Chapter 14: Epilogue
Two years later, Spectre Garrus Vakarian brought the Normandy to Mindoir. He'd been out on the newly-reformed Council's business for two weeks, and was anxious to be home. Coasting in from the mass relay in the system's Kuiper belt to the inner planets would still take sixteen hours, and he didn't want to chance an FTL transmission to the planet. There were still rogue elements from Cerberus and Terra Firma out there, not to mention millions of angry asari. In the first attack on the Citadel, four years ago now, Shepard had sacrificed turian and human lives the save the Destiny Ascension; in the final war, she'd let the asari homeworld burn to save Earth and Palaven. Some asari had taken that decision rather personally, so the location of the family home—and the new training base for the Spectres—was a tightly-held secret.
The asari hadn't liked the new Council much, either. It was far too representative for their tastes, and that representation included races they had wronged, including the krogan and the rachni, in addition to the elcor, volus, hanar, quarians, geth, humans, turians, and salarians. The old precept that a seat on the Council meant "being able to look after your own interests," however, was pretty much a moot point when the quarians had a homeworld, and the asari did not.
He had plenty of time to brood, up in the captain's quarters, so empty of her presence. There was a good reason, of course. The best reason in the universe, really. But he'd fed the fish, done his reports, listened to music, read a book, and really, there was nothing left to do. So it was a welcome surprise when the terminal chimed. "Secure FTL transmission from Tuchanka coming through," Joker told him.
"I'll take it here," Garrus replied, and opened the channel. "Wrex?"
"Garrus," the old krogan rumbled. "Glad I caught you. Mordin's done with his work here, at least for the moment. He's ready to head back to his home away from home. Just in time, huh?"
Mordin had decided, without official sanction from his government, that one of his two retirement projects would be adjusting Clan Urdnot's response to the genophage. In addition to all of Wrex's reforms, there were now rumors going around Tuchanka that the gods must favor Urdnot's changes, because their fertility rate was now hovering at ten percent viability—a giant leap upwards from the old one in a thousand ratio. This was strongly inclining many krogan clans to ally with Urdnot, and start work on rebuilding their world, rather than hunkering down in its shattered remains.
"Just in time," Garrus agreed. "I'm going to be lucky to be there myself. The Council put in a request for someone to take out a batarian pirate base last month. We had trouble finding the damn thing, until yesterday." He paused. "It won't be a problem anymore."
Wrex chuckled. ''Bout time. I'll come visit, once we know everything turns out all right."
"She'll be glad to see you. Says she misses her three musketeers."
"I have no idea what the hell that means."
"Human book. Bunch of fighters in their early gunpowder era, serving their king. Usually broke, since they never get paid, always have to save the day from some political crap, quarrel, argue, but always wind up fighting together when it really counts." Garrus held up a datapad. "I've been trying to work my way through it on these long trips, but there's way too much history for me to understand it all."
"I've had enough history to last me for a lifetime. I'd rather have a future. You concentrate on yours, turian. Wrex out."
Garrus tapped the terminal, and checked to see how much longer they'd be. Well, he'd burned off an hour or two. Fourteen more to go. They could go faster if they engaged the FTL drive, but then they wouldn't be stealthed. He sighed, and opened the book again. The translation from antique French into modern turian was not a very good one, but if nothing else, it would make the time tick by a little faster.
He could wrap his head around Wrex as Athos; big as a mountain, slow to speak, but wise when he did; a sad, noble past, and a thirst for revenge. A man, of any species, whom you would want at your back.
Mordin was the same, really. A little smaller, perhaps, and definitely more talkative. But surely just as much a brother. Lilitu had told him that she figured Mordin would make a good Aramis. "Aramis was torn between two sides of himself, the fighter and the priest. He did things in the name of his church in the later books that Dumas wrote, that the other Musketeers considered unforgivable. But in the end, it was always the same little band of brothers, fighting together against all odds."
"And who am I, then?"
"D'Artagnan, of course!" She'd started laughing at his expression, and explained, "He starts off a hot-headed idealist, but matures into the captain of the King's guard. He's cynical and he's seen too much, but still has the idealist inside." She'd grinned at him. "That would leave me as Porthos, though, and I really don't think that fits. I think you'll see why, when you get far enough into it." Then she'd signed off the encrypted transmission. That had been a month ago. Two trips ago, with only five days at home in between them. Damn it.
