Chapter Thirty-Three - Whispers in the Dark
Noveria, Pax System, Horsehead Nebula
April 17, 2183 CE
There was a stark beauty in the harsh, frozen landscape of the Aleutsk Valley. Not so long ago, Benezia would have enjoyed curling up in a comfortable chair, a blanket tucked in close around her while she enjoyed a warm beverage of one sort or another.
She wasn't that person anymore.
She wasn't sure that she ever could be again.
Benezia was nothing like she once was, even just a year ago. Where there used to be order and peace, it had been replaced by nothing but chaos and pain. Black, inky shadows whispered in her mind, tearing what little remained of her sense of self to pieces.
The whispering in her mind was never ending, a constant companion that tortured her with its sickly sweet voice.
"She's going to raise one hell of a storm with those little wings."
What was worse were the voices from the past. The shadows were always there, there was a comfort in the fact that something larger than her was beating her, and she had been able to win small victories against it. The voices from her past though, they were failures of her own making, and they tore what little of the walls that remain completely down.
Benezia bit her lip, not noticing that she had bit completely through. Thick, sickly blood dribbled down her chin, oozing along the contours of her throat until it soaked into the tattered remnants of her dress. What was a simple stain when her very mind was falling to pieces inside of her head.
It had been an uncomfortably warm day when she had first met Saren. Illium was not a planet known for its milder climates, and even though Nos Astra was located at the one of the poles, it was still the height of its summer. The air had been thick with the smell of sweet perfumes to hide the sweat, with gentle misters cooling the crowds that walked the streets. Saren had looked so noble, even heroic, when he first entered that bar. If she had been even a little younger, she might have believed his bravado and bluster, but with age came wisdom.
She had believed that she knew best. She could see that there was still good in him, though he was misguided, his aims leading him down paths that would bring nothing but trouble for the entire galaxy. She knew with complete certainty that she could bring him back to the right path, guiding him with all the knowledge and wisdom she had gained over the past thousand years.
Despite her certainty, Benezia learned of her fallacy quickly. She had been wrong, oh so very, very wrong.
She hadn't understood. She still didn't, not really. The small piece inside of her that was still Benezia knew that she most likely never would.
Death was her constant companion now, and madness was his friend. There was no escape. Not from this.
He had complete control of her. She'd never be free.
"Matriarch." One of her commandos, Poriu, if she was remembering the voice correctly, said from behind her. Her voice was dull and monotone, far from the vibrant, bouncy youthfulness that used to emanate from her. "The Geth have spotted a Spectre coming."
"Very well." When Benezia responded, it wasn't her talking. She wasn't in control, only a spectator in her own body. She almost didn't even care anymore. What use was caring. Everyone was going to die anyway. "Prepare."
Night was falling as Shepard and her team moved through Peak 15. What happened to Liara still weighed heavily on all of their minds, and that it had happened so fast was more than just a concern. They were all on their guards, but Shepard was trying to figure out why it was affecting her so much.
When she had heard that Liara had been grabbed, her heart had stopped and it felt like the world had fallen out from under her. She couldn't get the young asari's face out of her head, no matter how much she tried.
They went through corridor after corridor, through conference rooms and office spaces.
An internal battle was playing itself out inside her head. Why did Liara matter so much to her? It wasn't the first time that she had lost someone during a mission. It definitely wouldn't be the last. Why was this one rattling her so much more than any other time?
Whatever had grabbed Liara was changing Peak 15 into some kind of nest, and it was getting unbearably warm, even with the climate systems in their suits. It was weird that for an ice world they were actually having to push their cooling systems to the max. The further into the facility they went, the thicker they found the resin that had been laid down.
Whatever they were, they were settling in for good.
Her mind processing through what felt like a million things at once, she still noticed that Wrex was getting more and more unhappy with everything he saw. It had gotten to the point that even Rainbow Dash had gotten out of his way. Instead, she was flying to the right and just a little behind Shepard's shoulder.
Why did Liara matter so much to her? Why couldn't she get this out of her head? Those freckles, and her cute little smile...
