A/N: This one took much longer than I had intended. Sorry for the wait, and I hope that you like it. On another note, have a great Christmas or any other holidays that you celebrate, a great New Year, and take care of yourselves over the break! ^.^
Chapter 32: Old Hauntings
The asari matriarch was a reserved woman, soft-spoken, her voice bearing an effortlessly commanding quality that had doubtlessly been honed over the course of centuries. The asari's choice of a matriarch as their representative was, Victoria was sure, very deliberate, and so she paid great attention to what the matriarch had to say, certain that this call was an important one. When all the pleasantries were out of the way, the matriarch straightened, her posture suddenly becoming all businesslike.
"We've received word that you have an ardat-yakshi aboard your ship," she noted.
Victoria sighed internally. She knew that this information would eventually reach the asari, though she had hoped that it would take longer than it had. "You've heard correctly."
"I didn't doubt it. I also understand that there is also a Justicar with you. I trust that she has explained the severity of the situation regarding the ardat-yakshi?"
"Good. I'll cut right to the chase, then. The councils that oversee the ardat-yakshi are concerned about the decision not to return her to one of the ardat-yakshi monasteries."
"Mirala is currently serving as part of my crew. Recent events and new information has caused me to agree with the conclusion that this is the best course of action. If it would ease your mind, the decision was endorsed by Samara."
"While we trust the judgment of the Justicars, the fact that Morinth is Samara's daughter is still a significant point of consideration."
"You are wondering if her judgment and objectivity has been compromised?"
"Certainly not. The Justicars have sworn to leave behind all worldly ties, and I would not accuse any Justicar of compromising her oath. Nevertheless, due process must be given to the decision regarding the ardat-yakshi."
"Due process must always be observed. But that decision regarding Mirala was not mine. If you would like to speak to anyone regarding it, it should be with Maeteris. She would be able to fully explain all the intricacies of that."
"This Maeteris is making decisions for you regarding your crew?" the asari asked incredulously.
"In this matter, certainly."
There was a long pause before the matriarch nodded. "Very well, then. I understand that your operations are of great urgency to you and to humanity, but the importance of this matter cannot be overstated either. We would like to meet with Maeteris, if possible, at your earliest convenience."
"I would see what I can do."
"We would certainly appreciate that, Commander. The sooner we come to a decision regarding this, the better."
Victoria nodded. As soon as the call was terminated, she flopped back down onto her bed, sighing and massaging the bridge of her nose. It seemed that there was always something. First it was Tali, who informed Victoria in apprehensive tones that she had been summoned back to the Migrant Fleet to stand trial. Then Jack and Mordin, one after another, had each requested for a detour to take care of certain personal but crucial matters. And now the asari wished to speak with Maeteris, and Victoria knew that the matriarch had meant to do so promptly. And that chaffed upon Victoria's nerves. They did not yet know how to strike at the Collectors, but Victoria had a feeling that the time for that was soon coming up, and she did not want to get bogged down in distractions when that happened.
"EDI," she called out, an idea coming to her. "Where are Garrus and August?"
"In the loading bay, Commander."
"Thanks, EDI." Stretching her arms high over her head, she pushed herself to her feet and went out of her quarters in search of the two.
Keeping light upon the balls of his feet, one before the other in a wide stance, August eyed the xenos before him warily. Grunt fought savagely, but not without some semblance of finesse. His chin was lowered, emphasizing the advantage of his hardened crest. Unlike August, he was planted firmly, solidly. Unlike the other krogan that August had faced before, who charged into fights and relied on their unique physiology to outlast their opponents, Grunt maintained a solid defense, even when he was seemingly swinging his hammer with wild abandon. August himself was similarly armed, sabre in one hand and bayonet in the other, keeping a wary eye on the krogan before him as they probed at each other's defenses, looking for that narrowing of the eye or lowering of the shoulder that would indicate the young krogan was about to charge.
"What's going on here?" Victoria asked curiously as she joined them at the back of the loading bay.
"Just a little demonstration," Garrus' reply came to August's ears. The turian was leaning casually against a wall, arms folded as he watched.
"Well, August here was practicing with those fencing mechs. I asked him about the sword techniques that he uses. And then Grunt here suggested that none of that would matter when faced with a krogan."
"So this is an object lesson of sorts?"
"I think that Grunt was just getting restless. Again. And besides, fencing mechs are all well and good, but VIs can't compare to practicing against a real person."
"Right," Victoria frowned. "I suppose that makes sense. Captain, I need to talk to you."
To the visible annoyance of Grunt, August took a step back, lowering his sword and moving closer to Victoria.
"Something the matter?" he asked.
"Not exactly. I just needed to talk to you about a couple of things. There are a number of things that we'll have to take care of in short order. We're going to have to split up – three teams, three planets. You're going to be leading one of them."
August frowned. "The teams will be without direct support from the Normandy."
