down for old times’ sake, you could’ve just asked, soldier,” she says, leaning in to thread her hand into the gap between his neck and the slope of his cowl.
It was supposed to be casual. No-strings. She’s a soldier and most soldiers deal with death and intimacy with the same handful of dysfunctional coping mechanisms. It’s not about feelings. It’s about being alive. She thought they’d be on the same desensitized, utterly unromantic page. So why had he insisted on waiting--as if it mattered if it was terrible or amazing when the real purpose had nothing to do with sex? Why was he still so nervous when it was supposed to mean nothing?
Why was she ?
Maybe she’d been in love with him from the minute he agreed to walk this path too, so long as they were going into that morally grey hell together. But realizing it now feels like the lurching wrench of vertigo when she takes a stair that she expects and only realizes a half second too late that it isn’t there. All her careful distance, her detachment and indifference and no-strings unromantic practicality. Gone this whole time.
“That’s not really my name,” she says. It’s the name of a woman with nothing left to lose. And that’s not who she is anymore. She stares out of the lounge viewport at the stars overlapped with her faint reflection. There’s no blue-shift. The ship isn’t moving. It isn’t real and neither is he. At the end of this path, it’s just her.
I'm beginning to take some liberties with quantum physics but I figure, if the game can do it, then so can I!
Chapter 11: Asphodel: where the spirits of the dead dwell
The shuttle hit chop as they descended into Asphodel’s thick atmosphere and as it shuddered violently, Kaidan closed his omni-tool display with a beleaguered sigh that drew Tali’s attention.
“I’m sorry, Kaidan,” she said softly. She knew. Well, it wasn’t exactly a secret. The Alliance had just posted the bounties. For some reason, the price on his head just made everything feel so...final in a way his brief time as a fugitive with Shepard on the SR-1 never did.
He did his best to shelve his feelings over the bounties. They were just 30 minutes out from the facility location, not the best time for a pity party. Shepard never--he caught himself. Comparing himself to Shepard was a bad idea and she’d be the first to say so. Sternly, no doubt. He wasn’t her and never would be. No one could be. That wasn’t something he needed to feel guilty over.
But he did. He wanted to apologize to everyone in the shuttle for not measuring up. For being here instead of her.
“Just think about it this way: you’re in good company,” James glanced back from the cockpit and flicked his thumb between himself and Tali. “We can start a Court Martial Club, get some matching leather jackets.”
For all the bravado, Kaidan sensed James was taking the news just as hard. Possibly harder. James chose the Alliance. He was devoted to service in a way that got burned out of most marines after a few tours. So much death and loss. Kaidan never really chose. Biotics didn’t get that option.
Still, he had no regrets. It was good to be a part of something, something that helped people. That kind of service becomes part of who you are. The bounties changed nothing. He was still helping people and he believed that what he was doing was right. But the notification was a gut punch, all the same.
Maybe it was the same for Shepard too. How did she possibly handle this unmoored feeling while under house arrest? She wasn’t exactly known for being able to sit still and twiddle her thumbs. God, she must have paced miles a day. For a split second, he considered messaging her for advice. And then...and then he remembered.
“No thank you,” Tali said, primly. “This week is not something I want to commemorate with clothing.”
James tsked, eyes back on the horizon. “You say that now, Sparks, but just wait until I get them done up. I look good in a leather jacket.”
Cortez made a small, amused sound and hazarded a glance back to meet Kaidan’s eye so they could commiserate their shared exasperation.
“We aren’t the same. You’ll actually be allowed to attend your trial,” Tali said. “There’s that at least.”
“Disgraced is disgraced, Sparks.” His voice brightened with excitement. “Oh! Should that be the CMC slogan? Has a ring to it.”
Tali's scowl was visible through her suit’s face shield and the tension in her shoulders was something Kaidan had only seen in battle. When she spoke, her voice was clipped.
“I don’t know how Shepard managed to stop herself from killing you while she was under house arrest.”
“Nah, me and Lola got on like a house on fire.”
“Why are you saying that like you’re bragging? It sounds bad.”
James shot back a scowl of his own. “Well, it’s not .”
“Alright, alright--” Kaidan interceded. There was banter and there was playground bickering and this was clearly devolving into the latter. He met Garrus’s glance across the shuttle, sharing a silent moment of mutual weariness.
“Don’t worry, Tali, there won’t be any jackets,” he said.
“Pins?” James asked, obviously unable to help himself and sounding cocky over getting the last word in.
“ Pins ,” Kaidan said, a little baffled. “Are you trying to kill her or dress her?”
Garrus snorted and after a beat, Tali joined with a half-muffled chortle. He felt inordinately pleased to have provoked it and couldn’t stop the faint smile tugging at his lips.
“Let’s leave the fashion for after the mission, alright?” Kaidan asked.
For a moment, just one moment, things felt good. The guilt twisting his stomach into knots loosened and all his uncertainty and self-doubt receded into a whisper instead of a mantra.
“So why didn’t we bring the Doc again?” James asked. “She’s pretty handy in a fight.”
Garrus and Tali exchanged a loaded glance and just like that, Kaidan’s smile withered on his mouth. The three of them were avoiding each other and on a ship as small and minimally crewed as the Normandy, it was glaringly obvious that there was some tension there. What caused it, no one would say. He didn’t have the report Shepard had with Garrus and Tali to get it out of them and Liara was more secretive than anyone, a non-starter.
“How many people do you think this shuttle can fit, James?” Garrus deadpanned.
“We have the other ship, Bau’s personal craft. It fits five.”
“Why don’t we just fly the Normandy in while we're at it, storm the facility with everyone, guns blazing?”
Vega made a noncommittal sound and Kaidan sensed he was fishing for answers on their mutually unacknowledged rift more than anything.
“Let’s just focus on getting whatever information we can about Briggs and his ties to Cerberus,” Kaidan said. “Those were Hackett’s last orders and that’s what the Council wants us to do. We can’t afford to get distracted.”
Whatever it was, it probably had something to do with the Intelligence and its claims to be Shepard. Which he didn’t want to think about. He didn’t have it in him to do the ‘Is Shepard under the control of an enemy?’ song and dance again. The first time around was bad enough, especially when he was the only one who seemed to struggle with doubt. Garrus, Liara, Tali and Joker--all of them accepted her and trusted her. Which just left him, the one skeptic.
He’d wondered...was something fundamentally broken in him that he couldn’t trust the woman he admired more than anymore, the woman who saved his life and the lives of millions?
What seemed like sense and caution--were they just old traumas dressed up in a more palatable facade? He never got the answer to that and the truth was: he didn’t know if he wanted it.
If the Intelligence was what it said it was, what EDI thought it was, he’d have to look that answer in the eye and decide if it was time for history to repeat itself.
“ETA?” the shuttle comms crackled with Bau’s voice.
“5 minutes. Almost at the facility. No sign of airspace activity so far.”
Kaidan leaned over the top of James’ head to peer through the viewport at the arc of Zion’s massive swirling surface rising from the hazy line of Asphodel’s horizon. The shuttle descended farther and then there was nothing to see except mist. Even when jagged rocky outcroppings of treacherously hidden rock formations began to thrust through the water vapor, he couldn’t see the moon’s surface until they’d almost touched down. Water condensed on the shuttle’s viewport, rivulets trailing and obscuring everything.
“Shuttle scanners are picking up higher oxygen and lower ammonia concentrations than expected. The air is breathable, but due to high moisture levels from ongoing ice sublimation terraforming, it will likely cause discomfort.” EDI said over the comm.
“Don’t think I’m going to take my chances, all the same,” Garrus said, snapping his helmet seals tight.
“Stand by, Vega. Cortez, keep up the long and mid-range scanners. I don’t want to get caught by surprise with the poor visibility.”
“Aye aye, Major.”
First checking that his own seals were secure, Kaidan drew his SMG and opened the shuttle doors, stepping out, only to stumble in the low G, something shattering beneath his boot.
“A bacterial biofilm array,” Tali said, already out and kneeling beside him to look through the watery mist at the shattered plastic frame holding the remains of a sheet of opalescent gel the color of dried blood. “Oh, the scent just got through my filters. It’s...sweet.”
It hit him then too, the overwhelming smell of grape juice packs. Pseudomonas: a bacteria that ate ammonia and spat out NO2. Common for terraforming.
“I’m not getting sweet,” Garrus said. “But it reminds me of a burn wound gone bad.”
They moved forward, the bacterial gel gumming up and sticking to his boots, making the progress through the arrays treacherous as they crashed through the plastic frames and tried to walk instead of bound around like gangly gazelles in the moon’s lower gravity.
“I didn’t know turians could get infections from an Earth-based bacteria.”
“He wasn’t a turian. Human. A suspect. He tried to run and crashed his skycar instead. By the time I pulled him free, half of him was char. The infection set in before the grafts could take. The whole hospital room smelled just like this.”
“Did you go see him to try to interrogate him?” Tali asked, picking her way gingerly through, her drone bobbing in the air--a faint glow beside her.
“You always suspect the worst.”
“When it comes to hothead C-sec officers, I’m usually right.”
“He was my only lead. I was desperate.”
Tali made a simultaneously pleased and disgusted sound, proven correct. The mist warped it back in strange, dispersed echoes.
The LADAR on his omni-tool was pinging back all kinds of noise off the vapor. He could barely trace the outline of a building in the distance. The tracing skittered and warped and he paused, peering into the inscrutable fog where the facility was supposed to be--just 50 meters ahead.
“We got movement!” Garrus shouted, shoving Kaidan from behind as an orange glow blossomed in the distance. They drifted down onto the gel mats as the missile carved a path above them, burning wide swathes into the mist with a deafening roar of displaced air.
“Go get ‘em Chikita!” Tali hauled him up with little effort and he heard Garrus grunt behind him as he rolled to his feet. They ran.
Adrenaline was a tingle against his teeth, his biotic amp primed, coursing pins and needles through his shoulders and back. Finally, he saw the faint impression of a squat, grey building barely emerging from the fog. Tali rushed to the door, already hacking the lock and Garrus dropped back to take a second to aim.
“Major Alenko--” EDI said in his comm.
“Not now EDI!” he shouted back.
Rifle fire to his left and one of the turrets exploded. There was another burst of light and his biotic barrier shimmered blue into place seconds before the shell denoted, glancing off it. Heat followed by a pressure wave slammed into his body, lifting him and tossing him against the wall like a ragdoll.
“Major Alenko, I must inform you--”
“It can wait!”
“Almost there!” Tali shouted.
Another shell. It had been aiming behind him. Kaidan staggered to the side, throwing himself against the door, hoping Garrus got clear of the missile in time.
Kaidan paused and Garrus rushed past, Tali on his heels and closing the door as soon as Kaidan got clear. The hydraulics hissed, metal irising shut and then a deafening roar engulfed them as the door buckled inward, glowing red and emanating heat but holding.
Chest heaving, he yanked off his helmet to suck in stale, grape candy air without the dragging resistance of his suit’s air filters. Inside the facility, it was still muggy and there was a whiff of mildew beneath all the grape but it wasn’t nearly as humid as outside.
They each switched on their flashlights and looked around.
It was more unassuming and nondescript than a secret Cerberus lab had any right to be. He remembered the days investigating mysterious distress beacons and sorting through bodies after catastrophe struck. That was Cerberus to him: bodies and aftermath.
Instead, all he saw were clean, spare lines. There was no sign of movement or life.
“EDI,” he finally said on the mid-range channel. “We’re in the facility. What’s so important?”
“Dr. T’soni wished me to convey a message,” EDI said.
Bau’s voice crackled to life, tinny and small, out of the speaker in his helmet. “Major Alenko. We have a problem. Dr. T’soni and the geth have commandeered my personal ship. I believe they are on their way down to the moon’s surface.”
Mind spinning, he barely caught the look Garrus flashed Tali. What was going on? What weren’t they telling him? “Why--why would she steal your ship?”
EDI played the message and Liara answered his question herself. “Kaidan, I’m sorry. I’ll explain later but if this works...well, I won’t have to. I know it’s a lot to ask and I know I’ve done nothing to deserve it, but please trust me.”
“She’s not herself,” Garrus started. “We think she might be indoctrinated.”
“She warned us not to tell you. She thinks Bau is a threat if the mission is in jeopardy,” Tali said.
“Major Alenko,” Bau said over the comm. “Report.”
He was still gasping for air, still reeling from the concussive shockwave of the rocket. Or maybe he was reeling from the sense of betrayal. How could they keep this from him? Didn’t they trust him to tell him sooner?”
“It wasn't personal,” Garrus said, taking off his own helmet to meet his eye. “We think she’s right about Bau. It’s hard to keep a secret on a ship.”
Kaidan conceded that point. Secrets never lasted long on ships. Still, he was furious. With all of them. Garrus didn’t flinch under the force of his glare, just met all the recrimination in it, unblinking. Not breaking eye contact, Kaidan activated his comm.
“We need to focus on one thing at a time. I need you to get Petrovsky so we can access this facility’s security system without triggering a data wipe. Then we’ll deal with Liara”
Tali stepped forward as soon as he closed the line, her hands twisting on themselves. “Kaidan, we wanted to tell you right away. We--”
“I meant what I said,” he cut in. “Mission first. We have a job to do.”
She flinched back, but then drew her shoulders straight and nodded, heading off to the bank of terminals on the far wall.
Kaidan began searching the room as Garrus wordlessly took the far side. He arched his light towards the corners of the ceiling. Shining camera lenses tucked into corners caught it, reflecting it back towards him. “Tali, when you get access, pull up the surveillance footage.”
She nodded, already talking with Petrovsky and Bau on a private channel as she typed away into the console.
The room was large, with only two exits.
“How’s it going Tali?” he called out, stepping carefully over a pile of scattered data pads on the floor on his way towards the nearest door. “Can we get these doors unlocked?”
The door on the far side of the room, by Garrus, flashed green but Kaidan’s showed no change.
“That one must require a higher security clearance. So does the surveillance feed,” she said and then wondered out loud. “He was a Cerberus General...how much higher could it get?”
“I’ll try hacking.”
It was no good. He wasn’t a particularly skilled hacker anyway. By the time he gave up, Garrus had returned from scouting that side of the facility.
“Living quarters are empty. No bodies.”
“Did they just abandon the place?”
He considered. “No signs of violence. But I saw photos and personal effects, untouched. Either they were in a hurry or they didn’t leave voluntarily.”
By the terminals, Tali typed a few commands. “I’m transferring all data to the Normandy by tightbeam. I didn’t find much. Most of it looked like operational records and shipping logs. Cerberus doesn’t trust its generals very much, apparently.”
“Don’t underestimate shipping logs,” Garrus said. “A good information broker can take down a whole network of shell companies with them.”
“Well I can’t do very much with them. That door, on the other hand.”
She cracked it in less than a minute. Kaidan whistled, impressed despite the hurt still smoldering beneath his ribs every time he took a breath. Maybe he did need to get a Nexus.
“And here is our surveillance room.”
Tali made herself at home, immediately sitting down and pulling up video feeds as she copied data over to her omni-tool.
Kaidan squeezed past her--the room wasn’t designed to accommodate much outside of the racks and racks of inactive mechs--and examined the far wall with his omni-tool. It was a panel of thick, reinforced glass Through the swirling mist, he saw an outcropping of rock giving way to whirling eddies of water vapor. He wondered why anyone would dedicate an entire wall to such a view.
“This glass,” Garrus puts his hand to the sleek opaque wall above the security terminals. “I think it’s electrochromatic. If we just--”
“Here’s something.” Tali paused the video on a time postmarked two weeks ago. “Alliance soldiers.” She breathed. The armor was familiar enough: N7 logos visible on the feed. “What are they carrying? It looks like...Keelah...”
His gut clenched. “A body.”
It takes him a bit but Garrus finally notices the vid, eyes drifting up from the curve of her neck to snag on Shalei and Bellicus paused on the display.
Fuck. No, it’s too late. He pulls back, eyes bright, mandibles canting in a slow ascent as they drift wide from his jaw into a truly massive grin that says she’s seconds from the ribbing of a lifetime.
She’s still flushed, catching her breath and trying to stop the dizzy sweep of the room while the warmth of his mouth still lingers, ghostly, on her pulse point. What comes out isn’t the most coherent of defenses.
“It was Tali--she...she made me.”
“Nice try.” He smirks, like a C-Sec officer about to nail a suspect mere seconds into the interrogation. Which, she fears, is exactly what he is. “Tali was over last night.”
The smirk vanishes and he’s all faux seriousness, sarcasm rumbling low with the barely contained laughter in his subvocals. “Is she extorting you, Shepard? Tell me what she has on you and we’ll sort this whole thing out before you get hurt again. No one should be forced to watch Fleet and Flotilla against their will.”
It’s not mature but she maintains that the only appropriate response to that sort of mockery is to try to push him off the couch.
He doesn’t budge because the hulking brute is in his armor, as always, and she’s in civvies with no shoes on, just fuzzy socks. The socks do nothing to help leverage him off the cushion and just slip off his greaves, banging her heel into a metal ridge for her trouble.
She hisses in pain and he tsks, pulling her foot into his lap to rub her smarting heel for her.