Riley froze when she realized that she was unequivocally, irrevocably attracted to Liara. That was new. Did that mean she was a lesbian? She hadn't really thought about that before, not seriously. The few people she'd dated before had all been human males, though those relationships never lasted much longer than a week.
If she was a lesbian, was that why?
Riley dismissed that thought pretty quickly though. She'd definitely been sexually attracted to men before, though it was mostly just girlhood crushes (she still got a little weak kneed whenever she saw a film with Harrison Bradford in it). Since joining the Alliance Navy, she hadn't had much of a chance to actually get in a relationship, much less explore any, and yet, she was still attracted to a woman.
Huh. Well... that was new.
Thinking about it further, she wondered if maybe she was bisexual... but did that even fit? Bisexual just indicated both human genders. Liara wasn't human, and she wasn't actually a woman either. If you wanted to be technical about it, Asari were a mono-gendered race who just happened to look remarkably like a human female (save the whole blue scaled skin and head crest thing, which now that she thought about it was actually pretty cute).
So she wasn't just limited to finding humans attractive. The fact that Liara was making her so anxious made that very clear. And if she wasn't bisexual, did that make her omnisexual? Or would that be pan... She wasn't really up to date on her terms for sexual orientation and attraction. This was far more confusing than she thought it would be. Than it had any right to be.
Was she attracted to more than just Asari?
As she thought about it, she had to say that yes, yes she was attracted to more than just humans and Asari. She'd been more than a little aroused a few times on Equestria, especially when everyone was in heat and going around randy as hell. Thank Celestia that they'd started to wear clothes before she came to live there, or she'd have gotten more than a few eyefulls. She'd actually forgotten about that, and now that she was thinking, she realized that it had been both stallions and mares.
You know what, there was that one sexy Turian she noticed back on Elysium. Huh...
What about Salarians.
Maybe. Did they even have sex organs? She couldn't remember anything about them from her time in school.
NOPE! Nope. Nope. Nope.
That would be big old no.
There were limits, thankfully. She wasn't some crazed sex beast who would sleep with anything and everything under the sun.
It was only thanks to her long experience multitasking that she wasn't too distracted by these new revelations about herself as she led her team through Peak 15. Restoring the downed power systems turned out to be easier than expected, even with the Geth trying to stop them. She wasn't doing as well as she thought she was at hiding her inner monologue though, and she didn't notice the strange looks she got from Rainbow and Kaidan. If she had, she would have been both mortified and relieved that they were the only two who noticed.
The power restored, they finally boarded the tram that would take them to Rift Station, where the really dangerous work was done at the Peak 15 facility apparently.
Rainbow nudged Riley as soon as the Tram took off. Drawing out of her thoughts, Riley looked at Rainbow questioningly.
"What's up with Wrex?" Rainbow asked, nodding her head over towards the big, brooding krogan.
Riley looked over and noticed what everyone else had realized nearly an hour ago, that Wrex was in a major funk. He was grinding his teeth together, and his eyes were burning with fury. She walks over to him. "You okay there, Wrex?"
Wrex looked down at her. A lesser person would have burned to death under his gaze, but Shepard weathered it without so much as blinking.
"No," he finally answered, his voice deeper than she'd ever heard it before. He didn't say anything else.
"You going to elaborate on that?" Riley asked when it was clear that he wasn't going to say anything more.
Wrex growled, but he didn't turn her down right out of hand. Shifting uncomfortably, he finally said, "I'm not sure…"
The others gathered around him, eager for any knowledge of what they were up against. Liara's loss was a shock to all of them, and none of them wanted to get caught with their pants down like that again.
"Come on big guy, tell us." Rainbow urged Wrex, hovering above everyone else's head.
Wrex glanced at her, his gaze softening. He finally nodded, accepting that he needed to inform his team about what he knew. "I'm not sure, but there were stories about this type of thing."
"Go on, Wrex," Tali urged him, managing to look as supportive as possible for someone who had their every expression hidden behind a facemask.
"Everything we're seeing here…" Wrex harrumphed, as if he was chewing the sentence over in his mouth. "If I'm not going insane, this is a Rachni hive."
