Holidays with Humans omake (II)

AN: Yeah, been a while since I had an FFN update here. Mostly, for FFN, the complication is organizational. In the thread, I can assemble things piecemeal. Anyway, I should get to giving back to FFN this holiday.

In the meantime, here's the holiday omake this year!

. . .

. . .


The Inner World was the human homeworld's closest inhabitable neighbor and the only other garden planet in the Sol System, albeit one kickstarted up to garden status from literally the ground-up. More importantly, from a Citadel perspective, it was also one of the Systems Confederation's most powerful polities, if not The Most Powerful. Among other things, the Confederation's Joint Armed Forces, the Extra-terrestrial Combat Unit, XCOM, had its administrative headquarters on Mars. The colony had apparently been founded as a military base and grown from there. Arriving as she had in parallel with a small diplomatic envoy from the Salarian Union, in what some were calling The Gourmet Tour, Trellani had seen the fortified arcology that was XCOM's base of operations nestled between a series of giant pyramids in a region called Cydonia. "Victory on Mars Day" was celebrated a few months from now, commemorating the day the complex there was taken in battle, and the colony officially founded. There was so much they didn't know surrounding that event.

Not that it mattered at the moment. More practically, for the turians especially, Mars commanded no small fraction of the Sys-Con's spaceborne combat power. When asked about the fleets in orbit, visible to the naked eye as the diplomatic shuttle approached the planet, Harper had joked that it was in fact just a fraction of their military capacity… but that had to be exaggeration to some degree. There were currently four Temple Ships in orbit, each one with at least twenty of those "pocket dreadnoughts" (as the Citadel classified them) acting as its escorts… Trellani shuddered at the possibility of the Sys-Con fielding possibly a hundred or even two hundred Temple Ships, if she was to take her lover's words at face value. Even if this was just half the planet's military power, it put any colony in the Asari Republics to shame.

Mars, though, was more than just a military colony.

It was the Sys-Con's jewel, both its Palaven and its Irune, showcasing all their terraforming and geoengineering technologies in action. From orbit especially, she could still see traces of the reason they called it the Red Planet, but by Athame, did it look like it had undergone significant changes in a mere fourteen decades. The planet's cities, of which there were only twelve, were encased in energy domes, such that they glittered like light-skinned sapphires in the night. They sparkled and glowed faintly even in broad daylight. The amount of surface liquid water was also tremendous, considering the pictures of the planet as-it-was she had seen. Harper had said that aside from melting the polar ice caps, they had also regularly brought in several million tonnes of cometary ice per year for decades on end. This was matched, or possibly even exceeded, only by the vast atmospheric processors that were visible on the surface like dark black holes punched in the surface… and finally by the fact that an entire moon had been captured and brought in to stabilize the magnetic field and jump-start the core of the once dead planet.

Much of the planet was still red, dry and dusty, but vast tracts were also being covered by green and blue and white. A bio-engineered ecosystem was spreading rapidly across the planet and there were young forests clustered around areas of high precipitation and savannahs across the central plains. The air was apparently quite breathable and extremely clean and clear, except during extreme storms when the once deadly particulate dust levels in some regions could rise enough to present a minor health hazard. What it was, however, especially at this time of year… was cold. Bitterly, bitterly cold.

Mars was still a damned cold planet.

The average temperature was a chilly four degrees Celsius, compared to Earth's sixteen and Thessia's twenty. During the winter seasons, of which there were three – Red Winter, White Winter, Brown Winter – it snowed, especially in the aptly named White Winter. The genetically engineered flora and fauna didn't particularly care, and neither did the also genetically tweaked humans of Mars and elsewhere, but for a warm-weather loving asari it was likely going to be colder and harder than Hexia's tits. Luckily, she would not be jumping in unprepared.

Hence why she was where she was.

"It still feels strange," Trellani said to herself as she looked at her reflection in the display. Looking down at her hand, she opened and closed her fist. "This SKIN…"

It looked like her skin… since it was set to "transparent mode" but it was really not her skin. It was a Second Skin, provided to her and to every other Citadel visitor. This, she had determined, was akin to the humans' version of an omni-tool. It was not so versatile when it came to the tools ability to fabricate things on the spot and use omni-gel, not nearly, but it was superb as a utility garment. The "skin" – a Synaptic Kinetic Interface – would keep her warm even on a cold Mars night, but beyond that, it would be her primary interface into and with the economy and even culture of the planet. It would identify her as-her, it would load the "apps" (akin to omni-tool mods) that she used to navigate around and purchase things and contact others… in so many ways, she would be naked without it. Calling it "skin" was truly appropriate, in a way.