Eventually, the Normandy settled into orbit on the far side of Mindoir's single, large moon. Garrus made his way to the shuttle, and was surprised by the number of crew who had gathered to see him off. There'd been changes in the Normandy crew over the past two years, of course. Half the crew was turian now, for one thing. Most of the old, familiar faces of squadmates had disappeared. Legion had re-integrated to his people. Grunt had gone back to Tuchanka. Tali and Reegar were back with the Migrant Fleet, working to resettle the quarian homeworld.
One thing remained constant, of course. As he entered the shuttle and sealed its hatch, Joker's voice came through the comm panel at the front of the Kodiak. "We'll keep the lights on for you."
"Safe journey, Spectre,"EDI chimed in.
The shuttle dropped out of the bay, and headed in a wide arc towards the planet's surface. It was a jade world, seen from above, its settlements only tiny pinpricks of light here and there on the ground. He broke through the atmosphere, and stopped by one settlement to pick up animal feed and veterinary supplies, a necessary cover activity for anyone approaching the Spectre training facility, and set a course for a mountain range on one of the northern continents—a remote area, essentially inaccessible other than by air.
It was, officially, anyway, the Roland B. Shepard Memorial Biodiversity Area; ten thousand acres of mountains, desert, and forest. Hot enough for a turian or a krogan to feel at home on the western, desert side of the mountains; cool and damp enough on the forested eastern slopes for a salarian or an asari to be comfortable. The mountains themselves got fifty feet of snow over the course of a winter. It was, therefore, a perfect training facility for Spectres, representing a wide variety of environments.
They'd argued for a month over the right location. Chasca has been considered, but its environmental conditions were too limited. Amaranthine had been too cold, and its atmosphere too toxic. Ontarom had been both too hot, and with a moon in an unstable orbit, not permanent enough. Eletania was beautiful, but toxic. Joab still needed heavy terraforming. So a garden world had been needed, and Mindoir had been an easy choice.
Shepard had designed the facility around the small town at the foot of the mountains, which consisted of environmental biologists and their families. The town was both their cover and their responsibility. "Spectres have always been based off of the Citadel, floating in space," she'd said at the opening of the facilities. "Unaccountable for their actions, detached from the people they're supposed to protect. No longer. You're going to see those people every day you spend here. You're going to see what my friend Mordin Solus likes to call the small picture."
Garrus dropped off the supplies at the depot in the little town, and grinned when he realized that one of the scientists newly appointed to the staff was his brother-in-law, Allardus, who'd arrived to try to work on ways to integrate dextro and levo plants into the same ecological systems, side by side. "If we can work it out here, we can work it out on any planet out there," Allardus told him enthusiastically. "No more having to import everything from Palaven. Greater viability for our species. More integration into the galactic whole."
"You're starting to sound like Mordin."
"He does rub off on people after a while, doesn't he? I'll give your best to Solana. She and the kids would be here, but with your parents still not doing so well—"
"I understand. Give them all my love. Chances are, we'll have some news for them in the next week or so, anyway."
Finally, he broke loose and headed for the house. It was, as she'd pointed out at they designed it, pretty close to what her parents had dreamed of building on this planet—a Roman-style villa, with turian touches and modern technology for comfort. There was a transparent, retractable roof over the atrium garden, for instance, both to keep out the worst of the winter weather and for security purposes, but the structure itself was built in warm, terra-cotta stone. It wasn't just their family home, of course; it was the headquarters of the re-formed Spectres, too.
He opened the front door, nodded to the security mechs and the guard behind the front desk, and tried not to trip over Urz, who'd emerged from a shadow to inspect him minutely before allowing him further into the house. "Down, boy. It's just me."
Their bedroom was on the ground floor. He poked his head in the door, and smiled. Dr. Chakwas was adjusting an IV needle, while his wife slept, propped up in bed. On the nightstand, a series of monitors chirped and beeped softly. The older woman looked up as the door opened, and put a finger to her lips. "I'll be done in a moment. She's doing fairly well, all things considered." Urz padded into the room, and, after giving Dr. Chakwas a sniff, leaped up on the bed and settled his bulk over the dozing woman's feet.
