Author's Note: Apologies to all for the delay! We have a major launch on the 25th (so excited!) and the only bit that will be more hectic than now will be the two weeks directly following it. ;-) This story has not been forgotten - in fact, it is occasionally the only thing holding the threads of my sanity, such as they are, together - but I do apologize for the delays.
Turians could move astonishingly quickly, Aleksander Meshkov had found. He had had an intellectual understanding of their movement speed - the musculature in their legs, the skeletal structure of their feet, even the way their upper bodies were positioned over their slim waists... all pointed toward a long and successful evolutionary history as fast-moving predators - but he had discovered, during their swift not-quite-run through the corridors of Caduceus Station, that intellectual understanding was a far different creature than actual experiential appreciation.
The station's security chief, the turian Commander Decin Numerius, strode at what looked on her to be a brisk but not particularly taxing pace through the corridors and it was all Meshkov could do to simply keep up. He was not in poor physical shape by any means - he readily admitted that he was too vain to let himself go to fat and he knew the effects of space travel well enough to eat all the protein and do all the calisthenics necessary to keep his muscles from withering away - but it clearly took more for him to move at the same speed than it did her. She moved with a long, purposeful stride that was somehow simultaneously both unforgivingly brisk and utterly fluid. It was, he thought after a few moments' careful observation from the position he couldn't manage to not take up behind her, probably due to the anatomy of her feet. He had never really watched a turian walk before, at least not to such a degree as to actually see it. She seemed to bear the entirety of her weight on her toes, or whatever the turians called their toe equivalents, and unlike the human gait, her foot did not roll from heel to toe throughout a step; instead, she simply planted her toes and the only reason she moved so gracefully and in such a straight and uninterrupted line, was because the bones and muscles of her calf seemed to absorb the shock of the movement, performing the same sort of function as the humans' heel-to-toe without her ever having to leave her toes. No wonder she was fast. The economy of movement was exquisite. She almost floated, such was the perfect construction of her body in motion, and he had the urge to ask her to sprint just so he could watch. He had a feeling it would be like watching a cheetah make a break across the plains.
He frowned slightly, just a little bit short of breath from trying to keep up with her. He couldn't decide which he should be more concerned about: his manhood, in the fact that he was watching a woman walk ahead of him and he was thinking only about the anatomy of her feet... or his humanity, in the fact that he was watching a turian woman walk ahead of him and was thinking that she was exquisite.
He caught up to Numerius only when she slowed just slightly as the assistant security chief appeared out of a side corridor and fell into step beside her. His name was Artorius, Meshkov recalled, though he wouldn't have recognized the turian man if his armor did not bear recognizable rank markings that established him as Numerius's direct subordinate. He had met Artorius just recently, had indeed allowed the man to escort Abby back to their quarters after Numerius had reassured him - through an odd but strangely compelling use of fairy tales - of Artorius's trustworthy nature... but all turians looked remarkably alike. If their facial markings were of a different enough color or a striking enough pattern, he might be able to tell one from another but aside from Numerius - who Meshkov had noticed had both a slight flare to her fringe as well as a remarkably tiny waist relative to both her torso and her hips (both things he had noticed Artorius occasionally 'noticing' as well) that he had not seen in other turian females - they all looked pretty much looked the same.
In fairness, though, he couldn't really tell one asari from another either. They just tended to be more pleasant to look at, all soft curves and wide eyes and hyperfeminine features.
... though the flare of Numerius's fringe really was quite fetching, now that he'd noticed it.
He wasn't sure what to make of that. No human man judged another for an asari fetish - after all, most of them had cut their proverbial teeth on the asari girls featured in Fornax as soon as they'd hit puberty and had had the means to buy and hide a treasured monthly issue - but a turian fetish might be a little harder to explain what with the chitinous exoskeletons, the barbs, the mandibles, the talons...
Or hell, maybe it wouldn't be hard to explain at all. The extranet was a dirty place.
"I want the humans in sections A through F," Numerius was saying to Artorius as Meshkov turned back in. "Priority to their younglings and adults of less than sixty kilograms."
Meshkov wasn't very good with turian body language - they didn't even have the right parts to use half of the humans' library of nonverbal communications and the ones that looked the same, well, Meshkov had been through enough cultural sensitivity trainings to know that he couldn't trust them to have the same meaning - but at least their vocal inflections tended to be similar to those of humans. Numerius's subordinate sounded confused. Meshkov couldn't blame him.