Still, it felt a little odd. Especially when it morphed around her, trying to adjust in response to her mental commands. It shifted and flowed and flexed and pinched a bit. It felt alien.

On the plus side, however, it did allow for some fascinating fashion possibilities!

"Alright! I'm ready! Dazzle me!" Trellani commanded and the human woman behind her beamed, keying up a collage of wardrobe choices that floated like holographic treats in the air. Some were so outlandish they could well have been fireworks frozen in mid-explosion.

Two attendant humans assisted the robotic tentacles that descended from above, adding accessories and testing combinations of clothes almost as fast as Trellani herself could pick them out. Reading her mind, the ingenious human technology presented vetted lists of items most likely to suit her tastes. It then fell to her to mix and match them, adding a jacket here, boots here, leggings there… change, revise, retry, refresh… when she found a set she liked, she saved it and went on. To her delight, she could even order designs and customizations on the fly!

Nor was her selection limited to just what this one store sold. The software searched for all the suppliers nearby, talked to their software and their users, and those pings generated more results and more options. Drones connected them all physically, and what couldn't be flown in to try on was holographically replicated – a useful simulacrum. The Second Skin itself was also an object of fashion and design. The skin came with some default skins, and she could make more herself later, but many designs and textures and other appearance apps were available in the human extranet. Some made or broke possible outer-wear combinations.

"This was long overdue," Trellani declared at last, as she left the boutique with a bemused Jack Harper in tow. "At last, I truly feel ready to venture out into the world again!"

Flanked by a pair of overloaded floating drones carrying four huge bags of clothes, and one unhappy looking muton with a fifth bag, the human seemed almost incredulous at her ability to overtax local venues ability to feed her clothes.

"Thank God for holiday deals," he murmured, looking back at the pitiable muton with the bag in its huge hands. "Even Cerberus' budget can't take much more of this."

"I do believe I like this place," Trellani said, flashing him a smile and taking in the delightful sights and sounds of the martian city of Marathon. For all the martial hype, it would not have been out of place on Illium: dazzling signs and flashing neon and everywhere shopping facilitated and encouraged by the upcoming holiday. Red and green seemed to be the colors of this season, and they were everywhere, even on the supposedly Spartan Republic of Mars. No: humans and asari were not so different after all, not when it came to this!

"I will have to set up a shop here sometime soon!" she decided, pointing to one of the octagonal towers surrounded by a garden plaza. "There would be perfect! We'll bring asari fashions to Mars yet, one day!" Laughing and fluffing up the coat she had just purchased, feeling the soft fur rub against her cheeks, Trellani seized her human's arm and let him lead her to the aircar.

Taking to the skyways, Trellani felt almost like a maiden again. So much in human space was new and exciting, and it was a sad fact of life that as long as an asari matriarch could live, novelty itself inevitably became a novelty. Discovery of any new species was an opportunity to relieve the humdrum routine, not just for matriarchs but for all asari, and the humans were doubly fascinating for all the familiarity they shared with the galaxy's premier race.

Mars itself was definitely less… exotic… than the wild arcologies of Titan, but they were surprisingly cosmopolitan all the same. From how Harper had described his home world, she had imagined it to be an even more rigid and humorless planet than Palaven itself. Yet Trellani had seen no few people walking around in what were obviously relay race genemods, and another asari-looking person hardly batted an eye (at that thought, Trellani made a mental note to look into the eyelash enhancements she'd seen in a catalog). On the other hand, she did notice the lack of 'alternative' bondmate relationships that she could observe on the streets, but when she mentioned it to Harper, he laughed.

"On Mars?" he had said, shaking his head. "Well, it's not as if you don't get threesomes and the such, but most of 'em would have decamped to Titan - well, the Saturnian Union, that is, long ago. The ones here don't make a big deal out of it. I'll take you down to Titan during Chinese New Year. If you want to see that sort of thing on display, there's the place to go. Well, and Valhalla, I guess, but that place is a whole lot more… raw." And despite further cajoling, he refused to explain what he meant.

Instead, she found herself distracted as they flew by an expansive Procreation Park.