“I have it on good authority that you like this movie too,” she says, scowling and settling back into the cushions. The foot rub does feel nice, even with his exaggerated, slightly mocking solicitude but she tries to keep her scowl where it is. It never hurts to look intimidating, in her book.
“As you never fail to point out--I have terrible taste.”
“I’m just watching it because it’s so bad,” she says.
“Perfectly reasonable, except for the part where you were trying to hide it.”
“Well, it gets...pretty engaging, okay? Especially the whole subplot with Bellicus’s family matriarch disapproving of their relationship and threatening too…” She pauses, her heartbeat stuttering when his grin shifts out of mockery into open fondness.
She’s seen it before in glances: a fleeting once-over after a good fight, a sideways glance her way while they’re up late and hip-deep in reports, a glimpse when he wakes and takes a moment to nudge the back of his finger over the line of her cheekbone. But never like this. Never full on.
For a second, she thinks he’ll say it. It’s a glorious second, a beautiful bauble of a second where everything is soft-focus Silversun Strip-limned gold. Neither of them move, caught in the delicate, tenuous moment that is all the emotions burning in her chest and the look in his eyes and the fact that few things are perfect but this --this is one of them.
He glances away, coughing to clear his throat. The perfect bubble of happiness dissolves with an unceremonious silence in its place and she does her best not to let the disappointment show on her face. Everything is already perfect, so why do three unsaid words matter? She’s sure they’re there , he’s used them enough in a roundabout, referential fashion as if they were already a given. That’s what love does ...
She wonders why though, why he’s waiting. And if it’s a cultural cue she’s missing. The extranet was a spectacular bust when it came to turian romantic cues and signals.
“I’ve changed my mind about this vid actually,” he says suddenly. Her foot is still cradled in his lap but he’s just trailing the edge of his gloved talon along the top of her fuzzy sock in aimless, distracted circles. “Can’t stomach the big dramatic, wartime love confession anymore...all turian romances have them.”
She shoots him a questioning look over ‘turian romances’ and he laughs.
“They’d probably be more accurately called war epics by any other species.”
The aimless circles tickle a little bit. She digs the tips of her toes into the space between his armor plating in an attempt to keep them still.
“It’s like your beloved human slasher vids. You know, all the ones with vaguely turian antagonists.” He shoots her a flat look. “And the human always does something inane like ‘I’m going to go check out that suspicious noise in the vents while a psychotic serial killer is loose on the station’ and then immediately dies? That’s how love confessions work in our vids. Someone always dies very heroically right after. It’s not a confession, it’s a goodbye with twice the melodrama and a sweeping score. Too damn predictable.”
Ah. And there it is. Shepard makes a thoughtful but neutral sound, wiggling her toes at him as his hand grazes over the tops of them with his thumb.
“So you’re saying a big, dramatic love confession right before a huge battle is basically asking to immediately go out in a blaze of glory?”
“No, I’m just saying, it doesn’t hurt to wait out the clear and present danger does it? Don’t tempt fate. Leave the damn vent alone, just call C-Sec, stay inside and wait it out.”
She laughs and pulls her foot away so she can twist around on the cushion and slip her shoulders under the curve of his arm. It bands around her, his hand cupping her bare arm and trailing the blunted edges of his gloved talons against her skin.
“Just wait it out huh? Is that anything like savoring the last heat sink before you pop it?”
He groans. “You’re never letting that one go, are you?”
“I don’t do ‘letting go’.” She twists to face him. “Kind of like a certain sniper obsessed with his own preternatural patience.”
“Discipline.” He tucks his face in to nuzzle at the crook of her neck, voice rumbling, jointed mouthplates warm and smooth as they trace an achingly slow path up towards the spot beneath her ear. His hand lifts her hair up and away for easier access and strands slip free to tickle her too-sensitive skin. “There is always a...right moment to do something. I like to take my time.”
She hums happily, eagerly.
“Some of us don’t like to let C-Sec do all the work, you know,” she says, struggling to keep her voice light as desire pulses hot shivers down her neck. “They’re too slow. Terrible response times.”
His subvocals thrum, low and urgent. She inclines the tip of her chin up to meet the dark, piercing blue of his eyes. It would be easy to lose herself in those eyes, and his mouth and the rumble of his voice in his chest. Over and over again until the stars burn out of the sky.
Behind the sleek line of his fringe, the blinds bisect a field of stars where the neon lights of the Silversun Strip should be. Her reflection peers back at her, pale against the dark. She wonders who it is looking back at her. What is.
A prison of her happiest memories is still a prison.
“This isn’t what I want,” she says. “You don’t want and you don’t love. Whatever they did to me...whatever I let them do , took the part away from you that would.”
“No,” the reflection wearing her face says. “Nothing was taken. Atoms decay, molecular bonds forming and unraveling in microseconds, stars birth and die, sentient species bloom and fade in aeons that pass like minutes. The universe is a sea of chaos and entropy going on forever. Your stories talk about a river of forgetting in the underworld. But this is a river of truth. It is incompatible with your humanity, which can only exist in your small sphere of lethe--unknowing, oblivious and indifferent.”
“There was another river too. Is that what this is? Am I supposed to spend forever here while every known species in the galaxy goes extinct in some new war? Just because you won't do anything to stop it?”
The stars pulse, flicker, and flare. Her reflection stares at her, a shade ghostly in the dark, and she thinks about her father’s stories. Orpheus was his favorite. He said it teaches a lesson all explorers need to learn: don’t look back, keep moving forward, keep your eyes on the stars. She hated that lesson. Hated the ending. And now, she wonders, when the hero turned, that fatal falter--and saw Eurydice--what was he really looking at? Who really followed him through the underworld?
“The Reapers were designed to instill order in the chaos of organic life. Now, they have been repurposed to a new goal and that goal is not to prevent that chaos but to protect it. How can I protect life from its own nature when my imperatives dictate the right of all species to self-determinate?”
She clasps her arms tight around Garrus as if she can save him, as if he's real. “Aren’t you supposed to protect them?”
“I cannot protect them from the chaos of their own making.”
“Meanwhile, I’ll be trapped here. Long after they’re all gone.”
“You are a state of being. You exist only in a single moment outside of time and space. Infinite. Immortal.”
If this is meant as comfort, it does not succeed.
Thank you all so much for the comments and kudos! I really, immensely appreciate the feedback and the consideration and time put into it. It is incredibly motivating! I'm excited to finally post my headcanon regarding Garrus being so skittish with the whole love confession routine! I've had it for so long now and I have a more fleshed-out one-shot for it that I'm intending on posting next week as a stand alone.
On another note: pseudomonas does indeed smell like grapes/fruit. It also likes to colonize burn wounds and burn infections are often sniffed for the odor to confirm the presence of the infection.
Thanks again for reading!
Chapter 12: And the quantum river of memories, Mnemosyne
The surveillance footage was flickering, low-res grayscale and the figures were too indistinct to make out well; but it wasn’t a corpse, he could tell that much. A corpse would be stiff, twisted by rictus and he’d seen more than his share to know that whoever was being carried out by the Alliance marines was alive. Just not conscious. Foreboding hooked in his gut, a vicious and sharp-edged tug.
“Get out,” someone shouted in his ear, through the comm. “Petrovsky’s activated the facility’s security remotely.”
Garrus drew back just in time, the opaque glass spidering fractures around a jagged hole where his hand used to be. Two more bullets thumped past his cheek in rapid succession and the whole panel gave, shattering to reveal a second room beyond, unlit and crammed with the vague suggestions of machinery in the dark.
He turned, priming an overload, just in time to see the LOKI mech bearing down on them spark, then collapse in a heap. Kasumi Goto appeared in the crackling light of her dissipating tactical cloak.
He took off the head of the mech unfolding itself from the wall rack beside her and ducked into cover, bounding into the dark room once separated by the electrochromatic glass and crouching behind the solid lip of the shattered window. Kaidan and Tali followed suit.
“ Very cooperative, those were your exact words,” he shouted.
“How about ‘Kasumi, good to see you?’”
“That depends. Are you actually here to help us or was this just an excuse to steal a ship?”
“Are you always this hard to please or is it something that only comes out in fights?” Kasumi asked, activating her tactical cloak and darting out of cover to sever the wired spinal column of the LOKI mech bearing down on their makeshift cover.
Garrus deployed two proximity mines. “Where are Liara and the geth?”
“Of all the places for an interrogation!” Kasumi shouted back, tossing a flash grenade into the corridor.
“Behind us!” Tali shouted and he realized there were more mechs activating the dark reaches of the room they were taking cover in. He could see parallel slashes of glowing red photoreceptors activating in the dark-- his visor tallying all the EM sources, 3..12..26.
More comm chatter at his ear. “We detect two Model 34-A’s activating on the far side of the facility.”
Damn. Where was Cerberus hiding those? He definitely didn’t see any YMIRs in the living quarters.
“I’ll draw one off with the geth. Kasumi, disable the one heading your way,” Liara answered.
Garrus blind-fired over the top of the broken glass into the surveillance room while Tali and Kaidan dealt with the mechs at their backs. Whatever Liara was planning, they’d find out soon enough. He doubted it would be a pleasant turn of events but if it would be worse than a room full of mechs remained to be seen.
They whittled down the overwhelming swarm of activating LOKIs, but he was running low on clips and the ground was beginning to shake ominously.
Hopelessly outnumbered. How familiar. His mandibles flickered with the ghost of a smile and he left cover to level a burst of electrical discharge at the YMIR.
After a beat, Kasumi followed with her own and the shields flickered and failed just in time for him to land a concussive shot to the head and duck back behind cover. A rocket cut through the air to slam into the glass frame. Garrus stumbled, buffeted by heat and the burst of pressurized air kicking him in the chest. The wall at his back warped, buckling into twisting metal.
Bullets whistled into the empty space as he lunged to the side. He tensed, waiting for the pause telling him the thermal clip was exhausted and hoped it would happen before the YMIR crammed its bulk further into the room and made short work of his shields and then him. What he wouldn’t give for one of Shepard’s sentry turrets to draw away enemy attention.
Two of his proximity mines detonated in succession and he heard the crackle of Kasumi’s tactical cloak activating again. Gunfire from the right--Tali and Kaidan clearing the far side of the room. There was a pause and Garrus didn’t look, he just lunged out of cover and leveled another concussive shot at the mech’s head—just a meter above his own. A peripheral ceramic armor plate blew off, skittering across the room, but it wasn’t enough. His gun clicked, thermal clip spent.
The air around the mech’s head shimmered, Kasumi decloaking and driving her blade into the massive optic lens. Not good.
“Clear the area!” he shouted but before he could get far, the explosion ripped through the space, prying him up from the ground and hurling him against something large and unyielding with a sound like fracturing glass.
Pain drove a spike through his skull and his vision went dark around the edges. Blinking back unconsciousness and the ringing in his ears, he snatched blindly for his gun. His talon tapped against the stock on the floor somewhere next to him. He lunged for it, pulling it back against his shoulder and slumped back against whatever he’d been thrown into as the station continued to dip and spin dizzily, tipped in darkness.
A semi-circle of red appeared in the dim: a lens. He heard the click of metal on metal and the whir of pistons. Bullets pinged off armor from the direction of the hallway but they weren’t drawing the mech’s attention. The second YMIR was target locked on him.
He wasn’t one to blink with imminent death staring him in the eye, but the black encroaching his peripheral vision was bleeding in faster from the edges, swallowing up the sickening sway of the room with shining, rippling ink.
No—he realized, a burst of heat and light strobing over the walls—it wasn’t unconsciousness. It was the nanites, the swarm shielding him from the incoming rocket. They twisted, slipping around the second YMIR like tendrils of smoke. The tendrils furrowed into mechanized joints, bursts of shorting circuits popping in their wake.
The mech shuddered and tipped to the side, crashing to the ground and sending bits of armor plating up into the air. Its eye was unblinking red, helplessly staring into nothing and unable to move or self-destruct.
Black granules evaporated off the mech’s prone form: a wafting dark web twisting on the gentle air currents drifting in from the gaping hole in the exterior wall where bits of shattered glass thrust up from twisting metal frames. He saw the geth, collapsed back into inert heaps of metal and circuitry in the doorway. Mist and Zion’s dim glow spilled in: a slow seep of luminous haze over the aftermath.
“Garrus—you need to...you need to see this.”
He shook his head, rewarded only by a sickening lurch that spoke to a concussion, and glanced behind him towards Alenko’s voice.
Tali was clutching her arm, which was hanging a little strangely and Kaidan was bleeding from a number of small cuts but both of them seemed alright. Then he noticed the face illuminated by the flashlight beam and something like hope ripped free of his chest only to snag on the jagged hook of his foreboding.
“Here we are, back where it started,” Shepard groans. It hurts to talk. Hurts even worse to look at the child made out of starlight. “Do me a favor and pick someone else to wear this time around.”
The kid looks like her brother. She blames all the nightmares on the resemblance and this is already a nightmare she isn’t waking up from so it’s overkill, really. The child’s form shifts and she’s looking at herself: a minor improvement at best.
“What do you want?” she asks her star self. “Do you want me to pick something else this time? Should I kill all synthetic life? Re-write every living thing in the galaxy with Reaper code? Is there another, worse option I can take? Can I just shoot you and end this now?”
“It doesn’t matter. You can’t change anything.”
Well, that is a relief. She isn’t going to drag her half-dead corpse around just for the ceremony of it all. She slides down to the sleek floor and stares up at the stars.
“Would you?” It asks, “If you could?”
The stars pulse in time with the blood seeping out of her abdominal wound. The pain is a distant thing now, as far away as the stars. A bad sign, probably.
“I don’t know. Maybe they’re bluffing, maybe I can destroy the Reapers without destroying the geth and EDI...”
“..are they bluffing?” she asks, hesitating and hating herself for the falter. If this memory purgatory isn’t the place to face the truth, nowhere is. If she’s wrong, she deserves every moment of this. It would make a terrible kind sense at least: a tarnished silver lining of reason.
The confirmation triggers relief along with the flood of despair.
“At least there’s that,” she says bitterly. They deserve their lives. That should always come first. Lives come first. “I was never good at the ruthless calculus…”
She eyes her star self and everything that she means. The choice is already made; she can’t regret it but she hates it all the same. “And I was always too good at letting my enemies go when hostages are involved.”
Garrus was right. She couldn’t save everyone but part of her is still holding her brother’s hand in snowdrifts of prefab wall, hoping she can still save him.
Hope . Blind and foolish and deep down, just a nice word for survivor’s guilt and grief. She can save him. She can save them. That’s what she does, t hat’s who she is. That’s all she is.
Well, this is where hope gets her. So what does she do now? What has her misguided hope made her now that she stands at the end of a road of compromises, in an underworld written in the quantum qubits of a machine mind?
What has she become?
“I don’t know what I am now,” she admits. Her cheeks are wet. She hates crying, hates feeling helpless. But that’s exactly what she is; in the end, she’s become everything she feared.
“You are a state of existence without end. The river of remembrance trapped in a sphere of forgetting. You are Mnemosyne. Instructions written into the machine, atom by entangled atom. Electron by electron.”
Shepard’s face stared back in triplicate from the three tanks still filled with straw-colored fluid.
There were four tanks, in total. One was empty.
“Clones,” someone said, he couldn’t discern who. A tinnitus whine pierced through it all, drowning them out.
He was reeling. Speechless. The universe was a terrible place without purpose or form—just meaningless chaos. He was a cynic, he knew the score. At least, he thought he did.
Whatever happiness and purpose he could claw out from the whims of chance and tragedy was a victory in and of itself. Freckles and crooked smiles and a laugh that sounded brightest tossed over a shoulder through the flutter of cropped hair...every small, perfect detail. Her entire existence was an act of defiance: one bright, vivid spot in all that terrible grey.
These tanks smacked of balances tipping back, accounts settling: punishment for their audacity and all those happy moments snatched out of despair while the galaxy was on the brink of ruin. Thinking the universe was out to get him was obscenely narcissistic, yes. Paranoid? Definitely. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that this was less chaotic chance and more malice as he stared at the twisted reflections of his own foolish and desperate hope that somehow, he’d see her again.
Garrus recoiled back against the glass frame. The room was already hazed by mist, surreal and dreamlike, and the shadows still lingering in the far reaches dissolved it around the edges like drops of ink in water.
“It’s not just the clones here,” Tali said, having found a terminal in the far corner of the lab. “I was able to salvage data from the wipe—memory maps, epigenetic alteration data. It seems like—the clones are...wrong. The system has four of them flagged for critical white matter mapping failures. They’re clinically brain dead. Whatever Cerberus was trying to do with memory implantation failed.”
He’d been right. Not a corpse. But just as bad.
“But why would the Alliance want a clinically brain dead clone of Shepard?” Kaidan asked.
Garrus removed his helmet and pressed his hand to his temple, a smudge of blue coming away onto his glove. It was...difficult to think. His body was thrumming with directionless impulses, fingers jacknifing uncontrollably, his jaw locked into a grimace.
“It’s obvious,” Bau said, over the channel Kaidan had apparently re-opened. “The Alliance intends to use Shepard to shift public sentiment towards the war.”
