15 September 2597, T'Soni Lineage Estates, Armali/Thessia
"Mata, why am I different?"
I peered across at young Benezia, rather taken aback at the question. She had a habit of occasionally springing such inquiries on me, or on her fathers. I often wondered at it. None of her older half-sisters had never shown such a talent for quiet contemplation, followed by dangerously deep questions that leaped out of ambush.
She wasn't watching me, confident that I would answer in my own time. That gave me the opportunity to appreciate her once again: a slender asari child of sixteen years, with the slate-blue T'Soni coloring, a light dusting of white Vara-like dapples on her forehead and cheeks, and Shepard's beautiful crystal-blue eyes. Her face wore its habitual expression of cool attentiveness. I thought she had the promise of great beauty once she grew up, but then I was her mother and hopelessly biased.
We sat together on the great deck behind the house, the late-afternoon sun turning everything to gold and glory, a pleasant wind coming off the sea. We had set up a workbench, cluttered with tools and mechanical parts: a robotics kit. Of late, Benezia had been showing a fierce interest in mechanics and programming. She seemed to have a strong talent for them as well. In private I shook my head at the prospect of raising a cyberneticist, of all things, but we all did what we could to encourage her.
"You will need to be more specific, Little Wing. All of us are different in many ways."
"It's hard to explain," she said, adjusting a servomechanism on the robotic arm in her hands. "I've noticed that children are expected to spend most of their time with other children. I don't. To be honest, I don't even want to."
"Why is that?"
She gave me a mildly exasperated glance. "Most other children my age are . . . I don't know. Tiresome. They spend all their time playing silly games, and chattering about things that don't matter."
"I suppose that is a difference. Most young asari are expected to be playful and lighthearted. You are a very serious child, most of the time."
Not to mention rather frighteningly bright, I didn't say. Benezia knew her strengths, but we had taken great care not to permit her to become arrogant.
"It's been a long time since I was a child," I continued, "but I also remember finding other children rather boring. I spent most of my time around adults, just as you do. I suppose that was because my mother was already a Matriarch, with a great deal else to do. I was left with her acolytes much of the time. They were adults, maidens with no children of their own."
"You're not a Matriarch yet," she pointed out.
"That's true, but we do keep a large household here, and there are plenty of adults to help us watch over you and your sisters. You don't have to play with other children unless you want to."
"Which I usually don't." She gave me a sharp glance. "You and patēr Shepard and patēr Vara are much more interesting."
"Well. We've had very interesting lives."
Benezia attached the arm to its frame, and tapped at her omni-tool for a moment. The arm swiveled back and forth, its fingers opening and closing freely. She flashed a quick triumphant grin at me. Then she pointed out, "That still doesn't answer the question."
"I think it does. Start with the fact that you have two fathers, which is not entirely unheard of, but it certainly is not common. Your fathers are both remarkable people, with many exceptional traits. Not to mention, I've managed to accomplish . . . a few noteworthy things of my own. Very few asari have ever had a heritage as rich as yours."
"I know." She looked down. "It's rather intimidating."
My immediate reaction was to tell Benezia what it had been like, growing up in her namesake's household, so long ago. Then a sudden thought stopped me. I had to lean back in my chair, the tool I had been holding now idle in my lap, and stare out across the ocean.
Goddess. My daughter has it far worse.
My mother was a great Matriarch, with hundreds of acolytes, millions of followers, billion-credit holdings, influence on an interstellar scale. As a young maiden, I saw no hope of ever matching her accomplishments. That was part of what drove me to study archaeology, and move away to Illium: the desperate need to get out from under her shadow.
Yet when the time came – with help from Shepard, and Vara, and so many others – I reached positions of power such as my mother would never have dreamed possible. I didn't do too badly with them, either. The galaxy is a far better place today than it would have been, if I had never taken a hand in events.
Now what do I tell my own daughters, when they wonder what is left for them to do?