"I know. I'm not happy about it either, but I don't see that we have much choice. From what EDI tells me, she's found something in the data we took from the Collectors. She's found the location of the Collector homeworld, and a way to get us through the relay to it. We'll need an IFF signal, and it is buried somewhere under all that data we pulled from the Collector ship. Once EDI digs it up, we'll have to be ready to go through the relay."
"And you would want to do that as quickly as possible, before the Collectors catch on," August muttered. "They may already have, once they realize the ship we destroyed is missing."
"Precisely. Unfortunately, none of this could wait, either. Our mission is important, but I'll not leave loose ends hanging over the heads of the others. They're walking with me through the relay; best I could do is help them with all of that."
August nodded curtly. "Noted. Where are we headed, then?"
"Right now, there are three places that need our attention. First stop, the current position of the Quarian Migrant Fleet. Don't think the quarians are going to let too many of us on board for this one, so it would just be Tali and me, primarily. Soon as we're dropped off, the Normandy will be moving on to the Dakka System."
August's lips twitched in amusement as soon as the words were passed her lips. It was possibly a testimony of August's prodigious training and discipline that allowed him to keep his composure. Nevertheless, Victoria frowned, giving him a curious look.
"Something funny, Captain?"
"Very. I'll explain it to you later. Please, go on."
Victoria shook her head once. "Well, Pragia's the planet we're looking for. There's nothing in that system now but an abandoned Cerberus facility and assorted riff raff, so I don't anticipate we'll need the Normandy there, either." She nodded at August. "You'll be going with that team, make sure Jack doesn't get into trouble. I'll send you the details in a bit."
"Got it. Where's the last stop?"
"Back there? I see why you'd want the Normandy near," Garrus observed midly.
"You would definitely need the support if what Mordin says is true," Victoria told him. "Blood Pack. That wouldn't be an easy operation."
"Leaving all the fun for me, Commander? You shouldn't have."
August turned back to Victoria. "Regarding Pragia, what would we be doing?"
"You'll be escorting Jack, mostly. She wants to blow the facility up. I'm not sure where the idea came from, but if it's going to help her come to terms with her past, then I'm going to help her do that – or you are, at any rate."
August nodded. "We'll get it done. What's the plan for extraction?"
"You'll be taking the Hammerhead. Until the Normandy returns, lay low, and we'll try to get back to you as soon as possible. You wouldn't be able to contact the Normandy, but-"
"It's not anything that we haven't done before."
"No, I suppose not." She shook her head. "At any rate, the second thing I'd like to talk to you about is regarding the schematics that you gave us. Initial tests for the laser weaponry are underway, everything appears to be in order. The guns themselves will take some getting used to, but select Alliance military units will soon get them."
"And as for us?" August asked cautiously. It was not merely a question of the aliens aboard the ship. Many of the humans held suspect affiliations, or none at all. August was not sure which would be worse – while he did not entirely trust someone like Kasumi or Zaeed not to sell the weapon's specifications to the highest bidder, August most certainly did not want Cerberus to get its hands on them either, and August could not be sure that the Cerberus personnel were more loyal to Victoria than the organization.
Fortunately, Victoria immediately nodded without the need for elaboration, understanding the unspoken concern.
"We've fabricated half a dozen, for field testing and training. We'll need to train those who will be assigned the laser weapons in using them, so there's still time before we'll have to make a decision on distributing them."
August took a deep breath. "Make sure that everyone who would want a lasrifle gets that training."
Victoria blinked, appearing to be taken aback, but then she nodded slowly. "All right. I'll make sure we get to all the crew."
August returned the gesture, starting to turn away.
"Oh, Captain. Gather a few of the crew if you'd like the extra support on Pragia."
"The same thought occurred to me." He turned to Grunt. "Looks like we'll have to pick this up another time." Ignoring the krogan's dismissive gesture, he nodded to Victoria, stepping around her towards the elevator, only to stop as he caught sight of Maeteris and Victoria approaching.
"Maeteris," Victoria said, sounding surprised. "Just the person I wanted to see."
Both women looked impassively back at her.
"Well, I wanted to talk to you about something," Victoria fumbled, suddenly appearing uncharacteristically nervous.
"I will speak to the asari council in person," Maeteris interrupted, crisply cutting through Victoria's attempts at broaching the subject.
"Are you sure? The comms work perfectly well."
"If the asari prove obstinate, I would prefer to be in the same room as them."
Victoria swallowed, grimacing at the ominous words. "You wouldn't hurt them, would you?"
"That depends entirely upon the asari."
Victoria reached out, gripping Maeteris' forearm. "I'm serious, Maeteris. If anything happens, it would create a massive diplomatic incident. We cannot afford that."
A brief flicker of a smile tugged momentarily upon a corner of the eldar's lips. Victoria cleared her throat, snatching her hand back and smiling sheepishly up at Maeteris.
"The young are so excitable," Maeteris observed quietly.
"I suppose," Victoria mumbled. "I guess we could swing by Thessia on the way."