Like so much else, it was decked out in seasonal colors. There was a forest of pine trees sparkling with lights, and among them, prospective parents and lovers milled around kiosks to either design or check up on their offspring. It was sometimes hard to imagine adopting that aspect of human society, though apparently the asari from Trident were very much warming up to it. On Mars, at least, "natural" pregnancy and delivery was exceedingly rare. Children sprouted from the Procreation Parks, hale and hearty, having never "inconvenienced" their mothers by actually growing within them. "The old ways produce high variability when it comes to psionic development," Harper had tried to explain the apparently many benefits of the Parks system. "You get a higher mean psi-strength when you leave procreation to the professionals."

In a flash, Trellani swore she could have seen an asari along with two other humans by one of the kiosks, talking to a resident doctor there. But the aircar sped by too fast, and Trellani dismissed it as a trick of the eye. There were only a handful of asari in human space, after all. Her own spies and contacts hadn't reported even a single human-asari union bearing fruit. It was a topic often discussed among the Matriarch Outer and Inner Circles. Usually it only took a year or two for some maiden or matron to start giving them examples of what a new species could contribute to the asari as a whole. There was some anxiety among a few matriarchs that the humans weren't compatible, but Trellani's scientists had assured her that wasn't possible.

A part of her wondered why she was even thinking about it now. She had entertained the thought of a good match for one of her daughters, true, but they were all matrons and could look after themselves as need be…

"Did you see something?" Jack asked, watching her out of the corner of his blue eyes.

"Just a trick of the eye, I think," she said, smiling at him. When Jack brought her to a high-class restaurant that night, she was almost disappointed that it seemed so ordinary. Like any other similar restaurant on the Citadel, or heck, even on Thessia. "I thought you'd bring me somewhere more ethnically… Marsie," she jokingly complained to him.

Deputy Ambassador Jack Harper winced. "Marsies have a very robust sense of humour. That extends to their cuisines. For the first few years on Mars, the original settlers – soldiers and scientists – ate alien food paste. When we started growing things on the surface and in hydrofarms, it was all simple fare. If you want to eat that sort of thing, then the countryside is the place, not the city."

Trellani laughed at his sally and changed the subject. The 'lobster thermidor' was a very refreshing dish, and followed by the 'Kobe beef steak' and the 'barbecued Iberico pork ribs', she was very glad to see that dessert was a light selection of succulent fruits and an exquisitely prepared 'chocolate mousse', the equal of anything she'd seen in Aethyta's establishment. Better, even. And then there was the rest of the night to look forwards to…

. . .

"Might I recommend the Takanabe, Matriarch? It's a fully-loaded digestive mod; broad dextro/levo compatibility with upgraded taste capabilities as standard, auto-scavenge mode for when food supplies are scarce, one of the broadest range of digestive enzymes available in a civilian mod, and an olfactory profiling system to help you identify what's edible and what isn't. It even comes with a minor immune system boost to help break down toxins and poisons, though I won't recommend overdoing it. And it still occupies a single slot. Expensive, but with Mr. Harper's credit limit, it's hardly an issue."

Shopping of all sorts, whether online, at the shops, or directly with an artisan, was something Trellani was more than familiar with, but boutiqueing for genetic modifications turned out to be a completely different experience. With her own personal physician going through all the options, at that. It was more like going to the beauty parlour and having the aesthetician discuss which products worked best with her leku ridging and her skin toning and conditioning.

"How many mods can I actually get?" she asked Dr. Rosalind Gosling, thinking that Harper would have willingly paid for two or three.

"Hmm, good question," Dr. Gosling replied, tapping her fingers on the table in thought. "And it would depend. I think asari are probably limited to three, perhaps four or five at the most. But we've got good people here; if you want to try it, we can go for six and see what happens. It'd make for a good paper, at the very least. And civilian MELD mods are completely reversible, you know. They don't let us install the experimental military-grade stuff on someone not in our uniforms. Specially not VIPs. We don't need the bad press."

Six? That was far more than Trellani had bargained for. The thought, then and there, of replacing so much of her body with something… not asari… privately unnerved her. No, that was a step or two too far for the moment.

"I think three will do for a start," she said judiciously. "I can always come back and get more, correct?"

"Well, yes," Dr. Gosling admitted. "Although the impact would be much greater if you did all of them today." Then she perked up. "Well, having said that, I haven't heard that anybody else has been doing much on asari civilian MELD mods, so maybe we'll still be the first to publish. And I guess we'll need something to top this, anyways."

