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Epilogue 5: Like Leaves Across the Face of Time
The Husk War, as it became known, dragged on, as did the unrest in asari space. Asari tended to be slow to change, and the ramifications of old Reaper tech being adapted by the younger races wouldn't be resolved in days, weeks, months, or years. Decades, perhaps. Maybe centuries. Laessia had, very quietly, as early as 2198, begun training Samiel, Melaani, and Sisu in the way of the Wind that Bends the Reeds, knowledge once forbidden to any but Justicars. While she did not train Sisu, child that he was, in the upper-tier biotics, she did teach the unique blend of biotic and physical skills that were the hallmark of the style. And, at her son's recommendation, she considered Dempsey and Zhasa'Maedan as students as well. As Samiel pointed out to her, both of them were biotic, and their unique regenerative capacity might actually not make them mahai, or short-lived, but. . . perhaps as long-lived as asari. They might need the mental tools, and discipline, and perspective, of the asari to keep them sane in the perhaps-centuries of their coming lives. This was already a huge break in tradition, allowing non-asari to learn these skills, but Laessia unbent enough to allow Madison Dempsey and Kaius Vakarian to learn the lower tier skills as well. Kaius, because he was . . . almost as unique as her ardat-yakshi son, and a young male of discretion and enormous biotic potential. And Madison. . . because, to her mingled shock and awe. . . he already had the first step towards the Reed, or the Sword, in his biotic portfolio. He could already wrap a weapon with kinetic force. The chances were good that, in his lifetime, he might be able to figure out the Sword on his own, and might not even destroy his own hands by wielding it. When it came down to it, Laessia had decided, that if these short-lived humans, these mahai, hasty children, had figured out so much in the mere fifty years since they'd encountered the Council. . . then she damned well needed to train them in the discipline to use the arts properly. And that could be her legacy.
And so, in 2205, she also, quietly, founded the Order of the Wind. A new order of Justicars, in effect. She pored through the old sutras—perhaps, ironically, with Siara Tesala, Ylara Alir, Kishara and Meshara Laos, and her son. . . and boiled them down into almost the same code that Siara Tesala, on Tuchanka, had encoded for herself.
Defend the helpless, and protect innocence.
Uphold sensible laws, and resist those laws designed to infringe upon fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property.
Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. However, as when their actions, in accordance with those beliefs, infringe upon the life, liberty, or property of others, this is unacceptable.
Use your power responsibly, with honor and integrity; show respect and courtesy to others.
Use no more of your power than is necessary to protect yourself and those under your charge.
The Five Tenets actually sent shockwaves through asari space, and certainly among the other Justicars, who saw ten thousand years of tradition, of a Code so exquisitely nuanced that they could apply it to any situation, without even having to think about what their actions meant. And on the rare occasions when one Justicar might disagree with another about the meaning of a sutra, the days of discourse that followed were usually so Byzantine as to be completely incomprehensible to anyone who wasn't a scholar of the sutras.
That was, in essence, what Laessia objected to; the sutras had become a replacement for thought, for judgment, properly applied. . . and on the rare occasions when thought and judgment were applied, they required four volumes of precedents to interpret.
For Siara's part, she found handfuls of asari moving, slowly, to Tuchanka. Uncertain of their welcome, they found their way to the Urdnot camp. Many were SRY-positive, expressed as varying degrees of hermaphroditism, or were biotic nulls, or biotic insensitive, like Iliana M'loa.
And while the old began to unravel, and knot itself into new configurations, ancient Reaper tech becoming the new nightmare of Council space, the Spectres and Council forces continued to unlock barred relays, beyond which only Jeff Moreau and EDI had peered before. And the single constant in a universe in which gravity could be manipulated. . . . time. . . proceeded in its steady pace.
The only good news out of the Husk War was that the 'new and improved' nanites had mostly been adapted to batarian physiology. They could infect living batarians, and, if an infected batarian, living or dead, bled into the open wound of another species, the nanites could colonize the body, with frightening speed.
That meant that Valak N'dor and Alisav K'sar absolutely could not go into the field on any of these missions. Not that Valak could, as the titular head of government, but even Alisav, as the second batarian Spectre, and a heavy influence on reforming SIU, was too valuable a target. If either of them were husked, alive, the machine-mind, hive-like, would know everything that they knew. . . or so went the supposition. The two batarians were enormously frustrated; they'd been aware of the potential for Reaper nanites and husking since 2198, but hadn't been able to track down the Reaper device that had spawned this plague. And with the frustration, shame, too. They'd both worked for the previous incarnation of SIU. They knew, better than anyone else, that the nanite plague was probably the result of SIU tampering with Reaper tech.
Living krogan, with their incredible immune systems, were somewhat resistant. Dead ones were readily colonized; they had hemoglobin-based blood, which appeared to make them more hospitable to the nanites. Humans, also with hemoglobin-based blood, seemed to be susceptible, and late 2205 saw the first instance of a living human husked on Erszbat. And young Madison Dempsey was forced to shoot down a member of his own squad, as the machine-mind took over his friend and teammate. Turians and drell and asari, with hemecyanic blood, and, in the case of turians, dextro-based physiology, also proved to be . . . slightly more resistant to the nanites, but corpses could still be husked. Rachni alive or dead, proved resistant; Dara and Narayana speculated that they were simply too alien for the tiny machines to find the proper organs for colonization. Geth, being machines already, with synthetic muscles, proved to be entirely immune. Volus, with their silicon-based physiology, might well have been immune as well, but if a volus ever suffered a suit tear while being exposed, they'd have exploded into a smear over the landscape, so the chances of finding out were slim. Elcor, with their hemoglobin-based blood, were being kept well out of the fighting zones, and only permitted in with relief workers in known safe zones. No one wanted to find out what one of them, husked, would be like.
STG and Spectre tech specialists were having no more luck with trying to destroy the nanites without destroying the host organism. Even with the assistance of the Aeseti, that mechano-organic hybrid species from beyond the locked relays—who were looking to reverse thousands of years of machine implantations in their own population—the research was painfully slow, and often dangerous to the researchers.
The supposition was, currently, that Dragons' Teeth devices had scanned the physiology of the species to be husked, and adapted their nanites to that physiology. That was why the nanites weren't adapting readily to every species right now; they only had templates for a certain range of species. Those closest to batarians, in physiology and morphology. The batarian researchers, whoever they were, who had adapted the technology, had made the nanites capable of taking over a living host, and had attempted to remove Reaper indoctrination programming that would have given the husks Reaper priorities. They'd probably tried to replace that indoctrination with their own; the result was the 'hive-mind' or 'machine-mind' that rachni reported as 'muffled songs.' An overlay that made it impossible for a biotic to reach the organic mind underneath, but still permitted the living husks. . . reason. Tactics. Intelligence. But no free will. They all communicated with one another, it was clear, but how remained in question. If it was biotic, it was on a low level carrier band that not even the rachni could pick up, although Sky, Stone, and Dances all complained of a 'low humming sound' in their minds on batarian worlds infested by husks. Something that could be detected, but not understood. Geth units with biotic radios detected something that they perceived as static.
Something that might bear out investigation, in the years to come.
2205 gave way to 2206. Rellus Velnaran, now thirty-one years of age, and his mate, Seheve Liakos, welcomed their second child, a male they named Jevan, not on Mindoir, but on Aphras. The Spectres had completed building one of their secondary bases there in about 2202, and this year, Rel and Seheve were appointed the co-commanders of that new base. There was a xenobiological station nearby, but no archaeological wonders to be concerned about. The terraforming of the planet continued apace all around them, on the levo-dextro model, but with a slightly heavier lean towards dextro life forms, including ones culled from both Rannoch and Palaven, ones that could already, fortunately, endure the heat of this hothouse planet. This base had always been intended, by Shepard, to be where the Spectres would train heavily with special operations forces from many different worlds. They'd even have a bombing range, the ability to practice parachute drops and dropship exits with turian, human, geth, quarian, even rachni forces. Rel thought himself a round peg perfectly positioned in a round hole, as he and Seheve worked with young infiltrators, assault specialists and others, teaching them to fulfill their roles better, how to integrate with the other forces, and how to work by the Spectre playbook. And the peace Seheve had brought to his life, Rel often realized, the quiet serenity that guided her days. . . in spite of the fact that she was engaged in a full-on war of words with the Hanar Illuminated Primacy that had escalated into at least two assassination attempts on the former assassin . . . was one of the greatest gifts he'd ever known. In eight years of marriage, he'd come to realize, he wasn't really sure who he would be now, if it weren't for her presence in his life. And he took especial care to tell Seheve this. Frequently. Which usually netted him a faint smile, and a wondering look, and the halting words, "I. . . do not know who I would be, either, Rellus. Perhaps no one at all. I think that I would have unmade myself. Instead. . . perhaps. . . we have redeemed each other. At least a little."
Tosal Nym, Aphras' 'heavenly twin,' also once held by the Keepers, a million years ago, was the more 'human' of the two planets, with a lower temperature. It, too, was home to a handful more species than had existed there ten years ago. . . in the main, lichen on rocks and algae and kelp in the burgeoning seas, as ice mined from an ice moon tugged into orbit was brought to the surface and melted. Xenobiologists struggled, daily, to create a biosphere that could support life in a cooler, almost entirely alpine-like planet. Again, a levo-dextro model, creating food chains that could support both types of life, in the same environment. Die-offs as one species slowly 'learned' not to eat another, of an opposing chirality. Evolution in action, supported, abetted, nudged on, by patient scientists.
There were more archaeological digs on Tosal Nym, and one of them happened to be positioned close to the other new Spectre base, which made it rather ideal as a cover site. This one was a far more covert base. . . it was Spectre R&D. Shepard had, for years, debated putting Zhasa and Dempsey in charge of the base, but in the end, found that the couple was simply too useful to pin down that way. They, along with Dara and Eli, had been the backbone of the locked relay expeditions, along with people like Siege, Samiel, Dances, and Mercuria. Zhasa needed to be free to deal with issues on Rannoch, and Dempsey was simply too much of a juggernaut not to put into combat situations. And so, she put Hal'Marrak and Nal'Ishora in position as the base commanders, an elevation that made the two quarians almost dizzy with pride. Their decade and a half of work for the Spectres, quiet, patient service, had paid off.
Shepard would have loved to make Narayana a Spectre. She debated it, frequently, with Garrus. Mordin's daughter was every bit the researcher and genius her father had been. Her long association with Kirrahe had resulted in the female developing exceptional skills with firearms, and her ability to program and hack was just as good as any tech on base. She was, however, the dalatrass of the Lystheni, currently, and engaged in a quiet sort of cultural revolution. As such, Shepard couldn't really see making her a Spectre, and putting her life on the line. Nara had, however, been employed by the Spectres pretty much from the moment she'd finished medical school, and now she and Kirrahe were assigned to the Tosal Nym base. Narayana for, well, research and development, and Kirrahe, well, for base security, and so he'd have a very short commute to the Aphras base, where he'd be working to train special forces operatives. . . whenever he wasn't out on a mission, himself.
The Mindoir base would remain the primary base of operations, but would be the home of the investigations and espionage branches. Investigations was currently headed by Sam, Ylara, and Lantar, and Kasumi still headed Intelligence. Linianus, Eli, and Melaani were now highly ranked in Investigations, with Melaani being periodically 'borrowed' by Kasumi for some operations, and Serana remained one of Kasumi's favorite 'go-to' people for espionage work that didn't involve deep-cover. Eli, Dara, Dempsey, and Zhasa were still, overall, the most fantastically over-tasked of the Spectres. They were supposed to be the backbone of the relay exploration teams, Eli was in investigations, Dara backed him up with her pathology experience, and had been assigned to research on the nanites and everything else that had blown up in the past several years. They were also the intermediaries for Joy-Singer, in dealing with Mindoir planetary authorities; the amount of land being purchased by Spectres on Mindoir had picked up over the years, and the rachni range was, thus, spreading. Dempsey and Zhasa were just as apt to be sent into combat zones as Dara and Eli, and their technical background made them natural to send with Dara and Eli as foils on high-priority missions. And both pairs had twins under the age of two.
Their lives were. . . somewhat busy.
Rinus and Kallixta's third child was actually born on Palaven, as the issue of the turian succession ground on through the first half of 2206. Their second-son was named Gavian, in a tribute to Gavius, Rinus' grandfather. Finally, in January of that year, Perinus' son, Lexarius, renounced all claim to the throne, which left it to Ligorus' second-son, Felinus, whom no one really wanted to see as Imperator, but who clearly thought he'd made a fine one. Political scrambling ensued, as various dominae scrambled to position themselves; Khryseia, the first-daughter, had already renounced all claims for herself and her children.
It was widely rumored that Ligorus, tiring of all the scrambling, took all of his living children and their spouses into a closed room in the Palace. Had the Praetorians lock and guard the doors, and told them to sit down and be quiet for a few moments while he spoke. Rumor had it, that Ligorus walked up and down the length of the long room, and finally stopped at his youngest child, Severus, who looked bored and impatient. "Why so impatient? Do you not appreciate the gravity of this situation?"
"I understand it, my lord, and I apologize for my demeanor. I have been, however, taken from my duties, including the fighting of a war, for almost six months by this business." Severus looked at his father respectfully. "I am the very last in the line of succession, besides distant cousins, your Majesty. I will swear my oaths of fealty to any who becomes the heir, and gladly."
"But you grow weary of the endless arguing?"
"Ah. . . yes, my lord."
"Tell me, my outspoken young son, what qualities would you like to see in your next Imperator or Imperatrix?"
"Loyalty," Severus had responded, promptly. "Loyalty to those under him or her. Responsibility. Duty—not just doing what's required, but doing for other people. Honor. An understanding of the laws we live by, and respect for them. Commitment. Self-sacrifice."
Ligorus studied his youngest son. "Who in this room embodies those traits, sixth-son?"
A moment of absolute silence. "You do, sir."
"I thank you for the courtesy, but it is a very certain truth that I cannot succeed myself. Is there any other in this room who meets your criteria? The criteria which, I might add, are the simple requirements of the code of officers?" Ligorus' tone had been very calm.
Severus, the story went, didn't reply, but his eyes flicked across the room. And told a tale all their own.
"You appear to believe that your fifth-sister and her mate have these admirable qualities."
Uproar in the room, and after a moment, Ligorus had raised a finger for silence. Which was given, instantly, the habit of obedience quite strong in all of them, even his adult children. He looked at Kallixta, it was said, and then at his other children. "You object to Severus' characterization? Then allow me to pose this question: Which of you is worthy enough—sure enough in yourself, your principles—to call yourself ruler over my fifth-daughter and her mate?" Ligorus' expression had been unsparing. "Which of you can meet the Defender of the Empire on the floor of the Conclave, and debate issues with him? Which of you has faced privation and pain on the battlefield, as both of them have? Which of you can even meet their eyes, and give them a command, without it feeling hollow?"
It was said, that Rinus and Kallixta both shook their heads, emphatically. Ligorus walked around the room, once more, and said, quietly, to the downcast eyes and grim expressions, "Vibius? You just finished your first tour as a gunner in the fleet. What was one of the first lessons you learned, in Officer's Candidacy School?"
Vibius raised his head. "That an officer's command is no stronger than the centurions under him or her, my lord."
Ligorus paused, and said, meditatively, "Tell me, do they still bring out a highly decorated young centurion in OCS? The male or the female in the prime of life, the one covered in medallions, the one who's a deadly weapon simply staring at you, a sword for the hand. . . . and tell you, that if you do not think you can command this centurion, that you should pack your bags and leave?"
Ligorus looked at him. "It's meant to be a challenge. Most young officers enjoy a challenge." He paused. "Do you think you're worthy to command such a one as Rinus Velnaran?"
Rinus' expression clearly indicated that he didn't like being used as an object lesson, but he endured.
Vibius' spine straightened, but after a moment, he lowered his head. "No, sir."
A silent head-shake. "He's the most decorated individual since. . . the Unification Wars. And a Spectre. I'm just. . . me." Vibius paused. "I finished my single tour two years ago, my lord. I was a gunner, and oversaw gun crews." He glanced at Rinus.
"Not a bad thing to be," Rinus muttered.
"Yes, but I was a junior lieutenant with a very experienced centurion under me. I did fire our weapons, but most of my duties revolved around evaluations and did bookkeeping on how many rounds of ammunition we expended and received." Vibius sounded . . . objective. "I saw more of the real fleet than some other children of dominae do, but I lack experience." Vibius had finished his tour and requested permission to pursue his education, with an eye towards civil engineering. Ligorus had permitted this, much to the surprise of the other dominae.
Ligorus turned to Aemilius. Now twenty-six, he had been under sixteen when the Imperatrix, his mother, had died in the plagues, and his entire life within the Palace had changed, with that passing. For starters, he'd gone to boot-camp and had been permitted an MOS in intelligence. He'd studied satellite imagery and long-range telemetry for years, and had opted to remain heavily involved in TIA after finishing his required four years, and now had probably the equivalent of a doctorate in interpreting the specialized data that came from distant listening posts. "And you, fourth-son? Could you command your fifth-sister or her mate?"
Aemilius blinked. "Their analysis of the comet attack on Earth. . . and their solution for it? Something of a legend at TIA," he admitted, frankly. "As is Rinus' analysis of the weapons platforms around Garvug—yes, I know about that," he added, looking at Rinus, who shifted, uncomfortably. "In answer to your question. . . no, my lord. I look up to both of them. They inspired me. It's difficult to command . . . someone you regard as a personal hero. " He looked down.
Rinus actually winced. "I thought I'd stripped away the hero thing years ago," he muttered.
On up the line, in ascending order of birth. Bellatrix, four years Kallixta's senior, was heavily involved in charitable foundations, and usually organized blood drives (which, given that every single citizen was required to donate blood once a year, pretty much organized themselves in the rigid turian society), food donations, clothing donations, and the like. She was a good and decent person, who'd served her four years in the medical staff as a nurse on Edessan. And she lowered her eyes in embarrassment when asked if she could command either her fifth-sister or her mate. Marinus, who at thirty-six, had no offspring, and who'd been in an arranged marriage set up by the late Imperatrix for fifteen years, and who had ended his contract under the new laws this past year to the great dismay of his first-brother, Perinus, when the male was still alive, shrugged. "I could command them," he said, dryly. "I don't know if Rinus would hear a word I said. Aside from which, there are any number of sticklers who would claim that any children of my line would not be rightfully Imperial, since they would not be with my first mate."
Rinus' expression went cold. "I have never disobeyed a command," he said, tightly.
Celexia, at thirty-nine, had no children. It was a noted tragedy in the family; she was beautiful, and had incredible poise . . .but she was barren. She had never cycled into estrus, much to her mate's, and her, actual pain. "Please," she said, quietly, when Ligorus turned to her. "You know what my answer would be. Could I command them? Yes. Would they hear me? I suspect so. But the line would end with me, and we would have a dynastic fight in another generation." She shook her head. "I'll not be the cause of putting off the issue for another fifty years, and then revisiting it. Perhaps next time with more suffering."
"My wise daughter," Ligorus murmured, and took her hand, for a brief moment. Perhaps only the second or third time he might have touched her, in her life. And Celexia smiled, faintly.
Varinia, at forty-two, had one child, a daughter who was twenty-two, herself. Varinia, unfortunately, took after the late Imperatrix in demeanor and beliefs. And vouchsafed that she thought she could command Rinus's respect, but her chill look at her fifth-sister spoke volumes. Varinia was on public record as having said that she felt Kallixta was a bastard, who had already disgraced the Imperial family before the shameful facts of her birth had been revealed.
Ligorus glanced at Rinus, and the stony expression there spoke little of the Spectre's true feelings. Khryseia had already abdicated. Felinus was a playboy, and everyone in the family knew it. And faced with the same question, the second-son stared at the Defender of the Imperium . . . and broke eye-contact. Lexarius, Perinus' son, grimaced. "You know my reasons, my lord."
Rinus gave Lexarius a dark look, and glanced at Ligorus. "Permission to speak, your Majesty?" Always formal; pada'amu was for truly private conversations.
Ligorus waved permission. "Your father and I rarely agreed," Rinus told the young male, with a certain grimness. "About anything, really. But he was never a coward."
Lexarius looked at the older male. "Are you calling me one?"
"You won't take the role you were born to; you won't do your duty by the Hierarchy. Because you don't wish to be a target?" Rinus' mandibles widened, and he kept his hands behind his back. But while his demeanor was tactful, his voice held force.
"I'm not a coward," Lexarius replied, but he couldn't meet Rinus' eyes. "But I will not legitimize the Latro Venator's actions—"
"By refusing to take your place, you are legitimizing their actions. Giving them power they didn't have before. They've never effected policy or the succession—"
"And you do realize that my mate and I are as childless as Aunt Celixia and her mate are?" Lexarius glanced at his older aunt. "I apologize, sister-of-my-father. But your reasons, if valid for you, must be valid for me as well."
"You're young, still," Celixia replied, quietly. "You still have a chance."
"I've been married for twelve years. We've seen dozens of specialists. It's not going to happen. And I'm traditional enough that I will not set aside my mate for such a cause." A glance at Marinus, for that, who regarded him, coolly.
"And I," Kallixta said, tightly, raising a hand, surprising them all, "am not a daughter of the late Imperatrix—"
"No," Ligorus said, immediately, and calmly. "But you are my daughter. Both by blood and by formal adoption into the line of succession. It's quite legal. Quite binding. Even quite traditional, even if some members of my own family have not chosen to take such measures." Not quite a look at Khryseia. "You have commanded, and been commanded," he told Kallixta. "You are a decorated pilot, the first such in the family since the days of the Unification War. It was not for nothing that I gave you Commodus and Venisita's wedding knives."
Kallixta looked at her father with a growing expression of absolute horror. And, after a moment, she dropped to her knees in front of him, and spoke rapidly, in a quiet voice, the words barely audible more than a few feet away. Begging him, in truth, not to do this. "My lord. . . .father. . . please. I have rarely asked for anything in my life. I've tried to earn everything." She closed her eyes. "You've allowed me to build a life with Rinus. You've allowed me to be so much more than I ever thought I would be permitted to be. You've permitted us freedom and happiness. While it's yours to give and yours to take. . . please. . . don't . . . " Her voice broke, and she went silent.
"You would refuse to do your duty by your people?" Ligorus' voice was surprisingly gentle.
"Of course not," Kallixta replied, lowering her head. "But my duty to my people has been to serve in the Fleet. I am a pilot."
"—a duty from which you withdrew after the destruction of the Estallus, to serve as a pilot to the Spectres," Ligorus reminded her, quietly. "Oh, you've continued to train pilots, and you've served for six years as the pilot of the Lumen Rose, the ship they use for truly covert missions, and matters that require disguise, rather than force of arms. . . but you were trained, in this very palace, for diplomacy, fifth-daughter. And you are thirty years old, an age at which the reflexes do begin to slow. They're tempered by experience, assuredly, but your days as a combat pilot would be numbered, anyway. And you have three children now." Ligorus gave her a patient look. "How much flying have you done in the last year?"
"I've spent the last six months here," Kallixta said, still looking down. "Because of the issue of the succession. Everything has been on simulators." She looked up, and said, quietly, "Our home isn't here. It's on Mindoir—and it's the only home Rinus has ever considered to be a home, not a mausoleum. It's what our children know. Rubixius speaks turian, but he's better at galactic. Mindoir is where they've been growing up, surrounded by family."
"And will they not, here?"
"Different family," Rinus supplied, his voice tight. "On Mindoir, it's not tutors. There, they'll learn at the Spectre school. They'll be surrounded by the brightest and best of the galaxy. They'll meet ten different species before lunch, and while it's still a restricted place, it's not as cut off from the galaxy as the Palace is." He folded his arms across his chest. "We're not traditional. And no matter where we are, no matter what box we're put in, that's not going to change."
Half of the people in the room sucked in a breath. This wasn't just pulling on the acrocanth's tail. This was standing in front of the teeth and shouting "Eat me and I will give you indigestion!"
"Perhaps," Ligorus said, after a moment, meditatively, "that is precisely what I need from you." He looked down at Kallixta's bowed head, and put a hand atop her fringe, very lightly. He then gave the rest of the siblings in the room, a long, calm stare. "Felinus. You have a choice. Abdicate your claim, or be disinherited. Abdicate, and you'll retain at least one home in which you and your family can live, and a stipend, so that you can continue your choice of amusements. Force me to disinherit you, and everything that the Praetorians have concealed about your various amours will be made public, and you will lose all titles and financial remuneration."
Felinus' eyes had widened, and he looked for a moment, absolutely desperate. "Khryseia, you've already abdicated. Varinia, you have no faults to your reputation, but you have the same choice as Felinus. Step down, or be disinherited as a disobedient child."
Varinia spluttered. "The Conclave will not stand for this—"
"The law states that within each house, the parents are as the Imperator and the Imperatrix. You have a choice between obedience and disobedience. Which you select is your decision."
Down the line, and back to Kallixta, who was still on her knees, shaking her head slightly. Rinus had moved to her side, one hand on her shoulder. Staring at Ligorus. The Imperator looked down at Kallixta, and murmured, "If I were to threaten to disinherit you, fifth-daughter . . . what would be the first thing that would happen, my dear?"
Her head lifted. "My lord. . . my mate would probably run naked through the streets to celebrate." She paused. "He would commiserate with me, but rejoice."
Ligorus gave Rinus a long stare for that one. Rinus did not change expressions at all.
"You would lose the Macedyn house, the holdings on Galatana, various other sources of revenue and homes . . . "
"But it would not affect you?"
"It would affect where we went on vacation. We've long lived solely on what we earn. . . .my lord." Kallixta peeked up.
"Then I must put this to you another way. All the others have stepped aside. It rests on you to decide this. Will you put the Hierarchy into the sort of chaos and turmoil of having someone as young as Aemilius or Vibius or Severus as the heir designate? Or will you be an obedient child, and do your duty?"
"Father, please.There is so much more to do. I've explored beyond locked relays, but we've only opened three of the hundreds that remain." Severus never told anyone this, but he could hear the words behind Kallixta's anguished, single phrase. Please don't entomb me here. Please don't make my mate hate coming home to me, because I am trapped here. Don't make me raise my children in this mausoleum.
Ligorus leaned in, and spoke, quietly, "You've done more than many have dreamed of doing in their lives, my daughter." And then he whispered something to her. Severus was sitting close enough to hear, but he doubted anyone else besides Rinus did. Simple words, but meaningful ones. "You'll hold the power to make things different, my dear."
Kallixta raised her head. "If I'm invested as heir, will I have to live here?"
"That is the tradition. However, we might be able to bend tradition somewhat." Severus could almost hear other words, behind this, as well. Would it truly be so bad to live here again?
"Will Rinus have to stop being a Spectre?"
"Not until you are crowned as Imperatrix. I plan to make that as long a wait as possible. I have grandchildren I wish to see grow up. In some cases, great-grandchildren."
A long exchange of glances between Kallixta and Rinus. And Rinus murmured to Kallixta but one word: "Duty."
And so it was that Kallixta was invested formally as the heir apparent, a decision that sent off yet more shockwaves throughout turian space. Given that her mate was the Defender of the Imperium, however, there were certain precedents . . . and the media went wild. Not only was Kallixta blood-sister, oath-sworn, to a human female, but that female was Dara Sidonis. The Spectre who'd shattered asari society with her research, whose divorce had reformed tal'mae, and who was widely rumored to be some sort of rachni hybrid. The rank and file of the Hierarchy, by and large, loved it, however; Kallixta was seen as someone who'd earned her way, as had Rinus. She'd served with distinction, and was a hero in her own right, and was married to the hero of Nimines. The Spectre who'd been crowned by the people of Nimines with rebar from their fallen skyscrapers, set with blood sapphires from their mines, in recognition of how he'd worked to save them from attack, reversed a rout, almost at the cost of his own life.
Severus read the political commentary on the decision with enormous amusement. On the one hand, some people thought that Ligorus was revitalizing faith in the Imperial system, by giving the people actual heroes who would take office, in time. But while Rinus had spent quite a bit of time in the Conclave, Kallixta looked to be untried and untested in political matters. She did, however, have her diplomatic training to fall back on, and many commentators saw it as a masterful pairing of the iron fist and the velvet glove. Others saw it as an attempt to align, or at least, co-opt, the popularity of the Velnaran-Vakarian clan for Imperial purposes.
Solanna and Allardus Velnaran had absolutely no idea what to do with this entire series of events. That they were proud wasn't in question. They were, however, extremely wary of what this would do to their first-son, and to their beloved first grandchildren, who were now going to be stuck on Palaven for most of every year. Gavius, for his part, dryly reminded Rinus, "Technically, you could divorce her and run for the damned hills now."
"Not going to happen, Grandfather." Rinus grimaced. "I'll admit, the thought had occurred to me. But. . . maybe we'll get very lucky, Ligorus will live to a hundred and twenty, we'll be in our nineties, and we can tag Rubixius' kids with this s'kak."
Gavius snorted. "That sounds . . . unlikely."
Severus, for his part, happily gave his oaths of allegiance, and looked for orders to his next assignment. He had work to do.
Life went on, on the Spectre base. Kallixta was more or less tied to the Imperial Palace at first, and Rubixius and Vassaria were both deeply missed by their various playmates. . . particularly by Teagan and Lantus Sidonis, who still asked where their friends were, even months after their departure for Palaven. Kallixta and Rinus' house, furnished with love and care, stood empty; no one wanted to reclaim it for another Spectre. Rinus refused to stay there when he was on Mindoir. Without his family in it, to him, it was just another house, and it hurt too much to enter, knowing that he might never get to live in it again. Whenever he was not in the field, currently, he spent all of his time on Palaven, with Kallixta and the children. "Break the damned traditions. Have the damned heir-designate live where she wants to," Rel told his older brother, by comm call, one night.
"We're trying. . . .we're trying. Got to give it a little time. Maybe in a couple of years."
"You'll still be saying that in two years. Make the break now. Or you never will. Inertia does that. In two years, it'll be 'the younglings are used to the Palace now,' where now it's 'everyone in the Hierarchy needs to see the continuity of tradition.'"
"You have a point."
"Don't sound so surprised, first-brother."
Serana took time for maternity leave, and produced her second child with Linianus in 2206. . . Justus Marcus, the human middle name a nod to Lin's sangua'fradu. In the same year, Thelldaroon took a highly unusual step; he'd been working with Laetia on the Citadel for years now, and almost everyone who knew either of them credited him with stabilizing Laetia. First, as a programmer and confidante, and later, in a more personal relationship. By 2204, he'd been chipped to her, the first chipped elcor; and in 2206, he actually married Laetia. By elcor rites. The wedding ceremony lasted a week, and rumor had it that the Keepers were highly amused.
Apparently, not even they had ever seen the like before, in a million years of attendance on the Citadel.
Tarenius Gallian, it seemed, had remarried, himself; this time, to a fellow turian, this one a medical specialist who worked heavily in cybernetics and limb replacement. He remained heavily active in the disabled veterans' community, and in the sphere of AI rights, out of love and loyalty to Laetia. . . but while their divorce was an amicable one, it was a very permanent one.
The geth began to request more NCAI runtimes for their efforts to create more heterogeneity in their perspective; they also expressed interest in the data accumulated by the NCAIs about other species. Pelagia contributed some of her krogan data. Arash'Veza, a relatively new quarian Spectre, allowed himself to be chipped to an NCAI so that the geth would, eventually, have access to quarian brain patterns—the geth had, after all, destroyed the ancestor patterns that the quarians had long ago created on Rannoch, during the Morning War, and thus, had no access to the memory and thought patterns of their own creators. Lysandra, through a biotic radio, transmitted rachni templates based on Sings-of-Glory. The geth were. . . highly conservative about allowing hybrid runtimes. They quarantined any unit who accepted the hybrid runtimes, and observed them for stability and ability to function for up to four years. And then, once the utility of the new, organic-origin runtimes had been proven, they were allowed to disseminate their information and experiential data to Consensus.
In 2207, the drell of Rakhana permitted settlement on their world by galactic drell. This had taken ten years to negotiate, largely because Rakhana drell did not trust the "children of the traitors." They had, however, sent enough of their own people off-world to work and be educated, who had returned safely, and with technological wonders and credits, that change was, slowly, coming to Rakhana. Various city-states had permitted environment clean-up to begin in their areas; as water and soil began to be reclaimed, and the bacteriological agent, used on their world in good faith by the hanar, but with such lasting and detrimental consequences, began to be eradicated, the cities began to regain crop land and water sources long considered too dangerous or poisonous to be safe. This was enough positive proof to get momentum going, and the city-dwellers formed a Council of Suzerains, representing at least the city-dwellers of that arid planet, and permitted full-scale environmental cleanups, minor terraforming, and the resettlement by galactic drell.
Rinus and Kallixta managed to move back to Mindoir in this year, at least part-time, after over close to two years spent on Palaven. These were, at first, disguised as long trips to visit family, and the family home on base had had to be retrofitted, extensively, by the Praetorians, before they were permitted back. They were greeted with universal delight, however, and Kallixta was simply glad to be in an environment other than the Palace. "This place is going to be my sanity," she told Dara, quietly. "I don't know how long I'll be able to keep coming here. I'd never really registered how many . . . truly stupid events. . . . my first-brother had to go to. Technically, I should be at the Conclave right now, but. . . "
"They're allowing you time to adjust," Dara told her, quietly. "And who knows? Maybe you can change the rules. Here and there. A little."
Dara had been, at the time, heavily pregnant. She and Eli had decided try for a third child in 2207. When this pregnancy also turned out to be twins—Derek and Merryn were born in November—they decided that they were going to be done with such efforts for a while. "I wasn't looking to literalize the term brood-mother," Dara grumbled. Emily Wong had dropped by the base to do a special on the various Spectre families, as she tended to do, from year to year, and interviewed Zhasa and Dempsey about their young human-quarian hybrids . . .who were actually amazingly healthy, with robust human immune systems and almost no allergies of any sort. She also interviewed Eli and Dara about their children. Teagan and Lantus were now five years old, and in kindergarten, and thus at the photogenic stage of childhood. Eli and Dara weren't entirely thrilled with the idea of exposing their children to the media quite yet. . . but they also knew they needed to stay well ahead of everything, and not completely shelter their kids from the reality in which they lived. As such, Wong got to film the two older twins—who wore violet paint on their jaws, and went to school, each with a worker perched, cheerfully, on their shoulders. Caught vid of them holding up their hands eagerly to answer a question from a salarian teacher . . and caught them singing out the answer. "That's a brachiosaurus!" Clearly, they'd inherited the interest in dinosaurs from their father, but the words were chorused, and in perfect harmony.
None of the other children even turned to look at them. They were, obviously, rather used to seeing and hearing this.
"Do they always sing?" Wong asked Dara, afterwards.
"Not always. Just when they're really excited. They sang before they learned to speak normally, however." Dara looked at the camera, calmly. "We're working to make sure they don't rely on each other or the hive for answers."
"The. . . hive?"
"Yes. Both of them are sensitive to what rachni call mind-song. Biotics. They can hear the rachni, and other people's minds. We don't want them inadvertently cheating. We want to make sure they develop their own minds, as individuals. " Dara's voice was definite on that subject.
"How do you ensure that?"
"We take them off-base periodically, separately from each other. Field-trips with other, non-biotic children. Spectre Dempsey, Spectre Alir, and Spectre Maedan have all already been working with us on the twins' biotic training. Teaching them not to listen is . . .somewhat like teaching a rachni to be deaf. . . difficult. But it's also somewhat like teaching socialization in everyone. How to phase out what isn't important or relevant to you, personally."
"They're both biotics?" Wong sounded surprised.
"Yes. Probably heavily so." Eli came over and sat down on camera, taking Dara's hand. "They're lucky. They're going to be trained by the best."
"What age do you plan to give them implants?"
Dara and Eli traded glances on camera. "We're not actually sure that they'll need them," Eli said, after a moment. "They already have control, focus, and some power without implants. They can, for example, already lift their body-weight with their minds. This is more typical of asari than of humans."
"Additionally," Dara noted, "the rachni have been working with our local technical experts to try to develop . . . less invasive methods of refining someone's biotic control. I've been testing rachni crystal-weave mesh inside of my armor for over ten years now. The rachni believe that with the right combination of technologies, surgical implants might be a thing of the past. They'd like to see my mesh suit refined to a circlet, maybe."
"Wouldn't that make a biotic vulnerable to being disarmed?" Wong asked.
"Maybe. But it also means that you can upgrade without brain surgery."
Wong was sure to catch vids of Rubixius and Vassaria playing with Teagan and Lantus, and with Halla'Demsi and Jarek'Demsi, as well. Rel and Seheve were on base, for a meeting, so Sephare and Jevan, with their wide drell eyes set in predatory turian faces were in the shots, as well, playing with their full-turian cousins, who'd inherited the Imperial violet eyes of their mother, Kallixta. Wong's broadcast would probably resonate, heavily, in turian space.
She caught Nexia N'dor, eleven years old now, serious-faced, in class, the only batarian girl present. . . but just as friendly and eager as the rest of the Spectre kids. She caught Takeshi Jaworski and Emily Sidonis, both fourteen now, Keshi, who'd inherited some of his father's height and build, but his mother's eyes and hair, working on his turian homework, with Emily's help, the hybrid girl leaning over his shoulder to point out mistakes. Tacitus Sidonis, tutoring Quirina Cautoris, the turian daughter of Spectre Livanus Cautoris and her physicist mother, in biology; Quirina was about three years his junior, or just past eleven, with wide golden eyes behind her black and white Tridend paint. She and Nexia were classmates, and apparently, fast friends. Shiori Jaworski was the baby of the group, only nine years old, but very intent on keeping ahead of her niece and nephew—Teagan and Lantus—who were four years behind her.
That was the Mindoir reality, caught on vid. Out among the stars, however, the husk war ground onwards. Kaius Vakarian, Madison Dempsey, and Severus Praesesidis had been assigned to the same unit, on and off, and Severus had grown to respect Madison, enormously. Erszbat was a meatgrinder for the troops, and public opinion was widespread in Council space that large swathes of the planet should be firebombed from orbit. Every batarian they found who was unhusked, however, became an almost instant new member of the Allied Batarian Territories. "The good thing is," Kaius told Caelia one evening, dryly, aboard the Kapaesa, "at least we know who the enemy is. Can you imagine if the husks were. . . undetectable? At least a blood test for the nanites takes care of that."
She shuddered. "A few of them seem able to resist, at least a little. It would be even worse, if any of them could pass as. . . normal. Undetectable." She grimaced. "They could pass right into our camps that way. Could infect us, in our sleep. Or just plain kill us."
"Blood tests," Kaius reminded her. "Everyone gets one after every damned battle. And we're down to using batarians to secure rearward positions." They were in his quarters; Madison had grinned and left as soon as Caelia had knocked, heading for an observation lounge, probably. Kaius stroked Caelia's fringe, lightly. "I don't even want to think what would happen if any of us got infected."
At the end of 2207, however, Kaius finished his first four years, and was rotated to a shore billet, assisting with cross-training of services on Earth, much to his surprise and pleasure. He'd made O3 by this point in time, and he and Caelia had been quite seriously seeing each other for two years. Their relationship had been the subject of conversations among the older Spectres for quite some time. The more, because Sam Jaworski had laughed at Lantar when he'd first been informed that Kaius was courting his daughter. "It's not as if I didn't suspect, for years, that this might happen," Lantar had told his human battle-brother, dryly. "They're young, they're both hybrid, they're.. . .not technically related. In fact, I couldn't be more pleased. My first-son married the daughter of one of my sangua'fradae. Now, it's possible that my first-daughter might wed the first-son of my other sangua'fradu."
"And yet, you don't look entirely calm and at peace with this," Sam had noted. "Could it be, that she's your little girl, and she's off, on her own, on the Kapaesa, doing her own thing. . . ?"