"Do." She turned her head slightly, looking past Victoria's shoulder at August and Grunt.
Garrus came sidling up to them, following Maeteris' gaze. "Would either of you like to join in?" Garrus suggested. "Teach the young ones a lesson?"
"Perhaps another time," Samara told him.
"I would not," Maeteris said. "The time of ritual combat is past me."
"Not passed enough for all those Collectors you killed," Garrus pointed out, mandibles spread wide in amusement.
"The vengeance of Khaine. But I am no longer of the Path of the Warrior. One more thing, Commander. In the home of the Wanderers there will be one among your foes, empty and cold. Soulless, but curious. Dogged, yet without malice. Stay your hand when you meet it. We will require it in the coming days." She turned and, with Samara following, went to sit at her usual spot in the shadows of the far wall.
August turned his head to conceal his smile as he continued on, strangely amused, a levity that he felt only because he did not have to parse the cryptic instructions. He left the loading bay behind, stopping only by his cabin to lay his sabre down on his bed. Outside of Miranda's quarters he paused, one hand half-raised to knock. A nugget of doubt briefly crossed his mind. The Cerberus operative had never gotten on well with Jack, and putting them on the same team, in a place where Jack had been tortured by the organization that Miranda represented, did not seem a very prudent idea. And yet, the potential advantages that she could bring was significant, and August was confident that he could head off any conflicts that might arise.
He rapped his knuckles upon the door, and a moment later it slid open. Miranda sat behind her desk, furiously typing away at her cogitator.
"Come on in, Captain," she said absently.
August did so, stopping just inside the door, remaining upright, hands clasped firmly behind his back.
Miranda took a few moments to finish, then she pushed her chair back, stretching her legs out delicately before her. "How can I help you?"
"I assume that you know about Pragia?"
"The Commander has informed me of it, yes."
"She has asked me to lead the team there. I want you to be part of that."
Miranda's expression grew immediately guarded. "I don't know what help I could be."
"It is a Cerberus facility. I'd wager you would be able to provide some assistance on that front."
To her credit, Miranda did not hesitate. "I'll do what I can to help," she said crisply.
"I know that you want to keep clear of Jack."
"It's not going to get in the way of things," Miranda assured. There was a long pause before she sighed and stood, going over to stare out of the cabin's observation window. "Jack's powers. It unnerves me."
August relaxed, walking to stand next to her. "I feel much the same way," he confided.
"You? You don't show it."
"I've had much more practice at hiding it. To be near a psyker is to be near one who channels the energies of the Warp. Few could remain unaffected by that. Being near my lord Sarebas was not something you forgot. He had a… presence. He commanded respect and awe – not the kind of awe you get from seeing the play of starlight across a planet's atmosphere from space, but more of the kind from walking alone through a battlefield of a million torn bodies. Sarebas was an inquisitor, but that feeling was more than his titles could give."
"That's quite a poetic description."
"No, not really. I just didn't expect that, coming from you."
August shrugged. "I'm just a soldier."
Miranda hummed softly. "Is that the same for everyone, or only humans?" she asked suddenly.
August turned, a brow raised questioningly.
"Maeteris," Miranda elaborated. "I don't think anyone's ever completely comfortable around her? Is that because she's a psyker?"
"Perhaps. I never thought of it that way. I suppose I'd always thought of the eldar as just being aloof. And they always had witches, and many of them, and of course witches are inherently unnatural." He turned, giving her a curious look. "This isn't about Maeteris though, is it?"
If Miranda was surprised at his question, she did not show it. "Not entirely."
"Who's it about, then? Jack?"
Miranda shrugged. "I know why we're going to Pragia. Jack has her reasons, but Maeteris has hers, too. She thinks this would help Jack better control her powers."
"Does that bother you?"
"Some of it does. Information, secrets; what I do relies entirely upon both. After Horizon, Jack seemed pretty confident that she could tell whether I was lying. And she has demonstrated the ability to read minds."
"And so you want to know if there is any way to stop her from doing that."
"Or perhaps a warning of some kind. If I can't plan around it, I'd like to plan for it. Surprises can be lethal."
"I'm afraid not, unless you suddenly develop psychic abilities, or are suddenly subject to the right kind of indoctrination." August shrugged. "I'm far from an expert in the subject, but discipline and a strong will helps, or so I've been led to believe, though what either of those two look like, I wouldn't know."
Miranda sighed. "It is strange, you know, being so helpless."
"Helpless?" August scoffed. "You?"
"In a manner of speaking. It's not often I see a problem that I just have to live with."
"Some things are simply beyond our abilities and understanding," August observed quietly, "especially when it comes to the Warp."
"Yes, well, people usually expect more from me."
"Not from what I hear. I think that only you and a few select people in your past hold that expectation."
"Isn't that enough? I was tailored to be better than the average human."
"Which makes you better, but not perfect."
"Everything about me came out of a lab. The only thing that's entirely mine are my failures."