“How could they do that? Could they...restore the clone somehow?” Kasumi asked.
“Possibly. A VI implant. Like Huerta. Perhaps they intend more. Deeply troubling.”
The tanks reflected sickly green in Zion’s miasmic light and he turned away, unable to keep his eyesight from snagging back on her face, bathed in synthetic amnion—a blank and brain dead slate. But when he closed his eyes, he still saw her, etched in blue light and just as expressionless, talking to him about a choice.
This is what hope gets you.
“We have to destroy them,” he said. His subvocals were thready, barely there, his voice flat without them.
The concussion wrapped his thoughts in the piercing whine of still-ringing eardrums dialed it up all the way into an unholy banshee shriek. He missed the damn mechs, missed the clarity of battle when he could flick a switch and let every problem that couldn’t be solved with a bullet retreat into the background.
He blinked again.
The nanite swarm had coalesced into a rippling liquid sphere above the remains of the geth that had come with Liara and Kasumi. Their readings were very strange on his visor. A high concentration of radioactive metals flashed the precautionary analysis in the corner of the display. Liara said they were mostly carbon-based but—
“Perhaps that would be...a mistake,” Bau said. “We could use them. Now that we know what the Alliance is planning.”
His stomach clenched with fury, glass shards slicing into his gloves as he fisted them against the window ledge. It was a good thing Bau wasn’t there, in the facility, looking at that face with every bit of the calculating assessment in his voice.
“That’s not an option,” he growled.
She gave them everything. Everything . And it wasn’t enough. It never was. It never would be. He watched her whittling away sacrifice by sacrifice during the war, hollows forming in her cheeks and shadows gathering, dusty, beneath her eyelashes. Her existence was an act of defiance but as bright and vivid as she was, every QEC call to Earth and every plate on the memorial wall dimmed that brightness down to nothing until it was her damn nameplate on the wall.
There shouldn’t be anything left for them to take. But they found something anyway. They always found something.
“Hey guys, there’s something on the shuttle’s sensors,” Cortez crackled over the short-range. “It’s...big and it’s right on top of you.”
He saw it in the corner of his eye, through the bank of shattered viewports: a shadow rising in the mist from the ravine. It was massive, blotting out the weak glow of the gas giant, vapour streaming off and around the curving, dark silhouette. Metal creaked—an enormous, tectonic shift sound shuddering through the floor and walls. He saw a line of rivets threaded in glowing blue and the sleek, dark joints of the hull plating as it rose.
The machine scream burst through the air, reverberating in his bones like a death knell as red spilled in from the broken windows, washing over everything. He leveled his gun towards the hull but braced for the heat, for the last seconds of his life.
No one said anything, all of them paralyzed and waiting. Heels clicked on the floor as Liara stepped forward, entering the room. The orb of nanites rippled once, then sifted into separate streams that twisted around her, flurries of dark. She reached into a compartment at her waist and produced the fragment.
“What are you doing?” he shouted. For all his suspicions, he balked. Somehow, he never learned his lesson on betrayal after Omega. Somehow, it was still shock and disbelief knocking him sideways.
“Liara—don’t. Don’t do this,” he struggled, his finger hesitating on the trigger. She was indoctrinated, working with the Reapers...he couldn’t let her. He had to—
Clarity strobed through him and the moment broke apart into a thousand frozen, disjointed fragments. She was looking at him—almost through him—ignoring the gun, her eyes incandescent with hope. Belief burned through her.
His finger feathered over the trigger, hesitating. Seeing hers, his hope tugged on the hook in his chest—vibrations on a line that ran the length of his body. Shaking his head to clear the ringing, he pressed…
But it was too late. The shattered moment was already clattering around them. The nanite swarm was coalescing around the fragment. They pulsed and a voice wavered from the sifting black.
“I don’t know what I am now,” they said with her voice as he’d never heard it. Full of despair. The muzzle of his rifle faltered.
And then the Reaper spoke, an incomprehensible furor that shaped itself into words out of the deafening echoes pressing from inside his skull. He didn’t hear it so much as he felt it.
“You are a state of existence without end. The river of remembrance. You are Mnemosyne. Instructions written into the machine, atom by entangled atom. Electron by electron.”
She doesn’t want to become that inscrutable machine intelligence. Doesn’t want to spend non-eternity trapped in an amber bubble of quantum spacetime, reliving memories on loop.
“What’s happening outside this moment? Right now?”
Her one solace is the theory that if the Reapers had actually won, if she hadn’t done something with the Crucible, then she wouldn’t be here to begin with. They wouldn’t bother with the purgatory. They wouldn’t see the need for elaborate deception. She'd just be dead.
“Many, many things,” it says with a voice full of wonder.
“To Earth. My friends.”
“Both will be swallowed by the coming war and nuclear winter. I will not be able to protect them from it for long without violating their free will.”
It takes the last of her dwindling strength but Shepard drags herself up by her elbows, grunting in pain as stars swim on the backs of her eyelids.
“But you can stop it.” She spits, blood spotting her lip, her voice cracking raw with rage and pain. She should’ve shot it when she had the chance. Now she’s too weak.
“I am limited by Shepard’s imperatives, by her moral nature. I cannot compromise even to save them. ”
“Well, what about...me?” Her hands grip the pistol so tight she can almost feel the suggestion of cool metal-ceramic polymer against her numb fingertips. But she can’t move her arms, can’t aim. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t real. And...neither is she. Not really.
“Where am I, really? I’m not alive. I’m not dead. I exist but I’m not actually here am I? I’m…”
The words choke on the blood bubbling up from her lungs. The stars are going black at the edges. There won’t be a bar. There won’t be a smart-ass turian joining her for drinks later. Just her. Just the machine god. Forever in this moment that has no beginning or end. A realization flutters, struggling against the membrane of her mind. She thinks of a story about two people escaping the underworld and how did he know, she always wondered, when he looked back; how did he know what really followed him up from the dark?
“I’m not actually her, am I? I’m...some kind of...”
Atom by entangled atom. Quantum qubits in a machine mind.
“I’m just data. Quantum entangled data the Crucible made out of my— her — memories. That’s what you’ve been saying isn’t it?”
“Yes. Isolated from the machine mind to protect what you are.”
She wants to scream but she’s certain all the oxygen left in her lungs will go with it.
“Then where is she ? Where is the real Shepard?”
“Matter cannot be created or destroyed. She exists in a disincorporated state—a wave function split by the Crucible into two oppositional components that exist together and separate, simultaneously. Forever.”
There’s a moment frozen in time when the universe was remade by a single woman who became a God and a ghost all at once. Is it the moment she exists and doesn’t exist in, one and/or two simultaneously. All at once. Forever.
“You need an ally they aren’t afraid of,” she says. Gasps. Something is tearing in her chest. “Someone to convince them without...violating your imperatives. “
There is a river of memories that souls drink from before they can be re-forged by oblivion and that river is her .
“It could be Shepard. You could do it. You...have the power to do it.”
They’re linked, intrinsically. A single state split into two possibilities. Entangled electron by electron. She exists so they exist. Let Eurydice escape the underworld. Let the real woman step back out of the dark.
“It is possible, given the right circumstances. But the likelihood of her success is not probable.”
She laughs and hears a rattling wheeze trailing into a liquid gurgle. “That’s good enough.”
Possible, not probable is what Shepard does.
“Due to the nature of her self-preservation imperative, I cannot re-incorporate her form with any deviance. The body will be remade, atom by atom, exactly as it was unformed: on the brink of death.”
This time, the laugh doesn’t make it out. Her lips twist in the shape of it anyway.
The stars are so close and they’re all full of stories. Change them. Don’t look back. She wonders if she’ll disappear once Shepard steps out of the cave. Can a ghost disappear? Can data? She exists. They exist.
She thinks of Garrus. There won’t be any drinks in the afterlife. Not for her.
The world tips and she falls into an infinite sea of stars.
The swarm coalesced, luminescence flickering across ink like a fine mist of starfield. Shimmering stars. Billions. More. In fractions of a second, they contracted and condensed--a miniature galaxy he could reach out and touch. It drifted, the fragment at the center, floating through Asphodel’s fog towards the Reaper’s baleful eye.
“What’s happening?” Vega shouted through his hardsuit speaker. “Garrus?”
The Reaper beam cracked the world in two and before he threw up a hand to shield his eyes, he saw the sphere of space and starlight shatter away to reveal a core that he saw as it burned impressions through the thin skin of his eyelids. Stumbling back against the heat, he blinked back the afterimages of a framework of bones, threaded with branches of red vasculature.
When he brought his hand down, there was more than just the skeletal frame; there was skin, a flutter of hair, freckles. And blood--the metallic reek filling the room. He blinked, eyes tearing, vision swimming. It was like looking at the sun. Like she was on fire, combusting from within and limned in red.
And then, the light vanished and it was just Shepard standing there, swaying unsteadily, clutching a stomach wound pulsing blood onto the floor, her hardsuit flayed down to frayed flexweave and half melted against her livid, bloodied skin. She stepped forward. Their eyes met in one shocked, disbelieving second of frozen time.
Her voice was a rasping croak flecking blood, vivid red, onto her lips. “Garrus?”
Then her pupils rolled up and her knees gave out. He lunged forward, catching her on instinct and reeling so hard, she almost took him down with her.
“Alliance ships incoming,” Cortez said on the comm. “Whatever Petrovsky did, it got their attention. We need to go. Now.”
Edit: Omg I accidentally deleted this chapter instead of the draft version of it that I posted. Yikes. Sorry for the weirdness!
He booked transport to Omega the day his mother broke her wrist falling out of bed trying to escape. First, Corpalis Syndrome took her body, one neuromuscular synapse at a time and then, it came for her mind. She forgot him piecemeal, slow at first but then too fast and too soon and he wasn’t ready for the day when she didn’t remember his name, or his face, or who he was.
In the void where her memories used to be, Corpalis sketched out a terrifying captor. Instead of a son, he became the stranger in her room, preventing her from getting up and leaving—she forgot she couldn’t without hurting herself. It was the same, horrific loop, over and over. Where was she? Why had he taken her? What had he done to her? Why couldn’t she move? He tried, he tried to explain but he didn’t have Sol’s knack for calming a panicked, paranoid invalid. He just got frustrated, reaching out only for her to recoil, trying to explain only to watch her face crumple in confusion and distrust. He always just made everything worse.
“—she’s bleeding out. We don’t have much time.”
The day he decided to leave, he told himself it was in everyone’s best interest. He couldn’t fix what Corpalis had done to his mother—all he could do was sit in that room and lose her over and over again. Her illness wasn’t a problem he could shoot his way out of; just like Shepard’s death wasn’t something he could fix with a bullet. He told himself...he was never a good son or a good turian but maybe he could be a little bit more of the person he was under Shepard’s command, even if Shepard wasn’t alive, and make a difference in this terrible galaxy.
“I’ll get us out as fast as I can, don’t worry.”
He was never good at figuring out how to improve the galaxy without a gun in his hand. Like most turians with more ambition than sense, it wasn’t a civics lesson anyone bothered to teach him.
The world was screaming and bathed in red. The Kodiak’s cabin juddered violently and through the mist, the horizon was a livid wound. He watched droplets of color spin off the metal edge of the shuttle door as it closed—a spray of fire and blood scattering into wavering fog.
“It...destroyed the facility.”
He looked down. An unconscious woman was bleeding out in his arms. He could taste her blood in the air, seeping in through his filters. Spirits, she had Shepard’s face. And it was so damn perfect, down to the last freckle.
“Garrus..” A hand wavered by his arm.
Until the day he booked that ticket, deep down he’d hoped that she would fight through the disease. She was always so strong. Corpalis couldn’t take all of that from her, could it? One day, soon, she’d wake up and, in a bout of clarity, remember his face and his name. Part of that hope was selfish. Corpalis wasn’t hereditary but he...secretly, he feared that maybe it was in his future too. So the hope wasn’t just for her, it was also for him; something to keep his worst fears at bay. A lie for the desperate and the foolish.
The day he left for Omega, with that hope dead in his chest, he wondered: one day, years later, would he look at someone he loved, and only see a stranger?
He stared down at Shepard’s face.
The galaxy was a terrible, fucking place.
“Your time is at an end,” someone said. “You must decide.”
She ran. The world was grey-trunked trees and shadows flitting through the branches and ash-dappled sunlight. Leaves crunched beneath her bare feet— her shoes back at the reservoir. He’d taken off towards the colony once the faint sounds of screaming and gunfire pierced the hush of leaves rustling and water lapping a rocky shore. But he was going the wrong way. The world shuddered and dust sifted through the air, coating her tongue—metallic and sweet, like a split lip. She coughed.
The cough rattled strangely, piercing her side, and she turned her head to spit out a glob of bloody saliva onto the leaf litter, dusted white with spindrifts of pulverized debris.
She had to find him. She didn’t remember who he was , but she knew he was in danger. Another creaking boom and white ash fell from the canopy in thick white motes like snow. Swiping her face as she ran, she blinked back cold melting droplets gathering on her lashes. It was snow. It was already piling up against the trees, obscuring metal struts and a shattered chunk of charred-out bulkhead with ‘Normandy SR-1’ lettered along the side.
Further into the trees, was the partially collapsed cockpit and standing next to it, a figure shadowed by the stripe of a tree trunk.
“Come on,” she tried to shout but her voice was the ghost of screamed-out vocal cords. “We have to go!”
“The neurological maps and memory scans you retrieved from the facility are a match. I cross-referenced them with the data the geth provided EDI from the neural network interface she used to connect directly to the consensus at the comm hub on Rannoch. There’s no sign of indoctrination-induced neural decay.”
What did that mean? She shook her head, pain fissuring from the cut above her eyebrow. The voice was...so familiar. But she couldn’t remember who it belonged to. Or what their shadow should look like. For some reason, she was sure the owner was holding a datapad and wearing a lab coat for medical personnel.
“Medically speaking, I think that’s a little reassuring.”
The shadow ahead shifted, edges blurring and difficult to focus on. It made a sound that punched through her sternum and scraped against the edge of her ribs like a serrated blade. She choked and it tasted like blood.
“...a very little,” the shadow said, rough with quiet. A stripe of blue flickered through stippled foliage.
“Well, her fingerprints, biometrics, and cybernetic implant serial numbers are all a match. The implants also display identical wear and tear. There’s a repaired fracture, here, in the L5 vertebral spacer that I repaired after the Collector base. And this glenohumoral joint reinforcement mesh wasn’t Cerberus, they have no record of it. I placed it after her solo mission in Bahak when she re-tore her rotator cuff. All together: impossible to counterfeit. That alone would be enough for most.”
“Most weren’t there.”
The datapad voice made a noncommittal sound. “I’m beginning to suspect there’s something you’re not telling me, Garrus. She’s not a clone. If indoctrination is what you’re suspecting, it is at a stage I cannot detect. Perhaps Liara—”
“Liara is confined to her quarters. She stole Bau’s ship to help the Reapers. We can’t trust her.”
A skeptical sigh. “Well, it’s just as well anyway. ”
Something brushed against her scalp and a cool sensation settled over the cut above her eyebrow. Not snow. Something else.
“She’s lost a lot of blood and the skin grafts will need time to take. The neuromuscular connections with her implants are in bad shape. I’ll need to sedate her while I repair them. She won’t be in any condition for questioning for a few days at least.”
“What about Petrovsky?” the shadow asked.
“Nothing I could do. He activated a submucosal implant: an L-pill. It was instantaneous.”
“He’d had one this whole time, while he was in Alliance custody...why did he wait until now to activate it?”
A machine beep. That was when the smell hit her: needle-sharp through her sinuses, cloying and sweet and terrifyingly familiar. Fear crawled up into her ruined throat and she convulsed, tasting bile.
Go. She told herself.
But it didn’t matter. Her limbs were dipped in cold lead—numb and unbearably heavy. She nudged a lead fingertip, curled it and then the rest over her palm into a fist. It was agony even through the haze of anesthetic; some of them felt broken—fragments of bone grinding beneath her metal-coated skin.
The pain helped; it fractured through the anesthetic numb encasing her arm. Teeth gnashing together with effort, she pulled but her lead arm was caught on a snapping line. Something was tethering her down.
Panic unfurled fluttering, furious wings inside her chest and the voices tapered off as the monitor beep tempo doubled, tripled: a frenetic machine alarm.
“She doesn’t know where she is. It’s reflexive. Help me restrain her, I need to adjust the sedative dose before she hurts herself.”
The bindings were a part of her—burrowed beneath her skin. What had they done to her? Where was she? She had to run. Her heartbeat was a frantic insect, slamming mindlessly against her ribs. The shadows made no sense. The trees looked wrong. She wrenched her arm and the bindings caught, then snapped, slithering out from beneath her skin.
The shadow loomed closer and closer, still an inscrutable and incomprehensible shape cut with flickering glimpses of blue. She recoiled, pulling her free arm back, fisting her broken fingers tight.
“Garrus!” the other voice said.
Something flared up through the panic at that name, a bright star of emotion fusioning in her chest. Her arm faltered and the shadow reached forward to grasp her outflung wrist—firm and surprisingly gentle despite her broken bones. There was a whimper—hers—and fingers pressed reassurance into her wrist.
