"Upon the conclusion of my foray into the arid wilderness, I emerged from the badlands, not as a changed person, but as someone who had tasted a deeper understanding of their surroundings. It was an intoxicating feeling, to be able to isolate oneself and peer into the irrespective and stately design of geologic progress. Ecosystem metrics. Underlying geographics. The backbone of mathematics and base chemical instinct acting as the foundation. We were all outliers in this grand experiment known as the universe. Outliers succumbing to millions of years of knowledge through evolution. It was foolish to believe that all the races acted in viral and fervid patterns of unstable reproduction. Even with the advent of technology, life was not headed toward entropic collapse, but rather a hard plateau. It was a natural order rectifying the slight imbalances, correcting itself so that a new harmony could emerge.

Yet it was obvious that we were in a retrogression. Despite pulling through a devastating conflict, life was declining. That plateau was falling out of reach, the result of corruption and greed. Should life be punished for this relapse? Of course not. It would not do to cull a wanton swath of the galaxy and leave the remainder to their own devices. Such a cut should be precise. Harsh enough to draw attention, but insignificant enough to be forgotten in a matter of decades. I only needed to decide where I should place my scalpel."

Final Monograph: Transcriptions of an Augury
Unknown Author, (pg. 25)
Reprinted by permission of Purdue University


Menhir

Like a returning tide, Korridon once again found himself at the steadfast door that led to Roahn's room. The quarian, he knew, was just beyond this damnable metal portal. Whether she was curled up in her bed, asleep, or locked somewhere in her bathroom was anyone's guess. Korridon knew for a fact, that ever since the Menhir had taken off from Thessia, Roahn had not emerged from her room since. There had been no time for him to get in a word edgewise with her. Fact was, every time he had done so upon returning to the ship after his little stint in the hospital, she had either withdrawn herself from his view seemingly on reflex, or had simply hid herself through a superfluous covering by abject chance, guarding her vibrant expressions so that no one could see them.

The turian could not get the quarian's face out of his head. Not because Roahn was the first quarian he had ever seen unmasked, but he had been unprepared to have glimpsed as much pain upon her expression as he did in that one primary moment. Everything had changed since the Morningtide, he knew. Roahn's last confrontation with Aleph, along with the entirety of the events of that day, had irreparably altered her. She was alone in a dark sea, helplessly adrift. He could never get within arm's reach of her, though Korridon did not rightfully know which among them was the one that was currently drowning, for he very well could imagine that his own head had gone underwater a long time ago.

Breath lodging in his throat annoyingly like an unwelcome guest, Korridon raised a fist to the door and knocked upon it, his carapaced knuckles making a satisfying clack against its face.

"Roahn!" he kept his voice directed to the door, but the volume low. He did not want to make a scene for any passerby to hear. "Roahn, open up! I have to talk to you!"

As expected, there was no response from the other side. The actual room was soundproofed, so Korridon had no way of knowing if Roahn was actually responding to his hails. The turian sighed, hanging his head. He knew this was going to be a tough endeavor—already the futility of his presence was weighing cruelly on his neck. The notion of trying to call her via omni-tool had crossed his mind many a time, but a physical visit was much harder to dismiss than a simple vid call, though this sad and frankly pathetic little routine of being silently rebuffed was coming at quite the cost of his pride, or what little he had of it.

"Come on, Roahn. Please. This is important."

He waited fifteen more seconds in the callous silence. He turned his head back toward the commissary, in the direction of the lift. He could just walk away. No shame in admitting defeat after trying. If Roahn did not want to speak to him, then he had to respect her wishes, right?

Damned if she wasn't his commanding officer, though…

"Roahn," Korridon splayed a hand upon the door, his head once again looking down towards the ribbed floor. "It's Garrus. He's in the med bay. He's sick."

Korridon thought he heard a dampened knocking noise on the other end, but quickly dismissed it as a funny feeling.

"For the love of…" he muttered to himself, abandoning his meek decorum while he frantically scratched at his neck, as if he was trying to claw away his own creeping doubts, "…if I have to resort to breaking this stupid door down, I'll—"

Imperceptibly at first, Korridon's hand shifted as the door, incredibly, began to slide aside. He maneuvered his weight just in time to keep himself from toppling through the now-open threshold, keeping the onrushing squawk in his throat locked back.

Roahn's face, bare and possessing a pellucid awareness, as if she had heaped the worries of the galaxy into her two perfect globes and was fighting to hold them all back from erupting, appeared before him. She was clad in her enviro-suit, sans sehni, prosthesis dangling emptily against her hip, the device an exquisite tangle of fiber alloy, synthetic sheathing, biosensors, and motors. The turian had half a mind to say something, anything, but the dull green of the quarian's eyes had altered his world forever, for he could see the infinite depths rimmed with Roahn's own agonies dancing in between.

Saying nothing, Roahn politely pushed her way past Korridon, though she turned her head in his direction at the slightest angle. There was a slight bob of her short black hair as she moved, but in the next instant she was gone, having taken off down the hall.

Gait escalating, she entered the med bay at the same time that Sam McLeod was leaving. The doctor, dressed in his traditional loose-fitting white coat, also looked like he wanted to say something as they made eye contact, but this time Roahn stopped to let the man speak. His mouth parted open a hair before he forcefully flattened it shut. His eyes were doing all the talking for him as he took deliberate glances down the way he came while he ran a hand through his thick and coarse beard. Roahn made sure to keep her gaze solidly connected with his—she then placed a gentle hand on Sam's shoulder. The human looked down at the touch, gave a solemn nod, lightly touched her forearm in return, and glided out into the hall like a wraith, leaving her clear to proceed.

Across the room, Garrus was standing next to a slightly inclined bed. He was busy snapping his armor back on, which had been carted down from his cabin two decks above so that he could reapply it within the med bay. The turian was hiding grimaces as he squeezed the body armor so that it fit snugly about his sides, but soon he had the bulk of it in place, despite the fact that he was visibly in pain.