"Radiation," said Numerius, her flanged voice clipped and almost as brisk as her newly-resumed pace. Meshkov struggled to keep up once again. Her voice took on a mildly reproachful tone. "You did not read the materials I gave you."
"I did!" protested Artorius.
"Then you did not extrapolate the intent," concluded Numerius.
Artorius paused slightly then hopped once to catch up to his commander. Meshkov was nearly at a jog to keep up with both. "I guess not, Commander. What -?"
"The only reason to know the environmental tolerances of humans," said Numerius with a patience so completely effortless that had the translators broken completely thirty seconds beforehand, Meshkov would never have known from her tone that she'd already tried once to give Artorius the answer, "is so that you know to make the proper accommodations for them. I have studied humans with great care since receiving this posting, Artorius, and I've learned only that there is very little - perhaps nothing at all - that you can assume about humans. It is a welcome luxury to get specifications." Her tone resumed a more businesslike cadence. "They have significantly less natural protection against radiation than we do. If Cerberus comes in where I expect them to, they'll be able to blow out the secondary reactor before we can stop them, even if I have people waiting for them. We stand a good chance of holding at Junction F-12 - almost indefinitely if we can keep environmental power, for 'long enough' if we can't - but the fallout from that reactor will be enough to severely harm, probably even kill, the smaller humans and their younglings. I want them in the primary shielded units at the station's core. Is that understood?"
Like many of the primarily scientific orbital facilities of its same generation, Caduceus Station was flat and round, a single plane of livable, breathable space oriented in concentric circles and pie slices. At its core were the most heavily protected areas, a circle of six evenly distributed slices of the pie, sections A through F, each one shielded and reinforced against the heat and radiation generated by the station's just-shy-of-state-of-the-art power core. As far as Meshkov knew, those sections were used for core access and storage for the station AI's underlying hardware. The residential units were all part of sections G through L, the six units comprising the middle of the station's three concentric circles, and the laboratories, recreational facilities, administrative offices, cafeteria, and gym all made up the outermost concentric circle.
"The humans will not be able to withstand what we can, especially over the long term," Numerius was telling Artorius. "If Cerberus blows the secondary reactor, as I am reasonably certain they will, the humans will need the added shielding. I want all other civilians in sections G through L with added security" - her omni-tool flared up and she pointed to various areas - "here, here, and here. I want backup munitions stored here and here. Food and water stores here, here, here, and here. We're going to hold as long as we can and I don't want a single child crying from an empty stomach while we do it. With any luck, reinforcements from the Hierarchy will arrive before things get... uncomfortable. Understood?"
"Understood, Commander," said Artorius. "You..." The turian looked remarkably uncomfortable, so much so that even Meshkov felt sympathetic discomfort on his behalf. "You're not going to put me in charge of the small humans, right?"
Numerius chuckled with genuine mirth at that and Meshkov was struck by how similar her laugh was to that of a human woman, save for the flanging of her voice.
"I will not," she reassured her second, clapping him on the back in a gesture that looked light but Meshkov had the feeling was actually quite strong, probably enough to make him stagger, if not dislocate his shoulder outright, "only because I still haven't finished the paperwork from your post-traumatic stress issues from your last bout with the small ones. No, you'll be holding here with Beta Squad." She pointed to her omni-tool.
Her second in command looked abjectly relieved - if Meshkov had known a decade ago that turians were that scared of human children, maybe he would have suggested a fundamental change in Cerberus's standard operating procedures - and immediately focused his attention back on the mission at hand, pointing an exceptionally sharp-looking talon at Numerius's display. "And you'll be here with Alpha?"
Numerius jerked a nod. "I will."
For the first time, Artorius looked back at Meshkov. Meshkov couldn't decipher the expression that flashed in the turian's eyes. "And the human?" he asked.
Numerius's pace didn't change. "Dr. Meshkov," she said, carefully enunciating his name in a manner that clearly indicated she had no liking for Artorius's way of addressing him and no problem whatsoever with making sure he knew it, "will be with me. He will either justify my faith in him and provide insights into the attack that our own research and intelligence cannot or -"
"Or he will turn on you as soon as you have something else distracting you," said Artorius matter-of-factly. There was no bite to his voice and when he glanced over his shoulder to give Meshkov a perfunctory head-to-toe, there was no heated accusation in that either.