Lantar gave him a dark look. Sam laughed. "You can pay me the credits you owe me any time," Sam informed his partner, grinning.
Kaius wasn't really aware of any of this. He did take a brief leave to speak with his parents, Ellie, and Lantar, rather nervously getting the negotiations going. As such, it was. . . odd for him. He had the oddest impression that his father and Lantar had previously discussed the entire situation. That, in fact, they'd come to some preliminary terms, on paper, for him and Caelia to discuss between themselves. And his mom, very obviously trying not to laugh, asked Kaius, "So. . . are you going to ask Caelia about this?"
"Well, we talked about it already. She said she kind of figured that people who torture each other by demanding huge displays were pretty insecure." Kaius held up a hand to forestall his mother. "Yes, I'll do something romantic for her. Something so she knows I don't take her for granted. But . . . we're really pretty simple. We don't need to sit down and discuss our relationship on a daily basis. Hash out this and that, the way I hear some of the couples on the ship having to do. Constantly defining limits and what they're willing to do and arguing about everything. We don't need to talk about the relationship, because. . . we just have one." He shrugged, uncomfortably. "There's not much to figure out."
Lilitu Shepard smiled at her son fondly. "And that's how you know you're with the right person," she told him, resting a hand on his shoulder. "Some people tremendously overcomplicate things. Talk themselves into relationships, and then talk themselves right back out again. Everything requires compromise. . . but if it's that hard at the beginning? It'll never get any better. Some things don't need to be difficult." Lilitu looked at him. "But yes. Do something romantic for her. Doesn't have to be fancy or elaborate."
Kaius grinned, ruefully. "On my paycheck, fancy or elaborate isn't going to happen. But I do want to get this done soon, so she can get, well . . "
"Reassigned to Earth?"
"Maybe. I don't want to kill her chances at advancement." Kaius shook his head. "She's a great infiltrator, Mom. Lantar and Sam taught her really well."
"At the rate we're going, I suspect we're going to have plenty of battles for everyone, even if you two take a rotation on Earth." Shepard rubbed at her eyes. "Go see your sister while you're there, would you?"
Kaius was stationed at an Alliance training facility in the southwestern portion of North America, old Arizona, in fact. . . .close enough that he was able to hop a flight, once a month or so, to see Amara as she continued to toil through the Academy. When Caelia got leave, Kaius took her to Reykjavík, Iceland, in the summer months, and, with the sun still shining at midnight over the snowcapped mountains, proposed there. "Well, like I'm going to say no, when we've been planning the wedding and looking over contract drafts," Caelia told him, and grinned.
"I've been told it's polite to ask, anyway. You're going to have to help me with the ring issue. Your fingers are structured differently from mine."
"Think our kids will default to three fingers and a thumb?"
"God only knows, amatra. Worry about it when we get there." He leaned down and gave her a quick kiss. "You want the whole human traditional thing?"
"My mom will flip out, but no. Just a wedding band and a wedding-knife. I can't wear anything shiny in the field. You can get me something shiny if we do tal'mae down the line." She nipped at his throat, lightly. "I only have one condition."
"I want to get married at my brother's house."
"You just want the rachni lanterns in the sky."
"It was really pretty." She considered it for a moment. "Besides, I want there to be at least one day of my life he doesn't call me Duck."
"And when was the last time he called you that?"
"Day I left for boot camp. Actually. . . Huh. Never since." Caelia's expression told him she wasn't entirely sure if she were pleased about that, or not. On the one hand, she liked being treated as an adult. On the other hand. . . it had been a special part of her bond with her older, slightly intimidating brother.
For Kaius, just having the downtime, away from combat, was an enormous help, but Kaius read his messages from Severus and Madison, and even from Caelia, and part of him chafed to be back out there, with them. He'd only re-upped for two years, enough time to see Caelia through to citizenship, and they figured they'd re-evaluate everything then. But still, what did a 'retired' biotic do, in either the Alliance or the Hierarchy? Teach other people to use their biotics? Hire out with police or private security firms? Or just plain. . . let the talent in their minds go to waste? Kaius was only starting to get an inkling of what he might be capable of becoming, and while he kept his programming skills sharp, in case Caelia got done with her four years and decided she wanted to settle down at a desk job in Odessa. . . he didn't think she'd want to. Not for a while, anyway.
He got to see Madison, briefly, while the human male was on leave; as promised, Madison had taken the opportunity to come and see Amara, who was in her second year now at the Academy, but now, at Christmas, everyone was back on Mindoir for Kaius and Caelia's wedding. Kaius took the time to try to catch up with everyone, as best he could, with a feeling that time was, somehow, speeding by for him, while it was standing still for his twin.
And while Amara was clearly chafing to be out and doing, the way he was, she was also blooming at the Academy. Kaius hadn't seen so much confidence in his sister's eyes and bearing in years, and while she admitted, dryly, that yes, there was hazing, it was all far more subtle than what Caelia had encountered at boot camp. "Then again, these are all older people," Amara noted, shrugging. "More centered identities. And they all needed recommendations to come here, from teachers, from governmental officials, everything like that. And, well. . . " she made a face at her first-brother, in the crowded, noisy reception room at Gardner's, "it's not like I can't tell who's being two-faced, and who's being true. I can kind of ignore the ones who don't really mean what they say. I'm told I'm getting a reputation as stand-offish, as a result, but . . . I can't really help that. Someone lies to my face, it's like a slap, and I move away." She shrugged, and glanced up at Madison, fondly. "One of the reasons I really like being around you. There's no. . . "
"Dissonance?" Madison offered the rachni word, over a glass of sparkling wine, grinning.
"Well, yes. That's pretty much exactly it. You say what you mean, you mean what you say. Sometimes, you might hesitate to be tactful and not hurt someone. . . but generally speaking, you don't lie, and you're just so comfortable to be around." Amara grinned up at him. Flash of some biotic communication between them; Kaius did his best not to listen.
But hardly had Kaius gotten a ring on Caelia's finger, and her knife in the sheath at his wrist, then they were back out into the fight again.
2207 became 2208, in a blur for everyone affiliated with the Spectres. On Mindoir, Kirrahe and Narayana, still working on the anti-fertility drugs, had their third clutch of children, this one reduced in size to a mere four offspring. Almost manageable for a single pair of parents, as Narayana dryly told Dara, who, wide-eyed, just shook her head. "I have enough trouble with the twins. Both sets. And that's with workers and brood-warriors around to keep track of them," Dara admitted. "Your social engineering is. . . definitely having an impact on salarian society. I take it most of the dalatrasses still won't directly speak with you?"
"Persona non grata, I'm afraid," Narayana admitted, cheerfully. "However, we've been receiving dozens of letters from males who are of upstanding reputations, leaders in various fields, asking if they can join the clan."
Dara squinted at Narayana. "Not Sidonis."
"No, no, Lystheni. I'm thinking of renaming the whole damned thing. Sidonis-Mordin-Kirrahe has a ring to it, but that's a mouthful even by salarian standards."
"Now that has potential." Nara raised a finger at Dara, where they sat in the med bay lounge on Mindoir. "Of course, Kirrahe and I have both been telling them, they're free to renounce their dalatrasses and join us, but that we won't consider any breeding contracts for our daughters until they're of age. . . and even then, it will be their choice. There's no real need, anymore, for the historical salarian model, in which dalatrasses regulated which of their offspring could reproduce, how many children they could have, and with which mates. Thousands of years of selective breeding has gotten us, what, precisely? A longer lifespan? Better health?" Narayana blinked rapidly. "A stable society, certainly, but it might be time to allow natural selection to play a role again, don't you think?"
"Wrong person to be asking," Dara said, grinning at her old and very dear friend. "I get in trouble when I start talking on that subject."
Narayana laughed, and they dropped the topic.
Linianus and Serana had their third child. . . Brennia. . . that year, and Elissa and Alain, Garrus and Shepard's two youngest, went to boot camp. Alain wound up in a technical specialty, which suited his temperament; he was tasked with assisting teams that were trying to reverse engineer the altered Reaper nanites that were still plaguing batarian worlds. Elissa, much to everyone's surprise, was moved into a very different specialty, indeed; she was to start work as an embassy guard, with an eye towards moving into counterintelligence after two years. As such, her first posting was to Bastion, which had, by this time, wholly recovered from the plagues of 2196. . . twelve years before.
In 2209, Erszbat finally fell to the combined forces of the Council and the Allied Batarian Territories. But no signs of the Reaper tech were found there. Grimly, the fleets pressed on, to Adek, a brutally hot jungle world. Few batarians had wanted to live there, in spite of its lush garden world status; it was known as a hothouse for tropical diseases, and its population of six million had largely been slaves even before the revolution came. Now, at least half were husks. "This is one of only three worlds left to the Hegemony," Valak told the other Spectres, wearily. "Unless they're hiding the remnants of SIU in some hollowed-out asteroid, the Reaper tech has to be somewhere. And we've got to find it. And destroy it, before we lose any more worlds. I'm terrified, frankly, of what would happen if they dropped any of their husks on Khar'sharn. And infected our home population."
"We've got them blockaded for a reason, three relays out from any of the ones they hold, and their FTL technology is just not good enough to manage anything else," Shepard told him, just as tiredly. "We'll hold them bottled in, Valak."
"I just hope there are people left to save when we're finished with Adek, Curon, and Ramlat." Valak stared off into space for a moment, a muscle in his jaw working. "I'm watching the slow extinction of my species, Shepard. And it's at our own hands. As with. . . everything else we've ever done."
Shepard put a hand on Valak's shoulder. "You're saving them, Valak. We're all doing the best we can. No one could have predicted this."
Turian, krogan, geth, and rachni troops proved immune to the local diseases. Even the hybrids were. But humans, who had hemoglobin-based blood and levo-based metabolisms, were just close enough to batarians to contract the local diseases. Thousands of troops came down with diseases far worse than the common Skyllian flu, bogging down their efforts on Adek. Madison contracted one of them, and had to be shipped home, like many others, coughing up blood until the local doctors found the parasites that had infiltrated his lung tissue and had started boring into the alveoli. He recovered, and, still wheezing a little, was startled to receive a letter from Lantar Sidonis, inviting him to try out for the Spectres.
Nothing in the galaxy could have stopped him from being there to do precisely that. And in May of that year, Madison was the third 'Dempsey' to be inducted into the Spectres. He was young. . . but he had stellar potential. Which was also recognized that year, when, for the first time, he didn't just wrap kinetic energy around an existing material weapon. He manifested the Reed, or the sword made of biotic energy, the compressed edge made of gravity. A rift in space-time, wielded like a knife. While Dempsey and Zhasa had both been trained in the Wind that Bends the Reeds by Samiel and Laessia, and Kaius and Madison had both been trained as well in the lower belt art, this was a major achievement. Dempsey and Zhasa had been inducted into the new Order of the Wind, set up by Laessia as an alternative to the Justicars. But while they were, arguably, mahai, or short-lived, there were serious debates going on about Dempsey's life-expectancy. With krogan regeneration and his cybernetics, he could be as long-lived as a krogan. He could be longer-lived. He might not actually be able to die, unless killed. Zhasa's regeneration was based on Prothean nanites. And there was absolutely no way of telling what this would do to her life-span, either. They were mahai, but not.
Madison, on the other hand, was very much mahai. On the other hand, he had the same level of biotic giftedness as his father, Dempsey, expressed differently. . . and he was the first human to manifest the Reed. Laessia inducted him into the Order, post-haste. Mostly to be able to sit on him, as Shepard put it, dryly. "It's what I've been saying for years," Shepard told Garrus, dryly. "You can teach the younger species, or you can ignore them and expect them to muddle through on their own. But if you do the latter, you don't have much of a leg to stand on if they, in a fit of self-determination, develop in a way that you don't like. She's being a responsible parent, basically. She can see that humans are developing much faster than expected, so she's teaching, rather than ignoring and hoping it goes away." Shepard smiled, faintly. "Got to respect that."
Also in May of that year, Amara graduated the Academy. She was now a very junior ensign, officially an O1 in the human forces. Her brother, Kaius, was up for promotion to O4, but had noted in his letters that he wouldn't mind being passed over. O4 meant paperwork. Administration. Politics. Caelia had just finished her initial first four years, and was up for promotion, herself. Working as one of Serana's picked handful of infiltrators had pushed Caelia to her limits, often going in behind enemy lines on Erszbat, and she and Kaius were rotated out of the field again, now working at training young officers on Dymion. . . at least for a while. "And here I had this crazy fantasy that I'd be getting to work with you," Amara told her brother at her graduation.
"Maybe you'll work with the Spectre here," Kaius said, giving Madison's shoulder a shove.
Madison just gave him a faintly embarrassed look, and reached out to put an arm around Amara's shoulder. "Maybe. Maybe not. We'll see, right?"
Madison's primary concern currently, was that they'd been 'dating' . . . very long distance. . . for four years. He wanted—no, needed—to be sure that they hadn't just talked themselves into love. That this was real, and that it hadn't just been loneliness and active imaginations that had convinced them that they were meant for each other. Of course, the major problem with this, was that she was due to ship out on the Kiev shortly. It might mean even more separation if they didn't immediately get married, and Madison wanted to be just a little surer of things. They'd gotten along great as kids. They'd never really grated on each others' nerves. On the other hand, that had been over a decade ago. People changed. And while he knew he loved her, he wanted to make damn sure it was the right kind of love.
Therefore, he was taking a very brief leave with her—like the week here, week there, he'd managed to eke out with her, over the years, one year up in Cape May, another year, down at Cape Hatteras. Always staying in a hotel under an assumed name—courtesy of Kasumi, and the Spectres' desire to ensure Amara's privacy—they'd still, nevertheless, been caught on-camera by reporters once or twice. And he planned to propose at the end of their week together. But to plan on a fairly long engagement. Just in case.
He had a feeling she was going to disagree with him on the long engagement part, though. And he was right; they were actually married in November of the same year. "God help anyone who tries to kidnap either of the kids again," Shepard muttered at the reception, into her drink. "Amara's still a little dependent on her biotics, but she's turned into a crack shot after all that time on the rifle and pistol teams, and, good god. She could probably lift a yahg with a singularity, and I don't think a shot with a trank gun would ever get through her barrier again."
"Add that to all the nastiness that Madison brings, including the fact that the boy's never, ever disarmed?" Garrus snorted into his brandy. "I'm going to sleep really well at night, at least where they're concerned." He considered it. "All right, I'll sleep well when they and Kaius and Caelia aren't deployed." He considered it again. "Well. . . . maybe when the damned batarian civil war is over."
Lilitu looked at her husband with the fondness of many years in her eyes. "So, we'll sleep when we're dead?"
"Maybe a little before then."
In December of that year, the yahg on Parnack—not the small band on Terra Nova, who had been convinced to try this strange new thing called diplomacy, but the ones on Parnack, their home world—finished building ships of their own with FTL technology cobbled together from what they'd learned by examining batarian ships. And they tried to run the geth gauntlet around their world, heading for the relay.
The geth politely disabled their engines, towed the yahg back to Parnack, bringing them in for a soft landing, while the various yahg nations launched missile against their ships. "We regret to inform you, that no exodus is possible or will be permitted at this time. In the meantime, here is video footage of a group of your people who remain on Terra Nova, a human world. One of them has a human-built limb replacement, as he regrettably lost an arm in our initial diplomatic efforts. They are being permitted to stay on that world and hunt local game. Local humans trade manufactured goods and foodstuffs such as bread and cheese, for the fresh fish that your brethren catch in the forests. All are being taught to read in galactic and English. Their only regret is that the knowledge they are gaining, may die with them, for they have no children and no mates. That is the purpose of organic life, is it not? Continuance?"
The yahg of Parnack were not entirely amused, but it was notable to the geth that the nation ruled by Urukhurr, the mate of Akkaura, the female the Spectres had captured, questioned, and released back onto Parnack in 2197. . . did not fire on the geth ships. That nation was, in actuality, building telescopes. And observing the geth with them. The stations in orbit, on the moon, the movement of ships. And they were, the geth could tell, listening to the geth's broadcasts. It would take time to discern, however, if the yahg of that nation were changing their behavior, or simply playing a longer game. One intended to determine geth patterns before launching an attack of their own. It would take decades to determine more.
On December 14, 2209, Teagan and Lantus Sidonis piled into the Clavus with their parents. The seven-year-old twins were excited; they were going to Bastion, where their father had lived, and they were humming to each other cheerfully under their breaths. Mama gave them an amused look, and hummed right back at them. Remember, use your words around other two-legs.
Daddy didn't hum, but he didn't really need to. Daddy's mind-song was really strong, and Teagan still liked crawling into his lap to listen to his mind before bed. At the moment, Daddy was filled with anticipation-songs. Something important was going to happen on Bastion. Something to do with the singers, the rachni, and Dances-in-Frozen-Starlight's new ship, the Voidsinger. The Voidsinger hung off the Clavus' bow, and the twins squealed a little seeing it in space for the first time. Twice the size of a standard brood-warrior ship, most of its crystalline structure was engine. "We're going to go to Bastion the old-fashioned way," Mama told them, as they both plastered themselves to the plasteel of the observation lounge window, staring out at the ship and the stars and Mindoir far below. "But then we're going to go on Dances' ship with some of the Council observers, and hop back home."
But Mama, I wanted to see where Daddy grew up— Teagan hummed it in minors.
Teagan sighed. "I wanted to see where Daddy grew up."
Daddy laughed. "I grew up on the Citadel, first. That's where I was born."
Where all the Keepers live? Lantus sang under his breath.
"I'm sorry, I can't hear you when you don't say it out loud." Daddy grinned down at him, and Lantus traded a pout with Teagan. Daddy could hear just fine. He was just pretending, and it was an annoying game.
"You were born where the Keepers live?"
"Yes, but they weren't awake back then. And then the Citadel was closed down for a long time, and people started building Bastion, and that's where I lived for about three, four years." Daddy set their travelcases down in the room. Derek and Merryn weren't coming along with them for this trip, and this made Teagan both happy and sad at the same time. She missed her younger siblings' mind-songs when they weren't around, but at the same time, it was nice to be the big kids. They got to go to Odessa and Takinawa and someday, they might go to impossibly far away places like Palaven and Earth and the Singing Planet. But for right now. . . Bastion was a big step. She could see it in Mama and Daddy's minds. A huge place, made of metal, teeming with people. And she could hear joy-songs and sorrow-songs about the place. They didn't mean to think about the sorrow and the joy. She'd catch flashes, every now and again, of people being very, very sick in a med bay. And of them dying, and how angry-sad Mama still was at the thought. Daddy having to wrap bodies in plastic, eyes all blank and staring, and how stiff or limp the bodies were. And then Mama and Daddy would catch her or Lantus' expression, and the walls would come up, and Teagan hated the walls. She hated being cut off from the song. So she was getting really good at listening without changing her expression. And when the memories were really bad, Lantus almost always knew, and would give her a hug.
At the moment, her brother was, even more so than she was, missing their brother and sister. Lantus had always been very attached to them, from the moment he'd first seen them as babies. The other pair were only two, and Lantus very much thought it was his job to make sure they stayed safe, that they learned stuff. He even helped feed them. Teagan curled up on the seat next to her first-brother, and put an arm around him, humming under her breath. Blues and greens. They'll be fine. They're with Uncle Dempsey and Aunt Zhasa, and they'll get to play with Halla and Jarek every day. And they have all the workers to play with, too.
I know. We only got to bring Squee and Zappa and Wolfgang and Liszt with us. It's . . . really quiet on this ship.
But Mama says we'll go home on Dances' ship. There will be lots of hive-song there to listen to.
Lantus made a face at his sister. But that'll be in a week.
Bargain-Singer is queen on Bastion. There will be hive-song there.
But it'll be different than Joy and Mama's hive.
It was, and it wasn't. Teagan and Lantus actually held hands, and stared, wide-eyed, as they disembarked from the Clavus. They'd never seen so many people all at once in their entire lives. That there were many different types of people didn't phase them in the slightest; that, they were used to. It was the press of bodies, and so many minds, that boggled them, and they slipped their hands into Mama and Daddy's, respectively, and walked off, bracketed on either side by their tall parents. A worker perched on every shoulder, and Bargain-Singer's vast mind reaching out to theirs. Welcome to my hive, little queen, young brood-warrior.
Minds, minds everywhere. A handful of geth platforms, equipped with biotic radios, interfacing with the rachni hive, cold and clear, when they were unhybridized, tinged with emotion-song when they had accepted hybrid run-times. Teagan could hear a little more of it than Lantus could, but she shared it with her sibling, unquestioningly. She could hear Paladin, the geth CROWD platform who'd been based on Siege, who had, in turn, asked Lysandra for templates pulled from Sings-of-Glory's mind, singing to himself as he followed their entourage, yellows of caution, whites of interest. She could hear Tumulus, another geth, this one embedded with B-Sec, who'd asked for, and received, quarian personality templates, taken from Spectre Hal'Marrak and Arash'Veza, bringing himself into a sort of alignment with the million or so quarians aboard Bastion. . . and bringing some of the development of the geth back, full circle, to their quarian origins. And she could also hear Xiphos, the only current offspring of Harak and Pelagia, who'd taken a geth platform. He was on Bastion at the moment, but Teagan had met him before; his use of the biotic radio was enough to let her hear the red bloom of his irritation, as he waited at the Council chambers to speak with Mama and Daddy. "Why's he called Xiphos?" Teagan piped up suddenly. "Mama? Why's he called Xiphos? That's not a very krogan name."
She knew that other grown-ups tended to get a little confused when she or Lantus asked about things that the adults didn't think they should know about. Mama and Daddy were really smart, though. They took it in stride. "Well," Mama explained, carefully, and Teagan picked up images from her mind as the words were spoken out loud, a huge metal platform, the size of a CROWD. . . but less overtly mechanical. A human head, sized proportionately to an otherwise krogan-like body, but covered in gray-toned synthskin. A mix of all its origins, human, krogan, NCAI, and geth. "Pelagia picked his name, sweetie. She needed to demonstrate that she was 'fertile' so that the Ulluthyr female-clan would accept her, so she and Harak made him. He's designed to protect Omega, and to fight on behalf of Pelagia, if she has need of him. So he's named for the xiphos, or the sword carried by Greek hoplites, thousands of years ago. Their weapon of last resort."
There were others with the hybrid runtimes. Teagan could hear Mama thinking about the geth who'd taken biotic-origin templates, through the biotic radio, from the mind of an asari ardat-yakshi who'd died more or less in the geth's arms. The platform had immediately rejected its old designation, and re-named itself Eternity.
It also considered itself to be female.
Mama thought that was very funny for some reason. Mostly because any number of asari sticklers screamed about this in absolute protest. And the geth had, after a pause to come to proper Consensus, retrofitted the old platform with Mass Field Manipulation hardware, like that which Composite had.
Eternity liked that, apparently.
Teagan and Lantus watched and listened, wide-eyed, as Mama and Daddy and Dances talked and talked and talked with Councilor Anderson and Councilor Odacaen and Bargain-Singer and Emissary. I didn't know there were that many words in the universe, Lantus confided, quietly, kicking his feet restlessly. They were both doing their best to be good, but it was really hard.
Dara looked around at the assembled crowd, and let Dances make his presentation. We have sung long, the rachni sang, quietly. Studied much. We are ready to sing our ships between places, and we would share this song with you.
"Specifically," Dara said, dryly, as the various councilors looked blank, "Dances here has, for over ten years, had the ability to fold space-time for himself, allowing him to jump from one location to another. Please demonstrate, Dances."
Dances obliged, popping behind the table where the councilors sat, and then back to where Dara and Eli stood. Dara could hear Teagan giggling faintly, and turned to give her daughter an admonishing look, and just barely kept herself from humming a chord at the girl to behave. She really tried to keep the rachni behaviors to a minimum, off of Mindoir. Her voice had, over the years, modulated. She actually could hold two notes at the same time now. Dempsey was after her to sing for recordings now, and Dara continued to refuse, adamantly. Why, she wasn't really sure, but there was a principle here, and she was going to stick to it. For at least the next decade.
Dara cleared her throat, and continued, speaking for the rachni. "At first, he needed to be able to see where he wanted to go. Then, he needed to hear a member of his hive's song, showing him where it was, to make sure that the area was clear. This effectively limited him to a ten mile range. Over the past ten years, the reconstruction of the biotic FTL communications apparatus has allowed rachni to communicate over the entire galaxy. They've chosen to limit their use of it, for fear of falling into . . . groupthink, as it were. But with that FTL comm available, there's no actual limit to where a member of Dances' hive can be and see for him." Dara watched Anderson and Odacaen shift. The two males, Anderson in particular, were aging; Anderson hadn't been young when he'd first taken the position, twenty-four years ago. "At least, so long as there are comm buoys in range." She looked around. "So, for the past ten years, the rachni have been working to develop a system by which he could manipulate the energy of an engine drive to move an entire ship somewhere. The first tests, no more than ten miles."
Currently, I can sing a properly-built ship anywhere I have been, or where one of my hive sings. Dances' voice held uneasiness and pride, comingled.
Anderson frowned. "I'm not following."
Eli interposed. "Mass relays—the original ones—function as a wormhole, or a white hole in space. They move a ship between one relay and another, but only between certain nodes. The dark matter relays removed that node configuration, and allow a ship to move between one relay and any other on the dark matter network." He paused. "Dances creates a white hole for his ship, and can go almost anywhere in space, without being restricted to the relays."
A moment of total, dumbfounded silence. After a moment, Emissary said, "We understood that the rachni were working on such an advance. It would be an undeniable strategic advantage, but it is strongly dependent on having a rachni ship already in place, is it not?"
Not entirely, Bargain-Singer sang, her voice a vast harmony of many entwined instruments. Dances calls many singers part of his hive.
And what they see, can even be through. . . telescopes. Far-viewers.
"We've tested it with long-range telemetry. So long as we're sure nothing already occupies the space we're jumping to? It works." Dara kept her voice calm.
"How much distance are we talking?" Odacaen asked, suddenly.
Dara coughed into her hand. Eli grinned. "The rachni and Spectre technical teams have tested it out over a hundred light years," he supplied.
"Holy shit," Anderson said, and then tried to wave the unexpectedly salty expression away. "I knew something was under development, but not what."
Xiphos, who was present as a representative for Omega, folded his massive arms across his chest. "What are the limitations, then? There's only one of him, correct?" He nodded to Dances. "That doesn't really give you a fleet of these ships."
Dara looked up at Bargain-Singer, and then back to Xiphos. But it was Dances who replied, with faintly pink overtones, Joy-Singer and Life-Singer have both laid broods from me. Joy-Singer has chosen to lay many more brood-warrior eggs than previous queens have chosen to do. So that, in time, we could develop this song. For the betterment of all.
Anderson waved his hands, trying to absorb it all. "So what you're saying is. . . eventually. . . people could pop into any system, anywhere. That's. . . dangerous. At the moment, all people really have to do is defend relays."
"The yahg-batarian war already proved," Eli said, quietly, "that the old model of 'hold a relay' doesn't work against a determined foe. Our explorations beyond the locked relays have shown that relays can't be effectively locked forever, either." He looked at them all. "The rachni are offering this, on a limited basis, mostly as a proof of concept, to the human-turian fleet, and to the geth. The fourfold alliance."
Which also includes the volus, as the turian clients, and the quarians, who long ago came aboard, Dara thought. "It won't be many ships at first. But, eventually. . . it'll change the face of warfare, yes. It'll also change the shape of commerce."
"That's not entirely a good thing," Odacaen noted, dryly. "At the moment, we're able to control transit. We're able to cut down on smuggling as a result—all right, stop laughing, Spectres. It would be completely out of hand if we didn't have the relays as choke points. The relays do assist with a lot of these issues."
Dara smiled, faintly. "Yes, but every one of these spacefold-capable ships would be controlled by a rachni pilot. They're unlikely to smuggle." She looked at Bargain-Singer, who lowered her enormous head in agreement. "And I doubt any other species will rapidly gain the rachni's pure mental and raw biotic capability, and be able to plug themselves into one of these ships as a pilot."
Anderson looked dubious. "This would, eventually, make us dependent on the rachni, wouldn't it?"
Dara shrugged. "Probably not for generations, if ever," she replied, easily. "Think of it this way, Councilor. The space elevators and elliptical shuttles didn't replace the highway systems of Earth, did they? They supplemented them."
We are here today to invite you to travel with us, Dances sang, quietly. To see for yourselves, how this song might be sung. I invite you all to join me on Voidsinger-ship. And we will sing ourselves to the planet of violet skies, and back again. With any equipment you wish to bring with you, to verify the journey.
Teagan and Lantus were a little upset at the thought of immediately turning around and going back home again, but their pouting stopped when Eli and Dara told them that it would take the various councilors a day or so to put their schedules in order. They got to see Turan and its glorious rings. They got to see the apartment where their father had lived as both a young boy and during the plagues. Got to see the med bay where their mother had worked during those same horrifying weeks here. And their parents took them to the Bastion Zoo, and to the Bastion Symphony—which they loved, listening to quarian and turian and human and asari music, all in the same evening. And they barely even noticed that Paladin and Dances actually shadowed them wherever they went. They also barely noticed the flickers of images from their parents—ancient and inexplicable—of dangers passed here. Of a Lystheni with a sniper rifle, searing pain in memory-song. Of arms wrapped around each other, around Aunt Serana, Uncle Lin, drowning pain and darkness in desperation. The flickers were there, and then quickly suppressed. But these were memory-songs that didn't interest the children. Especially not with the lure of the virtual amusement parks on the brand-new M level.
The first night in the hotel room, however, neither of the twins could sleep. The constant rush and hum of the air filtration system got on their nerves, and the shadows were all different, and there was only the chittering of the workers and their parents' mind-songs. No hive-song at all. "Daddy," Lantus finally called, after they'd both stared at a wall for a while. "Can you tell us a story?"
"Are you going to close your eyes and sleep afterwards?" Daddy poked his head into the dim room. They could still see his face, the darker slashes of his clan-paint on his jaws, however.
"We'll try," Teagan answered, knowing she could speak for Lantus in this.
Daddy nodded and came in. Sat down on the edge of Lantus' bed. "What do you want to hear about?"
The twins exchanged a look, and hummed under their breath for a moment. "I want to hear about the geth named Eternity," Lantus finally answered for them. "How'd she become an asari-geth?"
Their father sighed, and his song dimmed for a moment. Shifted into grays and violets. "That's not a really happy bedtime story," he told them, but put an arm around Lantus anyway, as Teagan crawled up on her twin's bed to nestle under her father's other warm arm. "But here it goes, anyway. A couple of years ago, on Erszbat, which is a batarian world. . . "
". . . a world where the living have lost their songs," Teagan put in, dreamily.
". . .and the dead don't stay dead," Lantus added, lifting his head to look at their father with gleaming, interested eyes.
"Who's telling this one, you, or me?" Daddy stopped. Looked at them both.
"You are," they said, with a sigh.
"Okay. Well, you're both right. There's a . . .biomechanical plague there. The nanites that the Reapers and Collectors used to use to husk people? Without the Reapers here to control them still, the nanites were still dangerous, we figured, but the batarian scientists at SIU found a way to insert new commands in them. So they can command whoever's infected. Asari and geth and turians and rachni? These modified nanites have a hard time infecting the living. A krogan, while living? Impossible. But all the bodies of the dead are infectable. And humans and batarians. . . pretty easy." He gave them a squeeze, to reassure them. "So, at the same time as we've all been fighting on Erszbat, a lot of asari have been migrating off their homeworlds."
"Because they're like Uncle Samiel?"
"Yeah, pretty much. Some of them are a little more or less like him. But they didn't want to stay on Illium or Luisa or wherever, because people were mean to them there. So a lot of them moved to Alliance worlds, like Astaria. Earth. Demeter. Or to stations, like Omega and Bastion and even a few are back on the Citadel now, helping the Keepers." Daddy's voice was low and soothing. "And one of them was a really powerful biotic named Hiliani. She used to be a huntress for the colonists on Niacal, and when she found out she was SRY-positive, her more-than-fair left her."
"Oh, that's so mean. If she was the same person as before, why would someone do that?"
"Because she was afraid. Hiliani hadn't ever known before that she was a an ardat-yakshi. She had the genes for domination, but had never used them. But her more-than-fair was scared, now that they knew. And her more-than-fair wanted to have children, but didn't want ardat-yakshi children. So she left." Daddy sighed. "Hiliani didn't want to be anyone other than she'd always been. Didn't feel any different. Just. . . didn't want to stay there, where the memories were. So she moved to Earth. And, to thank the Alliance for being so kind and taking her in, she enlisted in the Alliance army. To get her citizenship." Daddy rubbed at their hair, lightly. "And so, she wound up on Erszbat."
"Did you know her?"
"Yeah. I fought with her unit a couple of times. Really great biotic. Flexible. Powerful. Innovative. Smart. And she really cared about the people around her. She was embedded with a unit of mostly humans and some geth. Couple of rachni, which kind of scared her at first, but she adapted. They all became just. . . people to her. As it should be." Daddy's memory-song was a little painful to listen to, now. They could see a face swimming in the pictures there, laughing. Everyone in a tent seated around a space-heater, trying to get hands and feet warm at last. "And then, her unit got pinned down. Too damned many husks. My people and I were on the other side of the battlefield. Too far away to help. So I didn't see it, but I know what happened. She and her people were told to retreat, strategically. So she told the humans to start backing up. That she'd cover them. The geth platform with her was an Isolated Functional Status platform. An IFS, like Cohort or Siege. Hundreds of run-times, biotic radio, but a Shock Trooper, not a CROWD." Daddy sighed. "And they just got overrun. The rachni with them were soldiers, and were killed. The geth with them were mostly hoppers, and got killed. Hiliana just kept covering the retreat. Throwing everything she had at any husk that showed its face. And Shock Trooper 9743 stayed with her. Getting their people out. Until one of the husks used a rocket launcher." Daddy sighed. He was always careful to tell them the truth. Maybe not every detail—Teagan and Lantus could hear him suppressing memory-song—but always the truth. "It shattered her shields. Caught her in the chest, damaged her armor. She was cooking in her armor when ST 9743 picked her up and started carrying her. One-armed, still turning to firing back at people. And Hiliana kept using her biotics. . . right up till the end. Domination doesn't work on husks, but she had all her other abilities, still. But then a couple of bullets found their way through her broken, burned armor."
Daddy stopped. He didn't let them see any of the pictures in memory-song right now. But they could hear his regret and sorrow. Feel it in their throats. "So, ST 9743 set her down in the shelter of a big rock, and tried to. . . heh. . . effect repairs. Yes, some geth know basic first aid now. She stopped him. Told him it was no use. But told him his song was really sort of peaceful to listen to. Always had been. And told him it was her time now, to embrace eternity. And so she did. And the ST platform listened to her go." Daddy paused, and his voice was very quiet now. "And when that shock trooper stood up, it wasn't ST 9743 anymore. Not entirely. The ST had tried to. . . save her. Save her runtimes. It didn't get a full copy, but. . . .it had gotten a lot. It took a couple of weeks to assimilate all the data. And when that process was over. . . ST 9743 was Eternity. Because she'd embraced eternity. Dared to face the unknown." Daddy brushed a kiss on Teagan's forehead, then on Lantus'. "Not a really great bedtime story. But now. . . it's time to sleep."
"I liked it," Teagan assured her father, solemnly, and let him tuck her in. And finally did close her eyes to fall asleep.
And then, a couple of days later, they boarded Dances' ship, and hopped back to Mindoir. Teagan was actually disappointed. "I wanted to see the planets again," she said, forlornly, looking out the window of the rachni ship's bridge, as dozens of workers ran up the wall nearby. "They were so pretty."
"But this was faster," Lantus pointed out, folding himself over a crystalline railing behind Dances, who sat at the center of the bridge, controlling the ship's direction with his mind as he communed with the crystal pillars that were the ship's main computers. "No time to get bored."
Dara chuckled. Her children's reactions were nothing like the councilors'. Odacaen looked rocked. Anderson stared out the window, at what was clearly a garden world below them. "But we only just left," Anderson said, sounding dazed.
Precisely, Dances sang, sounding not tired at all. It will take the engines approximately four hours to collect enough charge to make another such jump. The Spectres await us below. I believe lunch has already been prepared, in fact.
This technological innovation was hardly noticeable at first. 2210 fleeted by, at first. Caelia finished her first four years of service, and decided to stay in for as long as Kaius did; she wasn't really ready to go home and pursue a career in xenobiology or criminology or whatever else just yet. Kaius, for his part, didn't know whether to laugh or cry when he received a letter from his second-sister, Elissa, shyly noting that she'd run into Severus in her posting
In the second half of the year, disaster struck. In the waning months of the war on Erszbat, Madison was leading a unit into what looked to be a hot labs facility, potentially one where the nanites had been experimented on, initially, or produced. There was heavy, heavy resistance, and Madison was forced to use the Reed in close-combat, surrounded on all sides by husked batarians. The young Spectre literally couldn't move his arm without slicing into an enemy, and still, they closed on him. A couple of the more aware, the living-husked, fired on him, in spite of the presence of the dead husks all around him, opening his armor. . . opening wounds. And the nanites around him found a new host.
That he was human, slowed the nanites down. Madison didn't even know he was infected until he got back to the Kiev, the venerable old SR-1 that was his home base for the moment. He just stared at the turian doctor as the male reassuringly told him that they'd rarely had the opportunity, so far, to study the course of the infection process almost from the first moment. All he knew was, Oh, god. I'm going to die. No, worse. I'm going to be a husk. I'm going to turn on Amara and kill her. Shit. I'll never even hear her voice in my mind again. I won't be biotic anymore. I won't be. . . anything. . . but a slave to the humming in my own head. Madison swallowed hard, and told the doctor, "I'm going to fight this."
"I know," the turian told him, putting a dry, scaled hand on his shoulder. "And we're going to help you fight."
Back to Mindoir. Isolation in the med lab. Only seeing Amara's bright blue, anguished eyes, through the double thickness of the plasteel window. Seeing his father through the same window, Dempsey's ice-blue eyes filled with an almost inhuman fury. "We're not going to let this happen," his father told him through the comm panel that connected the isolation unit with the observation area. "We're not going to let the bastards win."
"This isn't Cerberus, Dad," Madison reminded him. His thoughts were dull. They were assaulting the nanites in every way they could. He was being subjected to a form of dialysis; his blood was being pumped out of his body, filtered, and pumped back in again. Result? A mass of nanites large enough to be seen with the naked eye, like black snow, or confetti, in the tubes beside him. But they kept replicating. Kept trying to colonize his body. Drawing on his body's resources in their relentless, virus-like efforts to repeat themselves.
And there was a droning sound in his head, constantly. Which he dutifully reported to everyone who asked. It was worse than a ringing sound, or a high-frequency pitch from a piece of electronics. This was lower. But steady, and ever-present.
"No, it's not Cerberus," Dempsey told him, putting a hand flat on the window. "But it's the same damn thing. Mind-control. Just another flavor. You can fight this, Mad. I did. And I'll help in every way I can."
"Find the fuckers who built it, Dad." Madison put a hand on his side of the plasteel. Matched thumb and fingers to his father's. "Find them . . . and just end them, okay? I can kind of feel myself starting to slip. The noise is. . . really annoying. It's hard to think through. Worse than static or white noise. And you just can't get away from it."
"But it's not telling you to do anything?" Dempsey asked, his voice flat.
"No. . . well, not yet." Madison shrugged. He was under no illusions here. "I'm sure it will. In time."
It was Amara who bullied and chivvied him, daily, reassured and cajoled and encouraged, every single day, as she took an extended leave of absence, due to a family medical emergency, to be by his side. As close to it as plasteel allowed, at any rate. Don't you dare leave me, she told him, over and over.