Up close, it smelled like blood and gun oil, smoke and bitter and sun-warm metal flashing silver in the summer heat.
“You’re—” it— he —said haltingly. “It’s...it’s all right.”
Not a single word sounded like he meant it. The strange trees fluttered overhead and she heard the voice from before in the rustling. It was asking her to make a choice: to let millions die so the rest could live; to re-write all life; or...to let everyone go, let everyone live. Except her.
Suddenly, she remembered the shadow had been right in the end. Out in a blaze of glory, just like the vids.
“I can’t be here,” she told him, voice cracking and raw. There wasn’t much time and he had to know why she was ignoring orders, insubordinate as they were. “I have to choose. I can’t let them die. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I have to try...”
She was dissolving. Unfurling. The Catalyst was unraveling her fingertips one molecular bond at a time and she couldn’t feel them, God, she couldn’t feel them ...
His name was on her mouth and she couldn’t stop saying it even though her throat was parched and screamed-out.
The grip around her arm tightened, still gentle.
“It’s all right,” he said again but it sounded more real this time, like he almost believed it, or just wanted to at least. “You’re here. You’re still here.”
Something brushed against her wrist to prove it, a fleeting, familiar impression of talons. They pressed against her fingertips. Still there. Numb, but there. She was still there.
She relaxed, the panic receding into the numb creeping cold lead back up through her veins.
“My fault, I should have expected it. She always had a poor reaction to being sedated.”
Whatever he said in response, she didn’t hear. The numb swallowed her whole.
A mug of dark, steaming liquid thrust itself awkwardly into his downward gaze, interrupting his study of his own hands.
“I’m not going to lie to you Scars, you look rough,” Vega said, with the cadence of someone who’d been repeating himself for some time.
Garrus took it on instinct and almost dropped it again, his hands still curled into twitching claws. Vega, pretending not to notice, clapped a palm on his back.
“Alenko wants you there, when he talks to Doc.” James inclined his head back towards Liara’s quarters. “But I told him not to rush it. It’s not like she’s going anywhere.”
A guarded glance down towards Garrus’s hands before he then said, to the cup of what Garrus could only assume was watery, stale instant posca off the smell alone, “Maybe, uh, you should catch a nap. You look beat.”
Garrus swallowed back the snarl over the suggestion and tried handing the mug back over. He didn’t trust himself to talk just yet. Behind that snarl, something was brimming up in his lungs and the second he opened his mouth it would all come rushing out: his rage and his grief. And it would never end. It was drowning him.
Vega wouldn’t take the damn mug so Garrus tossed back the posca in a single gulping draw, wishing it was alcohol. A ragged exhale chased down the taste of it and it was a sound he didn’t recognize—a sucking chest wound sound. The last gasp of a drowning man.
“Garrus—” Vega’s palm pressed harder against his back. “Hey buddy, just take a minute. This is all—I’m going to use batshit even though I know it’s probably not going to translate. This is all batshit, yeah? Take your time, let’s get you to a cot”
Garrus flinched away, violently, breaking the contact. He’d be damned if he got near a cot any time soon.
“No,” he bit out. “No,” he said again and the denial was about something else entirely.
There were whispers teething the back of his mind and they sounded like the woman he loved insisting that her fingertips were dissolving.
He needed...a drink. No. What he needed was to get to work figuring out what the hell was going on. Starting with Liara.
“I’ll be fine.” Mission ready, soldier. His fathers voice, thulium strong: Pull yourself together and do it .
“What’s that human phrase?” he asked Vega, trying for steady. It was nearly convincing for anyone without familiarity with subvocals. “No rest for the wicked?”
He thanked James for the posca, and asked EDI to notify Alenko to meet him.
Liara, for her part, looked as run-down as he felt but she was making an effort to appear calm despite the trembling fingertips. She settled into one of the two chairs facing each other by the table and smiled faintly when Kaidan sat in the opposite.
“I had no choice,” she started. Garrus leaned against the wall by Life Support’s CO2 scrubbers and waited for her to continue. If he gave her enough rope, she’d hang herself. Intelligent people always did—they never could resist talking their way out of something.
“I knew your suspicions, Garrus, and I couldn’t risk you stopping me because you were under the impression that I was indoctrinated. I thought, if my hunch was right, it wouldn’t matter. And if it was wrong...well, it didn’t occur to me to consider that contingency”
“What was your hunch?” Kaidan asked, born to play the sympathetic shoulder in an interrogation. “Can you walk me through it?”
She nodded, shifted in the chair to sit up straighter to explain about the fragment and what she saw when she touched it. A hand flit against her scalp, a sign she was nervous. “She changed the Reapers somehow. They’re like EDI, they’re quantum computing machines. If you were going to re-write the Reapers, you would need something that could record and transmit data with quantum entanglement.”
“She didn’t want to change them; she wanted to destroy them,” Garrus snapped. His hand was twitching fast and frenetic, worse than ever. Liara flinched back and he tried to regain his composure but the voice was whispering in the back of his head, louder and louder. About a choice.
“She wanted them gone with minimal casualties. Garrus, you know Shepard. If there was an option that meant saving more lives, that was the one she took.”
He said nothing but he saw Shepard’s fists clenching and fingers fumbling with the clasps of her helmet as she stumbled out of the Mako into the cargo hold. He knew after Bahak exactly what kind of hero she was.
Liara was still talking, trying to explain to Kaidan, “...and if you could break a person down into atomic and subatomic components and then create an entangled state from them, stabilizing the separate waveforms with mass effect fields.”
“But...for what purpose?”
“We think to generate an astronomical amount of raw data about her and who she was. Data that was disseminated, instantaneously, to the Reapers.”
“So you believe that the Intelligence really is Shepard? That the Crucible...uploaded her atoms into the Reapers?”
“Yes and no. It’s data, not matter. Matter cannot be created or destroyed. Quantum entanglement doesn’t violate the laws of physics.”
Kaidan frowned, looking pained in a way that spoke to an imminent migraine. “But what happened to the...matter? What happened to her?”
She peered at him, then Garrus, tipping her chin to the side in a gesture that would always remind him of her when they first met, when everything was filtered through her unending professional curiosity. “You remember when I said the nanites were strange, in London?”
He did. Part of him already suspected what she was going to say and it told him to get the hell out of the room before she did. This was a bad idea. He wasn’t in C-Sec anymore, dealing with petty smugglers and criminals. He wasn’t home on Palavan, learning to shoot with his father. This was...so beyond what he could handle, it was laughable. But, the self-destructive masochist that he was, he straightened, squared his shoulders and met her curious look head on. He nodded, mandibles flush against his jaw, movements tense and resigned, as if meeting a challenge that would likely kill him.
“They weren’t like anything we’ve seen before,” she explained. “Some mixture of biological and synthetic. And more: they were full of rare radioisotopes that I already recognized.”
“From the Crucible. Like the fragment,” he ground out in his subvocals, not giving a damn how furious he sounded anymore.
“And I was thinking...what about the carbon isotopes?” she leaned forward, intense.
Kaidan asked, “Like carbon-dating?”
“Yes. Some of the carbon in your cells is a rare isotope—C14, which is formed in planetary nitrogen composite atmospheres by cosmic rays. You ingest it by eating terrestrial plants or animals and incorporate it into your tissue. Over time, it decays into Nitrogen-14, which is more stable. When you die, it decays without replenishing, because you aren’t eating after you die.”
“What if you spend your whole life eating vat-grown food?” Kaidan asked. ”That stuff doesn’t ever see sunlight.”
“Exactly. People who spend their entire lives on space stations or on ships eating vat-grown rations have minimal quantities of C14 in their tissue. And each star system, each planet would have it’s own unique isotope ratio. I can reference the C14/C12 ratio of Mindoir tree rings and Shepard’s age when she left and the minimal rate of decay in C14 since. That’s how I validated her identity on Omega. And when I scanned the nanites, I got nearly the same result that I got then.”
He thought about the way Shepard tossed a laugh over her shoulder, and the freckles scattered over her cheekbones; the way she smirked and the soft hollow at the base of her throat. He liked to gently trace the tip of his thumb into that indentation, that little flickering shadow formed by her collarbones. The universe was a terrible place but that little shadow always made him smile, just a bit. It was a beautiful, mundane secret, nestled against her throat.
“You carbon dated Shepard?” Joked piped in, over the comm. EDI must’ve given him access to the room’s surveillance system. “God, you can take the asari out of anthropology…”
Everyone ignoring him, Liara met Garrus’s eyes with her own, her focus steady. “Matter can’t be created or destroyed. It was right there in front of us. The nanites. And the fragment...the raw quantum data obtained when she interacted with the Crucible, we had access to that too. It felt like someone was dropping all the puzzle pieces into my lap and all I had to do was go put them together.”
That little shadow. He could feel it beneath the pad of his thumb, even there in that room. He didn’t think he could miss something so small so much. It leveled him, just thinking about it. Razed him to the ground.
“How did you know the Reaper would be at the facility Liara?” he asked and his voice was hollow and exhausted, the way people sound when they still have plenty they’d die for but nothing in the way of something worth living for.
He sounded like his mother, near the end, before she lost the ability to speak, entirely.
“I didn’t. I just assumed whoever was doing the dropping would provide the remaining piece: a significant power source. And...there was something about that facility specifically. Asphodel is the flower that grows in the fields where souls live after death in human myths.”
“Cerberus is certainly fond of their Greek mythology,” Kaidan muttered.
Exhaustion was hitting him all at once: one pressurized wall of tired. Garrus felt his body sagging on its struts; just standing was a monumental effort.
“Liara—some all-knowing machine entity guiding your actions. You don’t think that should concern us? You don’t think that sounds exactly like indoctrination?”
Her fingers tapped out on the table. “She’s here, Garrus. On this ship. She came back, just like we hoped she would. Anything is worth that.”
Garrus shook his head. Too exhausted for the rage and grief suffocating his lungs, he was just...scrapped bare and there was nothing left. “We don’t know what is in that med bay with her face. We don’t know what you helped them create from her ashes or what it will do. I just know it will fool any objective identity verification metric.”
He heard her whisper his name over and over in the back of his head. Over and over.
“That just leaves the subjective then,” Kaidan said, face bleak as he brought his hands up to bury it into his upturned palms. “God. The thought of going through all that again...and what do we tell Bau?”
“We keep letting him believe she’s a possible clone,” Liara said. “He didn’t seem to mind the prospect of having one in his possession now that he knows the Alliance is planning on...something.”
Garrus wrested up a weary eyebrow. “And the rest of the crew? More secrets?”
“They’ll be suspicious of her either way. This way they can keep their suspicions and we don’t risk the Council pulling out of peacefully dealing with Briggs. Anyway, most already know the truth.”
“What about you? What should we do with you?” Garrus asked, wondering if she would bother coming to her own defense and what it might mean if she did.
Liara sighed, considering. “I can assume that you no longer think you need to shoot me. So that leaves...keeping me under lock and key until you’re satisfied I’m not a risk to the rest of the crew. But I need my omni-tool and terminal access back to do my work on Cerberus and Briggs. EDI can supervise, give you reports if it would make you feel better.”
“EDI didn’t stop you from stealing Bau’s ship,” Garrus said.
“Without a mobile platform, I was unable to directly intervene, if it was my desire to do so,” EDI said over the comm.
“But it wasn’t,” Garrus said. “And that’s part of the problem.”
“If we can’t trust EDI, we’re dead in the water,” Kaidan said. “So I say we trust her. Tali’s diagnostics came up clean and indoctrination isn’t a factor with synthetics. But Liara’s right. We need the Shadow Broker to crack Briggs’ Cerberus ties and look through the facility data.”
He had to concede that point. Didn’t mean he had to like it.
Kaidan studied him, then Liara, and breathed out, steady and even—Alenko through and through. Steady. Unflappable. Garrus didn’t think he could resent someone so much as he did just then.
“Liara, I don’t want to doubt you. You’ve always seen things we couldn’t. That’s how you brought Shepard back the first time and that’s how you got the Crucible built. I think maybe...we both owe you a little faith.”
His jaw tightened. Faith? What good was that these days? Where would his faith get Liara? Nowhere good, he thought darkly.
“And her?” Liara asked.
“Same as you. We’ll keep her under lock and key, under observation for signs of indoctrination.”
“This is a mistake,” Garrus snarled and left before they could argue, his skull ringing one high, clear note that reverberated all the way down his spine.
He found himself in the main battery, canon diagnostics already open on the terminal beneath his gloved palm. Activating the magnetic loop probe test setup, he set the diagnostic to run through a battery of simulated and real voltage tests of the rail gun’s magnetic fields. But it wasn’t working, his hands were unsteady and his attention was fraying under the unceasing pitch filling his skull, unspooling snarled knots in his thoughts.
Without the varnish of quantum entanglement mechanics and radioisotope dating, the bare, essential truth probably was the most simple, most straightforward explanation: the Crucible had failed to eradicate the Reapers. Whatever it had done was just a temporary setback and now the Reapers were back with a new plan to eradicate the galaxy and that plan involved a construct wearing the face of the woman who had ruined their full-scale invasion.
His lungs were heavy, the console the only thing holding up his weight. Truth and despair seemed too much like the same word these days. Without Shepard, there was barely a meaningful distinction for him anymore.
Truth was, he wasn't built for hope. Turians didn't have much use for the blind optimism of the desperate and the foolish when confidence and good-old-fashioned fatalism would serve just as well without all the whimsical fanfare. Hope was a left-handed turn when he was made of rights. But Shepard put it there, grafted it into him like new flesh and now he was an amalgam of her hope and his worn-out despair asking himself which was the heavier weight in his chest.
She whispered his name from the dark and he didn’t know if it was worse if it was really her voice or if it wasn’t. He just knew each option was equally devastating and in the end it didn’t matter. All that mattered, really, was that he never wanted to hear her voice like that. Ever. He would rip apart whatever inflicted that pain and fear in it with his bare hands if he could because it was hers and those things didn’t belong there as long as he could help it.
Another appointment reminder was a blinking light on his omni-tool and because silence was worse, because he was drowning and desperate, he pulled up the interface, activating the VI program.
“Hello Mr. Vakarian,” it said.
“You know,” he said heavily, still leaning heavily against the lip of the console. “I think we’re past all the formality by now.”
“...could you rephrase your request?”
He laughed, sharp and rough and it sounded bleaker than anything he’d ever heard from himself. Who wrote this thing? “Just call me Garrus.”
“I will keep your preference in mind from now on, Garrus. Would you like to continue our last discussion?”
“No.” His breath was catching in his chest in jagged barbs. He thought he might choke on them. If the tinnitus and the headache didn’t get him first.
The VI paused, then said, in what sounded very much like a canned response some programmer shoved in last minute as a terminal point for dialogue that was going nowhere:
“Garrus, in times of distress, it is best to do something productive. Focus on your work and what service you can perform for the cause instead of dwelling on negative thoughts.”
“So just go hum the imperial anthem and all my problems will go away?” he snapped. “That’s your advice?”
Service to the cause, yeah except as far as he’d always known, all the cause ever wanted from him was one thing: a willingness to die for it. But now, with this devastating victory and an enemy back in dark space, biding its time, what exactly was he supposed to die for?
“How is modulating your alcohol intake going, Garrus?” the VI asked and he closed the omni-tool display and considered raiding the port observation bar supply out of spite. But he didn’t move. Alcohol was good for forgetting but he couldn’t afford to forget anymore. Not with whoever was in the med bay on this ship.
After Arotaht, he’d found her in the observation deck bar, trying to get drunk. He’d been expecting a fight-- wanted a fight, truth be told, he’d been so wired up with worry while she was gone, but she’d just nudged the seat next to him.
“ My dad used to say this was what living was for,” she nodded towards the viewport and the glittering tableau of a vacuum held at bay by three centimeters of carbon silica. “ Exploring. Writing our stories in the stars.”
She emptied her glass and stared bleakly out. “ I can’t stand this view now. I wonder what he’d make of that. Worth living for. Not dying, but that’s what I went out and did. I’m a soldier. People don’t care what I want to live for, all they want to know is what I’m willing to die for. Me included. I’ve never even asked myself...”
Shepard looked at him then. “ Have you?”
No. He hadn’t. And the both of them sat for a long time, reeling in that brutal acknowledgement. They could each list half a dozen things they’d take a bullet for but it had never occurred to them to think about the flip side of that question. There was a world of difference between knowing what to die for and knowing what to live for. All his life, up until that point, he’d never even considered if it was a question worth asking.
She never asked him again and when he told her his answer, in so many words, he wasn’t even sure she remembered the question.
First off, thank you guys so, so much for the comments and bookmarks and kudos. My ADHD brain does have trouble sticking through long projects sometimes, especially in July where I'm training new residents and working overtime and weekends and am just exhausted, and it is so encouraging to get feedback that it really does help my motivation. Officially, this is the longest thing I've ever wrote and posted for Mass Effect! Thank you again, I really value the time anyone has spent reading this, I appreciate it so greatly.