August shrugged. "There are hundreds of assassins and thousands of Astartes in the Imperium. There are a thousand, a million times as many Tempestus Scions. All of them are genetically modified beyond what humans are capable of. If they were all destined to succeed, the Imperium would be much safer for it. A man's worth is measured not by what he is, but by his actions, according to his capabilities. Otherwise, the best way to serve the Emperor would be to do nothing, and that is definitely not what the Emperor has commanded."
Miranda's eyes grew clouded as she pondered his words. "I suppose that you're right. Even so, that is a difficult bar to live up to."
"That is the eternal challenge of all servants of the Emperor."
Miranda laughed, a short, bitter laugh that was little more than a sharp exhalation. "You're a lot more understanding of my… circumstances than most."
"I suppose I've run into more people in your situation than most of those you've met. And I've seen enough to know that none but the Emperor is perfect. To expect perfection in turn is heresy. No man could reach the perfection of the Emperor." August flashed her a curious look. "Is that why you joined Cerberus? You wanted to prove yourself?"
"Must there be a reason? People join militaries all the time."
"Cerberus is not any military, and Cerberus in particular does not foster much goodwill even amongst Mankind."
"Cerberus did not ask questions, demand any explanations. They gave me resources and personnel and let me get on with things. It's liberating, in a way. And with Cerberus, I have a purpose. Something to put my abilities to use for."
"I can appreciate that."
Miranda turned to him with a small frown. "I… will need time to think about all you've said."
"Understandable. I'll need to prepare anyway. Meet you at the Hammerhead."
The Quarian Migrant Fleet was the first true fleet that August had seen in this galaxy. The concept was not a foreign one to him. All the fleets that he had seen, however, were military in nature, military and ecclesiarchal orders, inquisitorial fleets, and assorted trader groups that spent their years wandering the stars. The Quarian fleet, however, was civilian in purpose and composition. They moved not in separate, smaller battlegroups but as one singular fleet, like stock-beasts finding false security from predators in the proximity of the rest of the herd. A vanguard of escorts and larger ships of war roamed far before the main fleet, and smaller, faster vessels patrolled the fleet's flanks and rear, skittish and wary in their vigilance. It was an impressive defense that only highlighted the importance and vulnerability of the tightly-clustered ships at the heart of the fleet. This was not the confident air of impunity of a battlefleet that wore its escorts like an officer might brandish a chainsword, but civilians packed together to keep the escorts from being stretched too thin in case of an attack. Idly, August wondered what Maeteris thought about the Migrant Fleet.
"Thoughts, Captain?" Victoria asked quietly as she joined them in the cockpit, with Tali by her side.
"Negative, Commander. Nothing crucial to the mission, anyway."
Victoria nodded. "Do your thing, Tali."
The quarrian nodded, leaning in closer to the console. "This is Tali Zora-vas Neema nar Rayya requesting permission to dock with the Rayya."
There was a pause, then a quarrian voice came from the other end. "Our system has your ship flagged as Cerberus. Verify."
"After time adrift among open stars, along tides of light and through shoals of dust, I will return to where I began," Tali recited.
August shook his head. The message of the pass-phrase was definitely not what he was used to.
"Permission granted," the quarrian replied, and the ships that had been closing in on them turned away, evidently satisfied.
"We'd like a security and quarantine team to meet us. Our ship is not clean."
"See you in a few," Victoria said lightly to August, turning to leave the cockpit, Tali following close behind. Then the Normandy was off again, and soon they were on their way towards the nearest mass relay.
"Hope she'll be all right," Joker muttered. "I've not seen Tali so worried before."
"A trial will do that to a person."
"You know, I think your idea of a trial and ours are just a bit different."
"Undoubtedly, but that goes for Tali, too. This will be just as nerve-wrecking for her as any of the Imperium's judicial processes will be for me. I wouldn't worry about it. I'm sure Victoria has this well in hand."
"Sure, who needs lawyers? We'll win that case through force of personality and arms alone."
"Have faith, Joker." He rapped his knuckles against the back of the pilot's chair. "I'm going to give my gear a final check. Let me know when we're there."
August did not head to the armoury, however. His weapons were checked and rechecked, disassembled and cleaned, their machine spirits appeased. Instead he went to his cabin, sitting at the edge of his bunk and pulling out his dataslate, idly sifting through the data stored there, years of notes, campaign records and curiosities, books and primers. He did not open a particular file, instead settling for moving listlessly between one and the next, opening and closing them at random. So much had happened since last he had read the texts, so many revelations. The dataslate now seemed a fragment of what once was.
"EDI?" August called tentatively.
"Could you compile a list of prominent military and cultural works from this galaxy?"
"Am I to interpret that as including those by non-human scholars?"
"If you could."
"I could upload them to your computer, if you would like. I'm sure Cerberus has copies in their databases."
"I'd appreciate that. Could you also include files on the Alliance military?"