"Or that," agreed Numerius easily.
"For the record," said Meshkov, speaking for the first time and finding himself unable to keep all the testiness from his voice, "Commander Numerius and I have come to an accord. She knows I fucked up, I know I really ruined her day, and we've since developed a mutually respectful relationship based on both of us not wanting anyone on this station to die in the immediate future."
Artorius didn't looked particularly reassured by that. It was hard to tell with turians.
"That's a more stable basis for a relationship than the one you had with Lieutenant Victa, Artorius," Numerius pointed out.
Artorius looked at her wordlessly for a moment, mandibles flexing in and out in an expression of obvious speechlessness. He looked as if he were trying to decide whether to follow up on a concern she obviously shared but was just as obviously through discussing... or to let it drop... or to sputter incomprehensibly in his own defense regarding whatever his relationship with this Lieutenant Victa had actually been. Apparently men of different species had more than a few things in common because Meshkov could clearly see the moment in which Artorius decided not to press the woman next to him. His shoulders dropped just slightly in defeat. "Lieutenant Victa and I just didn't have anything in common," he mumbled.
"Exactly," said Numerius. "Dr. Meshkov and I share a joint desire to not die as the station around us is infiltrated by terrorists, thrust first into violent chaos and then potentially into the annals of history alongside such 'proud' historical gems as Shanxi, Alobe Station, Assal Platform, and Grubram Station."
Meshkov's head snapped up, sharp blue eyes wide and raking against the back of Numerius's head.
She didn't look at him but he had the unmistakable impression that she could sense his gaze, that she had expected it.
"It's probably not enough for unseemly public displays of affection on the observation deck," she continued pointedly to Artorius who looked abashed enough that Meshkov could only conclude he and Lieutenant Victa had shared a few unseemly moments together in such a way, "but I think the not-betraying-one-another-to-almost-certain-doom bit is a completely reasonable expectation. Pick your team and run through simulations for the next two hours. Do one, review. Do another, review. Drill it. Hit two hours and then stop. Have them sleep on it. Real sleep. We'll be okay through the night. I want them at their freshest tomorrow. We don't normally get this kind of advance notice so take full advantage of it, Lieutenant."
Artorius jerked a nod at her and Meshkov was somewhat surprised to see that he did not question her again. There was something to say about turian discipline, the place of authority in their society, the way it wove through each fiber as seamlessly as dye. "Aye, Commander," he said.
"Dismissed," said Numerius.
Artorius looked at him once - again, that discerning but not necessarily challenging look, as if it was his job to expect Meshkov to turn traitor and was therefore fully expecting Meshkov to turn traitor... but was more irked by the inconvenience it would pose rather than worried about the danger it could present - then turned abruptly, striding off down one of the corridors that radiated out from the station's center.
Meshkov, still struggling to keep up with Numerius's fast but apparently normal pace, tried to think of a way to bring up the three stations she had mentioned, preferably without having to bring up the number of turians he'd actually been responsible for killing on each of them.
She saved him the time. "Yes, I know full well who you are, Dr. Meshkov," she said, "though you were known to me as Dr. Coagulopathy long before we made formal acquaintance." She cocked her head to the side thoughtfully. "I suspect the translator has made the nickname far more clinical than it actually is. Let me assure you that it sounds significantly more dramatic in its native turian with appropriately horrific connotations suiting the designer of a hemorrhagic fever with a ninety-nine percent casualty rate. Regardless of language, though, the nickname has far more syllables. I will continue addressing you by your given surname."
She gave him a sidelong glance... then frowned slightly, as if realizing for the first time that he was having trouble keeping up with her. She immediately slowed her pace and nodded at him in acknowledgement as he made it to her side.
Meshkov wasn't sure what he expected Numerius to say or do upon realizing that he had not been a mere foot soldier for a terrocentric organization that had killed thousands of her people but had rather been the biological architect behind the means by which those thousands had found their end... but he was pretty clear on what he didn't expect her to say or do. He had not expected her to address him politely or engage him in conversation. Or to slow her walk down for no other reason than it was faster than his.