Roahn felt weightless as she slowly plodded towards the middle of the room, her hands clasped together as if she was in prayer. Garrus had been facing the door at a sideways angle and turned his head slightly as he saw the quarian approach.

"Grab yourself a seat," he told Roahn, his voice kindly.

The quarian obliged, though in that moment she realized that she'd forgotten her visor. Not that she was worried about her immune system flaring up, just that she was painfully aware of how vulnerable she must appear. How demure she probably looked right now.

"Korr said—" she took a breath, "—he said that you… you were sick?"

Garrus' eyes closed as his nostrils whistled from a dry laugh.

"I had a feeling that, if he mentioned my condition, you would be here right away. Guess I have an intuition for this sort of thing, eh?"

"But… you're standing. You don't look sick. I…" Roahn rapidly blinked. "I don't understand."

There was a series of tactile clicks, like bones knocking together, as Garrus bent down and tightened up his shin guards. He then straightened with a grunt before grabbing an empty chair so that he could sit directly across from Roahn. He leaned forward, steepling his hands, as he regarded her with a studious look. Roahn noticed that the turian's facepaint had not yet been reapplied—it was still scratched and patchy in several areas, almost like it bled like a morphed tattoo around his eyes.

"I've never been the best at tiptoeing around delicate points," his flanged voice rasped, never breaking eye contact. "Never have. I'm dying, Roahn."

The effect of his words was immediate and electric. Roahn's lips parted in surprise and abject horror. Her eyelids abruptly widened. There was a distinct slackening of all her muscles, an involuntary relaxation as all unconscious body process slowed to a crawl while adrenaline boiled within her brain, her heart shaking itself to pieces within her rib cage. She could feel each and every hair follicle stand on end like needles prodding at her skin. Her breath became cold razors, each one a painful effort.

With a slow blink, she recovered by only a hair. "Why would you say that?!"

"I said it because it's the truth," a hint of sorrow now invaded Garrus' tone. "I said it because I wanted you to know. Because this is something that should not be hid from you."

Hot tears nearly began their plunge, but Roahn managed to hold them all back. Her face felt flushed as she twisted it into an angry snarl, her legs priming as she was about to jump from her seat.

Garrus held out a hand, preventing the quarian from springing to her feet. "Wait. Keep still, you need to hear this."

"No," Roahn shook her head in disbelief, unwilling to look at the man. "No. No. Not you too. You're lying."

"For the entire time you've known me and after all that's happened, why would I pick now to be manipulative to you? I'm not lying to you, Roahn. I would never lie about something like this. I may still have several months left in me, but I'm not going to wait until the last minute if there's the slightest chance that being proactive will help us both. I want you to be prepared."

The quarian had craned her neck downward, holding her head in her hands. Her fingers plowed through the tangle of her hair. Her back quickly puffed in and out as her thin lungs rapidly ventilated.

From a feeling that seemed like it had only been recently buried, Roahn could sense it becoming unearthed within her. The background hum of the engines began to fade. There was a distinct pulsation in her neck that seemed obscene. That if she closed her eyes she could see fecund shapes of forgotten colors dance just beyond her reach, providing further damning taunts to her mortal torment.

"How?" was all she asked, though Garrus knew very well what she meant.

"It was… the Cardinal's final parting gift to me. I don't really… she nicked me on my side back on the Morningtide and I was just too focused on my mission at the time that I never paid it any mind. But I guess she gets the last laugh with this fatal dose of polonium. All my fault. I was sloppy. Sloppy and idiotic. I felt that I had accumulated enough luck to last me the rest of my life when I, in fact, had been accumulating a debt."

Roahn raised her head, eyes rimmed red. "And there's no other way to save you?"

Garrus shook his head. "Sam said I had been irradiated for too long for any of the radical treatments to do any good."

"Well, fuck Sam!" Roahn's indignation bubbled from her throat like a rancid cocktail and she jumped to her feet, her eyes becoming filled with fluid, yet she still maintained a heroic amount of courage and refused to let the tears spill. She clamped her hands down on Garrus' shoulders, her voice cracking. "You're just going to accept his word?! He could be wrong! He could be completely, totally wrong and you… and you could be perfectly fine! Get a second opinion! Call someone else! Just… just…"

"Roahn," Garrus murmured as he lifted his hands and gently wrapped them around the quarian's forearms. His eyes shone with an unnatural calmness, a complexion made out of stone compared to Roahn's face, which looked like it was about to shatter. "Everything makes too much sense for me to deny it outright. This is one enemy I'm never going to conquer. I'll keep moving for as long as I can, but eventually it'll get me. Though I don't intend on letting it run roughshod over me. I'll put up a fight."

"It's not enough!" Roahn exploded, white teeth gritted.

"No, it won't be enough," Garrus agreed. "Nothing will. But that's why I asked you here, understand? I needed to prepare you for the worst, because the worst will come to pass."

The quarian tore herself from Garrus grip as she backed away. But the back of her calves bumped into the chair she had just vacated, and she reflexively folded herself back into the empty seat with a vicious exhalation. She blinked in a daze and reclined upon the backrest almost tiredly.

"First mom. Then dad. Now you. Everyone I've ever… I've ever…" she gave a painful swallow. "Every time I think I've been through the worst already, too often I'm reminded that I haven't reached my lowest point."

"I'm not dead yet. Like I already said, I've still got a decent amount of time left. But I know that this isn't going to last forever, and you're the XO of this ship."

Roahn looked to the side, almost as if she did not want to be reminded of her duty.

Garrus levelled a finger, now stern. "Which means someone will have to step up in my… absence. When that day comes, that is."

"I won't think that way. I'm not going to imagine that in the next solar year you'll be gone."

"You'll have to, sooner or later. The people of this ship have come to count on you, Roahn. Eventually you'll be in a position where you'll have to lead them unconditionally. And they'll give you that unconditional support in return." The turian then sighed. "But you have to be ready."

