24 May 2200, Sierra Nevada Foothills, Earth
Miranda emerged from the aircar and took a deep breath, enjoying the crisp flavor of mountain air. She looked around at a stark landscape: a small river running down from the distant heights, green grass and sparse trees on the slopes, the jagged peak of Mount Whitney in the distance. A house stood on a nearby hill, low to the ground and set back into the hillside, its front dominated by enormous windows that shone in the afternoon sunlight.
Then her companions emerged as well. Liara wore denim jeans, a white shirt, and tough hiking boots. She glanced around her with keen interest, enjoying the alpine landscape. Kahlee Sanders pulled a leather jacket close around her shoulders, brushing long blonde hair back from her face. She seemed alert but slightly puzzled, her pale-blue eyes darting about as if to search out clues to a mystery.
"We're here," said Miranda.
"You still haven't been very clear about where here is," Kahlee complained. "A mountain cottage on the edge of the Sierras? This is pretty country, but I don't have time to take a vacation right now."
Liara made a Mona Lisa smile, as always seeming to know more than she let on. "I think the question is, whose mountain cottage is this?"
Miranda set out toward the house, striding across the open ground, knowing her friends would follow. "Nobody has actually lived here for a long time. A few refugees camped on the grounds for a while during the Reaper War, but they couldn't get in. The house's defenses were too effective."
"Defenses?" Kahlee asked, hesitating for a moment.
"Don't worry. The current owners are the Tulare County Historical Trust, and they gave me the pass-codes after I convinced Sanjeev to take an interest. We shouldn't have much trouble getting into the house. Finding what we're after may be a different story. If it's here at all."
"So, who did own this place?'
"Originally, it belonged to Alec Ryder."
Kahlee stopped dead, staring at Miranda. "All right," she said harshly, "just why did you call me all the way from Elysium for this?"
Liara intervened, pitching her voice for calmness. "Kahlee, Miranda knows who your father was, because she knows what I know. I don't think that's the reason she invited you here."
"That's right," said Miranda. "Look, I don't care that Jon Grissom was your father, or why you and he were estranged for so long. Doesn't matter. That distant association with Ryder isn't the point. The point is, you're the foremost expert the Alliance has on artificial intelligence."
Kahlee frowned. "Ryder was drummed out of the Alliance military for illegal work on AI. The same kind of work I was doing for Dr. Qian, at about the same time, now that I think of it. You think he left something behind, when he and all those other people went off into dark space?"
"It's possible," Miranda told her, stepping up onto the house's front porch and examining the front door. "Brynn found the first clues, in old Andromeda Initiative records, and I agree there are signs that he left something here when the expedition departed. It could be nothing. It could be something for which I really want the smartest people I know on hand."
"Which is a compliment, if you want one," Liara murmured. "Alec was a brilliant man. Anything he left behind might have enormous implications."
"If you say so," said Kahlee, looking somewhat mollified. She gave Liara a sharp glance. "You speak as if you knew Ryder personally."
Liara shook her head. "Not really. He was interested in the Protheans and their technology, so he sought me out through the extranet. I corresponded with him for a while, before I met Shepard, but then he went silent and I didn't think of him again for several years. By then he was off to Andromeda."
Miranda opened her omni-tool, entering a pass-code. The front door of the house unlocked with a soft click.
Inside, they found everything in good order.
Surprisingly good order, in fact, given that it's been fifteen years and the near-extinction of civilization since anyone has lived here.
Then Miranda spotted a small maintenance mech, tirelessly sweeping away dust, and she understood.
She kept her omni-tool open, probing the interior of the house with every available sensor. Liara moved quietly from room to room, using her unaided eyes to look for clues. Kahlee saw a framed photograph on the mantel of the living-room fireplace, one that had fallen face-down. She crossed over to it and set it upright, revealing a family portrait: stern father, smiling mother, two small children.
"Odd," said Miranda. "No sign that there's anything here but a perfectly ordinary house."
"Maybe that's all there is," Kahlee said, turning away from the photograph. "If he was continuing to do cutting-edge and illegal work, he might have been well-advised to do it somewhere else. Somewhere away from his family. Liara, do you see anything?"
"Maybe," came the asari's voice from the back of the house. "Come look at this and tell me if I'm imagining it."
Miranda and Kahlee found Liara standing in the kitchen, looking across the back of the house toward a formal dining room, with an office beyond. With the house built into a hillside, there were no windows. Still, the space was brighter for a big screen in the back wall, displaying a sunset over ocean.