"The Rachni?" Kaidan spoke for everyone, though his surprise was actually very subdued. Everyone knew about the Rachni Wars and the horrors that had come along with them. "I thought they were extinct."
"So did I, but everything we're seeing here proves otherwise." Wrex glared at Kaidan like he was an idiot.
Riley thought about that before asking her question. "How can you be sure, Wrex?"
"I can't, not yet." That obviously galled Wrex, and he shifted angrily, looking like he wanted to kill something. "I've only heard the stories passed down through the generations, of the only enemy that has proven themselves worthy against the Krogan." Wrex crossed his arms and leaned back against the side of the tram, remembering back to a time long before any of them could even comprehend. A thousand years for a krogan was nothing but luck after all. "The elders used to tell all of tales about the wars. It was the only thing they ever actually talked about. They spoke of the Rachni nests, were you couldn't even trust your friends, because nothing was as it seemed."
"What do you mean?" Riley asked, studying his every movement. She'd never seen him so expressive before.
"I don't know." Wrex shrugged, uncaring. "They never explained it so any of us could understand. The only thing they said was to make sure you could tell who your friends are."
"The markings?" Riley asked, and unsurprisingly, Wrex nodded his confirmation. "Why did they take Liara? What are they doing with her?"
Wrex stared at Shepard for a long moment, and Shepard stared right back. Wrex was the one to blink first.
"I don't know," he answered truthfully.
"That's not helpful." The realization she'd had earlier made her burn, and she stared at Wrex to make sure he'd realize just what she was saying. "I'm not going to leave any of my crew behind."
"You might not have a choice." Wrex was unaffected by Shepard's glare. "When you see her again, she might not be herself."
"What does that even mean?" Shepard wondered if Wrex just enjoyed screwing with people and being singularly unhelpful.
"Trust yourself, Shepard." Looking at the rest of the team, his eyes narrowed in a glare. "Anyone else could be an enemy."
Riley stared at Wrex a little longer, but he had nothing else to say, having returned to his stony brooding. With a huff of annoyance, she turned away from him.
Tali and Garrus shared a look and she shivered. The phantom feeling of spiders crawling over her made Tali dance on her toes uncomfortably, wishing for a clean room and a big can of bug spray.
"What's the best way to fight them?" Kaidan asked, obviously unsatisfied with the way the conversation went.
Wrex turned his gaze on him, and tellingly, Kaidan took only a single step back. "Kill everyone, and don't let any of us out of your sight. If they're gone, and return, it's probably safe to assume they aren't themselves anymore and you should kill them."
"Kill them? Why?" Ashley asked, wondering just what was wrong with Wrex.
"I just told you," Wrex said with the tone of voice that you might use when explaining something incredibly simple to someone stupid. "They probably won't be themselves."
"So you'd kill me?" Ashley asked, hoping for the best.
"Yep," was all that he said in response, unflinching.
Ashley paled a little, taking a short little step back away from Wrex.
Uncharacteristically, he didn't say anything to her about it and went back to brooding. Needless to say, the mood in the tram was even more sullen than it was before.
The tram came to a stop nearly thirty minutes later, and the rest of the ride had been in almost complete silence. The door slid open with a quite cheerfully ironic ding.
"Welcome to Rift Station," Peak 15's Virtual Intelligence stated with an upbeat voice that rang hollow and synthetic. "From this point forward, all actions will be monitored and recorded."
Shepard and her team step out of the tram, guns at the ready, eyes on a constant swivel for any sign of a threat.
There was only a slight hesitation from the entire group when they saw the extent of the nest that the Rachni had managed to build on this end of the station. The walls were dripping slime, and everything had an uneasy green tint to it. It looked like the stuff of nightmares, or at least some of the darker films that Shepard had managed to get her hands on over the years.
Heading through the only door in the tram reception area, they found a small welcoming room with two elevators inside. The signs (even half covered in the creeping resin) showed that they led to the science station and the hot labs.