Might not. . . have a choice. . . sweetheart. You're getting. . . pretty hard. . . to hear. . . . Madison was in his bed that day. Sweating furiously, as his immune system, supercharged by the latest round of injections that Dara had given him, fought the nanites. "We've learned a lot since Zhasa was infected by the Prothean nanites," the doctor told him. She worse a full biohazard suit in the room with him, just in case, but her hands were gentle as she pressed her palm to his forehead. "It's going to be okay, Mad," Dara told him.
"Don't . . . need. . . to lie to me." He shuddered. This was the stuff of nightmares. He kept picturing his mother, dying of the plagues on Earth. He hadn't gotten to see her then. Hadn't been able to say goodbye. But it had been another fucking batarian innovation, hadn't it? Okay, yeah, yahg, too. . . . his thoughts were wandering. His temperature hovered around 104 Fahrenheit—an immune response that they were actually trying to slow. Higher body temperature brought him closer to batarian norms. They'd debated inducing hypothermia, to confuse the nanites more, but the doctors had, in the end, agreed that they needed to let his body fight the invaders.
"Not lying. We're throwing everything we've got at this. And. . . .Laessia is here. She's got some ideas that might help, too." Dara's alien eyes, through the tiny window of the hazmat suit, were kind. "You've outlasted every model we have, Mad. Every previous patient was fully husked by now. You're giving us ways to fight this. And we are going to beat this. You hear me?"
I . . . hear you. . . . But it was so hard to concentrate, through the drone in his mind.
Laessia entered, and she wasn't wearing hazmat gear. That. . . got Madison's attention. "You can. . . still catch this. . . " he told her, trying hard to put one word in front of the next. "The nanites can adapt."
"Nonsense. You're not going to bleed on me. And I wouldn't permit you to damage me." Laessia's tone was precise, and she kept her hands behind her, at the small of her spine, holding herself like a sword.
Dara shook her head, in evident amusement. "And asari wonder why the mahai find them arrogant, Laessia."
"Do you doubt that I can back up my words, Spectre?"
"Not in the least. But still, what a thing to say." Dara patted Madison on the shoulder, lightly. "She's got some ideas on how to help. I think they're good ones. Try to work with her, okay?"
The human doctor left, and Madison raised his eyes to Laessia's grey ones. The edges of his vision were fading out. "What. . . you got. . . in mind?" Every word, every thought, was difficult.
"There were methods," Laessia said, meditatively, "methods that I had scarcely begun to study, before I . . . chose to leave the Order. Methods by which, through bio-feedback, we could learn to regulate our bodies. Our own metabolic processes."
"Slow it down? Speed. . . it up?"
"Yes. Enhance our body's ability to deal with disease. Cold. Heat. Purge toxins. This is nothing more than another disease, Madison Dempsey. It is an incredible vicious and virulent one. But I have faith in our doctors here. And I have faith in the strength of your mind, young human. You would not have been able to grasp the Reed, if you weren't exceptional in your ability to focus. And that is what we are going to do."
Madison's eyes, which had started to slide shut, opened again. Blearily, he stared at Laessia. "Focus?"
His father came into the room periodically. It helped. Madison couldn't help but think, dimly, that this was some sort of crazy asari mysticism, at first, until his father noted that the very first human biotics. . . in the first generation? The only ones who hadn't gone insane had been those schooled in bio-feedback techniques. Yogic meditation. "It's why the first thing they did for me," Dempsey told his son, dryly, "was put a bio-feedback tool into my chip. Trying to give my mind something to do with the damn thing, to help me overcome the pain.
"You. . . really think. . . this is gonna work, Dad?"
A gloved hand on his forehead. Dempsey wore, as Zhasa once had, a full-body suit in here. "Yeah. If nothing else, you're going to buy the docs time. Time's what we need, Mad. Keep fighting."
And so, Madison focused his attention inwards. His father's mind, touching his. Laessia's, too. Amara's, when she was there. The rachni crooned quietly in the very periphery of his hearing, but they were the hardest to hear of all the minds. He focused on his breathing. On feeling the biotic energy inside of him. Just letting it surge through him, holding it, but not releasing it, not even as a barrier. "The ancient texts speak of letting it flow from one biotic plexus to another," Laessia muttered.
"News flash, Laessia. Humans haven't developed full biotic organs yet."
"But there are nodules along your spinal columns. Let it flow there, Madison. Purge your system."
It got easier, but it raised Madison's interior bodily temperature. Made him burn calories at a furious rate, even as the nanites kept trying to consume him to rebuild him in their own image. "You. . . think you're . . . going to get something else. . . out of this?" he rasped. He could look down at his arms now, and see blue lights under the skin. Forming lines. Circuit patterns.
His father reached out and took his hand. Squeezed it. "Yeah, actually. As you've been modulating your own biotics? Dara and Nara have been scanning your body. And we've been listening in. When you get to a certain frequency. . . the nanites slow their reproduction."
Amara, who was in the room with them, leaned over. Pressed her forehead against his. Biohazard suit in place, made the gesture a little awkward, but he could still see the bright tears in her eyes. "You're winning," she told him, softly. "It might not feel like it right now, but you're winning."
We're winning, he wanted to tell her. Not doing this alone. But the words were really far away right now.
It took six months. Through trial and effort, Madison, Dempsey, Laessia, and the rachni, found the biotic resonance on which the nanites communicated with one another. It was how Dara had hypothesized, for years, the Reapers had controlled their husks to begin with; through their biotic radios. Never using an easily jammed RF frequency to communicate with the synthetic portions of the husks, they'd used biotics, instead.
Which, again, pointed to their strong reasons for wanting to see heavily biotic species like rachni and asari wiped out rather than repurposed. With their harmonic jammed, by Madison's biotic control, with his immune system bolstered by the regimen of drugs that Dara and Nara formulated, with the meditative techniques that Laessia gave him that let him manipulate his own metabolism, Madison was able to achieve a state of homeostasis. And with the nanites current programming balked, the rachni's song, directed by Joy, and assisted by the geth on base, was able to rewrite some of their control code. His body was still saturated with the damn things. They'd rebuilt large portions of him. He was very aware now, that every time he touched Amara's hand, he gave off a strong static charge, for instance, and he suspected, that in time, he'd be able to control that. Pour electricity out of his fingers, like Mercuria could.
But, more importantly, the machine-mind was. . . attenuated. It was his to control, now. He was conscious of it. But he could manipulate it, like part of his own metabolism.
For six months, everyone had refused to let him look in a mirror. Amara had blocked him, every time he'd asked her what he looked like, shaking her head, eyes bright with tears. So Madison was prepared to see a monster when they finally let him out of the isolation unit, and he walked, unsteadily, into a normal bathroom for the first time in half a year. . . leaning on Amara's arm.
He stared at himself, for a long moment, swallowing, hard. He knew he'd lost weight and tone. That could be rebuilt. Just took effort and time. His sandy-red hair had fallen out, but was growing back in, thankfully. Just a body's reaction to stress. The ice-blue eyes, so like his father's, were, thankfully, unchanged. But all along his face, his neck, under the skin of his arms, he could see thin, glowing blue lines. "Not. . . not so bad," Madison told Amara, taking a moment to steady his tone, consciously. "I . . . kind of expected worse." I expected to look like a shambling corpse.
Oh, no. God, no, spirits, no. Amara leaned into him, her mind slipping through his, checking, out of pure habit, for his biotic flows. It's like a disease that's been forced into remission, she told him, silently. You'll always carry it. You might even. . . oddly. . . benefit from it. . . but it's going to take constant care to make sure it doesn't come back.
It's not going to. We rewrote the damned things. And I don't think someone who's been infected can get re-infected.
Amara tucked her chin against his shoulder. I hope not, Mad. I really hope not. Sorrow in her tone, but joy, too. Joy that he was alive, and as healthy as he could be. Sorrow. . . that he'd been so damned marked.
Madison wrapped his arms around his wife, and looked down at her, steadfastly avoiding the mirror. It's okay. Somehow, everyone on Mindoir, sooner or later. . . is.
His younger siblings, Halla'Demsi and Jarek'Demsi, now six years old, were permitted to visit him, and their wide eyes told him another tale; he didn't even look geth. But they both hugged him, tightly, and Zhasa did, too, murmuring in his ear, "Everyone will get used to it, Madison. Even you."
"Yeah. Guess I'm going to have to. Dara says she doesn't know where they'd even start with surgical removal. And since I'm sort of balancing at this point, any change to the system could. . . .make everything upend again." Madison grimaced. "I'd really rather not relive the last six months again, if I can avoid it."
Six months after that, Madison was permitted to resume field-work. The nanites proved to have regenerative effects, and the lingering shadows of the 'machine-mind' allowed him to resist domination attacks. But the look of him scared many an average human or turian, who weren't quite sure what to make of the Spectre now. "I'd say welcome to the club," Dempsey told his son, dryly, and looked over at James, his android twin, "but you're already part of the family."
"Just tell me I get to be there when we take out the fuckers who created this, Dad. That's all I really ask."
"If I have anything to say about it," Dempsey told him, "you will be."
With this information in hand, the war, in 2211 took a new turn. The rachni could sing on the same biotic harmonic as the nanites. Geth units equipped with biotic radios could do the same thing. They could lock down the nanites, which impeded the 'brain function' of the dead husks; it prevented them from moving or attacking in any meaningful fashion. As to the living husks. . . the machine-mind could be disrupted. Many of the living were far too disoriented at having to think for themselves, suddenly, to know where they were, or what they were doing. And the disruption could. . . and did. . . disrupt vital processes between the cybernetic parts and their organic tissues. Some of them simply and immediately collapsed, dying. Others dropped to the ground, rocking and holding their heads, as if a horrific vacuum had suddenly opened in their sinuses.
And the real issue with them was. . . the geth could stage themselves, regionally. The rachni could deploy repeater crystals all over a planet, and simply bombard the nanites with the disruptive harmonic. But if the harmonic wasn't maintained, or if a husked creature wandered out of range of it. . . the nanites, and the synthetic organs and apparatuses they had built within their victim, would resume control. A constant presence on Adek . . . and any other batarian world would be required.
And it assumed that the nanites wouldn't adapt, in time, to the constant barrage of 'noise.' Which made the Alliance, Hierarchy, geth, and rachni exceedingly reluctant simply to carpet-bomb a planet with biotic waves.
So in turn, the question became: What to do with the husks?
Valak had been jubilant when he heard the Madison had been 'cured;' it gave him hope that his own people could be healed. Shepard had Dara and Narayana give him the bad news, however. Madison's cure had taken six months, and enormous resources. "But surely, now that it's been found, it can be. . . streamlined. Made easier. Cheaper," Valak offered, the light of desperation in his eyes.
Dara and Narayana had exchanged glances. And it was Narayana who stepped forward, and put a hand on Valak's shoulder, in the Spectre briefing room on Mindoir. "Possibly, yes. However, unclear if it will work on someone whose. . . transformation. . . was already completed. Our first test subject, the one who had managed to hold out against the nanite's effect on his mind? Was a latent biotic, who later. . . succumbed. . .to the infection. In spite of all our efforts." Narayana's voice was sad. "We don't know the effects on non-biotics. We. . . require more test subjects."
"My people are dying," Valak told the salarian, his voice hoarse with anger and grief. "We're being forced to exterminate ourselves. We've had to kill in the millions. And you're saying that there's no end in sight."
"No, Valak," Narayana replied, gently. "We're doing everything we can. And we'll continue doing so. But the nanites, as they currently are? Are custom-tailored for batarians. What worked on Madison—which took the combined efforts of himself, three other powerful biotics, every rachni on base, and an exacting regimen of immuno-bolstering drugs—may not work on batarians. Not in the same way, or with the same efficacy."
Valak stared at her, then at Dara, and then at Shepard. "What you're saying," he said, slowly, and with evident strain, "is that it's cheaper and more expedient to kill infected batarians, than to cure them."
Dara instantly shook her head. "No, Valak," she told him, with force. "Neither Narayana or I would ever look at it in those terms."
"That being said," Shepard put in, quietly, from behind her desk, "others in Council space will put it that way. Valak is correct to bring it out of the shadows and demand that it be addressed."
Narayana held up a thin hand. "The problem," she said, simply, "isn't credits, although, terms of raw numbers, Madison's treatment, including pure man-hours, the guards posted to protect others from him in case he became a husk or succumbed to the machine-mind? Over five million credits. Including all the research conducted by STG and the Spectres in the years previous? In excess of fifty million." She sighed. "Leave the credits aside. Let us discuss facilities. Where do we hold a hundred thousand husked people on Adek, just to take a conservative number, Valak? How do we guard them and keep them from doing damage to themselves or others? How do we treat them all?"
"And," Dara said, quietly, looking at Valak, just barely able to meet his eyes, "a hundred thousand is purely arbitrary number. Realistically? There are six million people on Adek. If infection is at the same rates as on Erszbat? Three million husks." She made a face. "It's like we said of the ardat-yakshi, in a way. There's no monastery big enough. Except, in this case, we'd need. . . leper colonies. Leper colonies with armed guards and doctors who aren't scared of contracting the disease themselves."
Valak put his face in his hands, and Shepard stood. Crossed the room, and put a hand on his shoulder. "It's not as easy as an inoculation," Narayana told him, helplessly. "It's not a magical powder we can sprinkle from the sky. I wish that it were. I wish that every last one of them could be saved."
"We'll save as many as we can," Dara promised, quietly. "I'm . . . .so sorry, Valak, that we can't promise more."
2211 brought other changes. The geth negotiated with the nation of yahg on Parnack that was headed by Urukhurr, the mate of Akkaura, and were able to arrange a guarantee for the safe return of the yahg who had been stranded on Terra Nova. While the yahg on Terra Nova had adapted, learned to speak and read galactic, and now had technical skills beyond those of many of their compatriots, and while they loved the. . . relative ease of their lives there. . . they did know that this was not their place. Not their territory. And that if not for the geth, the humans of the planet would have banded together to destroy their small enclave, out of residual, much-earned fear and distrust.
Siege was on hand to escort them off the geth ship that landed on Parnack. The CROWD unit offered a hand to each yahg as they stepped off the ramp, and recognizing the gesture, each allowed him to shake their own massive paws. "We are. . .proud. . . ." the geth told them, in their own snarling language, "to have known each of you. You posses a strength unknown to most of your species. The ability to adapt is the most important quality for the long-term survival of any species. Your strength. . . may allow your people to survive and flourish."
The group was remanded into the 'custody' of Urukurr's people, and, as best the geth were able to tell, became teachers of other yahg in that nation. Monitoring radio signals told the geth that Urukhurr had held to power for longer than any previous yahg leader. Which was to say, his own children had yet to kill or eat him. And when he died in 2217, of the totally unheard-of natural causes, his son by Akkaura took control. Again, radio reports were scanty, but the geth saw evidence that this child, too, was biotic. And that he had been educated, in part, by some of the Terra Nova yahg. They periodically received messages, in fact, written in galactic and transmitted directly towards their stations, that were. . . .requests for information. Anything that could be used for weapons or transit technology was refused, but information on farming techniques was provided, instantly. Agriculture in the incredibly harsh conditions of the yahg home world was difficult, which explained why they'd never come to rely on it before. . . but with Council-level technology, hydroponics warehouses could produce more per acre in a month than the volcanic deserts could produce in a year.
Simply by virtue of stabilizing their food supply, Urukhurr's people became stronger in one generation than their neighbors. All they needed to do was defend their borders. They didn't need more land, and didn't need the resources of their neighbors. This promoted. . . .envy from their neighbors, who saw a life of relative ease beginning beside them, and wanted it for themselves. Urukhurr's people fended off attacks on every border, and eventually established trade for practically the first time ever, with a neighbor to their west.
Also in 2211, Narayana and Kirrahe produced their fourth and final clutch as a couple. Kirrahe was now twenty-six years old, or, in human terms, fifty-two. He wasn't letting age slow him down in the field, but he was spending more time training other, younger agents. Training his sons and daughters. Their first clutch had been fifty eggs. The second, thirty-six. The third? Four. This final clutch had only two eggs. Ninety-two children, in total, but the plain fact of the matter was that this was what salarian social customs had originally been designed to control.
However, as Narayana now had perfectly evident proof, with hormonal controls, there was less need for social controls. Their first clutch, of twenty-five males and twenty-five females, was now eight, and all had graduated with honors from high school, and were now applying to colleges. . . all over Council space. At least half of them had acceptance letters from MIT, Cambridge. Yale. Harvard. University of Edessan. The Imperial College of Complovium.
And their son, Sidmorhe Kiran, who took a little after his grandpa, Mordin Solus, and had had his behavior shaped by Kirrahe Orlan, Lantar Sidonis, and Elijah Sidonis . . . pointed out, firmly, that he was the adopted grandchild of a turian. He wore turian clan-paint.
And he applied for turian boot-camp. As Sidonis Kiran.
It was hard to say who was prouder. Technically, Kiran was Narayana's male clone, and nothing more, so all of his DNA came from her. . . from Mordin Solus, therefore, and Dalatrass Xana, long ago. So she was definitely proud. Kirrahe and Lantar, however, seemed to take turns being amused and proud. . . and Eli, whenever anyone reminded him that someday, all these clan affairs would be his to deal with? Quietly shook his head.
Takeshi, along with his salarian 'cousins' headed to Earth for his college education that year. His childhood playmates, Tacitus and Emily, had already left for boot camp, two years before, and he'd only seen them periodically on random leaves. Emily had actually wound up as a combat engineer; Tacitus had been assigned to research and development.
Takeshi himself had just turned eighteen, and had a full-ride scholarship to MIT. His early fascination with the geth—particularly with Siege—and cybernetics, formulated by the process of watching his father's limb replacement—had continued throughout childhood and adolescence, and he planned to study robotics on Earth. Sam, Kasumi, Dara, Shiori, Eli, Agnes, Hinata, and Gavius went to the spaceport in Odessa to see him off. Keshi had topped out at 5'11". . . nowhere near his father's height, but he wasn't really complaining. He still had dark, faintly almond-shaped eyes, and a shock of dark hair, not to mention a mischievous grin. "Hey, someone in the family's got to hold up against Narayana," he joked, lightly. "She did Stanford and CalTech. I .. . can only really manage MIT. . . but I'll try to hold up human honor."
Kasumi hugged her son tightly. "Try not to get yourself kicked out for pranks," she chided him.
"I think pranks are mandatory in my field, Mom. They might kick me out if I don't pull any."
Sam hugged his son, too, and, over Keshi's head, looked at Kasumi. "Let me see if I've got this straight. You told him to mind the rules, do as he's told, respect authority. . . "
"Do as I say, not as I do," Kasumi's smile was watery.
"Okay. Just so we're clear? Mind what your mama just told you."
Takeshi just laughed, not taking a word of it seriously, but sobered as his father shook his hand. "Damned proud of you, son," Sam told him, his tone light, but his eyes sincere.
Dara hugged her little brother, too. "Go do good," she told him. "You need to talk to anyone, we're all just a comm call away." Of course, she knew he wouldn't take her up on that. He was eighteen, he was a guy, and he was getting off the familial leash for the first time. They'd hear from him the first week. . . and then he'd reappear at Christmas. Probably with laundry.
While Tuchanka didn't have a census, let alone population statistics, Pelagia estimated that approximately half of Clan Ulluthyr had migrated off of the planet, and to Omega. This was another important reason for Xiphos' existence; his platform was based on a CROWD's essential chassis, down to the eezo core, but designed along krogan body morphology, except for his head, which was human, though proportioned to his body. His existence gave legitimacy to Pelagia's claim to be the female clan-leader of Ulluthyr, and of Omega. And while she did have a physical platform now, herself, she had chosen to represent herself as a human-sized and shaped female; her hulking 'son' and Harak made odd bookends to either side of her as she moved around Omega, but it all helped knit the krogan society on Omega together. They also had a burgeoning society of asari—SRY-positive and nulls, alike, who'd gathered there to get the hell out of Sisterhood space.
Also in 2211, the first SR-1s, being twenty-six years old, and already having been refitted twice, trying to keep up with technological innovations, began to be rotated out of service. The Alliance and the Hierarchy commissioned the new SR-5s to replace them. These joint-service frigates were designed by a mix of human, turian, geth, quarian, and rachni engineers. (All right, the rachni were workers. No one made fun of their spelling because their ideas were so good. Okay, they only made fun of the spelling a little bit.) As such, as they started emerging from the shipyards, the SR-5s made. . . waves. They retained the original curving body design of the SR ships. They were stealth-capable. Relay-navigable. Had, instead of Tantalus cores. . . . rachni crystal drives. Rachni reinforced crystalline ablative armor. Thanix cannons. Geth fusion torpedoes and rachni catalyzing torpedoes. Short-range geth plasma cannons. Quarian-designed computer cores, for quantum computing that an NCAI would relish. Bay space for turian-made gunships and dropships, and improved inertia stability systems designed on Luna.
The NCAIs, themselves, faced a choice. They could continue to serve the Alliance and the Hierarchy aboard new ships, or could, after twenty-six years of service, retire. They would, however, need to do something to maintain themselves. Even server space and electricity weren't free, and while J. Thaddius Maxwell might liken this to charging an organic for breathing, it was, in reality, much akin to paying rent and buying groceries. There was no such thing as a free lunch. And, truthfully, NCAIs were born, quite literally, to be of service to others. They didn't like the idea of doing nothing, or being useless. Some of them asked to 're-enlist,' and were uploaded from old, decommissioned ships to new ship bodies. Some of them asked for, and purchased, with their savings, mobile platform bodies, and began new careers as archaeologists in the extremely hazardous belt of broken ships beyond the Omega IV relay. Some of them, like Nefertiri, asked to be uploaded to hospital ships—medicine had long been an interest of this daughter of Joker and EDI. Some of them asked to be uploaded to Bastion, where they took over space traffic control systems, maintenance management, traffic routing, assisted B-Sec in managing secure cams. . . always with organics beside them and for oversight, in equal partnership. Still others—like Morana, who'd long been associated with the geth platform, Myrmidon—requested the opportunity to join geth Consensus, even if it were only temporarily. So that they could expand their horizons.
Consensus, it must be said, considered this very confusing, but since they had accepted organic runtimes before in small quantities, they did not find it entirely dissimilar to accept a synthetic set of runtimes . . . under limited circumstances, and with oversight and control . . . into themselves.
In 2212, Madison and Amara, who was on a shore-billet on Earth, training younger biotics at the Academy, for the moment, after two years of front-line duty, decided to try for their first child. The doctors were. . . a little dubious. But as Dara pointed out, the nanites actually hadn't altered his DNA in any substantive way. All his gamete-producing organs were intact. None of the nanites were found in his semen samples, which were examined, meticulously, before he and Amara had been able to resume marital relations, so Amara had no chance at being infected by the tiny, virus-like machines. Blood contact proved to be non-infectious, as well.
So long as they could still have sex—and they could, although Madison ruefully referred to himself as glow-in-the-dark, to which Dara, consolingly, told him, join the club—there was no medical reason for them to hesitate. The biggest concern anyone had, really, was continuing to observe Madison's behavior. . . but in the eighteen months since the treatment had succeeded in re-coding the nanites, and got his body into equilibrium with the foreign intruders, he'd returned to duty as a Spectre. What he'd do with a kid hardly seemed to be in question. Their first daughter, Dairine Lilith Dempsey, was the first three-quarters human, one quarter turian, red-blooded hybrid in the galaxy. No medical intervention, besides monitoring, was needed for Amara; because she was the first hybrid to get pregnant, she was very carefully observed, and the gestation was documented and observed by medical technicians on Earth, who consulted with Drs. Abrams, Sidmorhe, and Sidonis, frequently.
Amara did, however, come home to Mindoir to give birth. She was fairly adamant that she wouldn't have her child anywhere else. Shepard and Garrus held the tiny child, with identical expressions of mild confusion and awe. A three-quarters human actually had hair. Peachfuzz, with almost no crest at all—it was visible, still, but the hair grew in all around it. Eyebrows. Soft, human eyes. Five-fingered hands, like both parents. Some of the skeletal stricture still looked vaguely turian. Tiny, residual spurs, and legs and hips that were still on the turian plan. . . but no cowl. Scans of the child's organs revealed, however, no crop. "No bonemeal for this one," Dara warned the new parents, lightly.
"Is she going to have the sharp teeth?" Madison asked, holding his daughter slightly gingerly, as the vague, unfocused blue eyes boggled up at him. . . and the little hands, reaching on instinct, tried to bat at the lights under his skin.
Dara shook her head, smiling. "Your guess is as good as mine. We can start a betting pool for around four months, when they should break through the gums." She looked at Dempsey now, a teasing smile on her face. "How's it feel. . . .Grandpa?"
Dempsey, who, like Dara and Eli and even Zhasa, showed no visible signs of aging, and, unlike Dara and Eli, had yet to take a single longevity treatment, gave her a long look for a moment, expressionlessly. And then reached out, took the baby away from Madison, and settled the girl on his shoulder. "Pretty damned good," he told her, straight-faced. "Don't worry, doc. You'll get there someday."
"Way ahead of you, D. You want to go count Joy's children?"
"Yes, but can you carry pictures of them on your omnitool to show off?"
"I could. But I only do that to freak out the Council, as needed."
It was around that time that Madison was asked to help evaluate some of the up-and-coming Spectres. It was thus, the first time he'd been to Painted Rocks cave since his own induction. And thus, it was the first time he'd seen either of the Sower relics since then, and he stopped. Stared at them. And, after a moment, he told those around him, ". . . I'll be damned. I think. . . I think I know what the markings mean."
Taking the Reaper-based nanites, however involuntarily, and being able to control them, consciously, gave him access to parts of the machine-mind they'd built in him. That machine-mind spoke in the Reaper language. . . which in turn, was a corruption of the original Sower language. No language, even one kept entirely by machines, remains unchanged over time. So there were gaps in Madison's understanding. But what he was able to understand, he contributed. And he was even taken to worlds linked to the Sowers, where he started, slowly, helping to translate the few fragments of their civilization that had lasted a billion years in dust. There weren't many. But it was progress.
Kaius laughed when he was told about this. "You're making it hard to keep up with you," he told Madison, genially.
"Just wait till you make Spectre. Then all the weird shit will belong to you."
"Nothing says I'm going to make Spectre. I've been serving since 2203. Nine years. I'm pretty good at my job. . . and Caelia and I have both requested shore billets this coming year."
"Want to try for a kid or something?"
"Yeah, that, and we're due for some downtime. Adek's coming along faster than Erszbat did, thanks to that biotic harmonic. . . but there's still a hell of a lot of killing. And just because the husks hold still while the geth and rachni broadcast, doesn't mean that you're still not. . . putting down something that used to be a person." Kaius rubbed at his eyes. "It wears at the spirit."
"I hear that," Madison told him, seriously. "I really do."
So in 2213, Kaius and Caelia had their first child, Magnus Garrus Vakarian, with, again, no medical intervention necessary. This hybrid child actually defaulted back to the original five-fingered Solus template—an adaptation that Caelia was happy to see. "He'll be able to play piano, if he wants to," she joked. "And typing won't be nearly such an issue, like it is for me."
"Starting to feel old?" Lantar teased Garrus and Lilitu, as they passed their first mutual grandchild back and forth.
"My scales aren't going gray nearly as fast as yours are," Garrus told him, dryly.
"I blame Ellie's side of the family for that. My first-son has been driving me towards my grave since the first time I had to pull him out of a ventilation shaft. It's all been downhill since then." Lantar's grin, however, clearly showed that he didn't mean a word of it.
Caelia was actually in her first three months of pregnancy when she and Kaius were issued their invitations to try out for the Spectres; she was excused from direct-contact sparring, and no throws, but still put on a display of meela'helai to establish that she'd kept her skills sharp in the field. Her skills went far beyond direct combat at this point, as well, as she and Kaius had both developed their interest in computer systems to a fine degree; she wasn't an NCAI, but she could get into many a system she really wasn't supposed to, and her stealth skills were second to none. Thus, they were both inducted in 2213, with a 'class' that included four SRY-positive asari, an elcor, a new volus candidate, two batarians, two krogan, three salarians, four humans, four turians, and the first Aeseti, the quadrupedal species from beyond the locked relays. One of those SRY asari was an ardat-yakshi, expressing as female, who. . . was domination-capable.
Samiel was asked to train her in how to use her powers responsibly. How to resist others' domination attempts. She was cleared by every psychological test possible as an ethical and responsible person who took her powers seriously. And the Justicars continued to go up in flames about this.
Kaius and Caelia were the first human-turian hybrids ever inducted into the Spectres, but no one could accuse the Spectres of nepotism (not that there was such a concept in turian, of course). Kaius had ten years of experience, Caelia eight, and both had a list of commendations as long as their arms.
Kaius and Madison took that opportunity to swear as blood-brothers, and Kaius also swore that oath with Severus. . . who, around that time, also formally asked Elissa Vakarian to marry him. Emily Sidonis, done with her four years of military service as a combat engineer, and a full citizen of the Alliance and of the Hierarchy, now chose not to continue in the Fleet, but applied for, and received a full scholarship to MIT, to study engineering formally. Where she promptly established herself as both a blessing and a bane to most of her professors, because the low-end classes, she already knew more about some of the topics than they did, and was manifestly bored. Takeshi came to her rescue; the two old friends, separated for four years at this point, began to spend more and more time together, as a result.
In 2214, with the war on Adek grinding on, Kirrahe and Narayana became grandparents. They were now twenty-eight and twenty-four, respectively (the equivalent of fifty-six and forty-eight, in human terms), and had vetted the various males who'd asked to meet their daughters and join the Sidmorhe clan very carefully. Almost all of the remaining original Lystheni had died off, other than Soril Erev, whom one of Narayana's daughters (Miranaya) asked, specifically, in this year, to fertilize her eggs, because she wanted to perpetuate some of the original Lystheni DNA; he warned her that he would not be around to help raise the children for long, as he was over thirty now, himself. Miranaya told him that she didn't mind, so long as he was there for as long as he could be.
The irony here, was that Takeshi, born two years after Narayana, was still in college. Still working on his first engineering degree. Dating Emily Sidonis, taking her out for pizza and vids on Earth, and coming home for Christmas with the family on Mindoir. Dara, who'd watched Narayana hatch, watched Nara's father, Mordin Solus, pass away, had overseen the hatching of Nara's four clutches of eggs, now watched Nara's grandchildren hatch, as well. Dara's own sets of twins were only twelve and eight, and Dara herself. . . only thirty-seven. Narayana now looked and acted in her late "forties" by salarian standards.
And in this year, the first of Dara's named workers, Chopin, passed away of old age. Workers only lived to be between fifteen and twenty years of age; they were, in rachni terms, both constant and essential—they formed the bulk of any given hive, after all—and yet, also, expendable. Replaceable. Dara, however, saw many of the workers as individuals. Like cherished friends—more than pets, certainly. And so, when Chopin labored his way up into her lap as she worked on a DNA model at her computer, she looked down in concern.
"What's the matter, Chopin?"
—Hard to breathe, little queen. Very tired.
"Wait, you're sick?" Dara dropped everything, and picked the little worker up in the palm of her hand. Eli had had to redo the writing on the little creature's shells once a year, when they molted, but there, clear and sharp, was Chopin on his carapace, in Eli's firm block lettering. "Let me take a look at you." She'd become, by default, the galaxy's foremost expert on rachni medicine. Rachni could regenerate limbs, over long periods of time, each time they molted. But they needed prosthetics in the meantime. Regenerating eyes, much more difficult, but with stem-cell technology, adapted from human and asari models, she'd been able to help Dances, for example, regrow his missing eye. They had few diseases.
But everyone, in the end, tended just to wear out.
—Tired, little queen. It's. . . time. A pause. And then, a phrasing that Chopin had learned from Zappa, the first worker to use it. —Will you remember me in memory-song, little queen?
Yes, of course I will, always, but. . . Horrified awareness, as the workers all around her, who usually made their way through the walls of the house she shared with Eli and the children, began to crowd near. And Chopin's tired gratitude came to her, and then his tiny legs spasmed. Once. Twice.
And then he was gone. The first worker ever given a name had been about a year old when he'd come to Mindoir, as best Eli and Dara were ever able to reckon. He'd spent eighteen years as Dara's constant companion. A voice in the cheerful chorus all around her. As with all the workers, quick with advice, quick with humor, quick with comfort.
Doorknob songs and toast. TST-SNGS.
Dara cradled the worker in her lap, put her head down on her desk, and started to cry. It started off quietly, but the empty shell in her lap just seemed a symbol, somehow, of how everything must pass, and the sobs became, after a while, fairly wracking. The workers, as a whole, gathered around her, chittering, trying to sing comfort-songs.
—Do not sing sorrow. Memory-song is always with us.
—We are still who we were.
—We are still with you, little queen.
—Perhaps, Zappa told her, quietly, from his perch atop her head, —in time, you might favor another of us with Chopin's name-song? Not to replace him. But to remember him?
Eli found her there, completely covered in workers. "Hey, what's the matter?" He knelt down, and put an arm around her, as the workers all skittered out of his way.
Mutely, she showed him the tiny body, and Eli winced. Oh, hell. I'm so sorry, sweetheart. What do they usually do with their dead?
They eat their dead, ciea'teilu. Everything is returned to the hive.
Eli stroked her hair, gently, dozens of tiny blue worker eyes around them, watching. You going to let them take him away?
I don't want to. Mutinous turn to her lips, and she put her head down on Eli's shoulder.
I know you don't want to. He was a person to you. Not a bug. He kissed her hair gently. But it's also their way.
I know. Dara very carefully set the little body down on the desk. And the workers around her gently and considerately took the body where she wouldn't see them eating it.
Within a year, she did name another worker Chopin. But this was Chopin II. Not to be confused, at all, with Chopin I.
By 2216, Amara, as a combat adept, and a damned good one, had been appointed a Spectre, herself; now twenty-eight, she was only two years older than when her mother, Lilitu Shepard, had been appointed a Spectre in 2183. Takeshi Jaworski graduated with his degree in robotic engineering, and immediately began work on his master's degree, still at MIT. He and Emily got married that year, after two years of living together in an off-campus apartment, further binding the Sidonis and Jaworski families. Shiori Jaworski, for her part, turned eighteen that year, and opted to go to the University of Illium for her degree; she wanted to study asari language and culture, with an eye towards diplomatic work, eventually. "Last one out of the nest," Sam told Kasumi, his tone content. Sam was now sixty-five, and thanks to the longevity treatments, still only had a speckle of gray here and there in his hair. But he was content to take much more of an administrative and advisory role these days. The arthritic knee wasn't slowing him down too badly; he was still in excellent shape, and spent at least five days a week on the sparring mats. The artificial arm, he'd never entirely adapted to, but most days, he could forget it was there.
"I know. But baby birds have a way of finding their way home," Kasumi told him, comfortably, as they turned and walked away from the boarding ramp at the spaceport; Shiori had hugged them both fervently, and chattered at them as excitedly as a blue jay, betraying her nervousness at going so far from home. Of all the kids, she and Takeshi actually required the fewest bodyguards; they'd been raised largely out of the public view. Full-bred, home-grown humans, as Sam had once called them, they didn't stand out, other than for their Polish last name, in any setting. No clan-paint.
However, 2216 found shakeups in other parts of space. On Tuchanka, Urdnot Malla died, of old age—that rarest of causes for krogan death. Urdnot Siara Tesala, her chosen successor, assumed control of the female clan—much to the displeasure of many of the krogan females. She needed a way to cement her guardianship of the female clan, and came to Mindoir, tapping on Dara's laboratory door. "Dara."
"Siara! Damn, it's been over a year since I've seen you. And you don't have an appointment."
"Do I need an appointment these days?"
"Nah, the corpses in the pathology lab won't complain if you bump their slots." Dara awarded Siara a crooked grin. "What brings you here?"
"Remember back on Bastion, during the plagues, how I asked you to look into making a asari-krogan hybrid?"
Dara's eyebrows rose. "It's only been twenty years, Siara. You're still a maiden. Physiologically, it's possible for you to carry a child to term. Liara T'soni carried Fiara to term, for example, for all that she's just past a hundred. But strictly speaking, it's dangerous, both for the developing child and the mother."
Siara paced the small lab, moving smoothly around the various swinging arms of various pieces of equipment. Back and forth. "The hard-liners in the female camp won't accept my control if I'm not a mother."
"So? Tell 'em things change. And that you're an asari-krogan clan-leader, and you'll have your kids when you say, not on their fucking timetable."
Siara turned and bared her teeth at Dara. The smile had razory edges, but genuine humor, too. "I'll pay you to come to Tuchanka and say that to them."
"Oh, you found a planet I'm not in trouble on, and decided I needed to add it to the collection?" Dara pulled her lips back from her teeth, turian-style, to match the basilisk krogan grin Siara was giving her.
Then they both laughed. "That's the other thing," Siara said, finally taking a chair, as the stubborn defiance that had marked every step she'd taken so far in the room drained away, leaving tiredness. "In a hundred years. . . Vaul. Not to sound crass, Dara, but in a hundred years, you might not be here. And even if I only wait a hundred years, I'll still only be a hundred and fifty-nine. Probably still a maiden, unless I share Makur senseless every night from now until the to force my body to mature more rapidly." Siara grimaced. "Not that he'd object, but he might die smiling."
Dara guffawed. "I think he's a little more resilient than that. Assuming you don't collapse any more buildings on him in the meantime."
"Don't remind me. That was not the kind of day I ever want to repeat." Siara frowned. "I want you to do the gene modeling. You and Narayana." She paused. "Vaul. It feels like Nara just graduated med school with ribbons clipped to her aural horns. . . maybe two years ago? I blinked, and she's a grandmother." Siara rubbed at her face. "I . . . don't know how any asari can ethically love a salarian, Dara. I thank Vaul—assuming he exists any more than the Goddess does—that I found Makur. I don't think I could deal with how the mahai age." She looked up, her eyes a little blue-rimmed. "She's getting old. Fast."
Dara nodded, her stomach tightening. "Salarians make me feel like an asari, Siara. I have no idea how asari deal with most of the galaxy rising and falling around them like the tide." She stood to pour them both a cup of tea from the kettle she kept in her lab.
"Depends. Traditional asari just flick a hand and call you all mahai." Siara accepted the cup of tea, wrapping her fingers around its warmth. "Me? I . . . don't know how I'm going to deal with it, Dara. You and Eli still look exactly the same as you did twenty years ago. Dempsey and Zhasa, too. But everyone else. . . "
"I know." Dara forced herself to take a sip of her own tea. "Eli got a little asari from Kella, when she inadvertently rewrote herself into his genetic code. Me. . . I'm a little rachni."
"How long do rachni live?" Siara asked, just above a whisper.
"Workers? Fifteen to twenty years. Soldiers, around thirty to forty. Brood-warriors, a hundred and fifty to a hundred and seventy five. Queens, around three hundred." Dara stared down into her cup.
"So you actually have no idea. . . ?"
"How long we'll live? Given the longevity treatments, which . . . mostly help prevent cancers—" Dara thought of Dr. Chakwas, dead and gone for many years now, and winced, "and prevent gene replication errors and delay senescence, that's a help. Add in all our crazy genetic modifications. . . though. . . and I have no clue." Dara tried to keep her voice dispassionate. "Then again, no one else really gets a guarantee on how long they'll live, either, Siara." She sighed. "So. . . I might be around when you're not a maiden anymore. I might not." She met the female's eyes squarely. "I can tell you've got another reason at the back of your head. Spill it."
Siara nodded. "I have the feeling," she said, steepling her fingers together, "that because of the Reaper nanite plague, among other things. . . that there's going to be a backlash against even Collector-based tech in the next few years."
Dara raised her eyebrows over her tea. "If people start rejecting Reaper-based tech, they're going to have to give up relay travel, or look like tremendous hypocrites."