"Certainly. There are many publicly available records I could pull for you."
August shook his head. "No. I'm talking about doctrine and equipment specifications, training, threat assessments."
"Classified information, you mean."
"Can you get it?"
"Easily, but would it not be better to just ask the Commander about such matters?"
"No. Her views would be tainted by loyalty to the Alliance and by her N7 training. I need an objective view of the capability of the bulk of the Alliance forces."
"Well, I am already breaking into the secrets of other states. What's one more?"
"Thank you." Then a thought came to him. "Does Cerberus have any daily records of what happened inside of that facility on Pragia?"
"The data exists, but is not complete. Secret, unrecorded experiments. I could piece things together. What are you looking for, in particular?"
"Not information on the experiments, but the children."
"Yes. Their behavior, in particular. It just occurred to me that Jack may not have been the only psyker to come out of that facility. If that's true, I think we should know about it. Look for sudden episodes of mass aggression, hysteria, hallucinations. Unexplainable phenomena – food tasting strange, gravity fluctuations, strange series of luck."
"Are these the most common ways to locate psykers?"
"Sort of. Sometimes coincidences happen, and what may seem like psychic activity is just plain dumb luck. Most of the time, chances are not taken at the accused are treated as psykers all the same, but it is hardly a sure fire way to tell. Not that we have much of a choice, anyway."
"It does not appear that such records exist," EDI said.
"Which could either mean that Jack was the only one who developed psychic abilities during that time, or it was never recorded."
"Or that such records have been purged."
"That is a possibility too." He tapped a finger upon his knee. How many human psykers were out there now, unaware of the skills that they possessed and the danger that they posed? The psykers were a powerful weapon among humanity's armies, but here, untrained, uncontrolled, and oblivious, they could just as easily be a great liability, if not a threat. August shook his head. At least, if Maeteris was right about Jack, there would be one fewer such psyker in the galaxy. He stood, went to sit at the desk before the cogitator there, noting that, as EDI had stated, the files that she had pulled from the Cerberus databanks had been transferred. He paused for a moment, considering which texts to start on, but it was an easy and obvious choice. Of the main Council races, the turians were the most militarily-minded, and August wondered if their most prominent military minds were also as similarly inclined.
He was making good progress through the first of the books when EDI's voice came again to him.
"We have arrived at our destination," the AI informed him. "The others are on their way to the hangar right now."
"Thanks, EDI." Standing quickly and shrugging to adjust his armour more comfortably upon his shoulders, August picked his rifle up and left the cabin.
Goldstein was running final checks on the Hammerhead by the time August entered the hangar, the quiet hum of the idling vehicle resonating through the space. He returned her nod of acknowledgment, letting her go about her job as he went around to the back of the vehicle to check on the cargo. The scanning equipment of the Hammerhead had been temporarily removed. In its place now rested a bomb, one that was much smaller than August would have liked, but which both Garrus and Jacob assured would get the job done. August remained unconvinced. He had learnt that, when it came to indiscriminate demolitions, no yield was too large. He kept his misgivings to himself, however; the vehicle could not fit any larger a payload, anyway.
He was joined shortly thereafter by Miranda and then, almost at the last minute, by Jack. The young biotic took one look at Miranda and stopped immediately in her tracks.
"You got to be shitting me," she growled. "I thought Joker was messing with me."
"Play nice, both of you," August said curtly. "We've got a mission to do. Keep that in mind."
"I'm not going to forget," Jack muttered darkly. "As long as she doesn't get in the way."
"You won't get any problems from me, Captain," Miranda said.
"Good to know. How are we looking, Goldstein?"
"All ready to go," the pilot replied.
"Good. Mount up then, people."
Jack sat tensely as Goldstein took them towards Pragia, looking discontentedly at the image of the planet on the view-screen before her. Catching August looking at her, she turned away with a sound of disgust.
"I forgot how much I hate this place." She drummed her fingers nervously upon her knee. "Why did I let Maeteris talk me into this?"
"Victoria said this was your idea."
"Yeah, and I only got it after I talked to her. Are you saying that she couldn't have planted the idea in my head without suggesting it outright?"
"I wouldn't put it past her. She may not have employed her psychic abilities in that, but farseers are notorious at manipulation."
Jack unleashed a colorful series of profanities. Despite her general curt nature, she had a fine command of vocabulary, though August suspected that Maeteris would not be much impressed with her choice of descriptions.
"Feeling better?" he asked mildly when she finally paused for breath.
"Mildly. Let's get this over with."
"I'm going to set us down on the landing pad, Captain," Goldstein announced, dipping the Hammerhead down, "then I'll scout around for somewhere we could lay low until the Normandy gets back."
August studied the facility as they drew closer. It was abandoned and overgrown, but it was far from decrepit. If not for the thick layer of dust and debris covering the roof, the facility would have looked almost unravaged by the passage of time and of the elements.
August was out of the Hammerhead as soon as it touched down, scanning the area around the landing pad.
