10 Thargelia 3364 AR (16 January 2198), T'Selien Spaceport, Armali/Thessia
A female human paced down the access ramp from her ship, out into the busy spaceport concourse.
Even on Thessia, where physical beauty was commonplace, she attracted attention. Tall, slim but generously curved, she carried herself like a trained athlete. She wore a light armored bodysuit that hugged her form, all in shining black with gold accents. Her high-heeled boots gave her walk a feline air, clicking emphatically with each step.
More than one asari stared as the woman passed, but then they looked into her face: coldly beautiful, like a statue of Athame come to life, with a long mane of black hair pulled back into a single braid. It was the expression that caused them to turn away, with a small shiver down the spine: fierce and determined, with very little patience for mortal failings.
A petite asari stepped forward, from where she had been leaning against a wall: pale-blue skin, insect-wing pattern of white dapples across her face, smoky silver eyes with dark rims, and a flat-black combat bodysuit in typical commando style.
Miranda Lawson stopped and nodded. "Hello, Vara."
"Welcome back to Thessia," said the asari, her glance assessing the human with lightning speed. "You're looking well."
"Thanks. Things do seem to be settling down out there. Nobody's taken a shot at me in weeks."
Vara T'Rathis grinned at her human friend. "I'm afraid we may have to break that record. Tensions may be declining out in the galaxy, but they seem about to boil over here."
Miranda frowned, as she and Vara turned to continue down the concourse. "Do you seriously expect violence?"
"I'm not sure," said the asari, sobering quickly. "Liara isn't sure either. There has been violence here and there ever since the war. Banditry, blood-feuds, a few cases of outright stasis in some of the smaller city-states . . ."
"Stasis?" Miranda asked, giving her companion a puzzled glance.
"Hmm. I can see how the word might have translated oddly into English." Vara paused for a moment, thinking. "The koiné word comes from a root that means to stand. The idea is that you get some people standing with one faction, and others standing with another. They stop talking to each other. Before long they can't compromise with each other, or even recognize each other as having legitimate concerns. Sooner or later they start resorting to violence."
"Civil war, we might call that."
"Well. There's nothing civil about it." Vara shrugged. "Armali has been relatively quiet. It helps that Liara has been here most of the time, ever since the war, pouring resources into relief and recovery. After the first two or three years, there wasn't any more danger of famine, people had a chance to do some rebuilding, and life started getting back to normal. We've been better off than some other parts of the planet. Far better off."
Miranda snorted. "Give people a little prosperity, and they can start fighting over abstractions again."
"Yes." Vara sighed, looking worried. "I'm afraid Liara has been busy giving our people the perfect abstractions to fight over."
Their aircar swept low over Armali, on its way to the T'Soni lineage estates to the east. As always, Miranda looked out at the city and felt melancholy.
She had first visited Thessia as a young woman, barely out of her teens, but already one of the Illusive Man's leading operatives. She had been young and stupid at the time, full of a recent convert's zeal for the human-supremacist ideology of Cerberus. Even so, the asari homeworld had made a deep impression. She found a people who had confidently traveled the stars while humanity still struggled to discover the useful properties of iron. She spoke to diplomats, scientists, mathematicians, artists, musicians, poets. She wondered at the graceful architecture, buildings soaring over a kilometer into the sky, sweeping curves and gleaming spires everywhere the eye chanced to rest.
To be sure, the asari were far from perfect. They lacked a certain drive, a certain practical toughness, which young Miranda knew humans possessed in full. She could secretly sneer at their pretense to be superior beings, even while she found much to appreciate and admire about them.
Now . . .
Miranda would be fifty years old before much longer. Not old by any means, especially given her gene-engineered longevity, but not a young woman any more either. She felt as if she had lost her innocence so many times, she could barely remember what it had once felt like. Her life had become a constant project of rebuilding, trying to recover something out of the wreckage of her lost youth.
Much like Thessia.
Almost nothing remained of Armali's glorious architecture. The Reapers had been on Thessia for only a week, but in that short time they managed to smash every soaring spire into so much wreckage. It had taken years for the asari to clear away the rubble and start rebuilding. Even now, over a decade later, whole districts remained full of empty shells. Miranda couldn't see a single building taller than about fifteen meters. The Armali skyline looked like an ancient, decrepit jawbone, full of gaps and the snags of broken teeth.