As Dr. Chakwas stepped out into the hall, Garrus perched on the edge of the bed, and took his wife's slender fingers in his own large hand. "Hey."
She opened her eyes. "Hey." Lilu woke up a little further. "You finally chased down the batarians?"
"Yeah. They won't be a problem anymore." He leaned down and gave her a nip on the neck.
"You leave any survivors?"
"You didn't send Garrus, mild-mannered Spectre and hero of the galaxy. You sent Archangel." Which meant that he'd worn his old, scarred armor, and the helmet that concealed his identity; the psychological impact of seeing the "damned turian who can't die" on pirates and slavers sometimes outweighed other considerations.
It also meant that everything in a mile radius was probably going to die.
When she frowned, he reassured her, "You asked for survivors, you got survivors. Two of them, the better to take a message to their bosses. Slaves were released, and the Alliance sent a ship in after me to mop everything up. You can look at the vid feed from my eyepiece later." He gave her hand a squeeze. "Assuming your blood pressure won't go up from it. I got yelled at by Dr. Chakwas the last time." He was fairly sure it wouldn't disturb her too much; he'd set up his perch a kilometer away, observed the camp for several hours, waiting for nightfall, and then started by shooting the slaver's captain between both sets of eyes. Then the lieutenants. Then, as chaos started to break out, anyone standing near prisoners, working his way out from the center of the camp to its periphery.
The last two, he'd taken out as they were running for a ground vehicle, trying to get to their nearby ship. He'd approached them as they were groaning on the ground, kicked their weapons away, and given them very simple directions. He had a pretty good feeling that the tracking devices he'd installed on their ship would lead the Spectres to their main base. But that was not his problem. Not today, anyway.
She rolled onto her side, looking tired, but playful. Urz grumbled and moved over, and the blankets fell from her. Her belly looked simply enormous under her thin nightgown. "There are other things you could do to elevate my blood pressure."
"Not for a while longer, I can't." His tone was rueful, and he nipped at her wrist lightly. "Oh, I forgot. Wrex says that Mordin should be here shortly."
"Good." She sat up, which clearly took some effort, and then took his hand, and put it on her belly. "The little monsters seem to think they need more space. I think one of them wants to colonize my ribs."
"Definitely a good little imperialist," he joked, keeping his tone as light as he could, but he knew he couldn't quite keep the worry out of his expression.
This, of course, was Mordin's other retirement project. Turians and humans were both viviparous, meaning that they gave birth to live offspring. That had reduced some of the challenge for Mordin, but using Collector technology to get levo and dextro amino acids to play nicely together had been a technical problem that had taken him close to a year to resolve. The first successful eggs had sat quietly in a dish for twenty minutes, before dividing. And then dividing again.
"Much of fetal development is not controlled by the genes, but by the uterine environment, mother's body," Mordin had explained as he'd injected the invisible cargo into Lilitu's stomach with a fine hypodermic needle. "Unknown how long gestation will be. Human norm, nine months. Turian norm, eleven. Probably wiser to plan for c-section extraction."
Mordin had made pleased sounds over the initial scans, and all the follow-ups. Garrus had been unable to figure out what any of the blobs actually represented—head, arms, legs, all looked disconcertingly, even alarmingly alike. They'd started with three planted ovae; one of the fetuses had miscarried three months in. Since then, she'd been on bed rest—not a good place for someone who'd spent her life on the move, always active. And Spectre work had been absolutely out of the question. Even with all the precautions they'd taken, she'd almost lost a second child at six months.
Even if they succeeded this time, Garrus wasn't sure he wanted to try this particular experiment again. There were, as she'd once pointed out, plenty of fully human and turian children who needed parents, too.
He felt a subtle movement under his fingers, and from her reaction, yes, one of their little imperialists was indeed on the move again. "Strong, aren't they?"
Her smile was proud, but tired. "Yeah. Yeah, they do seem to be." She added, closing her eyes again, "Though, for the record, I'm glad it's twins. I wouldn't want our kid to be the only one of its kind, but, on sober reflection, I really don't want to do this part again." She glanced out the window. "Can you take me for my walk around the garden? They've got me as sedentary as an egg here, but I'm allowed fifteen minutes of walking a day."