Miranda saw it right away. "Why is the back of the house not a straight line?"
The back wall of the formal dining room failed to line up with the back walls of kitchen and office. It was offset inward, just a fraction of a meter, barely enough to notice.
Kahlee opened her omni-tool and tapped at the controls. "Still not showing anything back there but bedrock."
"I suppose it could have just been a design decision," Liara mused.
Miranda stepped into the dining room, moving up close to the back wall and examining it closely. "There's no vid-screen here. Just a couple of still pictures . . ."
A big framed photograph of the Citadel was firmly attached to the wall, not just hanging from a hook. Miranda ran her fingers around the frame, until her fingertips sensed a slight irregularity near the lower right corner. She pressed there, hard.
With a thunk and a deep rumble, the back wall of the dining room receded, divided in two, and then retracted to the sides. Behind it was a space that had in no way shown up on any of their omni-tool scans.
"I'll be damned," Kahlee whispered reverently.
They saw consoles, workbenches, and vid-screens. Cabinets full of tools. What appeared to be a powerful mainframe computer. All arranged around a holographic stage that dominated the center of the space.
Liara nodded to herself. "Not away from his family, after all. It makes sense, given his wife's technical expertise."
"Alec and Ellen were on the verge of some real breakthroughs, before she passed away and he joined the Andromeda expedition," said Kahlee. She moved around the room, looking at everything, her hands firmly behind her back so she wouldn't be tempted to touch. "An entirely different approach. Integration of VI or AI systems with the human brain and nervous system. A synthesis of sorts. Officially, he never got it to work."
"Kahlee, the laws against AI research have been relaxed since the war." Liara smiled. "Our experiences with EDI and the geth, what we've learned about the true history of the galaxy . . . it all means that if we're cautious, there's no reason why AI must always be hostile. A few people in power have become more willing to explore the possibilities. The Armali Council and I would be willing to support research into anything Alec discovered. If you might be interested?"
"If I might be interested?" Kahlee laughed out loud. "Liara, what if he succeeded after all, and there are clues to that work here? Do you have any idea what that might mean?"
Liara caught Miranda's eye. "Another adventure," she said quietly, reaching out to take her lover's hand.
4 October 2203, Presidium Ring/Citadel
Liara and Miranda returned to their apartment late in the evening, after dinner, drinks, and dancing at Flux. Miranda walked silently down the hallway to their front door, aware that the asari had gone silent, preoccupied by something.
The moment they were safely inside, Miranda gave the asari a meaningful stare, arms folded and eyebrow raised.
Liara sighed. "I'm sorry, Miranda. My omni-tool has given me at least three high-priority alerts in the last hour."
"You're getting to be a very good actor. I didn't even notice the alerts. I did notice that you had your omni-tool on the whole time we were out."
"I know." Liara made a helpless gesture. "Miri, I didn't want to risk being distracted. We get to spend time together so rarely any more. But . . ."
"You knew there might be something urgent, and you felt guilty about cutting yourself off from contact entirely. So you wore your omni-tool on our date, but you refused to answer it." Miranda sighed, rolling her eyes in exasperation. "God, Liara, if you were a donkey standing between two equal piles of hay, you'd starve to death deciding which one to eat."
"I know." Liara stood there, her hands moving slightly, as if she wanted to take Miranda in her arms but had forgotten how. "I hate this. Every time I try to pull away, there's always something to yank me back in. There's always some new crisis back home, or something the Shadow Broker must deal with. Even when I manage to get away for a few days for the Citadel, and you, it never lasts."
"What a load of shite," Miranda said harshly.
Liara stared at her, eyes gone wide and blue as if she had been slapped.
"Be honest with yourself, Liara. I know you never planned to be a political figure, but that's what you've become. You're good at it, even I can tell that. And the fact of the matter is, you enjoy it."
The asari turned away, staring out the big front window of their apartment, the gorgeous view of the Presidium. She didn't move for several minutes, while Miranda waited patiently.
"I don't want to enjoy it," Liara said at last. "That would be like admitting that Matriarch Ariadne was right about me all along."
Miranda snorted in distaste. "Well, you can put that out of your mind, at least. I know your motivations a lot better than she ever did. You don't want power because it gives you the ability to control other people. You want power because you want to make life better for other people."
"That doesn't help. Who's to say I know what's best for anyone else? I can't even manage my own life properly."
