Aethyta never understood Liara's fondness for human coffee. It was so bitter that she piled other ingredients in until it became palatable, smiling her secret love smile while detailing just how black Shepard took it. Maybe it just made her feel better when Shepard was away. Fortunately, Aethyta's favorite tea, a spicy blend from Illium, had never left the household, even in the 50+ years she'd been gone. It was the one concession Benezia had shown her; a quiet sign that despite their disagreements she was always welcome and a practice Liara continued without skipping a beat. She was enjoying a cup now while the deceptively aromatic smell of Liara's crap filled the living area.
"So, obviously, best case scenario is that our testimony clears her involvement." The aged Asari extended a hand demonstrably from where she lounged on Liara's long curved couch. "Worst case, we have to prove just 'how' she's able to stop communicating in order to provide doubt, and frankly, we don't understand it ourselves."
"Leaving us with the alternative of documenting every movement she's made since the end of the war to prove she was outside the radius of communication," Liara murmured before looking at her father with no little frustration. "A difficult task, if it's possible at all. She's been in contact with multiple members of the Convergence…..she just doesn't share." The Asari sighed and stroked Athena's crest in her lap, swaddled in a blanket. She'd been understandably restless the last couple of hours, but had finally settled into a snooze, sucking contentedly on her thumb.
The Matriarch shrugged. "We've gone over this a hundred times internally and just can't seem to find another way around what we've asked her to do."
Liara nodded and tilted her head back and forth to release some of the tension in the back of her neck. "I know, I know." She looked at Aethyta with amusement briefly before adding. "I have to admit, some of the defenses you all came up with are very...creative."
They'd been bandying ideas back and forth most of the day, and not for the first time Aethyta had found the process of verbal communication frustrating, but at last it seemed her daughter understood.
"The Volus are always good for a laugh," she chuckled, shaking her head.
Liara stopped mid-sip and shook her own head, eyes widening before she could swallow and respond. "Someone should write a novel with it," she exclaimed, "If I thought twists and turns were enough to tire the investigators I'd give it my full support."
She snorted. "How do you think they get away with half their schemes? Still, If everyone bought it, they'd think Shepard had 6 different lovers."
Liara fairly giggled. "One of them an Elcor!"
They both laughed and took a sip, looking fondly at one another.
"It makes me feel better, knowing how much thought you've put into the matter," Liara said. Her shrewd eyes focused on her again and she couldn't help but feel uncomfortable. The gaze reminded her of every shenanigan her lover had ever caught her in. That was one Asari you couldn't get anything past.
"How do you do it?" Liara asked, and Aethyta's thought process took a moment to switch back to their conversation.
"Do what?" she retorted, feeling a flush of guilty color come to her cheeks.
"Remember all those details," Liara said, cradling her jaw in a palm. "You used dozens of legal terms I've never heard of from at least 4 different cultures. I could probably learn them if I wanted, but it seemed effortless for you."
Aethyta took a deep breath before answering. "The Thorian virus altered our DNA in several ways as you can probably imagine. One of them had something to do with how our brains store things. Shared information is recalled almost perfectly, now."
Liara arched a brow. "Almost?"
She shrugged, "Well, some of that data comes from our memory of things before we were infected. Memory isn't perfect. If you were the only one there and you remember it wrong, that's still the only record available."
"Interesting," her daughter mused. "I'd like to look at any data you have about the virus, if you please."
"Oh now you're interested," she scoffed. "Let's not incriminate you by putting that info on your systems, shall we?"
Liara shook her head, a wry grin curling one side of her mouth. "I am the Shadow Broker, remember."
"Ha!" she barked. "And since you don't have that information already you aren't omniscient just yet. If you still want it when this blows over I'll send it to you myself, how's that?"
Another expressive brow-lift from her daughter, this one admitting grudging defeat. "I suppose that's fair." They heard the raucous sounds of children from the front door and Liara looked over her shoulder with a smile. "Sounds like Tali's back."
"I wish I'd been around when you were that small," Aethtya said fondly. "I don't think Nezzy really knew what to do with you."
"You sought me out," she replied, returning her gaze to her a gentle love. "That's what matters."
The words brought her a swelling of pride. Aethyta hoped her daughter would remember the sentiment in the coming days.
