Chapter 27: Where the Cat Walks
"When are you going to teach me to shoot lightning?" Jack demanded loudly, opening her eyes and looking up at Maeteris.
"You will learn that when you learn to pick out individual thoughts," the farseer replied.
"I think I should learn how to shoot lightning. That's much more useful to know in combat."
"Therein is revealed impatience and narrow-mindedness, folly most often seen in the young. You must learn this not for its application in combat, but to teach you to focus your mind. Without focus, you are an unanchored ship caught in a tempest. You must learn serenity, even as you are channeling the raw might of your emotions. You must learn to be precise, even as you are caught in the maelstrom of war. You must learn to use the gentlest of touches, even as you seek to unleash cataclysm. Warp lightning is channeled through anger and hatred and the need to do violence, and yet you must be restrained, or you will be destroyed."
"Hold up," Jack protested. "Raw might of emotions, Maelstrom of war? Cataclysms? I just want to learn to shoot lightning, not nuke an entire city." She paused. "Do you think I will be able to nuke an entire city?" The thought was almost enough to make Jack tremble with excitement, something that rarely occurred. Just how far could she push this new power of hers?
Maeteris cast her a withering stare. "You will learn all the skills that I have said, or not learn at all."
"All right," Jack grumbled. "God. You can be a real bitch sometimes, you know that?"
"Jack." Maeteris' voice was level, but a small whisper of power infused within the syllable the sharp crack of thunder.
Jack quailed. "Fine, I'm doing it." She closed her eyes and did as Maeteris had instructed, focusing upon the mind of one particular member of the Normandy's crew. She had chosen Miranda, of course. If the farseer wanted to teach her to read minds, Jack figured that she should use the opportunity to find out more secrets that the Cerberus officer was hiding. She concentrated, trying to drown out the sound of the minds of the other crew members of the Normandy, concentrating upon Miranda's cabin.
"Envision the thoughts of your target," Maeteris' voice came to her. "Forget the constraints of the physical world."
"Do not try. Do."
Jack's fists tightened upon her knees, swallowing a snide retort. How hard could this be? She had done it before, after all. Then the murmurs of the crew's thoughts within her mind faded away and she was left with only the thoughts of one other.
"Good," came the farseer's voice again. "Now, do not simply listen to her surface thoughts. Delve into her mind. View the things locked within her innermost bring. Within her deepest memories and buried emotions – there you may see what makes her who she is. Only then may one truly understand another."
"They need an instruction manual for this," Jack complained, her voice a little strained. "I don't understand what you're telling me to do."
"You already understand," Maeteris replied calmly. "Do not consciously think about it. Will her thoughts to be opened up to you. Let your instincts guide you."
Jack squeezed her eyes together tightly, trying to do as Maeteris had instructed, consciously aware of every second that passed. Then she felt something, a pain and fear so palpable that Jack was briefly thrown back to the days of her youth spent within that accursed Cerberus facility. But these emotions were not hers. It felt just a little too different. Then the emotions were accompanied by images. Vividly, she saw a young girl cowering in the shade of something; Jack could not see what it was, only that it was great, terrible, uncaring and aloof, and had absolute control over not only her entire life, but also her very self.
"That's enough," she wanted to say, but she could not severe herself from Miranda's mind. She was transfixed, drawn deeper into the depths of Miranda's consciousness, unable to turn away from all that she saw and felt. And what a paradox it was. There was pain and fear but also the brief satisfaction of having power. She was both perfect and flawed and consciously aware of the two irreconcilable facts, and she feared both. Then there were other faces there, judging, condemning, desiring what she could do but not what she has done, as one would a useful VI program.
Half a lifetime later – Miranda's lifetime – did Jack finally manage to break the connection between them.
"What the hell was that?" she demanded, resting her head between her hands. Her fingers, she noticed, were shaking.
"A success," Maeteris explained coolly.
Jack looked up at her. The farseer's expression was serene and untroubled.
"Success? You call that a success?"
"You managed to isolate the mind of a particular individual, did you not? And you delved into her innermost being, as I had instructed you to do. It is as I have said. To know another, one must see and feel all that he has. It is not lightning, but-"
"Those feelings she had when she was young?" Jack interrupted. "Emotional pain and all that? Please, that's nothing." Jack was suddenly feeling quite belligerent, though she was too caught up in the moment to understand its source, and she knew that it was likely silly to attempt to take it out on the farseer.
"And yet was the pain any lesser than what you suffered when you were younger?" Maeteris paused. "You could not tear yourself away from her memories. Was it familiarity that drew you onward, or fascination?"
"How about a desire to see if there was more, or if the cheerleader thought she had it bad because the little girl was not loved?"
Maeteris' eyebrow rose in a perfect arch. "If you say so." Without another word, she turned to leave. "Keep practicing," she threw back over her shoulder.
"Wait," Jack called to her, a sliver of suspicion beginning to form in her mind. "The cheerleader's memories. Did you make me watch it all? I couldn't seem to get out. Was that what you intended all along?"