"Oh," was all he could think to say.
There was a pause.
"Does this complicate the 'not-betraying-each-other-to-almost-certain-doom' thing?" he asked.
Numerius shook her head. "It is not my job to execute war criminals, Doctor," she said, "and even if it were, now is perhaps not the best time. I would prefer a hundred war criminals live than a single innocent die." She paused, her mandibles fluttering slightly. "That is perhaps why it is not my job to execute war criminals. I am clearly not of the right temperament."
"Did you take some kind of temperament assessment in grade school?" Meshkov asked. He was only partially joking. "Engineer, scientist, soldier, ice cream truck driver?"
"I took no formal assessment but strengths and weaknesses are constantly assessed throughout the educational and professional periods," said Numerius. "Unlike many other societies - including yours, Doctor - every turian is assumed to have both strengths and weaknesses throughout his or her lifetime; the lines may shift over time and the degrees to which a given metric is considered one or the other may be fluid, but a complete turian is one who has both strength and weakness. The presence of both is considered normal, indicative of a whole and functional member of society, and the absence of one or the other is considered abjectly pathological and treated as such. It is the duty of the society around a turian to recognize both and ensure that he or she is given a role that is consistent with his or her unique capabilities. If a turian fails, it is considered the fault of those around him for pushing him toward something they should have realized he was incapable of achieving. The advantage of a meritocracy, Doctor, is that turians only hold jobs at which they are singularly qualified to succeed." She paused again. "How does one retain the structural integrity of a vehicle made of ice cream?"
Meshkov blinked. It took him a moment. "The truck delivers ice cream," he said. "It isn't made of ice cream."
"Ah," said Numerius, nodding. "That makes significantly more sense. I had wondered why the Pied Piper relied merely on his unique musical stylings if he had such a technology at his disposal. I suspect a truck made of sweets would certainly attract children more effectively."
Meshkov blinked again. She was doing it again. The fairy tales. "I... suppose so," he said. He paused before adding more authoritatively, "Yes. Of course. Do, uh." He paused again. "Do turian children like sweets?"
"Indeed," said Numerius, "and a great deal more than they should... but a child that does not know temptation cannot be taught to protect himself from it and a child that does not learn joys merely grows into an adult that will not fight to keep them."
She glanced at him briefly then looked back ahead, continuing on their original topic, "It is my understanding that humans have a much more individual take on their roles within society, the responsibilities they have in those roles, and their ability or inability to meet those responsibilities or even fulfill those roles. You are allowed to choose your role and the responsibilities within that role as an individual - seeking out different roles or differing amounts of responsibility as you as an individual wish to - and the price for such, inevitably, is that your successes and your failures are yours and yours alone. I suspect you did not have any grade school assessments flagging you as a future arbiter of genocide. Was that, then, an individual career choice?"
Meshkov opened his mouth... then slowly shut it. "I wanted to be a professional soccer player," he said after a long moment.
Numerius nodded sagely though there was no possibly way she could know what soccer was... though, Meshkov thought after a moment, maybe he was wrong to doubt her. She had made enough of a study of human fairy tales that maybe it wasn't so far-fetched after all.
"I wished to study varanthera across the plains of Janus," she said.
Meshkov had no idea what a varanthera was but the faint edge of wistfulness in the turian commander's voice matched the sudden image of young turian woman in an armored car with a dust-colored pith helmet perched on her head, gazing across a savanna at sunset as she calibrated her ocular enhancements to watch a family group of wild animals settle down for the night.
"There are no varanthera here," said Meshkov.
"Nor any exuberant sports fans," Numerius returned.
It occurred to Meshkov that maybe Numerius knew as much about soccer as he did about varanthera: enough to understand.
The turian commander made a slight gesture with her head, a slight tilt with movement of her mandibles. Meshkov was pretty certain it was a turian version of a shrug.
"I was not of the right temperament," said Numerius.
"Weak knees," said Meshkov.
They walked together in silence.
Numerius broke the silence. He realized then that she was far braver than he could ever be.