After that, it was a relatively short and smooth procedure. Trellani walked out of the medical centre the next day with the Takanabe digestive mod, a specially-tailored life extension mod, and a general upgrade mod that improved her senses, bone density, lung capacity and musculature.

"I didn't think asari could get our lives extended, but Dr. Gosling said that since our genetic structure was fairly close to humanity's, she was able to modify the mod that was once used on you humans, so now my lifespan should more closely match yours," she said to Harper as they headed back to their hotel.

Jack Harper smiled. "That's good news," he said, lightly kissing her on the cheek. "I think we've got potential, Trell. A lot of potential."

"So what's so special about today, Jack? Dr. Gosling seemed like she was in a bit of a hurry to finish up."

"Ah, well, Christmas Eve. Tomorrow's a public holiday, and actually, the week leading up to New Year's is probably sort of a dead week for everyone across most of the Confederation," Harper explained.

"Ah. Of course, I've heard of this Christmas. It commemorates the day when your version of Athame became a human, is it not? Something of a reversal of an apotheosis? Your goddess became a man, and then was tortured as a sort of effigy to absolve mankind of a primordial sin? Is this deity a Precursor, too? Is it so important a celebration? And… why and what does it have to do with all this Santa Claus I see so much of? And gift-giving? And the trees? They seem unrelated."

Jack's face twisted into a wry smile. "Ah, well, it's kinda hard to explain until you've experienced it. In fact, that's one of the reasons I invited you down to Mars. I wanted to bring you to a traditional Christmas Eve midnight service. I think you might find it… interesting."

. . .

The building Trellani found herself in was as big as a warehouse. In fact, it was built pretty much like one, with the same sloping roof and the same outsized entrances and exits. Despite the ample seating, enough to fit what must be nearly a thousand people or so, it was fully packed. It was still two hours before Martian midnight, but she could see why her lover had insisted they arrived early.

She kept herself occupied by surreptitiously trying out the new psionic implant that Harper had gotten her. Unlike earlier models, or so he said, hers was fully capable of receiving non-directional psionic impulses – meaning she did not require him to act as a sort of receiver or antenna. Any psionic could ping a non-psionic directly, of course, but human society also made use of ambient psionic networks and fields. These were non-directed psionic impulses. Like auras. They were most common in entertainment venues. A non-psionic could not experience these without a human feeding them input. Her implant was apparently one designed for a species called Vipers – the strange serpentine asarioids she had seen a few of here and there.

All too soon, an almost-visible barely-audible susurration rippled across the people who had congregated there, and Trellani realized that the 'service', whatever that was, was about to start. The lights went off and the large hall plunged into darkness. Trellani expected her vision to adjust automatically, but to her consternation, it was completely dark. And, she realized with the beginnings of concern, her psionic implant had gone dead as well. She silently cursed her sudden impulse to leave her plasma rifle in the hotel, and her laser pistol was tucked away in her now-invisible bag.

A familiar hand gripped hers, wiping away her concern, and a voice whispered in her ear. "They're damping all EM emissions and turned on the psi-nullifiers," Jack Harper whispered into her ear. "It's just to set up the right atmosphere."

Indeed, a voice rang out, "The prophet Isaiah said, 'The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.' Let us now sing with joy Long Ago, Shepherds Knew." And the lights gradually came back up.

Trellani soon realized once again that as much as she loved humanity – and one special human in particular – the species was still weird. The 'service' was obviously a time-hallowed, traditional rite or ritual of some sort, where every single aspect of it was regulated and everybody knew their parts. And yet she could detect no signs of boredom or people just going through the motions; not that she'd know for sure, because her psionic implant was still irritatingly offline. She, of course, was fully paying attention, as this was a priceless opportunity to get a glimpse into humanity's cultural impulses and belief systems.

She did get a little concerned when the main speaker of the evening kept making references to the 'Greatest Adversary, Satan' and to the need to face this fearsome opponent. From her conversations with Harper, the Sys-Con had long since adopted the Ethereals' Great Enemy, the mythical Reapers, as their own. If this was already part of humanity's worldview, incorporated into their ceremonies, there was little chance of them budging from it. The Citadel would simply have to accept this as part of dealing with the humans.