"I had no need to. Your own eagerness to seek out Miranda's secrets was enough to hold you." And then she was gone.
Glaring dirtily at the spot the eldar had just occupied, Jack sank with a certain surliness back onto the floor to continue her practice.
Kasumi went down to the hangar as soon as Victoria and the others had left the Normandy. Maeteris was there, she knew. The eldar had been spending more time there since M'tarr came aboard the ship. It was probably good for Maeteris to do so. Kasumi liked her time alone, but the ancient alien tended to overdo the concept of solitude just a bit. As they always did, none of the crew paid much attention to Kasumi as she made her way through the ship, partly because they were all bustling about in preparation for the restocking and maintenance of the Normandy, but mostly because Kasumi had, as usual, activated her cloak. Maeteris, of course, would be quite different. The eldar would never directly say so, but Kasumi was sure that Maeteris was not fooled.
Maeteris was kneeling in her usual spot with her back against the wall, half-hidden in shadows. Her hands rested daintily upon her knees, her eyes watching M'tarr as her companion stalked an illusory rat that slunk between the crates stacked high in the hangar. Maeteris had been rather insistent that they referred to M'tarr not as a pet but a companion, and anyone who slipped up found themselves at the receiving end of the withering glare of a rather annoyed farseer. Kasumi did not approach Maeteris immediately, instead hanging back a little to watch.
M'tarr was stalking Maeteris' illusory rat, her belly almost touching the ground. Then she pounced. Before she could get her claws into the rat, however, the rodent leapt, far higher than any rodent could leap. Then it began flying, much as a bird would, its legs twitching in approximation of the movements of wings.
M'tarr drew back in bemusement, her head tilting curiously to the side. Effortlessly, she began climbing and jumping, pulling herself up onto the crates and machinery that littered the wall of the hangar. From her perch she gazed down at the rat, which had now begun swooping and diving and spiraling in patterns that an Alliance pilot would have envied. M'tarr's eyes narrowed dangerously. Her tail waved once, and then she became completely still.
A moment passed, then the gyrinx sprang like an uncoiled spring. So swift was she that Kasumi quite nearly did not see her move. But the rat vanished before M'tarr struck. The gyrinx landed lightly, looking with curious disappointment at her empty paws.
"Behind you, M'tarr," Maeteris said from where she sat. Sure enough, the rat had appeared behind the gyrinx, its head shaking tauntingly from side to side.
M'tarr regarded it for a few moments with a level gaze, then she turned and hissed at Maeteris.
The farseer shrugged. "You were the one who said my hunts were too easy, dear one. As I recall, your words were "M'tarr knows Farseer Maeteris always lets M'tarr catch the meat-prey. M'tarr is not a frail-of-body who must be coddled"."
When M'tarr leapt next, it was not at the rat. She landed upon Maeteris, her weight quite nearly bowling the farseer over. She swatted at Maeteris' cheek with her large paws, nibbling her shoulder with mock ferocity. Maeteris chuckled and wrapped her arms around the gyrinx, scratching behind her ears and under her jaws.
"Aww, I want to do that too!" Kasumi squealed, breaking out of her concealment and rushing forward.
"I thought you might," Maeteris said, seemingly – and probably – entirely unsurprised at Kasumi's sudden appearance.
Kasumi crossed the space between them in a dozen long strides, pulling M'tarr close. M'tarr appeared to enjoy the attention, a low purr reverberating through her lean body as she rubbed her furry cheek against Kasumi's. When Kasumi finally released her, M'tarr turned and hopped off Maeteris' leg, flicking her tail playfully at the farseer as she did so. Then she strutted off, her head held high in a most regal manner and her bushy tail raised up behind her. As she did so, something shiny went skittering across the deck. Deftly, Maeteris reached out and snatched it up.
"What's that?" Kasumi asked curiously.
"Something that does not concern you."
"Secrets, Maeteris? Oh, now I want to know. Please tell me, Maeteris. Please." To help with her wheedling, Kasumi cupped her hands in front of her and adopted a wide-eyed, tragic look that has always worked.
"Oh, Maeteris, please! I'll tell you my secret if you tell me yours."
"I do not wish to know your secrets. I could just take them from you if I did."
"You wouldn't dare!"
Maeteris gave her a level look. "Who's going to stop me?"
"I wouldn't tell anyone, Maeteris. And I wouldn't stop until you tell me."
The eldar sighed and held her hand up. A strip of wispy cloth hung from between her fingers. At its end was a simple golden icon of a stylised two-headed eagle.
"Nice necklace," Kasumi said, appraising it with a well-trained eye, noting the elegance and superb craftsmanship of the deceptively simple jewellery, immediately aware that many dealers of such items would pay exorbitant amounts for it.
But Maeteris merely shrugged. "It's a trinket. I would have no use for any other like it, but this I keep as a reminder."
"A reminder of what?"