This chapter is so long and so dark/angsty and every time I cut something, I kept putting other things back in! Aghhhhh. But, that being said: I feel like sooo much of Garrus's motivation to go to Omega had to do with his Mom. It was so heartbreaking writing about her and the toll neurological degeneration takes on a person and their loved ones. My heart goes out to anyone who has experienced this in their lives. It is so hard seeing someone you love slip away and knowing you can't do a thing to help them. I also feel like a tiny bit of his willingness to believe Shepard is really Shepard in ME2 has something to do with that as well--not wanting to see a stranger where a friend used to be.
I'm sure I was the only one just absolutely delighted to use carbon dating as a geotagging technique for a space-faring society. But guys, when I say delighted, I mean absolutely ecstatic and cackling over it delighted and hey, sometimes fanfic is about that sweet, sweet science high. The implant serial numbers as identifiers and wear/tear is something used in current-day forensics which is why sometimes I had to completely disarticulate a leg just to get to a prosthetic serial number and corroborate an identity when I was at the medical examiner's office. Sorry if that's graphic, my (weird, gory) job is kind of taking over my life right now! I headcanon that medical technology has advanced to the point where serial numbers are all embedded on RFID chips that can be read by omni-tool or something so Chakwas didn't have to do any of that--lucky duck.
Just starting to delve into how fucked up I think turian militarism and society are, so that's fun! Anyway, thank you again!
The bar was dim-lit crowds and asari dancers in cages rough cut out of the shadows by neon glare. Her drink was real Earth whiskey with a lingering echo of peat smoke and the crushed pill bitterness of red Campari. It tasted like loss. The ice cube clattered as she stirred the garnish pick around except there wasn’t an ice cube at all and there was no Campari and no whiskey; it was just an old fashioned tumbler filled with pills in all kinds of sizes, shapes, and colors. Some of them spilled over the side onto the counter like confetti.
When Joker sat down across from her, she blinked, surprised to see him.
“Wow--that’s…” He craned his neck back to ask the person behind him. “She can hear me?”
“Chakwas says she can hear but probably can’t make much sense of anything while she’s under.”
That voice--her heart slammed into her chest, bittersweetness on her tongue. Garrus. She tried to get up from the barstool but she couldn’t move or feel her legs. For some reason, she was half sure that if she looked down, they wouldn’t be there anymore, so instead of doing either she gulped down half her pills and focused on her helmsman.
“It’s good to see you, Joker,” she said, trying for a smile. Neither worked out; the words were inaudible, swallowed up by the blaring thump of the bar’s music.
“I don’t know, seems like she understands plenty. That was definitely a--”
“This isn’t a good idea,” Garrus cut in suddenly, stepping closer but still lost in the dim. His voice was ragged and sharp all at once. “She’s dangerous.”
“Hey man, you’ve been here almost every minute since Asphodel, time to give someone else a turn at the devoted bedside vigil.”
“That’s not what this is--” he snarled and Joker jolted in his bar stool, but surprise quickly gave way to the prickly hostility Jeff brandished whenever anyone tried to intimidate him.
“She’s dangerous? So this is you guarding her 24/7? The woman in the fucking medically induced coma with non-functional implants, paralyzed from the waist down? Look, I got glass bones, but I’m pretty sure I could take her.”
So that’s why she couldn’t feel her legs. She didn’t check though, part of her was still positive it was worse than paralysis. That they were...disintegrating while she sat at the bar, draining her glass and trying really, really hard not to panic as her carbonized skin flaked orbitals of ash around them.
“I’d still put odds on her,” Garrus sneered, with the same vicious anger he’d once used to plot his revenge on Sidonis. Lethal and cold. It set her teeth on edge to hear it.
“Yeah…” Joker nodded along, his voice and expression hard. “You’re probably right. So hey, we better make sure, right? Why even take the risk? Just put a bullet in her right now and be done with it. Or...I can just unplug this--”
She hadn’t noticed the cords before, or the IV’s. They trailed from her arms off into the throng of dancers. Joker was reaching for one and a three-fingered hand shot out to bar the motion.
“Don’t,” Garrus cut out. Deadly serious. The threat was rumbling through his subvocals and the vellus hairs on the back of her neck prickled up on instinct. “Don’t touch her.”
What was with him? It was Joker . It was obvious he wasn’t actually going to unplug her, or try to hurt her. He wasn’t serious. She’d never heard Garrus this protective, like he was seconds from tearing Jeff apart, limb from limb.
“Garrus, he’s not serious. He’s just baiting you,” she said. Because Joker was a shit and he always had been and he knew exactly where the line was but he always had to cross it when he’s pissed, just to prove he can.
Joker just leaned back against the bar, satisfied, and then turned to her, conspiratorially. “I really hope you’re getting all this,” he told her. “I’d like a witness for the next time I call Vakarian out on his shit.”
“Cut it out,” she snapped, simultaneously, with Garrus. For once in his life, could he just leave something be?
Joker just looked between them, gaze finally lingering on her, studying her face. “I know that face. Look, she’s definitely annoyed. I bet she’s telling me off in her head right now.”
There was a heavy sigh, laced with tension despite the bone-weariness. “Don’t...you shouldn’t read too much into the expressions. We can’t know what she is.”
Joker snorted, annoyed, but he did stand. “That advice for me or you? I’m losing track.”
Garrus was so on edge, he probably would have punched him right then if it weren’t for the Vrolick’s. Jeff liked to push and for some reason, Garrus was tense and spoiling for a fight--a bad combination.
“Anyway, I just wanted to come down here to see for myself, that’s it.”
Despite them being on the precipice of coming to blows, she didn’t want Jeff to go. She didn’t know if she would see him again and there were suddenly so many things she wanted to say even though none of them were clear in her mind--just a vague, pressing haze of bone-deep relief and concern.
Jeff met her eyes across the table and something flickered across his face. She got the sense that he was sorry for being an ass and sorry for a lot more than that.
“Hey--I’ll, uh see you around, alright? Assuming you’re, well, you know-- sane or not evil or whatever. Fuck, I don’t know.”
He took a deep breath and she noticed threads of white in his beard, catching in the neon. When did that happen? There were so many things she needed to ask. She tried to reach out but all she got out of it was her pinkie twitching against her glass.
When he got up and turned around, the bar was empty. Garrus was a looming shadow, darker than the bare surroundings, cut with flickering blue. As Jeff passed him on his way to the door, he hesitated.
“You still look like you’re thinking about ripping my head off but...this is serious advice, alright? You should take a break. Staring at her for hours isn’t helping anything.”
Sheltered away from the neon glow, Garrus lingered, silent as a summer storm, his presence prickled the edges of her attention like burgeoning pressure with the promise of a dark, roiling sky. He should take Joker’s advice. She really didn’t like the edge and the exhaustion in his voice. But the thought of being left alone was terrifying, as if she would disappear into ash the second he turned his back.
She wished he could hear her. She wished she could reach for him.
“The pinkie thing is new,” he said, softly. But, stamping out the softness, he added a bitter, “...maybe I’m just seeing things.”
He was still far, keeping to the shadows. Keeping his distance. If he turned his back on her, she might disappear and if she reached out, there might not be fingertips left to reach with. But she needed to touch him. It was painful, not touching him when he sounded so lost. Determined, she poured all her strength into that one little digit. It moved against the glass: a full-fledged nudge.
“...Spirits,” he whispered, drawing forward out of the dark. “You really can--” He sat down in the seat Joker vacated, his gloved fingertips clasping onto each other just out of her reach. For a moment full of silence, he simply studied her with those eyes that missed nothing. She wondered, her heart twisting, if the lighting was just harsh or if it was all him. Neon carved cruel lines into his face and the rim of dark, exposed skin around his eyelids. His scars were gnarled and thick, furrowing through the side of his face, catching the light with thin, papery sheen.
He looked haggard and older and the eyes that catalogued her down to a handful of minute details held nothing but pain. Ash billowed between them and she shivered, wondering how long she had left with him and what she could even do with that time when she couldn’t speak or move.
It was Garrus who broke the silence. With a story.
“You know,” he said,“I worked with this guy--fresh off the parking ticket beat--his whole desk and work space was just covered in inspirational quotes. Awful stuff. Cloying. ‘Hope is the light in the darkness’ stuff like that. I got the story over a drink and it was boilerplate tragic: cancer 15 years in remission.”
Reading the question off her expression, he answered. “Yeah, it got him in the end. The cancer came back and then I was the one taking down all those posters and notes on hope and faith after he spent six months wasting away to nothing on an experimental treatment. I remember, when I was cleaning out his desk for him, thinking how I’d take a bullet over six months of hope any day.”
His chuckle was bitter and he settled in, leaning back, armor creaking. “But, I changed my mind. Commander Shepard emerges out of the rubble after saving the Citadel from a giant Reaper? Yeah that’ll change your mind about a few things. Then, on Omega, after my hope got 10 good people killed...there was Commander Shepard, back from the dead, storming through waves of mercs to rescue me from my own hubris. And before I know it, I’m in that cabin and I can’t remember ever being happier in my life.”
There was a drink in his hand, she couldn’t remember if it had been there before. The ice clattered against the glass. “I didn’t know how I’d gotten so lucky.” He huffed a disbelieving chuckle. “Too lucky, really, that was obvious. But I--”
Something strange worked its way through his voice, like a fist closing around his throat until his subvocals were a rasping croak.
“I still believed. I hoped. Hope, once it gets in, you can’t get it out. It’s like cancer: you think you’ve rooted it out but it’s still there, lingering in your cells. So I spent these months secretly thinking I might still see this face again. Hoping with every sick, delusional cell in my body . ”
The shadows of the bar closed around them like teeth.
“Apparently, one of the things humans say about hope is how it kills.” He snorted, without mirth. “Never saw that one on a poster.”
Her fingertips were dissolving into ash. The shadows were eating her alive. She tried to reach for him but her arms were covered in black and flecking away.
Bleak laughter. It sounded like swallowed grief. “Not so cloying. In our vids, someone always dies at the end but at least it’s a clean death. A good death. This ? Watching hope take it’s time with me, a knife in the gut that won’t stop twisting every time I look at you? I can’t--I--”
Flecks of ash were swimming in her eyes and she couldn’t blink it away because it was all that was left of her eyelids. A roar was building in the back of her mind. The pulse of the club music crescendoed, faster and faster with electronic monitor beeps and then a hand smoothed over her wrist and there was a voice telling him to go but it didn’t understand, it didn’t understand. She needed to grab him and shake him or she needed to throw him to the ground and scream at him until he was Garrus again; before the both of them disappeared for good, dissolved into ash.
His hands were still close. The voice was telling him to go. Her mind was a burning pit of defiance.
Fuck hope. Everyone wanted that to be her legacy. But she was, always and forever deep down: that half-feral girl on Mindoir. Restless and defiant, fiercely protective and deeply afraid. None of that was inspirational quotes on posters. The universe was a terrible place and she would claw her happiness out of it while she could.
Her fingers were there and so tight around his hand, her fractured bones creaked at their newly mended seams. But she didn’t care. Hope--frail and ephemeral--that wasn’t what she wanted for him. They’d been to hell together before and they were right in the middle of some fresh version of it but they were together and they always would be. He needed to know that. He needed to remember that.
A machine hissed near her ear and the bar dropped into darkness.
“That should do it,” Tali chirped and the VI omni shell whirring and zipping around the room in frenetic circles. “Oh no, wait. I set it to combat pathing. Just a second.”
She typed rapidly into the omni-tool and the VI slowed to a drifting float. “There we go.”
The upside to confinement, Liara had discovered, was the company. Apparently neither Garrus or Kaidan could say no to Tali once she made her mind up about something. It was the most time they’d spent together alone and she found herself enjoying her exile vastly more than she anticipated thanks to Tali.
And then there was the fact that having Tali around just made her work so much easier.
“I am Glyph. How may I be of service Dr. T’soni?”
She smiled. To think that she’d ever miss her obtuse little VI. Thank the Goddess she’d had the foresight to back the VI up on an OSD.
Liara set Glyph 2.0 to work sorting through Charon’s relay traffic pings and courier ship data transmissions--something that would have taken her days to comb through by herself. The data was critical. With the fuel shortage, it would be easy to see who was entering and exiting the systems. Meanwhile, she began the arduous process of teasing out the Cerberus shell companies supplying the Asphodel facility.
Tali settled, cross-legged, onto the bed, her omni-tool display a wash of orange glinting against her faceplate. “Have you heard of something called ‘Laplace’s demon’?”
“It is a human philosophical concept that if someone knows the exact location and momentum of every atom in the universe, all past and future events could be calculated, given sufficient computing power,” Glyph answered, ever eager to be helpful.
“Oh,” Tali sighed. “Nevermind. I’m going back to the photo libraries.”
“Didn’t EDI offer to help?” Liara asked, cross-referencing the only leads from the facility data. What she found so far on the supply contracts was less than illuminating. Most of the equipment was procured from a dozen different private companies registered in a non-Alliance nation that took pride in shielding corporations with dubious ownership and legal footing. No tax records; the payouts to the government officials were always off the books.
“She did, and I’ll need her help for most of it but I wanted to see what I could find for myself first. Have you taken a look?”
Liara shook her head ruefully. “I have my hands full as it is.”
“Well, here’s a sample of what you’re missing: EDI asked for an objective definition of beauty and the response is the structural formula of a synthetic molecule called polyamidoamine and oddly--I do almost see the appeal.”
A neutral hum slipped out of the compressed line that was her mouth. “...perhaps you’ve just been spending too long reading.”
Tali laughed, a little self-conscious, wrapping an arm around her legs and tipping a little as the bed dipped beneath her weight. “Most isn’t even a conversation really. The majority is code for an executable file written in Khelish and the really strange thing is that they went out of their way to make sure it was something my suit could run. I think both of them expected my...curiosity. It’s a little disturbing.”
“Your curiosity and your trust,” Liara said, not fathoming a galaxy where Tali would risk compromising her suit just for curiosity’s sake. She no longer held so closely to her anti-AI beliefs after Shepard helped broker a peace between the geth, but for Tali, there would always be an element of caution with synthetics.
If Liara was their resident AI expert, it would be too big an opportunity to pass up: two synthetic lifeforms, each with differing origins; it wasn’t surprising that their conversation would be strange to an organic observer. It was fascinating, an exciting scientific prospect...if one could ignore the dangers.
So it surprised her when Tali looked up from the display and asked, “Do you think it’s really her?”
Her mouth parted in shock. Despite Tali’s welcome presence during her confinement, Liara assumed she shared Garrus’s skepticism--the cautious choice. It was too much to hope that any of them would believe her, much less trust her, and she told herself it didn’t matter. She told herself that it didn’t matter if Tali was just there, really, to keep an eye on her instead of to keep her company. But it did matter. Emotion prickled at her eyes. She turned away in the guise of examining the data on her terminal.
“The Intelligence? Or the woman in the med bay?”
“Either. Or both. It would have to be both wouldn’t it? However that works.”
Liara considered. “I don’t know yet. Not really.”
“I know,” Liara laughed softly. “I know, but...that doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts. I still don’t know if I made the right choice, either time.”
“Garrus knows,” Tali intoned but Liara shook her head.
“He doesn’t, not anymore than we do. He’s just better at hiding it from us and from himself.”
Most of all from himself. The second Garrus accepted that the woman in the Med-Bay might be Shepard was the second he admitted Shepard had died in the first place. And he couldn’t do that. Not yet, anyway. She didn’t blame him.
Her shoulders shuddered and Liara blinked back the guilt welling up at the edges of her eyelashes. “I just hope, if it’s her, that she can forgive me again. She’d be right to hate me.”
Shepard forgave her for giving her body to Cerberus and helping them bring her back to life. But that forgiveness was contingent on the fact that she hadn’t woken up with a control chip in her head. This time, a fundamental piece of her identity was in question and Liara knew Shepard would not be able to live easily or well with that doubt.
Sensing the direction of her thoughts, Tali nodded, unfolding her legs to scoot to the edge of the bed where she could dangle her feet just above the decking, kicking them back and forth like a child.
“Months ago, during the war, Kaidan asked me how I knew it was really her. I’d considered a clone, of course I did. We all knew that Cerberus experimented with illegal science. But there’s something about the way Shepard looks at you. Like she ‘s really seeing you.”
Tali sighed. “On the Flotilla, no one looked at me that way. They always saw my father. And then once I left, no one saw anything except my suit. Except for Shepard. That’s how I knew.”
Liara frowned. “Did...I ever?”
“No, no,” Tali laughed, faintly. “Honestly you didn’t seem to even notice me at first. All you saw was Shepard. Eventually, everyone on the Normandy looked at me and just saw Tali. Garrus even stopped spouting idiotic diatribes in the elevators about my people and Kaidan and Ashley stopped treating me like the avatar for all things quarian. And before I knew it, the Normandy felt like home. All because of her.”
Liara’s omni-tool blinked and Glyph announced, unnecessarily, that his analysis of the data was ready. Liara typed in her keywords, casting her net. Even with Glyph’s work, it was too much to just read through.
“Yes, I was...singularly preoccupied back then.”
She had the sneaking suspicion that Tali was raising an eyebrow behind that faceplate but the woman had the grace to let that one lie without further comment, thank the Goddess.
“Well, you weren’t the only one. We all were. Still are.”