"Maybe you don't, but at least you make the effort to learn. I've seen how hard you work to gather information, so you can make decisions based on objective reality instead of living in some ideological la-la land. You listen to people. You persuade them, instead of barking orders and twisting arms. When people don't agree to follow along, you accept it and move on to the next problem." Miranda shrugged. "None of which makes you a perfect candidate for political office, but you do better than most . . . and you know that."
"No maybe about it." Miranda looked down at the floor, feeling ridiculous holding this conversation while wearing a stylish evening gown, all crimson silk and strategically placed keyholes. She felt the need to be wearing work clothes instead. Possibly a sidearm. "Liara, this isn't about Matriarch Ariadne. This is about Matriarch Benezia."
Shadows moved in Liara's eyes, but Miranda couldn't see any confusion there. She knew exactly what her lover was talking about.
"This is how your mother felt, in the years just before you were born. She couldn't be the great philosopher and Matriarch, and be Aethyta's bondmate, all at the same time. Couldn't commit to both fully, because together they demanded at least one-and-a-half Benezias. And she hated the idea of not committing herself fully to anything she thought was important."
"There was more to it than that," said Liara quietly. "Aethyta was . . . not the most auspicious bondmate, for someone in the position my mother found herself growing into."
"I wasn't going to go there if you didn't," Miranda snapped. "I know I'm not exactly bondmate material for any up-and-coming asari politician, either. I could live to be a thousand years old, and the Cerberus stink still wouldn't wash off."
"That doesn't matter to me."
"Maybe it should."
They stood, staring at each other, the few meters between them feeling like light-years.
"I'm sorry," said Liara at last. "You're right, I should compartmentalize my life better. If I can't spend as much time as I want with you – if you still won't let me set everything else aside and move here to be with you . . ."
Miranda shook her head decisively.
"Then at least I should have the courtesy to shut it all out, for what little time we can steal for ourselves. It's not as if my aides and acolytes can't keep Armali from exploding, or the Shadow Broker's network from collapsing, for a few hours at a time. It won't happen again."
"All right." Miranda made a conscious effort to relax her spine, take one step forward, then another. Then Liara was a warm, familiar presence in the circle of her arms, and an ardent kiss set heat in the pit of her stomach.
Later, after they had gone to bed, the aftershocks of passion still running warm along her nerves, Miranda found herself holding the sleeping asari and staring at the ceiling.
This isn't going to last, she realized. A few more months, a year, two years . . . and then she's going to go her way and I'll go mine.
Maybe I should start planning for that.
15 July 2215, Presidium Ring/Citadel
Miranda closed the door to the apartment, dropping her carryall on the floor. The place was dark and silent, with no sign that Karl had come home. She signaled for the lights, and made a beeline for the stairs up to her office.
Liara hasn't called in months. Now she sends me nothing but a text message under a cover name, specifically asking me to call her from the apartment. Which implies she wants the security we installed, back when she still lived here some of the time.
It didn't take long for Miranda to remember the old command sequences. Some of the best encryption in the galaxy kicked in, routing through an ever-shifting chain of extranet sites, at least one of which involved a QEC link. Maybe Shepard could break it, wherever he existed, off in the Reaper-mind. With luck, no one else could.
The display flickered, and Miranda took in a deep, shocked, breath.
Liara looked terrible.
"Miranda." The cobalt-blue eyes stared out at her, a gleam in them of either deep fatigue or fanaticism. "Are you alone?"
"I'm alone. Karl must still be at the lab. He said something about the possibility of a late meeting. Liara, what's wrong?"
"Miranda, you have to get off the Citadel." The asari's voice was rough, tense with fear and concern. "Take Karl with you and get down to Earth, go to your sister and your friends there. Before you do that, though, I'm going to download a stack of files to you. Those must get to the Alliance."
Miranda shook her head. "I don't understand."
"You know I've been investigating the trouble on Earth," said Liara. "Nationalist unrest, corruption and malfeasance among Alliance officials, a surge in xenophobia."
"The last time we spoke, you told me you couldn't find anything behind it. We decided it was just humanity being its usual fractious self, now that we've managed to get back some prosperity after the Reapers. Oriana and the rest of the Fantastics agreed."
"I was wrong. I was very wrong." Liara looked away. "I've made a terrible mistake. I've been played, far worse than the Illusive Man ever managed back in the day."