"Of what could be," Maeteris replied cryptically.
"That's extremely unhelpful, Mae."
Maeteris toyed with the necklace. "It belonged to a human, one of the few humans I'd ever really called a friend. Hardan. He was an assistant governor when I met him, serving a man whose name I never bothered to find out. His lord had somehow come into possession of half a dozen soulstones. The fool of a governor did not know what he held; he must have assumed they were a few mere baubles. But he did know their value to my people. He contacted one of the corsair fleets my craftworld supplied, and they brought the information to us. I was available and the youngest farseer, so I went to negotiate with him. The governor had a rival family he wanted dead. Their families had been at each other's throats for centuries. It was simple enough to get rid of them. Then there was a pirate fleet plaguing the system, then it was information he wanted recovered. And so it went as he asked for more favors in return. I grew tired of it, and so my warlocks and I simply killed him and took the soulstones. Hardan became governor then. That should have been the end of it.
"Instead, I found a valuable ally in Hardan. He was not too dull of mind for a human, and never really got on my nerves. It was small at first. I helped him with a daemonic cult, he kept an eye out for anything of the eldar and returned them. Over time, I'd have his forces get rid of local threats that the craftworld did not want to waste time on, and in return I would provide him with all sorts of information. We even had the outcasts visiting every so often, and two hundred rooms in his palace were dedicated to any visiting eldar who wished to spend the night."
"Outcasts?" Kasumi asked. "Why would outcasts help you do anything?"
"They were not ostracised, Kasumi," Maeteris explained. "Those who walk the Path of the Outcast are simply those who do not wish to follow the Paths of the craftworlds. They are the free of heart who desire adventure and excitement. They are the eyes and ears of the craftworlds in distant corners of the galaxy."
"I see. Please, go on."
"It was perhaps the best relationship I have had with a human. It was certainly very productive." Maeteris nibbled upon her lower lip, her eyes darkening. "Then came the inquisitor. She was a fanatic of the Ordo Xenos, the order that deals in the threat of non-human species. Everywhere she went she eradicated even traces of anything she deemed alien and anyone whom she judged to have been overly exposed to anything non-human. She arrived in Hardan's system and wished to do the same there. I saw her arrival, of course, three decades prior, but Hardan would not change his views on us, nor renounce what he had learnt of us, not even to save his own life. And so, when the inquisitor came, Hardan refused to pledge himself and his worlds to the service of her ideas, nor to turn on us. Thus she deployed her forces, among them three companies of Deathwatch. Eight worlds and moons saw the treads of armed soldiers overnight. Most of the population did not really care one way or another, and only a day later Hardan had surrendered, as long as his people were spared. The inquisitor wanted to execute him." A smirk came over Maeteris' lips. "I convinced her not to. After that… well, Hardan would have died if he had stayed. I brought him to Ulthwé. I was a farseer, and so the eldar did not object too much. I guess they thought I saw something within the skeins." She shook her head. "I only saw something within him."
Maeteris smiled wryly. "You humans may be infants, but I suppose that even infants possess compassion - perhaps in a much purer manner than most. When Hardan died, I kept his insignia to remind me of that."
"Sounds like you're fond of him," Kasumi drawled suggestively.
Maeteris paused reflectively. "In the way one would be of a small child, yes, I suppose I was."
"Are you sure it's not more than that?"
"No," Maeteris said firmly.
"All right, perhaps not Hardan, then." She paused. "What about August?" she asked quickly, as though the idea had just occurred to her.
Maeteris sighed. "Kasumi, I do not think that you quite comprehend. I do not find humans very attractive in the same way that you do not find vorcha attractive."
"Hey, I'll give anything a go," Kasumi replied flippantly. "You sure you don't want to give August a chance too?"
Maeteris' eyes were flinty as she looked Kasumi directly in the face. It has to be said that Kasumi really did try holding her gaze. After only a couple of moments, however, she averted her eyes.
"All right, no need to get all defensive," she muttered. "You know, we humans say that denying it means that you secretly do care for him. In that way," she added.
Maeteris shook her head but did not reply.
Kasumi scooted a little closer to Maeteris. "Anyway, all that aside, I came down here to ask you something."
"No, Kasumi. I will not accompany you on your escapades to the Citadel."
"Oh, Mae, please?" Kasumi wheedled. "Vic said we have to go with someone. Since Kelly's busy with paperwork, I've volunteered you."
"Find someone else."
"That's not how it works, Mae. The air will be good for you anyway. You can't stay in here all day."
"You are most persistent," Maeteris told her flatly.
"I know." Kasumi grinned impudently at her. "I know of this really good sushi restaurant down in the Wards. There's a seat for M'tarr too." She gestured down at herself. "I've even dressed up nicely for the occasion and everything."
Maeteris sighed and rose in a single graceful movement, smoothing down the front of her dress. "Very well. I shall entertain you. M'tarr needs to hunt anyway."
"Uh, Mae? The fish are already dead. You don't need to hunt it."