"I have long suspected that though humans do not have the societal, maybe even institutionalized, methods for ensuring the most capable individuals hold the positions most appropriate for their strengths that turians do... that there are other forces at work that might serve the same purpose," she said thoughtfully. "Perhaps the grating, clamoring, cacophonous, chaotic ambition of many individuals inevitably culls those individuals with less capability as surely as our systems do. Perhaps those of less capability are paid less or promoted fewer times... or perhaps the institutions rewarding individuals for things other than capability with ill-deserved riches or laurels themselves fail. I know not what these methods might be but I suspect that they exist for you humans have shown remarkable growth, perseverance, and power. And yet it is all upon the individual."
She looked at him and he was struck again by just how alien her metallic skin was, how strange her mandibles were, how exotic her fringe was, and yet how easily he could read her eyes. They looked sad... sad in a weary sort of way and somehow that was worse than watching realization wash the very last vestige of happiness from Miranda's beautiful blue eyes on the night he said goodbye or seeing Abby's eyes flood with tears.
"Were you of the right temperament for genocide, Doctor?" she asked him. "Is that why whatever invisible forces drive humans to their individual choices drove you to Cerberus? Or did you not have such a temperament and that is why you were ultimately driven away?"
He wanted to tell her he was a good man. He wanted to tell her that he wasn't a coward, that he was a man of honor and strength, that he would be able to teach his daughter his mistakes and watch as she flourished without having to make them herself. He wanted it all to not be a lie. He really wanted that.
"I don't know," he told her. It was suddenly imperative that she understand and suddenly impossible for him to explain. "It... it wasn't about killing turians, Commander Numerius. It was never about killing turians. And it sure as hell wasn't about killing people."
He didn't know how to explain to her how those two things had seemed different because he'd been such an idiot boy, such a child, when he'd started that he'd never thought about it like he should have, he'd never asked the questions he should have. He didn't know how to explain to her that he was ashamed, so ashamed, that he had turned a blind eye to either the fact that he was killing people or the fact that turians were people. He still didn't know which it had been and it was far too late to matter.
He'd left. He'd risked his life to leave; he had hoped that Miranda could get him out without getting him killed but he hadn't had any real faith that even she - she who could do anything - could actually do it. But she had. He'd given up everything he'd ever wanted to leave; he had hoped Miranda would go with him but she hadn't been able or willing to see what he had and for all he knew, she still wasn't. But he'd left... because he had to leave... and because somehow he'd been allowed to. He didn't know why. He didn't know how. Miranda had done it and the only thing he knew for sure was that he didn't want to know what she had exchanged for it and whatever it was, it was something he didn't deserve and something he could never repay and if he wasn't such a damned coward, he would at least have told her thank-you despite the fact that she might have told him what price she'd had to pay for it.
He just couldn't be part of it any more. He knew that. He was too much of a coward to die for what he believed in, let alone kill for something he didn't.
But what good had it done?
The most good he'd ever done was try to get out of the game before he'd done something worse.
Suddenly, it was just too much. He could feel his shoulders sag.
"It was just a job, Commander," he said and he realized as the words were coming out that that was maybe the most brutally truthful thing he'd ever said. "I know it's hard to believe... but it was a job and I needed one. I had student loans to pay off. The job was just... it was just there and I took it. And I just didn't think about what it meant. I didn't think about what my work meant. I didn't think about any of it. I wasn't thinking about how the stupid eel slime - the eel slime, for godsake - breakthrough allowed us to stabilize the hemorrhagic fever that took out Alobe and Assal and Grubram and all the turians living and working on them. I was just thinking that I had to put in at least forty hours or I'd risk getting fired and I couldn't afford to lose the job because I needed the money and god help me, they gave me everything they always told us back at university that we'd never get if we ever ended up in a research position. I was just thinking that if I could just solve this one little thing, I'd have... well, have solved that one little thing. And I didn't stop to think what solving all those one little things would end up creating. I didn't think. I didn't stop and I didn't think. And once I stopped and once I started thinking... it was too late. I'd done it. I left... but what good did it really do? Nothing. And I'd never killed a man with my bare hands before tonight, before Shaw and Trias wouldn't stop, before I couldn't think of any other way to stop them from opening this station up like a piece of ripe fruit to Cerberus."
He didn't realize he hadn't breathed at all through that until he heard himself gasp for air.
He found himself ashamed yet again. Ashamed still. He looked away.