She grew even more concerned when the speaker thundered and exhorted his audience to prepare themselves for war, even if it was couched in the use of archaic weaponry like breastplates, shields, helmets and swords. That concern peaked when she realized that the speaker was, in fact, fairly certain that internecine warfare was an inevitability in the very near future, immediately prior to the coming again of their deity.

And it spilled over into outright consternation and alarm when she heard his call for the audience to join him in a meal of ritual cannibalism. She looked over at Harper in disbelief and calmed down slightly when he gestured to her to stay in her seat. She realized soon thereafter that it must be a metaphor of some sort, since the humans that went up consumed some sort of bread.

"What do you think about it, dear?" Jack Harper asked his asari partner as they returned to the aircar.

"It was… strange," Trellani answered, glancing back at the towering 'cathedral' in Marathon. Asari had great religious structures, of course, and temples as well, but they generally didn't hold services inside. The temple priestesses were always meant to travel to their flock, not the other way around. The temples themselves were homes for the clergy and their goddess. They didn't host company often. "There was so much to process at once. And I can't quite understand why they deliberately kept the psi-nullifiers up the whole time," she confessed.

"Ah, well, St. Paul's Cathedral is Anglican; they're traditional that way. My parents go there whenever they're down on Mars. That building over there is the First Psionist Church, and over there is the Red Mosque. On Mars, we always cluster all the religious buildings together in one spot for… security. That slender little one over there is the Scientology branch. I'm always sort of amazed they're still around, post-contact, but human religions are tenacious. Interested in seeing how another place handles it? The Red Mosque in particular is quite beautiful on the inside."

"Perhaps…" Trellani was tempted at the thought of seeing more of humanity's inner life, but there were others things she looked forward to even more.

. . .

"Jack!" an attractive human woman – still in her apron – greeted the couple as they disembarked from the car. She wrapped Harper in a quick hug, and her doing so only reinforced Trellani's surprise at her size. She was much shorter than most of the other human females Trellani had seen and met thus far: much more standard-asari in height and weight.

"And you must be, Matriarch Trellani," she said, extending a hand for the matriarch to shake. Only then, when their hands touched, did the asari feel a spark of power from the human and realize who she was. This was Moira Vahlen, the matriarch of her own family and clan, and arguably one of the five most powerful and influential humans in the entire Confederation. She was the human Benezia, perhaps…. or maybe the human Lenia Entra Lysati was a more appropriate comparison, given the groundbreaking discoveries that were attributed to her. Lenia had discovered the salarians and Vahlen had spearheaded research into psionics and MELD, among so much else.

This diminutive human in an apron was the titan she had read about! Trellani was momentarily gobsmacked.

"I'm Moira, and it's a pleasure to meet you," she gave the matriarch's hand a quick squeeze and then returned both palms to her hips. "Annette's running a bit late, so she's sent her apologies for that. Flying in from France, you know how it is. They're naming another school after her. Her son's bringing her over in another half an hour. Annabel's in the living room with her guests; they'll be out soon. Hannah's still out shopping with her pet zombie. Bradford's already got the BBQ fired up, though, so go on through to the backyard and get a bite to eat. The Protein Salve and Trail Mash are pretty much done, last I checked."

"Whoa, slow down, Moira!" Harper laughed. "Dr. Moira Vahlen. Matriarch Trellani…"

"Matriarch," Trellani greeted her with a bow.

"Matriarch," Vahlen replied with a smile.

"Pet zombie?" Trellani had to ask, "Do you mean Elder Tyrani?"

"The one and only, nevermind the nickname," Dr. Vahlen demurred. Then she raised her voice. "Anna? Anna! Come on out; some guests have arrived!"

The asari Triumvir was not particularly surprised when three very familiar people stepped out of the house into the expansive backyard. The Shepard side of Vahlen's extended family owned several hundred kilometers. Everything out to the horizon was technically their backyard.

"Commander Ilena Thanoptis. 'Admiral' Daro'Xen vas Noveria. And Battle Matron Shepard." She couldn't help the smile that curved her lips. "This trip to Mars, how do you say it, Jack, it killed a lot of avians with one pebble?"

"Something like that," Harper said agreeably. "We in the Con believe in compartmentalization as much as anyone else. But, given our relationship and what we're likely to be asking of you once you become Councilor – not that long from now, a few years or even a decade at most – I argued that you needed to know a few things, and meet a few people, personally."