"Why don't you let me put her down for a nap?" she asked innocuously. "I'm sure Tali's gonna want an update."
Liara's expression softened and she passed the sleeping baby over. "I'm delighted you want to spend so much time with her," she admitted. "That nap you gave me earlier was badly needed."
"I think I might stay for a few more days," Aethyta said thoughtfully. "I don't know when I might get back here and I think you could use a hand while you find your new normal."
"That would be…very helpful," her daughter replied, pleased; and she stood as the small bundles of Tali'Zorah's own happy chaos began streaming into the living room. "I really need to check on Miranda and Feron; find out what's been happening in my absence."
"You take the time you need, Wing," she said a tad sternly. "They'll yell loud enough if there's a problem."
Liara smiled softly, her eyes reflecting artfully feigned contrition. "Of course, you're right."
While her daughter turned and greeted her friend, Aethyta quietly walked Athena back to her nursery. Shepard had put a chair in there that rocked, and while she didn't quite get the attraction, the kid seemed to like it well enough. As she padded by the crib, her hand slipped lightning-quick just inside the railing, where she withdrew a tiny, empty nebulizer placed earlier in the day and tucked it away into a pocket.
They sat down in the wooden chair and Athena began to stir, looking up into Aethyta's smiling face. She felt the child begin to actively share with her again, then; the little one's lips going slack as her young mind voraciously began devouring the wealth of information. They rocked together there, listening to the distant sound of other children, a scene out of character from the life she'd led but one she took the time to appreciate now.
She couldn't tell Liara the other urgent conclusions the Convergence had drawn. She hoped her daughter would forgive her, but didn't hold out much hope. Her rejection would sting, no doubt; but what the hell, she was getting old anyway. If there was one thing Aethyta found she was good at after all these years, it was making hard choices.
"Ollie! Ollie!" Cried the littlest Quarian while tugging earnestly at one of Liara's pant legs. It was an amalgamation of the words 'Aunt' and 'Li' for Liara that never failed to make her smile, and while Tali was animatedly trying to calm the other kids while they swooped around the room she bent down to consider the tiny girl gazing so seriously at her through her rounded encounter suit.
"What can I do for you, Nira?" She asked with matching sobriety.
Her dark eyes lit with joy at the attention, and she extended her other hand up and up to her, the plush toy she was gripping offered with laughter.
"Topuss!" She declared brightly, and Liara took the toy, rotating it to see that it was some kind of creature she didn't recognize.
She heard Tali gasp, however, and her friend approached quickly, only to stop short. "I am so sorry," she said in a whisper, then bent down to her daughter with a tutting finger. "Nira, honey, Asari are not octopuses."
Liara looked at the cartilaginous arms extending from the bulbous body and her own hand subconsciously rose to slide over her crest. She looked at Tali and Tali looked at her and for a moment neither knew just how to react...until they both burst into laughter.
"You went to the Aquarium," Liara said/asked to Tali's confirming nod.
"Oh they loved it!" Tali exclaimed and the other kids confirmed the statement with their own squeals of giddiness. "There was a virtual tour of all known sea-life where the kids could pick which kind of creature they wanted to be."
"I was a Breyak!" Reegar announced, doing his best to imitate the large, aggressive creature from the globe-encompassing seas of Yamm.
Aurelia crowed about her role as one as well, the pair always competing. Missing from the contest though, as always, was the quiet Marus, who took a seat on one of the couches to open up his Omni to read.
Liara placed a kiss on the top of Nira's cloth-covered helmet before walking around to take a seat next to the 6 year old Turian. "And what did you choose?" She asked with interest.
"I was an otter," he said distractedly, pulling up a picture to display. "They are fast and smart. Nothing can catch them." The picture began to move, showing the sleek creature winding and twisting through and around tall sea-grass before cleanly snatching its prey.
Liara looked forward to the day she could take her own daughter to such a place and watch her preferences take shape. It would be years yet, though. She leaned closer to the boy and whispered, "Excellent choice," in a voice that brought his eyes to hers. They shared a meaningful look, and he straightened subtly with the pride her attention brought.