He helped her with her slippers and robe, and, sliding an arm around her waist for support, helped her take her slow, shuffling steps through the atrium garden. A dozen Spectres and Spectre candidates passed by as they did so, all of various races. All smiled and waved, and went on with their business. Eventually, she tired again, and settled back down in their bed, asking for her datapad so that she could review reports.
She fell asleep over the third one, and Garrus extracted the pad from her hands, going through the reports himself. A tap came at the door. Urz, dozing at the foot of the bed, lifted his head as well. Their bedroom was, Garrus reflected, between the Spectres in the compound and the protective varren that shared their living quarters, probably the safest place in the entire galaxy. "Enter," he said, quietly, pushing back from the desk.
Another turian stood in the doorway, wearing the black and white facepaint that indicated his colony origins were similar to Nihlus'. Garrus idly wondered if the two were clanmates. "Livanus?" he asked, after a moment's thought. "How's training going?"
"A lot differently than I expected," the male told him. "It's nothing like the old system, that's for certain."
"Under the old system, you probably wouldn't have been recruited," Garrus told him frankly, still keeping his voice down in deference to his sleeping wife. "We're looking for different qualities now. Sure, still the best of the best, in weapons, demolitions, and other special operations skills, but there are other factors now. First, the ability to think outside the box. Second, the ability to make decisions without having to run every one up the chain of command. But third, we're looking for strong ethics. For the ability to make the right decisions. If you don't have that, you wind up as another Saren." He grinned. "I probably would have been just as bad as Saren if I had gone into the Spectres before I met her." He nodded towards the bed.
"Neither of you is quite what I expected," Livanus admitted. "But that's not why I'm here. I noticed a name on the gate entry list, which pulled up a flag in the security files. A human named Sarah Williams?"
Garrus went from relaxed to rigid. "Where is she?"
"I'm holding her down at the security office."
Garrus opened the desk drawer, making sure his pistol was still there and loaded. "Bring her here-shackled. I would dearly love to know how she got to this supposedly secure location. Hell, I'd love to know how she slipped out of sight a year ago."
Livanus nodded and left, suddenly looking a lot grimmer, himself.
From the bed, behind him, Lilu said, quietly, "You'd have been worse than Saren, you know. You're hell of a lot smarter, not to mention better than he was. Plus, you have something he lacked entirely: imagination."
"How long have you been awake?"
"Long enough." Her eyes were tired and sad.
"Let me handle it."
"Don't go too far." She settled back, appearing to close her eyes again.
Livanus returned, this time with a short human female, whose arms were securely shackled behind her. Garrus got a glimpse of what had been used, and nodded in approval. Two sets of handcuffs; one at the wrists, and a second, with a longer chain, at the elbows. It was not comfortable, but there was no way in which she could step her hands in front of her body. Her feet were also shackled. Livanus had clearly not wasted his time in C-Sec.
"What's this about?" Williams asked as soon as she entered the room. She sounded frightened. "I'm a member of the biology team. I'm new, and I got lost. I didn't know I was on your facility grounds until they picked me up and took me to the gatehouse for processing."
Garrus studied her silently. He still had trouble with human features sometimes, but he thought he could see a familial resemblance there. "Sarah Williams?" he asked.
"Yeah. That's my name."
He pointed across the room. "Do you know what that is?"
Clearly confused, she turned to look at the spirit table in the corner of the room. There were a handful of statues there—the one his mother had carved of the two of them. One for the spirit of justice, another for the spirit of truth. There was a picture of Shepard's family, frozen forever in time. A crystal globe glittered there as well, a model of the asari homeworld, held aloft by a single female hand made of silver. It had been a slightly reproachful gift from Liara. And finally, there was a holograph, which, every three seconds, changed to a different face. "See anyone there that you recognize?" he asked, after a moment.
He knew the order of the images all too well. Three more images passed by, and then Ashley Williams' face appeared. The sudden exhalation from the human woman was all the proof he really needed.
"Those are all the people who've died under Shepard's or my direct command," he told her, as Williams was replaced by, in rapid succession, the twenty people killed on the original Normandy, ending with Pressly. Replaced, in turn, by Erash, Monteague, Mierin . . . the members of his own squad on Omega. Replaced by others. Too many others. "We keep it there to remember them. To remind us to make the best decisions we can."
She turned back towards him, and her eyes were full with anger. "And was sending my sister to die the best decision?"