"I'll never be ready to watch you die!" the quarian all but screamed. The lingering vestige of the outburst echoed once painfully before vanishing into nothingness.

The turian levelled his eyes as his mandibles twitched twice in the interim. Blue as bright as his own blood flickered in the deepest wells of his irises, almost incandescent. A strange fire enveloped Roahn within its rude flickers, coddling her instead of burning her.

"I would have chosen anyone else for this burden," Garrus slowly said, his hand reaching Roahn's knee. "Had I known the trials and tribulations that had awaited, I would have asked someone other than you to take up this responsibility. The last thing that I wanted, that your parents would have wanted, would have been to expose you to more pain than you could handle. All this… I've done unto you Roahn. I bear the fault because I've failed in that regard. I couldn't protect you, despite the steps I tried to make. Now we're both paying the price for my pride. I was an even bigger fool than I thought, it seems."

Roahn's mouth parted again as she watched Garrus shake his head reflectively, still lamenting.

"But, unwittingly, I've come to realize that despite the sabotaging of my best intentions," he said, "I've realized that I've been watching you come into your own. You are so close, Roahn. So close to being the leader I never could be. To move past my mistakes and reach a finish line I have no hope of attaining. Now, with a timer hovering over my head, I've got no other moves to make. My fear of dying is all but a half-forgotten dream now. A luxury that, sadly, you probably haven't parted with. But if I can help you forget that fear, even the smallest portion, I will be allowed to feel some modicum of satisfaction in knowing that I did not waste the remaining time I had left. But that requires cooperation on both our parts, Roahn. I'm going to need you. The same way everyone on this ship will come to need you. Do you think you can help me?"

While he had been talking, Roahn had slowly been leaning forward, using her hands as a makeshift plinth for which to rest her head. There was a keen calmness that lived within the deep ocean of her eyes, despite the despair that rimmed her face. It was nearly a carbon copy of an old stance that Tali used to take, Garrus realized. Or, at least a gauche version of it. The searing lights of the med bay were arresting both of them in their cruel and shapeless gaze, forming small circles of their shadows underneath them and their chairs. Slowly, the sadness seeped from Roahn's visage. A cold understanding now overtook the quarian. Her head microscopically bobbed, the movement so slight that not even the tips of her hair wavered, but it was detectable to the turian, nonetheless.

"What do you need me to do?" her hoarse voice whispered.


Engineering

Korridon's mind was a sea of static as he stared into the fizzing array of screens on his console. The glowing heart of the Menhir thrummed just five meters away, a bulb of metal encasing a precious eezo core. A trunk of multiple power conduits branched out from the bottom of the engine drive and snaked their way across the ground, disappearing into hatches that rimmed the rounded bottom of the room. Stabilizing rings like silver halos kept all the braided and anodized tubes in their columnar shape. Cylindrical radiation fans jutted out from the walls like thick buttons, the plastic blades painted a translucent blue.

Half an hour ago, one of the pressure sensors to the H2/O2 lines had tripped an alert that had routed to his tool. The volume feed in one of the main lines had decreased below the recommended thresholds, which was a red flag to Korridon, indicating that there was either a leak in the system or that one of the lines had become inadvertently backed up. Such matters required his personal intervention, seeing as he was the resident drive core expert on the ship.

The turian worked fast, but not at a feverish pace. Drive cores had issues all the time and were inherently inefficient and unreliable pieces of machinery. Machinists actually stared to worry when a core failed to register any problems after a span of only two consecutive days. Failures in the feeds were some of the most common problems and, thankfully, not all that dangerous to the crew. It did impact the propulsion system's efficiency, which meant that such a malfunction during a trying time, such as a high-maneuver engagement, would indicate rather disastrous consequences. Less efficiency meant more heat burned which meant that stealth systems became more inefficient and it all snowballed from there. Suffice to say that Korridon took every malfunction, big or small, with an equal degree of seriousness.

The console contained all of the solutions Korridon needed to rectify the situation. His six fingers glided expertly over the keyboard as he engaged a holographic worker drone within main feed pipe A1. The drone was equipped with sensors to detect irregularities in the surface area inside the pipes. He sent it on its way down the tube, scanning as it went, hoping to spot the cause of the malfunction.

Five minutes later, the drone came back with a positive result, in that it spotted no breaks in the tightened avenue. Korridon deactivated that drone and spun up another one almost immediately for pipe A2. He input the same work commands into this drone as well and let it run.

As he slowly cycled through his mental checklist for diagnosing the issue, Korridon let his mind wander back to the deck directly above him. After calling upon Roahn in her room that last time, he had proceeded to claim an empty seat in the ship's dining area, mostly because it provided an unobstructed view towards the med bay door. He had procured himself a caffeinated drink from a nearby dispensing machine so that he could sip something while he waited, his bulbous eyes remaining unbroken as they solemnly stared towards the fogged windows of the room, where he knew the quarian and his captain were deep in conversation. It was only from the alert on his omni-tool that had forced him to abandon his surveillance post and get back to his actual job, though he had elongated his pace quite a bit as he trudged back to the lift at that time, hoping that he would be able to hear the door opening behind him so he could get one last glimpse at Roahn before he would have to head back down.

The turian now stared out into space as the loading bar for the various drones he had at his disposal slowly cycled upwards. Torturous ascendancies towards a resolute and unquestionable conclusion. If only he knew how much time of his life had been spent watching loading screens. The slight bite of fatigue pulled at the back of his eyeballs. He touched his forehead, prodding the swath of healing skin where a chunk of his carapace had been pulled off weeks ago. He had long ditched the bandages, but it still looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to his skull—a massive scab, colored a rusty blue, slowly shrank in diameter as the days went by upon the site of the wound. He rose on the balls of his feet tentatively, feeling the strain in his ankles, which were the cybernetics simply accommodating for the stretching as they held his weakened tendons together. His gut still gave him occasional bouts of what felt like indigestion—the result of the massive amounts of toxins that his cyborg captors had pumped into him. No doubt he would be exhibiting complications in that department for the rest of his life.