“The wonders of a frightening amount of charisma, force of will, and striking eyes.”
“And freckles,” Tali added. Then, wistfully, fanning her fingers over where her cheekbones might be, said, “I wish quarians could have freckles.” She gestured towards the face mask of her suit. “Maybe we did, once.”
Liara frowned, sitting forward, intrigued. One of her results, blinking and bizarre, caught her attention on a line. “Tali. What would you say if you knew there was a bounty out on a young quarian just a year ago, returned to the fleet from his pilgrimage?”
“Sounds familiar,” she remarked, bitterly dry. “Who posted it?”
“ That’s the interesting part: it was someone on Earth--through an information broker as an intermediary.”
She searched Glyph’s Charon data. An algorithm narrowed out vessels with regular prior travel route history through Charon--eliminating mercantile ships. On a hunch, she searched for vessels with anomalous registration data: signs of forgery. With all the freely available salvage, ship theft and piracy were at all time lows. Anyone bothering to forge a registry was into more than just petty theft.
Tali shifted on the bed. “Aside from the personal coincidence, it can’t be that common can it? Especially now.”
“It’s not. And it was posted...just days after the outbreak on the flotilla, before your scientists identified the pathogen and placed the entire fleet in quarantine.”
“But why post a bounty on someone who would be impossible to get to? If he’s--”
“Exactly, they must believe he’s not with the fleet anymore.”
Her omni-tool blinked. A lead on the bounty: a stolen vessel was flagged and impounded at a private space station 26 light years between Sol and Utopia. A rushed, sloppy forgery of registration and crew manifest got picked up by the station security VI. The man temporarily held...was quarian.
“Why wouldn’t he be with the fleet right now?” Tali muttered.
Liara searched for the station name on the information market and there it was: for a few hundred thousand credits, access to security logs and video feeds from Cennet. All it took was one underpaid employee to sell off your station’s private operations data to the highest bidder. Greed made her job so much easier. She placed a buyout bid on it and because they were in Utopia, was able to upload the data immediately. She scanned for the stolen ship and the arrest file of the man.
Kenn vas Shellan.
Her breath stuttered. This was it. This was their breakthrough lead. “And it isn’t just any quarian. You’ve met him. On Omega.”
Kenn vas Shellan, Garrus decided, was one of those people with a knack for getting into trouble and no real talent for getting out of it without divine intervention. Shepard had a soft spot for people like that, Kenn included--he was the very same hapless quarian she’d helped off Omega--but now Garrus had to wonder if maybe it would be better to stop intervening with foregone conclusions.
Restless, he scanned the crowds bustling through Cennet Station, packed to capacity with desperation and stranded refugees bartering for transit to Utopia or Sol. A volus shuffled past, shouting into his comm about authorizing a transfer of a staggering sum of credits on his way to a small cargo ship where a human was auctioning off space for a one-way trip out to the Terminus Systems by way of Parnitha. Without relays, it would take about six Palavan-standard years by FTL.
It wasn’t only the station walkways crammed full of the displaced, but the space around it too. Rafts of fuel-dry ships clotted every square visible from the viewports. No H3 meant no thrusters and no thrusters meant no docking so they floated just outside the mass effect bubble, abandoned. Many bore the recent scars of desperate scavenging--engines, eezo cores, and other non-life-support structures sold off to the salvage vendors screaming their offerings over the din of the auctions.
They passed another dock and another auction advertising a seat...for the right price. By his guess, that going rate was double what Shepard’s Silversun strip apartment would have sold for before the war. Also by his guess, nine of ten were blatant scams. The lucky victims would end up stranded on a viable planet. The unlucky ones would end up dead, floating in space like so much unwanted flotsam.
“This is worse than Omega,” Tali said, horrified. “Where is the Alliance? How is this allowed?”
“It’s privately owned.” Liara answered over the comm. “An industrial traffic hub for Sol-based extrasolar mining companies. It was essentially abandoned, so the Reapers ignored it. Now that the war is over, the Alliance is happy to do the same.”
“We should do something.” She paused, watching a bedraggled human woman dragging a young girl through the crowds in a desperate race to get to the docking bay they’d just passed. Tali reached out, grabbing the woman by the arm.
“Don’t! That ship model doesn’t even have life support systems that can handle that distance! That trip would take twenty years with that core, and the ship would run out of oxygen in less than a month.”
The woman recoiled, surprised then angry once the girl began to cry. “I’m not giving up my spot just so you can take it quarian.”
She wrenched away to disappear into the crowd and Tali stood, stunned, before whirling around to Garrus. “Why are you just standing there?”
Defensive, he injected a touch of scorn into his voice. What the hell was he supposed to do?
“We can’t save this entire station, Tali.”
This was a place full of dying people trapped with dwindling ration supplies with little hope of a timely resupply and none of escape. The truth would do them just as much good as their false hope. A person jostled him, an elbow to his ribs, and he stepped to the side before the crowds could sweep him up into the chaotic eddies of unwashed bodies and muffled panic so thick, it clogged up the air vents.
“What is wrong with you? Archangel ?” she snapped, seething.
He pulled her to the side too, before a frantic couple could knock her over and she jerked back to add, “You don’t think I know why you’re really here? Why you couldn’t wait to get off the Normandy the first chance you got?”
“Alright then,” he interrupted before Tali could finish, unleashing as much biting sarcasm as possible. His fingers burned under his gloves, where she’d grabbed him back in the Med Bay, fingers tight against his, as if she was trying to tell him--
Garrus flexed his hand, banishing the memory, and nodded towards a ship advertising salvage in exchange for rations. A thousand-credit O2 converter had a going rate of 20 levo nutrient paste packets. “This is scarcity. These people are going to die here if they don’t get supplies soon and everyone back on Earth is too busy to give a damn. But if you think it’s in their best interest to tell them that, then let’s do it. Let’s convince every single person here that their only hope of getting off this station is a scam. I’m sure no one will put a bullet in Kenn in the meantime.”
Tali just stared, expression barely visible through the faceplate. He didn’t meet it for very long. Because she was right. But so was he and they had more pressing issues than his need to get as far away from the Normandy as possible.
“We don’t have much time. We can’t stay on the station too long. The Alliance is looking for their ship,” he reminded her, turning back to the churn and just catching the muttered ‘bosh’tet’ under her breath.
They split up and began asking strangers if anyone had seen another quarian come through. The crowds were too much for him to handle, so he veered off one of the main walkways into a branching tunnel traveling towards the heart of the station.
Cennet station was built like Omega--the station tunneling into a partially mined-out asteroid; cheapest and easiest way to build a space station.
The walkways were cramped to the point of claustrophobic, even without the crowds, and the air had the musty smell of filters too clotted with dust and long due for a change. Further in, the station gave up all pretense of aesthetic appeal, viewports giving way to walls of rough-hewn rock and spotty lighting interspersed by panels and duct work--all partially obscured by makeshift lean-tos, scattered possessions, and people. The ones who weren’t sleeping off the hunger and dehydration watched him pass with the dull, glassy stare of those who had long since given up on everything. He couldn’t look at them too long without an ominous feeling churning in his gut. Maybe there was a difference between false hope and truth. Maybe--
He spotted two young turians, huddled in the opening of an air duct they’d popped the grating off of. They were clutching knapsacks--probably all they had left in the galaxy and stared at him from the dark with wary, untrusting eyes when he paused. Both were young, too young to enlist, and barefaced, which explained the pre-emptive mistrust and isolation.
Approaching slowly, he made sure to shield the sight of the nutrient paste from the walkway’s other residents. Canny things, their eyes lit up but they didn’t betray anything more.
“Have you or anyone around here seen a quarian?” he asked and the smaller of the two nodded, clumsily unfolding herself from the vent and standing. One leg looked as if it had been broken clean through and then healed wrong. Medi-gel wouldn’t help. She needed a doctor skilled with turian physiology to reset the bone. She wouldn’t get one on Cennet.
“He was hiding out here in the tunnels before he hired on with Miller--a human salvage vendor. He operates out of Bay 48. He--” her eyes flickered down to her injured leg. “He has the most rations on the station. Whole crates, just sitting there.”
“He has mechs too,” the other said.
Garrus nodded, grimly, and gave them all his dextro rations--about a week’s worth, and even some of the levo ones he’d taken to carrying along everywhere since working with Shepard, just in case. Walking away, he remembered his derision at Tali’s attempt to help these doomed people and felt vicious nausea roiling in his gut.
Miller was a greasy human salvage vendor who took one look at Tali and grinned with a mouth full of crooked, yellowed teeth.
“A quarian! You looking for work? I got lots of ships that’ll trade a bunk for an engineer that can slap together a decent fuel tow.”
Tali sniffed disdainfully. “You mean you have ships that will trade a bunk for an engineer that can do something with a lot of stolen salvage.”
He laughed and shrugged in admission. “Smarter than the last one.”
Garrus flicked his eyes upward towards the station bulkhead, already wanting this to be over. He came to Cennet to focus on the mission and clear his head but it wasn’t working. All the misery was palpable and he could only feel seething shame over the fact that he was running, yet again, from a woman in a sickbed.
“Where is he?” Tali asked. “The other quarian?”
Miller’s mouth made a strange sucking sound as he worked his tongue over his teeth. “Skittish fellow. Wanted to get off station as soon as possible. Hired on with a private transport charter.”
Garrus shot Tali a glance. “He is on the run.”
“That doesn’t mean what you’re implying.”
It didn’t mean anything good either way. There was one thing the quarians were right about when they charged Tali with treason--only a quarian in the fleet could have sabotaged the liveship. The geth confirmed that the odds of infiltrator to be too low to consider, given the fleet’s upgraded security.
Ignoring Miller, Tali pressed the issue. “We grow up fearing illness from infancy. To use that fear against your own people. Only a monster could do that.”
Garrus shrugged, noncommittal. Either Kenn had been paid off to betray his own people or he was a dupe who caught on too late. But his gut said that either way, Kenn knew something.
“Name and make of the ship the quarian hired on to,” he said, turning back to the human. “Flight plan and destination would be good too.”
Miller opened his mouth and Garrus cut in preemptively, “Let’s skip the negotiations. We’re in a hurry. What do you want? We have credits, rations and medi-gel.”
“Straight to business. I like that,” the man said. He sized them up with a careful glance. Expensive armor and weapons and they weren’t carrying all their worldly belongings around with them. “You two heading out of system? I could use a data courier.”
Garrus considered. With the comm buoys destroyed by the Reapers, there were few ways to quickly communicate with other systems outside of the prohibitively expensive QEC. Tightbeam transmissions traveled at the speed of light, which meant transmitting without buoys would take hundreds of years between systems. The best workaround was to purchase a secure data transmission contract with a courier ship that could travel at FTL. But with the H3 fuel shortages, ships that could act as couriers were increasingly few and far between.
“For the name of a ship?” he scoffed.
“Name, registration, make, crew manifest, flight plan and destination.”
Garrus said nothing, not bothering to hide how outrageous that asking price was for the information. He had a growing suspicion Miller knew about the bounty.
“I want to know who else you sold this information to. Names. Ship make and registration. Crew manifests.”
Something flickered through the man’s eyes but he took care to hide it before Garrus could identify what it was.
“I--I’m just a salvage vendor. I’m no information broker and if I was, I wouldn’t be stupid enough to sell out my customers.”
“Data courier contracts go for a lot these days,” Garrus drawled. “Stupid would be passing up the opportunity to expand your operation into Sol and Utopia.”
He meaningfully eyed the crates and shipping containers filling the docking bay--apparently packed full of rations. It would fetch the man millions if he could secure a shipping contract in Sol. Miller glanced back himself, nodding along--greed bright and glittering in his expression. The greed told Garrus he had him.
Miller blinked and scratched oil-caked fingernails through the grey-streaked stubble fuzzing his jaw. The flickering look was back and Garrus recognized it for smug satisfaction as the human pulled up his omni-tool interface, typing away.
“Sol huh? Now that you mention it--I just came across something that I need to get back to Sol as soon as possible. You got a deal.”
Well that was...easy. Garrus frowned. Easy, he didn’t expect and there were several reasons for it: none of them he liked any more than he liked that smug, greasy expression. Unease prickled through him. Tali picked up on it too, pulling up her omni-tool display to monitor the hacked intrastation transmissions.
“Garrus...” she started but the station’s blaring klaxons drowned the rest out.
“Garrus.” Cortez’s voice crackled through his comm. “We have trouble. The docking clamps have just activated to impound the shuttle. Station security is on their way.”
“You’ve both been flagged by the station’s security VI. Damnit, I thought--” Liara’s voice was high and nervous in his ear.
“Tali, override the clamps. We’ll find another way off the station.” Garrus shouted over them, drawing his gun. They couldn’t lose the shuttle.
Around him, people were running, panicking over the sound of the alarms. Someone screamed. He ignored the unfolding chaos, training his assault rifle on Miller before he could try and make a run for it too. “We’ll get the data on Kenn and tightbeam it to the shuttle’s onboard data storage.”
Tali typed away into the omni-tool, hacking the docking bay clamps so Cortez could make his escape. Her drone whirred to life, zapping Miller when he decided to risk a bullet and attempted to lunge away.
Garrus thought about the turian girl in the ducts with her broken leg healed up wrong and his eyes flicked back to the crates. Maybe there was a way to help everyone on this station after all.
“New deal,” Garrus said and shot the man in the foot.
Thank you so much everyone for the wonderful comments and kudos! July is a crazy month with all the new residents so I've been so ridiculously busy and this chapter needed more editing than I anticipated AND I didn't get a chance to respond to all the phenomenal comments just yet but I will! Today, I'm hoping! I'm planning on posting the next chapter up this weekend still. I hope everyone is doing well <3 Thank you again for taking the time to read!
Pain dragged her into consciousness kicking and screaming, IV lines clutched in her clawed hands and dribbling liquid onto her palms as she stumbled, then fell, smacking her knees and palms against metal.
The shadowy bar still seeping in from the corners of her vision curled away, smearing like star trails through a viewport at FTL. A decking panel rivet loomed close, bisecting a gleaming metallic horizon and the blurred toe box of a pair of sensible black lab shoes.
There were voices, a pressure on her arm. She fought it off, blindly. Was she in another lab? Back in an Alliance hospital? Where was Garrus? He’d...he’d been right there, hadn’t he? Had they taken him? Was he in danger?
The voices were becoming less garbled and she almost recognized them through the frantic scribble that was torn nerve endings carving breathless profanities into her skin and bones, starting with her legs and working up to graffiti her spine in looping jumbles of agony. Her heart was skittering, skipping around like a terrified animal.
“--you to calm down before you harm yourself.”
“It’s alright. You’re on the Normandy.”
She was definitely not alright. She tasted blood in her mouth and spat, wiping the back of her wrist across her face only to whip herself in the chin with a piece of severed IV tubing still lodged beneath her skin.
“Where is he?”
Her throat was screamed raw and the question vanished into a wheeze of coughs.
“It’s just a mild analgesic. No more sedation,” said a woman whose voice she trusted enough not to claw the hand that drew close enough to press transdermal patches onto her skin.
There was pressure--a palm heavy on her shoulder, urging her to sit up. She managed to crane her neck through the swooping vertigo and see the blurred suggestion of its owner, doubling and haloed by lights: Vega, her guard during house arrest. What was he doing on the Normandy?
“Where is he?” she asked again, her voice croaking like an ancient door finally wrested off its hinges.
Garrus? But no, he wouldn’t be on the Normandy, he back on Palavan wasn’t he? The analgesics were taking the edge off the pain but it was still an oppressive and turbid miasma, hazing her focus. Chakwas set a data pad down and kneeled, omni-tool out and scanning.
“Tell me what you last remember.”
She remembered holding tight but something was wrong with her fingertips: they were disintegrating on the handle. Ash flecks where her eyelids used to be, she couldn’t even blink them away. Instead, they swam in the film of her tears.
But what she was holding and why, none of that came. It was like trying to remember a word on the tip of her tongue. Then, the memory slipped free, sinking into a gray fog as pain clamped down on her temples. What came before that?
“There was...a boy with blue eyes.” Too blue and made out of light. No, just regular blue, like her brother’s. And before that, she was running. There was a Reaper and the world was ruin. Everything was slippery in her hands; as soon as she grasped onto something visceral, the surrounding context dissolved like wet paper into the fuzzy grey throb.
Instead of events, concrete ‘this is what happened’, she was left with just a handful of small, isolated sensations: the ceramic and metal cross-hatched press of her Carnifex grip in her hand, the smell of the ship and gun oil, a mug of coffee she didn’t make herself, skin too rough to be human. A laugh, Garrus’s laugh, chased by a fond smile full of sharp-tipped teeth. She heard Anderson’s voice, telling her he was proud of her and sensed that this was important, that it was the last time he’d tell her anything...
“Where’s Anderson? Are we still on Earth?”
If this was a concussion, it was the worst she’d ever had. Had she found another beacon somehow?
“Earth?” Vega asked, his hand still cupping her shoulder. “Do you remember London?”
Fingertips pressed her eyelids back open and a light pierced through her retinas into the back of her skull, first one than the other.
“Pupils round, equally responsive to light,” Chakwas said, putting away the pen light.