"The STG," Liara said flatly.
It felt like a lightning bolt at the base of Miranda's skull. She sat back in her chair, her eyes wide, as facts rearranged themselves in her mind, falling into place one after the other.
"Nobody even thought of it," she said at last. "The salarians have been so polite, so helpful, ever since the Reapers left. They provided so much funding for all the worlds that were hit far worse than theirs. We've never been able to prove a single non-human connection for any of the trouble in the Alliance."
"Or for the waves of turian separatism that Primarch Victus has had to deal with," Liara agreed. "Or for the recent uprisings against Clan Urdnot on Tuchanka. I finally got deep-cover agents onto Sur'Kesh, all the way into dalatrass Esheel's palace and STG headquarters. It's the hardest bit of espionage I've ever had to oversee. There can be no doubt about it. The Salarian Union is deliberately trying to undermine human, turian, and krogan unity. They've been at it for years. They're about to make an open grab for power."
"You think they're going to strike here?"
"I know they are." Liara glanced to the side, working the keyboard at her end of the link. An icon appeared in Miranda's screen, indicating a data download. A big one. "This is everything I have. Right now, I don't trust any comm links onto the Citadel or into the Alliance except this one. You're the only one on the Citadel I know I can trust. You have to get this to Admiral Hackett."
Miranda nodded, already working to pull the data onto a hard-storage device. "You know, if the STG has compromised the Citadel that badly . . ."
"This might be putting you in danger." Liara nodded. "I'm sorry, Miranda. I know I don't have any right to ask this of you."
Miranda raised a hand to touch the image of Liara's face. "Don't worry about it. I'm a little out of practice, but I'm willing to bet my tradecraft is still up to the challenge. Even if this is the STG we're talking about."
"Be careful, Miri." The old pet name, escaping now, driven by desperate worry.
Miranda gave her once-lover a daredevil grin. "No promises."
She was careful. Over the next nine hours, she managed to get a warning to Karl Ritter, evade Citadel Security, defeat a well-armed salarian Spectre, get off the Citadel aboard a maintenance pod, survive a sky-dive from low Earth orbit, cross the North American continent without being spotted, and infiltrate Alliance headquarters in Vancouver. Liara's data reached Admiral Steven Hackett in time.
Thus, when certain dalatrass within the Salarian Union launched their coup the next day, they failed to capture the Citadel or blockade Earth. Councilors Valeri and Ertarian were killed, and the Citadel Council disbanded for the first and last time in history. Spectre Corps headquarters was wrecked by a micro-fusion device, with heavy loss of life. Rear Admiral Ashley Williams died in the Battle of Charon, successfully holding the line against a salarian armada, wiping out her grandfather's dishonor for all time.
The Citadel stood. Earth stood. In time, the reactionaries who had maneuvered themselves into power on Sur'Kesh fell.
Afterward, Liara found herself one of the galaxy's foremost political leaders. Miranda remained on Earth, contented with Karl, her family, her friends, and her work for the Alliance. They spoke less and less often: friendly messages on special occasions, the rare encounter at a high-society function on the Citadel.
Sometimes, each of them remembered those brief years after the Silk Revolution. They would stop, and smile quietly to themselves, and then get on with business. It was enough.
28 August 2225, Presidium Ring/Citadel
Five years since the end of the Salarian Wars, almost forty years since the departure of the Reapers. The Citadel was a loud, frenetic place, celebrations taking place around the clock.
It helped that the Citadel Confederation finally seemed to be a going concern. It was a new galactic government set up to replace the fallen Citadel Council. A web of treaties centered on the old turian-human-krogan alliance. A first experiment in true interstellar democracy. Many times, in those first few years, it had seemed likely to collapse. Now, under President Hackett's firm hand, peace and prosperity were beginning to feel like things that could be relied upon.
Miranda walked with her husband along a promenade, the two of them talking about their scientific work as they idly browsed for a place to enjoy a bottle of wine and a fine meal. Then, rather suddenly, she saw an old friend . . . and something else that she couldn't quite believe.
"Karl, why don't you go on ahead and find us a table? Ping me so I know where to find you."
Karl looked the same way she had, one eyebrow quirking upward as he realized what Miranda had seen. He nodded, bent to kiss Miranda's cheek, and then strode away.
Miranda made her way between the tables of a small wine bar, until she reached her target. Only then did she clear her throat to call attention to herself. "You two are certainly off your guard."