Though Korridon was not dumb enough to openly lament the state of his damaged body on this ship. Especially not in front of Roahn, whom had just cause to actually gripe about the wounds she had received in turn, even though she remained silent, almost abashed, at what she had gone through in his presence. Korridon could not rightfully claim to know the exact magnitude of the quarian's pain, but he felt that he was on the path to understanding, if not from his experience but from his keen observance. All the pieces that made up Roahn's attitude could be collated within his head, all the variables made known. To him, it seemed like the inevitable culmination, thanks to this downward spiral, was set in a definite path of destruction for Roahn, with no way for her to deviate. Rushing towards the edge of the cliff without a care in the world. Incredibly, she seemed to plod on, heedless of the faceless danger, almost brazen in the face of the shadows that haunted her every step.

It was as if he had seen all the warning signs blaring the danger ahead of the blind turn. Did Roahn not see those same warnings or was she purposefully careless to the makeup of the winding route?

One of the drones again posted no negative results. Korridon switched to the next pipe, momentarily pulled from his thoughts.

He knew that Roahn had spent virtually no time in mourning the death of her father, with the exception of the day of his funeral. Every other day after that had been devoted to the stoking of the utter contempt she had for Aleph, fostering a cataclysmic and draining ethos in the hopes that she could extinguish her foe before she herself would be destroyed from her hatred. The quarian had set herself on the course that she believed would fix the galaxy at the cost of her own sanity, though Korridon realized that such a mindset would burn her completely out, a fact which she would sadly never realize before she reached that critical breakaway point.

He wanted to work up the courage to speak to her, face-to-face, but knowledge of past events stayedhis hand. Just like his previous attempts at conversation, Korridon had deduced that if he suggested to Roahn that she take some time for herself, the few bare hours she spent sleeping not counting toward that amount, he would be immediately ignored. Not malice on her part, simply an incongruency between his and her separate wants. There was nothing that he could do that could control her, or at least assure against her own self-destructive interests. Roahn had simply been bitten one too many times to feel that remaining sedentary would be beneficial in any way, shape, or form. Korridon knew it, understood it, but damn it, he hated it.

The outline of a drone's video box suddenly flashed red, drawing Korridon's attention. It had found the source of the leak within the core. A tiny tear, perhaps only a couple millimeters wide, leaked an aqueous-looking vapor within the radiation shield. Korridon immediately ordered the drone to solder it shut, which it did with a precisely sustained static bolt. Three seconds of sizzling flashes and the master warning switched off. No more tasks remained on the turian's itinerary.

Even after he deactivated all of his task windows, the turian was still staring into the electric abyss, hands on either side of the console, as he hunched over the slanted screen. His clawed hands tightened around the edges of the pedestal and he gave an angry blink as he stretched his ankles once more.

The galaxy is not your responsibility, his own voice echoed loudly within his head. But you won't listen to me. I can't even hold you together as you're falling apart. I don't know what to do. I don't know what to say.

Bitingly, Korridon remained at his station for several minutes, not moving a muscle, and thought about the ironclad will of a single quarian and the unstoppable tidal wave that was bearing down upon her. He could imagine her standing firm as the drifting undercurrent ran past her ankles, only to join the wall of raw power that rose silently, pushing across dry ocean beds before it could lower itself down upon forested hills with a heaving sigh and an explosion of foam, leaving only a bare swath of land behind.


Med Bay

Compartmentalize. Compartmentalize. Compartmentalize. Roahn had become quite familiar with the process. Each and every little grievance placed in their own space. Isolated. Secure. It was how she could remember to breathe without pain.

It was how she could remember that she was, in fact, still alive.

The past hour had yielded a surprisingly productive period of time for both Roahn and Garrus. Personal afflictions laid aside to the best of their abilities, the two had appropriated the med bay for use as their own little briefing theater, none of them finding a reason to leave. Essentially, this had become one of their most traditional meetings in weeks. For Roahn, paying attention came with its share of difficulties, primarily that she was still raw from Garrus' abrupt and unfortunate revelation, but she was doing her damnedest to put all that away. She was a lieutenant commander and it was unworthy of her station to weep over the state of her captain. Hell, she barely had enough control over her own situation, fragmented as it was.

But she put on a brave face and even interacted with Garrus to a healthier degree than usual, the hoarseness in her voice gradually fading as she spoke.

The both of them had taken the beginning of their briefing to outline what they knew of their enemy and of the armaments they touted. Of obvious interest was the Monolith, Aleph's constructed device that utilized Reaper technology to send out insidious transmissions that electronics based on such technology, like modular implants, could then receive. The reception of such transmissions translated into the form of excessive energy buildups within those implants. The resulting surge would then build up to an astonishing degree—far beyond the threshold of wattage that even the most hardened of implants could withstand. Catastrophic failures were a guarantee in these conditions, translating into brutal detonations of local electronic clusters. These explosions were comparatively low-yield, but they always occurred in the cranial area, under the skin where the fluid of the skull would amplify the shockwave of the explosion, ensuring a sudden death. It was how Aleph was able to kill millions of people on the Citadel all at once. A doomsday device without collateral damage. Clean and devastatingly efficient.