Siara snorted. "When has looking like a hypocrite ever stopped someone from mouthing off?" She sighed, and went on, "If not that. . . there's a tremendous inwards-turning in asari society right now. They're curling in on themselves. Fighting between Justicars. Turning on the SRY-positive. People like me, people like Melaani, people like Ylara. Calling the ardat—the males, like Samiel. . . not-asari." Siara's eyes went hooded. "Hybridization might well get outlawed before I can use the Solus process, Dara. Either by people in Council space who are afraid of the legacy of the Collectors and the Reapers, or by asari conservatives, obsessed with purifying our genome."
Dara shook her head. "The former isn't all that likely, Siara. There were only a handful of different types of hybrids even twenty-five years ago. Nowadays. . . there are hundreds of them. Outlawing the tech is like telling them they can't reproduce, when the time comes." She sighed. "I take your point, however. But I wouldn't be a good doctor, or a good friend, if I didn't talk through all the ramifications with you."
She pulled up the file she'd kept on this, adding to it, on and off, for twenty years. "Krogan-asari is, technically speaking, in its own way, one of the most difficult challenges," she assessed, after a long moment. "When K'sar and Maryam came to me a couple of years ago for a batarian-human kid? There was already a template out there. I modified it a bit. Improved it. Narayana tweaked it further. Both species already have hemoglobin-based blood. Similar skeletons. Biggest differences were hair and the cranium. K'sar said he'd be fine with his kids being half-eyed. Maryam said she'd be fine either way. Result: kids with two bright yellow eyes, dark, curly hair, the ribbed noses that most batarians display, and a faint reddish overtone to their skins." Dara shrugged. "They're what, six now? Cute as bugs, from the pictures we get of them from Astaria." She looked at Siara. "Now, krogan are live-bearers, not egg-layers, as we well know. They're hemoglobin-based, you're hemecyanic. Both levo, though, so that's not a problem. Krogan body temperature is lower, but we can work with that. That slow metabolism is part of their longevity. That, and the regeneration." Dara sighed. "The biggest problem, really, is the skeletal frame. I could design this far more easily for a krogan mother and an asari. . . .father." She gave Siara an amused glance. "Not that I think Samiel or Sisu are really lining up for the krogan females."
"Sisu hasn't been through the Rite yet. Wouldn't be allowed in the bunker." Siara's grin held needles. "Besides, underage, by asari standards."
Dara chuckled. "Like that stopped you."
"Yes, but I was going after people of similar age. Okay, of similar development stage." Siara glared. "You're basically telling me that my body can't handle something the size of a krogan child at birth."
"You flat-out don't have the real estate for one, Siara. It's the same problem I brought up in 2196. If you still want a kid who's built more or less on the krogan skeletal system? It'll be born slightly underdeveloped. We might not be able to take you to full term. That will result in health problems. The longer you can hold out, the better, but I will not endanger your health." Dara met Siara's eyes, steadfastly. "You understand me?"
"Yes. And I agree. I've worked with the krogan mothers for close to thirty years now, Dara. I'm pretty much a licensed midwife and obstetrician, by krogan standards." Siara's expression was grim. "I don't need telling that childbirth is still one of the most dangerous things a female of any species can do."
Dara nodded. "Okay. So, I take it a surrogate is out?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
"Goddamned weird definitions krogan have for motherhood. It's your kid, your DNA, you're going to raise it, feed it, teach it, care for it. Who cares whose body it came out of?"
"They do." Siara shrugged. "Not a battle I'm going to win." She gave Dara a look. "So, you really can't do the krogan body type for me?"
"Not unless you magically grow three feet and put on four hundred pounds, no." Dara brought up the models she'd been working on for decades, and started showing Siara the various morphologies she'd constructed. "Take your time. Show these to Makur. In a way that's not really usual for asari, this is going to be his kid, too. I'd kind of advise, for the health of your relationship, talking about this."
Siara made a face and flapped a hand at Dara. "Of course I will."
And thus, later in the year, Nara and Dara implanted Siara with the first krogan-asari hybrid. "At least both species have semi-aquatic origins," Narayana told Dara. "Makes this somewhat less problematic."
Krogan gestation actually took only about nine months; that allowed them to halve the typical asari pregnancy, though this did require tinkering, temporarily, with Siara's own metabolism. Since she was so young, and the pregnancy was such a first, Dara didn't permit Siara to travel off of Mindoir. "I'm not chasing you into the wilds of Tuchanka with a portable sonogram machine," Dara informed her old friend at one of their appointments, waspishly. "Sit down for ten minutes and let me get your blood pressure while you're here."
The result, in late 2216, was devoured in dozens of medical journals all over Council space. At ten pounds, six ounces, Urdnot Makira Tesala was a giant of an asari child, delivered by C-section in the eighth month of pregnancy, after Siara's blood-pressure issues simply became far too problematic. She had none of the prototypical asari beauty; even as an infant, her face was blocky. Her eyes filled the entire socket, like a krogan's, heavy-lidded and a bit bulbous, but she had two lids for their protection. . . and they were vividly, vibrantly blue. Her skin was blue, both from pigmentation and the hemecyanic blood in her veins, but she also had scales, to give her better protection. The scalp tentacles were still there, but far less pronounced; they weren't really needed to radiate heat, because her body temperature was far lower than standard asari norms; not 103 or so Fahrenheit, but a tepid 80. Her small fingers were tipped with thick, blunt claws, but her teeth, when they grew in, would match her asari skeleton.
And when they pricked her heel for a blood test, just after birth?
The wound healed, almost instantly.
Narayana and Dara rather discreetly high-fived each other for that one.
There wasn't enough room in an asari body for all the redundant organs of a krogan body. They couldn't fit three livers into the body cavity. But they did fit in the tertiary heart, low in the intestine, so that if the primary heart suffered any damage, the body's regeneration would have a shot at recovery. No room for a secondary liver. Secondary stomach, no. But, they were able to weave the fine mesh of the secondary nervous system, and the secondary spinal cord behind the actual, protected-by-vertebrae primary cord. And strung secondary biotic organs all along it. Everything seemed to be working, Siara and Makur could both clearly touch the infant's mind, body temperature seemed to be regulating itself perfectly. . . . Dara and Narayana waited until the end of the first week of observations, when Siara and Makur were able to take Makira out of the hospital.
Then the two doctors went to Gardner's and got very damned drunk in celebration. Dara hadn't had more than about two glasses of wine, at a time, since Joy's birth; she'd never quite known what alcohol would do to her system. Tonight, she didn't care. Narayana was there, and was fully certified to run a stomach-pump, if needed.
Dara had never had a talent for being able to broadcast biotically before, but in twenty years, her rachni adaptations had slowly increased, and that night, she was broadcasting blues and greens so loudly, the entire damned rachni hive sang with her. Joy sang from beneath the earth. Stone, Sky, Dances, and Glory all joined in, from different places on base. And Dara waved the piano player in the cocktail area away from the bench, and took over. Singing out loud, in public, for the first time ever, as Narayana poured her another glass of champagne. She started with "We are the Champions," which just made the salarian female laugh. "I'm missing all the notes," Dara admitted, sheepishly.
"I prescribe another drink."
"I don't think I'm going to improve if I have more, Nara."
"No, but you'll care less." Nara pushed the glass into Dara's hand, and sat down on the bench next to her. "Am still surprised that they opted for a girl the first time."
"Makur wanted a girl. Krogan value fertile females. Siara wanted a boy. To shove it in all the asari traditionalists' faces." Dara drank down half the champagne. "Next time, a boy, I guess!"
"Next time," Nara said, and there was something. . . sorrowful and distant in her tone, that caught Dara's attention, and sobered her, in an instant. Narayana was twenty-five years old now. Fifty, as a human might reckon it. Mordin Alesh, her uncle, had died when Nara was twelve. Her father had died when she was younger than six.
Dara fought it all down. Managed a smile, and said, with forced cheer, "Yes, next time! I'm sure Siara will be back here in five years."
"Okay, ten, depending on if Makira matures at more an asari rate than a krogan rate—"
"Dara," Narayana repeated, softly, and shook her head.
In ten years, Narayana would be thirty-five, or close to seventy in human terms. Not every salarian lived that long, of course. Mordin Solus had been the oldest on record, being over forty at his death.
Dara put the champagne down on the piano, and covered her face for a moment. Everything passes, she thought, numbly. Everything passes. In ten years, Narayana and Kirrahe might not even be with us anymore.
Nara rubbed her shoulders for a moment. "Come on," her younger/older friend told her, calmly. "Play me something else. Something cheerful."
Dara nodded, rubbing at her eyes to keep the tears from being seen, and played on. Lived in the moment, as Nara was, clearly, doing. "We are the Champions" gave way to "Piano Man" with its bittersweet lyrics, which seemed so fitting at the moment. And, open as she was at the moment, Narayana's hectic salarian cheer began to infuse her, chasing away the shadows. On the second time through the chorus, people around them started to pick up the lyrics around her, and infused by her cheer, the rachni harmonies in the background, and Narayana's hyper glee, began to sing along. "It's not a madrigal," Dara apologized to Narayana.
"It's all right. Am figuring out the words as we go!"
The pure waves of happiness radiating outwards did put everyone in the bar in very, very good charity with each other. And when Kirrahe and Eli showed up to find their respective females, Dara's whoop as she wrapped her arms around her husband and nibbled on his neck, made Eli laugh. "Oh, so this is what it takes for me to get to see you drunk," he teased, as a handful of other couples started to make their way out the door. Dara could feel the burgundy songs of the various couples, and she realized, dimly, that she was probably singing queen-songs right now, without even aizala to invigorate her system. At the moment, she didn't really care. Everyone around her was happy. Everyone around her shared the joy. . . though the bittersweet lyrics of the song had made her reflect, however briefly, on how fast time was passing, at least for some of them. "Being an irresponsible youngling is fun, eh?" Eli told her, and gave her a kiss, pulling her off her feet.
"Eh, once every twenty years or so, I'm allowed."
"If I only get a tipsy wifey once every twenty years, I'm going to be deprived." Eli kept a good grip on Dara's forearm as he helped her out the front stairs.
"I can hear all the songs, Eli." Dara was dizzy.
"As good as on aizala?"
"No. . . just the ones closest to me. . . Still . . .wow."
"You know what, sai'kaea?"
"The kids are asleep."
In the morning, Dempsey caught her at breakfast and asked, "How's the hangover, doc?"
"What hangover?" Dara was, actually surprised about that. "I guess my metabolism really is pretty rachni now. Got tipsy, but no bad effects."
"I popped into Gardner's long enough to hear you singing, doc." Dempsey's eyes lit with an inner amusement, though he didn't smile. "No more arguing out of you. You're singing with us next time we get everyone together to play music. And I'm recording it."
"But, nothing. I'm not saying we go on tour or anything crazy like that. But you liked hearing the songs come back to you, didn't you? You liked hearing everyone sing with you?"
"Well. . . yeah. . . "
"So stop dithering. We'll set something up on base or down at the science station, so everyone can enjoy the damned music. The rachni will love it."
That trapped her. She could hear Joy's instant, Yes! We would greatly enjoy hearing your songs! and sighed. "What I don't do for my kids," she muttered.
"Yeah, yeah, noble martyr." Dempsey's lips quirked up at the corners. "You're going to wind up enjoying yourself, and you know it."
Dara gave in. She couldn't do much else, not with Eli, Dempsey, Serana, Zhasa, and Lin all at the table laughing at her.
The galactic press had a field day when Siara and Makur let their daughter be seen for the first time on camera. She was walking by nine months of age, like a krogan child, and salarian medical journals trumpeted this as some of Narayana's finest work. "I think they forget your contribution," Narayana told Dara, dryly. "You did absolutely all of the research and gene modeling. I just did the actual assembly and testing."
Dara shrugged. She and Narayana had collaborated on drell-turian and human-quarian hybrids. Her research papers on the subject of hybridization and her case studies were all a matter of public record. "They just see that my name's been on papers with first your father, and then with you, as a co-writer. For them, I'm just being dragged along in the Mordin/Sidmorhe wake," she said, just as dryly. "And from their perspective. . . they're right."
"Such language, Nara."
The asari news media, however, went up in flames at the first vid footage. The asari currently living on Tuchanka, in enclaves established by Clans Urdnot and Ulluthyr? Cheered. Wrote extranet posts commenting that they could already sense what a biotic powerhouse this child was (with twice the number of normal biotic plexuses and organs as a normal asari, and a fully redundant nervous system, Narayana had postulated that Makira might be twice as powerful as the average 'maiden' even before taking into consideration the fact that both her parents were heavily powerful biotics in their own rights.). Many of those asari were making their way on the planet as teachers. Engineers. Mech refurbishers. Every day they lived there, they had to show the krogan around them that there were other kinds of strength. . . and the krogan respected that.
The hardliners on Luisa and Illium, however, ran op-ed articles that suggested that this infant was hideously deformed. That it—and yes, they used the word it—was a mule. That it was the blameless victim of social experimentation by a first-mother who had no conscience, and power-hungry non-asari scientists who would do anything for a published paper. This was science without ethics, and the child would always pay the price, being neither of one people, or another. Even worse, the poor thing looked asari, but was, manifestly, not. It was thus, just another form of ardat, or other. And that this was an outrage that should be sanctioned against by law.
When interviewed on the topic, Siara noted, her eyes glittering in the light from Emily Wong's camera, "I find it interesting that everything my people don't like, currently, is being lumped into the 'not-asari' and 'ardat' categories. I'm SRY-positive. For some of these people, that already means I'm not-asari. If I'm not asari, then how anything I do with my body or my child can possibly affect them, is beyond me. However, they appear to be a little beyond the realm of the rational at this time." She held Makira in her arms, and the wide, slightly bulbous eyes turned to stare at the camera. "That being said? Makira's only the first. I'm quite certain that other asari, ones who have krogan marai'ha'sai, or human, or turian, will want to, in time, have children that actually perpetuate the real genetic code of their beloveds. A true sharing, and memorial to beloveds who could not stand beside us in time. My daughter is hardly an experiment. She's simply the first of a new way." She smiled down at Makira for a moment, a truly tender look, which took away the breath of several Spectres who'd never thought to see that expression on that face. "For myself? I know that I'm asari. But if the rest of asari society wants to throw me out? Vaul. I've also been krogan for twenty years and more. I'll stay that. I'll never give up my mother's name. But Makira here. . . she doesn't have to be a Tesala if she doesn't want to. She's Urdnot. She'll grow up here, on Tuchanka, and maybe on Mindoir. When she's of age, she'll face the Rite." Siara's teeth bared. "Just as her father and I did before her."
"What we all don't do for our kids," Eli said, shaking his head and turning off the vid screen at the end of the report. "She's crazy."
"Yeah, but she's our kind of crazy," Dara told him, from the kitchen, where she had their twins set up in an assembly line, washing dinner plates.
What Eli and Dara would and wouldn't do for their children became somewhat more interesting of a question the following years, particularly in 2217. The CROWD platform, Paladin, based on Siege's pre-hybridization self, had, in itself, taken on some of Glory's rachni templates. This made him, effectively, the first geth brood-warrior. As early as 2213, when the twins were ten, the geth had come to their house on an errand regarding the protective details for Takeshi's upcoming college education. Paladin had been one of the geth tasked with protecting Narayana on Earth, so he'd been an asset that had been considered for Takeshi's protection. In the Sidonis living room, the geth, intrigued by the young 'human brood-warrior,' Lantus, had asked, "Do you already understand your personal function, Lantus-singer?"
Lantus had regarded him out of rachni blue eyes, his head tipped to the side. "To make sure my younger siblings are safe, for now. Later, to ensure that the entire hive is safe."
Dara and Eli had both rubbed at their eyes a little over that one. Paladin had turned, however, and told them both, "We approve of this one."
"You would," Eli told the geth, dryly.
Teagan and Lantus were now fourteen, and, like the younger twins, Derek and Merryn, had been manifestly biotic since birth. Both of the older twins were developing in distinctive and powerful ways; while Teagan had the more powerful 'voice' of the two—she'd been able to call, successfully, to her twin, from a fifty mile range under testing conditions—her ability to use combat-oriented biotics seemed to lag her twin's. Her skills at bringing up barriers were ahead of schedule, and she seemed to have strong abilities regarding lifting things, and the beginnings of a stasis-like ability that flooded a body with biotic energy. Her twin, Lantus, seemed to be far more aggressive. He could already throw himself into a biotic charge. Could already sunder materials, reave them with his mind. But of the two, Lantus was the one who, frankly, adored children. And other kids loved him. Toddlers trundled after him, and he'd cheerfully carry them around on his back. "This is like looking at a human version of Sky, sometimes," Eli muttered to Dara at one barbecue, shaking his head.
You sing that, as if it is a song of concern? Sky sang.
"Nah. I don't think he's yours, if that's what you're asking," Eli told the rachni, grinning.
Dempsey, Ylara, and Sky had been working with both twins since they were toddlers. The most fascinating thing, to Dara, was that they both produced biotic energy on the mitochondrial level, just as she and the other rachni did. And they did everything that they did. . . without implants. The workers had created small crowns made of electrically conductive wire and rachni crystals for the twins to wear; these chaplets made focusing and concentrating their abilities easier. Made all of it take less effort. But they were never going to need the invasive implant surgery.
The next big surprise, really, came after sparring practice one night. There were several new krogan Spectres, and some of them actually had their children with them. One of these kids was Ulluthyr Suruk, and he got Lantus into a bad position on the mats and threw the young man. Lantus landed awkwardly, unable to fully compensate for the extra force with which he'd been thrown. He'd landed near the edge of the mat, gotten back to his feet, stumbled. Dara watched it from across the room, as if it were all happening in slow motion. He caught his feet over one piece of equipment; the device used to help people stretch their legs into splits. He tripped, almost recovered his balance, took another step backwards. . . . the device slipped. He fell, straight back, and caught his left arm, on the way down, in the weight-lifting equipment. His arm was barred between two pieces of metal, and bone gave way before metal did, with a dull crack that Dara could hear from across the room. She could feel Lantus' pain from thirty feet away, and moved away from where she was sparring with Zhasa and Amara, at a dead run. Eli and her father were already there. "Hold still," Eli told their son, calmly, keeping the boy down on the floor, as he and Sam disengaged the arm, carefully.
Lantus yelped. The sound was loud, as the training area had gone deadly silent. It always did, when there was an injury, as everyone stopped what they were doing to see what was going on. To help, or at least to respect the pain of others. Dara's stomach turned, but she was already pulling the first aid kit off the wall. Teagan materialized just under her elbow. "What can I do to help?"
"You can sing the pain down," Dara told her daughter, absently, digging in the kit. "Damn. No osseous generator. . . " The devices were pretty specialized, and not for the random layman's hands. But there was a scanner. Dara edged her way in, laid a hand on her son's forehead, feeling the sharp spikes of adrenaline, fear, and pain, all jagged shards of yellow in his song, and hummed a little under her breath. Trying to be soothing. "Let me see," she said, just as she had every other time he'd had a boo-boo as a child. The funny thing was, she'd caught Teagan imitating her, from time to time. Administering band-aids to Derek and Merryn, for example. With a mixture of "Okay, well, if you don't let me put a bandage on it, I guess it's going to keep bleeding then" and "Just let me pull the thorn out, and it'll stop hurting." Dara had always smothered a grin at hearing her own tones in her daughter's then-piping voice.
Dara grimaced when she saw the scanner's results. "Okay, the good news is, we're looking at clean breaks. The bad news is, it's both the radius and the ulna. You don't do anything by halves, do you, Lan?" A little gentle humor, and she touched the boy's sweat-soaked hair. Aware, that behind her, Kaius and Madison were watching, along with everyone else. "We're going to need to move you to the med bay, all right? I'll splint it before we go, though."
She did, and Zhasa called, "We'll take Derek and Merryn home with us, all right, Dara?"
Dara gave her friend a quick, relieved nod, as she, Eli, Lantus, and Teagan left the gym, her dad giving her a quick squeeze on the shoulder in passing.
At the med bay, however, Teagan surprised her. The girl was very interested in everything, looking at the scans. And finally, as Dara mentioned that they might need to do some minimal surgery—she hadn't wanted to scare Lantus before, torque him up any worse than he already was—Teagan asked, "Why?"
"Because we need to support the bones and hold them in place while we use the osseous regenerator. At the moment, they're all sort of moving around inside, since there's no stable point."
Teagan frowned. Looked at the scans. Looked at her brother's arm. And, very lightly, she put her fingers on Lantus' arm.
"Do you want it to stop hurting or not?"
"Just let Mom fix it, okay? She actually knows what she's doing."
Teagan gave her twin a look, and a peremptory harmonic that sounded like Shush. And then she hummed a little louder, and her eyes went unfocused. . . .and Dara could feel biotic energy building. Just a whisper of it.
Biotics, as Dempsey had often pointed out, didn't need to be big and showy to be effective. In every vid in existence, biotics were shown with flashy, glowing lights and buzzing sound effects, so that the audience would understand oh, okay, something is happening. This is happening because of that. I get it.
In reality, only a biotic could sense biotic energies, or a someone holding a biotic radio, or the detection equipment they'd built, based off of that technology. The average person couldn't see it, taste it, touch it, hear it, or smell it. And you didn't really need a lot to push someone over. Like everything else, biotic combat could be about finesse, the right angle, the right leverage, and not just brute strength.
Dara's eyes widened as she watched the scans. An image was being taken every 1/100th of a second. And as she watched, she could see the bones mending. "How?" Dara asked, her eyes widening. "How are you doing that, Teagan?"
"Uncle Dempsey says. . . " Teagan's voice was distant, and a little sing-song, as it tended to become when she was distracted, "that when you reave something, you're warping the bonds between the molecules of matter. Or, in the case of shields, you're distorting the flow of energy. I . . . kind of figure. . . that if you can disrupt the bonds between molecules. . . you can put them. . . .back together again. . . right?" The girl's eyes shifted. Focused again, on the scanner, and then went distant once more.
Dara exchanged a look with Eli, and watched the entire process, her mind going clinical. "Careful," she warned. "You don't want the bone too thick. Otherwise, we'll have to go in and shave it down." She zoomed in the scanner for a better resolution, and Teagan glanced over.
The structure of compact or dense bone, to mild magnification, had limited porosity, between 5-30% in humans. Under intense magnification, new bone tended to look woven. Collagen filaments went in every direction, even under an osseous regenerator's charge. Woven bone structure was inherently weak, but the body would, in time, replace it, fill it in with the much stronger lamellar structure, with filaments of collagen in regular sheets, which would be filled with mineralized calcium, phosphates, and other chemicals, in time. Dara's eyebrows arched. She was seeing lamellar structures already forming. "How'd you know to do that?" she asked Teagan, quietly, not wanting to distract her from. . . whatever she was doing.
"Could . . . see it in your head," Teagan admitted, her lips compressed with effort.
My god. This is an amazing level of abstraction, Dara thought, back behind her eyeballs, where she went when she needed to be medical distant, or sniper-calm. She's able to look at the scan, and apply what she sees there to the body over there. And she's replicating the structure of the bone, at the molecular level. Smoothing the bonds into place. I wonder if she could do the same thing with a cancer tumor. Just in reverse. Look at a scan, see it, understand where it is in the body. . . and very carefully reave the little fucker into non-existence. Obliterate it at the molecular level.
Maybe, Teagan whispered in her thoughts, letting go of the energies she held. "I wouldn't know what I was looking at, though, Mom. I only knew what to do here, because I could see it so clearly in your mind."
Dara looked over the work. Nodded. Smiled, and rested a hand on Lantus' shoulder, so he'd understand she was there. And looked very directly at Teagan. "I don't want you randomly experimenting with this," she said, very clearly, and very distinctly. "You reach inside someone, and start moving the wrong things around? Making the wrong cells replicate? You could start tumors. Reach too far into someone's chest, and try to fix something in their heart, without knowing what you're doing? You could probably stop their heart, Teagan, and I do not want you having to live with that."
Teagan's face went downcast; she'd clearly thought she'd done well—and she had. Dara wasn't going to take that away from her daughter. She reached out, caught Teagan's chin, and lifted her face a little. Her daughter was still a little shorter than she was; she had the feeling, however, that Teagan would probably be taller than she was, when she finished growing. I'm five foot nine, and I'm the dwarf in the family, was Dara's frequent, mildly amused gripe. Okay, other than Kasumi and Shiori. "Look," Dara told her daughter, gently. "You did good. And I'm impressed. Damned impressed, actually. But if you want to continue with this?"
Teagan nodded, slightly.
"Get training," Eli said, from the other side of the table, his voice dark and firm. "Your mom's right. Get the medical training, so that you know what you're doing. Then you can start working your biotics into it. When it's not, you know, experimenting on your brothers and sister." His tone was dry. "When you've got written consent-to-treat and stuff like that."
Teagan nodded again. "But you . . . you think I could do something with this?" she finally said, as Lantus sat up, studying his arm. He hummed at his sister, their private language, which Dara understood. Doesn't even hurt, first-sister.
"Yeah," Dara said, smiling at her daughter. "Your bedside manner's already better than mine."
Not true, sai'kaea. Yours has been really good for years, now.
I know, but, hey, I've got a reputation to maintain.
They all walked out together, and that evening, when the kids were in bed, Dara sat, with her feet in Eli's lap in their living room, as he rubbed the arches. "You know," Dara said, after a long moment of silence. "It's funny."
"We taught them how to ride horses. Rlata. How to speak turian and asari and English and galactic. They're both great at science." She let her head slip back against the arm of the couch. "And I think Teagan's going to be a lot better doctor than I am, someday. She could found a whole new branch of medicine, if she can apply the abstract to the concrete, in terms of biotics like that, on every level." She could see so many applications for this, but so many pitfalls, too. Teagan could probably hold a severed vein in place with a micro-application of levitation, to keep it from moving around as she patched it, bonding molecules to molecules. She could join skin and reweave muscle, probably. But she couldn't, as far as Dara could tell, rebuild cells. Only the body could really do that. It was like krogan regeneration. You still had to pull the bullets, to let the cells regenerate around the gap. Amara could do some of the brute force work—or even the finesse applications—but she couldn't make the body regenerate. But even that was awe-inspiring to Dara. Like having climbed halfway up a mountain, all her life. . . only to have the clouds roll away, and see the peak, far above. . . and Teagan already up there, waving cheerfully down at her. Come on, Mom! Keep climbing!
Eli looked at her. "How's it feel, to be outdone by your kids, sai'kaea?"
She lifted her head and grinned at him, her eyes stinging with proud tears. "Human, ciea'teilu." Her throat closed on her voice. "And very damned good."
By 2219, the twins were sixteen, and had graduated, with honors, from the base school. They'd actually had to do all their final exams off-base, in Odessa, with a geth proctor. . . individually. So that they proved, without a shadow of a doubt, that they know the material, and that they weren't actually cribbing from each other. Lantus had decided that he wanted to follow in his mother and father's footsteps, and went to turian boot camp. Sam, Kasumi, Lantar, Ellie, Dara, Eli, and the rest of their family saw him off. He hadn't finished his growth spurt, and was just nearing six feet in height when he left. "Kind of scary," he admitted, candidly. "I've never gone for long without song, and I can only bring one worker with me."
"Careful what you think, or you'll have stowaways," Eli warned, clearing his throat, and shaking Lantus' hand. . . and giving him a quick hug, too.
"Don't let the bastards get you down," Dara said, giving her son a kiss on the cheek. "Over ninety percent of the fleet is full integrated at this point. The only holdouts are the carriers and the really old-fashioned rail gun ships. They've all had ten years to get used to the idea that the next Imperatrix isn't bare-faced, wears Thracian yellow, and is blood-sister to a human. The hazing shouldn't be too bad anymore."
Lantus chuckled, wryly, and tapped a finger beside one eye. "Given value of human, Mom. Given value of human."
"Close enough for government work," Sam told his grandson, cheerfully, and gave him a hug, too. "Go do good."
And off he went. Dara watched the commercial liner ascend, and sighed, her stomach churning. She looked at her dad, half-guiltily, and asked, "So. . . um. . . was it this bad for you, watching me go?"
Sam put an arm around her shoulders, lightly. "Probably worse. " He glanced between her and Eli. "Lantus is going to be just fine. Trust me on this. Boy's got a good head on his shoulders. And he's been preparing for going out and dealing with the big bad galaxy his whole life."
Dara sighed. It was hard not to review every decision right now. They'd been careful—damned careful, in fact—to make sure that the twins saw more of the galaxy than just Mindoir. But seeing someplace on vacation wasn't the same as living there, among the people on Earth, Edessan, Bastion, Demeter. And there was still a war dragging on. One that, half-guiltily, she really didn't want her kids to have to fight in.
Lantus' flight to Palaven was, actually, one of the very first of the rachni "point-to-point" commercial flights. There weren't many, and they tended to be chartered flights at first, as this one was. He and the rest of the turians and the handful of humans who were heading to the Dacia facility from Mindoir—fourteen of them, all told, this year, from all over the planet—transferred from their shuttle into the rachni ship. He crowded into the passenger bay with the others, most of whom were looking up at the crystalline structure with awe radiating off them in waves. For his part, Lantus was just reaching out, and holding onto the song of the brood-warrior in the navigation area, very tightly.
There was a very brief flash of. . . colors. Lantus was never really quite sure if his mind invented the colors as a response to the instant of nothingness, or if he were, in fact, perceiving something in otherspace.
And then they were there, just in the cleared space around the Dymion shipyards, designated as a rachni entry point. No fourteen-hour flight just to get to a relay. Oh, there were still delays. Changing over to another shuttle. Going through customs. Taking yet another shuttle down to the planet's surface, getting ground transportation. None of that changed.
But rachni instant transit was going to change the face of the galaxy. It was already changing the face of warfare, as the remnants of the Hegemony learned, to its cost. Any time their ships attacked an outpost world in the Terminus, trying to gain much-needed supplies to sustain their populations on their remaining worlds—none of which were garden planets—as soon as an alert signal went out, allied ships could be there within hours, not in days. The rachni had to approach somewhat cautiously, at first, because they couldn't be sure what they'd be popping into if they arrived too close to the world that was under attack. They'd aim for a clear place in orbit, well between orbital bands, and everyone quietly prayed, under their breath, that there wouldn't be any unmarked asteroids, comets, or anything else in the vicinity. . . and then they'd just pull their ships through. SR-5s were capable of rachni foldspace transits, so long as they had a Dancer aboard—all of Dances-in-Frozen-Starlight's children were known as Dancers. The rachni preferred that to 'navigator' or 'astrogator,' which they found. . . lacking in song. The SR-5s were also capable of stealth.
And because at least half of the SR-1 NCAIs had retired from running such ships, new NCAIs had been created, based on the mental pattern of the most successful SR-3 and SR-4 NCAIs. Ariston, Mercuria, Cassandra, and Lysandra thus, all contributed mental templates for randomization, though Lysandra's, which were mixed with patterns she'd taken from Glory, had to be transmitted by biotic radio. Ariston had taken templates from a krogan female Spectre (she was infertile, and didn't want to be stuck in the Ulluthyr bunker forever, or on Omega, for that matter) who'd served aboard the Hamus for a time, and added her distinctive emotional traits to his own for his own offspring. Cassandra took templates from James "Allen," (a fact that made Dara and Dempsey look at each other in mild discomfort, after Eli asked, "So, technically, man, you and Dara have kids together? Or is it grandkids/nieces/nephews?" "No, man, I didn't lay a hand on her. Not guilty.") Mercuria politely asked Siege for permission to take some of his data for promulgation, and added geth elements to her offspring. The total number of new NCAIs was less than thirty, to deal with attrition. Some NCAIs had, after all, died.
But it was these ships that were sent in, popping into systems from completely unpredictable vectors, with untrackable movements, and remaining essentially stealthed while engaged in straight-line travel, that made the Hegemony's life so utterly miserable. Raider ships might not even be out of the system when the SR-5s would appear, and begin their attacks. The result was a total lack of supplies for Hegemony worlds, and an increasingly paralyzed, defensive, and shrinking Hegemony fleet.
With the Hegemony boxed in on every side, their fleet running out of options, their people running out of supplies, their resistance only became more desperate. Logasiri was a painful example. The low-gravity environment, with only traces of a helium atmosphere, meant that almost all habitations had been built under the surface, for protection against the UV, and to keep a breathable atmosphere in for the residents. Ninety percent of the population on Logasiri, pre-war, had been slave-caste. Now, at least ninety percent of the population was husked.
Lantus reported to the front lines in early 2220, and served six months there, helping to clear mine after mine, bunker after bunker. He was usually sent in with rachni soldiers, serving as their brood-warrior, in a sense. His ability to see in the dark was uncanny, and his understanding of the rachni was, quite literally, inhuman.
Madison, Kaius, and Severus, under Eli's command, formed the backbone of the unit that found the SIU laboratory, in June of 2220. What they found inside—a set of Dragon's Teeth, Collector Tech, and a Reaper device—had clearly been tinkered with. Adapted. Changed. And, just as clearly, from the diaries and journals of the batarian scientists who'd first worked with it—every one of which left off, unfinished, without explanation in about 2198—there had been a horrible accident.
The scientists' intention had been to create supersoldiers, much in the way Cerberus had once attempted to turn James Allen Dempsey into one. Their concerns had been much like those of the Cerberus scientists in 2184: Create a soldier that was difficult—even impossible—to kill. Give him regenerative abilities, additional strength, speed, and stamina. But because these soldiers were being given so much power, they needed to be made commensurately loyal. Obedient. And while obedience chips were commonly used in the Hegemony, they had failings. Someone with enough willpower to endure the pain they caused could disobey an order, for example.
Husks, or at least, Reaper husking technology, had seemed a way to ensure that all requirements were met. Reprogram the nanites, adapting them specifically to batarian physiology, using the Dragon's Teeth, which allowed them to scan batarian bodies, alive and dead, thoroughly. Adapt the mind-controlling powers of the Reaper artifact—mostly worked with, at a distance, with remote-controlled mechs, it must be said—until they managed to reprogram what message it sent out. And with that adapted, they were able to alter the message of the nanites. Obedience to us, had been the intended message.
They hadn't quite understood the machine-mind that the nanites built in each victim, both with the constant biotic hum in the background, and by building processors and other tiny pieces of equipment into the brains of full-infiltrated hosts. They hadn't fully realized that while the brains of the husked still functioned, their loyalty shifted to the machine-mind. Not to the Reapers. But also, not quite to the Hegemony, either. To themselves. To us, we-who-are-one.
Also, the researchers, in adapting the nanites to work in a living body, unintentionally made them infectious. Transmissible between hosts. At first, this was seen as a benefit. They wouldn't have to manufacture so many nanites in the lab. They could send one husked soldier to a warrior-caste village, and he'd infect the entire village for them.
Then the first researcher succumbed. Then the next. By the end, there had only been two scientists left, locked in the hot labs, with their husked colleagues outside the metal doors, carefully trying to decrypt the scrambled lock codes. Telling them, quietly, over and over, that if they didn't come out, they'd starve to death. That it would be all right. That the machine-mind wasn't so bad. That all could be forgiven, if they'd just come out.
The last entry by one of the scientists read, in its entirety, So tired. So weak. So hungry. May the gods and all our ancestors forgive us. I won't open the door. I'd rather die here, and have them raise me as a mindless husk later, than to be aware of what's been done, and my own hand in it. Even if it's only dim awareness, I think a part of me would scream for all eternity. M'sor doesn't agree. He wants to open the door. Just give in. I've been holding him away from the door with a gun all day, but my hand shakes, and I can't aim. He's asleep as I'm recording this. Maybe tomorrow, he'll have given up on the foolish idea.
There were no further entries.
With the Allied Batarian Territories now firmly in control of what remained of the Hegemony in 2220, Valak N'dor appeared before the legislative body he'd commissioned, in place of the Assembly of Nobles. "It is my pleasure," he told them all, standing up, leaning only slightly on his cane, "to inform you today, that the war is over. We have worked a long road together, all of us. We've reconstructed not only the ruined areas of Lorek and Camala in the past twenty-three years, but with them, our entire society. What we have begun to build together, my friends, is the foundation of a casteless society. This foundations will take generations to build upon, Brick by brick. But if we continue as we have begun, our society will be the stronger for it. Enriched by a chorus of voices, from all walks of life." He paused, and then went on, "It is also my duty to inform you today, that, effective immediately, I am resigning as the head of this assembly."
Consternation rang through the old assembly hall, where, twenty-three years ago, the Hegemon had been shot dead. No one had ever been able to prove which Spectres were present that day. The records wouldn't be released for a hundred years. Valak was mostly hoping that he'd be dead before that happened. He really didn't want to deal with the wrangling over the fact that he'd been involved in the death of his predecessor. Leave it to history, was his thought on the matter. He held up a hand for silence. "Please," he said, quietly, and after a moment, everyone acceded. "I have served the batarian people since I was a young man. First, in SIU, before I understood what SIU truly was at the time: an instrument of repression. I rebelled against it. I worked against the Hegemony, both as a freedom-fighter—some would say, a criminal—and then, as a spy. Some have said, as a traitor. But I tell you now, as I have always said before, and as I will maintain unto my deathbed, that everything I have done, I have done for love of my people. And with twenty-three years of my life—the entirety of the lives of my daughter, Nexia, and my son, Helek—spent in your service, it is time for me to step down. To allow others to lead. I have done my best to leave you with a world that is no longer at war, though the reconstruction from it remains, in many places. To leave you with a world that now has a place on the galactic Council—our new councilor was appointed this morning, in fact, and will fly to Bastion later in the week, to take her seat there, alongside all the other species of that assemblage. To leave you in a better place, than when I came to take this office." His voice was hoarse with emotion. "For all of your assistance through the years, I give thanks. I give special thanks today, to several people, who have, through their unfailing generosity of spirit, allowed me to do the work I have done. First, and foremost, is my wife, Nala. Whose healing hands have not only sewn me back together again from time to time, but whose patience, kindness, and understanding is beyond that of anyone else I have ever known. The second, is Tul'dur, who, alas, died three years ago. Saving my life from an assassin's bullet. I wish he could be here today, to know that the first stage of our long journey is complete." Valak paused, taking a deep breath, to steady himself. "And the last is my good friend, Alisav K'sar, who has spent every day of the last twenty-three years just as deep in the issues of rooting out corruption, rebuilding our systems of governance, and tracking down the last, horrific shards of the old Hegemony, as I have. He's seen as little of his family, as I have seen of mine. Something that I think we both intend to rectify." He looked over to the box seats, where Nala sat, with Nexia and Helek, and where Alisav sat, with his human wife, his two adopted human children, and their two hybrid children. "As for any I have offended in my years of service, either by action or by word, I ask your forgiveness. It is not possible, in the course of such a long work, to have spoken every word perfectly. And I apologize, earnestly, for any hurt I have caused."
His resignation, at the age of fifty-three, sent shockwaves, yet again, through batarian space. No batarian ruler had ever willingly abdicated before this. A few had been forced to, by their failing health. Not a few had been assassinated. But not one had ever willingly walked away from power while in the full possession of both health and their faculties.
The power struggle that broke out in the assembly was mitigated by two factors. First, every single caste was now represented in that legislative body. Every single colony had representatives, as well. By law, a two-thirds majority was required to elect a new Minister. Slightly better than fifty percent was not a mandate to rule, in Valak's precisely-worded constitution for the Allied Batarian Territories. A two-thirds majority ensured that the candidate who became Minister had to be capable of compromise, and could address issues of concern to many different people. And could be ousted from office within two years, if, again, a two-thirds majority voted to be rid of him or her, in referendum.
It wasn't direct democracy, but it was about what the batarians, as a whole, could handle for right now. Valak's constitution called for the phasing in of direct elections within a hundred years, however.