"I know," the eldar replied unhelpfully.
Remembering Maeteris' disapproval of the luxury skycar on Illium, Kasumi hired a taxi that took them to the Wards. The driver, Kasumi noted, snuck frequent glances at Maeteris in her mirror as she drove, and she forgot entirely to collect her fee when she dropped them off, her eyes still fixated upon Maeteris.
"Wonder what it is about you that makes asari act that way," Kasumi mused as they stepped out.
"It is no concern of mine."
"Yeah, but it is for me. You aren't even trying now. Imagine just how long you could hold their attention for if you really wanted to just by standing there." Kasumi snapped her fingers. "There's an idea. Hey, after this Omega-4 thing is over, you'll need something to do, wouldn't you?"
"Yes. The Reapers will still exist. I intend to make them not so."
"All right, after that then. What I'm getting at is that you'll eventually need something to do. You're able to turn the heads of everyone around you and, more importantly, keep them turned. That's a very useful trait to have in some circles – my circles, specifically."
"You would like me to become a thief." Maeteris' tone was matter of fact.
"No, of course not. I'd like you to become my partner. Imagine it. I could break into a lot more places with you helping."
"What need have I for the possessions of others?"
"That's not the point, Mae. I'm not a thief because I need anything. Well, sometimes I really do want something, but those are rare exceptions. I am one because it's fun."
"Be that as it may, I do not make it a habit to seek out pleasure."
"Oh, Mae," Kasumi sighed mournfully. "And you could make such a killing in my line of work."
Maeteris turned to look steadfastly ahead. "We will speak no more of this."
"There it is," Kasumi said as they got out of their taxi. "That sushi place."
"It is an unusual name," Maeteris noted.
"Oh, that's not its real name, of course. It's just what I call it. I can never remember what it's called."
Maeteris turned her attention to the restaurant, taking in the dozens upon dozens of people crowding one side of the wide stairway that led down to its entrance. They were all, Maeteris noted absently, rather finely dressed as far as the standards of the Citadel went.
"What now?" she asked Kasumi.
The thief smiled with no small degree of smugness, smoothing down the front of her dress. "We go right in."
"Miss Suh," the host greeted her as soon as he saw her. "It is always a pleasure to have you. I'll let the waiters know you're here. Same table?"
"If it is not too much trouble," Kasumi replied, adopting a stilted accent. Maeteris glanced at her. She had drawn herself up rather admirably, her bearing that of one who expected their every demand to be swiftly met.
"Of course," the man replied, turning away to type frantically in his datapad.
"Different identity, I see," Maeteris observed quietly.
Kasumi's eye closed in a slow wink. "Zhao spends her credits on clothes and cars and ships. When she eats, she has her food delivered right up to wherever she currently was. No one would believe her if she came to a place like this. Suh, on the other hand, is a woman who must be seen going to all the best places in the galaxy – including restaurants."
She squared her shoulders as the host returned, tilting her chin up in an aloof manner.
"Your table is… uh…" The man gazed down at M'tarr, then looked deferentially up at Kasumi. "Begging your pardon, but you'll have to leave your pet outside."
"M'tarr's not exactly a pet," Kasumi explained with a fine air of outrage. "She is quite sapient."
"Even so, I can't allow her in."
"M'tarr can wait," the gyrinx offered, looking between the man and Maeteris.
"Hardly likely," Maeteris muttered flatly. She extended her thoughts towards the man and he started slightly, looking around in bewilderment.
"You may go in now," he said politely, gesturing for them to enter, paying M'tarr absolutely no heed even as she brushed up against his leg.
"How magnanimous," Maeteris muttered.
"What's that all about?" Kasumi asked in bemusement.
"A trick, nothing more. It is trivial to divert the attention of others away from something or someone."
"M'tarr's invisible?" Kasumi asked skeptically, looking down at the gyrinx.
"No, Kasumi. They will see her, and will be aware of her presence. They simply will not pay any attention to her or what she is doing. It is much more useful than merely vanishing from sight."
"I can see that. It'll be a very useful skill to know. Do you know how many places I could rob blind if I knew how to do that?"
"As a matter of fact, I do. And no, I am not going to help you do so."
Kasumi sighed dramatically, settling expansively into one of the chairs at their table. A large window stretched from the floor up to the ceiling beside it. Curiously, Maeteris glanced out of it, taking in the long unbroken lines of skycars that zipped to and fro between the buildings of the Citadel Ward.
"What do you want to eat?" Kasumi asked.
Maeteris glanced at the menu before her, scanning the multitude of names that were largely meaningless to her. Delicately, she pushed the holographic display aside. "Some fruit, perhaps?"
"I think we can do better than that." She twirled her finger before the screen. "Would you like some fish, M'tarr?"
"M'tarr wants something to hunt," the gyrinx told Maeteris.
Maeteris smiled down at her. "One could not get such a thing here, dear one."
"M'tarr thought this is where one gets food?"