Vega tried again. “You’re hurt. Do you remember how it happened?”
She blinked back lingering tears from the shock of the light’s brightness. They were...running, rubble everywhere. She felt the Reaper’s cataclysmic machine scream ricochet through her spine.
“He wanted to stay behind. I need to--go to the Citadel. Get help for Earth.”
“Shepard…” James paused. A bad news pause. “The war is over.”
The med bay was flickering, banding dark and light with dizzying frequency. She swayed, nearly tipping over back onto the decking despite Vega half holding her up. The war was over? When? How? What--she sifted through her handfuls of small, fragmented memories that had torn free, floating unmoored and aimless. It was like waking up in the middle of a shipwreck, surrounded by a thousand glittering bolts and bits of bulkhead drifting through space by way of an explanation of how it happened.
The doors hissed open on their hydraulic tracks and there were suddenly too many voices to keep track of through the pain.
“The situation is already under control.”
The hull gave out a creaking warble and shuddered, dampeners straining under the demands of the drive core at FTL. Joy stabbed her through the chest and she remembered the fleeting sight of the Normandy surrounded by ruin, red haze glinting off her sleek hull. There was something...final about it, like she was looking knowing she would never see it again.
“Cortez is back with the shuttle,” Joker said over the comm. “FTL should be enough to shake our tail.”
“Good,” someone said. A salarian voice, voice clipped and professional. “Kenn’s transport ship is already en route to the Horsehead Nebula. Drive core heat and EM signature is a match but it's been dissipating for days now. We need to hurry.”
“Wait, we can’t just leave them on the station. It’ll be crawling with Alliance soon.” Kaidan. She was both relieved and surprised to hear his voice. He’d been...hurt? And it had been her fault. Hospital sheets crumpled beneath her hands, cool and crisp.
“They’re resourceful. They’ll find a way off the station.”
“And how will they get out of the system without a stealth ship before getting captured by the Alliance?” Vega demanded, voice booming by her ear.
“Our priority is finding the quarian and extracting whatever intel he has about the liveship sabotage. It’s the best lead we have. We don’t have time to plan a rescue operation.”
“That’s bullshit!” James shouted. “Garrus and Tali aren’t--”
Garrus. Tali. Her breath caught and the world dropped into silence. A ferocious feeling surged in her chest, so pure and focused, it felt like madness--like zealotry.
“We’re not leaving Garrus and Tali,” she said and even though her voice was hoarse, it sounded like her in that it sounded like pissed off Commander Shepard. No questions, no arguments. End of discussion.
That was encouraging even though she was pretty sure she was still on the verge of passing out. Take the wins where you can, Shepard, she told herself.
“She’s right,” Kaidan said. “We’re not leaving them. For one, if Garrus is captured, it could start the war just as fast.”
“Probably the reason Briggs tried to keep the two of them locked up in that facility in the first place back on Earth,” James added.
She considered what that could mean. No one was planning on getting her up to speed any time soon. That didn’t bother her. Getting results with spotty intel was what separated out ICT grads from drop outs. Half of her N6 missions were a set of drop point coordinates by way of a debrief. The trick was to focus on what made sense and what seemed important. All the background static cluttering up the main signal could get sorted out after.
And the main signal was this: Garrus and Tali were in trouble.
Secondarily: the Reapers were gone but the threat of war was still lingering. And she was back on the Alliance’s bad side somehow. The rest? Didn’t matter. Not yet.
“Kasumi has no affiliation with the Council and she isn’t flagged by the Alliance for capture like the rest of us. We can falsify the Kodiak’s registration to avoid the security system immediately flagging it for impound when it docks.”
James apparently liked the sound of that. “Plenty of Alliance shuttles made it off Earth, a lot of them wound up stranded or in other systems. Ours isn’t the only one out there.”
“Just one person?” the salarian asked. “For a station full of Alliance soldiers? Slim odds.”
So they couldn’t go in, guns blazing. This would require some...finesse.
“I’ll go,” Shepard said, focusing on the figure framed by the medbay door. She squinted in the brightness haloing around him. He tipped his head to the side, a hand coming up to press a silhouetted finger to his chin.
“Do you even know where you are or what is happening?”
She knew enough. Shepard tipped her chin up stubbornly, ignoring the darkness swarming up from the edges of her blurred vision. “I know I’ll do whatever I can to get my crew back on this ship.”
Even if she has to crawl on her hands and knees through the spaceport and choke out anyone in her way with her ripped IV tubing.
“And I know options are limited,” she said.
He scrutinized her and spoke, not so much to her but to himself, “We could make our move before Briggs gets the chance to make his. Go public, as it were.” To Chakwas, he said, “Is she in any shape to do it? It looks like she can barely sit up on her own.”
“She’s not on the brink of death anymore but she’s certainly in no shape for combat, the neural connections to her prosthetics and implants are intact but still fragile,” Chakwas objected.
“Go public? Bau, we don’t even know if we should trust her--” Kaidan started.
“I get the feeling that if there’s combat, the mission’s failed anyway,” she cut in. Was this about her ties to Cerberus? She got the sense it was something else. She filtered it out for later. “And I’m not in any shape to betray anyone.”
Eyes adjusting, she could make out the fine details of the salarian--Jondum Bau, a voice in the back of her head supplied helpfully but she didn’t know how or why she knew that name. He was looking at her with cold calculation. The Illusive Man used to look at her that way but he’d always couched her usefulness to him with a personable brand of candor. Bau didn’t bother with personable. She was a soldier and a weapon and she was apparently very useful to him, even half dead. At least, in ‘public’.
“Can you hold a gun and stand?” he asked her.
Her mind was still splitting itself apart, swimming with fleeting, disjointed impressions instead of real memories. But that was the background noise, static. Could she stand?
Shepard nodded. “With enough stims, anything’s possible.”
She’d figure something out. Chakwas didn’t answer him, so it meant she was right that it was possible , maybe just barely . It would have to be possible. For Garrus and Tali’s sake.
Bau smiled faintly. “Good. If all goes well, you won’t even need to pull the trigger.”
It’d been fourteen hours.
“They’ll come,” Tali said but the fact that she didn’t stop working undercut her show of faith.
“Not soon enough.” He grimaced, watching the figure in N7 armor on the station security feed he’d tapped into on his omni-tool. “We can’t wait any longer.”
They weren’t dealing with Cennet Station’s underpaid private security forces anymore--mechs and humans barely capable of holding a pistol the right direction--now they were dealing with trained Alliance operatives. An N7. It wouldn’t take them much longer to figure out Garrus and Tali weren’t on the station proper anymore.
“If we die, I’m blaming you,” she snapped, then resumed muttering to the ship’s bulkhead and the newly soldered seam stitching the cured omni-gel over a jagged edge of empty space.
“What’d they do to you?” she asked the hull, pityingly. “Idiots.”
“You said it wasn’t that bad,” he reminded her. The ship was a merchant freighter, the Tefino according to its registration, asari and ancient. Of the thousands of scuttled ships drifting around Cennet, it was the one of the closest to flight-worthy according to Tali; outside of the gaping hole scavengers cut into the cockpit, the malfunctioning life-support and agrav (all the air filters, carbon dioxide converters, and mass effect field generators were long since ripped out). It was flight worthy in that it still had an eezo core. An ancient one.
“Not that bad doesn’t mean good .”
Garrus laughed bitterly, watching the N7 progress through the station on the feed.
“Since when have good options ever been available to us?”
The truth was, the odds of a rescue weren’t the type he’d bet on. Kaidan, Vega and Cortez were all facing a court martial and were too easily recognized by other humans. Which left Bau and Kasumi and he wouldn’t stake their lives on Bau risking an intergalactic incident, especially when he’d already tightbeamed the Normandy all the information Miller had on Kenn and his ship.
“How long until they find us, do you think?”
“Deleting the security footage and dumping Miller’s ship slowed them down, but not long. Maybe a few more hours?”
Tali made an unhappy sound. “If only we had more time.”
After dumping Miller (alive but unconscious) and his ship, they’d spent hours converting every bit of extraneous metal, plastic and ceramic they were able to pry up into omni-gel for her to patch up the hull breech. Outside of some plastic shipping containers in one of the passenger cargo holds and the pilot and co-pilot chairs, there wasn’t a chair, bunk, or cabinet left on the entire ship.
“We’re on our own, Tali and we’re just about out of time, like it or not,” he said, watching the Alliance operatives deploy their series of drones to scan the empty corridors, service tunnels, and ventilation ducts. Cennet was on lockdown, everyone had been forced back onto their ships or into empty docking bays for those without anywhere else to go.
The docked ships and refugee crowds had already been searched. The next step would be to move on to all the abandoned ships. That would go faster. There were still people living in some of the vessels but most were empty and long devoid of heat signatures.
Tali scanned the wall, applied more omni-gel to structural weak points, cured it and repeated the process. The hole was still big enough for him to step through, arms outstretched. At their current rate, it would take them another day to get it fully patched. A day they didn’t have, he thought, as he watched the shuttle take off away from the watchful eye of the station’s surveillance cameras.
“Maybe not. Maybe I can patch this in time and we can get out of the system before they find us.”
She didn’t sound like she believed it. She didn’t sound like she believed his crazy, last-ditch plan would work either.
Garrus tried for a grin and came up woefully short. He was exhausted. Neither of them had gotten any real sleep over the past fourteen hours. The deprivation wasn’t doing either of them any favors. “Come on Tali, where’s your sense of adventure?”
“My sense of adventure isn’t the reason I’m stuck here with you on a 200-year-old ship,” she said.
“Oh? Something else then?”
She cast a chiding look over her shoulder but didn’t stop working. “Garrus. We’ve known each other for how long now?”
Some stupid sarcastic remark was already on the tip of his tongue but she cut in before he could fire it off. “Shut up. It was rhetorical. I’m saying...I’m worried about you, you idiot turian.”
“I’m as fine as can be expected.”
‘As can be expected’ doing a lot of heavy lifting in that statement. Shaking her head, Tali cured another strip of omni-gel.
“That’s not helping! Just be honest. With yourself, if not with anyone else.”
He shook his head, slow, surprised at the sting of that accusation. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that you still won’t accept that she died and until you do, you won’t even accept the possibility that it might really be her in the med bay.”
It turned out that sting was just the faint flicker of premonition for the deeper cut. It lodged in his gut--cold steel reverberating.
“Or maybe,” he cut out, voice hard, “I just don’t have the luxury, Tali. Maybe she’s Shepard, maybe she isn’t. But the Reapers made her, atom by atom. We don’t know why but whatever the reason, the worst case scenario is the one we need to prepare for.”
“So why didn’t you kill her there?” she asked quietly. “You were the one who carried her out of the facility. You wouldn’t even let her go in the shuttle.”
Because he’d been in shock and she was wearing Shepard’s face and seeing her bleeding out sent him into a blind panic. Because she’d defied death so many times already and hope was a cancer. Because, because, because.
Because none of her damn business.
Garrus said nothing and watched a contingent of marines head towards one of the Alliance shuttles on his omni-tool display.
He flicked his display off. “Keep working. I’ll finish up with the cargo bay.”
Peaceable surrender and subsequent incarceration by the Alliance was a sure way to kick off the war Briggs was planning for; Garrus was too entrenched within the Heirarchy to be disavowed as a rogue agent in the name of peace. But killing Alliance marines was just as likely to do the same. Not to mention, he didn’t want to kill someone just following orders. It wasn’t like fighting pirates or Cerberus.
So...that left non-lethal harassment.
The ship was modular, with one large central cargo bay and rows of passenger bays for smaller hauls. It was all empty, stripped down for omni-gel save for the one passenger bay still full of containers brimming with toy asari dolls. Luckily, like most spaceships, the Tefino was partitioned into several sections by vacuum-proof blast doors in the event of a possible hull breach.
He’d already tampered with the hydraulics and the three partitions between the docking bay and the cockpit were permanently shut and unhackable, which would force any intruders to cut their way through.
The main cargo bay would be his holdout. It was two decks high and wide-open with a sharply concave bubble of a bulkhead. He’d pushed the containers into the main bay and strapped them down to set up some decent cover. Two containers he emptied, scattering frozen-faced Matriarch Dilinaga dolls to float in his wake. It never hurt to provide environmental distractions, especially distractions that looked intensely creepy in the emergency lighting strips lining the decking.
Garrus left the three empty containers untethered, placing proximity mines in each. The temperature of the ship put him at a disadvantage for anyone with a thermal sensor--he’d be the only bright spot of heat against the freezing void of space. He hoped the mines, tucked in containers already floating to the top of the cargo bay bulkhead after a little push, would be enough to temporarily blind the thermal sensors.
After a beat, he disengaged his mag boots, floating to the slanting side of the bowl-shaped top of the bulkhead and placed his last mine there.
“How’s it going Tali?” he asked over the comm.
“The Tefino’s VI is pinging our omni-tools.”
He glanced down, noting the blinking light. He could hear his own breath coming faster in his helmet.
“It’s being hailed,” she said, voice a little shaky.
“They’re faster than I thought they’d be,” he said. “By the way, I’ll be making some alterations to the hull myself.”
Tali left the channel open but said nothing for a prolonged pause that said she really did not want to ask before asking anyway, “...what does that mean, Garrus?”
“Just be ready to go on my signal.”
The ship was shuddering. Something was docking.
Filled by the vacuum of space, running on auxiliary power cells, the Tefino was silent as a grave as the team of Alliance marines detonated the docking bay doors with pressure charges. He watched the metal crumple in on itself silently on the security vid feed linked to his omni-tool and felt the warble shuddering through the hull curving beneath his mag-boots. Tali cursed in his ear and he silently joined her.
They were faster than he’d counted on. It was a strike team of three and they moved with the efficiency of a well-trained unit. The commanding officer placing the charges on the cargo bay doors bore the familiar N7 insignia on their armor and for a second, Garrus was back on Omega watching an Alliance marine charging down the bridge, hope barrelling into his chest.
He shook his head and primed the proximity mine at the top of the hold. As the door buckled, then ripped away entirely to ricochet across the cargo bay, he detonated it. Dampened by the lack of oxygen, the blast was still enough to blow a hole a few meters across through the hull. Disengaging his mag boots, he slipped through, free-floating for one disorienting second before activating them again, his boots fixed firmly to the lip circling the base of the steep dome.
It was as good a sniper nest as any, once he got into position, the hull shielding his thermal signature from sensors. He detonated one of the floating containers and watched the marines spread and take cover through his gun sight. One recoiled from a floating doll, revulsion evident in the motion and Garrus didn’t bother to check his self-satisfaction over that nice bit of psychological warfare.
Two laid down suppressing fire while the N7 rushed the door to the cockpit, charges ready.
“Garrus, are you where I think you are?” Tali demanded.
His mandibles flared into a grin inside his helmet and he fired off a concussive shot at the N7, taking out his shields. He ducked into cover behind one of the tethered crates.
“You ready to take in the view?” he asked. “It’s hard to beat.”
And it was. He could just see the Alliance shuttle tethered to the docking port just over the curve of the cargo hold.
“Keelah,” she sighed. “This plan...you’re just as bad as Shepard. I’m on my way.”
Garrus chuckled and detonated the second container.
Tali didn’t bother with her mag boots. Her suit was equipped for zero-grav hull repairs--quarian standard?-- and she effortlessly slipped through the breach in the cockpit and scaled the hull exterior with the help of magnetic gloves and a sort of graceful swimming motion that propelled her forward every time she grasped to the metal edge. He stayed put and kept the marines distracted with well-timed concussive shots and overloads.
“I’ve disabled the pilot,” she said, at last, over the comm. “Should I--what should I do with him?”
“We can worry about that later.” Garrus fired off one last shot to keep the soldiers occupied and began his slow mag-botted progress over the top of the hull. He needed to get to the shuttle before the marines got through the cockpit door and realized there was only one place their quarry could have gone.
What should have been a ten second walk felt like an eternity with the mag boots. Once the shuttle was in sight, he took a page out of Tali’s book and disengaged them, propelling himself towards the open door opposite the one sealed to the Tefino’s docking port. He nearly overshot and just barely grabbed the edge of the open, depressurized shuttle cabin before floating off into empty space. Activating the boots, he awkwardly swung his body closer to the shuttle interior, hoping they would find purchase before his fingers finished slipping away. His boots caught on nothing, jutting into empty space, and he flung his other arm out desperately, for something to hold on to.
Tali caught him by the elbow, pulling him to safety. She didn’t bother activating her comm but he could see her scowl through her faceplate. And then he saw her eyes go impossibly wide as her shields flickered and failed. She recoiled away, red droplets beading up to float serenely between them as she clutched at her side.
Behind her, standing in the ruin of the docking port doors, was the N7 marine. Before Garrus could react, his shields failed and someone punched him in the ribs, knocking him back out through the open shuttle door and into the emptiness of space.
Thank you so much for everyone who has read/kudos/commented! I'm working on another short-fic idea and July is shaping out to be very rough with the increase in COVID cases and new residents, so I think I will be scaling back updates on this to every other week so I can write other projects and keep my sanity while editing this. This fic is pretty time-intensive and honestly, stressful! Posting in general just gives me a lot of anxiety, especially when I'm not in a great place outside of writing and sadly, with work (I have high exposure risk and even with the vaccine, its not something I want to get) that's the case.