To achieve his victory, Aleph had exploited a loophole that not even the original creators of the implants could have ever foreseen. The integrated implantation device, colloquially referred to as implants, were universal body-modifications designed to bolster natural electrical signals generated by body processes. They were considered a separate class of medical device, designed to connect with not only basic neural functions, but circulatory, endocrine, and any exteroceptive senses, among others. These implants could foster rapid repair of damaged bones, skin, and compensate for any major loss of fluids in a body. Implants were a pivotal cornerstone of what became known as a post-existential movement, a school of thought where one willingly went beyond the capabilities that their own bodies were able to achieve. They were widely accepted amongst the major races and were present in nearly every person, as the most basic of implants only required a relatively inexpensive operation to obtain, if not outright free in some cases. Roahn had several implants working in tandem within her own body—it was from Aleph's own manipulations with the Monolith that had managed to kick her immune system into overdrive, essentially securing for her, in the span of only moments, a future where she no longer needed to live in a suit. A wonderful piece of technology that promoted such insight into anatomical advancement all undone and forever inscribed as a sinister backdoor—an invisible gun held aloft to one's temple—that had remained unfired all this time until now.

The Monolith was a piece of equipment that neither Roahn nor Garrus could even imagine in their darkest nightmares, for the depth of its power ran beyond the scope of what they conceived as possible. It was almost as if Aleph had managed to infuse evil will into a block of sloe metal, giving it a vile personification. The Monolith's powers ran beyond simple wholesale slaughter, as demonstrated when Aleph had been able to utilize it to reactivate and bring forth a Reaper and wrest control of its master functions, an ability that Roahn would have said was impossible had she not seen it happen with her own eyes. A Reaper by itself was a gargantuan machine monstrosity that had etched itself into the annuls of infamy, a legion of cold butchers that had eradicated trillions and trillions of lives over billions of years all for a tenuous goal in the name of preserving life across the galaxy. Just one Reaper was worth an entire battle fleet. A Reaper in Aleph's hands, however… Roahn could scarcely conceive of the potential impact the combination could wreak.

Frankly, while Roahn and Garrus were worried about the Monolith, what had not left the back of their minds were the abilities the Monolith had not yet revealed. They might have very well seen only a fraction of its power. Who was to say they had not glimpsed the full picture of the energy locked behind that pristine metallic face?

Garrus then reclined in his chair while a holographic likeness of the Milky Way lapped at his feet. The lights in the room had been dimmed, and the glow from the interface pattern surged up and bathed the turian's face in its illumination, threatening to turn his eyes into pits of vivid black. Roahn's own face was lined with shadows, but she was leaning forward so that her eyes could drink in the stark glow that rose up from the floor.

"One thing that is frankly intriguing," Garrus was saying, "though it is of little comfort to us, is that no one has picked up on any evidence that the Monolith has been fired to such a significant degree in the last few weeks. Nothing like how it was used on the Citadel, I mean. Friendly fleets have picked up spare transmissions that faintly resemble the surges in out-of-the-way parts of the galaxy here and there, but nothing quite on a massive scale."

"And I know that we haven't been able to pick up on the radiation trail the device exudes in weeks," Roahn added, inwardly curling at the mention of the word 'radiation.' "Which either means that Aleph has found a way to mask its signature, or that he truly has not bothered to use it in a significant manner."

"I don't think we can afford to hope for the latter. If I were a megalomaniac, I would not destroy or put away the one weapon that ensured my dominance. No point in it."

"So he's saving it for something. He's letting it recharge, probably, before he can use it again."

Garrus folded his hands on his lap as he stared at directly at the faux galaxy before him. "Which begs the question: whom could he possibly use it on? To that matter, why would he continue to use the Monolith? He got everything he wanted. He won."

A dozen answers ran through Roahn's head. Hubris on Aleph's part? Was his amusement simply beyond the scope of what Roahn could perceive? The fact that she was questioning the strategy when it was so nebulous brought back that strangled sensation upon her heart, like it was struggling to beat out of a box that was slowly tightening upon it.

"He thinks he's won," she croaked before her voice turned into a snarl. "He got to make his little demonstration. He even got a Reaper as a toy to play with. Not only that, he got Skye to play his little game for a while, the bastard."

Roahn's long, fixed stare had drifted to the side, missing the slight tic that Garrus had made—a quick blink of the eyes—but she was already proceeding onto the next point before she could register it.

"Maybe he's just waiting for the survivors to regroup so that we'll all be in one place, easy pickings for him to use the Monolith again. You ever think that?"

"The thought hadn't escaped my mind," Garrus said.

"It would make sense. Aleph's played the long game before. Who's to say he's not playing it now?"

The turian spread his hands apart. A momentary concession.

The fingers on the quarian's prosthetic hand curled into an unwavering fist. "He knows we can't defend ourselves against a weapon of that sort. There's no inoculation for the Monolith." Roahn then gave three rapid-fire blinks in staccato formation before she tilted her head. "Or is there?"

"Is there what?"

"A precaution. A cure. I mean, I can really think of one possible way to protect ourselves from the Monolith's reach. But… it's a long shot, and damn near crazy to boot…"

Garrus leaned forward it his seat, mandibles slightly spread apart, as a caustic and edgy aura seemed to take over his outline.

"You're talking about a way to somehow deactivate our implants? To essentially inhibit the only connection that the Monolith has to all of us?"

Roahn's gaze was steadfast. "It's the only solution I can think of. I know it's easier said than done."

"You'd have to convince a trillion other people to essentially follow suit. To get their implants deactivated after the fact. That's no simple matter, plus it's not exactly the most pleasant of operations."

"So I've heard."

On rare occasions, people who had either grown dissatisfied with placing more and more technology in their bodies and had suddenly succumbed to the notion of keeping themselves organically pure, or could otherwise not afford to have them remain activated inside them due to medical reasons, could opt for an implant removal surgery. These were not isolated incidents, despite their sporadic occurrences. Implant removal, however, was a misnomer. Unless there remained a significant medical danger in having implants reside in one's body, the master implant connection was simply severed to its control unit, leaving the bulk of the technology still inside the person. This was always advised to be a last resort, because if the body had become accustomed to the enhanced performance that the implants had provided, having all that suddenly cut away tended to place a major strain upon the organs. Sickness and other reactions were common side effects of the operation. Some were even fatal.