"Yes, but they first cut and cook the prey, much like Gardner does."
"Why would they do that? They are not part of M'tarr's pack."
"Well, Kasumi will compensate them with things that hold great value to them."
"How strange. M'tarr wonders who came up with the idea of such a place, and how silly a being he must have been." M'tarr licked her paw daintily. "M'tarr also thinks that she now understands why the ungifted ones fight so much."
The gyrinx's reply was enthusiastic. "Everything has a need to hunt, and that must be spent somewhere if not on the catching of prey."
"Perhaps you may be on to something there, M'tarr," Maeteris said affectionately.
The gyrinx's tail waved appreciatively.
"So, Mae," Kasumi said. "What do you think? Hope you aren't too disappointed by this place."
"Why would I be?"
"Well, it's got to be quite different from restaurants back on your world – that is, if your planet has restaurants."
"The craftworlds are not planets," Maeteris said absently. "Though the greatest of them are as large as some."
"Oh, I thought -"
"It is incorrect. The craftworlds are the vessels that house the remnants of our civilisation."
"Oh, like the Migrant Fleet," Kasumi nodded. "Except if they were all insanely huge." She paused. "I'm sorry. I didn't realise things were quite so bad with your people."
"We are certainly not what we once were," Maeteris muttered wryly.
"Well, the quarians lost their homeworld to the geth. What about the eldar?"
"It was also a foe of our creation. We are told that its creation was an accident, but I have seen lores of the harlequins that state quite the opposite. We attempted to create a god, as we have before, until the cults of Commorragh threw the ritual into disarray."
"You're saying words but I'm not really understanding, Mae."
"You do not have to understand. At any rate, the craftworlds now hold the legacy of our people. That is all I will say on this matter. I do not want to dwell upon the memory of my people. It is painful."
"Of course, Mae. I'm sorry."
Maeteris inclined her head, accepting the apology. M'tarr reached a paw out to Maeteris and she smiled, running her fingers through the fur along the gyrinx's back, taking comfort in the simple motion.
Their food came a little while later, the waiter placing plates before each of them without a word or a second glance.
"Ooh, you've got to try these," Kasumi immediately recommended, swapping dishes around on the table until a plate of green noodles lay before Maeteris. "Oh, and this too. And let's not forget this. These sushi is the best in the galaxy."
"Kasumi," Maeteris said crisply.
"Right, right, sorry. You like things as minimal as possible. I forgot. At least try this. Take some of that green paste, but not too much."
Maeteris gazed levelly at her. "I am not a newborn. I know how to eat."
"She's no fun, is she?" Kasumi asked M'tarr. "You wanna try this fish, you little sweetheart?"
M'tarr sniffed the offered fillet experimentally, gingerly took a small bite, and then gulped the rest down in a single mouthful.
They lingered over their food, talking about nothing in particular. Rather, Kasumi talked, and Maeteris listened. Maeteris was quite content to let her do so. Then Kasumi whisked them off to a nearby juice bar, where she bought two decadently towering cups of some yellow liquid and pressed one into Maeteris' hand. Maeteris began to protest, but Kasumi shook her head vehemently.
"You have to drink it, Mae. No palming it off. It's rude to do so." She looked around, casually sipping her drink through an elaborate straw. "I seem to remember there's a bookstore somewhere around here. Sold all sorts of classics in actual paper form. I wonder if it's still around." And then she laughed, sounding just a little abashed. "People laugh at me when I talk about reading off paper."
"It is their loss. Such forms of information storage have a certain charm."
"You like paper books too?" Kasumi asked, sounding surprised.
"We use wraithsilk and other types of psychoplastics, but the idea is much the same. Of course, to us they came about not out of necessity but novelty. Before that, as we do now, we stored information, ideas, and emotions on trinkets in the shape of whatever drew their creator's fancy. Hence, there was no need for anything to be written down or read."
"Didn't the Protheans use the same sort of trick? Vic found a beacon on… one of the planets she visited some years back."
"Yes, I have seen this. Theirs is, of course, quite a bit more… limited. Of course, the problem with such a technique is that any skilled enough to do so could also take in from such artifacts anything he pleases without having to be in possession of it. Or perhaps this form of communication is simply the whimsical creation of some bored eldar looking to put our written language to use. Whatever the reason, scrolls and times have become quite the proliferated curiosity."
"That's interesting. I'd have never thought about how your psychic abilities could affect the development of technology. You skipped over a whole stage there that we've always thought was essential." She paused. "We must seem like a bunch of blind people to you, with how much you use psychic stuff for everyday things."
"Quite, Kasumi. Quite."
"That's pretty crazy." Suddenly, Kasumi jumped and took hold of Maeteris' arm. "Ooh, there it is! It's still here!"
Maeteris followed her gleeful gaze. The bookstore in question was an inconspicuous establishment, standing between two imposing and brightly-lit buildings. The little shop seemed almost conscious of its dim interior and unassuming front as it cowered between its lavish neighbors, resigned to the fact that none of the hundreds of people who passed gave it a second glance.