"Let's just get in there and plant the bomb in my cell," Jack said tersely. "I want to watch this place burn."
"Stay on alert," August instructed, grabbing the bomb from the back of the Hammerhead. "Don't want this thing going up with us nearby."
They went through the door leading from the hangar bay. Jack went impatiently before them. The loading area beyond was empty and silent.
"They used to bring new kids through here, I think," she said, looking around the room. "They were messed up and starving, but alive. Usually. Something's not right here. Can't you feel it? That chill?"
August paused. He could not feel the chill as Jack had described, but there was a definite heaviness in the air, a subtle tugging at the base of his skull that he would have missed were it not for his time in Inquisitor Sarebas' retinue.
"Warp energy," he grated.
"Psykers?" Miranda asked.
"Perhaps. I can't tell. But I don't think so."
Miranda wandered over to the far side of the room, which was filled with abandoned equipment. She activated her omnitool, looking at it for a long moment.
"Find anything?" August asked her.
"Nothing of note. They were conducting experiments. Seems that the Illusive Man – the rest of Cerberus, likely – did not know the details."
"They were not reporting in?"
"Like I said before, Captain, Cerberus gives its agents resources and let them get on with it. They do not ask for details, only results."
"Yeah, well, the results of this place are pretty damned obvious," Jack remarked acidly.
Miranda ignored her. "It seems as though the Illusive Man began pressing for results. Seems the people in charge of this place did not want to test his patience. It seems like they went rogue. Hide the means, show the ends."
"You'd like to think that, wouldn't you?" Jack said.
"It wouldn't be the first time. Overlord was quite similar."
"We can discuss that later," August told them. "Let's keep moving. We don't want to dwell here for too long."
As they moved deeper into the facility, August began to see signs of decay. In some parts, plantlife had begun reclaiming the land, in some places even breaking through windows and walls. It was made stranger by the fact that all the other expected signs of disrepair were not there, neither degradation of the structure, nor the expected layer of dust and debris piling up in the corners nor even signs of animals.
"What happened here?" he asked curiously and warily. "The vegetation growth is… wrong."
"Likely the reason that this place was chosen in the first place," Miranda replied. "Two centuries ago, the Batarians tried using this planet as their breadbasket, seeding industrially-mutated plants. The planet's soil was fertile, and the plants synergised with Pragia's environment. It mutated, became poisonous, carnivorous. Rapid growth and exponential propagation that could not be contained by native wildlife. I wouldn't get near those plants, if I were you."
"What happened to the batarians?"
"They could not keep the vegetation under control. Eventually they abandoned their colonies and left."
"Interesting," August muttered. "I wonder if these conditions could be replicated."
"Why would anyone want to do that?"
"The batarians have gone halfway to creating a sort of a deathworld. Deathworlds breed good soldiers."
"Well, it's just as well that the batarians never did that. The last thing that we'd need is high-quality batarian crack troops."
"It's a stupid idea anyway," Jack said. "You'll never convince anyone to live on a world like this. And if anyone tries any shit like that, I'll personally hunt them down and blow their brains out."
They had advanced further into the facility as they talked, until they came into a large room with large, grimy windows set in the ceiling high above. The room itself was surrounded by walkways that looked down upon the center of the room, the middle of which was filled with crates and sturdy concrete slabs.
"They used to stage fights here," Jack muttered darkly. "Pit me against other kids. I loved it. Only time I was ever out of my cell. I was filled with drugs, got shocked when I hesitated. I still get warm feelings when I fight."
"They were conditioning soldiers," August noted in a matter-of-fact tone. It was not a strange or unusual concept; such training was common in the Imperium. But he was aware enough of Jack's feelings on the matter not to give voice to such thoughts.
"I guess you're used to that sort of thing."
"It's hard not to be a little blasé about it," August admitted.
"Yeah." She shook her head, as though she could forget about it all by that action alone. "It doesn't matter. Let's just keep moving. My cell is not far from here."
"As they continued onward, though, Jack appeared increasingly uncertain. She looked around them with increasing doubt, mixed with traces of apprehension. Miranda, too, had a contemplative expression, and she kept consulting her omnitool.
"A lot of children died here," she said suddenly. "Even then, they were still part of the experiment."
Jack scoffed. "I had the worst of it and I made it out alive."
"That speaks to your strength and not the nature of the trials," August observed.
Jack began to retort, but no words came from her lips, and her eyes grew clouded.
A movement on August's auspexes caught his attention and he straightened, alert and wary as his training took over.
"Contacts," he muttered tersely, gesturing to the room beyond the far wall. "Half a dozen, standing around right behind that door."
"Probably fugitives or scavengers," Miranda observed.
"No," August replied. "Multiple large signatures. Krogan."
"Mercenaries, then. They'll likely shoot on sight."
"I'd prefer to avoid getting into firefights, but we don't really have a choice if it came down to it." He looked at Miranda. "Stay with the bomb, keep it out of the fight. Jack, you're with me. Let's see if we can catch this rabble unprepared."