Garrus had deactivated the holo of the galaxy by this point and was now referencing a tabular database from the screen on his omni-tool.

"That's something we can shelve for a later date. In the meantime, I had asked Liara a few hours ago to see if she could start spooling up some of her old Shadow Broker resources. She assured me that she still had a few tools left at her disposal. About an hour ago, she came to me with this. Transmission logs collected from around the galaxy. Transcripts of radio logs, to be precise."

A dryness suddenly came to Roahn's mouth. "This is what you really wanted to talk to me about."

Garrus leaned back. The humming from belowdecks emitted as a drone, buzzing in their lower registers.

"I realized later than I should have that I was running without a plan. Now that I have the barest shred of one, I might as well try to act upon it."

"I thought I was the only one playing this by ear."

"You're surrounded by more imperfect people than you'd care to admit," Garrus suggested with a sly glint in his eye. He then turned a hand in the air, as if he had reminded himself of something he had misplaced. "If only our job was so easy."

"You say that as if things haven't changed."

"You'd be correct. In some ways they haven't. But in others… well…"

The turian then made a whisking motion with his hand. Dismissal and summation. He then righted himself in composition as he gestured towards the data wreathed about his arm again.

"Long and short of the matter is that faint bursts of encrypted transmissions have been caught by passing friendly vessels. A usual phenomenon stemming from lag in signal reception combined with the frequent bouncing off of relay buoys, or so Liara tells me. Encryptions teams have managed to decode several of the messages after the fact—they're all supposedly from one Operative Volar, who claims to be an emissary for Aleph. They've been ordering troop deployments to strike at friendly outposts all over the galaxy. Whoever this operative is, they've got good intel on our side of the fence."

"Which means this Operative Volar is a spy," Roahn speared the air with a precise finger.

"A spy with access to Aleph, apparently. Not just anyone could be able to move coalition fleets with merely a word. Aleph has probably vouched for this Volar, letting them act as his mouthpiece."

"So how do we handle this traitor in our midst?" Roahn asked, the parallel striking a chord within her.

Garrus slightly shook his head. "We can't, not off the intel we currently have on them. But that doesn't mean we aren't unable to follow leads of our own on them."

Roahn's back straightened. "We work backwards from the data."

"Precisely. And I know where to look. One of these Volar transmissions was sent to a Chimera division in the Local Cluster ordering them to attack a resistant Alliance outpost on Earth in an area formerly called Columbia. Liara decrypted this for us herself, which means that we have the intel before the strike has occurred."

Roahn stood from her chair, a triumphant feeling daring to resonate.

"Then we need to get to Columbia right away."

Garrus gave a rueful chuckle. "I already sent Sagan the coordinates."

The quarian allowed a small smile, despite the tormented happenings earlier in the day. "You're doing fine for not having a plan."

"Yeah? Wait a few weeks and then say that again. Your opinion may differ."

For a split-second, Roahn looked like a phantom that had risen out of the darkness. One of the overhead lights was flickering, creating a faint rainbow halo that wisped into the fluid of Garrus' iris. Laminar bands of color created a brief psychedelic wash. He rubbed his eyes.

"I'd recommend packing an arsenal," he continued, noting that Roahn was itching to leave. "The battle's going to be underway by the time we arrive."

Roahn studied the view out the med bay windows as she gave a nod. "Good advice." She then made to leave.

"One last thing," Garrus coughed, right as Roahn had nearly reached the door. Once she had paused and had turned her head around to grant him her attention did he continue. "And I'm not looking for an answer now, but I need to know that you understand. Are you going after Aleph for your own motives or for something greater than yourself?"

A tiny ruffle echoed through Roahn's body. Her mouth parted slightly and there was a bare droop of her shoulders. But Garrus dismissed her with a tiny nod of his own, knowing that the truth right now was unnecessary. Perhaps it was even unknowable. But it was a solution he would like to have realized, a quandary that Roahn had might not even have considered had he not brought it up.

He blinked once and then once more. He spotted the door sliding shut in the wake of Roahn's departure, leaving him slightly wheezing in the interim.


Fifteen minutes passed with Garrus still remaining stoically in his seat before he decided that it was time to move on. Sam had returned to the med bay by this time to analyze some routine lab work, further hinting to the turian that he had overstayed his welcome. He then ambled his way across to the Life Support Module of the ship, which was where Liara had set up an office of sorts. The asari was seated at her desk when he wandered in, the only person in the room.

Liara fixated a solemn smile towards the turian as he grabbed the chair on the other side of the desk. "How did your talk with Roahn go?"

"About as well as expected," he responded.

"That badly, then?"

"She's trying her best."

"She has no more family, Garrus. She's probably taking this worse than when Tali died. She's inconsolable right now."

"No, it's probably worse than we realize," Garrus admitted as he shifted sideways in his chair.

There was a canteen of hot tea that Liara had yet to open on the desk—Garrus automatically reached for it without asking until his brain finally caught up to him. He may be craving a drink right about now, but consuming levo liquids was not the route that he should be pursuing if he wanted to keep himself healthy. He clenched his fingers and moved his arm away.

"When she was young, Roahn kept herself withdrawn from her father because she could not expel the pain she had from losing her mother," Garrus said. "But now that pain has a name and a face, and she's completely devoted herself to destroying that pain. There were only two people that could talk that woman down from what she's seeking to do and they're both gone."

Liara's mouth flattened and she placed one hand on top of the other while they rested upon her desk.

"You know that we're complicit in all this by letting her go down that path. She's killing herself by committing to this task."

"I know."

"You know?"

"Yes."

The asari unleashed a slight breath, yet it was enough to signify her frustration.

"So we're just going to let her do as she wants?"

Garrus reared his head back studiously, a blank mask paralyzing his features. "What would you have me do? Drop her off at the nearest waystation? Put her in the brig? Do everything in my power to prevent her from blindly going off after Aleph?"

"We would be saving her life."