Bubbling with childlike exuberance, Kasumi made a beeline straight for it, seemingly quite determined to simply walk right over anyone who did not get out of the way quickly enough.
The inside of the bookstore was commandeered by row upon row of shelves, each creaking with the weight of hundreds of books. Maeteris skimmed their spines as she walked past, breathing in the dusty small of old pages, finding in it a certain sense of soothing.
"Ooh, look," Kasumi breathed, taking a book reverently down from the shelf next to her. "I loved this series when I was a kid. And a first edition too!"
Curiously, Maeteris glanced at the cover. 'The Eternal Space', it was titled, the stark silver font hovering boldly over the heads of a detailed illustration of a turian and an asari watching the sunset from a ship's observation window.
"This is a classic."
"If you say so."
"I do say so. It's won dozens of the biggest awards in the galaxy and sold billions of copies."
"That is merely a measurement of its popularity."
"True. And the series is something of a guilty pleasure. Not that I care much what other people think." Clutching the book tightly to herself, Kasumi wandered further into the store.
"Kasumi seems overjoyed," M'tarr noted laconically, nonchalantly grooming one of her paws.
"She has found a sliver of her younger days. That tends to bring joy."
"That is true. M'tarr thinks she understands the purpose of these books, but she thinks that it must be a rather dreary thing to have to stare at something for hours just to know what it has to say."
"The ungifted have nothing to compare it to."
"How curious." She stretched luxuriously and yawned. "It does not mean that M'tarr has to look at them, though. M'tarr wants to explore this place."
"Of course, M'tarr. Do not wander off too far."
"M'tarr knows that Maeteris could know where M'tarr is at any time. No need for Maeteris to worry." Rubbing her cheek upon Maeteris' leg, the gyrinx padded her way out of the bookstore.
Kasumi came sidling up to Maeteris. The thief had her arms tucked behind her back and a pleased smile upon her lips.
"Hey Maeteris. What's the eldar word for 'gift'?"
"Our tongue does not involve words but concepts. Thus, there are many ways in which one could impart the idea of a gift, and many other things that a chosen concept of a gift could also mean. In short, your question is a nonsensical one."
Kasumi nodded vigorously, her smile turning into a grin. "All right, then say the sentence or whatever you'd say if you had a gift for me."
Maeteris did so, using the formal tongue of the eldar that imparted meaning through not only her words but also in her posture, gestures, and thoughts, all of which she was sure that Kasumi missed entirely. Kasumi's smile, if anything, grew even wider.
"You know, you should make an entire album of you just talking. You could collapse the entire music industry." Her smile turned wicked. "Or sell it as an aphrodisiac."
"Right, right. Anyway, what you just said. I have something for you." With a melodramatic flourish, she unveiled a set of five books from behind her back. "Found these on a shelf in the back for a fiver. Unused copies of the original Lord of the Rings books, and extra. I didn't include the so-called sequels from the 100s. They're awful. You'll like it. It's got wizards, evil beings, and elves. Basically exactly like your galaxy."
"That is… thoughtful, Kasumi. Thank you."
"Don't mention it. I also got a few things for August."
"He will not read anything that does not have the icon of the Imperium stamped upon its cover."
"Oh, I'm sure I could get him to read these."
The streets of the Citadel were less crowded than those of Illium, but those who walked them moved hurriedly, either with barely-contained excitement of with the harried air of those with a great many things to do. The air smelt different too, bearing a metallic hint that M'tarr could not quite place. It was also strangely empty in a way that M'tarr could not quite place, though the streets all around her thronged with the ungifted and the mildly gifted. It was not until M'tarr passed a small garden that the reason came to her. The Citadel did not house any small creatures, neither the birds nor rodents nor insects that she was so used to on Moarheff, and which even the great stone cities of Illium could not keep out. M'tarr found it rather eerie. Then again, that was both literally and figuratively the least of M'tarr's concerns. She was not on a planet but a massive station that drifted through the darkness of the void. It was a strange and rather intimidating concept.
Curiously, M'tarr moved closer to the garden. There were many people there, but Maeteris' spell ensured that none paid any attention to her as she padded her way through the crowd. It was not much of a garden, with a few sparse trees and meticulously trimmed bushes littering a small area of grass around a central marble fountain, but it was a lot more familiar than the metal and glass of the Citadel, and much more expansive than the confines of the Normandy. With a well-trained eye M'tarr picked out a tree with wide, overhanging branches, deftly scaled it, and there curled up and let the whisper of the wind rustling through the leaves lull her gently to sleep.
She was woken up by shouting from somewhere nearby, loud and shrill as only the voices of children could be. With a mix of curiosity and annoyance, M'tarr peeked out over the edge of her branch. Three children had strayed into the shade of the tree, appearing to be engaged in an argument of some sort. Two of them, a turian and an asari, were tossing a toy back and forth between them, ignoring the increasingly frantic pleas of the third child, a smaller asari with the shimmering aura that seemed to emanate from under her skin that all the gifted possessed. Not really sure what was happening, M'tarr rose up upon her haunches and watched. As she did so, the younger asari raised her hands, a corona of blue mist shrouding her tiny frame before quickly fizzing out.