"It's late," Tali declared. "Time to get ready for bed. Reegar, make sure Auri properly brushes her back teeth…" Aurelia groaned but Tali continued, "And I'll be checking." She clapped her hands together and children began making their way to the back rooms, little Nira waddling after them, still clutching her doll.
"Heard anything?" the Quarian followed up, right on cue, before sitting beside her.
"Not yet," she said. "I was waiting for your return before trying them."
Her friend's face brightened at her words and she nodded, rising quickly and holding out a hand to help Liara rise. Even though she was feeling markedly better she didn't refuse the gesture and they walked down the hall together into her office, where a wave of her hand brought up both her monitors and Glyph's floating presence.
"Good evening, Dr. T'Soni," the soothing voice said, filling the quiet space.
She walked by the floating hologram and lowered herself into her usual chair, making some adjustments for her now smaller size before pressing a few keys to begin the calling sequence.
Shepard's face appeared onscreen and immediately smiled. "Hey there," she said, then turned her Omni so both she and Garrus could be seen.
His mandibles spread in greeting and he waved. "How's my favorite women in the galaxy?"
Liara's quick eyes took in her bondmate's dark surroundings and the fact they were armored while Tali replied.
"Just got back with the kids and we're settling in for the night," she said brightly, her eyes fixed on Garrus. She looked between them, then, understandably curious. "What's happening where you are?"
Shepard looked at Liara directly to answer, her grin settling into something more sober. "Well, " she began with a sigh, "We're on our way to Sur'Kesh."
Garrus was more gregarious. "They're smuggling us in on a freighter!" He declared with a huff of humourous indignation. "I'm putting my foot down if they start to roll us into carpets, though. I may not be important or famous but there are just some lines that can't be crossed."
Shepard grinned crookedly, looking sideways at her friend before Liara spoke.
"What part?" She asked seriously, drawing her lover's eyes back to her.
"Talat," She said grimly.
Tali hissed in frustration. "Of course it's Talat. Spirits forbid the difficulty be any less than insane."
"It's a good plan," Garrus interjected calmly, "And we've got STG working with us too."
Shepard, however, didn't look entirely convinced.
"What can we do to help?" Liara asked before adding, "I'll put my agents on standby, of course."
The Spectre's green eyes sparkled with thanks. "I need you to reach out to Kirrahe for me, discreetly." At the question clearly written on Liara's face she continued, "Just...confirm he put these wheels in motion, and get any information he's willing to give about what we're walking into."
"You're talking about Colonel Kirrahe of the STG," Liara sounded out patiently. When Shepard nodded, she said, "You just said you were working with STG. Is there a reason you can't ask him yourself?"
Shepard's eyes flickered compassionately to Tali, who was clearly not feeling comforted by the situation. "Not everyone in STG is onboard with this. Communications are compartmentalized."
Liara understood what that meant. It meant Shepard was working with a rogue cell and any knowledge about their activities would jeopardize their success. Keeping such a secret within the most dangerous intelligence organization in the galaxy, second only to the Spectre Corp themselves, would be no mean feat. She wasn't sure Tali would come to that conclusion with the limited amount of information just revealed, though, and wasn't keen on alarming the Quarian further. "I see," She said simply, their gazes locked. "Do you have everything you need?"
"I wouldn't turn down a biotic for the team," The human said with a wink. "But I think we'll be fine."
Liara's face warmed. Tali's reaction was predictable.
"Oh, fine!" She started with mock anger. "You'll remember me when you find a locked and booby trapped door between you and your prize and have seconds to disarm it, won't you?!"
"Oh darling," Garrus purred with admiration, "I am but a poor shadow of your brilliance but don't worry, we brought extra guns and explosives for just such an occasion."
The Turian's mate crossed her arms and exhaled, then leaned towards the monitor. "You be careful, Garrus Vakarian," she warned, "You have people depending on you, now. Don't do anything stupid."
Garrus' mandibles worked, his avian face abashed. "Wouldn't dream of it. Besides, I'm with Shepard," he crooned, turning to look at her with confidence. "Valern will be back for breakfast."
Her lover's eyes softened at the praise, looking as cocksure and confident as ever, but they never left Liara's; and they absorbed one another as much as one could through an extranet connection.