"I don't know," he told her. "Was threatening to end the life of my wife with seven bullets the best decision you've ever made?"
She went absolutely still.
He stood, and held out the datapad in his hand, letting her see the text of her long-ago message. "My wife is, fortunately for you, all about second chances. Be aware, however, that I don't allow third ones. You've broken Council law and breached a secure facility. You've threatened the life of a Spectre. By all rights, you should spend the next twenty to thirty years in prison, at the very least." He stared down at her. "Explain to me why you shouldn't." You know the location of our home. You've threatened the life of my wife, and now my children. If this were three years ago, and if this were Omega, you would already be dead.
She seemed to read something of this in his eyes, and shrank in on herself. "I wasn't here to hurt anyone!"
"Somehow, I just can't believe that."
"I just wanted to look her in the eye and ask her why she sent my sister to die, and not—"
"And not who? Some worthless alien?" The voice came from behind them. Lilitu sat up in the bed, and Williams' eyes widened.
"You're pregnant?" Her voice held a mix of surprise and borderline revulsion.
"It's not exactly public knowledge," the commander of the Spectres told her dryly. "Now, listen up, because I'm only going to say this once. I had a choice between two Alliance crewmen that I could have sent on the secondary team on Virmire. Whoever was in charge of the team had to be Alliance, otherwise there would have been no clear chain of command." She paused, and her voice softened a little. "You can't have it both ways, Sarah. You can't resent the non-humans on my team for having too much control and want them to be in charge at the same time."
Garrus tried not to snort at that one. The irrationality of hatred meant that someone really could think both things at the same time, and wouldn't see any inconsistencies in their own views at all. And it wasn't as if they hadn't heard this same question, phrased differently, hundreds of times now. And each time, he reflected, the answer was just as difficult as the one before. There was no way to rehearse for this.
Williams tried again, "But why my sister?"
In his memory, Garrus heard Liara, Samara, the asari Councilor, each asking the same thing. "Why our world? Why did you chose our people to die, and not some other?"
The answer hadn't been any easier then.
His wife looked at the asari sorrowfully. "You're not going to like my answer, Liara."
"Tell me anyway. I have to know!"
Lilu sighed. "Your people represent stagnation."
"That was the short version. I'm sorry, but you have the least genetic variation of any galactic population. That means that when stresses occur, you're the most prone to being wiped out in any event, because that lack of variation means that you can't adapt quickly. Combine that with the extremely long life spans making for less reproduction overall, and you have, evolutionarily speaking, a species that has almost no ability to adapt quickly or well."
"That's Mordin's answer, not yours." Liara's voice was accusing.
"It's part of my answer. I told you, you weren't going to like it." He could see how carefully she was picking her words as she went on. "Culturally, the asari are stagnant as well. Not all asari, but the vast majority, believe in doing things the way they've been done for ten thousand years. Not exactly an adaptive trait."
"So you consigned all our art, our history, our culture, our science to the Reaper's fires because we're not flexible enough?"
Frustrated, Lilu had started to pace. "Your people have two dozen colony worlds, most of them established thousands of years ago, Liara. You haven't been wiped out by a long shot. If your people are strong enough, and adaptable enough, they can recover from this, and we'll be here to help them. But I had to make a choice. I couldn't be everywhere at once."
Weeks later, it had been Samara's questions that they'd faced. "So it had nothing at all to do with the fact that Earth and Palaven were in danger as well? Is mere emotion why my two remaining daughters died? Or was it something else—your distaste for what misguided asari have forced on you in the past? What . . . my daughter. . . almost forced on you?"
"Of course Earth and Palaven being in danger had something to do with it!" his wife had snapped, finally angry. "There was no way to separate the personal from the decision. Of course I saved my own people, and my husband's people first. Anyone who'd tell you otherwise would be lying."
"Your honesty humbles me, Commander," the justicar had told her. "And while I may never forgive you, I must respect your judgment of my people. I will meditate on what, if anything, may be done to save us from our own rigidity."