"So I don't know, Commander Numerius," he told the floor as he walked over it. "I was the right temperament to put my idiot head down, cash my paycheck, and ignore what my work meant. I was the right temperament to kill two men who maybe were just putting their own idiot heads down and ignoring what their work meant. I think I was the wrong temperament for Cerberus... but I don't think that means I'm the right temperament."
There was a long enough pause from the turian commander that Meshkov was almost certain these were his last moments, a brief flash of bitter honesty right before a flash of recognition as her bullets tore through his body... but instead of the expected cacophony of gunfire, there was merely a sigh. A tired, drawn-out sigh.
"You are a disappointment, Aleksander Meshkov," she said quietly.
He stopped in his tracks. He didn't realize his legs had stopped moving until he noticed that she stopped walking herself and had to turn around to face him.
"I'm what?" he asked even though he knew exactly what she had said.
"You are a disappointment," she repeated with the same sort of easy patience that she had shown Artorius.
Somehow... hearing that from her... somehow that was worse than many of the alternatives. He had no idea why. He had no idea how. Part of him felt a burst of anger that she couldn't recognize the significance of what he had just confessed to her. Part of him recoiled away with the realization that she recognized it just fine and it hadn't made a difference to her.
"You are a very intelligent man," said Numerius and he was struck yet again by how - if he could be excused for using a word that was as accurate as it was inaccurate - human her eyes were. "You have shown remarkable insight into both your people as a whole as well as yourself as an individual. It is difficult, I've noticed, for humans to do the latter. You, however, have somehow shown an impressive ability to do so." She cocked her head to the side. "And yet you confess to me as if you wish my pardon, as if you want me to understand you, as if you desire at a deep and fundamental level my forgiveness."
She reached out to him and he managed not to recoil. He'd never been touched by a turian before save for during his arrest. Her touch was surprisingly gentle, her fingers curving around his upper arm easily with her filed-down and gloved talons falling easily against rather than within his flesh. Her hand was astonishingly warm, even through the gloves.
"I cannot forgive you, Dr. Meshkov," she said. "It may be better for you to recognize that now lest we waste more time. I cannot understand you. I cannot understand your motivations. I cannot look at you and fail to see the blood that coats your hands. You have committed a great evil, knowingly or unknowingly, and I cannot fail to see it. And having seen it, I would not forgive you even if it were in my power to do so. You seek my forgiveness to make living with your crimes easier. I cannot and will not give that to you, Doctor, because your duty is to live without it being easy."
Meshkov huffed an almost-laugh. "Vengeance then, Commander?" he asked wearily. "The cost of all the lives I took?"
Numerius looked at him and for a moment, he felt like a schoolboy under the gaze of a teacher who could not figure out exactly how her student had managed to meander so far astray from the lesson. "No, Doctor," she said. "There are other punishments for your crime. This one is not a punishment."
"It's not a walk in the park either," he said.
She nodded slightly, either understanding his too-human phrasing or understanding the intent. "No, it is not a 'walk in the park' either, Doctor," she agreed. "It simply is."
She cocked her head again. "You have failed your people, Dr. Meshkov," she said without heat. Her tone was conversational... sad but conversational. "I don't know what it means for a human... but there is no greater dishonor for a turian. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, you have failed your people... and your people, Dr. Meshkov, have failed you. They should have recognized your genius and rewarded you for it, given you a position well suited to you, allowed you to flourish within it. They did not. They allowed you to languish, a diamond in the proverbial rough, and they are surprised and horrified by the amount of evil you were able to do only because they were too blind to see your potential for good. I am very sorry, Dr. Meshkov. There is no greater tragedy than a man failing his society and a society failing its man."
His throat felt tight.
"Turians have a saying," she continued, either unaware of his reaction to her words or quite aware of it. He couldn't tell which. "'All of the armory mourns the splintered shield'. A well-stocked armory bears items to achieve myriad different goals, some wildly disparate, others ostensibly similar though subtly different to those capable of sight and willing to see. Each item has a particular function - to slash, to pierce, to bludgeon, to block, to absorb, to reinforce, to disable, to confuse, to blind or to deafen - and only in the aggregate can the armory be considered effective for its owner. Should any one component be lost to the rigors of its normal existence - fractured during sparring, splintered in battle, allowed to rot without care and tending - the armory as a whole suffers. A splintered shield no longer has the strength it once did, no longer offers the protection it was meant to. The sword must be all the sharper for it, the arrows all the more accurate, the armor all the stronger." She glanced at him. "There is now a splintered shield where a whole one should have been and the entire armory - your entire people - mourns what could have been."