"So…" Tali kept her shotgun cradled close. There was no way a spider (or a Rachni) would be getting the drop on her. "Which elevator do we take?"'
Shepard and Rainbow Dash shared a look, the type that only sisters could really comprehend. They both turned to look at Tali.
"Well, we could take the elevator to the science lab," Shepard said, smiling at the quarian.
"Which is full of scientists and needles and probably super deadly experimental diseases and stuff," Rainbow continued, gesturing with her hooves.
"Or we could go to the Hot Labs," Shepard pointed at the sparking sign.
"Which is probably crawling with Rachni," Rainbow finished for her big sister.
"The first one!" Tali exclaimed. She shivered, trying to brush imaginary spiders off her suit.
"Lucky for you, I was thinking the same thing." Shepard smiled at the young woman.
Together, they entered the elevator to the Science Labs. It was a tight fit, but there was no way that they were going to split up this time. The last time they'd done that, it hadn't gone well at all.
Thankfully, they didn't need to stay in the cramped little space for long. Despite the weight of all of them crammed in together, the elevator still managed to whizz up and in seconds, it had arrived at the science labs.
As the door opened, all of them were more than a little relieved to find that the Rachni hadn't begun expanding their nest here yet, but there wasn't anyone around to greet them.
Shepard ordered them forward silently with hand signals. Spreading out, they advanced slowly and methodically, covering all their corners and making sure nothing could sneak up on them or get the drop on them.
They passed several offices before emerging out into what appeared to be a general meeting area, with workstations for people to work and live in.
There was no one there.
Sure, there were signs of life. Some bags and data pads littered the tables that dotted the room. Several of the doors were broken open, hanging in their settings, off kilter.
"Where is everyone?" Ashley asked, a chill creeping down her spine.
"The spiders got them," Tali whispered back, as tense as a spring and unable to come down off her tip-toes.
"Rachni." Wrex corrected her, his voice more felt than heard.
"They are the same thing!" Tali hissed back. If she were anyone else, she might have shot Wrex.
"Actually, spiders are arachnids," Kaidan informed them, seemingly unconcerned by the whole ordeal. "While Rachni are actually insects, despite their name."
Tali just stared at him. With her face mask, all he got was a faceless, unblinking expression.
"Right…" Kaidan nodded to himself, looking away from Tali. "Doesn't matter."
"Cut the chatter," Shepard whispered, her voice cutting through the silence like a scalpel. "We're not alone."
Everyone swivels around to look at whatever it was that had caught Shepard's eye. There was a figure in one of the doorways, and it shifted ever so slightly, trying to pull back into the shadows.
Moving to stack up outside the door, Shepard motioned for Wrex to breach.
At Shepard's signal, Wrex kicked in the hanging remnants door and burst into the room, shotgun at the ready. The rest of them followed him in as whoever was trying to hide in the shadows screamed in terror.
Turning on their lights, they found an Asari trembling in the corner, hiding her face in her hands. Her skin was a light purple with splotches of blue of varying colors, dressed in a ripped and torn lab coat that was dripping with the same green slime that the walls were.
"Don't kill me!" She begged, her words heavily slurred and accented.
"Calm down. We're not going to hurt you." Shepard tried to reassure the asari, her hands held up in a calming gesture.
The asari didn't calm down, and the rest of the team turned towards the door, keeping an eye on it while Shepard slowly moved forward, making sure to not make any sudden moves.
"What's your name?" Shepard asked, her voice soft and calm.
"J-Jaarila Satora," The asari managed to slur out, looking up at Shepard with wide, scared eyes.
"Are you one of the scientists working here?" Shepard asked, trying to get any information about whatever was happening.
"Yes." Jaarila gave a shaky nod. "I-I was a project lead in the Hot Labs."
"The Rachni?" Shepard asked, watching her reactions carefully.
Jaarila jerked her head up to look at Shepard, a hint of danger flashing in her eyes. "Where'd you hear that word?"
"Rachni?" Shepard raised an eyebrow.
"Where'd you hear that?" Jaarila hissed, steel hidden in her voice.