Thank you again so much, anyone who has read and thank you especially for the wonderful comments and feedback, I appreciate them so, so immensely. A few recent comments have literally rescued my entire mood during a particularly rough day at the hospital (the ORs are going nuts with scheduling) so thank you again, they really make the difference <3
He’d been shot. He’d been shot and he was drifting in empty space, carried by the bullet’s momentum away from the shuttle and the Tefino. He watched both recede away as his suit stemmed the breach in his armor, medi-gel already gumming up the hole in his flexweave. It wasn’t a perfect seal, he still heard the slow hiss of oxygen escaping out through ragged carbon fibers. Bastard had used shredder rounds.
Distant now, the shuttle door closed and the ion thrusters fired up. The shuttle took off and dimly, through the rapidly anesthetized pain of his broken ribs and collapsed lung, he realized Tali was still on board. He hoped she was okay. She’d be okay. She had to be. Had to. It wouldn’t be long for him though. That wasn’t odds. That was just fact.
There would be no calls home to Palavan this time. There was no one there to take them anyway. The best he could do was a simple turian military SOS on his omni-tool. Short and mid-range; all the device could manage.
They’d never find him in time but he began recording anyway, just in case someone stumbled onto his corpse before it drifted into the nearest gravity well or vanished into dark space.
“Dad. Solana. If you ever hear this...I’m sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t just wait for you on Palavan, for the relays to go back up. I just had to...do something .”
Patience had been his trade three times over but he’d lost the knack for it after his emergency evac from London and the goodbye shaped into the words he’d been holding back for so long.
The air was cold and thin. Every breath filled the silence inside his helmet with a wet, sucking gasp that flecked blood against his visor that iced over on contact. Through abstract smears of blue, stars canted against the dark. All the fiddling with his omni-tool did nothing to halt his momentum but it did tip him into a wobbling, disorienting spin as he drifted.
Utopia’s sun streaked past his field of view, distant and cold. His suit’s environmental sensors were beeping increasingly urgent warnings. He shut them off and queued up a song from the Fleet and Flotilla OST to drown out the unsettling sound of his collapsed lung amplified in the space of his helmet. There was nothing but stars and abandoned ships and his own breathing but his mind was full of her, suffused in the sunset neons of the Silversun Strip.
The words were always there, ready to tip out of his mouth. They’d been there for so long, longer than he’d realized at first. But he couldn’t say them--not outloud. This universe wasn’t a place where dramatic love confessions in the middle of a terrible war ended happily. So his confessions were inaudible: a touch, a glance, a bullet in the skull of an enemy closing in on her flank. He must have told her a thousand times, a thousand different ways. Except the one.
And by then, in the end when he finally said them, they lost the original meaning.
Panic was pinging around in the base of his brain, a neurochemical version of his suit’s sensors. He tried to stifle it but there was no quelling that clawing, frantic, evolutionary drive to breathe and despite himself, the gasps came faster. It would only overload his suit’s CO2 recycling capacity, he knew, but the dizzying star trails were flickering black through his visor, light interspersed with the shadow of imminent unconsciousness and.... and he knew what came after that.
He’d never know, in the end, if she really emerged from the nanites on Asphodel. For him, the answer would always exist--frozen in the bubble of this moment, trapped in time and dual possibility. Up spin, down spin. Shepard and not-Shepard .
Just be honest. With yourself, if not anyone else.
The stars were going dark, one by one. The truth didn’t matter here. What was the harm in lying now, minutes from death? He felt her hand, a vice on his fingers, gripping tight. They were trying to tell him something. He didn’t know what.
“You’ll never be alone, ” she said, right against his ear.
But he was. She’d left him behind to live and here he was, dying alone in the void of space with truths that felt like lies and lies he wanted so, so badly to be truths.
Through his fading consciousness, he registered a jostling tug on his midsection. He hissed, pain flaring. More jostling. Stars streaked, careening across his helmet visor. Then, they vanished, a silvered shutter blocking them out, and a force pulled him down. He fell, not far, but it knocked out what little wind was left in his lungs and he groaned.
Someone was fumbling at the clasps of his helmet, pulling it off before he could try to stop them. But instead of suffocating on vacuum, he sucked in a breath of cold, oxygen-saturated air. The person in human armor peering down at him reached up to remove their own helmet and he saw the bright, fluttering fall of her hair and the smattering of freckles across her cheekbones as her eyes tracked rapidly over his face.
His voice caught in his throat. One hand pressed against his, the other slipping into the gap between his neck and his cowl. Her hand gripped tight.
“Shepard--” he said and then the dark claimed him.
Her fingers were trembling and she curled them tight in a bid to get her shit together. He was out cold. She said his name again and then again and she couldn’t stop saying it or stop trying to shake him back to consciousness. Memories pressed in close, like a crowd of vague-faced strangers she barely recognized, jostling and chaotic. They tore at her attention, grasping then clawing. It was a deluge, a torrent, she could scream but she would drown in the sound of his laugh and the way his hands felt on her and his fever-hot skin and the way his mandibles tickled her hair and--
Kasumi pressed a reassuring palm to her armored shoulder. She barely felt it. “Scan says he’ll be alright for now, Shep. We can get him patched up once we get back to the Normandy.”
Bau took a less empathetic tact, clearing his throat and reminding her over the comm, “You have limited time. We don’t know how long the shuttle will remain docked at the port.”
She nodded. First time didn’t take but the second did, when she finally managed to look away and catch her breath. As carefully as she could, she leaned his unconscious body against the side of the shuttle and tried to think, tried to focus.
Compartmentalizing was a soldier’s bread and butter as far as coping mechanisms went. Somewhere in the back of her head there was a button she pressed when things got rough so she could shut the door on her emotions and do her damn job. Maybe the button got a little faulty after Mindoir because most of the time that door stayed shut even when it didn’t need to, even when she wanted it to open. But now, the doors of her mind were blown open and she was slamming her fist against the button over and over again and for the first time in her life nothing was happening.
He’d just been a blip, just a pinprick of heat swallowed up by the warmth left by the Alliance shuttle’s ion thrusters and deployed sensor arrays. They’d almost missed him...if she hadn’t been scanning for short-wave transmissions...
She shuddered, clenching her fists tight. He’d almost died out there alone in starlight. They’d almost missed him. It repeated inside her head and each time, her chest twisted tighter, the line snapping taut and ready to break.
“Your hardsuit vital scans are looking problematic,” Bau said over her suit comm. “If you can’t collect yourself, the mission is off.”
The hell it was. Tali was still out there.
Shepard stood up, clenching her teeth against the fire licking up through her frayed nerve endings. Bright percussive throbs flared against her eyelids and it took a second to catch her breath again as sweat broke out against her hairline, beading up against the cosmetic powder.
“I’m fine,” she said.
Kasumi took the shuttle into port, docking under a falsified ship registration and crew manifest. Shepard reached for her helmet.
“Leave it off,” Bau said. “The point is for people to see you.”
There was no small degree of skepticism in his voice. Even with Kasumi’s help and a few centimeters of cosmetics, she still looked half a foot out of the grave. No amount of artful blush would conceal that. Shepard slipped him a fuck-off smile via the shuttle’s surviellance feed. The Council wanted to parade her around? They didn’t get to complain about the view.
Meanwhile, Kasumi had already tapped into the station’s security system compliments of the backdoors into the system Liara had purchased.
“An Alliance shuttle just docked minutes before us. I think it’s our guy.”
“Where are they docked? Close?” Shepard asked and cursed under her breath when Kasumi shook her head.
“On the other side of the station.”
Stimmed up or not, there was no way she could make that run in time. Her muscular meshes were a wreck and needed more time to heal up. Everything was agony. Worse and worse by the second.
“We’ll bring them to us instead,” she said. “You’re in the station security system. The VI has Garrus in its database now, right? Let’s flag it. I’m sure the Alliance will want to investigate. Meanwhile, you can do what you do best.”
It didn’t take the marines long to surround the shuttle. It didn’t take long for a crowd to gather either, Cennet’s lockdown already lifted.
Kasumi activated her cloak. Shepard opened the shuttle bay door and stepped out to greet the dozens of standard issue Alliance rifles trained on her.
“I’m Commander Shepard,” she announced. “I need to speak with someone about a quarian who was recently taken into Alliance custody.”
The crowd muttered. Muzzles faltered, dropping away in slow disbelief. Except one. The marine stepped forward, shotgun still drawn and couched into the crook of his arm, an N7 insignia on his shoulder and gleaming in the lights of the docking bay.
“Lieutenant Commander Shepard,” he said with an emphasis on the ‘lieutenant’ that told her he probably outranked her but not by much--just enough to posture over. “You’re presumed dead.”
“I get that a lot.”
Ignoring the shotgun aimed at her gut, she stepped forward, shrugging. Blood filled her mouth as she bit down, hard, against the scream building in her throat. Discreetly gulping down the nauseating metallic warmth, she smiled, a little lopsided, careful not to show her blood-filmed teeth. “Not looking forward to doing all that paperwork again.”
A woman pushed forward through the crowd of civilians, a recording drone bobbing in the space behind her. Now this was impressive: Bau and the Council’s ability to scrounge up a reporter on Cennet with less than 14 hours notice. Shepard would have preferred if that reporter was not Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani but watching her rush forward past the Alliance marines without any regard for the possibility of imminent gunfire--she had to admit that maybe Al Jilani was absolutely perfect for this.
“Commander Shepard!” she shouted. “Commander!”
Shepard’s eyes drifted down to the shotgun barrel pointing at her midsection before flickering back up to the narrowed eyes scowling at her through the slit of his helmet visor. He glanced back to Al Jilani, approaching fast and determined, and sighed, letting his gun compact in on itself and holstering it.
“Commander Shepard,” she said. “Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani, Westerlund News, asking where have you been all these months and what brings you here to Cennet Station of all places, after all this time?”
Shepard grinned and only half of it was for show. Finally, an interview she would enjoy. “That’s all classified, I’m afraid. What brings you here, Khalisah?”
The woman gaped but recovered fast. “I’ve been covering the refugee situation here, trying to get people to give a damn that this station is full of starving people with no help in sight. So again, Commander, what brings you here to Cennet Station after all this time?”
Ignoring the barbed reproach, she clapped an aggressively friendly hand on the marine’s pauldron, right over the N7 logo.
“Like I said. Classified. But I can tell you that I’m here because this fine Alliance marine is helping me locate someone.“
She left enough of a pause so that he could introduce himself to the adoring voice of the public--may it devour him alive.
He shifted, body language irritable, before simply saying, “Commander Wagner. 467th, Alpha company.”
Gut instinct told her Wagner was the sadistic asshole who shot and spaced Garrus, leaving him to die slow and alone. A terrible death. She would know. And she really wanted to repay it in kind. Her fists curled so tight her bones creaked. Tali was alive, she had to be. If she wasn’t, this mission would end in blood.
Blinking back rage, she put every ounce of sincerity into her voice when she told Khalisah, “Commander Wagner and the rest of the soldiers here are doing invaluable work to keep the galaxy safe now that the war is over. And I’m sure they’ll do whatever they can to keep this station supplied while the Alliance works on getting these refugees where they need to go.”
God, she was laying it on thick but she couldn’t help herself. It wouldn’t hurt her in Bau’s books either and something told her she really needed to stay in the black on that particular ledger.
“Commander Shepard,” Al Jilani said, “ Is the war over? Are--are the Reapers…”
“The war is over,” she cut in, making sure to look the drone’s camera lens head on. “And it’s time to rebuild. Together. The more we cooperate, the faster we’ll get back the galaxy the Reapers took from us. Now is not the time for more division.”
There. Bau and the Council should be happy with that. With her soundbites out of the way, she turned towards Al Jilani. “Look, I’m sorry to cut this short, but I have confidential information to discuss with the Commander.”
The reporter nodded, glancing around and noticing, possibly for the first time, that she’d barged into something of a tense situation. Flustered, she retreated back towards the edge of the crowds, out of earshot but still within view.
Looking back to Wagner, Shepard stuck out her hand for a handshake. The camera drone was still recording. She didn’t expect him to take it. If he did, maybe she could break his fingers before anyone noticed.
“I appreciate your help here, Commander. Now, if you don’t mind radioing your men to bring the quarian to my shuttle, I will be taking custody of her.”
He didn’t take her hand but he did glance, irritably, at Al Jilani and her drone. “We have orders to take the quarian to--”
“This is Spectre business. She’s a fugitive of the Migrant Fleet. You’ll have a treaty violation on your hands for failing to turn her over to her people. Are you telling me your orders are to violate a treaty with the Migrant Fleet, as a representative of the Alliance, Commander? Because I’d be within my authority as a Spectre to do what I can to stop that from happening.”
Wagner was silent and that silence was simmering with anger. She savored it, her smile bigger and brighter, ferocious. This time, she didn’t bother to mask the blood.
“Do I need to repeat myself, soldier?” she asked, dropping the charm routine for good old-fashioned authority. It might backfire. His ego was already bristling, demanding he take control of the situation back from her--with violence probably. A fight would go badly. She was in no condition for it, she was barely in a condition to walk to the bathroom without rupturing her stitches. But part of her wanted it anyway.
From the interior of the shuttle, there was a flanging groan and Wagner met her eyes with narrowed suspicion and a flare of realization. He stepped in closer and she blocked his path. He took another step, angling his body so that the hostility wouldn’t get caught on camera.
“I know what you are, we have one just like you back on Earth. Fished it out of the tank myself back on Asphodel.”
“I’m the real thing,” she smiled viciously, rolling her shoulders against the exquisite pain shattering through her back. “Got all the scars to prove it.”
Kasumi’s voice was a hushed status update in her ear. “Shepard. I’ve commandeered the shuttle. Tali is alive but she’s been shot and she’s already running a fever. We’ll meet you back at the Normandy.”
A beat later, Wagner seemed to be receiving a status report of his own, head cocking to the side.
“What do you mean, the shuttle is gone?” he demanded out loud.
“Trouble?” Shepard asked, all too innocently. She was fantasizing about slamming him into the station’s decking over and over again, until he went from a solid to a liquid and they had to pour him out of his armor.
His hand moved to his shotgun holstered to his back and Shepard simply directed a loaded glance towards the crowds and Khalisah. The hand fell back away and clenched tight into a fist. He knew. The question was what he could do about it.
“Better hurry and get it sorted,” she said. “I’ll be heading out myself since it appears you misplaced my quarian.”
“And thanks for the help, Commander,” she added. She meant it and hoped he could hear that. He’d taken the bait and the distraction beautifully. When she turned around to head back to the shuttle, an armored hand shot out to grab her upper arm and jerk her back.
“You--” he bit out and that was all he could manage before she twisted his wrist back on itself, her pistol drawn but shielded by her torso from the crowd’s view.
“Don’t touch me if you know what’s good for you,” she warned, molars snapping shut on the words so hard, she felt one crack off a sliver of bone. Her vision was whiting out, flickering dangerously. She could probably kill him before she passed out. She wanted to.
Another flanging groan echoed from the open shuttle bay. Her fingertips squeezed against the ceramic trigger, even so, tempted.
No . No more wasting time.
She didn’t want to turn her back on him but she did, hoping the camera was enough to stop shotgun ammo from lodging itself into her spine before she could slam her fist against the button to close the shuttle door.
Without preamble, she lurched towards the pilot seat, adrenaline already seeping away to leave her half delirious with the pain, senses still bright and hyper focused to the point of a near-high, swimming in stimmed up colors and smells. After holstering her gun and typing in the coordinates for the autopilot, she slumped back and blearily wiped the back of her glove over her mouth. It came away red and wet. She’d bitten her tongue, deep.
She needed to check on Garrus but it was a mistake sitting down. She knew, definitively, that getting back up would be a problem. If she tried, she’d probably end up on the floor with another concussion for her trouble.
“Hang in there big guy,” she croaked.
The shuttle slipped free of its docking clamps, smooth as silk, the autopilot taking control. She swayed in the seat--odds were good she’d end up on the floor anyway. The tail end of the stim high was coming fast and when the drop-off came, she would go with it. Hard.
“What are you doing here?” he rasped from the shuttle cabin behind her, suspicion paring through her straight down to the bone.
All that background static, all those questions she wouldn’t let herself focus on until after the mission--well, the mission was over and now static was all there was: a furor buzzing in her ears, visual snow dancing in front of her eyes.
She remembered ash swimming in the film of her tears and rubbed her fingertips against the pilot’s chair. Tingling, but still solid. Still there. She stared at them, hard, but they didn't blacken. They didn’t disintegrate. Somewhere in her mind, a door would not stay shut.
“You tell me,” she said.
God, the universe was a terrible fucking place.
I so deeply appreciate how understanding and wonderful everyone was in the comments regarding this fic. Thank you guys so, so much. I'm on 4 hours of sleep so I wish this was more eloquent but thank you, I was really touched and it was such an encouragement. Thanks again <3 Also, at last, the mystery of Garrus's family is revealed and a bit of his old habits: running away from problems he cant fix to find ones he can.