At least the city looked occupied and busy, with plenty of people moving about in the streets, mostly asari but with a few others in the mix. Many were on foot, and Miranda could even see a few animal-drawn vehicles, rickety-looking carts carrying cargo or passengers. Apparently Thessia's economy had not yet recovered to the point of permitting all its citizens to use high-tech transport.
How the mighty have fallen.
Not that Earth is better off. The Reapers had a lot more time to wreck the place. We're lucky humanity's homeworld didn't get pushed all the way back into the Stone Age.
Suddenly Miranda frowned, staring down into the streets of Armali as the aircar flew overhead. "Vara, what's going on there?"
Down below, one wide street was thronged with asari, hundreds of them, possibly even a few thousand. They marched slowly, shoulder to shoulder, blocking all other traffic. The aircar was too high up for Miranda to hear anything, but she could see arms being waved rhythmically in the air.
The asari spared a moment from piloting to glance in the direction Miranda pointed. "Hmm. I'm not sure."
"Take us down," Miranda commanded.
"I want to see this." The human hesitated. "Unless you think it's dangerous."
"Well. We asari do tend to flock, but we're not as likely as you humans to get violent when we're in large groups. I suppose we can take a closer look." Vara suddenly smiled. "In fact, we can think of it as an intelligence-gathering exercise. I'll wager Liara will want to know about this."
Vara banked in the air, looking for an empty lot not far from the procession's line of march. Miranda turned in her seat to keep an eye on the procession. Thus she saw when some of the marchers noticed the aircar, their expressions and body language changing. She frowned.
Those asari are angry. At us?
Well, of course. We're in an aircar. They don't know who we are, but they know we're rich and privileged.
She almost opened her mouth to tell Vara that she had changed her mind, but then she shook her head in determination. She did take a moment to draw and check her sidearm, earning a sharp glance from her companion.
The aircar landed, and Vara and Miranda emerged. Both of them had sidearms on hand, and the asari slung a light sword, rather like a Chinese dao, on her back. They closed and secured the vehicle behind them, just in time for a flying wedge of asari to arrive in the vacant lot. The newcomers came up at a run, only to stop short with puzzled expressions when they saw who had been in the vehicle.
Vara made a gesture with both open hands, indicating that she might be armed but wasn't planning to use violence. At least not unless provoked. "Vara T'Rathis," she identified herself. "Chief acolyte to Liara T'Soni."
"Oh!" exclaimed one of the asari in the lead, a violet-skinned maiden with hazel eyes and a broad white smile. "We're sorry, therapōn. We thought you might be part of some important Matriarch's retinue. It wouldn't be entirely safe for any such to land here."
"Are you saying your group would offer violence to a Matriarch's people?" said Vara, a note of danger in her tone.
"Not at all." The young asari shrugged. "It's just that her aircar might not be in working order by the time she got back to it. Terrible, if she found herself having to walk around the city, like one of us ordinary citizens."
Vara snorted. "Of course, as things stand, you'll be only too happy to post a watch over our vehicle, so nothing unfortunate will happen to it."
"Right." The young asari glanced at her companions. "Melitta, Rhea, Sestris, you three wait here. Make sure anyone who comes by knows whose aircar this is."
This command met with enthusiastic agreement.
Miranda set out for the main street about twenty meters away, where the head of the procession had just passed by. This close, she could finally hear the noise of the crowd, the shouting of koiné slogans.
"We demand academic freedom!"
"We reject ageism!"
"There must be an end to Matriarchal privilege!"
Vara stayed close by, her face set in a calm, professional expression, trying to watch every quarter at once. The two of them found themselves with an enthusiastic escort, all of them young asari, if Miranda was any judge.
"My name is Yesira," said the asari who had first accosted them, glancing up and down at the human stranger. "Who are you?"
"Miranda . . ." Yesira frowned for an instant, and then enlightenment spread across her face. "Goddess, I recognize you! You're Miranda Lawson."
Miranda glanced at Vara, only to catch a fleeting amused expression on her friend's face. "Am I that famous on Thessia?"
"Of course you are," said Yesira, when the older asari failed to answer. "You were one of Commander Shepard's people! You helped him defeat the Reapers!"