The turian now shook his head. "No. To her, that would be a condemnation. She would just find a way to proceed with her task without us. But we would be hated, in her eyes. We would be nothing but another enemy if we're just going to impede her. Sometimes, you have to know when to step aside. This way, we can at least keep an eye on her. Be with her for every step of this journey. Because if I try to stop her now, I would simply be killing her as well."


Hangar Bay

The reinforcing beams of the bay bifurcated the shafts of light from the overhead fixtures, their impressions lingering as slanted quadrangles upon the floor. Technicians roamed the catwalks above, some of them fixated upon the glowing rectangles that hovered over their wrists. One such bar of illuminated and pressurized gas glowed red in the far corner, luminescing the darkness away to linger within a bloodred hellscape.

Over by the armory, the sharp smell of ozone lingered. Wafts emitting from heated electronic components and exposed ammo blocks. Rifles, shotguns, and pistols were gently suspended on pinion racks, closed off by a thick glass covering that lay on quiet rails. The miscellany of death glittered behind its transparent cage, each weapon having been polished and maintained to a loving degree. The cold lighting of the bay turned the barrels of the rifles blue, and seared sunrise-orange glints off of the advanced optics.

Upon a workbench, a grease-stained towel had been laid down. A box of thermal clips had been set upon one corner of the cloth, the thin metal top slightly ajar. Roahn set down a Paladin pistol upon the table in pieces, having unlatched the slide from the underlying frame. She had tipped out the coral-colored ammo block, removed the spring mechanism, and unslotted the barrel from the handgrip. She located a nylon bore brush and twisted it onto the end of a thin extender tool and scraped the inside of the barrel for any residue. She then swapped the brush for a lightly lubricated cloth, greasing the insides of the barrel so that it could soak up the lingering carbon scoring.

Fifteen minutes later, Roahn had the pistol put back together. She spun the weapon upon a finger expertly, taking note of the proper weight distribution, before she gripped it firmly in a taut fist and shoved it against the magnetic holster at her hip.

Returning to the weapon rack, Roahn punched in the code for the glass casing to slide aside. She selected a semi-automatic Falcon assault rifle, a gun that had quite the kinetic punch to it, and returned with her newest acquisition back to the workbench.

As soon as she had set the rifle down did Roahn ascertain a void of negative pressure envelop the lower reaches of her ears. She froze in place, as part of her hearing frequencies abruptly cut out, like an auxiliary feed had been slotted in somewhere. The quarian then sensed a presence to her left and whipped her head around, the movement swift and cutting. Her expression fluttered for a moment before it quickly hardened, a judgmental stare overtaking her.

Roahn turned away, ignoring the form of Tali, who was leaning against a stack of crates, staring at her plaintively through an amethyst lens. Suddenly tired, Roahn squeezed her eyes shut as she planted both hands far apart on the table and bent her head, teeth clenched hard enough to chew through solid steel.

Keelah. Not now. This was the last thing she needed.

Before Roahn could curse away the amorphous subsistence that had chosen to occupy her consciousness, she was able to pick up a deliberate omnipresence from the terrible intelligence as she heard Tali walk behind her. The quarian could then feel a tingling sensation upon her right shoulder, like static, which told her that Tali was hovering over her right now, trying to see what she was doing.

"Colombia's mostly jungle—a tough environment," the apparition said helpfully. "Medium-range weaponry might be counter-productive in the area. I would bring along a shotgun, just in case, if I were you."

Roahn's eyes were still closed as she shook her head, trying to drive out the insidious presence with all her will, but the remora-like parasite refused to unlatch from the grip it had secured on her mind.

"How would you know?" Roahn found herself asking out loud. "You've never been to Colombia in your life."

Behind her, she could hear the specter of her mother chuckle politely.

"I've read many guides on Earth's continents," she explained. "I guess it all started before your father and I were in a relationship. I wanted to know more about his world, where his people came from. You could imagine my surprise and fascination as I learned about the wealth of diversity on Earth, as you, no doubt, have also discovered."

"And I suppose that it's just a big coincidence that you happen to know exactly about where I'm headed?"

Now Tali walked into view around the workbench, still radiating that picture-perfect image that Roahn had locked into her head for years. Her mother stared back at her, eyes lidded in amusement, almost as if she was eager to relay her experiences to her daughter just like she had done on Rannoch when she helped soothe her child to bed by telling various stories of her life and the wonders of the universe that she had glimpsed on her travels.

But Tali would not get that chance because Roahn savagely shook her head again in interruption. "Actually, I don't even know why I'm bothering with asking. You're probably only telling me what I want to hear. These internal voices are all supposed to be magnanimous, anyway."

"You think that I'm just emotional baggage?" Tali sounded hurt.

"That depends," Roahn finally looked upon her mother for the first time today. Her wet eyes glistened like vibrant pebbles, hardly seeing the visor that enveloped Tali's own features. "Tell me straight out: have I gone insane?"

"My Roahn, you are perfectly normal."

Roahn huffed a breath through her nostrils in derision, facing forward once more, adopting a far-away look. "You would say that, wouldn't you?"

"It's the truth."

The faint pressure that was the existence of Roahn's prosthesis now made a tangible press on the quarian's concentration. She lifted her artificial appendage and flexed each finger individually, looking at the servos piston up and down and the synthetic muscle quiver in time to her neural commands.

"Yeah… right," she snorted.

"Your wounds don't make you a lesser person," Tali nearly pleaded but Roahn would hear none of it.

"There you go being magnanimous, just as I said," she muttered as she cracked open the assault rifle she had meant to clean. She then grabbed a rag and scoured at some of the larger chunks of sediment with zeal. "Why can't you be a bit more uncompassionate for a change? Haunt me in some other manner than… than… than whatever the hell this is."

"I told you before," Tali now darted to the other side of the table, forcing Roahn to look in her direction, "I'm not here to hurt you, Ro."