The other thing that kept the worst of the power struggles to a decorous minimum, however, was the simple fact that the man who'd held the office that newcomers now wished to occupy? Had walked away from it. It lacked a certain. . . dignity. . . to roll around in the mud, gouging at one another's eyes, when a man of such personal gravitas and with such a reputation had simply given up what he could have held onto, for life, if he'd so chosen.
Four months after that, in October, more shockwaves rolled out, but this time, throughout the whole of Council space, as Commander Lilitu Shepard announced her retirement as the head of the Spectres. "When I was first appointed a Spectre, in 2183," she said, as she stood before the Council, back straight, and her hands behind her back, as always, "I was twenty-six years old, and the galaxy was a far different place than it is today. In that year, I first gained knowledge of the Reapers, through the Prothean Conduit, and knowledge of the Prothean language. There were those who doubted the Reaper threat. The Reapers, through their agents, the Collectors, tried to silence me." She paused, eliding, without comment, the eighteen months in which she had been, in a very real sense, dead. "They failed. When I returned, the galaxy hadn't changed much. Still the same problems of disbelief. Apathy. Unwillingness to trust one another, to reach out to each other, to work together. Until the Reapers did come, and we stood together, because we knew, that if we didn't, we'd all fall separately." She lifted her head, meeting the eyes of every councilor at the table. "In the thirty-seven years I've been a Spectre, the galaxy has changed. And I know it's for the better. As I take my leave, we are, for the moment, at peace once more. The human-turian alliance has come to full fruition, and our alliances with the geth, the rachni, the volus, and the quarians ensure that this is more than just a joining of military muscle. I see syncretism, on almost every level, becoming the norm in this galaxy, rather than the disparate and conscious separation that was the norm before." She looked around. "I will be stepping back to an advisory role, as will Garrus Vakarian, to ensure a smooth transition of power to the individuals we are recommending as our replacements, pending Council approval. This will give me the time to do things I have long wished to do. Write my memoirs. Spend time with my grandchildren." A very faint smile touched her lips. "While my children have never thrown it in my face, to me, it feels as if I turned around one day, and I realized they were adults. I try not to make the same mistake twice."
Unspoken were the words that lay behind her speech: I spent the last thirty-seven years carrying the galaxy on my shoulders. Now, it's time to rest.
After a long moment, the new human councilor, Siona McAllister, who'd replaced Councilor Anderson, when he retired, a few years before, asked, politely, "Whom did you have in mind to replace you?"
Lilitu Shepard glanced behind her, meeting Garrus' eyes. "I'm so glad you asked, councilor," she replied, smoothly. "We're nominating Spectre Sidonis."
Garrus added, "And Spectre Sidonis."
There was a moment of absolute silence. Then, tentatively, the asari councilor raised a finger. "I trust you mean Spectre Lantar Sidonis?" she asked, in a tone filled with a mix of grim resignation and determination at once.
The various Spectres in the audience area of the Council chamber all shifted among themselves. There was at least one actual snort, but how Siege managed to produce that sound, was anyone's guess. As a couple of glances speared the geth, the platform straightened. "Our bad," he apologized. Dances and Sky, both being present, shifted slightly on their chitinous legs, exchanging glances; a bright arpeggio of amusement springing from both rachni. Samiel Viridian, seated beside Dempsey, shook his head slightly. Dempsey, for his part, looked at the male-maiden and commented, dryly, "Exactly how many Sidonises do we have on the payroll now?"
Samiel held up fingers as the human began to count off, not entirely under his breath, "Lantar, Eli, Dara, Caelia—"
"Okay, if you're going to get technical on me. . . then, shit. Kirrahe married Nara. He's salarian. He took her name. He's . . . .Sidmorhe now."
"Not technically a Sidonis," Eli commented, out of the corner of his mouth. "I do keep track, you know. In the job description. I'd be a shitty clan-leader someday if I didn't."
Kaius, off to the left, snorted under his breath, and laced his fingers with Caelia. The Spectres and affiliated in the audience today had all been rather carefully selected. Lantar was there, of course, with Sam and Kasumi. Madison, Kaius, and Dempsey, all non-asari members of the Order of the Wind, were present. Caelia was present, as were Narayana and Kirrahe, who'd turned in their seats to give Dempsey and Samiel amused looks. Rellus Velnaran and Seheve Liakos were present, as well as Zhasa'Maedan, of course, another inductee into the Order of the Wind, who was chuckling under her breath. All people who were present to display, in one fashion or another, the strength of the multi-species Spectres. And absolutely guaranteed to make the asari councilor twitch.
Shepard allowed the badinage behind her to settle down. "No, councilor," she replied, after a moment. "While Garrus and I have relied on Lantar Sidonis as a trusted aide and colleague for thirty years, he and Garrus are the same age. It's time for younger blood to take over. That's the way of things. You learn from your experiences, you pass them on, and then, you make way." She turned, and looked directly at Elijah and Dara Sidonis. "And, with that in mind, there are no two people in the galaxy better-qualified to run the Spectres, than Spectre Elijah Sidonis and Spectre Dara Sidonis. Both of them have twenty-four years of experience as Spectres. Both of them have learned, and both of them have taught." Shepard looked at the councilors, her blue eyes crinkling faintly at the corners. "Let's start with Spectre Elijah Sidonis' qualifications, shall we? He's a decorated former member of the turian military, in CID. He speaks fluent turian, English, asari high-tongue, passable batarian, and enough volus trade-tongue to get through a three-day wedding."
"Never again," Eli muttered, sotto voce. Dara turned her laugh into a cough.
"He's the adopted first-son of a turian citizen, which means he will, in turn, be clan-leader some day. He understands turian culture in a way many humans do not, and never will." Shepard went on, methodically. "He's been affected, permanently, on the mental and genetic level by an asari ardat-yakshi, giving him a fundamental understanding of asari that goes beyond, again, what most humans can manage. He's blood-brothers with two turians and a human. He passed the krogan Rite of Clan Urdnot at age sixteen. He's done undercover work, including an early infiltration of Khar'sharn. He's done police investigations of serial killers and delicate crimes that implicated diplomats. He fought in three theaters of the yahg-batarian war, from Omega to Terra Nova to Astaria, and followed up on Lorek. He's fought in three theaters of the husk war. He's commanded troops in those theaters, and has never left a single person behind." She paused. "He's explored beyond locked relays, and was our best negotiator both in first-contact situations and in hostage crises. There is no one here who can deny that he is half of the best team we could possibly have to lead the Spectres into the future."
The salarian councilor cleared his throat. "With those qualifications, why, then, do you even need a co-leader?"
Eli's wince didn't show on his face. "So not doing this alone," he muttered, under his breath.
Shepard regarded the salarian. "Because this job is bigger than any one person can possibly handle," she told him, dryly. "Garrus has been 'second in command' for decades, but he's effectively been my co-commander for the entirety of my tenure in office, and he's never once asked for the title on his door to be changed. I couldn't have done it without him. Every success I've ever had? I've had, because he's been there to help make it happen. And I'd be a fool to break up a team that's clearly had more success together, than apart." She folded her arms across her chest. "With that said? Let's look at Spectre Dara Sidonis' credentials. She doesn't have the diplomatic talents of Elijah, but he balances her weaknesses with his strengths, and she balances his shortcomings with her own merits. She speaks fluent turian, English, salarian, batarian, and asari, and enough quarian, Spanish, and Japanese to know what not to order from a menu. And of course, she's a bridge between humanity and the rachni, a human rachni queen. She fought in three theaters of the yahg-batarian war, to include Omega, Arvuna, and Astaria, helped free herself and her team from a batarian prison on Lorek, did undercover work on Khar'sharn before the war, and has been deployed to hot zones all through the husk war. She was one of the major motive forces in finding methods by which the husking process could be reversed, in fact."
Shepard looked at the Council, and went on, bluntly, "She's the kind of scientific mind found among humans once in a generation, and when she doesn't know the answer? She damned well finds the right person to ask, and keeps asking. Her mentor, Dr. Mordin Solus, got her involved early in classified projects, from the earliest Lystheni dissections, to the plagues on Bastion, and everything else in between. If she's proven wrong, she accepts it gracefully, as a matter of science correcting itself, but she's never once flinched from controversy, whether in the matter of turian-quarian surrogacy or asari SRY genetics. She's a decorated former member of the turian military, wounded five times before her twenty-first birthday saving other people's lives. She's worked her way to the head of our pathology department, in support of our Investigations division, and done it all while still periodically going into the field to support our teams on the ground. She's blood-sister to the next Imperatrix of the turian Hierarchy, blood-sister to the first new quarian Keelah in three hundred years, and blood-sister to another turian, Serana Pellarian." Shepard paused. "She's been through locked relays, made contact with new species, determined the origins of thresher maws, and she hasn't turned forty-five years old yet."
There was a vast sort of silence in the Council chamber. Shepard cleared her throat, and went on, "Now, I was thirty-six when I took over the Spectres, largely because the Reaper War was on, and we were losing a Spectre a week back then. These two are a little older—"
"They don't look it," Councilor McAllister muttered.
"Longevity treatments. Wonderful medical advances we've had since entering Council space, wouldn't you agree?" Shepard countered, sounding annoyed. "How old they look is meaningless. Consider their accomplishments, in twenty-four years on the job. And then tell me, with a straight face, that they aren't the best leaders for the Spectres. Tell me that, if you can."
It went to a vote. The asari councilor voted against Dara. No surprise there; Dara had angered a lot of asari with her SRY findings. And, in voting against Dara, the asari also voted against Eli, apparently on principle.
The human, turian, quarian, volus, hanar, drell, batarian, krogan, elcor, geth, Keeper, and salarian delegates all voted for them. Without abstention, their candidacy passed, 12:1.
"How's it feel to be the boss?" Dempsey asked them at the reception afterwards.
"Scary," Dara replied, bluntly. "I'm trusting that Garrus and Shepard won't take off the training wheels immediately."
Sam chuckled at his daughter. "We're not planning on disappearing on you right off the bat. There'll be a transition period. And then, you know. . . really long hunting trips. Lots of time with the grandkids. . . before they all head to college, anyway. I might even open a restaurant in Odessa or something. Stuff to keep the mind active."
"Dad, you'd be bored to death running a restaurant."
"Oh, who says I'd run it? I'd just own it." Sam grinned at her, cheerfully. "Get cooks and a business manager for the actually running part."
"We're thinking Japanese-barbecue fusion," Kasumi offered, brightly. "How does that sound?"
"Inedible," Eli replied, dryly. "And god knows, there's not much I won't eat."
Sam hugged Dara tightly. "So damned proud of you, sweetie." He gave Eli a look, even as he exchanged a wrist-clasp with Lantar. "Proud of both of you, really."
Dara hugged her father in return, but looked around the room, not with joy or pride, but with a creeping sensation of dread. Her father was sixty-nine now, three years older than Shepard herself. Past "first retirement" age, and into "second career" phase, as humans had learned to count the years since the advent of the longevity treatment. Narayana, however, was twenty-nine, or. . . in purely human terms. . . almost sixty. Kirrahe, five years her senior?
Was walking around the reception, one arm around Nara's shoulders, and leaning on a cane. He was thirty-four, or sixty-eight, by human terms. Either half her father's age, or a year under it, in real terms. But while her father looked and acted the part of a hale and hearty middle-aged human male, Kirrahe's skin had taken on the faintly parchment-like translucency of salarian old age, without the slick glossiness of good health in that amphibious species.
It hurt to see. God, Dara wondered, her heart wrenching inside of her, is this how my life is going to be spent? Burying friends and family?
We can hope not, sai'kaea, Eli told her, instantly.
The transition took time. But their first day back on Mindoir, feeling. . . .terribly out of place in their new offices in the main villa at the center of the base, Eli and Dara were briefed in on something they hadn't even known existed. Joy had been told, in no uncertain terms, not to tell them about it, apparently, and had actually managed to keep it a secret from her parents. . . certainly something that no other rachni queen could have managed.
"The. . . Excalibur Project?" Dara said, after a moment, in the conference room where she sat with Eli, Lantar, Sam, Kasumi, Shepard, and Garrus. "Not one of our usual code-name types." She paused. "Wait a minute. I remember something about this." She looked at Eli. "When Garrus and Lilitu were talking to us about something at our wedding?"
Eli blinked, and they both brought the memory up at the same time. "Yeah. You guys mentioned this. And said we'd. . . .made it possible?" He stared at the others, who were all smiling, but only faintly. "So what is this thing?"
"Put simply," Shepard replied, "it's an insurance plan."
"So that, on the off chance, if destroying the Reaper Node, and with it, all the Reapers affiliated with it, didn't actually destroy all of them . . . knowledge of them won't die out. It'll be preserved for the next cycle." Garrus' voice was a dry rasp.
Dara raised her eyebrows. "So, what is it? A time capsule? Like the Conduit?" She eyed the others. "In fifty thousand years, whatever galactic culture there is—and assuming our current one doesn't suffer some kind of monumental collapse in the meantime is. . . "
". . . kind of contrary to history, as Lin would probably tell us," Eli noted, dryly.
"Yeah," Dara said, nodding. "The chances of them speaking any language that we do today, in any form? Minimal. And putting knowledge of the language and the technology directly into someone's head, when you don't know their physiology, through a machine?" She nodded in Shepard's direction. "Didn't work so well for the Protheans."
"Well, it worked out okay," Shepard replied, chuckling. "Once I got past the blinding headaches, anyway. I often wonder what they'd think if one of them woke up today, and saw that we'd done what they couldn't do, in their own time. And that we did it our way, and on our own terms." She considered it for a moment. "Possibly, they might even be annoyed that the species they used to experiment on, like rats, outdid them. But then again, they might feel what any parent feels, when they're outdone by their own child."
"Proud," Dara and Eli said, at the same moment, thinking of Teagan, who was getting ready to head to the Academy next year, and of Lantus, as well.
Sam and Lantar nodded, smiling. "That's the bunny," Sam told them.
Dara smiled a little, and turned back to Shepard. "So that's it? It's a message in a bottle?"
"Not quite," Shepard said. "You see, we considered a number of different methods, and we'll probably seed a few messages here and there, in locations that the Reapers are unlikely to look, but that younger species might, later. Planets with incipient biospheres, for example, but no technology."
"I like to call that one the Monolith method," Sam said, dryly. "We leave a big goddamn piece of technology with an inscrutable message for whatever critter's crawled up out of the water for just around when they first figure out tools and fire."
Dara and Eli both snorted. "Okay," Eli said. "What else?"
"Well," Shepard said, slowly, "Then there's the actual Excalibur project. You both know about the simulation device, the Sower artifact that the mini-Reaper was perched atop of when we found it. You've both been subjected to it a few times. There's another artifact—the upload device. That's how Jeff and EDI both wound up in the mini-Reaper."
Eli snapped his fingers. "Given the fact that the mini-Reaper is still around after, what, a billion years in storage? Jeff and EDI should be good for at least one more cycle. They'll be there to give the message."
Lantar's mandibles twitched. "Smart, but not the whole story," he said. "You're on the right track, though."
Shepard nodded. "You two actually gave us more of the pieces we needed with that Collector ship you recovered on Bothros twenty-three years ago."
Dara blinked once. Twice. "Excalibur," she said, slowly. "The sword of Arthur. In some versions, pulled from the stone, in some versions, given by the Lady of the Lake. . . but in every version of the tale, it's thrown into the lake when Arthur's dying, so that he can make the crossing to Avalon." She stared, her heart starting to thud in her chest. "So that he can sleep until he's needed again."
Shepard nodded. "Yes."
"The cryo-pods," Eli said, sitting bolt upright at the table, as if electrified.
"Correct," Sam said. "But not just those. Redundancies upon redundancies."
"But, those will take power," Eli objected. "Isn't there evidence that the Reapers found and destroyed collections of Prothean cryo-pods on a variety of worlds?"
"The rachni are assisting with that," Shepard answered, smiling faintly. "We have evidence, from the fact that once the Raloi destroyed their satellites, the Reapers by-passed their home world entirely, and even by-passed the yahg home world of Parnack, that the Reapers have relied on certain emission signatures as their criteria for 'too advanced to live.' We also asked the Keepers to go back through a million years of their memories, and they were able to confirm it: it's not even harnessing the atom that's the kicker. It's using the relays. Using mass effect technology, and using eezo-generated power. We needed something clean and stable, something that's likely to last for fifty thousand years."
"Geothermal," Dara said, suddenly, picturing the shafts in the earth that the rachni had been tunneling out for decades now below the base. Into the area under the forests, the mountains, the deserts. Wider and wider, as the size of the xenobiological research zone grew, year by year. "And for as long as the rachni exist as a species. . . memory-song will remain." Her eyes went wide. "They have memories from twenty thousand years ago, since before they learned to sing into the crystals. As long as they remember, they can tend the geothermal shafts and the equipment."
"Correct," Shepard told her. "Next redundancy: we've told the geth about the project. They agree that there need to be safeguards in case the Old Machines return. They question whether individuals will be enough, and they're correct. It can't just be one or two people. I've been the lone voice crying out 'The Reapers are coming!' before. It almost didn't work."
Eli rubbed at his face. "So you're going to ask people to volunteer to go to sleep. . . basically, for all intents and purposes, die, because there's no actual guarantee that they'll wake up again. . . leave behind their families and friends and everything they know. . . to become time travelers, in a sense. To wake up in fifty thousand years, to a galaxy that'll look nothing like what they can imagine, and make sure that the Reapers don't return." He exhaled. "And if the Reapers don't return? What do you do, leave them a note that says 'Sorry about that, but thank you for your sacrifice?'"
"There's a little more to it than that," Garrus said, after a pause. "Let's go back to the upload device."
Shepard nodded, her expression taut now. "We planned on all this before we had access to the cryo-pods," she said. "The cryo-pods are just a backup. A redundancy."
"Oh god," Dara said, before she thought, the entire crazy plan crystallizing in her head in one blinding flash. "You're going to have people upload to the device. Like Watches-the-Gates-of-Ruin did. Because the device can either remove someone's consciousness from their body, or just upload a copy. So you store the body, with the original consciousness, in cryo-stasis. . . . "
Eli, picking up on her thoughts, seamlessly, went on, his voice both horrified and intrigued at the same time, ". . . and you keep a second copy in a device that's managed to survive a billion years so far anyway. Two messages. And you hope like hell that at the other end of time, you either have a body to go back into, or the geth are around to provide an android-type body with some interface adapters, because Dempsey and Joker might not be around to be a damned conduit the next time. . . well, all right, Joker will be." Eli shook his head, clearly rattled.
Dara's mind had already raced ahead. "Wait," she muttered. "Hah. It might even work like Mercuria."
"Huh?" Eli turned and looked at her. "What do you mean, sai'kaea?"
Mercuria had developed, over the years, algorithms that allowed her to occupy both of her platforms at the same time, continuously sending wireless signals between them, constantly updating databases, so that they were one contiguous consciousness in two bodies. She had also snapped her obedience ligatures in the simulation device, in the course of her Spectre trials. And remained unbound, to this day. "We know, from Ruin," Dara said, looking around the room carefully, "that if the device puts the same consciousness in two different bodies, and they go have two different sets of experiences, it can isolate the consciousness it put in Body A, from the original host, remove it without harm, and re-integrate it with the same consciousness in Body B. No gaps. No divisions. Just two perfectly whole sets of memory for the same time period. Both equally valid."
Eli blinked rapidly, trying to apply it to the current scenario. Shepard shook her head in amusement. "You two get the ramifications about ten times faster than anyone else. Yes. The geth have purpose-built a biotics-capable platform. They've given him the designation of Medium. Who says that geth don't have a sense of humor?"
There was a slight pause. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Eli finally said. "You upload a copy and freeze the body, but the copy that's in the upload device can come out through. . . .Medium. . . and talk to us? We're going to be holding séances?"
Shepard looked up at the ceiling. "Well, when you put it that way. . . it does sound. . . a lot like magic. But, as they say, any technology sufficiently advanced. . . ."
Dara rubbed at her eyes. "Okay," she allowed. "That's. . . well, it takes a little of the sting out of it. The volunteers aren't totally leaving their families behind. I mean. . . " She sighed. "Those of them whose families will be briefed in on this. Which I can't imagine many of them will be. Because then, my god, everyone would want to be a part of it." No one wants to be left behind. Just look at how hard Serana fought to catch up with all of us, and she was only three, four years behind us. Not separated by the black wall of eternity. She swallowed, hard, and looked around the room again. "My god," she said, feeling the real weight of it hit her. "How do you decide who goes?"
"Well," Shepard said, dryly, "quite a lot of that is going to be up to the two of you."
Eli's head snapped back. "Oh f. . . . hell no. We're not qualified to decide who lives and who dies."
"Or who 'dies' early and who dies for real," Dara corrected, her tone horrified.
"You're going to be deciding that on every mission you send people on anyway," Shepard told them, bluntly. "Or at least, making your best assessment of who's the best fit for which extremely dangerous mission. I wouldn't have appointed the two of you if you weren't qualified to make exactly this kind of decision."
Dara and Eli exchanged a single glance, words flowing between them at the speed of thought: Probably too late to tell the Council no?
We could try running. Find a nice quiet planet out past the locked relays and never come home again.
Don't tempt me, ciea'teilu. Dara's stomach churned. "All right," she said, after a long moment. "Let's. . . talk about . . . criteria."
"No, Eli, if we have to do this, there have to be criteria for picking people. They can't just be. . . people we love." She swallowed, feeling her eyes burn. "Though there aren't many people in the Spectres now that we don't love, in some form or another."
Shepard nodded. "And that's the way I've designed the system. On purpose. Everyone here is willing to sacrifice themselves. But no one is expendable. Everyone has value."
Even to the smallest worker, Dara thought, as Zappa II crawled up on her shoulder, chittering at her as he tugged carefully on her hair, pulling a strand loose that had caught on a button. Zappa II had earned his name by using the I pronoun, just as his predecessor had. More and more workers in the Mindoir hive were starting to be able to do that, she'd noticed. They usually avoided the personal pronoun entirely, mostly said we, but occasionally said I to specify their own individual ideas.
Her father offered now, quietly, "We've floated a lot of different criteria over the years, Dara. One of them that I've always been fond of is 'offers a clear and distinct perspective, compared to all others of their era.' Because we don't expect this to end after one generation of people who remember the Reapers goes to sleep. We want the brightest and best from all of history. So . . . people who offer something historically important or unique. And have been Spectres, or affiliated with Spectres."
Dara cleared her throat, which was tight, and offered, "All right, given that? I think that the people we, um. . . invite to join the project. . . . should be people with rachni names." She lifted a hand to stop anyone from protesting. . . not that anyone did. "I actually have a rationale for that."
"Do tell," Garrus said, leaning back in his chair, his mandibles flexing.
Dara exhaled. "The rachni are . . . if not as neutral of observers as the Keepers, because they do love, and bond freely with, people of other species. . . at least some of the best judges of character in the entire galaxy. If they say someone's a gray voice, they're generally right. It's not meant to be offensive. It just means that that person doesn't have a strong identity, a strong sense of purpose. A powerful song and mind. If someone's got a name-song? That generally means, for a rachni, that they've. . . accomplished something. They stand out in some way." Dara's stomach roiled again.
Shepard reached over and put a hand on Dara's shoulder. "If it helps? We already have a list of potential candidates and some criteria. Historic value is one of the criteria. If they've already shifted the course of whole planets in their orbit? Their names might even be remembered in fifty thousand years, by more people than just the geth and the rachni and the Keepers. It might have the weight of mythology for their people. . . assuming their people still exist. . . but . . . "
"We're forming the Knights of the Round Table here," Sam said, dryly. "Some of us are a little more Bedewyr than Gawain, but we're doing our best." He shrugged. "I don't even know who's on the short list. Garrus and Lilitu have been playing that one pretty close to their vests."
Kasumi cleared her throat. "Also," she said, quietly, "Keep in mind that there will be people who'll turn it down, you know." She looked into the mid-distance, her expression sad. "Mordin did."
Dara's heart squeezed. Hard. "Dr. Solus said no?"
Shepard nodded, her lips turning down. "He said, that for him. . . it was time for the Wheel to turn. And that's everyone's right. He didn't want to live with the guilt anymore. Although part of him was, I think. . . excited. Intrigued. Part of him wanted to know how it all turned out. But he was tired, too." She sighed. "Which is another reason I want one of the criteria to be 'people are still young enough, that with acceptable medical advances in the future, they can live unaided and feel as if they're of use."
Lantar cleared his throat. "For my part? I don't know whose names are on the list any more than Sam does. But just for the record. . . I want no part of any future that doesn't have Ellie in it."
The words limped out into deadly silence. Dara could feel a stab of anguish from her husband, as he felt as if Lantar had just condemned both of his parents to death with a single sentence. "Dad. . . " Eli said, the word trailing off helplessly.
"It's the truth," Lantar said, simply. "She gave me my life back. What use it is, without her there to share it with?"
Shepard raised a hand. "It doesn't have to be decided today," she said, "but yes. There are going to be people who won't want to stay, if the person with whom they share their life with, doesn't go with them. There will be people, who having lost that person already, may feel they have no reason to live—you hear this from the elderly all the time. Most hurtfully, they often say it to their children."
Lantar's head snapped up, his eyes widening in shock, and a flash of guilt there as he looked at Elijah. "That wasn't what I meant," he said, quickly, and this time, Shepard held up a finger at him, to shush him, and he fell silent.
She looked at Dara and Eli. "So you see why we've taken, oh, twenty-five, twenty-six years to really consider this project. Because yes. On the one hand, we're determining who's going to live. . . at a much later date in the future. . . and who isn't 'worth' preserving. . . which is a hell of a thing to tell someone. Which is, er, pretty much why we're not telling people who won't be preserved. And on the other hand, we're more or less condemning whole families to the idea that their loved one won't be there anymore. We're effectively killing them, as far as their families will be concerned."
"Not. . . quite," Dara managed, through a throat tight with the threat of tears. "Some of them will be able to talk to their moms, dads, brothers, sisters, children. Which is. . . more than most people have had."
"There will also," Garrus pointed out, dryly, "be a brain drain every time a wave of people goes into the project. We recommend not everyone going in the same year. Makes it hard on those left behind, if there's no. . . transition period."
Dara put her face down in her hands, and just stared at the darkness behind her fingers for a long moment. "This is. . . kind of a lot to assimilate," Eli told the others. "Can we take five here, before we, er. . . find out what other surprise agenda items you have for us?"
They took their time with the decisions. They had to. In 2221, their daughter, Teagan, entered the Alliance Academy as pre-med; she'd have a minimum of eight years of schooling ahead of her. And in 2221? Sisu, the hermaphrodite ardat-yakshi adopted son of Ylara Alir, turned thirty-six. The boy had opted for a surgical procedure to remove his female organs in his early thirties, to prevent himself from developing breasts and other secondary sexual characteristics, because he felt more male. He patterned his behavior after both Samiel Viridian and his elcor step-father, Tulluust. He'd been trained in the Wind that Bends the Reeds from the age of ten, and as such, he had a remarkable amount of intensity and discipline, but also an almost elcor sense of gravity about him. He was calm, almost frighteningly so, and damned near unshakeable. And he informed his various guardians that he wanted to join the growing Ardati movement in Sisterhood space. To speak out, in public, about what it was like to grow up ardat. To fight for the right to be ardat.
The thing that caught at Dara's heartstrings. . . was that this young, earnest asari?
Had been in kindergarten with Narayana. Who was now the equivalent of sixty-two. Kirrahe? Almost the equivalent of seventy-two.
"It's time," Dara told the people in their meeting room. "We can't wait any longer before time takes the decision about Narayana and Kirrahe away from us." She looked around at Shepard and Garrus, Lantar, Sam, Kasumi, and Eli. "You all said that the criteria had to be historical significance. Well, on that note, Narayana and Kirrahe have founded an entirely new salarian clan. Narayana's writings on sexuality and socialization may, long-term, change the entirety of salarian society. Her work on hybridization? Builds on her father's, sure, but carries it far beyond where Dr. Solus could have foreseen." Dara exhaled. "Kirrahe's creation of an AI virus? One of the most fascinating technical feats of the past thirty years. He might not get in solely on his own merit. . . ." She had to admit it. Had to put it out there for discussion.
"But I think it's a fair bet that neither of them would go without the other," Eli added, dryly. "Rachni-wise. . . .well, Kirrahe's been Sings-too-Swiftly for decades. Nara's, what?"
"Puzzle-Singer," Dara replied, without hesitation.
"I don't want to lose a second Mordin in the same lifetime," Shepard admitted, after a long pause. "The first one was bad enough."
Narayana and Kirrahe, when approached, were actually. . . intrigued, more than anything. They processed it quickly. They were, after all, salarians. "I do want to see how it all turns out," Nara admitted, softly. "That's one of the most frustrating things. There's a sense of being part of . . . the galaxy's story. And it keeps sweeping on, whether we're there or not."
Kirrahe studied them both. "Odd," he finally assessed. "Odd, to see you both unchanged, and here I am. . . very close to the end of my life. . . "
"Don't say that," Narayana pleaded, reaching out to take his hand in hers. Very gently, respecting the fragility of his skin and bones. "I haven't had you in my life nearly long enough."
Kirrahe coughed into his other hand, then looked up. "Would welcome a chance. . . to be better. To wake up, free of pain. Useful again."
"You haven't exactly been useless," Eli chided, quietly, from where they were sitting in the salarians' living room. "You've been teaching. Programming. Decrypting transmissions from the areas beyond the locked relays. Helping us find more likely worlds out there, where other life might exist. It's not like you've ever retired, Orlan."
"Yes. Understand. But. . .human poem. 'They also serve, who only stand and wait?' Not very comforting. To those of us. . . . who wait." Kirrahe nodded to himself. "Would rather take the chance. Go now. On my own terms." He freed his hand from Narayana's, and lightly brushed her face with the back of his fingers. "You shouldn't go yet, Narayana. Still young. Still have much to do—"
"I'm not staying without you," she told him, almost fiercely. "Our grandchildren are already grown. What's left? See what the great-grandchildren are like? If something important happens, I can be woken up—can't I?" she looked at Dara and Eli.
Dara grimaced. "We're going to try to limit the number of ghostly visitations from the past. Limits rumors among species that don't have a collective consciousness." Her lips tightened. "If it's a matter of 'the end of civilization,' then yes. . . our successors can wake whomever they need to resolve the crisis. . . if anyone. Most of our skills will be out of date whenever we wake up."
"But not who we are," Narayana noted. "Not our capacity for learning. For synthesizing. For understanding."
"That's Shepard's hope," Eli acknowledged.
Nara looked at Kirrahe. "I'm going with you. And that is final." She made a noise in his direction, almost a turian chuff, when he looked apt to object. "Orlan, my dearest, oldest friend. . . don't make me use the rude voice on you."
Kirrahe Orlan laughed.
And so, a month later, both of them said farewell to their oldest brood of children, all the Sidmorhes and Sidonis Kiran; many of them were doctors and engineers. "We can't tell you the details, but we're going away on a very long-term mission," Narayana told them all, calmly. "We do not expect to return. But I want you to know. . . that I love each and every one of you. That I'm proud of all of you. And that I expect you all to do well in our absence."
"That you will continue to take the galaxy by the scruff of its neck, and continue to demand Why?of it, at every turn," Kirrahe added.
Salarians didn't really cry. But fifty sets of eyes were surprisingly dull and lackluster as they left their parents' home for the last time.
The upload procedure went. . . unspectacularly. They had to download both of them into Medium, the tall, spindly, but surprisingly well-armed geth biotic platform in charge of what was going to become a vast mausoleum under Painted Rocks Cave, and had them converse with their original copies, in their bodies. Narayana took this much better than anyone had really expected. "It's just like having Yana back," she said, cheerfully. "Only she's not quite such a little girl."
Then she and Kirrahe lay down; they'd insisted on sharing a pod. If an accident happened, a power glitch, they'd both go out like candles. But they'd be together, was Narayana's contention. "I will not wake up and look over, to find the pod next to mine empty, filled with dust, or a corpse," she said, grimly, in her rather rusty voice.
Lantar and Ellie Sidonis were there, in the vast cavern situated another eighty feet below the simulation room. Ellie's eyes were damp, and she sniffled, rubbing the tears away with the edges of her sleeves. "I remember the first time your father called me, to ask me what he should do with you, because he couldn't get any work done with you underfoot," Ellie said, her tone filled with aching regret. "He had so many questions for me after that. And then, eventually, you came to live with us." She sniffled again. "I always knew this day would come. . . I just didn't expect it so soon."
Narayana patted her step-mother's arm. "No one ever expects it to happen as soon as it does," she said. "Who knows, Ellie? Maybe this isn't goodbye. And, in truth, this is just. . . going to sleep." She paused. "I'm going to make up for all those nights where all I got was a half hour." More seriously, she looked around at everyone. "Good-bye. We will see you. . . when we wake up."
Time began to pass in earnest now. Takeshi had finished his doctoral dissertation on robotics on Earth, and he and Emily had moved to Japan, where they were employed, designing new android-type bodies in conjunction with geth designers there, while Emily continued work on her actual doctoral degree at a Japanese university; she was a little behind, thanks to four years of service in the turian military, but everyone at their firm was impressed by her hands-on experience, if a little confused by her hybrid appearance. Takeshi at least spoke the language fluently, and Emily scrambled to catch up. Four years later, in 2226, when they were thirty-three, they had their first child. . . a red-blooded, three-quarters human, one-quarter turian girl they named Hanako Eleanor, a nod to both Kasumi and Ellie, that. . . and two years later, they had a son, whom they named Deonatus Kennard Jaworski.
Dempsey and Zhasa's human-quarian twins turned eighteen in 2223, and opted to move to Rannoch to continue their education there, at the Rannoch Institute of Technological Advancement. Madison, now forty years old, but not looking a day older than twenty-eight, was frequently mistaken for his father, or his father's older brother. . . . and he and Amara now had their second child.
In asari space, Samara's Reformed Justicars took over the Orthodox Justicars' headquarters and announced themselves as the only legitimate Justicars. The Orthodox Justicars, still powerful, were out of a headquarters building, but still had allies, particularly in the Tears of the Moon. In a bid to end the Ardati movement, they caught Samiel Viridian when he was travelling on the minor asari colony of Lesuss, using a tranquilizer dart shot from a rifle from a thousand yards out, and then picked him up from the hospital where he'd been brought after 'mysteriously collapsing.' They reasoned, that as he had become the public face of the movement, silencing him, or, better yet, convincing him to read statements written by them, renouncing the Ardati policy of resistance to the SRY screenings, and their demands for rights for SRY carriers, would be in their best interests.
In their custody, Samiel awoke in a bunker on a completely different planet. They kept him heavily drugged, and tried to brainwash him over the course of a week. In the end, they brought in a doctor, an expert in 'reconstructive' surgery, and informed the drugged and hazy-minded ardat-yakshi that they would be helping him. They would be making him what he should have been, since birth. All his troublesome urges would go away, and he'd thank them, when clarity returned to his mind.
At a threat to both body and identity, the ardat-yakshi's mind snapped into focus, and with a surge of biotic power that defied the lia'mellea fogging him, overwhelmed the mind of one of the Justicars in the room with him, turning her against her fellows. Caught the minds of the guards in the room, and turned them, too. Reached up, and with bound hands, caught the neck of the doctor, who was advancing with more sedatives in a syringe. . . and for the first time in his life, administered the ardat-yakshi Kiss. He held her in place with his mind, and stabbed directly into her brain with a reave, killing her as she stared, blankly, down at him, one finger compressing the slide of the syringe, so that sedative sprayed uselessly against his skin.
The former Justicars felt that their best bet was now to put him in cryo-storage until they could decide what to do with him; not a few simply wished to execute him on the spot. They never got to finish the decision-making process; a Spectre team with Dances, Dempsey, Siege, Melaani, and Dara arrived on site, after receiving information as to his possible location, and began exfiltration immediately. The rachni couldn't hear or see Samiel anywhere, and Dempsey's reaction, on seeing a friend reduced into a husk in stasis pod, as he'd once been, himself, was one of pure rage. Some of the ex-Justicars escaped, and only one was captured for questioning. The Spectres, at Eli and Dara's direction, had wanted to make it very clear to anyone watching, the old, old message: We protect our own. Do not mess with us.
There were long-term psychological effects to the male ardat-yakshi as a result of his week's incarceration, and the drugs and other persuasive methods used on him. Melaani took him on a brief sabbatical, to try to help get his mind back in order, but then, however, it was back to work. . . on a lighter schedule to allow him to work out the kinks in the mind.
Also in 2224, Kirrahe and Narayana, mourned for by their children, became great-grandparents, several times over. Of their first twenty-five children, half had children of their own in that year, with an average clutch size of two eggs. This was bare population replacement; but it brought their total number of living descendants to one hundred and sixteen.
In 2227, much to Eli and Dara's surprise, their elder set of twins both got married. Teagan had found herself heavily attached to a young biotic officer on Earth, and Lantus, after having dated a turian female for about four years, had actually moved in with a human girl a few years later. Both twins were very conscious of the fact that their DNA was already hybridized, and while they both understood that love was love, and that they could always adopt to have a family of their own. . . no one really knew what the consequences of hybrids of difference species having children would actually be. The law of unintended consequences, as both children had been taught, almost since birth, could have staggering results. Dara, sitting in the audience at her daughter's wedding, put her head on Eli's shoulder, and peered up at him. Where the hell did the time go?
It passes, sai'kea.
Time swept on. The foundations of Urdnot City on Tuchanka were laid in 2229; while Ulluthyr's future seemed to belong on Omega, Clan Urdnot's seemed to be solidly planet-bound. An entire city plan, to include water, sanitation, and roads was surveyed; Siara's pride and joy was the empty plot of land that she sent Dara a picture of, filled with weeds, rusting old equipment, and a few rocks that might have been stonemaws. Future site of Urdnot University, the caption read. "I'll give her credit," Dara told Eli, staring at the image. "She sees the future in a seed of grain. Going to take about fifty years to see the buildings all go up, though."
"Long-term thinking," Eli said, looking over her shoulder at the picture. "It's not just Bastion, Aphras, and Tosal Nym. It's Tuchanka, too. Of course, cleaning up the whole planet is going to be a . . . very long-term goal."
"No more or less so cleaning up Rakhana," Dara said, stretching. "Both planets have ruin and decay of similar vintage, eight hundred to a thousand years. Just hope it doesn't take as long for them to fix it as it took to let them get in that shape."
"Eh, the geth fixed Rannoch inside of three hundred years."
"Yeah, but they're geth," Dara pointed out, dryly. "They don't get tired, bored, or decide that the funds would be better allocated to feeding the homeless." Dara was fifty-four now, Eli six months younger, and still, neither of them looked a day older than twenty-two. Other than the eyes, and their body-language. And while Eli handled the yearly budget arguments with the Council, that and other debates wore on the co-leaders of the Spectres. At the moment, there was no war going on, so they had faced cuts to many departments. "You're going to impact our readiness," Eli had warned the Council, but his words had fallen on deaf ears, for once.
There are things I'd rather not be right about, Dara had told him, at the time, and he'd grimaced and agreed as they reorganized departments. Cut the cross-training that Rel and Seheve's base provided. And gotten on with the job. Shepard, Garrus, Lantar, Sam, and Kasumi were now wholly retired, only popping in once a month to look over cases and such over lunch with the people now handling such matters. Lin and Ylara were now co-heads of Investigations. . . .Dara had a feeling Ylara was going to have that title till the asari died or just plain got tired of the job. . . Serana and Melaani were co-leading Information and Security for the moment. The asari civil war had become a protracted and entrenched cultural revolution. No guns, not for the moment, anyway, but the bitter fury on every asari world was distinctly uncivil. Sisu was arrested no less than ten times in that decade for making speeches at demonstrations on Illium and Luisa; he was the calm and reserved face of the Ardati movement. The peaceful advocate of nonviolent resistance. He organized awareness campaigns. Organized demonstrations—always starting with everyone present sitting down on the steps outside of courthouses, medical centers. Never impeding anyone's business. Never trying to grab doctors or anything like that. Simply making their presence felt. Talking, earnestly, with first-mothers as they brought their children in for testing or for surgery.