Miranda snorted in cynical amusement. "When we started, Commander Shepard was one of my people, and I worked for Cerberus."
Yesira made a dismissive gesture, just as their group stepped out into the marching throng, suddenly surrounded on all sides by excited asari. "That's not important. You left Cerberus behind when it mattered."
Not to mention, I've spend most of the last twelve years hunting down Cerberus die-hards, most of whom have done their level best to kill me in the process.
"What's going on here?" asked Vara. "You look like a pack of university students."
"Most of us are," said Yesira. "Students and staff, a few of the faculty. Some from the entertainment district on the south bank of the river, where a lot of students congregate."
"Do you have any goals in mind, other than to block traffic and shout slogans?"
Miranda frowned, wondering at the note of disapproval she heard in Vara's voice.
"Of course!" Yesira's passion seemed undaunted. "We're sick of interference from the Matriarchs. Ever since the war, they've been constantly meddling with the University, censoring the curricula, forcing the dismissal of faculty they don't like. Thessia can't afford radicalism in a time of recovery, they say. Well, they're just provoking the radicalism they claim they oppose."
"So what do you plan to do about it?" Miranda asked.
"The Republic of Armali is supposed to guarantee the University's independence and neutrality," Yesira explained. "We're going to go and present our grievances to the board of archons."
Vara shook her head in weary disgust. "You have to know that won't work. Half of the archons are reactionary Matriarchs, and that's the half that has all the power."
"Matriarch Kleitho is First Speaker on the board," Yesira objected. "She's been publicly sympathetic to our position."
"Only when it wouldn't cost her anything. Good luck getting her to act."
Miranda listened to the conversation with half her attention, most of her mind taking in other sense-impressions. She had somehow made it into the very heart of the marching crowd. Passionate young asari surged on all sides, along with a few aliens who must have been university students from off-world. Color rioted in her field of vision, skin of every shade but dominated by blue and violet, clothing in a hundred clashing hues. Feminine voices rippled and surged, some of them conversing, many of them continuing to shout slogans. Miranda even picked up a scent, like cloves and cinnamon, the aroma of a flock of excited asari.
Many in the crowd glanced her way, but word of her identity seemed to have spread. No one challenged her presence.
Then she saw the first sign of trouble: an asari standing on a rooftop, overlooking the line of march, wearing a black bodysuit. She was not obviously armed, but she watched the procession with close attention.
Then another, on a different rooftop. Then a third. Then a small group standing in a side alley, still not clearly armed.
"Vara," Miranda murmured.
"I see them. Armali militia." The short asari commando shook her head. "Nothing to worry about, not yet. They're just watching."
"Are you sure?"
"I used to be one of them, before I went off to Illium to join Liara before the war. I recognize their doctrine. If you can see them, it's because they want to be seen. It's when they disappear that we'll need to worry."
The street ahead seemed to grow wider, opening out into a big square or plaza. Miranda could hear the asari voices around her grow more cheerful and animated.
"The Plaza of Explorers," said Yesira, pointing.
Miranda nodded, the name triggering the ghost of a memory. "That's where Shepard landed, isn't it? The day the Reapers came to Thessia?"
For a moment, a shadow crossed the young asari's face. "Yes. Goddess, that was a horrible day."
"Were you here?"
"No, I was fortunate. I was still too young to come to the University then. I lived with my mother in a small town, out in the country. She had been following the news from the rest of the galaxy, and she never believed the official assurances that Thessia was safe, so we were prepared. The moment we saw the Reapers landing, we grabbed our go-bags and ran for the mountains. We survived the invasion, never even had to fight more than a few stray husks and marauders." The young asari shuddered. "Still. I've seen vids, I've spoken to a lot of people who were right here in the city that day. It was like the end of everything."
Miranda nodded, glancing around as the crowd moved out into the plaza.
If it weren't for Shepard, that would have been the end of everything.
For an instant, she felt the old pain, like a nagging wound that had never quite healed. The one man she had always admired, had never betrayed. Her friend, her comrade-in-arms, her equal. Gone without a trace, and no one had ever learned for certain what happened to him at the very end of the war. A sacrifice, one that purchased survival for billions of others.
Damn you, Shepard. You should have found some way to survive. The galaxy hasn't been the same without you.