All of this flashed through his mind as he crossed the room and lit a candle next to the crystal globe, before turning once more. Lilitu frowned at the other human woman now. "What do you want me to say, Sarah? That I didn't like her? I didn't. That there were personal reasons behind the decision? In this case, there weren't." She let the words sit there for a moment. "I could have rescued her, at the cost of maybe losing the bomb that was going to destroy Saren's facility. If I didn't go to the bomb site, everyone there could have died. I respected the hell out of Ashley's skills. She was a damned fine infantryman, who knew how to serve, and knew that in serving, it might come at the cost of her life someday. If there was anyone who could have gotten through that fight, it would have been Ashley. She knew what I was asking of her when it went down, and she didn't flinch. You should be proud of her, Sarah." The commander paused. "I know she was proud of you. The best parts of her showed when she talked about her family."
Tears were starting to leak down Williams' face, and she lowered her head. Garrus nodded to Livanus, who turned her around and escorted her out.
Alone once more, Shepard took her pistol out from under the pillow, and returned it, safety in place, to the nightstand. "What do you think we should do with her?" she asked him.
"I'd prefer to see her locked up someplace. Ensuring that she doesn't leave the valley will do for now. I also want a psych evaluation done on her. See if she's going to continue to be unstable." He gave his wife a wary look. "I know you're going to incline towards the merciful on this one."
"Because I feel guilty about Ashley?"
"That, too." He hesitated. "Don't let it sway you too much. There's more at stake here than just us."
"I know. We can see if we can get her a mild amnesiac treatment to scrub the location of this base out of her mind. I don't like the treatments being overused, especially since it's a Cerberus tech, but there's only so much trust I can place in someone like her."
Thank the spirits. He squeezed her hands gently.
Mordin arrived two days later, with his old assistant, Daniel, from the Omega clinic, in tow. They'd brought enough supplies to cover any emergency that the two of them could think of, and, after yet even more tests, and a low-voiced conference with Dr. Chakwas, who'd been overseeing the problematic pregnancy, decided that, for the health of the mother, it was time. One of the rooms in the house was a sterile lab, which they converted into a surgery; without much fanfare at all, the children were born.
Garrus wasn't quite sure what to expect when Mordin handed him the first blanket-wrapped infant. He wasn't sure if the mix of species would be attractive or simply disconcerting. What he saw was, simply, their child. Fine black down covered the scalp of this infant male, while fine white down covered the scalp of his twin sister. The facial structure was largely turian, with deep-set eyes . . . but the skin was soft and clearly human. Under that pale, soft skin, he could see a tracery of fine blue veins. The teeth were hidden under the violet-tinged gums, but had a predatory shape, as far as he could tell, and there were no mandibles. The child might not be able to eat meat immediately, but he might be able to nurse.
He caught a hand, waving outside of the blanket, and counted the impossibly tiny fingers. Five. But each was clawed. His son opened his eyes, and gave his father a vague, unfocused look, out of blue irises.
The various doctors were still busy with the second infant, counting digits, assessing coloration, listening to the heart rate, and checking its weight. There'd be scans later, to determine the size and configuration of the internal organs, doubtless. But for right now, Garrus sat down on the chair beside the operating table, feeling a little weak at the knees, and held the boy out so his wife could see him. Then Dr. Chakwas brought the second child, a girl, over to the pair of Spectres. "Hey, guys," the new mother said, taking her daughter in her arms, her voice soft. "Now what are we going to do with you?"
First, I'd like to thank all the people who posted lovely and gracious comments to my first fiction. Second, I'd like to thank the many people who've added The Spirit of Truth to their favorite stories list, or who have added me to their favorite authors notifications list. It means a lot to me to know that you enjoy what I've done so far.
I'm posting this to let you know that I'm uploading a new story, a continuation, called The Spirit of Redemption. It's not finished yet, and it goes against my grain to post something that doesn't have a full beginning, middle, and end, but I'm excited about it, and hope that you'll enjoy it.
It's set three years after the epilogue of The Spirit of Truth, and takes place in the same continuity. Thus, is features Lilitu Shepard (yes, I've corrected the spelling of her name going forwards) and Garrus Vakarian, as well as Lantar Sidonis and some other familiar faces from ME1 and ME2. It also features the hybrid kids, so if your blood pressure goes up at the mere thought, please, don't read it. I don't know if someone really can have a stroke from nerdrage, but I'd feel terribly responsible if someone actually did keel over from it.
No, wait; I wouldn't. :-P
All chapters are subject to revision; I think I've got all of Chekov's guns placed on their respective mantelpieces at the moment, but I reserve the right to add something in as it hits me between the eyes.