And making damned sure that the galactic media were on hand to catch the fact that the young ardat-yakshi wasn't using domination when law enforcement showed up to disperse them. Refusing to leave, but without resisting. Taking a few punches in the face, and permitting himself to be picked up bodily. . . and then flipping over, out of the way, and resuming his seated posture. Refusing to be moved.
It took, at least once, being tranquilized by lia'mellea. On camera. The police had used grenades filled with lia'mellea powder beforehand, to subdue most of the protestors' biotics, a standard tactic, but Sisu's biotics were simply too powerful, and they had to hit him with a stronger dose.
The asari government really didn't like it when the image of Sisu's limp body being dragged into a riot-suppression van hit the galactic newsfeeds, but they couldn't do much about it.
Samiel went in and had a private conversation with the head of the Nos Astra police after that, on the topic of why it was strongly inadvisable to use heavy chemical sedatives on a peaceful demonstration.
It didn't happen again. At least, not there.
As the other face of the Ardati movement, Samiel was also interviewed about Sisu's involvement in these very public venues. "It's his choice to keep his tactics nonviolent. I've tried nonviolence. And, as you and your viewers are aware, Ms. Elders, for my pains, I was kidnapped, tortured, and threatened with gelding. Sisu's is not a choice I find myself able to make, after these experiences." His eyes were hooded on camera. "For the moment, so long as our society's unrest remains more or less civil, I choose not to intervene directly. When that changes, so, too, will my current policy of nonintervention." The underlying message? You take one step over that line of just talking and you get me. I'm the demon that the Justicars had to take down with a long-range rifle because they were too spirits-be-damned terrified to close into traditional range after the last two times they tried to "apprehend the demon." I am the left hand of the Goddess. I am the perfect storm. You so much as touch a tentacle on the head of one of my people, and I will bring entropy to every last one of you.
"When?" Lexine Elders asked, after a moment's pause.
"Yes, when. It's almost a foregone conclusion that this will become worse before it becomes better."
"And how will this reflect on the Spectres as a whole, Spectre Viridian?"
"Ms. Elders, I already resigned from one position in order that my actions would not reflect on the organization. What reasons have I ever given to make you think that I would hesitate to resign my position as a Spectre if necessary to stand with my principles?"
His own involvement in the ardat movement included continuing to rally matriarchs to their cause, forming common causes with matrons who were more flexible than some of their compatriots, continuing to help funnel SRY-positive people to safer planets and stations. And arming and training some of them, to ensure that they would be able to protect themselves, and their loved ones, on the off-chance that actual conflict broke out between say, Astaria and the Sisterhood. Eli and Dara gave him extremely wide latitude on the matter of the SRY positive, more or less along the lines of "Don't start the war, Viridian. But make damned sure that they can protect themselves."
When he wasn't working on that, Samiel, Siege, and Dances were often utilized as a replacement for the old Archangel line of Garrus, Lantar, and Sam Jaworski. When a message absolutely, positively had to be sent, the Unholy Trio was sent to scorch the earth and leave few survivors.
In 2229, Eli and Dara became grandparents, as Teagan gave birth to her first set of twins. "Runs in the family, doesn't it?" Eli said, bouncing one of the babies on his shoulder in the hospital on Mindoir. Teagan had insisted on coming home for the delivery, so that she could hear the rachni's song. Her husband, an fellow biotic who'd served with her on one of the SR-5s, had his head tipped back and his eyes closed, listening to the rachni choruses, with their tiny new and very red young daughter in his arms.
Dara coughed. "We can only say that if Lantus' wife has twins, too."
Eli gave her a wicked grin. "Pretty soon, you're going to tell me you've got a hankering for another set of kids."
Dara laughed at him. "Nothing says we'd have twins again. But no. Not at the moment." They were, after all, fifty-four, for all that they looked twenty-two.
In 2233, all of the SR-4 gunships were decommissioned, after forty years in service, replaced by the SR-6s. Ariston requested to be the lead NCAI attached to the first ship off the assembly line, and clearly relished his new, glistening body; still built on the same curve as the original Normandy, which was now in mothballs at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum on Earth, the SR-6s were still black. But their outer hull was entirely comprised of crystalline rachni materials that absorbed most light, only glittering and refracting from some angles. They had incredibly improved FTL drives, were relay and foldspace capable, and were the most heavily-armed frigates ever designed.
Mercuria, had long since had to resign her commission, as she was a Spectre, but now, Cassandra, on the SR-3 Sollostra, did as well. Both of them had mech platforms, and they'd served long enough to accrue enough credits that they simply bought those platforms directly from the Hierarchy. Cassandra, affiliated with James 'Allen,' came to Mindoir, where she began work with the base scientific community, frequently going with him on missions through the relays.
For Mercuria, however, leaving ship-self behind was. . . very difficult. She had developed unique algorithms that allowed her to be both ship and mech at the same time. She had been two-as-one for close to thirty years, a singular consciousness in two bodies, in the way that geth like Legion and Siege and Cohort were a collective consciousness in a single body. She had often slipped and referred to herself as a we over the years. But she was a Spectre, so she still had a job to do. Still, as she walked off the Clavus for the last time, she stopped and dropped to her knees on the ramp, staring back at. . . herself. "What troubles you?" Siege asked her.
"I don't know if this will make sense," Mercuria replied, slowly. "But this is . . . probably worse than leaving behind a childhood home. This is leaving behind a self. A body. As well as a home. I am leaving certainty for uncertainty. And I do not particularly like it."
"Speaking for those limited, be it by design or by choice, to travel on two legs? It is not so bad."
"That was not my meaning, Siege."
"We know. But we still meant it as an assurance." He offered her a hand up. "We are what we make ourselves, Mercuria."
She regarded him for a long moment, with much of her inherent reticence still intact after so many years. "Then I accept it in the manner intended, and thank you for it."
She accepted his assistance, stood, and walked away from the ship. This time not looking back.
After a year of Spectre missions, she did use some more of her thirty years of Spectre pay to purchase a small cutter, which she began to retrofit herself, on her infrequent shore leaves. The life support systems, for example, didn't need to be state of the art, and, indeed, would, most of the time, be set to the bare minimum needed to ensure the functioning of electronic components. She invested in quantum-grade computer cores, and ran all the wiring herself, using a mix of geth and human-made components. She installed, with worker assistance, a rachni crystal drive, and a navigation suite that would allow a rachni like Dances to. . . well. . . . dance the ship through foldspace. She asked for and received rachni modifications to the hull, similar to what the SR-6s were receiving. And she outfitted the small, fierce craft, with geth-style plasma cannons and the latest and greatest torpedoes from Alliance and Hierarchy R&D.
The only part of the Clavus that she preserved from its destination in a recycling facility was a piece of a bulkhead, which she'd cut out, with a welding torch, and now rested in what would have been the captain's quarters of the cutter, but which now was occupied not with a bed, but with her recharging platform. The bulkhead had the impression of a geth hand in it. She had always cherished the gesture, but had, for decades, never actually known if the CROWD platform had actually understood what the gesture meant. But she knew she'd keep the bulkhead, because it meant something to her.
Now, she asked Siege for a name for the ship, and he suggested, calmly, Towards Distant Shores.
Without remark, Mercuria changed the ship name and registry to precisely that, and made sure that Siege understood he was always welcome aboard. And uploaded a copy of her consciousness to the computer cores with something very much like relief.
By 2240, on Rannoch and elsewhere, it was actually difficult to find a quarian who still used the old environmental suit. When they moved from one planet to another, it was considered a good idea to use the suit for a month or so, before slowly acclimating by using a breather and gloves. This allowed them to challenge their immune systems and make them grow more robust.
New species, some pre-spaceflight, continued to be found out beyond the new relays. The Council, in reflection of its new policies, made a case-by-case determination for first contact. And as such, teachers of all kinds were in hot demand out beyond the edges of Council space. It was a time of new beginnings. New wonders. New experiences. New worlds.
And in 2248, Agnes and Gavius, both pushing a hundred and thirty years of age, passed away, within months of each other. Agnes died first, of congestive heart failure, in the base med bay, attended by her entire family. Sam held one of her hands, and Gavius held the other, while Dara smoothed a brightly-colored quilt over her grandmother's body to keep her warm, in defiance of the usual bland hospital tones and sterile, warm blankets. "I don't really want to go," Agnes told Gavius, between short, panting breaths. "You have got. . . to take care of yourself. . . you hear me? We've. . . had. . . a lot of good years. Lots of laughter. Lots of good arguments. Lots of love." Her voice was a mere thread of sound, barely audible over the hiss of the oxygen and the beeping of the diagnostic equipment. "You take care of my garden. And all the grandkids. And great-grandkids."
Gavius leaned over, and put his forehead against hers. "You go if you have to, Nessa," he told her, quietly. "My spirit will go with yours. Might take a while for the body to follow, though. You wait, though, you hear me, Nessa? You wait for me, and show my spirit where to go."
Dara had to turn away and cover her face, not wanting anyone to see the expression of absolute anguish there. When she looked back, Gavius had leaned away again.
And her grandmother was gone.
They buried her near Painted Rock caves. Gavius sat, numbly, through the human burial rites. Not speaking. Not looking at anyone. Garrus had to help his father stand and move to the graveside, where Gavius slowly dropped a rose on the coffin, and then tilted his head back, in defiance of turian stoicism, to keen. And all around them, reverberating through the rocks and the earth, the rachni keened with him. Grief-song.
When one half of an elderly couple dies, it's actually quite common for the other half to follow, usually within months. They develop, over the years, a mutual symbiosis, one half propping the other up. Pooling their strength. Seeing in one another a reason to live.
Gavius Vakarian died in his sleep two months after the death of his wife. His marriage to Polana, which had given him Garrus, Egidus, and Solanna, had lasted for thirty-five years, ending in her death in 2187, the year of the Reaper war, of cancer. His marriage to Agnes Mielke Jaworski, initiated in 2198, had lasted for fifty. They were survived by four children between them, and almost innumerable grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Garrus, ashen under his scales, picked up all the spirit-statues from his father's spirit-table, and moved them to his own. His father's. His mother's. His grandparents. He offered the one Rel had made for Agnes—who'd laughed and pshawed at it, but had still eagerly run her fingers over it and commented on the fine workmanship—to Sam.
Sam shook his head, his lips tightly compressed, and his eyes glimmering with repressed tears. "No. She belongs with him. They're a matched set."
In 2249, the Imperator Ligorus, at the age of 109, passed away, after a bout of liver disease that proved intractable, and the doctors were unable to cure. He died in Lusciana's arms, his head leaning against her shoulder, but his eyes fixed on Kallixta, Rinus, and Rubixius. He'd been beyond words for several days, but his final words to his beloved fifth-daughter were recorded by history as, "I have always been proud of you, my daughter. Take care of our people. Take care of your mother, too."
Rubixius, now forty-eight, had served his required four years in the military. Not in the front lines, per se, but as a resupply pilot who'd brought materials to the Fleet deep in Hegemony territory during the war. He'd spent the following years working with his father and mother, expanding his understanding of strategy, politics, and diplomacy. He had clear memories of human and hybrid playmates on Mindoir, and the family had, over the years, taken as many vacations on Mindoir as they had on Macedyn and Edessan and Galatana. His education had been different than many other nobles' children; he, Vassaria, and Gavian, had taken courses, taught by their tutors, that had had the same content as that being taught at the base school, and they'd had to compete against the scores of Teagan and Lantus, Derek and Merryn, Halla'Demsi and Jarek'Demsi, Viatrixia, Justus, Brennia, and others. He was probably ready to take over the throne, but he and his parents had long had an understanding; Kallixta would rule for at least twenty years, and give the people a transition period after the extremely long and prosperous reign of Ligorus, and then would step down in Rubixius' favor. This would also give them time to deal with any resistance, anyone who might scream that the right of rulership should descend to Perinus' son, Lexarius, who was seventy-two, and who had never had a child with his wife, or to any of the other children of Ligorus who had been forced to abdicate in Kallixta's favor.
And so, Ligorus was buried in the gardens of the Imperial palace. Not beside the Imperatrix Aglaea, but in a plot of his own choosing, beneath two entwined galae trees. The space beside his grave was reserved for his second Imperatrix, Lusciana, and formal effigies would be provided of both of them, when it came time for her to sleep beside him forever.
Kallixta was crowned Imperatrix in her own right, walking, as custom demanded, alone, other than Rinus, and without armor besides a small antique shield and short spear, the length of the boulevard between the Palace and the Conclave. Security was amazingly tight, and not a few Spectres were on hand to make sure she made the walk safely. Once crowed, she elevated Rinus himself to Consort and co-ruler. He'd never bear the title of Imperator; the distinction was usually made by a ruling Imperatrix, so that everyone in the Hierarchy would understand whose hand held the reins. They were, however, the first rulers in the history of the Hierarchy who wore clan-paint. And Kallixta's sangua'amila was on hand to congratulate the two of them, along with her mate: the co-commanders of the Spectres looked amazingly young, compared to the middle-aged turian couple. Rinus' family was also on hand to congratulate them, and he clasped wrists with his father, Allardus and his brothers, Rel and Quintus. He accepted embraces from Serana and Polina, and clasped wrists with Linianus, Dempsey, and the others who'd all joined them. "I'm really going to miss working with you all," Rinus told them all, quietly and grimly. "At least up to this point, I could keep up on the intel side. Now. . . probably not."
Rinus was eighty years old. Technically, middle-aged for a turian, he'd kept up on his longevity treatments and was in excellent health. But his eyes were surprisingly old. Rel was now a startlingly young echo of Rinus; they'd once looked almost like twins, and, in many respects, still did. Some of Rinus' scales had faded to gray, particularly in his fringe. "Give it twenty years," Kallixta told him, without moving her lip-plates, and keeping her fixed smile in place. "Then we can damned well retire and go back to doing what we actually like doing. For the first time in. . . thirty years."
None of them said it, but in twenty years, Rinus would be a hundred. Ligorus had only been a hundred and nine when he died. A lot could change in twenty years. Dara's throat closed, and she gave Kallixta a hug, and be damned to the protocol officers whispering instructions at them all. "We'll visit, right?"
"Of course we will," Kallixta said, but there was resignation in her tone. They all knew. . .
. . . it wouldn't be the same at all.
In 2250, with Sam Jaworski now ninety-nine years of age, Garrus Vakarian and Lantar Sidonis ninety-eight, and Lilitu Shepard ninety-six, consensus among the Spectres was reached. "We wanted to stick around long enough," Sam told the younger Spectres, his voice a little hoarse, "that we wouldn't be leaving before our parents. I . . . had to see my mom out, y'know?"
Dara looked down and away, miserably aware, all over again, that she could have had Agnes and Gavius uploaded to the Sower device. But the criteria were specific, and they were that way for a reason. No one knew if there were an upper limit to the number of people who could be stored in the Sower device. Thus. . . the unique. People who had indispensable personal knowledge of the Reapers: Garrus, Shepard, Mordin, if he'd permitted it, Wrex, if he accepted it, down the line, Kasumi, Tali'Zorah, Kal'Reegar. People who'd lived through the Reaper War era, who had indispensable technical knowledge. People who were. . . unique in their era. Firsts. Historically important. Amara and Kaius? Even Caelia? First human-turian hybrids, and all of them Spectres. They were shoo-ins. Narayana had qualified; she was making a difference to salarian culture, shaking up traditions engrained for thousands of years, by daring to question the assumptions that underpinned them.
Samiel Viridian, not that he'd been informed of it yet, was another shoo-in. The ardat-yakshi perfect storm; every single recessive SRY-affiliated trait. Fully male, empathic, domination and reave-capable. And shaking up asari society at every turn. Sisu, in time, might qualify as well. Laessia, the current last-known Master of the Wind? Another automatic qualifier. That knowledge needed to be preserved. Melaani. . . well, it largely depended on what she did in the next few centuries, but her mental gifts had allowed her to start mastering the upper tiers of the Wind that Bends. . . but she didn't pursue the offensive school, so much as one dedicated to allowing her to pass unseen, unnoticed. And it was clearly evident that Viridian was better and more stable with her around.
Rachni? They might all say that they already persisted in memory-song, but while Dara ached to think of it, Sky, though he was the first rachni Spectre, might not qualify. Dances, Glory, and Stone, on the other hand? Did. Each of them had contributed a unique ability to the rachni understanding of biotics, and Dances, on his own, had revolutionized galactic travel, helping to free people from the relays. Then again, she wasn't even sure if a rachni would accept preservation. Something that separated them from the hive. Glory couldn't even hear voices-of-memory anymore. . . . although he might consider being uploaded to Lysandra in a more permanent arrangement.
Geth? Most geth were right out. They ensured their own continuance. Fors? First volus Spectre, who'd changed the way his entire planet measured the worth of an individual. It certainly seemed to her that he qualified, but Dara had actually heard arguments against it. That Fors wasn't important enough. But that Valak, just as a counter-example, was, for having helped initiate the batarian rebellion against the Hegemony and having been, more or less, the George Washington of his people. Overthrowing the caste system, and setting a precedent by resigning from power. Seheve probably should qualify; she'd done everything but nail copies of the Prothean dictionary and the compiled histories of the Keepers to a hanar temple door. She'd gone out searching for Rakhana, to give her people a home world, and had doubled or even tripled the galactic population of drell in so doing. If anyone met the criteria as historic, Seheve did. She even had the knowledge of the Prothean language embedded in her brain.
Chances of her accepting upload?
Dara personally put the odds at less than half a percent.
She was starting to question even the criteria that they'd set up, and it was driving her insane. Why shouldn't people like Lin and Serana qualify? They were just as good as Zhasa, who'd single-handedly convinced her people that their suits were a crutch, and was their first ever Spectre.
Kasumi qualified, for she'd faced the long walk on the suicide mission of the Collector base, and the equally suicidal mission with Shepard, beyond the rim of the galaxy, when they'd gone to the Reaper Node. Shepard had said, flatly, that Sam Jaworski qualified, not just for being Kasumi's loved one, but on his own terms: "We're building a Camelot. I can't picture Camelot without Gawain and Tristan. So yes, Sam and Lantar? You're on the damned short list."
Lantar had opened his mouth to object, and Shepard had cut him off with a raised finger and the words, "Yes, Ellie can go, too. I assume our two current leaders of the Spectres have no objections?" A sidelong look at Dara and Eli.
Dara had cleared her throat. "She's got a rachni name-song," she'd supplied. "And I can't see any of us being anything but less without Kindness-Singer around."
Eli had wrapped an arm around her, in appreciation of her words about his mother, and they'd leaned into one another for a long moment.
Now, in the present, they and the various children and relatives who'd been briefed in on the subject stood in the cold stone chambers far underground that they'd nicknamed the Mausoleum. The walls glittered with crystalline rachni reinforcements, and all had highly-stable, arched ceilings. Barrel vaulting, essentially. "It's a little weird," Shepard admitted, "but I was actually debating what I was going to wear for this. I mean. . . people are going to be wandering past me for millennia. The part of me that said 'wear something comfortable so that you can move when you wake up' was overruled by the part of me that said 'you're not going to command any respect if people see you in a robe and slippers.'" Shepard glanced around. "That was a joke, people."
Jeff Moreau and EDI, both visible as their avatars, were the only ones who laughed. We get it, Commander, Jeff assured her. He'd never left off calling her that, even after she retired. Attending your own funeral is the damnedest thing, though. I recommend everyone does it at least once in their lives.
That got a few watery chuckles from the assembled crowd. Amara, Kaius, Alain, and Elissa were there, but not their children, who'd largely been told that Shepard and Garrus were going on one last, highly-classified mission, far beyond relay space. All four children of Garrus and Shepard were clinging to their parents, even as old as they were now; Kaius and Amara were sixty-two now, and, thanks to the longevity treatments, looked half that. That being said, Amara was now creeping ahead of Madison in terms of her apparent age, and while Madison never said a word about it, Dara knew it had to be on his mind. He wasn't aging, any more than his father was.
Caelia was accepting a couple of last-minute hugs from her father and her mother, Ellie almost frantically clinging to her daughter, tears in her eyes, as she kissed her on the forehead. Ellie's breath was coming in quick, fast pants, and Dara was concerned that the woman might actually break down. She couldn't give Ellie any medication to help her be calm; sedatives might interfere with cryo-sleep. These were Collector pods, not asari-made. And while sedatives hadn't affected Dempsey inside of one like them, years ago, that was Dempsey, not a perfectly normal human. Eli crossed to his mother now, and wrapped his arms around her, tightly. "This feels like I'm going to die," Ellie admitted, her voice very small. "Oh, Eli, I don't want to go."
Eli's face contorted for a moment. It had just been him and his mom, years ago. The one solid and stable piece of his personal universe. And then Lantar had come, and Dara had come, and now he had the kids and the grandkids and all their friends. But this was still his mom, and he didn't want to let her go any more than he wanted to let go of Lantar. "Don't want you to go, either, Mom," he told her, rocking her a little. "But it's okay. We already said good night to Narayana. And when you wake up. . . .you're going to have a lot of company. I promise."
For her part, Dara put her head down on her father's shoulder, and let him hug her, so tightly that she thought her ribs were going to crack. He and Kasumi had, with Lantar and Ellie, called Takeshi and Emily home, and Tacitus and Shiori had been called back to Mindoir, too. One final barbecue. And the explanation of a long mission—no one had understood why Ellie needed to go along, but the bewilderment and confused recriminations had faded as everyone said, over and over again, that it was classified, and it was necessary. And that they all loved their children. And hoped, fervently, to see them again. "Love you, kiddo," Sam whispered in Dara's ear. "You're going to come by and talk with me, right?"
"Gonna be a lot better than talking to Mom's gray box," Dara admitted. "At least you'll have answers." She buried her face in his shoulder, and did her level best not to cry. She kept thinking she'd gotten past the worst of it, but it kept sneaking up and catching her by surprise anyway. "I know, rationally, that this is the right thing to do." She cleared her throat, and felt the tears trickle down her face, anyway. "Doesn't really help."
"When I wake up, you better be there," Sam told her, firmly. "Or there's gonna be hell to pay."
Sam and Kasumi had, half-jokingly, threatened to be 'buried' in their wedding kimonos. Sam had, however, opted for a simple shirt. Denim jeans. And he'd brought his favorite hat with him. "God knows if they're going to have these on the other end of time," he said, "and I'll be damned if I give it up." Kasumi had opted for a dark set of her 'work clothes,' and they were standing beside a single cryo-pod.
"We are not sure if a single pod can handle the body weight of both of you," Medium, the geth caretaker unit, informed them.
"It's going to have to," Sam told him. "If we wake up, we wake up together."
"Same here," Lantar said, pulling Ellie more tightly against him.
Dara could feel the fear, the tension in the air. Garrus and Lilitu exchanged one last, almost desperate embrace, and moved to two separate pods. "I'd. . . much rather go with Garrus," Lilitu Shepard said. "But we can't take that chance. One of us has to be there."
Each of them had already had their consciousness copied to the actual Sower device, and Medium had downloaded the copies into his body and allowed them to talk to themselves to verify that the copy was clean and stable. There was nothing left to do. No goodbyes that needed saying. "I thought," Dara managed now, trying to make her voice light, but failing, "that the whole point was that we weren't supposed to have large exoduses at once. That transitions would be easier if some of you stayed behind."
Eli wrapped an arm around her now, tightly. "Yeah," Garrus said, glumly. "It was a good theory. Then we all realized that we were in our nineties, and that no one's got a guarantee on how long they've got."
Shepard looked at them all, and told them, "The galaxy's in pretty good hands. Take care of it. I love every single one of you." Her eyes moved to Kaius and Amara. "You've made me so damned proud. And to think. . . I almost missed having you." Terrible wonder in her voice. "If Cerberus hadn't brought me back. . . I'd never have been with Garrus. Never have had you. What was my life before that, besides work, and a burning determination not to let what happened to my family, happen to anyone else's?" She bit her lip, and turned. Looked at Garrus. And whispered, "I love you."
Then she stepped into the cryo-pod, and Medium sealed it up. They all watched as the inside glazed over slightly, and the geth checked the settings. "Me next," Garrus said. He looked at his children, and once again, gave each of them a hug or a wrist-clasp. Ran a hand over Kaius' fringe. "Be good," he told them all, gently. "Take good care of the grandchildren. And. . . maybe this isn't goodbye. Maybe it's just good-night."
Then he, too, stepped into his pod. Amara made a muffled sound of anguish as she could no longer hear their minds, or see their auras, and Madison and Kaius both wrapped an arm around her.
Then Lantar and Ellie stepped into their pod, Lantar wrapping his arms around Ellie, and Ellie tucking her head into his shoulder, but turning to look at Eli and Caelia. Dara could feel the violets and grays coming from both siblings, and wrapped her own arms around both of them, as best she could. Letting their songs flood in, letting her own touch theirs. Sharing the grief.
For her part, Dara did her best to maintain eye-contact with her father and Kasumi until the end. It was almost more than she could bear, but they did look . . . peaceful. . . through the window. And she waited until she and Eli were home, and away from everyone else to finally let the scream out from behind her teeth, as she and Eli simply caught ahold of each other, and held on as tightly as they could. Joy joined her voice to theirs, and told them, without words that they weren't alone.
Everything passes everything passes everything passes away. . . .
The best, and sometimes worst, part of being on Mindoir, was that they simply didn't have time to reflect on it. Dwell on it. Wallow in it. They were simply too busy. Dara and Eli made a point, however, of going to the Mausoleum once a week to talk to their parents, at least at first, and to Garrus and Shepard. Keeping the consciousnesses housed in the relic apprised, at any rate, of on-going events. It was more of a help to them, for purposes of holding onto their sanity, than it was to those in the relic. Sam told them, the familiar drawl emanating from the geth's vocal production apparatus, that it was. . . slightly disorienting. "It's like waking up from anesthesia. There's no perception that time's missing. Every time you guys tell me good-bye, I keep thinking the conversation's continuing, but in reality, it's you telling me hello and that a week or a month has passed." He paused, and told them, "This can't be healthy for you. And you guys do need to be making your own decisions, not running everything past the ghosts of Christmas past for approval."
"Hey, I talked to Mom for a couple of years after she died," Dara pointed out. "Difference between this and going to the cemetery to leave flowers is, you talk back." She sighed. "And sometimes, that's all we really need." The sense that we're not alone in all this.
"Yeah," Eli agreed, tiredly. "We're not really looking for approval. But sometimes, it's just nice to have a sounding board. An outside perspective."
The visits gradually decreased. They did visit to tell their elders when they'd all become great-grandparents in 2254. Dara and Eli's first grandchildren, born twenty-five years before, had both had twins. Dara and Eli were themselves now seventy-four, and, on the rare occasions when they granted interviews to the galactic, attributed their generally youthful appearance to the longevity treatment, good genes, and a healthy lifestyle. They refused to answer any questions about the 'last mission' of Shepard, Garrus, Lantar Sidonis, Sam Jaworski, and Kasumi Goto, which sparked rumors that flew around the extranet like wildfire. Suppositions ranged from the idea that all of them had been killed, and that the younger Spectres were concealing this fact to prevent public panic, to conspiracy theories that had all of them as husks, being kept alive by the younger Spectres in some sort of bid to maintain their power. ("Conspiracy theorists don't appear to have strong logic skills," Serana assessed in the meetings on the topic.)
Emily Wong had long since retired, and there was actually an outpouring of grief when the venerable reporter died. She'd covered the Sovereign attacks, the Reaper War, the plagues of Bastion, the Batarian-Yahg war, the Husk War, the slow integration of the drell of Rakhana and the galactic drell, the inclusion of the Aeseti and other new species into Council space. She had been the single most trusted face in galactic news, the reporter who always verified the stories. Always asked tough, but fair questions. Didn't hesitate to put even Commander Shepard on the spot when it was an important issue. Her colleagues spoke of her as a giant, and said, with shaken sincerity, that they were lessened by her loss.
In 2260, during a routine checkup in med bay, doctors found tumors in and around Seheve Liakos' lungs. At first, Kepral's was suspected, but more extensive testing determined that these were not merely alveoli that had been glued together by bacteria and fungus and too much fluid in the lungs, but actual tumors. And they weren't benign. Rel took Seheve, immediately, back to Mindoir, from their base on Aphras, and checked her into med bay there. The Mindoir base's medical facilities were among the best in the galaxy. They had to be, considering how many wild and strange things had been brought back from unmarked planets and from beyond the relays over the years, and the strange medical conditions that marked so many of the Spectres themselves, from hybridization to nanites to heavy cybernetic infiltration. "What can you tell us?" Rel asked, holding Seheve's hand, as Teagan Sidonis peered at the scans of Seheve's body, and shook her head slowly.
"It's aggressive," Teagan informed them both, slowly. "I've managed to eradicate cancers like this before in humans and turians, but I've never tried it before in drell."
Dara was in the room with them, listening. "I don't understand what the problem is," Rel said, clearly feeling helpless, and his agitation rising visibly. "As I understand your abilities, Teagan, all you need is a clear scan. And you can reach in and. . . warp the cells. Rupture them, right?"
Teagan nodded. "Yes. That's precisely what I do. The problem is, humans and turians have different immune systems than drell do. Our bodies have excellent filtration systems for random cell waste that breaks loose. Drell are slightly less efficient. I could break up every tumor in her body. . . but a random cell gets turned loose into the bloodstream and lodges somewhere else? We could be looking at new tumors again, and fairly shortly." Teagan had been practicing her skills for decades now. She was confident, but she also knew the risks. "We might be taking something that's relatively localized, and making it systemic."
Dara cleared her throat. "There are more traditional methods," she offered, quietly. "Highly targeted chemotherapy, tied to the exact DNA of the tumors themselves. Precisely targeted radiation." She sighed. "But the problem with all these treatments is that the underlying cause, the trigger for the tumors, remains untreated. So they have a tendency to recur."
Seheve nodded, slowly. "What have your odds been like, with the humans and turians?" she asked Teagan, directly.
"Better than ninety-five percent non-recurrence in the first year. Drops to eighty percent recurrence at five years," Teagan replied, her rachni blue eyes distant for a moment. "But that's in humans and turians. I haven't had any drell test subjects before. In theory, it should work the same. But I can't guarantee it."
Seheve nodded slowly. "Then let me be your first."
Rel's hand closed on hers, and Dara could see Seheve's knuckles whitening under the scales at the pressure. "Wait," Rel said, sounding strained. "Dara, what are the odds like for conventional treatments?"
"We've got some really good oncologists here who can explain it in better detail, but . . . on average, about ninety-five percent non-recurrence in the first year. Drops to eighty percent non-recurrence at five years. . . so. . . strictly speaking? About the same odds." Dara's face was taut. "But, again, none of us are experts in drell medicine. You'd be better off seeing specialists on Rakhana for this."
Seheve looked around the room. Dara could see subtle signs of age and disease in her old associate. . . hell. Old friend. Thickening in the scales, blunting of the delicate fingertips. A frame which, always slender, now looked gaunt. "Chemotherapy and radiation, no matter how targeted, still carry with them risks and side-effects," Seheve said, after a long moment. "Illness. Degradation of the immune system. Pain. Nausea."
Dara nodded, and flicked a glance at her daughter. "That's correct," Dara told Seheve.
"Then there are benefits to Dr. Sidonis' methods that go beyond providing her with her first drell test subject." Seheve's fingers tightened on Rel's, in return. "While I do not fear pain, I see no reason to seek it out."
"When you put it that way," Rel told her, lowering his head to hers, briefly, "it's very damned difficult to argue with you."
Teagan carefully and slowly eliminated every tumor in Seheve's body, over the course of three weeks of treatments. Measured the number of cancer cells in her bloodstream, and ensured that no clots of the destroyed tissue formed anywhere in the vascular system. Within three months, Seheve was back to normal duty, and credited Teagan for a kind of miracle.
Which made it all the crueler when the cancer came back, three years later. And this time, it was in Seheve's brain, a delicate area in which Teagan refused to work with just raw biotics. The various oncologists on staff attacked the disease with every weapon in the modern medical arsenal. Dara dropped by the oncology ward daily. Played consectora with the invalid. Chuckled at Seheve's vivid recollections from years before. They had, for years, kept up correspondence, becoming better friends at a distance than Dara could ever have imagined when they were younger, but both of them were so innately introverted, that friendship kept up by writing was just so much easier and more natural than something done face-to-face. "I've always sort of envied how well you deal with the memories," Dara told Seheve, getting the drell female a sip of water from a cup, positioning the straw carefully so that she could drink. "I guess it's because it's natural to your species. Memory-song is. . . . very damned strong." Dara winced. The reinforcing exchange of memories between her and Eli solidified their bond. It always had. And they relied on it. But memory-song could be so damned painful, too.
As it was now, watching her friend die.
"Perhaps it looks easy, from the outside," Seheve rasped. "Inside. . . it's simply easiest, not to dwell on the memories. Not to invoke them. But sometimes, they come, of their own accord."
Rel came into the room, Eli behind him. Dara sent Eli a look, and he nodded. "We wanted to talk to you two about something," Eli said, quietly. "It's about the Excalibur Project."
Rel sucked in a breath, and Dara hurt, seeing the hope that blazed in his eyes as he took Seheve's hand once more in his. He'd known, since Garrus and Shepard's 'final mission,' about the Excalibur Project.
Seheve, however, had started to shake her head against the pillow. Faint, almost infinitesimal motions. "Seheve!" Rel said, and his voice was anguished.
"Hear us out," Eli said, taking a seat beside Dara's, and putting on what Dara still thought of as his 'talk the jumper down' voice. The voice that made it so damnably difficult for people to tell him no, when what he presented was perfectly reasonable. "The Project is reserved for people who have historical importance. You qualify."
"If not me. . . someone else. . . would have found Rakhana. . . "
"Not just that," Eli said, holding up a finger, turian-style. "Though you know that's not true. No one else looked for the damned place in eight hundred years. Another eight hundred could have passed, and no drell might have been left by then. And the old lies would have stood, because of it." He paused, his face and eyes stern. "No, what I'm talking about is something else, Seheve. You have an obligation to join the Project. You're one of only two people in existence who had the language of the Protheans imprinted on her brain. And you have a large percentage of the Keepers' memories in your mind, as well." Eli regarded her steadily. "That's all information that can't be lost, Seheve. There's no telling when the Keepers might leave the Citadel, if ever. At the moment, they have one population center, and one that would be easy enough to destroy. An entire civilization could be lost."
"Geth. . . and rachni. . . .took their memories. . . ."
"Yes, but they didn't take the Prothean language from you or Shepard. Sure, there's a dictionary and a grammar of it, but only the two of you speak it. What happens in fifty thousand years if there's a pod malfunction and Shepard's dead?"
Dara winced. Eli was pushing, and hard, but she trusted his judgment, and looked up as Rel looked apt to object, and shook her head at him. His eyes flashed towards her, and he subsided after a moment.
Seheve rallied. "No telling if. . . Prothean technology. . . or knowledge. . . will be relevant. . . "
"No. But I'd rather send backups into our time capsule." Eli stared her down, unblinking. "You're going, Seheve. You're too valuable for us to lose."
The faintest quirk of a smile touched her pale lips. "It is not my decision? You will not permit me to end my existence in my natural course of time? As a matter of my own choice?"
Eli leaned back, exhaling. "Oh, we'll let you make the decision. But we figured it might as well be an informed one, instead of you convincing yourself that you have to die as some final act of penance."
Like Dr. Solus.
And so, Seheve Liakos actually went into the Excalibur Project, much to Dara's surprise and relief, just around the age of ninety. She said her quiet farewells to all those who came to visit her at the hospital, and her children all assumed that she had passed quietly, and after the best efforts by all the doctors on staff. Teagan and Dara both hugged Eli tightly. "Thanks, Dad," Teagan told him, mopping at her face with her sleeve. She wasn't, technically, supposed to know about the EP, but honestly, she was a rachni queen in her own right, and Dara and Joy and she were all very close. Joy was her first-sister and her queen, just as Truth-Singer had been queen, and just as her mom was Spectre-queen now, too. It made keeping some things secret very difficult.
Eli looked down at his daughter. She wasn't showing any more signs of aging than the rest of his family, and he still thought of her as his little girl. Grandchildren to the contrary. The existence of grandchildren was just. . . in contradiction to the facts. "For what, sweetie?"
"Making her see that she's got value. So many patients just. . . give up. And this at least gives us time to figure something else out. It might take decades or it. . . might take till the other side of time." Teagan exhaled. "But at least this is one patient I won't see in the faces of everyone else who asks me to use the biotic treatment on them."
Eli and Dara walked out of the Mausoleum, arm-in-arm, keeping an eye on Rel, who was walking in a kind of a daze. "You going to be okay?" Eli asked Rel, at length.
"Yes. . . . no. I don't know." He looked at them both. "On the one hand. . . it's hope. It's a reason to go on. On the other hand? Spirits. It feels like I just buried her."
Dara exhaled. "I know. You could have gone with her."
Rel shook his head. "No. I'm. . . spirits. I'm still young. The futtari gene mod. I watched her grow old, Dara. I expected to watch her die. And I thought I'd probably take a shotgun and stick it in my mouth after that. This. . . . this is better. This is. . . gravy." The oddly human saying, he'd picked up from Dara, decades before. He closed his eyes in the elevator that took them back up to ground level.
Two years later, in 2265, Solanna Velnaran, at the age of 111, passed away, leaving Allardus alone in the rambling villa where their large, loud, and illustrious family had been raised. The head of the xenobiological project was the same age, himself, as his wife had been, and buried her, with all of their children and grandchildren at his side. Anyone who might have joked, beforehand, that Allardus was going to be relieved when Solanna passed, held their tongues in the face of the tightly-controlled grief in Allardus' eyes. "He doesn't seem to know what to do with himself," Serana told Lin. "My mom wasn't easy to get along with, but they wore grooves into each other over the years. They only really fit each other. And he's been leaning her direction for so many years with the expectation of meeting pressure from the other direction that I don't think he knows how to stand up without having to push back anymore."
As such, Allardus came to dwell in Serana and Lin's house, and lived long enough to see Rinus and Kallixta abdicate the throne in 2270. He attended the coronation of his beloved first grandson, Rubixius, who had spent vacations on Mindoir, learning martial arts from Allardus and his father. Who'd had hybrid playmates as a child.
The Father of Modern Xenobiology passed away in 2271, peacefully, in his sleep, at the age of 117. He left behind a Mindoir that had, in eighty-four years, been transformed. The entire western half of the northern continent had a fully-realized levo-dextro food chain, including flora and fauna down to the microbial level. The lush jungles of the southern continent had similar adaptations spreading. His daughter, Polana, took over the project, after having spent three decades developing the Tosal Nym mixed ecology. Three planets would forever bear the mark of this singular male's ability to envision a goal, and see a project through to completion.
A year later, with their children and grandchildren's futures secured, Rinus and Kallixta came to Dara and Eli. "I'm over a hundred now," Rinus said, rubbing at his mandibles. "The mind hasn't slowed down yet, thank the spirits, but it's just a matter of time."
Kallixta nodded. "And, truth be told. . . I'm having a hard time adapting to being back on base and having. . . absolutely nothing to do," she admitted. "I've taken a few gliders out, just for the joy of flying again. But. . . "
". . . neither of us is good at being useless," Rinus muttered.
"You're not useless," Dara objected, immediately. "Rinus, it's been a godsend having your eyes back in intel. The pure wealth of your experience alone. . . "
"Is out of date," Rinus told her, kindly. "Twenty years of dealing with purely political s'kak and only getting high-level briefings on security matters, and not the real details. Though spirits know, I pushed for details. Often and loudly."