Suddenly, I began to understand why Benezia might be intrigued by a technical field in which I had never taken much interest.
I pitched my voice to be as neutrally gentle as I could manage. "Do you wish, sometimes, that you were the child of an ordinary family, of whom no one had ever heard?"
"Maybe. Once in a while." She grinned again, and this time the expression was pure Shepard. "Of course, I suppose it's only fair that I should have a high mark to aim for."
"It's not a contest, Little Wing." I reached out and patted her shoulder. "All that matters is that you give life everything you have, and remain always true to yourself. If you do that, you will be able to hold your head up high, whether the galaxy takes notice or not. And you may be sure that I will always take pride in knowing that you are my daughter."
She nodded. "Thanks, mata."
We turned back to the machine in front of us, assembling the parts, testing each component as we went. Before long, we had an almost-complete synthetic platform, ready for Benezia to load with the full range of VI software. Time and again she seemed to have an intuition for the work, solving minor problems almost by instinct as they arose.
Now, where does she get that? All three of her parents are at least competent with machines, but none of us have a gift for mathematics or engineering.
Well, not even we asari truly understand the complex dance of genetics and growth, instinct and education, nature and nurture. In the end, all we can do is accept what our partners give us, love our children, and hope for the best.
Of course, there is another party who might – just might – have had a chance to take a hand in her creation. The Intelligence wrapped me up in a cocoon of hyper-advanced technology for almost two weeks, while the damage I took at the end of the Valdarii War was repaired. It saved Benezia as well, long before she was born. She has carried Reaper technology all her life, in her blood and bone.
It wasn't the first time I had that thought, and it likely would not be the last. I tried not to let it worry me. Benezia was very bright, talented, and serious, but there didn't seem to be anything uncanny about her.
Still, someday she might surprise us. Someday she might surprise everyone.
Behind us, I heard a door open, and voices.
I turned, to see the rest of my family come spilling out onto the deck. Nike scampered over to us, big silver eyes peering at our project, already asking a hundred questions in her bell-like voice. Vara came next, moving slowly, with the very careful walk of a hugely pregnant asari. Finally, Shepard emerged, carrying little Kallia in his arms.
I spared a quick glance for Benezia, making sure that Nike wasn't pestering her beyond endurance, and then rose to greet my bondmates. "How was the park?"
"We went down by the lake!" said Nike, forgetting all about the half-finished machine on our workbench. "I watched someone fishing, and patēr gave me some bread to feed the avians, and there were some other kids there, and we ran races and played tag and . . ."
"It was rather exhausting," said Vara. "I cannot possibly have been this hyperactive when I was a child."
Nike stamped her foot in exasperation. "I am not hyper . . . hyper . . ."
"Hy-per-ac-tive," said Benezia, "and yes you are, little bug."
"It's okay. Just don't be hyperactive around my project. Mata and I spent all afternoon putting it together."
Shepard stepped close, our daughter snuggled between us, and kissed me before handing her off. I sat down again and held Kallia in my lap, letting her turn her usual silent, solemn regard on all of us.
"That was my favorite park when I was young," I told Nike. "Although I got in trouble there once, digging for archeological artifacts in the grass."
"Did you find any?" she demanded, her eyes wide with wonder.
Laughter rolled out across the deck.
We certainly had a varied family, even by asari standards. Benezia had been the product of that passionate night aboard Chandragupta, just after the destruction of Omega, when I had managed to imprint on both Shepard and Vara at once. Try as we might, neither Vara nor I had ever duplicated the feat. Nike was Vara's child by Shepard, as was the new baby we expected at any time. Kallia was my daughter, again by Shepard. All of them were unique, non-repeatable results of our experiments in parentage, but we loved them all extravagantly.
Shepard had proven to be a superb father. He had come to the task with little prior experience, but he approached it the same way he had approached soldiering – with careful attention, strict self-discipline, and willingness to learn from his mistakes. He was strong, affectionate, soft-spoken, immensely patient, and yet unyielding as iron in matters of correction. He never tired of spending time with any of our girls, reading to them, playing games both serious and silly, listening to childish confidences, offering advice.