The procession apparently reached its destination, devolving into a mere crowd milling about at one end of the great plaza. Miranda could see the building at the focus of everyone's attention, a five-story affair that had the look of recent construction. A few of the young asari had climbed a broad staircase to stand under a long colonnade, where they confronted others in black combat armor.
Miranda glanced around the plaza. Yes, she saw more black-clad asari on several rooftops, and at least one armored vehicle posted at the far corner of the square. Still, no one seemed ready for violence. Vara didn't seem concerned, and neither did any of the marchers.
The debate at the top of the stairs seemed to come to a resolution. Five asari were permitted past the militia and through the big double doors.
For some reason, this seemed to please the crowd. A great cheer went up, echoing off the building's façade, startling a nearby flock of little avians into flight.
The Reapers had not had time to destroy everything on Thessia. Outside the great urban centers, most buildings remained intact, suffering damage only if wandering bands of Reaper soldiers had come prowling through the region.
The T'Soni lineage estate was a prominent exception. One of the Reaper platforms investing Armali had deliberately ventured away from the city, just long enough to turn Liara's manor house into a smoking pile of rubble. Almost as if the monsters had known who lived there.
Maybe they did, Miranda thought. Of all Shepard's people, Liara probably accomplished the most to contribute to their defeat. If she hadn't discovered the Crucible data, almost at the last possible moment, we wouldn't have had the slightest chance of survival.
Miranda's mind sheered away from some of the other contributions Liara had made to Shepard's success . . . as his wife.
The Shadow Broker might have spent billions to rebuild Thessia and other worlds, but her own home remained a ruin. At the moment, she lived in a little two-story bungalow by the shore, something she and her acolytes had assembled out of scavenged materials and hard physical labor. It seemed a strange place from which to run the galaxy's most extensive intelligence network, but somehow its mistress seemed to make it work.
Miranda found Liara down by the shore, sitting in a lounge chair that faced the sand and waves, wearing nothing but a two-piece bathing suit in white. The slender asari seemed deeply engrossed in a stack of datapads, a half-eaten meal sitting forgotten on a small table by her side.
"We're here," said Vara at last, a small, tolerant smile on her face.
Liara startled for an instant, and then recovered, placing her current datapad on top of the stack. She rose from the lounge chair with unconscious grace and peered at her visitors. "I was beginning to worry. We expected you hours ago."
"My fault," said Miranda, stepping forward to give Liara a sisterly embrace of greeting. "We saw some kind of protest march in the city. I insisted that we get a closer look. We ended up staying for the whole affair."
"Ah." Liara nodded, a conspicuous lack of surprise on her face. "I knew something was likely to happen today. It's the Day of Remembrance, after all."
Miranda frowned for a moment, and then nodded in understanding. "I'd forgotten. Today's the anniversary of the Battle of Earth, isn't it, by the Thessian calendar?"
"The tenth day of Thargelia," Liara agreed. "The day the Reapers suddenly stopped trying to exterminate the asari people. It's a holiday now, in Armali. A good day for people to gather and think about the larger issues."
"Did you have anything to do with this?" Vara demanded.
"Perhaps a little," Liara admitted. "A word or two to the right people, the last time I visited the University, nothing more. Vara, you know I'm not trying to encourage these protests. If anything, I want to restrain them. The last thing we need on Thessia right now is a revolution. Anything like that is far too likely to turn violent."
"You may not be trying to encourage anyone, but you have to know that even a word or two from you is going to have a profound and unpredictable effect." Vara shook her head in consternation. "Despoina, you must be more careful."
Liara smiled at Miranda. "Vara worries about my safety."
"Someone has to," the commando muttered, "since you seem uninterested in the project."
"In any case, Miranda, will you be able to stay for long?"
"I think so." The human rubbed at her cheek, a gesture of uncertainty. "Although I'm not sure why you called me here this time. Asari politics aren't really within my scope."
"I think you will be interested in them in this case." Liara bent to rummage through the pile of datapads by her chair, and came up with one in particular. She handed the pad to Miranda.
Miranda flash-read the document. She could feel her face setting into cold, grim lines.
"They're here?" she demanded at last. "What in God's name could they be up to?"
"That's what I want to find out," said the Shadow Broker. "Cerberus has no business on Thessia. I want you to help me deal with them."
"I can see why you didn't want to talk about this over comms," said Miranda. "All right. I'm in."