"You'd have to be living under a rock to not have heard about the Rachni Wars." Wrex growled, keeping a closer eye on Jaarila.
"Rachni... wars?" Jaarila rolled the words around in her mouth, as if she wanted to see how they tasted.
Shepard and Wrex looked at each other, then back at Jaarila.
"Are you okay?" Shepard asked.
Jaarila stared at Shepard, tilting her head to the side.
It was kind of creepy.
Shepard stood, taking a step back, shifting her rifle so it wasn't pointed at Jaarila, but also so she could still bring it up in the blink of an eye. "Jaarila? What's wrong?"
Jaarila unfolded from her crouched position in the corner, and she stared at them unblinking.
She took a shaky step forward. It almost looked like she'd never taken a single step before.
She took another.
Enough was enough. Shepard and Wrex leveled their weapons on Jaarila.
"Don't take another step." Shepard ordered, her voice firm, eyes narrowed.
"Step!" Jaarila giggled, and put her foot down, popping her lips.
Before Shepard or Wrex could do anything, Jaarila rushed them. Surprisingly, she actually managed to send a fully grown Krogan and a woman in full body armor sprawling.
The rest of the team didn't have any time to react as Jaarila pushed her way through them.
"Stop her!" Shepard shouted, scrambling to get up off the floor.
They all rushed after her, only to find that she'd already disappeared.
"I don't know about the rest of you... but that was creepy." Garrus never let his rifle drop from his soldier, scanning the room evenly, nothing passing his notice.
"It wasn't a spider, so I'm good." Surprisingly, Tali was actually being completely honest. Other than spiders, very little actually scared her.
"You've really got to work on that phobia, girl." Ashley nudged Tali in the shoulder, shaking her head in amusement.
"They. Are. Spiders." She said it like that was all that needed to be said. "They ruin everything they get into, especially when they make their webs in the ventilation systems."
"I think she went this way." Kaidan looked down one of the hallways off of the main area of the science labs, pointing.
Shepard and the rest of them stepped out of the room to see where Kaidan was pointing.
"Alright." Shepard started down the hall. "Let's go after her. Keep your eyes open. Don't let her past you again this time."
Shepard vaguely heard the chorus of mumbled acknowledgements from everyone behind her. Together, they moved down the hall after Jaarila. The lights were flickering, and Shepard paused when she stepped in something that could only be described as squishy.
Looking down, she found that it was a bit of the resin that the Rachni must have been secreting to construct their nests.
Everyone tensed at that, a reminder of just how tense the situation was and how out of their depths they were.
They emerged out of the hallway into a large room. It looked like it was a laboratory. Lab equipment lined the tables and the walls, but all of that is just background against the giant hole in the floor.
"How much you want to bet that leads directly to the nest?" Garrus asked, sighing in annoyance.
"I wouldn't take that bet." Wrex pushed past him to stand on the edge, looking down into the darkness. He was careful to keep his shotgun pointed at the darkness.
Shepard joined him, staring down the hole, shining her gun light into it. The nest material was all that she could see, and it seemed to absorb the light.
As she was looking down it, she realized something.
"If that's the nest," Shepard murmured, looking up at Wrex. "That must be where they took Liara."
"I can get her back." Wrex shifted his shotgun and walked up to stand beside her.
"I'll help," Rainbow spoke up, darting to hover next to Wrex. He just glanced at her, but he didn't reject her help, which was something in and of itself.
Shepard studied both of them for a moment before nodding. "Alright. Find Liara and get her back to the Mako. Don't take any unnecessary risks. I don't want to have to come in there after you to save your asses."
"The big guy and I can take 'em." Rainbow exclaimed proudly. She nudged Wrex on the shoulder with a hoof. "Let's go."
Dash flew into the hole with all the grace of a swan with enough firepower to destroy a pre-industrial civilization.
Wrex just jumped in after her, hitting the ground with a heavy, reverberating thud.
They both headed deeper into the hole and out of view of Shepard and the rest of the team. Turning back to look at Ashley, Kaidan, Garrus, and Tali. "Let's get moving. We've got a Matriarch to find."