Jack grinned viciously, moving quickly by the door leading into the area beyond. Even as Miranda withdrew with the bomb, August took a couple of disk-shaped grenades and primed them. He opened the door with a quick flick of his omnitool and threw the grenades through. He was storming through the door as soon as they detonated, laying into the stunned mercenaries there with his sword. A couple of vorcha had fallen even before the mercenaries reached for their weapons. The others leapt at him, wild-eyed and with flecks of foam at their lip-less jaws, attacking him with claws and blades. Despite their frenzied strikes, they were entirely without finesse. Even as Jack entered the fray with explosive bursts of biotics, the remaining mercenaries regrouped, shooting indiscriminately at August and Jack, not seeming to care that they struck their comrades there.
August swung and feinted, felling one vorcha after another. There was an ear-shattering bellow. August turned, just in time to see one of the krogan being lifted mid-charge into the air, arms flailing wildly at his side. He swung his sword, cutting down a lunging vorcha, before bringing the blade back around in a quick thrust, aimed directly at the krogan's heart, before bringing the blade up, ripping it through the krogan's head. He turned, brandishing his sword, but Jack had cleared out most of the remaining vorcha. Only one krogan remained, looking with wild eyes at the slain vorcha. His gaze shifted to August, bellowing a challenge and sending spittle flying. The Stormtrooper met the krogan, blade flicking aside the bayonet at the end of the xenos' shotgun. The krogan used its bayonet in a different manner from what August was familiar with. Rather than a quick thrust, he used it as part of a charge. August drew back a little, taking the brunt of the charge upon his armored pauldron, letting the krogan's momentum carry him backwards. He dug his feet into the floor, arresting their movement, and the krogan immediately drew his head back to deliver a headbutt. August had fought enough krogan now to anticipate that, and he caught the bayonet upon his armored left forearm, keeping the shotgun away from him. His sword dipped beneath the krogan's open guard and sliced at his belly, the blade cutting through armor and coming away with blood sizzling off the power field. The krogan roared in pain, but instead of the instinctive flinch that August had expected, it instead swung its free hand, catching August in the side. He grunted, ceding contest for the alien's shotgun. Immediately the krogan reached up, wrapping both arms about August and squeezing, heedless of the gaping wound in its stomach. August reached for his holster, pulling his Carnifex out and jamming it against the krogan's eye and pulling the trigger, until the weapon's heatsink overheated and the safety kicked in and he could fire no more. The krogan twitched, arms still clutched about August, until it finally fell limp.
August kicked the alien back, looking quickly around for more targets, but the only standing mercenary was suspended in the air, until Jack threw her arms out and engulfed it in purple witchfire.
August glanced down at the krogan at his feet, flipping him over with his foot. The alien's lips were barred, unfocused eyes twitching back and forth. He took his sword, jamming it into the krogan's exposed throat.
"Did these xenos seem a little strange to you? A bit too aggressive?"
"Too aggressive?" Jack laughed shortly. "From krogan and vorcha? They're always aggressive."
August shook his head. "No, this is different." He turned, gesturing for Miranda to join them. "Be on guard. Something's not right here."
But they found no more mercenaries as they continued further into the facility. Jack, however, seemed more agitated, looking apprehensively about, clutching tightly at her pistol at every door they came to.
"Problem?" August asked.
"Back here, I feel like a little girl," she admitted. "I hate this."
August nodded in understanding. "How far to the cell?"
"Not very. It should be just… there, that door. Leads right to the cells."
August quickened his pace, stopping by the door she had indicated.
"Wait," Jack suddenly called, her voice filled with alarm. "There it is again. That chill. It's a lot stronger here."
"Can you tell anything else?"
Jack squeezed her eyes together tightly, scowling heavily in concentration. "There are – no, just one person. I'm getting a lot of hatred and fear."
"Well, we've dealt with both psykers and daemons before. This individual. Where is it?"
"In my old cell. Just as well. Psyker or daemon, if I'm going to plant the bomb anyway, I might as well put it on his corpse."
"Don't let your guard down," August told her seriously. "Daemons are far more insidious enemies than most who don't have experience with them give them credit for."
Stopping briefly outside the door to the cell, August took cover by the door and, with quick glances to either side to ensure that the others were in place, he stormed through, rifle at the ready.
A lone man stood in the small room beyond, milling about listlessly. He turned at the sound of their entrance, taking in their weapons and general warlike appearance with impressive impassiveness. The heaviness in the air was extremely palpable here, almost tangibly so, lying like an unseen blanket that leeched the light and colors of the room away.
"Who are you?" Jack demanded of the man.
"My name is Aresh," the man replied, "and you're breaking into my home. I know you, Subject Zero. So many years have passed, and I thought I was the only survivor."
"My name is Jack," the young woman replied. "How do you know me?"