"Am I a lost cause then?" he asked and found himself genuinely desperate for her answer.
She surprised him by a laugh and he somehow thought it was both soft and sweet. "No, Dr. Meshkov," she said, "it is very unlikely that you are a lost cause. You are a failure and it is a tragedy... for you and for your people. You will not be able to offer the armory the protection you should have. It is too late for that and you waste time and effort hoping otherwise. This does not mean defeat. You can help the sword to become sharper, the arrows to fly more true, the armor to become thicker. There is always work to be done... far more work than there are bodies and minds to do it. You will never be able to make amends for your failures; you will never find this forgiveness that you seem to seek for there is no forgiveness to be had for someone who has failed as completely as you." She nodded almost imperceptibly at him. "But you will find success in its shadow and both you and your society as a whole must content yourselves with that."
She squeezed his upper arm - a little too hard for him to mistake it for a human's touch and she seemed to notice his slight grimace, frowning slightly down at her talons and obviously making a mental note to calibrate her grip strength accordingly in the future - and then gestured for him to continue walking with her. He did so. She measured her stride to be one comfortable for him.
Numerius suddenly raised her hand to the side of her head, a movement characteristic of someone who had just received a comm to a personal transceiver assembly. She listened to the words only she could hear before nodding briskly. "Noted," she said and abruptly turned on a heel down the nearest corridor. Meshkov increased his pace to keep up.
"The command center has detected abnormal readings from the relay," she explained to him without preamble. "It is perhaps nothing."
"Or it is perhaps a heat-shielded vessel trying to get up close without us noticing," said Meshkov.
"Or that," agreed Numerius.
"That's not characteristic of Cerberus," he offered. "They rarely changed plans. If they were going to send a vanguard, they would either have sent it long before - something like having Shaw and Trias here, for example - or would not have bothered with shielding."
"That is somewhat if not entirely reassuring," said Numerius. She paused and glanced at him. "Your assistance is nonetheless appreciated."
He snorted but didn't say anything.
"Do you know the story of the Little Mermaid?" he asked her after what seemed like five minutes but might have been no more than one.
"I do," said Numerius without looking over at him. "A princess of an underwater realm offers everything of significance that she possesses in order to gain the affection of an above-water member of the royal family. She fails tragically and loses everything."
Meshkov smiled slightly.
Numerius glanced at him, askance. "I am missing something," she concluded, a faint expression of disapproval crossing her features.
"It probably doesn't translate well," Meshkov reassured her.
"Make the attempt," ordered Numerius.
He did. "Well, first you have to tell it right," he told her. "Once upon a time... They all start with 'once upon a time', you know. 'Once upon a time'. It's important."
Numerius looked affronted that she was not already aware of such a thing. "It is important in what way?" she demanded.
"Because then we know it's a fairy tale," he told her. "We know we're about to learn something."
"Hmm," said the turian woman. "So it is similar to the instructor's whistle, calling attention to the lesson."
He didn't think it was similar at all... but what the hell did he know? "I have no clue what it's similar to," he said, "but that's how they all start." She didn't seem to understand but she at least seemed to appreciate his honesty. He'd take it. "That's how we know it's a story that we're supposed to learn from. 'Once upon a time'."
"Once upon a time," Numerius repeated carefully. She nodded at him. "I am clear. Continue."
He nodded. "Once upon a time," he said and he pretended for a moment that he was not walking down the corridors of a doomed space station but was instead in Abby's room with the lights turned low and his little girl tucked into her bed with Waffle, her stuffed rabbit, clutched in her arms, "there lived a princess of the merfolk, the youngest daughter of the King of the Sea. She watched as each of her elder sisters, on their fifteenth birthday, swam to the surface of the ocean to see the world beyond, and then swam back down with rich and vibrant stories of the aboveworld and the human living therein. Such amazing creatures... so short-lived but possessing an eternal soul. She listened rapturously to the stories they told then... and when her turn finally comes, she swims to the surface herself to see it all for herself. While there, she sees a prince upon a magnificent ship and she falls in love with him. When a storm destroys the beautiful ship, she rescues the prince and delivers him safely to the land he needs. She waits with his fallen form until help comes - a pretty young girl from the nearby temple - and as it does, she disappears back beneath the waves. He never sees her. She, however, cannot forget him.