The ache of need she felt for her bondmate never quite left, even when she was near; but when they were parted it took on a life of its own, coiling torturously within and spiking her adrenaline with concern and a frustrating need for action of some kind.
"I'll let you know what I find out," She promised, and the woman nodded once.
"See you soon," Came the Spectre's final words before she disconnected.
Liara looked briefly down at her other hand and found her fingers curled into an unconscious fist.
Time to call an old friend.
"Insertion of altered code via nano-assimilation did appear to reverse the effects of the synthetic evolution," The coated Turian scientist droned from where his face floated on monitor 6. The expressions of his compatriots on the other monitors varied somewhere between relief and envy, their own reports being less than conclusive.
"Good work," Miranda said, her face and voice significantly altered via software to appear and sound like a shadowy figure with a male tenor voice. "Send me the details and your bounty will be transferred upon verification."
One face in particular looked displeased. "You have something to add, Piwon?" she calmly asked.
"Nothing," the Salarian spat, "Unless of course you consider what's already been said. Altering one instance of the evolution is fine but there are instances of several simultaneously, in concert and separate, as well as series of changes presenting in these patients. What are you going to do, bring every single patient in for every single occurrence and recode? You're talking about cradle to grave care for trillions. My people don't want a workaround, they want a cure and this isn't it."
Many voices began talking at once, some in support and some arguing that progress was progress.
"Quiet," she said in a low voice, and they acquiesced; none dared talk over the Shadow Broker. "I'll share the assimilation method once the results have been reproduced and you can begin your nullification efforts there."
"It won't work," Piwon insisted. "I've tried similar recoding methods. The surrounding cells become dependent on the nanites for their neurological functions. Shut down the nanites and those cells degenerate."
"Replace the prosthetic," she added in a bored tone.
"No, no, no! All the cells," He insisted. "The nanites don't stay in the prosthetic, they migrate and reproduce through blood and connective tissue. Normal function cannot be recovered before necroptosis occurs."
Miranda paused, her brow arching. "You didn't include this in your report."
The Salarian looked like he was about to choke, his face turning an odd grey color while he fidgeted.
"What was the result of your treatment?" Miranda pressed, feeling suddenly ill.
"As I reported," he said slowly, "100% failure."
There was silence for a moment, fear and anger vying for control of her emotions. This couldn't happen again. This couldn't be happening again .
"How many?" she asked, the ice in her veins managing to keep her face and voice neutral.
"14," he replied, licking his dry lips after the admission.
Dammit, she thought. God dammit .
He at least had the grace to look dismayed. She couldn't afford that verity and in the end, neither could she afford the guilt.
"I was very clear in my instructions, was I not?" She sternly asked.
His large eyes widened further, and his words burst from him. "No time to wait! Have kept this quiet as long as possible but the number of new cases is growing exponentially! Our government is putting significant pressure on us already. If the Lystheni become the scapegoats…"
She almost laughed. There was only one source for the problem and it was sitting in her chair.
"The protection of your faction is not my concern," was her cold reply. "I expect my requirements to be met."
She disconnected his feed immediately and looked to the only successful agent once again. "I trust I'll have your findings in hand today?"
"Within the hour, sir," he confirmed after clearing his throat.
"That's all," Miranda said, and closed all the feeds simultaneously. She took a long moment afterward to curse herself before adding the same epithets to ignorant megalomanical Salarians; then took a deep breath for composure.
She was readying an elimination order for Piwon and his entire staff when another call came in. It was Shepard again. She kept typing as she answered.
"Hey Miri," she said, "Got a second?"
"If it's important," Miranda said snippishly.
There was no answer, and she finally looked at Shepard's patiently waiting face. "What is it?"
"Look, I know you're busy," she said firmly, "But I'm having a problem I'm not sure anyone but you can fix."
Miranda went back to typing, then sent the order with a smash of her finger before turning back to her friend. She said nothing, simply waiting expectantly. It was brusque, she knew, but it was important for people to understand she couldn't be interrupted just now. She watched the expected frustration sweep over Shepard's face before she relented and began.
"I had a minor cut about a week ago," she started, "Something that should have healed very quickly. I didn't have any trouble that I was aware of, but over the last couple of days it looks like it's..I don't know...resurfaced?" The woman's fingers went to a spot on her forehead.