All our daughters adored him. So did Vara and I, all the more for having seen how he was with the children.
He had taken to retirement with surprising ease, for someone who had spent so much of his lifespan running, fighting, doing.
Perhaps he knew that he could afford to be patient. Trying to determine his chronological age was a hopeless task. Depending on how one counted, he was anywhere from his early thirties to well into his fifth century. What mattered was his biological age, and here he seemed to have drawn a lucky hand. His Reaper-derived nanotechnology kept him in good repair, down to the very telomeres in the nuclei of his cells. Miranda and other doctors had examined him, discovering that while he was aging, the process was moving very slowly.
He was still as physically powerful and vigorous as ever, a condition maintained by a brutal exercise regimen. There was only the slightest hint of weathering in his skin, a tiny web of wrinkles appearing around his eyes, a light dusting of silver in his beard. Our best guess was that he had about double the normal human span, about three hundred years, before old age would begin to overtake him. It hardly seemed like enough. Yet it was far more time than we had ever expected to have with him. More than enough time for him to see all his children grown, and standing on their own.
"While we were at the park, I got a very interesting message from Admiral Sinopus at the Citadel," said Shepard.
Vara smiled. She must have heard this news already.
"What is it, patēr?" asked Benezia.
"The Argus deep-space network has picked up a signal. From outside the galaxy. Somewhere in the Large Magellanic Cloud."
"Intelligent origin?" I asked.
"Looks that way. It's dense, encoded and compressed, but there seems to be a prologue which describes how to unpack it. Naval Intelligence is working on it, and they're pulling in academics from half of the galaxy to help."
"Maybe I should call the admiral and offer to lend a hand," I mused. "A new civilization, out in one of the satellite galaxies. Very interesting."
"Another survivor of the Reapers, like the kašari?" Benezia wondered. "Or something entirely new?"
Shepard shrugged. "No way to know yet."
"Is there any way we can go see?"
I cocked my head at her, hearing something in my daughter's voice.
"Maybe," said Shepard. "Intergalactic travel is at least theoretically possible. There was the Pathfinder expedition to Andromeda, just before the Reaper War, but we'll probably never know if that worked or not. They haven't reached their destination yet, if they're even still alive. The Magellanic Clouds are a lot closer."
"It would still be decades of travel," Vara cautioned. "Better to unpack the message we have, and see what the people there are trying to tell us. Then I'm sure the Citadel will think about what to do next."
"Still, that's amazing!" Benezia jittered in her seat. "We might be able to open a dialogue with whoever they are. Or even go visit! The things they could tell us, the places they must have seen . . ."
I watched her, smiling privately to myself at the way she had caught fire.
Then I felt a deep chill of premonition.
Opening regular contact with another galaxy, even one as close as the Clouds? Difficult. It will take resources called together from every civilization we know. The geth will probably need to contribute, with all the knowledge they acquired from the Ascended Intelligence. It will take many years.
Enough time for Benezia to grow up, and take her own place as one of the galaxy's rising leaders? Reach a position from which she has a chance to go there . . .
I caught Vara's eye, then Shepard's, and read their own awareness of one possible future.
If she wants it badly enough, said Shepard silently, then there won't be any stopping her. Isn't that what being a parent is all about? We have the adventures, we make the sacrifices, so that in the end we can step out of the way and let our children live their own lives.
"Well," said Vara out loud, ever the pragmatic one. "That certainly sounds like something we should keep an eye on. Right now, we should make sure this machine of yours is packed up. You can work on it more later. Dinner is almost ready."
"Yes, patēr," agreed Benezia.
So she and I gathered our things, and then we all went inside to eat, and then we settled into our evening routine. All while the sun descended in the western sky, and twilight leaped up into the heavens, and far overhead appeared the innumerable stars.