Kallixta looked at her oldest friend, and Dara was simply shaken by how old the turian female suddenly looked. Her scales had lost their luster, and the vivid violet of her eyes was shadowed now. "Mostly, we want something to do, Dara. But. . . we're not much of good for anything anymore." She toyed restlessly with the datapads in front of her. "I can't fly. Rinus is out of the loop on technical stuff anymore. But I don't want to sit in our old house. . . . and rot for the rest of our lives."
"And at the present, our only other option is haunting Rubixius' palace, or being sent on diplomatic missions," Rinus said. "I . . . never signed up for any of this, I'd like to point out." He glanced over at Kallixta, and put out a hand. Cradled hers in his own. "Well, other than the whole marrying you part."
The looks that they traded, yet again, caught at Dara's heart, and she and Eli traded resigned looks. "There's another option," Dara pointed out, quietly. "You two could just. . . .disappear."
"I think the Hierarchy sort of owes you that," Eli said, grimly.
"Believe me, we've been trying to disappear. Hasn't really stopped the requests for our memoirs, or interviews. I wrote up a book in the last year or so. May as well set the record straight on a few things." Rinus grimaced, his mandibles flexing. "Some unauthorized biographies were swimming around. I think I've pulled their teeth."
"No," Dara said, leaning back at her side of the desk that she and Eli shared; they each had a large table in the main villa office, and they faced each other as they worked, across them. "When I say disappear, I actually mean. .. disappear."
"Excalibur," Eli said. "If anyone qualifies, both of you do."
Rinus and Kallixta's mouths dropped open. "I. . . don't know if I'm ready to do that," Rinus said, hesitantly. "I . . . kind of what to see what Rubixius does with the Empire."
"We can give you reports."
"You can give my ghost reports." Rinus sounded mildly appalled.
Kallixta, on the other hand, looked confused. "I can see how Rinus qualifies, but how in the spirits' names do you think that I do?"
Dara looked at the ceiling. "Historic value?" she said, raising her fingers, and counting them off. "Between the two of you, you've completely re-written the course of the Hierarchy. Kallixta, called by the people of her own time, the Unconquered—"
"—only when they're applying lip-plates to my tail—"
"Shush. I'm talking, and there isn't a protocol officer here to beat me up for telling you to shut it right now." Dara still only had one finger up. "If they don't call you Unconquered, it's going to be the Valorous, and you know it. Single-most decorated member of the direct Imperial line in over a thousand years. First pilot to take an SR ship backwards through a relay. First Imperial ace, for god's sake. Half the plan to avert the comet attack that would have wrecked Earth came from your brain, and don't think anyone's forgotten it. First Imperatrix to wear clan-paint. First Imperatrix with a commoner mother. First Imperatrix with a part-stake in AI children. First Imperatrix who's blood-sister to a non-turian." Dara had nine fingers up, and uncoiled the last, adding, "Married to Rinus, who is—"
"Don't say it," Rinus said, glumly.
"Defender of the futarri Empire," Eli stepped in, smoothly, and ignored Rinus' grim stare. "Fought in the Reaper war. Fought in the yahg-batarian war. Fought in the husk war. Defender of Nimines. Defender of AI rights. Father or grandfather of half the damned NCAIs currently in existence. Most ardent champion for the reform of tal'mae and Imperial institutions, and ninety percent of your desired changes have gone through. Co-author of the strategy that saved Earth from the comet attack. Oh, and first commoner Consort ever, too. And you both stepped down from power." Eli looked at them both. "I'm out of fingers. There's a slot open for both of you, if you want to take it."
"Take some time to think about it. Talk to Rubixius and Vassaria and Gavian. But . . . decide quickly. None of us are getting younger." Dara's voice was glum.
"Some of us aren't aging." Kallixta's voice held a trace of envy.
"That's only on the outside, amila. On the inside? I think I'm pushing five hundred." And I think I age a decade every time I have to have this conversation. God damn Garrus and Shepard for leaving all these decisions to us.
Rinus looked at them. "Serious question. What can Kallixta and I really offer to people fifty thousand years from now? Turians of that era might not even look or think like we do today. They might look at us as. . . primitives, at best. Like we'd look at Praetor Vaescor. They're not going to remember us, or any of our accomplishments."
"For as long as the Keepers keep records, and as long as the geth and rachni exist," Eli said, calmly, "you will be. As to what you can offer the future. . . . "
"The truth," Dara said, turning to meet Rinus' eyes. "Just that. It's what you're best at, Sings-Duty."
It took a year to arrange. You couldn't lightly or easily 'disappear' the former rulers of forty billion people. They had to talk to Rubixius about it. They had to talk to the Praetorians. The Praetorians weren't briefed in on the Excalibur Project, but they were told a polite fiction. That Rinus and Kallixta had given over eighty years of their lives to the Hierarchy, and now simply wished to retire in peace and obscurity on Mindoir. Dara, with Serana's advice, and with a lifetime of pathology reports behind her, manufactured the evidence they'd need; she drew blood from both of them as often as was safe, and preserved it. Took tissue samples, and cloned them in the lab.
And late in 2272, an old-style two-seater fighter that Kallixta had checked out for mild aerobatics practice, crashed in a remote region on Mindoir, after having suffered a catastrophic engine failure in the stratosphere. When the Praetorians arrived, they found debris scattered over ten square miles, no one piece larger than a human finger. They did, however, find organic material in the crash zone, which, when tested, had DNA that matched the former rulers of the Hierarchy.
Rubixius called for a Hierarchy-wide week of mourning, and had some of the . . . .bits. . . interred in the Imperial gardens near the palace. He placed their effigies, showing them entwined, facing one another, in an eternal embrace in stone, and placed the burial plot directly beside that of Ligorus and Lusciana. Dara and Eli, Serana and Linianus, Rel, Polina, and Quintus all attended the state funeral, and Dara stared, bleakly, at the coffins as they were lowered into the ground. This wasn't the hard part. The hard part was when people asked them what had become of the wedding knives of Commodus and Venesita, and forcing herself not to snap at them for it. When they asked what had become of the spirit statues. . . and Rel stepped in and answered that one, gently saying that the statues he'd carved of his brother and wife had been returned to Rubixius, and that he understood that they were to be preserved in a nitrogen-filled vault, so that the wood would never decay.
That was hard. What was much, much harder, was saying goodbye to her oldest female friend. And watching as Rinus and Kallixta climbed into the pod they'd share for, if not eternity, an appreciable fraction of it. And they wrapped their arms around each other, looked into each others' eyes. . . . and went to sleep.
"You two okay?" Samiel asked them both, bluntly, as they emerged from the Mausoleum. "You two might not be, strictly speaking, mahai anymore. But you were raised by the short-lived. And you're watching all your friends leave."
"I don't know how many more times I can do this," Dara admitted, back on the surface, in the golden sunshine, staring at the mountains she loved.
"You were raised by the mahai, too," Eli pointed out to Samiel, dryly. "How are you doing with this?"
Samiel looked at them both grimly, and forbore to answer.
The next year, it was Valak and Nala's turn, along with Fors and Chissa. The volus, in particular, posed a technical challenge. Neither of the tiny creatures wanted to run the risk of being decanted from their pods at some point in the future into a low-pressure environment, so they both trundled into their shared pod in their suits. And stood, facing one another, holding each other's tiny paws. "No jokes?" Dempsey asked Fors, his voice a rasp. He clearly hated saying goodbye to his sparring partner of so many years.
"I can't think of a damned one. Except that if you guys forget to pay the power bill, I will personally haunt every last madafutarae one of you." Fors disentangled one paw to point at Eli, Lin, Dempsey, and Zhasa in turn. "I swear it by my ancestors and the gods in the deep. You'll always know it's me, too, because—"
"—we'll smell the methane?"
"You know it."
Valak had, finally, allowed Dara to regenerate his missing eye in his retirement. "K'sar refused?" he said, quietly.
"He says he wants to be buried on Astaria with Maryam, when the time comes," Dara told him. "He said he's served his people, and now it's time to rest."
"Yes. So it is." Valak sighed. "Yours is the most melancholy road of all, my old friends," he said, looking around the room. He caught Rel's gaze, and nodded. "I will see you all again, if the ancestors have mercy." He wrapped his arms around Nala, who was shaking, visibly, and who buried her face in his neck.
And then two more of them were gone. Out like candles.
Everything passes. Everything passes. Everything fucking passes.
It wasn't even a surprise when Lin, now just over a hundred, as they all were, came to Eli and Dara in 2277. "It's probably time that we think about retiring," Lin said. His voice had taken on a gravelly edge in his later years, and he forcibly reminded both Eli and Dara of Lantar some days. Serana was still light-footed and cheerful, a grandmother who let nothing slow her down, but she'd been head of Information for decades now, holding that responsibility with Melaani. "You'll want to start working on my replacement," Lin added.
"I feel like s'kak dumping the work load all on Melaani, but. . . it's time." Serana leaned back in her chair at the dinner table in Eli and Dara's house.
Eli and Dara exchanged a weary glance. "It's your turn," Dara said.
"No, it's not."
"I started the last one."
"What are the two of you talking about?" Serana stared at them both with all of her old, lively curiosity. She was certainly aware of Excalibur, but neither she nor Linianus had ever broached the topic with Eli and Dara.
Eli sighed. "We want you both in the Project," he said, bluntly.
Lin's eyes widened. "We don't meet the requirements," he said, simply. "We haven't changed any world. We're not historic figures. It can't be just. . . a sinecure. Because you like us."
"Fuck that!" Dara's voice had every worker in the house rustling into the room, and she had to turn away to cover her face and force calmness-songs into her being again.
"Who the hell stayed home and minded the shop every damned time the rest of us went out on the big galaxy-changing missions?" Eli asked, his voice shaking. "Who the hell dug up the information that let us find Samiel when the ex-Justicars captured him? Who's had our backs on almost every mission we've ever engaged in? Who went to Khar'sharn to let Valak start his private little war? Who stood with me and Dara on Omega? Your names aren't in the history books because you work behind the scenes, and Serana works in the shadows. But for god's sake, you made everything we've ever done possible."
"And when it comes right down to it," Dara said, still through her fingers, "Shepard took my dad and Lantar because there were people without whom she couldn't fathom facing the future. And the same thing goes for us." Her voice was steady, but tears were leaking from behind her fingers, and she couldn't stop the flow.
It was almost a ritual at this point. They went down to the Mausoleum, and Lin and Serana said their goodbyes. Lin wrapped his arms around Dara, and whispered in her ear, "Remember us smiling, Dara. Please, little one, dear one. Remember the smiles and the laughter." He pressed his forehead to hers, just as Eli brushed Serana's forehead with a kiss.
She looked up at him, and almost dissolved into tears again. " Good-bye, Lin." Our boy with the laughing eyes. Forever and ever. "Good-bye, Serana." You've always tried so hard to keep up with the rest of us, and now, you're going on ahead.
She knew they heard her. They just smiled, wrapped their arms around each other, nestling close.
And then they, too, were gone.
Dempsey came to the house that evening, and found Eli and Dara rocking on the swing on their porch, staring into the distance with a sort of shell-shocked expression. "Look," Dempsey told them, gently, "You two have Joy tied up in knots. I figured it had to be pretty bad if she asked me to come talk to you."
Dara looked up, coming out of her fugue for a moment. "We'll be fine," she said, dully.
"Yeah. Right. You've both got thousand-yard stares going at the moment."
Eli exhaled. "I just buried my brother and the girl we both loved."
"Yeah. I know. We all kinda love each other here. But it's killing the two of you. You two haven't had a vacation in a decade. I want you two to take a year's sabbatical. Zhasa and I can mind the shop here." You need this, guys. Don't even bother to try to lie to me. Joy'll just tell on you if you do. As if I wouldn't know.
They took him at his word, and with only a little token resistance. They spent the year on Earth, in the old Jaworski house, which Dara had, eventually, bought back from the descendants of the Jarmans. If it was haunted, at least they were old ghosts. They spent a lot of time riding horses. Traveling. Having people do double-takes and then, obviously, decide that they couldn't possibly be the Spectre commanders. . . .so long as Dara kept her dark glasses on, anyway. They read books that they hadn't had time for in years. Sat down and wrote their recollections of the various wars and beyond the relays exploration expeditions they'd been on. And memorialized every one of their missing companions in those pages.
It helped. It helped to work through the accumulated pain, and force themselves to realize that it, like everything else, would pass. They'd just had a huge collection of it, all at once, as their contemporaries passed.
Over the course of the year, Dara and Eli talked about it, and decided that while they had plenty of new faces constantly cycling through base, as the result of the two-year recruitment cycle, what they felt a need for, in the face of so many endings, was generativity. New projects. New hobbies. New interests. And one of the 'long-term projects' that they actually found that they missed. . . was children. And so, Dara had her workers make royal jelly for her. And for the first time in over fifty years, she was pregnant when she returned to Mindoir. "It's this," Dara told Eli, "or I'm going to find myself wandering the rachni tunnels, cooing over Joy's eggs."
"You do that anyway. You go down there and sing to them before they hatch all the time."
"Shh. No one's supposed to know I do that."
Dempsey whistled at them when they came into the office in the middle of the big villa. "Don't have to ask what you guys did for stress relief on Earth, do I?"
"Shut up," Dara told him.
"Better yet, knowing you guys' luck, and your kids' luck, it's twins again, isn't it?"
Eli snorted. "Yeah. I tell myself it could be worse. It could be triplets."
"Christ, no. That's the last thing I want," Dara said, laughing. Laughter had been in short supply for the years before their sabbatical, and it helped to be able to do it again.
Dempsey stood. Walked across the room, and kissed Dara's forehead, before shaking Eli's hand. "Welcome back. You can take your damned jobs back any day now. I don't know how you two deal with the fucking Council, but the new budget is on your desk, Eli. I did my best with it, and Zhasa threw dimples at them, but you're going to have to work your mojo on the bean counters."
And with that, it was back to work again.
2279 marked something of a new era on base, as Melaani and Samiel, somewhat ahead of schedule for two such young asari, discovered that Mel was pregnant with their first child. Dara oversaw the first scans of the infant in Melaani's womb. "You two do know what causes this?" she needled.
"Hey, you prescribed the matron-stage birth control. I've been taking it!" Melaani said, indignantly.
"It couldn't be that the two of you have been sharing like bunnies for eighty years that could possibly have caused you to hit matron-stage early, which destabilized your body's hormones?" Dara asked, archly.
Samiel gave her a dark look. "Just tell us what the scans say."
"Well, that lump's the head. Those are the arms. Those are the legs. That right there? Tells me it's a boy." Dara kept her tone deliberately casual. "I'll need to get a sample of the baby's DNA for analysis, because I can't tell from here if we're talking hermaphrodite or full male. We'll get someone in here with a needle. It'll be a little uncomfortable, Mel, but it'll also tell us what degree of SRY-positive genes we're looking at. Since you're both SRY-positive. . . and Samiel's very much so, this should be interesting."
Two days later, after they'd redone the tests twice, just to make sure, Dara gave them the news. "Well, at least you two are probably the two most qualified people in the universe for handling this."
"Male?" Melaani asked.
"Ardat-yakshi?" Samiel asked. Dara pretended not to notice the fact that he and Melaani had death grips on each other's hands.
"Oh yes. From the genetic structure, he's going to be a lot like his daddy. Another perfect storm." She gave him a look. "Maybe we'll get lucky and he'll inherit Melaani's sunny disposition, eh?"
Melaani gave Dara a brilliant smile. "We can hope."
Samiel attempted to scowl at both of them, and blatantly failed.
Dara let her smile spread. It was so damned nice to give good news for a change.
And so, in 2280, Melaani gave birth to an ardat-yakshi son—one with predispositions for empathy, domination, and reave. Laessia stared at her tiny grandson, held uncertainly in Samiel's arms, and just shook her head in a daze. "The galaxy has changed so much in so short a time," she finally said. "And here, today. . . I can see how much for the better."
Siege and Dances were both on hand to meet the new addition to the Spectre family, Dances quietly crooning over the infant in mellow blues-and greens that made the infant asari's eyes glaze over into peaceful sleep after a couple of hiccupping sobs. And Siege held out his metal hands for the blanket-wrapped lump, and with no discernable hesitation, Samiel placed the boy in Siege's massive paws.
After a long moment, Siege, who had long since fully hybridized every single runtime in his platform to human-geth or turian-geth, said, ". . .We want one. We shall speak with Mercuria when she returns from her current mission."
Eli, who'd just poked his head in the door, and had one of his and Dara's new twins up on his shoulders, "Yours won't be little or cute, you realize."
"That is irrelevant to us."
Samiel, giving the geth a dubious look, added, "Siege, you provided runtime templates for six of the SR-5s, and one of them was requested to provide for the SR-6s."
"This is different." Siege rocked the baby, solely in his massive metal paws, not, apparently, daring to put it on an armor-plated shoulder.
Dara shook her head. Mercuria could say no, but. . . it wasn't as if synthetics with runtimes based on organic templates didn't experience the impulse for generativity. It was, as far as Dara was concerned, the biggest single reason to consider them alive. She changed the subject, turning back to Samiel and Melaani. "You guys pick a name yet?" Dara asked the asari couple.
"Jannil," Samiel said, again, with no hesitation. "For my father."
Dara gave little Jannil a kiss on his blue forehead, and left them alone. It was hard to look at Samiel and Melaani, here with their first child, and not compare them, unfortunately, to Kirrahe Orlan and Narayana, now in the Mausoleum for decades. Narayana's first clutch had been laid in 2203. Their first grandchildren? 2214. Salarian generations passed in ten-increments, more or less. As such? As of 2274, Narayana and Kirrahe had great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren. Eight generations, hanging like beads suspended in time. Every one of their first-born children was now dead. Every one of their grandchildren. Every single one of their great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. Three generations were still around, and Dara couldn't even count how many of them there were, both here on Mindoir, off on Tosal Nym and Aphras, on Bastion. . . some were even working their way through university on Sur'Kesh.
It was. . . dizzying. Painful. Exciting, in a way. But it hurt to think about, so Dara shut down the part of her mind that whispered, again, everything passes, and got back to work. She and Eli had a trip to Earth scheduled for a security conference, and they used the SR-5 Normandy to get there; Li'l Joker was, and probably always would be the NCAI for it. "I'm not going anywhere, so long as there's a Normandy to fly," he'd told him.
So there were little moments to cherish. And it was the moments that mattered, Dara had come to realize. Eli had, at the birth of each of their children, gotten her another rachni crystal shard, filled with the birth-songs, the first glimpse of each tiny face. At the marriages of their children. At the birth of grandchildren. At each point in time, like beads on a string, or nodes in a web. Graduations. The commissioning of ships. Peace treaties. They'd long since taken up too much room to be just a bracelet; she'd shifted them into a necklace, which she generally wore on special occasions now. A scintillating weave of memories and time, each preserved perfectly, like an insect in amber. And sometimes, they'd sit together, after a long day, and review those memories, before putting the crystal weave back away again.
Siege was able to persuade Mercuria to attempt the experiment of creating fully hybridized, geth-NCAI offspring. They started with a self-learning program, based strongly on the underlying code Kirrahe Orlan had used in creating Yana, decades ago, but the two synthetics selected outstanding personality facets from one another, and randomized the traits, into two separate personality matrices. Siege had appreciated the speed with which an NCAI could make decisions, and thus, did not want a gestalt consciousness for these offspring; rather, they would have underlying 'subconscious' segments that would form consensus among themselves, and transmit information up to the conscious persona for decision-making. The two synthetics also decided to permit these offspring far more free will than NCAIs typically were given; they were allowed access, from their first moment of consciousness, to information and data sets, to allow them to learn. They were permitted to interact with both Consensus and the NCAI network freely, as they determined for themselves what sort of platforms and specializations they would like to adopt.
Even their names were self-chosen: Mjolnir and Valkyrie. Both 'twins' asked for help in designing their platforms. Both had mobile, humanoid bodies, which were sleek and still visibly mechanical, but with mobile, expressive faces, and heads that swept back, like aquiline teardrops, in a subtle echo of the turian fringe. Mjolnir's body was built along the same massive lines as a CROWD, but along the form of a turian male, complete with a cowl and a humanoid head, protected by that cowl-like structure. Valkyrie was slender, but built along the lines of a human female, with energy blades and could deploy wing-like energy shields as well, for when she absolutely had to fight outside of ship-self. She also had minimal mass effect generators—all miniaturized—in her body, allowing her lift capability. . . and, taking advantage of her platform's agility, she could also learn at least the very basics of the Wind that Bends.
These bodies served as the actual CPUs of their ship-selves. Mjolnir's ship-self was an assault shuttle, akin to a breaching pod; he had room aboard for assault troops, from human, turian, and quarian marines to CROWD platforms. Valkyrie's was a strike fighter, heavily armed, and with no room for a crew.
And their parents were—for Mercuria's part, at least—both proud of and intrigued by these new creatures.
These moments of peace, however, didn't last. They never did. The asari involved in the Tears of the Moon had gone underground for decades, and now returned with a vengeance. It was actually uncanny. Samiel Viridian's psychological tests, conducted by Sky, using the Sower simulation device back in 2198, had predicted what transpired in 2181, with only one deviation: the simulation had placed it a hundred years later, in the 2200s.
What happened, was this: the Tears of the Moon radicals, who'd long studied the SRY sections of the genome, created a virus specifically tailored to target only people who had these recessive genes. The virus was designed to be fatal, and, if not fatal, to target the reproductive organs, much in the way that the human disease known as mumps, could render an adult male sterile.
There was little warning; there had been a handful of cases of something doctors thought was a new variant on Skyllian flu on Niacal, where Sisu had been working, organizing a new set of peaceful 'awareness raising' demonstrations. He contacted his mother, Ylara, and mentioned a headache and a touch of fever. A day later, she received word from the local med bay that he'd been admitted with a fever pushing 107º Fahrenheit. Ylara went to him, immediately, and, as soon as he was stable enough to transport, got him off-world, and back to the Mindoir base.
Unfortunately, he was hardly the first person infected. There were dozens of asari Spectres, many of them were SRY-positive, and all of them constantly traveled. It was the nature of the job. The disease surged through the asari population on the base. Half of Niacal was under a quarantine, as were large sections of Illium, Astaria, and Luisa. Melaani fell ill. Ylara did, as well. Siara, on Tuchanka, wasn't sick, but she and the rest of the asari population battened down the hatches, refusing any immigration for the time being.
Samiel himself, was untouched by the disease. He had every single recessive trait, and the virus didn't recognize them, when all were in combination. That was the other small deviation from the original vision: Jannil Viridian, less than a year old, was not in the med bay with his mother, both of them struggling for life. Samiel apparently had plans to talk to Sky about this. Dara, herself, was disturbed; even Sky was disquieted. The simulations weren't meant to be this accurate.
"We've got a lead on where the hot labs for this mess are located," Dara told Samiel, Siege, and Dances. "We still want answers. Don't kill everything that moves in there."
"That being said?" Eli told them, grimly, "This is a chastisement mission. An Archangel mission, if you will."
"No," Dara said, dryly. "An Anathema one." She looked up at the three of them bleakly. "Answers first, though. We want the heads of the people behind this, not just the lab flunkies."
"You're not the only ones," Samiel told her, through his teeth.
"I'd go with you," she told them, "but it's all hands on deck in the med bay. I might be a little rusty, but I can give cooling baths with the best of them." She looked at Samiel. "We're going to do our best for Mel. She's a trooper. She'll pull through."
The evidence they uncovered from the hot labs was enough to turn matriarch against matriarch. The Tears of the Moon had had help and financing from some of the biggest names in asari space. A pre-emptive first-strike, escalating what had been a social revolution into an actual civil war. Astaria was already outside of Sisterhood space. Niacal seceded from the Council of Sisters, and petitioned the Alliance for admission as a protectorate or client state. Warships were dispatched from Luisa, and there was a tense standoff in the skies over the jungle planet between the human-turian fleet and the asari one. It was resolved, diplomatically, with Niacal becoming a turian client state with a hundred year contract with the Hierarchy; at the end of a century, the planet would revert back to the Sisterhood, unless Niacal renewed the contract. "Turians and contracts," Eli said, chuckling, and looked over his shoulder, as if to trade a grin with Linianus or Rinus. . . and then looked away again.
Dara caught the gesture, and put a hand on his shoulder.
Melaani recovered, without damage to her brain or internal organs; Ylara did, as well. Even Sisu recovered, but Telluura was in a coma for six months, before awakening, and had to learn, all over again, how to walk and control her biotics. Tulluust, her father, now very old for an elcor, helped her stand. Helped her learn to eat again. And not long after she'd taken her first newly-unaided steps, Tulluust passed away. He was close to two hundred, a long life, lived well, by elcor standards. Ylara was devastated; her elcor mate had been one of the steadying factors in her life as a Spectre.
In 2285, Madison approached Dara and Eli, looking uncomfortable as he stood in their office. "Look," he said. "I'm not asking for me. But I am asking for Amara. She's not getting younger, and it's . . . hard on both of us. She turned ninety-eight this year. So did, well, Kaius. Caelia's ninety-five—"
"I know how old she is," Eli told him, rubbing a hand over his eyes. He didn't like thinking of his little sister as aging, but she was. She might only look middle-aged, thanks to the longevity treatments, but she looked older than he did. By far.
Madison grimaced. Since the husk nanites had infiltrated his system, he hadn't aged a day, either. He still looked twenty-eight, which, beside his wife's late-forties appearance, was growing increasingly cruel. "I think it's time we all talked about Excalibur for them." He was, of course, four years older than Amara. 102.
Eli exhaled and put his face down in his hands. He hadn't wanted to face this moment. He'd known it was coming, but he'd successfully put it to the back of his mind for years at a time. To his relief and gratitude, Dara took over the conversation. "They're the first hybrids," Dara said, gently. "Kaius is the first, damnit, turian, or at least, human-turian member of the Order of the Wind. Amara's biotics are way beyond human-normal. Caelia's Kaius' wife, and I know he wouldn't go into Excalibur without her. This has all sort of been planned for, Mad." She paused, and Eli could feel the wave of sorrow coming off of her now. "That leaves me with one question, though."
Eli lifted his head. "Yeah. What are we going to do with you?"
Madison looked glum. "I . . . want to go with her," he said, slowly. "On the other hand. . . "
"You're still young," Eli said, quietly.
"Yeah. I'm not done learning everything Laessia and Samiel can teach. Hell, I'm still teaching the new kids—god. The new Spectres, as they come through. I'm in charge of evaluating their biotics and getting them up to speed." He rubbed at his face.
"You qualify on your own merits," Eli told him, reaching out and taking Dara's hand, unconsciously. Felt her fingers tighten on his. "Second human in the Order of the Wind. First one to ever master the biotic blade. You're the only person around who actually understands the Reaper/Sower language. If there's anyone we need in fifty thousand years, it's you."
"It's up to you and Amara," Dara said. "But I'd . . . kind of welcome having another face around here that isn't going to vanish on us." Her lips curled faintly. "And I think your dad and Zhasa would, too."
And so, Madison stayed. He held Amara tightly. Kissed her goodnight. And whispered, "I'll be there when you wake up, sweetheart. I swear that I will. We're forever, you and me."
Caelia and Kaius were, like many couples, opting for the same pod. Eli came over and said his goodbyes, kissing his sister on the forehead. "Goodnight, Duck," he said, and he used, consciously, the same casual tone he'd always used when she was a toddler. "I'll see you in the morning, okay, sleepyhead?"
"You're such a jerk," Caelia told him, without rancor. "How does Dara stand you?"
And then she looked into Kaius' eyes. . . .and then they, too, were sleeping. Frozen between the pods that held Kaius' parents, and the single pod that held Lantar and Ellie.
This one hit home for Eli the way many of the other interments hadn't. "At least this should be the last one for a while," Dara told him, looping an arm around his waist as they trudged, with the others, up out of the Mausoleum. Dempsey had his hand on Madison's shoulder, as the younger male fought back the tears. Dara could sense the second-guessing going on in Madison, and Eli could feel it through her. "There's always time to change your mind," Eli told Madison, trying to keep his voice steady. "That's the thing about living on this side of time from them. There's. . . plenty of time to reconsider."
Time. . . passed.
In 2290, the human-turian hybrid population reached 4,000 people, total, out of a galactic population in the billions. This was still a significant milestone; they would need about 6,000 more individuals to a genetically viable, self-perpetuating subspecies. By 2295, the face of Mindoir had shifted, yet again. Polina's continuation of her father's xenobiological practices had, with the cooperation of colonial officials, spread the levo-dextro ecology over the entire planet, infiltrating every biome. It was now falling into a sort of equilibrium, and the rachni now had established a co-existence agreement that allowed them off the Spectres' preserve, and had established smaller hives near Odessa, La Garra, and Takinawa, with rachni crystals strung out between the hives for communication purposes. The humans found their rachni neighbors to be a little disquieting at first, and then, as they all adapted to one another, found them to be incredibly useful. Quiet neighbors, hardly ever seen, as the rachni tunneled under the human cities. Joint power plants were developed. Rachni brood-warriors and soldiers joined the local police forces. The humans were, at first, concerned with the possibility of 'thought-police' developing. . . until they realized how wholly uninterested rachni were in most things that humans thought were concerns. They had, finally, been able to wrap their heads around the concept of theft (it had taken decades; they were accustomed to the idea of one hive raiding another, but if something moved from area to area inside the same hive, it hardly seemed important, at first.). They were, however, death on murder, rape, kidnapping, assault, and child abuse. (In point of fact, several of the brood-warriors in Odessa were of Dances' progeny, and capable of hopping directly to a distress call. The first time they were sent in after a child abuser, one rachni landed on top of the perpetrator. The other picked up the child in gentle chelicerae and popped directly to the med bay. There was some bitching about due process and the need for a trial, but the rachni replied, in some confusion, that they'd heard the entire series of events, and what were they to do? Wait until the child was dead?)
Considering doing harm wasn't enough to get a rachni to tap on a door. Actively pursuing it? Absolutely was. The humans of Mindoir's cities didn't consider this giving up liberty for security. They came to think of it as . . . harmony prevailing over dissonance. It took a few decades. But generations of children were growing up on Mindoir for whom the dark was not frightening. And none of them were afraid of spiders.
In 2296, Takeshi and Emily came home to Mindoir with a highly unusual request, and two newly-built android bodies; they were heavily leveraged from the same technology that had been used to build Mercuria, Cassandra, and Pelagia's mobile platforms.
The catch was, that both of the bodies were precisely patterned after Takeshi and Emily, when they'd been around thirty years of age. Dara and Eli stepped around the androids, carefully. Studied them, and Takeshi and Emily. Her brother. His half-sister. "I, ah. . . have a sneaking suspicion that I know what this is about," Dara said, after a long moment, staring into the middle-aged face of her baby brother, her heart sinking in her.
"Relax," Takeshi told her. "We know we don't qualify for what Mom and Dad and Lantar and Ellie are doing."
Eli cleared his throat. "They told you?"
"We got hints, and we're not dumb," Emily told her older brother, crisply. "We want to do something different."
Takeshi tapped the mech body that was his double. "This? These have rachni computer cores. Crystal ones, similar to the ones that house Lysandra. We want to be uploaded into them."
Dara stepped around now, herself. Sat on the edge of Eli's desk in their office, staring at the synthskin-covered bodies. "Keshi. . . " her throat ached. "Dr. Solus was really big on the law of unintended consequences. If that kind of technology becomes common, we'll have. . . two populations. The living, the organically-alive, I mean. . . and an ever-increasing population of people who have uploaded to machine bodies. Who may or may not. . . be. . . the original consciousness. . . "
"They'd be the original consciousness if the device was used," Emily said, holding up a hand. "I grew up in the same house as you did, first-brother." She looked up at Eli. "We know it's not for everyone. But, that being said?"
"Why couldn't people upload their consciousnesses to crystal-matrix computers?" Takeshi said, calmly. "It'd be better than a gray box. And a better memorial for their loved ones, in the end. They'd retain consciousness, awareness. Could still participate in many of the things they enjoyed in life. Sure, they wouldn't be mobile, unless they made provisions for that in life. Not everyone would chose to do it. Some people would refuse on religious grounds, for certain."
Dara held up both hands. "Whoa. Wait. Stop. We've just barely gotten AIs legal in the past hundred years or so. The vast majority of AIs that were created directly from an organic brain template went insane. James is the only exception, and even he has geth code in there to stabilize him. Now you want. . . god. A human consensus?"
"Still individuals," Keshi told her. "Millions, even billions of voices. Collected experiences. Over time, I wouldn't doubt if some of the original actual minds degraded, and left just memories." He looked at her, unblinkingly. "It's not all that different from your voices-of-memory, Dara. The rachni just sang the memories into the stone, sometimes with attendant fragments of consciousness, sometimes without. We'd be encoding them as consciousnesses."
Dara rubbed her face again. "Keshi. People are not ready for that. Hell, it's pretty much what the quarians tried with their ancestor AIs. People who don't have the money for upload will scream that it's their right, and even figuring out who gets . . . preserved. . . is hellish enough in a small population, like, oh, say, the Spectre base." She looked at him soberly. "That's the kind of thing you can only offer when you can ensure it's offered to everyone."
"And I can just see some Luddite taking a hammer into the server cores," Eli muttered, shaking his head.
"Yes," Emily told them both, patiently. "But that's all. . . far future thinking. The Spectres have wanted a way to preserve knowledge in case there's another Cycle. This is a possibility, and wouldn't involve just a handful of people, like messages in a bottle." Her blue eyes caught and held theirs. "But that's way past what Keshi and I were here for, today. This? This is just the first step towards that possible future." She tapped the mech that looked like her. "And even this is. . . just an experiment, not the big step itself." She paused. "And, let's face it. What happens at the start of the next Cycle if the bodies of our parents and everyone else haven't survived? I mean, I assume you put them into cryo-pods of some sort. But what's the alternative? Hope that the geth have come up with something for us? Or take the first steps for ourselves?"
So over the next three years, they worked on the mechs, and experimented with uploading. Still, the only method that they could contrive, with current technology, that provided continuous consciousness, was the Sower device. Emily and Takeshi had their bodies ready for when old age did catch up with them, in 2305. And they uploaded into those new mech bodies, and were immediately got back to work on their project: providing bodies for the Excalibur travelers, if there were a need.
Time passed. . . . new Spectres. New problems. The asari civil war wouldn't end, but things taken at an asari pace never really did die down in a polite decade or so. 2325 arrived, and with it, Sky and Dances hauled themselves, wearily down to Joy-Singer, to pay the Mindoir queen one last homage. Sky had been there when she hatched, and queens outlived brood-warriors, easily. A life-span of three hundred years, as opposed to a hundred and fifty, on average.
It is time, Sky sang, including Dara in his song; Dara was perched, at the moment, alongside Joy on the queen's low dais. We are almost at the end of our long songs.
Will you deprive the hive of your wisdom and your voice-in-memory, Sings-to-the-Sky? I have ever relied on you. Your counsel-songs. Joy sang, softly, a threnody in violets and grays. She turned her enormous eyes on Dances. And I do not wish to be without your songs, Dances-in-Frozen-Starlight. He had, long ago, taken the position of most-favored-mate, and now rustled closer to lean against his queen's side, with a rasp of chitinous carapaces.
No. I do not wish to sing without hearing your voice in the chorus, either, my queen. Dances' voice was made of violet at the moment. But I am weary. This body has been damaged many times, in battle. I stood beside my brothers in the Battle of the Line, and Sings-Heartsong repaired me, but the hurts have been many over the years. I have sung my songs. Given them to others to sing, and now we sing among the stars. We light the way for others, so that they will not fear the dark, and so that they will always know that they are not alone.
But you would leave me alone. Joy's voice was almost piteous, harmonies of absolute heartbreak, and Dara curled into her daughter's side, wrapping an arm as far as she could, up and over the enormous flank.
Never alone, Dara sang back to Joy. Never alone. Always voices.
But not the ones I love.
Everything passes, dear one. It is the only wisdom I've come to. Everything passes. Dara managed to raise her head, and looked at Sky and Dances. "So. Excalibur?"
Truth-Singer told me that if I were not there at the end of time, she would sing anger-songs. I would not wish to make her sing distress. Sky gathered Dara up with chitinous handling appendages, and she put her face against his side now, feeling the hot tears streak down her face and against his flank. I do not wish to make you sing distress either, little queen. Nor Joy-Singer. But . . . it is time.
Joy had wrapped one of her own large appendages around Dances now, and was crooning in pure distress, her sorrow picked up by every other voice in the hive. Sing with me, she asked. Sing with me before you go. Give your memories to me, and to the stone.
Not a week later, Medium, the geth caretaker, was in the difficult position of trying to fit rachni bodies into the cryo-pods. Siege and Samiel were there to see off their battle-brother; Cohort and Gris had both returned to base to see off theirs.
The rachni mourning-songs reverberated through the entire Mausoleum, carried on physical wavelengths this time. Dara rubbed away the tears, and asked, hopelessly, "I don't suppose, Medium, that you can sing worth a damn? Because. . . it's going to sound. . . .really weird. . . hearing them talk out loud."
"We have been equipped with a biotic radio," Medium informed her. "We can thus transmit the rachni's communications. However, we judge it best for the comfort of others that we do not attempt to sing in any audible sense of the word."
Cohort translated, "Medium-Caretaker means that it is tone-deaf."
"We are not. Our ability to distinguish pitch falls within acceptable parameters."
"We attempted to communicate your meaning in a vernacular fashion. We stand by our accuracy."
Gris just stared at the pods. "Vaul. I. . . really didn't expect to be standing here, someday, mourning a rachni."
Cohort turned and studied him. "Did you expect to mourn a friend?"
"I never thought he'd die. He seemed. . . as long-lived as a krogan. As durable."
Cohort nodded. "When we disperse our runtimes back into Consensus, to add to the complexity of the whole, we ask that you do not grieve. We will still exist. In a more tangible way than the rachni, who become mere memory-songs. Gris-Friend." The geth's tone was firm. "Do not grieve."
"May as well tell the sun not to set, Cohort. It's going to happen whether you want it to or not."
We are all one, Joy sang, but there was doubt in her voice. But their loss. . . diminishes us.
Everything passes. . . . Dara thought. Sky and Dances passing once again opened that bleeding wound in her heart, and again, she wearily damned Shepard and Garrus for leaving it to them to say all the farewells.
A week later, however, Joy did call Dara, Eli, Samiel, and Siege down into the labyrinthine warren of passages under the base, where her latest collection of eggs pulsed. Dara promptly lost track of time, wandering among the eggs, talking to them, finding a soldier egg out of place, and pushing it back into its spot with a gentle finger, and singing under her breath.
"Why are we here?" Samiel asked.
To sing a new song, Joy told them. This has never been done before. But I think it may work. The queen touched an egg that was on her dais. This egg sings with Dances' songs. It has only his life-song in it, none of mine. And I have been singing his memory-songs into it.
All around them, the rachni sang and sang, as the eggs began to hatch, thousands of workers emerging, tiny and damp, soldiers splitting out of their eggs next, as the workers immediately began to consume the outer, sac-like housings. The brood-warrior eggs rocked, and split, and Joy looked down at the one she'd so carefully nurtured, as the tiny brood-warrior, no larger at birth than a dog, looked up and around, in some confusion. Brothers? he sang, and there was no mistaking that voice. Sings-Battle? Sings-Solitude? What has happened?
Dara's throat closed, and she reached up and put a hand on Siege and Samiel's shoulder. "We'll leave you guys to get re-acquainted," she said, quietly. Serial reincarnation. The rachni can manage it. The geth can manage it. Not too many others.