"Something wrong with your biotics, pureblood?" the older asari taunted, grinning at her companion as the turian jeered loudly.
The younger asari's thoughts grew fiercely intense as she concentrated, the blue mist forming once again around her hands. The silver light of her soul flared, pulsing in time to her labored breaths. M'tarr tilted her head. It was clear that the child did not yet know how to harness her gift. It was likely that she was not even aware of it, masked as it was by her fledgling biotic capabilities. It was such a shame. M'tarr narrowed her eyes, reaching out without thinking with her thoughts towards the asari, almost willing the child to dip past the biotics into her gift. As she did so, the glow within the asari flared up, a trail of silvery motes running down her outstretched arms. A purple sphere, tinged with silver, burst out of her fingers, slamming into the other two children and knocking them over. The older asari got quickly back on her feet, her expression furious, her arms raised threateningly.
M'tarr leapt off the branch, landing lightly on her feet facing the two older children, her ears flat and her lips drawn back in a menacing snarl. All three children jumped at M'tarr's sudden intervention, blinking in bemusement and apprehension as their little brains struggled to accept the presence of the gyrinx that their eyes so clearly saw. The younger asari was the first of the trio to do so, followed after a significant length of time by the other two. They recoiled from M'tarr, looking uncertainly around.
"Pets aren't allowed on the Citadel, Seyla!" the older child exclaimed accusatorily. "You're going to get into so much trouble for this!"
"It's not mine!" the other asari protested, but her tormentors had already taken off across the garden.
M'tarr glowered at them until they vanished from sight. Satisfied that they were not returning, she turned to face the remaining child. The asari backed away uncertainly, relief and confusion turning into fear. Not wanting to scare her further, M'tarr dropped to her haunches, licking her paw meaningfully. Slowly, the asari relaxed. In their haste, the other two children had dropped the toy, and M'tarr picked it up in her teeth and offered it to the asari. That earned a huge, bright grin, and the child settled cross-legged onto the grass next to M'tarr.
"Thank you," she said, clutching the toy happily and closely to herself. "And thank you for chasing those two away. I think this is the first time I've seen them run like that." She giggled. "Oh, I can't wait to tell the others about it!"
M'tarr inclined her head politely.
The child grinned innocently, sitting cross-legged on the ground before M'tarr. "You're adorable. Want to sit with me a little while?"
M'tarr sensed Maeteris approach before the farseer came around into view. "I see that you have discovered the art of the gyrinx,"
"M'tarr does not understand."
"You aided this child in using her gift, did you not?"
"Did M'tarr? M'tarr only wanted her to do so."
"Indeed you did, and she has done so." Maeteris knelt on the ground before M'tarr, smoothing down the front of her dress. "In the place I knew, the gyrinx were uniquely possessed of a special art. With but a thought, and should they will so, they could amplify the power of one with psychic gifts."
M'tarr considered her words. "M'tarr has seen the martoom share the power of their gifts in such a way. But M'tarr does not have any great capacity in the gift."
"That is the wondrous mystery of your kind, dear one. You do not lend your power to another, but merely amplify it in a way that no other living being naturally could. Thus, though all gyrinx are to some extent psychic, you do not need to be gifted to aid in such a way. It was a truly wondrous thing. And, of course, the gyrinx make better companions than psycho-reactive runes that serve a similar purpose."
A low, pleased purr escaped M'tarr's throat.
"You're very pretty, lady," the asari suddenly piped up.
Maeteris glanced at her. "Yes, I am aware. Where are your parents?"
"Somewhere," the child replied evasively and quite unconvincingly. "I like your hair." Without a hint of uncertainty, she clambered up onto Maeteris' leg, taking one of the farseer's silken locks in her hand and twisting it around her fingers. "It's very soft." Then she drew back, looking with an innocent sort of intensity at Maeteris, as though seeing the older woman for the first time. "You're not human, are you?"
If Maeteris was caught off guard by the question, she recovered immediately. "I am not."
"I didn't think so. You seem different, like…" She frowned, trying to find the right word.
"I think that I understand."
The girl smiled sheepishly. "I sort of sensed it."
"Have you ever wondered how?"
"No, not really."
"When you are older then, perhaps."
The asari shrugged, too focused on Maeteris' hair to have heard, her little fingers twisting the strands into a complex braid. Maeteris stared back down at her, a soft smile on her lips and a wistful look in her eyes, bearing no indication of wanting to move anytime soon.
"Captain Gallardi?" Kelly asked tentatively through the intercom to August's cabin. "May I enter?"