"No wonder Eclipse has always given my house preferential rates," Trellani mused.

"Well, that, and also because you're pretty cute for a Matriarch," Commander Thanoptis chipped in with a wink. "My mom thinks you're the asari goddess of fashion. Me? I was always too poor to buy any of the good stuff… except for this one-piece bathing suit. I think you know the one, right John?"

"Mrm." The human male murmured when the playful maiden elbowed him.

"But yes, it made good strategic and business sense," Ilena continued, her smile still beaming. "Even Hadda Verdrak agreed, and he's one stingy skinflint batarian of a CFO, let me tell you. Plus, one does not simply say 'no' to Admiral Hackett. How does it feel, knowing Eclipse's elusive shadow matriarch is a guy?"

"Still a little mind-boggling, honestly," Trellani admitted. "There are still matriarchs in our circles who point fingers at one another over that." She extended a hand, this time asari-style, and let her palm touch Ilena's. As much of a goofy maiden as this woman was, only the foolish would not see the power and influence she had at her disposal. "I look forward to our continued long and fruitful association, then, Commander Thanoptis."

"Call me Ilena!" Still the same Ilena Thanoptis, Trellani noted. Then she thought of something.

"They are real, right? Jack? They're not Mind Controlled or masquerading or something?"

Harper laughed and the others soon joined him. "Oh, no, all three are doing this of their own free will and accord. But my relationship with Eclipse is strictly business. It's not exactly arm's-length, but since most in Eclipse don't know the true nature of its controlling ownership, and we're not exactly trying to advertise it, well."

"But, wait," Ilena turned to Daro'Xen, "couldn't we be mind-controlled to not know we were mind-controlled?" Her hands flew up to her cheeks. "By the Goddess, how deep does the Thresher Hole go?"

Daro shook her head. "Trust me, you're the last asari who has to worry about mind control."

"Thanks! Wait. Hey!"

"What's everyone doing out here?" A tall man wandered by, also wearing an apron of sorts that covered his front. On it was a picture of a sword and the words: First Ranger. This had to be the esteemed retired commander Bradford, who had served under the humans' legendary commander in the war with the Ethereals!

"Jack," he said, barking an order at the other man. "Get your ass over here and help me with the hens. We're doing them beer-can style tonight."

"Yes, sir!" Jack snapped to attention and immediately fell in with the older male.

"You can help yourself to the scotch, but no smoking!" Vahlen warned as the two men headed off, John quickly breaking off to join them. "That goes for e-cigs, too!"

"Well, this is rustic," Trellani said softly, once Moira headed back inside the ranch house. Ilena shrugged. Daro seemed even less concerned by the casual atmosphere, nibbling on some sort of bread… except the bread had some sort of meat squashed between it. This had to be the "sandwich" Trellani had heard so much about! A human treat.

"What is that?" she asked, pointing.

"Smek sandwich," Daro'Xen explained, biting into the strange confection, a mix of levo and dextro cuisine.

"More like a salt sandwich with a thin layer of smek," Ilena added.

"Why don't you go binge on peanut butter?"

"I did not binge!"

"Ah…?" Trellani felt briefly lost as the conversation headed off into uncharted space.

"Come on," Ilena suddenly declared, taking the wealthy matriarch's hand and dragging her into the house. "There's more to discover in human space than just chocolate. Let Auntie Ilena show you how it's done."

"I am hundreds of years older than you, you know."

"We know," Daro'Xen noted, taking another bite of her sandwich. "Just don't care."

. . .

Trellani was feeling very cheerful. She was at ease with her lover, who was indeed quite handy with cooking over an open flame; the company was congenial; there was plenty of both food and drink; and her new mods were everything Jack had said they would be and more.

"So Jack brought you to Mars to have your genemods done? I could have worked you into my schedule easily," Dr. Vahlen – or Moira, as she had insisted Trellani call her – said. "Who worked on them?"

"Dr. Rosalind Gosling was the lead, I believe," Trellani answered.

Moira nodded. "Rosy's good. Her clinic does solid work, as far as civilian mods go, and she always gets the highest quality ones. Expensive, but really, well worth the price."

"Ah, so I thought. I'm glad to hear you say it, though, Moira." Trellani paused for a moment. She was testing the waters somewhat, using the human matriarch's first name. "I think he also wanted to show me what Christmas on Mars was like. He brought me to a cathedral."