Startled, Liara glanced upward. Then she relaxed, as soon as she saw who had accosted her. She made an amused snort, and turned to her companion. "Vara, I'm surprised at you, letting such a dangerous person sneak up on us like that."
"I saw her coming a block away," Vara told her. "Besides, I'm not your bodyguard anymore. Nerylla probably spotted and up-checked her even before I did."
Miranda cocked her head at the petite . . . ex-commando, apparently. Vara still looked small and wiry and dangerous. Still, for the first time Miranda had ever seen, she was out in public in something other than a commando's light armor. Instead, she wore a dress in deep-red silk, low-cut and clingy. The effect was rather startling, for anyone like Miranda who had known her for many years.
Liara's body language was instructive: turned toward Vara, gaze tending to wander in that direction, one hand resting on the table-top as if it wanted to inch over and rest atop the other asari's.
Well. About bloody time.
Miranda sat down at an unspoken invitation. "So, what brings the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs out in public this evening, without a swarm of aides and hangers-on, and not a single paparazza in sight?"
"We're on a date," said Vara, without hesitation.
"You said you weren't Liara's bodyguard anymore." Miranda cocked her head at the two of them. "I assume that means a different sort of involvement now."
Vara grinned, a wide white thing that lit up her face. "Looks that way."
As always, Liara's smile was a subtler thing, but there was no mistaking it. "A few weeks ago, we finally decided to stop dancing around the issue all the time. I asked. She said yes."
"With great enthusiasm," Vara interjected.
"With rather irresistible enthusiasm."
"Well. I've only been waiting patiently for forty years. Even for us asari, that's not a short time."
Miranda leaned back, shaking her head at the server who came by to take her order. "How is it working out?"
"Ask us again in another forty years," Liara said. "We've decided to make a long-term thing of it. Siavi vows first, then a formal bonding, all in the same day. Just as soon as we can find a space on my calendar wide enough for a trip back to Thessia. You and Karl are invited, of course."
"We wouldn't miss it." Miranda frowned slightly. "Although that sounds unusually quick, for an asari-asari relationship."
"Now that we've made up our minds, we have a lot of catching up to do." Then Liara glanced down, her eyes suddenly shadowed. "Besides . . . we want to do it while my father is still on hand to celebrate with us."
Miranda felt a chill. "Aethyta isn't doing well?"
"She has her good days." Liara's hand finally moved to take Vara's, for comfort. "Her doctors say she doesn't have many years left."
"She's over a thousand years old," Vara murmured. "Even for asari, there comes a day when the Courier calls for you."
"Do you think I should come visit her?" Miranda asked.
Liara perked up again, a glint of amusement in her eye. "I didn't think you and she got along."
"She warmed up to me. Especially after the two of us broke up. She and I discovered we actually had a lot in common."
"Yes, Miranda, I think she would appreciate it. If you're going to come to Thessia for our bonding, you could spend some time with Aethyta too."
"It's a deal."
Just then, a silent signal went off in Miranda's VI implant. By reflex, she turned her head in the direction Karl had gone, but of course he was out of sight.
"I know that look," said Liara. "Karl is calling you, isn't he?"
"That he is." Miranda rose from the table, smiling at her friends, for a moment remembering everything they had lived through and done together.
Vara rose as well, picking up her wine-glass. "Wait! Before you go, let's share a toast."
Miranda laughed, snagging the wine bottle itself since she didn't have a glass. "Sure."
"To the Citadel Confederation," said Vara. "Long may it stand!"
All three of them drank.
"I can beat that," said Miranda, raising the bottle. "To peace, after too many years of one bloody damned war after another. Let's hope all of us are safely in our graves before that comes to an end."
"Hear, hear," murmured Vara, and drank again.
Liara raised her own glass. "To Shepard, who made it all possible."
Miranda paused for a moment, realizing something that should have been obvious.
I'm betting that by now, Vara knows everything that Liara knows.
Which means: here we are, the only three people in the galaxy who know what really happened to Shepard at the end of the Reaper War. Who know the truth behind all the comfortable myths by which the people of the galaxy live. Not that any of us will ever be able to breathe a word of it to anyone but each other.
Now, there's a sisterhood the likes of which the galaxy has never seen before, and likely will never see again.
"Amen to that," said Miranda, and drank the last of the wine.
Then she said goodbye to her friends for the time being, and went in search of Karl and a truly fine steak dinner. Off into the rest of her life.