There was a pregnant pause, and Kelly had quite nearly given up when the lock to the door turned green. Quickly Kelly slid through, half-afraid that the captain would change his mind. Once through, she looked around, realizing that she had never seen the inside of August's cabin before. It was tidy past the point of severity. Save for a few icons of the Imperium and a single worn book that lay next to his private terminal upon the small desk, Kelly could not spot any of the captain's other possessions, not even in an out of the way corner of the cabin. The captain himself knelt before the desk, his head bowed in reverence to the small pendant of a double-headed eagle that hung above it. August was still in his armour and fully armed, evidently having retreated to the cabin immediately upon entering the Normandy. In his outstretched arms was his lasgun, the weapon raised in ritualistic supplication to his deity. Despite the weight of the weapon or the lack of support for his arms, August's hands were rock steady, his voice level as he chanted in a language that Kelly did not recognize, and which she surmised to be High Gothic.
After a time, August came to the end of his litany. He raised his head expectantly, waiting in silence for Kelly to explain herself. He did not even turn around.
"I heard about what happened," she said promptly. "Wanted to see if you were fine or if I could help. Perhaps… you'll want to talk?"
"I am talking. My Emperor listens."
"That's true, I suppose. But sometimes having some reciprocation helps too."
"It is not our place to ask for a reply, nor to expect one. That is the thinking of the self-centered and the egotistical."
Kelly tried another angle. "Well, I do want to know what you're feeling. Call it professional curiosity."
"Why? You cannot provide the answers that I seek. You do not know His word."
"No, I don't, but this is my job. It's my duty."
August paused, his head rising a little more. "I shall not stand in the way of a person and her duty. What do you want to talk about?"
"Well, perhaps we could start by addressing what's eating you."
"You seek a confession," August said flatly.
"No, but if thinking about it in that light makes you feel better, then sure."
"Then we have nothing to talk about. Confessions are given to the Emperor and His holy servants, or not at all. I'll keep my peace."
Kelly fought back a frustrated groan. "Wrong choice of words then, perhaps." She paused, choosing her words carefully. "I wish to understand your sin. You've killed dozens of humans since joining up with Victoria. You were ready to kill Ronald back on Aeia."
"That's different. Those are all different."
"How so?" She knew the answer, of course, but Kelly waited anyway. The trick in exposing the flaw in the captain's logic, she decided, was not in debating with him, but in letting him expose it all by himself.
August exhaled deeply, speaking slowly as though explaining things to a small child. "They were mercenaries working against a goal that would bring salvation to humans. Ronald himself brought unspeakable harm to humans in his charge. They are all heretics. Their deaths are just."
"The two you killed on the Citadel are also criminals, you know," Kelly told him softly.
August shook his head once, the movement slight. "No. It is not a crime to take what belongs to you."
Kelly frowned. "But… they were trying to mug the quarian, probably kill him."
"As I said, that is no crime. It is well within their right as children of the Emperor to do so."
Kelly balked at the casual callousness in August's words, but she did not attempt to argue with him. The idea had been ingrained far too deeply in his mind. Kelly had been afraid that the captain would seek refuge in extremism, and she did not want him to cut off any further interaction with her in the belief that she was attempting to shake his faith. More than anything she wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him, as though she could by that very act dislodge his childhood indoctrination, but what good would that do? She balled her fingers into fists, willing her voice to be level.
"It seems to me that your crime lies in killing innocent humans, then. That makes you a murderer."
"It makes me a heretic."
"I suppose. Or perhaps your crime lies in killing in self-defense. Didn't Garrus say those two were reaching for their guns?"
August half-turned his head, his eyes wide with sudden hope, but it was just as quickly gone, and he turned back to gazing at the wall and the double-headed eagle that hung there.
"No. My intervention – Garrus' intervention – gave them cause. It was unjust to intervene." He paused, and when he next spoke, his words were steady. "I know what you are trying to do, Yeoman. But there is only one who could grant me the peace of mind that you wish to bring me. Until then, I shall await His judgement." He shook his head vehemently. "Whatever similarities the xenos have to humans, however human their desires, interests, failures… their morality…"-he spat the last word as though it caused him great pain to voice it-"they lack the Emperor's light. They are not human, and they may never be viewed in the same manner. I may not compromise. It is not my place to interpret His teachings, only to follow it."
"Teachings are not absolute, August. They are supposed to adapt to what is happening inside and outside of a community."
"Then He will decide that, and grant us new wisdom. To assume that I could do so in His stead is heresy."
Kelly closed her eyes and gazed at the floor of the cabin. The denial, the arbitrary contrast between the human and the alien, was one that she had become used to from August, but there was something different about the captain's words this time. The root ideas were filled not with the obstinate zeal of teachings learnt from childhood but with a strained desperation, almost as if he were convincing himself of the validity of his words against anything that might disagree. It was the last refuge the captain had, an anchor against the storm of change all around him. Kelly wanted to convince him to let go of it; she had to, or he would soon be set adrift upon that destructive path from which few could resurface.
But try as she might, Kelly did not know how.