Miranda hadn't seen anything there when she called and tried to suppress her annoyance. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"It's like," Shepard fumbled for a description as her fingernails dug at the spot, "It's like it's infected, and it itches a lot."
Her lips pursed after she asked her to move her hands. A quick couple of pinches on the haptic screen and the camera zoomed in tight. The split skin was pulling away and clearly atrophying, revealing a smooth, pink surface underneath.
"So are you saying this was fully healed before? As per normal?"
Shepard sighed audibly, as if she were embarrassed by the subject. "I think so," she said, "But, to be honest, I wasn't paying much attention."
"I'm going to get some photos for analysis. Hold still." Then, "Right, can you pick one side and pull at it gently?"
Shepard's fingernail came into view for a moment before the tired flesh moved away and out of sight. She panned the camera to inspect the edge, and saw that the new skin extended beyond the borders of the wound.
"A bit farther," she murmured, "If it's not too painful."
The flesh moved farther, peeling though Shepard made no sound of discomfort; and she could see an end to it, though the juncture was reddened and inflamed. It was as if….
"Hold there, again. Let me do a scan."
"Alright," Miranda heard her mumble, but she used every second of the scan to not panic and think of something to say.
She gave the scans a cursory look, knowing the data was valuable, though not right now. When she was ready, she zoomed the camera back out to regard Shepard's face.
"Well," she deadpanned, "It looks like the overlying skin is dying. I'll have to do some analysis of the actual tissue but I'd guess some sort of foreign material created a pocket of tissue your body needs to reject."
"Should I peel it off?" she asked with a furrowed brow, her fingers moving back to the spot.
"No, no…" Miranda said swiftly until she lowered her hand. She was uncertain what the woman might see if she did. "Whatever it's doing I wouldn't disturb it. Keep it dry and covered for now. When you can, have a medic collect some tissue and send it to me." It felt as wrong as she'd ever felt in her life to lie to her, to Shepard ; but her friend wasn't in any immediate danger. She tilted her head, curious. "What happened initially, if I may ask?"
The red-head's lips twitched. "Got in a fight."
"Shocking," she replied with a squinch of her eyes. "Anything else I can do for you?"
"Actually, there is," she began, her eyes twinkling with some secret delight, "A little surprise for Liara. But...I should go," she grinned. "I'll send a mail with the particulars."
As soon as the Spectre disconnected, so did any expression on Miranda's face. She sat there quietly, in her chair, with half a dozen monitors humming in her pristine office. On 4 of those monitors were different pages of the billion and a half lines of code used to bring the healing nanites to life 5 years ago. On the 5th was her tie-in to the Reaper data cache.
She hadn't slept in days. Stims had helped for awhile, but the lines standing in white against their black background might as well have been hieroglyphics in her current state.
Shepard was infected.
The thought reverberated in her brain until it felt like a loop. Her progress was too slow. It was only a matter of time before the newsfeeds picked up the story...before everyone knew .
She reached out with a hand and two heavy silver balls rose from their container, wreathed in blue light before traveling to her. She rotated them slowly above her hand, watching the light play and reflect from their perfect surfaces. Under normal circumstances she found it calming; but after a minute or so the spinning spheres only reminded her of the words spinning in her brain, now with an addition.
Shepard's infected. Jack is next.
Before she even realized what she'd done there was an explosion of glass and twisted metal, the balls tearing so violently through her monitors that they bounced and struck the wrecked bits again on their way back. They clanged musically against the floor and wall behind her, sides misshapen and deformed.
Her omni buzzed again and after a curse under her breath she sniffed and dabbed at the corners of her eyes. When any evidence of her emotion was gone, she activated it. "What is it?" she demanded of her helmsman.
He cleared his throat, concern in his eyes. "Ma'am, there's a ship coming into range. They're hailing us."
Impossible. They were a light year from Sagitarrius A*, far enough to prevent being cooked by radiation or shredded by gravitational forces, but well within the soup of static that should prevent their detection. "A ship….out here?" she asked uselessly before cutting her own query short. "Who's hailing?"
"It's the Geth Ma'am. They want to come aboard."