Time passed. Joy-Singer raised clutches, and rachni point-to-point transit became the dominant method of passenger transportation in the galaxy over the next seventy years. The relays remained in use for cargo and large convoys, particularly military ones, but the rachni method was simply more efficient. The geth attempted to replicate the ability for their own use, with limited success; by and large, they found it more effective to have a rachni dancer on their ships and link geth technology with rachni tech.
In 2400, the yahg were, by and large, considered rehabilitated by the geth. Enough so to enter galactic society on a limited basis. They had, in two hundred years, given up cannibalism, and had adopted an agrarian society, successfully domesticating animals for their protein needs, and finding alternative sources of protein in plants that they had never successfully farmed before, in all of their history. The geth brought a yahg delegation to the Council, and they petitioned for admission, so that they might trade ideas and items of value.
Siege, Cohort, and Composite were on hand to see that, as were Eli, Dara, Dempsey, Zhasa, Rel, and Madison, alongside Siara, Makur, and Gris. They mostly kept out of sight, but the humans, the quarian, and the turian were the last survivors of the yahg-batarian war who weren't asari, krogan, or geth.
They returned back to Mindoir, and Dara and Eli called a meeting, at their house. They poured the absolute best wine from the Pace-K'sar vineyards, and caprificus brandy for Zhasa and Rel. Eli lifted his glass in the warm comfort of the living room he and Dara had shared for so long, and said, simply, "A toast." He looked around. "To absent friends."
Dempsey looked down into his glass. "Absent friends. Rinus."
Zhasa cleared her throat. "Seheve."
Rel nodded, looking at her with clear gratitude for saying the name he couldn't. "Valak. Lin."
Dara looked into her wine. "Kallixta. Serana. Sky." Her voice broke.
"Garrus. Sam. Lantar. Lilitu. Ellie. Tulluust." That, from Ylara, who looked off into the distance, pain behind the calm in her eyes.
"Dances," Samiel offered. Then he paused. "Sort of. Rinus, yeah."
"Amara," Madison said, in a haunted tone. "Kaius. Severus. Caelia. Elissa. Alain." Elissa, Alain, and Severus had been preserved a few years after Rinus and Kallixta, on the grounds that they were original stock human-turian hybrids; they'd offer genetic variability in the future. And, as Dara had said at the time, Shepard doesn't need to wake up and see only half her kids here.
Eli nodded, and added, "Fors."
They all drank, and were absolutely silent for a long moment. "So," Dempsey said, quietly. "Did you bring us here just to depress us?"
"Kind of," Eli said, and wrapped his arm around Dara, who turned into him, and buried her face in his shoulder. "Guys. . . we're. . . not getting any younger."
"You're not getting any older, either," Dempsey said, hastily.
"We may not look it," Eli said, and he ran his hand up under Dara's hair to rub at her scalp, "and hell, we may not act it every day. . . but we're tired."
"And I can't bury any more friends," Dara whispered, and felt Melaani's hand come down on the her shoulder.
"I know precisely how you feel," Ylara said, quietly. "I'm not ready to go yet. I've just come into my power as a matriarch, and there's entirely too much left to do in asari space. But there will come a time when I'll want to set the burdens down, as well." She looked at them both. "I will miss you both. My not-quite-a-son, and his marai'ha'sai."
"So. . . you're stepping down?" Madison asked. "Or are you going into Excalibur?"
It was a fair question. Eli kissed Dara's forehead lightly. "Dara qualifies. First human-rachni queen. To say nothing of all her actual accomplishments." He exhaled, and joked, "Me, I'm just the dope she happened to marry—"
Stop that! It lanced out, from Joy and from Dara at the same time, and Eli pretended to flinch. "He qualifies on his own," Dara said, not looking up. "Clan-leader of Sidonis for how many years—"
"I stopped counting, actually—"
". . . asari genes without being born a hybrid—"
"Not actually to my credit—"
"Just, for once, drop it, would you, Eli?" Dara's voice was very tired.
And Eli did. He dropped every pretence of good humor, and wrapped his arms around her, and let people see how tired they both really were. "It's. . . just time. And we're going together. It's that simple."
Dempsey was actually giving them both a stunned look, and the hurt there, however quickly he shielded it, was hard for Dara to bear. He waited for the others, besides Zhasa, to leave, before he and Zhasa moved over to the couch. Zhasa wrapped her arms around Dara and just cried. Silent communion between the four of them. They'd become very damned close, over the course of so many years, and the mental connection was easy. Please don't leave, Zhasa begged, and Dara could actually hear that echoed by Dempsey. I don't know what the hell we'll do without you.
You'll be in charge, Eli said, simply. The way you were whenever we went on vacation. No one more suited than you two.
We'll be following you into that hole in the ground in a hundred years. Two hundred, tops. No one can do this job for long without it taking a toll.
And so, on a wintery Mindoir morning, Eli and Dara went down below Painted Rock Caves. Where their story together had begun in a night of darkness and blood. They stood in the cryo-pod together, their wedding-knives on their wrists. Dara had, quite deliberately, chosen not to wear a uniform today. She wore her wedding gown in rachni silk, and her web-of-memories necklace. Eli wore a dark suit. All of their children, including the youngest pair, Asha and Adam, only twenty-five, were there to see them off. All just as uncannily young as their parents; they were obviously taking after the rachni side of the family in terms of life-spans. Teagan and Lantus were clearly as broken-hearted as Joy was, weeping openly as they held their parents' hands, storms of music pouring out of them, and their siblings, as Dara struggled not to cry, herself. "Mom, Dad. . . " Lantus managed, out loud, and Teagan finished, silently, Please don't go.
We have to. It's time. I don't want to go. Neither of us want to go. But it's time.
Rel was there, and stared down at them in the pod, a look of torment on his face, before he lowered their spirit statue into the pod with them. "See you on the other side of time," he told them, and turned away, clearly fighting a losing battle with grief, before turning back. "You don't have to leave."
"It's this, or we're going to go insane," Eli said, tiredly.
Zhasa came over, and kissed them both, on the cheek, her eyes miserable. "I'll visit," she promised.
I won't know it, Dara thought. The other me, in the upload device, will. But I won't.
Dempsey came over, and crouched by them for a long moment. He put a hand on Eli's shoulder, almost clenching it, and leaned down to kiss Dara, lightly. And through skin-contact, a vivid image: her face. The first one he'd seen on being awakened from cryo-sleep, in a pod just like this one, through a haze of pain and rage. You guys helped me live again, he said, silently. You've always been there, to either help me find control, or reassure me that someone will put me on my ass if I need it. I don't know what I'm going to do without the two of you. He swallowed. Good night, Dara. Good night, Eli.
Dara was shaking by that point. Oh, Eli. I don't want to go.
Neither do I, sai'kaea. Neither do I. But we had a really good run. Amazingly good run, really, for two scared kids in a cave. He leaned forward and kissed her. "I love you, Dara. Good night."
"And I love you, Eli. Sweet dreams."
The door closed on them.
Everything. . . .
. . . . passes.
Mindoir, 2400 CE
Dempsey looked around at Siege, Samiel, Melaani, Siara, Makur, and Ylara. Madison was there, but his son had made it clear he planned to join Amara in stasis in a year or two; decades of considering himself celibately married to a sleeping wife had worn on the young man. . . hah. Young.. . . and he wanted to join his wife in sleep. The sooner the better, but he didn't want to leave his father in the lurch, with Dara and Eli's retirement. Considerate, I'll give him that.
Siege, Samiel, and Melaani didn't seem to know what to do or what to say. Rel was still facing away from the rest, and Siara had a hand on his shoulder. Teagan and Lantus were packing up the other rachni-eyed children, and Dempsey could hear Joy keening through the floor as if her heart would break.
Or that it had already broken. Dempsey put his arm around Zhasa's shoulders, and found his way to the elevator, his strides heavy. Behind him, he could hear Melaani telling Ylara that she should come to dinner with her and Samiel. That they weren't going to let her spend the evening alone, when she'd just, effectively, buried two of her children.
Mindoir, 2405 CE
Dempsey sat in darkness, a glass of ryncol on the table next to him. The sound system in the house he shared with Zhasa was state of the art, and, at the moment, he was listening to old, old recordings. His own fingers on the guitar strings. Familiar fingers on the piano keys. A damned volus on percussion, and two familiar voices, lifted in song. One was male, a dark-toned baritone, cheerfully singing the old, old words. The other was female, low-toned alto blending perfectly with the male's.
It had been a bad day. A very damned bad day, in fact. A team had gotten wiped out beyond a new locked relay, an SR ship was toast—and not the worker kind, at that—and no one knew why. He was sending Madison out; his son was suiting up in Aeseti flowmetal armor, and would be heading out with Mercuria, Mjolnir, and any rachni Dempsey could grab to go with him. On days like these, Dempsey liked to relax with his friends.
And try to pretend that they weren't ghosts. "Told you, doc," he said to the empty air. "Sidonis told you, and I told you that you could sing."
The recording paused, and he could hear the voices in the background as they squabbled over what they'd play next. Zhasa laughing and telling them to pick something. "If you guys don't pick, I'm starting an old chestnut like 'Red River Valley,'" Dara's voice threatened, and then Dempsey had hastily picked up the next song.
He knew the recording all too damned well now. He could mouth all the words with them. And it was, for god's sake, recorded on the chip in his head, too.
"Dempsey?" Zhasa said, from the other side of the door.
"Be out in a minute."
She opened the door, and came in. "They giving you any good advice?" she asked.
"The usual. Suck it up and do the job." Dempsey exhaled, and finished the last of the ryncol. "I'm not qualified for this, Zhasa-love. I can't talk the Council around like Sidonis could. You've got a better chance of that than I do, but. . . "
"Yes," Zhasa said, tiredly. "I can't pull the humans and the turians and even the asari the way Eli could."
"And I can't beat them over the head with the truth until they scream, either, like the doc could. What I am qualified to do, is shoot things till they die." He wrapped an arm around her. "I'll shut up now."
"Samiel and Siege are here," she said, quietly. "Come on out and talk with the living for a while, Dempsey."
Me, the half-dead, talking to the almost-all-the-way-dead. I don't even need Medium to do up a séance for me.
Out in the living room, Dempsey looked at the pictures of the kids he and Zhasa had had. . . two hundred years ago, now. Well, that Dara had had for them. Halla and Jarek. They'd each had children of their own. . . Jarek had actually married a human, and Halla had married a quarian. The grandchildren came to visit, and the great-grandchildren with them. . . but it wasn't the same. He'd sat at Halla's bedside, and held his little girl's hand as she died of extreme old age, and quietly thanked whatever god there was that Madison had gotten husked, which was a horrible thing to be grateful for. . . but it meant that he probably would never have to sit deathwatch for Madison. No, Madison might get his head blown off in the line of duty, but it wouldn't be a heart attack, like Jarek, or just plain. . . old age. . . like poor, beautiful Halla.
They'd had one other set of twins—courtesy of Dara, once again. Illa'Demsi and Tasar'Demsi. These younger two were still alive, at least. Dempsey let his eyes dwell on their faces on the shelf, for a moment, and then he took a seat on the sofa. "What can I do for you two?" Dempsey asked.
"You could tell us how you are doing," Siege suggested. "Statistically speaking, there is an extremely high probability, however, that you will tell us that you are 'all right,' or 'fine.'" The geth canted his red optic at Samiel. "We have a bet as to which it will be."
A very faint smile quirked the corners of Dempsey's mouth. "Try 'screw you,' instead." He paused. "And, actually, I'm fine. Zhasa, you're fine, right?" He looked down at her where she sat alongside him on the couch, in time to catch her sidelong glance and headshake. Oh, don't start, Zhasa-love.
I didn't say anything, she protested. But he could tell from her sense that even as bright and vivacious as she still was, she was anything other than all right today.
"Just been a bad day," Dempsey said, looking at the others. "For Zhasa, especially. Me, you know. Very few functioning emotions." It was . . . partially true. He'd definitely regained anger and love. Happiness was a paler thing, but it was there. Sorrow. . . he was starting to realize he had a greater capacity for it than he'd thought.
"Dempsey? I'm an empath." Samiel's reminder was emphatic. "You helped me through the domination events. Made sure I wouldn't just use it on everyone around me, out of pure reflex. You came for me when the Justicars had me locked down and ready for surgery, and you listened to me for years after that." Samiel exhaled. "How about, if for once, you talk, and I listen?"
Siege offered, dryly, "There is another option. We can take him to the sparring rooms, and we can beat the s'kak out of him until he bloodrages on us." The geth nodded, once. "A method with proven efficacy in the treatment of human mopes." He paused. "That is a technical term."
Zhasa stood, and went to a cabinet. Poured a couple of glasses of whiskey, and brought them over, setting them down. A light touch to Dempsey's shoulder. Should I go?
You can stay if you want, Zhasa-love. Dempsey looked down into the glass for a moment, and shrugged. "What's to say besides that I fucking miss them, Samiel?"
"Not much," Samiel acknowledged. "But there's nothing wrong with admitting it. Or admitting that you can still feel that much."
Dempsey drank the whiskey, and didn't feel it at all. This was why he kept the ryncol around. "Days like today? Five years ago, Sidonis would have told me to suit up, and I'd have been on the first ship heading out of here. And I'd have known that the home front was taken care of." Dempsey was rather surprised to find that he was talking about this. He looked at Zhasa, and admitted, "Most of the time, I sit in their office and activate the chip just so I can work. I mean. . . it is their office. There might be a plaque on the door that says 'Mindoir Historical Preservation Site: Office of Lilitu Shepard and Garrus Vakarian,' but. . . they had the job longer."
Samiel chuckled. "Dara insisted that they put that damned plaque up."
Zhasa laughed, but it was a sound edged by tears. "Yes. She did. I think she was making a point. That they saw themselves as just . . . caretakers." She raised her head, and Dempsey was startled by the misery in her eyes, and kicked himself. I'm sorry, sweetie. I didn't realize how much you were hurting, too.
They were my closest friends besides you. Zhasa put her head back down again, and just shook for a moment.
Samiel almost visibly braced against the washes of emotion in the room; for all that Zhasa and Dempsey were both skilled at blocking themselves off, it still showed, for him, Dempsey knew. "I miss them, too," he admitted, very quietly. "Other asari let this sort of thing . . . pass by. They distance themselves from the short-lived, in order to stay sane in a life that comprises. . . . a hundred generations of a single salarian family." Samiel looked down. "I'm only just starting to understand that perspective, myself. I . . . used to distance myself. Detach myself. I . . . still do." He rubbed at his face, in frustration.
"But we can't do that," Zhasa said, suddenly, and with all the open, gentle warmth and empathy that was a part of her nature. "Because if we do, we lose what it means to be in the moment, and we lose the ability to connect to others." She reached up and touched Dempsey's face.
"I know," Dempsey said, looking down at the floor. "Just. . . some days? I need to be allowed to let myself feel it. Even if it means I'm pissed at them for not being here to bitch with the rest of us at whatever stupid-ass thing the universe has handed us today."
Parnack, 2415 CE
A firefight on Parnack. Yahg rebels had sprung up, challenging the ascendancy of the nation of Urukkuara, which was ruled by the descendants of Urukhurr and Akkaura. They wanted to return to the bad old ways. Some people always did. The Urukkauran had petitioned for Council assistance in helping put down the rebellion, because it would threaten their seat on the Council, and it would imperil trade. Would imperil the fragile progress they'd made.
Cut off from the damned dropship. Dempsey had burned out almost every thread of biotic energy in his body, trying to get his people back to it. Hunkered down in cover, trying to build up enough reserves to pull his barrier back up again, trying to count, dimly, in his head, how many people they'd lost today. Rage wasn't going to be enough. He couldn't rage and get the living back to the ship.
Rel put a hand on his shoulder. "I'll hold them off," the turian said, almost calmly. Conversationally. "You get the rest to safety."
"No, man, you can't do that."
"Of course I can. I was born for a last stand, Dempsey." A hint of regret in that rasping voice. "Tell the others. . . .I'm sorry I can't make it. . . to the party at the end of time."
"We don't leave people behind, Velnaran!"
"I got left behind on Khar'sharn, once. Took me years to find myself again. It'll be okay. Just go." Implacable determination in that voice, and Dempsey realized, with a shock, that this was what the turian wanted. A blaze of glory, and not a hole in the ground.
Seheve's never going to forgive you, man.
"I don't intend to die today, but if you don't get moving, we all will. Go!"
Dempsey backed up the ramp, still firing into the massed bodies of the incoming yahg. Two of their yahg allies were limping up into the dropship, guns sized for their massive paws still held in their hands, as they, too, tried to lay down covering fire for Rel, along with the turians and humans in the team with them. All of the humans and turians were too damned young to know of the yahg as anything other than the newest species in the Council, and the galactic bogeymen of a couple of hundred years ago. A few of them spoke a few words of yahg. All of the yahg spoke galactic. "Come on," Dempsey urged, trying to find Rel's thin, distinctive figure among all the yahg. "Come on!"
"Go!" Rel's voice came over the radio. "Take off! I can't get to you!"
Dempsey swore, over and over, and slammed the wall of the gunship with a gauntleted fist, as the dropship took off, still taking heavy fire from the yahg on the ground. "We're coming back for you, Velnaran," he said into the comms. "You hear me? We're coming back."
The on-going fighting between the yahg insurgents made it very damned difficult, and the heavy concentration of eezo and radioactive isotopes in the area made it impossible to find Rel's biometric chip. Weeks passed. Then months.
Dempsey had grimly started to try to track down Rel's next-of-kin. . . .which, damn it all, happened to be a great-great-granddaughter on Aphras, who, from her great dark eyes, still had quite a few drell genes in her. . . when the geth received a message directly from the Urukkauran ruling council. We have something of yours. Come and retrieve it.
Dempsey admitted, later, to the others, that he was very damned relieved when, through the hatch of Mjolnir's ship platform, he saw Rellus in the distance. That the turian had taken a beating was mostly evident from the armor. There wasn't a lot left of it, and the high temperatures and radioactivity inherent on Parnack had taken a toll even on someone with the regeneration of a krogan. "Ready to go home?" he asked Rel.
"Yeah. Think so. Think. . . I might be ready to sleep for a year."
"But not forever, right?"
"Not quite yet." Rel allowed the med techs to push him onto a gurney; he was actually setting off Geiger counters at the moment. "Though I'll admit. . . I don't feel so good right now."
The current yahg commander for Urukkauran boarded Mjolnir's platform, and rumbled at Dempsey, "The enemy called him Urarzja'harza."
Dempsey raised his eyebrows. The yahg knew enough human body language to understand the silent question. "The enemy that will not die."
"Yeah," Rel said, looking up at the ceiling. "That's me, all right. I don't know when the hell to quit."
They got him back to Mindoir. Got the worst of the radiation out of his body, and let the regeneration mod get to work, replacing the scales that had fallen out, and knitting the body back together from the massive cellular destruction he'd taken from the radiation. The gene mod was good. . . but not quite perfect. "I think," Rel said, a year later, looking a lot better than he had, but still thin and drawn, "that it might be time for the long sleep, anyway." He looked at Dempsey. "I'll send a good-bye to all the grandchildren. Not that they really know me, but. . . y'know." He shrugged. "Seheve would scale me if I didn't."
And thus, not long after that Dempsey shook Rel's hand, human-fashion, and said, "Been a pleasure working with you, Rel," and watched, expressionlessly, as the turian froze into place in a pod beside Seheve's.
The Galaxy, 2450-2864 CE
The galaxy changed and shifted over the hundreds of years that James Allen Dempsey and Zhasa'Maedan held control of the Spectres. The asari civil war drew to a close in 2553, out of pure exhaustion, and as most of the influential matriarchs who'd held cultural control began to die off. Aphras and Tosal Nym had fully-formed ecologies, and populations in the millions, as cities began to spread across them. A handful of Keepers moved from the Citadel to Etamis, and reestablished the cities there, working with the elcor to terraform the planet back into viability.
By 2700 CE, doctors on any number of worlds had encountered a problem that had probably not been entirely foreseen by the developers of the Solus hybridization process. For hundreds of years, doctors had counseled people who were half or three-quarters of one species or another, not to interbreed with a third species. Thus, if someone were human-turian, they should not, probably, attempt to use the Solus process to produce offspring with an asari or a drell. The theory behind this strong suggestion was that the law of unintended consequences being what it was, that crossing three species worth of genes could result in. . . wild mutations. Unexpected health problems for the offspring. Sterile offspring—mules, effectively.
The problem was, that by 2700 CE, there were very few people in the galaxy who didn't have genes from a different species in them. Oh, certainly, there were insular populations, like the Amish, or the Bushmen of the Kalahari, who didn't interbreed much with other humans, for example. Their genome remained unaffected; they were, in essence, base human genetic stock. But most people, on a galactic level, weren't insular. They were, in fact, the opposite. They traveled freely. They moved from world to world. They might not stay married to the same mate their whole lives. There weren't many people left who didn't have at least one genome cluster from another species.
The turian-human hybrid population was the largest single group of hybrids, comprising a whole subspecies. Most of the red-blooded hybrids, or hurians, as they tended to like to call themselves, had pentadactylic hands. The blue-blooded hybrids, or turmans, had the two-fingered grip from their turian ancestry. They intermarried enough among themselves to maintain the appearance of the half-and-half phenotype first explored in Kaius, Amara, Caelia, Elissa, Alain, Estevan, Emily, Tacitus, and others of that generation. They numbered in the millions; the three-quarter hybrids, likewise, numbered in the millions. Those who were five or six generations removed from a human or a turian ancestor, and who looked, physiologically, identical to a human or a turian, but who still had genes, and who were still capable of consuming a certain amount of the other species' foods?
Numbered in the billions.
This was a drop in the bucket, compared to a galactic population of turians that had doubled from forty billion to eighty billion, and a human population that hovered near forty billion, itself. But they were there. And they weren't the only ones.
There was a burgeoning population of asari-krogan hybrids. Those born from krogan mothers tended to have larger body morphology, and more of the physical resilience of their krogan parentage, and hemoglobin-based blood; those born from asari mothers repeated the pattern set by Makira, daughter of Siara, and her other four children with Makur: blue-blooded, slender, taller than any asari, bulging eyes. . . and with a fully redundant nervous system and redundant biotic organs. . . some of the most powerful biotics in the galaxy. There were drell-turian hybrids on Aphras and Tosal Nym and Rakhana, too. There were human-quarian crossbreeds, and quarian-turian ones.
The doctors simply had to come to terms with the fact that there was almost no way in which they could ensure that there would be no 'mongrelization' at this point. Genes that were picked up from an ancestor would either be passed on, if beneficial, or would not be, if the offspring failed to thrive.
On Mindoir, the pattern established by the children of Elijah and Dara continued. The early generations all had twins, if they reproduced at all. Later generations slackened in this tendency, but by 2700, at a conservative estimate, they had 201,326,592 descendants on Mindoir and other worlds. Many of them did not express the full human-rachni physiology; Dara's traits would have passed, somewhat, into legend. . . except that the rachni affirmed, with the power of memory-song, that they were true. Thus, in a crowd on Mindoir, about one in ten people had the rachni-blue eyes of their common female ancestor. Another one in ten might find that when they channeled biotic power, their eyes might go dark, a phenotypic change from their male ancestor. But Dara and Joy-Singer's most lingering and subtle gift to Dara's descendants lay in their mitochondrial DNA, which was passed on solely by the mother to her offspring.
Every single one of Dara's descendants produced biotic energy at the cellular level, just as rachni did. The result was that there were, again, at a conservative estimate, two hundred million humans in the galaxy with the potential for a rachni's empowered biotics. Many of the females still harbored Teagan's gift for biotic surgery, too.
By 2700, Mindoir was also a wholly human-rachni world, the two species being the two dominant ones, coexisting in a symbiotic relationship, largely facilitated by Dara and Eli's offspring, but Mindoir was also an enormously cosmopolitan world. There were enclaves of every species in its large cities, and there was something grown there that almost every species could eat. With the exception of the volus, naturally, and the other silicon-based life forms found beyond the relays.
Rachni lived in symbiotic relationships on other worlds as well. They and the geth frequently built together on planets too harsh for other species to tolerate, the two 'hive-minded' species getting along particularly well. Approximately twenty-five percent of the geth population now consisted of 'individual collective' platforms, some with hybridized runtimes, and some without; the other seventy-five percent remained 'traditional' geth. But this balance was intended to keep Consensus from becoming stagnant, and to allow them to continue to evolve.
Asari society had taken three major hits in five hundred years: the destruction of Thessia, the revelation of the SRY-positive population, and the introduction of the hybridization process, which allowed their people to have genuine offspring with other species for the first time. Out of chaos came a golden era. Just as the Renaissance on Earth was the product of multiple systems of thought clashing and interacting, new concepts coming out of conflict and change, so, too, did the asari experience a rebirth in this era.
Turian society, impacted so heavily by human society, became somewhat less rigid. They still retained the structures and customs that they revered and depended upon, but there was more freedom in their society than in any other time in the past.
The drell had a home world, a past to uncover, and a future to build. The salarians began to dismantle, in part, social restrictions that they had held in place for over three thousand years. . . . just as the batarians did. At 2700 CE, the batarians had no more caste-system. They had gone over to a system of direct democracy, electing both their Assembly and their Minister. They didn't always pick leaders that the rest of the galaxy particularly liked or trusted. . . but such is the nature of democracy.
The yahg were staunch krogan allies, and an enclave of yahg actually lived on Tuchanka, and an enclave of krogan lived on Parnack. The two species liked hunting in each others' wilds. They were pretty much the only ones who did.
Tuchanka, for its part, had cities once again. Squat towers, built in forms that pleased krogan for their defensibility, but built in shining plasteel, derived from the asari love of reflections and light, stood in groups, and the cities were surrounded by arable farmland, defended by clan protectors, who kept the vicious wildlife of the planet at bay. Some of these were used as yahg tourist traps, it must be said.
In 2776, Ulluthyr Harak, governor of Omega, knew that his body was failing him. He uploaded templates of his mind to Pelagia. . . and she allocated him server space. Now they controlled Omega, and their son, Xiphos, was the new governor. It was a little feudal, but Omega was a krogan place, though . . . cosmopolitan. Thus, for so long as Xiphos could hold Omega and Ulluthyr by strength, none of the krogan really seemed to mind. The female clan didn't even seem to mind; Pelagia remained the female clan-chief. Urdnot Wrex, by way of comparison, traveled to Mindoir in his final years, and accepted upload, as Shepard had asked him to, years before.
This meant that Gris was now shaman of Urdnot. . . and Urdnot Makur challenged for, and captured the leadership of Clan Urdnot. And with it, control of over half of Tuchanka.
And in 2864, Zhasa'Maedan and James Dempsey stepped down as the leaders of the Spectres. "You've had the longest tenure in office of any commanders, other than asari," a reporter asked them. "We're all aware of your nanite infiltrations. What's next for the two of you?"
"Retirement," was Dempsey's only reply.
"Does this mean you'll disappear like so many other Spectres have?"
"Don't know what you mean by that."
"Your predecessors, Dara and Elijah Sidonis, simply disappear from all records. Their predecessors, Garrus and Lilitu, of honored name, disappeared as well."
"We don't comment on on-going missions."
"Wait. . . what does that mean?" The reporter called after Dempsey helplessly, "Who will step in, in your place?"
Dempsey turned back. "The people most qualified. And after them, the next. It's how this goes."
The next co-leaders of the Spectres were set up, deliberately, as a triumvirate. Melaani, Samiel, and Siege. Checks and balances. And all three of them stared as they stood in the Mausoleum. Ylara had been preserved a hundred years before. And now Dempsey and Zhasa slumbered next to Dara and Eli, and beside Madison and Amara. "I wonder," Melaani said, slowly, "who's going to turn the lights off when it's time for us to leave."
"We will," Siege said.
"Yes. . . but what about when you leave?"
Siara and Makur both chose to pass away on Tuchanka, surrounded by their children, on the world that they'd helped to build. Makira, their daughter, assumed leadership of the females of Tuchanka, by acclamation, while her brother, Selu, took control of the males of Tuchanka. . . in single combat against all comers.
Samiel and Melaani went into the Excalibur Project when Melaani was eleven hundred years old. Samiel could have held out a little longer, as the Patriarch of his people, but he didn't want to let Melaani go alone. Their children—an even mix of males and SRY-positive females, of whom two were Spectres, themselves—attended their interment.
As did Siege.
The last man standing.
4000 CE – 50,000 CE
In or around 4000 CE, Siege and Mercuria both decided that it was time to rest, after close to eight hundred years in charge of the Spectres. They had seen quite a bit of the galaxy. And they were tired of mourning their losses. So they, too, were interred in the Mausoleum.
By this time, the era of the Reapers had become almost as much a myth as the notion that the rachni had ever been the bogeymen of the galaxy. Over seventy species were now represented on the Council, but this very wide net generated factionalism. A civil war raged over the whole of the galaxy for several hundred years. . . a civil war that Pelagia on Omega and Laetia on the Citadel refused to harbor the ships from either side, and the AIs resident on Bastion angrily opposed. Mindoir, Aphras, and Tosal Nym remained neutral by policy. Spectre legend had it that Medium, channeling the voice of Lilitu Shepard, told her current crop of Spectres, to keep the war away from Mindoir, and to get out there and do their damned jobs. The pure fact that the rachni refused to move the ships of those involved in the rebellion made them a target for the rebels. This was. . . a very foolish mistake on their part. The galaxy had forgotten why the rachni were their collective bogeymen.
By 5000 CE, a second civil war had broken out, this time between the 'older' species and the 'younger' ones. Again, Omega, Bastion, the Citadel, Mindoir, Aphras, and Tosal Nym were the balancing points of stability. And this gave the Keepers time to assemble their knowledge of a million years of history, and they, the geth, and the rachni assumed a middle ground that allowed them to negotiate with both sides, and get first a cease-fire, and then, a lasting peace.
At 10000 CE, there were a hundred and forty species in Council space. Rachni voices rang out between the stars, binding entire systems into harmony with each other, and millions of turians, humans, quarians, and even asari uploaded themselves, at death, into a massive network of minds, first envisioned by Takeshi and Emily Jaworski, thousands of years before.
At 30000 CE, Dyson rings around red dwarf stars—stars with longer life-spans than that expected of the entire universe—were common habitats for organics and synthetics alike. With over three thousand 'species' represented in the Council, the galaxy was simply too large and unwieldy to regulate, in many ways. The Council had broken it up into sub territories, but everyone had to abide by the basic tenets of Galactic law. The original relay system had been broken down for its eezo content, the dark matter relays, FTL, and instant rachni transit were the primary sources of travel. Humans and turians and their hybrids continued to enforce the peace, while rachni, geth, and Keepers provided the true middle ground for organics and synthetics alike.
In 40000 CE, black holes were harnessed for the first time as a power source. There was a certain amount of nervousness about this; the potential for it to be turned into a weapon was enormous. Entire star systems could be annihilated. But the galaxy continued to move along at its accustomed pace. Dynasties rose and fell. The Reapers were a children's story. . . .
. . . except that the rachni, the geth, the Keepers, and the Spectres remembered. All of the lineal descendants of Dara and Eli, with their affinity for rachni memory, remembered.
The Spectres were, by this time, divided into two camps. The new and the old, in general terms. The newcomer species, who didn't believe in the tales of the Reapers. . . and the old. The ones who were almost a secret society within the Spectres. Who maintained the Mausoleum on Mindoir, which had filled, over the centuries, with the best and brightest of every era.
52,183 CE, Mindoir
Everything. . . . .
. . . . passes. . . .
She opened her eyes, panic surging through her. It hadn't worked. She hadn't fallen asleep. She was going to die here, trapped in this coffin. Or, worse, she'd woken up partway through the long sleep, and no one was going to hear her screaming.
She looked up, and saw a dearly familiar, and wholly human face, looking back down at her. Violet clan-paint on the jaws, dark eyes open, and almost as panicked as her own. She tried to speak, but her throat was too dry. Eli? Bare whisper of song.
Ciea'teilu. We're awake—
Everything passes. Oh god, everything passes, but some things remain. They clutched each other, desperately, as the hood of their pod opened, scraping back with mechanisms grinding loudly.
Dara stared up out of the pod, and into her father's face, and reached out, and Sam pulled her up, clutching her for a moment, before pulling Eli out. Tears on every face as they all stumbled around, seeing old, familiar faces. Some so dearly missed, and for so long. Dempsey shouting as he and Zhasa ran to them, and hugged them both fervently. Seheve looking down at her body, and murmuring, in wonder, "There's no pain."
"There have been medical advances since your era, Seheve Liakos."
The voice was geth, and familiar. Dara looked up in time to see that it was Composite. . . same old body, in fact, or at least, it looked it. . . making that explanation to the drell. Then Lin whooped and charged them. All their friends looked. . . .young. Young and healthy, as many of them hadn't been in years. And there was rachni song in Dara's mind. Joy's song, her daughter whom she'd thought she'd never hear again. Teagan and Lantus were there, too, and Dara sobbed openly when she saw them. I thought you were all lost to me, she thought, over and over, and finally found herself facing Garrus and Shepard, sitting in a corner with so many of their original crew. Wrex. Tali'Zorah and Kal'Reegar. Kasumi, one of her hands tightly clasped by Sam. Lantar, who still held Ellie as if she were a lifeline. "Well," Shepard said, quietly. "Medium here tells me it's been fifty thousand years." She looked boggled for a moment. "You know, as much time as we put into the damn project, I . . . honestly thought it would fail."
"Oh, thanks," Eli said. "That's very comforting to those of us who were stuck with it afterwards."
They were escorted up the stairs by . . . .descendants. Humans who didn't look entirely human to Dara. Too smooth, in many ways. Hallmarks of asari descent, turian descent, quarian descent, here and there in their bodies. Up on the surface, Joy, who'd been preserved in a huge cryo-pod, thundered her happiness, which was echoed back across the entire planet by rachni crystals, and Dara's head rolled back at the sound.
On the ground, there were two ships with incredibly familiar profiles. One was the mini-Reaper. The other . . . looked like the Normandy. Except it was crystalline, in a rachni sort of fashion. . . and it had eyes. It looked at them, and Dara felt awareness from it. That, more than anything, convinced her that this was real, and not some sort of. . . simulation dream. "Oh my god," she whispered, her eyes wide. "It's. . . alive."
Every bit of it, The voice was familiar, and powerful. Jeff Moreau was the one constant in the universe, it seemed. We adapted the living ship technology of the Titans several thousand years ago A little showy, isn't it?
I rather like it, EDI replied, calmly.
—He's just pissed that I wound up with a nicer body than he has.
Mercuria was the one person in the crowd who lifted her head and said, "Grandfather?"
—In the flesh, as it were. Welcome to the Normandy. We know most of you, the words encompassed the hundreds of people who surrounded the first members of the Excalibur project. Dara looked around frantically, finding more familiar faces. Samiel. Siege. Melaani. Dances and Sky's voices, curled at the back of her head. Rinus. Kallixta. Kallixta, looking young and new again, was eying the ship with. . . unabashed lust. Many of you won't know each other. We'll take care of introductions once you're aboard.
But the most important people, most of you already know. Joker's voice was firm. God damn, it's nice to see you again, Commander. Even good to see Garrus again. And I say that with something resembling love.
And all those who came after, who protected the legacy, EDI said, quietly. Dara, Eli, Dempsey, Zhasa, and all the others. Those of us who remained. . . like Pelagia and myself. . . have missedyou all.
Shepard raised her hand. "I have one important question."
Are the Reapers coming?
We don't know. But what I do know, is that if they are coming? There's only one relay left that they can enter this galaxy through. The super-relay EDI and I found, so long ago. We've peeked through. And we're pretty sure that it was what the Sowers used to retreat from the Milky Way, originally. A grin in Joker's voice. I think the Sowers owe us all a few answers, don't you? And if it's not the Sowers. . . if it's another galaxy completely controlled by the Reapers. . . .I think we owe THEM an invasion or two, don't you?
"Are we in any position to collect?" Shepard asked, crossing her arms across her chest.
Bet your sweet ass we are. . . Commander.
Shepard looked back over her shoulder, at the people she'd relied on to get them through the long night. The ultimate suicide mission, really. "What do you say?" she called. "Do you want to go see what's out there?"
Dara raised one shaking hand, and nodded. Feeling assent sweep through Eli. Though Rinus, Kallixta, Garrus, Lantar, her father, Kasumi. Amara, Kaius, Madison. Dempsey, Zhasa, Lin, Serana, Rel, Seheve, Samiel, Melaani. Through the rachni and through the geth.
"Yes," Eli said, for all of them. "Whether we're there to ask questions or there to fight the last war. . . let's go."
And as they boarded this new Normandy, Eli paused on the ramp. Stared up at the violet Mindoir sky that they'd waited so long to see again, and at the largely unchanged mountains of their beloved home. And then he leaned down and kissed Dara. Deeply. Passionately.
And yet, we remain.
Author's note: While certain people who will remain Eleventh have suggested that I entitle this 'On the Origins of the Sower War,' I now regard this story as done. I will be moving on to writing my own intellectual property. If I should happen to be published, I will post a notice, both here and on my forums.
I thank you all for the many kind notes people have sent me over the course of writing this behemoth. To the people whom it's helped through hard times. . . . that is perhaps one of the most humbling things an author can hear, and I'm . . . incredibly moved by this.
To everyone who has cheered and encouraged and asked good questions, I thank you. To those whom this may have inspired to write your own stories. . . go forth and write. The only real secret is applying your butt to your chair and following through on the consequences.
To everyone who's stayed with me this long. . . thank you for reading.
Everything passes. And so has this.
Hello, everyone, Myetel here—
For me, SoR, for all that I loved writing it, was a lark. It's first-draft material. It has continuity errors that I tried to correct as I went along. It repeats itself now and again in places I didn't realize I'd been redundant. Sometimes, as I go back and re-read, I discover that I fell in love with a word or a phrase for a couple of chapters, and I really wish I hadn't. But on the whole, as I re-read, I'm sometimes very pleased, in a "I really wrote that? Dang. I don't remember that, but that was a good phrase" sort of way.
But it's not as polished as my new work, Edda-Earth. The first book of which is now available in Kindle format (available for everyone who wishes to purchase it to read, so long as you obtain the free Kindle app). That book is The Valkyrie. As noted at the beginning of this epilogue, you can find a direct link to it in my FanFiction profile.
I still intend to offer it to more traditional publishers. I merely got tired of the black hole that is conventional publishing. Sending off requests for representation to agents, and their email inboxes being too full to respond? Disheartening. Sending off a manuscript, never to even get a rejection letter? Discouraging, to say the least. So we move onwards.
My forums are still up, and I post there frequently: .com
And if you head to my Facebook page (yes, I gave in and made one; here it is: .com[SLASH] pages [SLASH] Edda-Earth [SLASH] 1409693822607652 ).
Oh, and as to what Eadd-Earth is about? Well . . . the first thought I had about this project actually came about when I was reading about Aztec, Maya, and other early religious practices, and I wondered what the Romans would have thought of those, had they been the ones to cross the Atlantic. Especially given their reaction to Carthage. That planted the seed. We all know that the Romans didn't have modern morality and ethics; from a modern perspective, they, too, were pretty barbarous.
One of the truisms that authors like to trot out is that if Rome hadn't fallen, there would have been no Dark Ages, and the world would be far more advanced than it is. I decided to run with that, and developed a timeline for science that differed substantially from our own world.
And as I did so, I decided that in this world, the gods were all real. Magic exists, in several forms, and interrelates with science. Magic that isn't derived from the gods has to follow the rules of the universe that it's in. Thermodynamics, physics, and chemistry are the best aid of the modern sorcerer.
The work holds my trademark combination of adventure, history, combat, science, philosophy, romance, friendship, and humor in its pages, as well as some work on space and time that I'm pretty proud of. If you liked SoR, you'll like Edda-Earth.
—Myetel. . . Deborah L. Davitt