"We all knew your face. They inflicted horrors on us so their experiments wouldn't kill you. I tried to forget this, but a place like this doesn't forget you. It follows you. I came back almost a solar year ago. We're rebuilding it, piece by piece. I'm going to find out what they knew, how to unlock true biotic potential in humans." He shook his head. "What they did to us – it has to mean something. I'm restarting the Teltin facility. It will be beautiful."
"There's no reason good enough!" Jack grated.
August tapped his finger idly upon his rifle. It was immediately obvious that the plan was not feasible. Aresh did not seem to have the funds, the technical expertise, or the ability to acquire either to truly restart the facility. He was therefore far from a threat to either August and his team or to humanity. That made August curious rather than merely wary, and he lowered his rifle just a hair.
"Forcing meaning out of misery never ends well."
Aresh's expression grew downcast. "You don't know the half of it. There are things you can't even begin to understand about this place. The history, the obsession, the fear. All of that can't just exist as they are, nightmares and dusty records. The potential is simply too great."
August had been watching Aresh closely as he talked. Perhaps it was some trick of the light, a reflection of Jack's biotics, but August thought he saw a glint of flickering purple light in the depths of his eyes.
There was a commotion in the corridor outside the room, and August half-turned, raising his rifle warily. There were muffled voices, and he could just make out one of them, a commanding voice with an unmistakably authoritative air. A crackling sizzle filled the air, and the center of the door began glowing a blinding blue, before it was blasted apart in a haze of smoke, splintered metal, and blue sparks. Over his armored forearm that he had raised instinctively to protect his face, August saw three figures step through, the two at the front moving quickly to stand on either side of the door, and the last entering as soon as the pair had declared that it was secured. August's eyes widened, his rifle wavering, wanting to lower the weapon but too stunned to actually do so. The newcomers – their weapons, their voices, their faces – were all familiar and definitely not of this galaxy.
"Close your mouth, August," Jocasta admonished lightly, studying the three humans standing behind him. "You look silly standing with it open like that."
Beside her, Sahi let out a short huff, an expression of great amusement from the assassin.
August looked between the both of them and then, finally, his gaze landed on the third figure. Inquisitor Sarebas looked much like how August remembered him, and, as far as he could tell, no worse for wear since August had seen him last.
"My Lord Sarebas," he said crisply, immediately lowering his rifle and snapping his heels at attention.
"Captain," the Inquisitor said warmly. "It seems the Emperor has been watching over you."
"In a way, my lord, and it seems He has been for you, too. I remember-"
"Yes," Sarebas interrupted. "I don't have to be reminded of that."
"Of course, my lord."
"I see that you have been keeping busy."
"For the moment. Humanity in this galaxy is not beset by enemies as the Imperium is, but it faces destruction nonetheless."
"The Reapers. Yes. We've learnt of them. They must be destroyed, for the Emperor's glory. You have been gone long, but you always have a place in my retinue, should you wish it."
"Always. Do you have a plan?"
"Of course. The galaxy shall have to be united against this threat, whether they are willing to do so or not. I anticipate that my ship will be enough to persuade most of the xenos to join up in short order."
August hesitated. When he spoke again, it was with firm clarity.
"No. That is not the will of the Emperor."
Sarebas' expression hardened, and then it was as though he and August's old comrades had never been there, the door again in one piece, empty air where they had stood, and Jack and Aresh picking up right where August had heard them leave off. He took a steadying breath, looking warily at Aresh, but it was obvious that the vision had not come from him. It did not feel the same. It had not been imposed, but rather was simply there, a part of the facility as the walls were.
"You were drawn here," Aresh was saying, "same as I am, looking for answers."
Jack shook her head, but the gesture was more than mere objection. "I'm looking for closure," she grated. "I don't need more reminders of this place following me for the rest of my life, whether it's meaning that does not exist or control over it."
"That's not enough!" Aresh snapped, his defeated expression suddenly taking on the feverish look that the mercenaries outside had displayed. "None of us had it as easy as you did. Something needs to come of it, some purpose."
"I am going to find that in blowing this all up." She looked to August. "If he tries to stop us, I'm putting a bullet in his head."
August nodded grimly. He had no stake in the matter, but he knew that the facility would never produce the answers to biotics that Aresh was seeking, and all that would come of it would be the careless and pointless expenditure of human lives. He did not have to be part of the Ecclesiarchy to recognize that for the heresy that it was.
"You can't do that!" Aresh protested frantically, a manic look coming over his face.
Jack's response was immediate. Her pistol barked once, and Aresh crumpled to the ground. She stepped over his still form, looking around the room. Slowly, she paced around the room, her eyes vacant, lost in thought. August retreated to stand just inside the door and watched her silently, intent on giving her as much time as she needed to come to terms with her past. After only a minute, however, Jack shook herself out of her reverie.
"That's enough of that. Let's plant the bomb and get the hell out of here."
August nodded. "Agreed. Let's not stay here any longer than we have to."