"Filled with longing for that which she cannot and should not have, she enters into a deal with Sea Witch. In exchange for her beautiful voice and her lovely tail, the Sea Witch will grant her a human body. Every step will feel to her as if she is stepping on blades but she will be able to walk and to dance and, if she is able to earn her prince's love, to even possess an eternal soul. If she cannot earn her prince's love, she will disintegrate the following dawn into sea foam as all mermaids do. She accepts the terms and despite the excruciating pain of every step she makes in the body that is not truly hers, the prince finds her enchanting and lovely and she is happy.
"But the prince marries a neighboring princess - the very girl from the temple who had found him, safe though he already was thanks to the Little Mermaid's help - and the Little Mermaid finds herself brokenhearted, mere hours away from dissolving into the foam atop the waves. Her sisters find her, bringing her the last possible option for salvation: she can kill the prince, bathe her feet in his blood, and regain her tail, able to live her life out in the world to which she was born."
"She does not," said Numerius, her voice oddly quiet.
"She cannot," corrected Meshkov. "She stands over the prince's bed, seeing him there with his beautiful new wife, and finds she cannot kill him. As the sun breaks over the horizon, she hurls herself into the sea and dissolves into sea foam, sparkling in the sun." He glanced up at Numerius. "But she finds that instead of her awareness dissolving along with her body, she retains her sense of self. She exists. She is beyond. She is a daughter of the air. For all she was willing to risk for an eternal soul, she has been given a chance to continue her hard work, to perhaps someday earn herself the soul she so desperately wants."
"Three hundred years of good deeds," said Numerius. "Minus one year for each good child and plus one day for each tear spilled for a bad child."
"Yep," said Meshkov.
There was a moment of silence.
"You are hoping to obtain your eternal soul through good works," said Numerius. She looked deep in thought as if she could not quite reconcile the idea.
He shrugged slightly. "I'd settle for maybe one less stain on my mortal one," he said.
"She should never have left her family," said Numerius but for the first time, Meshkov thought she sounded just a little bit uncertain. "That is the moral of the story. She had her place, her role, her responsibilities. She was punished for attempting to forsake them, for putting her own needs above those of her people, for acting as an individual regardless of her responsibilities to others. She should not have left the water. Her family should never have let her do something at which she was almost certainly doomed to fail. She..." There was a faint pause. "She was not of the right temperament."
"Yes," said Meshkov. "She was not of the right temperament and she was punished for it, as she should have been. But maybe she was just a stupid kid. Once she gave up her tail, though, there was no going back. The only way she could regain her old nature was to do something against her nature. She chose not to. She could only do her best... and though her reward for doing her best was not what she wanted - she did not get her soul, she did not get her prince, she did not get her life in the sun, she did not even get to rejoin her sisters back under the waves - she was not ended as she expected to be. She had lost everything save for a very distant, ephemeral hope. It was hard and risky and there was a damned good chance that she'd never get it... but she tried anyway. Three hundred years of good deeds plus a day for every tear shed over a bad child." He shrugged slightly. "Maybe she got her soul... or maybe she's still trying for it... but either way, good deeds were done that would not have been done otherwise. Maybe that's okay."
Numerius's mandibles flexed. "You suggest that even selfish and reckless individualism may indeed benefit the social aggregate," she said.
"I was just telling you a fairy tale," said Meshkov.
Numerius grunted in something that sounded distinctly like a combination of disapproval and grudging acceptance. Meshkov almost smiled.
They continued on in silence.
They rounded the next corner toward the command center before Numerius announced suddenly, "I will help you earn your eternal soul, Doctor."
It took him a moment to reply because his throat slammed shut. Damn if that wasn't the bittersweetest proclamation anyone had ever made to him. And damn if he had any idea why she made it.
"Thanks," he said. "I'll... try not to get you and your people killed."
"That would be greatly appreciated," said Numerius matter-of-factly. Her pace increased and he found himself almost jogging once again in an attempt to keep up. "Come along."