"He brought you to church?" Hannah asked, wide-eyed. The red-headed human woman was, in Trellani's brief experience, the most intimidating of the lot in this clan. Her mother, Annabel, was generally quiet and kept to herself, but Hannah was more aggressive and confrontational. She was in no way intimidated by either herself or Jack (the former was not a surprise, no one here seemed to care who she was in Citadel space or that she was likely to become Councilor soon) and she seemed equally disinterested in Citadel matters or traditions. She also seemed somewhat annoyed by all the aliens present for the holiday, this despite bringing an asari of her own in the form of Fala Tyrani – the most ancient of them all, the result of a story that was hard to believe.

"Oh, yes. He took me to the, hmm, 'midnight service'? At St. Paul's Cathedral?"

"That's where his parents go when they come to Mars." She turned to think-project into the other room. "What the hell, Jack? Are they down on Mars?"

"Is there something significant about it?" Trellani was curious.

Moira waved her hand. "No, just an old joke. But that was unexpected. So, how did you find the experience?"

"It was certainly unique. You have to understand, the only really, truly, deeply religious group we're aware of that actively participates in Citadel life is the hanar, and while we don't think worse of them for it, their mindset and proselytizing attitude can be a bit extreme. And the troubles that arose as a result of the Prothean Beacon reveal, well, the less said about that, the better. So I wasn't expecting that humans would show the same sort of zeal. It's been our experience, generally, that religion takes a back seat as the sciences progresses. The asari, for instance, have almost totally abandoned Athame worship save for a few groups here and there. Even our Siari belief system isn't really something we devote ourselves to."

"Humans can be a perverse bunch," Daro'Xen murmured. "But they do make great toys, so the quirks are easy enough to overlook."

"Those Trident girls are a different story, too," Ilena observed, having worked with quite a few in Eclipse.

"There was also that Psionicist Church… and some of the things I've learnt; assuming that the translations are accurate, anyway. Do humans really believe that Ethereals might be higher-order beings that have fallen?"

John Shepard snorted over where he stood, nursing a quart-sized beer, clearly dismissive. "You're talking about the seraphim, right? The angels with six wings? Granted that Ethereals have six limbs… and they do fly, or at least float… but seriously? That's a stretch."

"And is it so that your Ethereals think your human-deity figure was the first and most powerful psionic?"

"You'll have to ask ma mère that, Madame," Jacques Durand replied, snapping a French fry off in his mouth. "She's the real Ethereal-whisperer in the family. The rest of us they consider mere bagatelles, compared to her. I do know humans have been speculating on our various prophets being more than human long before we met our makers, so to speak."

"It certainly is true, though, that psionics have had an impact on our belief systems," Hannah said thoughtfully. "I think the notions of an 'overmind' and 'Nirvana' and even 'reincarnation' have undergone serious overhauls since, you know, we could probably construct the necessary concepts for real. Plus, considering Ethereals were here on Mars watching us when all these prophets came and went and they didn't even bother recording them as worthwhile, means I doubt they were psionic."

"Does this area interest you so much, Trellani?" Moira asked.

Trellani shrugged. "Only insofar as it helps me understand you in the Sys-Con better. Apparently Councilor Soulon has a different take on the matter, though. He believes that the true way to understand humans is through your food." She looked at Jack and Bradford checking the "beer can" chicken, grilled upright. "Perhaps he has the right of it."

"Well, at least you haven't heard the 'Santa Claus is an Ethereal and his little helpers are Sectoids' hypothesis yet," Annette Durand, who had just recently returned to the table, said with a laugh. "C'est incroyable!"

"Excuse me, but I have actually seen an Ethereal in a santa hat," Vahlen informed them all with a knowing smile. "It was actually pretty adorable."

"And I'm not?" Ilena asked, pointing to the fluffy red and white hat that not sat on her head over her leku. "Now, if you'll excuse me-" She held up her left hand, which was filled with some sort of plant clippings '-I have some real work to do: setting up the mistletoe! And just so you know, yes, this means the competition has officially begun: the asari with the most kisses by the end of the night is officially Queen of Christmas!"

"I don't think that's how the tradition, mmfh-" Matriarch Vahlen never got to finish, as Ilena wasted no time in seizing the initiative the racking up easy points.

"There's something you don't see every day." John took another sip of beer. "You Citadel races do make things interesting, I'll give you that."