"All evidence to the contrary."

"How can I prove it to you?"

Roahn's answering stare was mirthless as she dedicated her hands to working at their task while she lidded her eyes at her mother.

"Leave."

Tali shook her head. "I won't do that to my child."

"Why not? You've done it once already."

The words had tumbled out of Roahn's mouth before she even knew what she had said. Whom she had said them to. Instantly, she gulped in horror, eyes becoming wider, as she instantly wished that she could take the words back. The cloth gently fell from her fingers as they lost all tension. Her feet shuffled roughly on the floor as she slowly backed away, blindly groping for a seat as she sought to sag upon an area of refuge, the strength in her body diminishing to a raw ember when it had been a healthily fueled fire just moments ago.

Behind the table, Tali watched sympathetically before she slowly glided her way back around, her own fingers locked in a gentle tangle, a gesture of peace. She stopped in front of Roahn's seated form, looking down upon her without succumbing to tense verdicts, embroiled in quiet contemplation with her mind spun outward, enveloping and absorbing antagonistic perspectives.

Torturously slow, Tali dropped down to a crouch so that she could now look upwards at Roahn, refusing to be glimpsed with any sovereignty over her daughter.

"My own father, whom you never met, was a proud and stubborn man. He believed that we shared an interconnected destiny that was an idiosyncrasy as fundamental as our ability to perceive. I thought I had that trait once. Now, I realize what a fool I was. A father's station, especially for a quarian, commands an unreproachable authority. Parenthood bolsters one's pride if they are a particularly vain person, a consequence that I discovered was an inflexible way of survival. But my father, Rael, never acted out of a spontaneous desire. Each and every action was a controlled motion, having been meticulously planned to address any and all setbacks. He had his whole life figured out and I always admired him for being able to be so calm and unflappable, even though… even though that meant he was never there emotionally."

Tali levelled her head, the look in her eyes now taking on a ghostly hue. Solemn remembrance tugging at her attention, drifting her back to that far-away time.

"I understand why he was that way. To him, a family was an unpredictable organism. We were threats to his perfect reality. When my own mother took sick and passed away, instead of mourning the loss of his wife like I did, his reaction was to bury himself deeper into his work. To distract himself from her, from me. The task to win back his homeworld presented a degree of control within his life, a degree that he could never quite grasp when he was alone with us. As I got older, I thought that if I let that same goal inhabit me, I could finally achieve his affection. But even that did not come to pass, for I saw that he would rather busy himself in blind husks of dead machinery, a tool in one hand, screens of code surrounding him. Now you see: I thought that if I became him, he would love me. But it was hopeless—he had deliberately blinded himself to distractions long ago. I was one of those distractions, despite being his child. The impossible task of taking Rannoch back seemed more achievable than looking me in the eye and telling me how sorry he was, Ro."

Now the revenant Tali slowly angled upward again, a watchful scrutiny.

"The fear of failure is nothing to be ashamed of. I know the torment that you're going through, the plaguing desire to push forward. It runs in the family, us not knowing whether our efforts will bring us success. We're bound to try because the thought of not knowing the lengths of our own attempts would be far more torturous than the alternative. But you can go too far, Roahn. My father went there and I could not pull him back. There's still time for you to alter your path."

They sat in silence for half a minute. Roahn leaned back in her seat and appraised the collection of vehicles parked along the far wall, studying the tiny puddles that budded from small leaks in the coiled mass of hoses that lined the floor of the bay like steel serpents. Details flitted in and out of focus. She took a breath.

"This is why you're here now?" Roahn whispered hoarsely, tilting her head as she looked upon her mother. "This is your idea of helping?"

For a split-second, Tali's eyes lidded upwards. A smile. The elder quarian then rose, drenching Roahn partially in shadow as she eclipsed several of the light fixtures.

"I can't act for you, Roahn. I can only illuminate. Better that way, don't you think?"

Hands behind her back, Tali then softly plodded around the stack of crates, twisting a furtive glance towards her daughter right before she rounded the corner.

"Think about what I said, soldier," she said in a melodious voice. "Long way to go until the end."

Roahn found herself rising as she longed to glimpse one last look at her mother. But there was a flash of purple, the last scrape of a boot on the floor, and the quarian had vanished. Stumbling across the rubbish that had collected on the ground, Roahn groped her way past the same column of crates, only to look down an empty corridor with Tali nowhere in sight.

"Damn it," she muttered as she firmly clanged her prosthesis onto the nearest support pillar, the knocking noise echoing loudly in the bay. She chewed her lip, firmly aware that her body was wired tight like a drum. What the hell was going on with her?

Hands locked upon her hips, Roahn trudged back to the workbench, a dark cloud seemingly smothering her thoughts. It was hard to think of a singular thing—images would not retain permanence in her mind's eye. She ended up hunched over the table, waiting for sanity to grace her consciousness, or for Tali to make a reappearance, whichever one was going to be first.

Finally, Roahn looked over to the armory case, glancing at the collection of weaponry gleaming beneath the electric blue lighting. With a tiny nod, she headed over, unlocked the case, and withdrew one of the shotguns from its perch. As she hefted the long gun in her hands, a grin dared make its presence known at the corner of her mouth. Oblique confidence, perhaps. Or simply succumbing to an aberration's logic.

She racked the slide. The shotgun made a healthy KA-CHUNK!


A/N: To my fellow readers in the States, happy Thanksgiving! 2020 is a weird-ass year, so I'm hoping that you all will be able to brave these crazy times and be with your family. Next couple of chapters will see a return to the action, but I'll be doing my damnedest to mix things up a bit. If you're liking what you see or outright loathing it, drop a review and let me know!

Playlist:

Discussing a Sickness
"Never Give Up"
Clinton Shorter
The Expanse (Season 3 Original Soundtrack)

Weaponry Suggestion (Tali Theme 1.1)
"Path (7676)"
Max Richter
Sleep