Avatar of Victory
Nothing Ever Ends
The others were all asleep now, and had been for some time. She still continued telling the story into the 'night' over their bodies, huddled against the chill. Even now, so long after, to retell the story of the Avatar of Victory was a way of keeping those times alive. She looked down at her wards, then up, at the machine far in the heavens that had turned day into night. One by one, lights began to wink on at its edges, first red, then purple, then yellow, as the first Dyson Scoop came online and began to stream gargantuan beams of collected solar power through space and into collectors situation thousands of kilometers north of here.
Her hand drifted up from the sleeping quarian to the amulet that hung on a platinum chain. Her mother had given it to her not long before her passing; it was a seeming crystal of metal, formed into exacting tiers and facets, then twisting down in a mathematical spiral until it closed on itself. It had been a gift by her 'father' to her mother, the wedding bauble from the Avatar of Victory, one that she herself had received from the Consort Sha'ira, back when the old Consort still did her work on the Old Citadel. Aimei had never told her what this thing was, what it meant, before her passing. And Liara had no answers to offer. So she kept it not as what it was intended to be, but as a connection to her parents, to a family born in the flames of existential war.
She reached into the pocket of her coat, which had been draped over a rock nearby, pulling out first her optics, and then the little packet underneath them. The first, she raised to her eyes and looked far to the east. Out there, she could see at the point where the impossible horizon began to mount upward, and people were building Plate 2b, a construct with the surface-area of half of a planet, a work of societal hubris made possible by the exploding wealth of the volus and the insane terraforming prowess of humanity.
It had taken two centuries to lay the groundwork for The Great Ring, to create something that put even the Old Citadel to absolute shame. Once the first Plate was in place, given to the Volus, and the Second was done, work reached a fevered pitch. By such engineering, the trillions of people in the galaxy would never lack for a home, for room to grow and breathe. She even saw how the humans on that plate, thousands and thousands of kilometers away, were burying vast stockpiles of metal ores and hydrocarbons into the 'stone strata' of the nearly kilometer thick plate.
A millennia ago, civilization had almost ended. Now, even the Ring had every precaution built into its bones. If all galactic society fell, as they had once in the lost past, those left on the Ring would not be forced to primitive, hunter-gatherer societies. Even if they started with nothing, there would be enough buried within for them to advance to the space age once more, and return to the stars, thousands of times over.
She plopped the optics onto her coat, and pulled a cigarette from the pack. It was a filthy habit, but she was almost a thousand years old. She'd earned the right to have a few of them.
As she walked, smoking deep, she thought of all the story she didn't tell them, the parts which were too intimate. How her father, the Avatar of Victory, would spend the next two hundred years of her life in a strange state, obviously and measurably better than anybody else, but at the same time broken and tired. Her body rejected prosthetic limbs, or even cloned replacements. While she had worked to be a present and caring parent, there was only one person in the galaxy who could even relate to Aimei Shepard on her own level, and that was Liara T'soni. From the day of the Rain of Dead Gods onward, she would never enter the Avatar State ever again. She would live, unaging, until the morning where she disappeared into golden light, one afternoon while she napped in a chair.
And she wouldn't need to fight any longer. Even looking as close as Zia Shepard, who had been one of the twenty two million new Avatars, the decaying clone who should have died in that same year instead got five decades, due in no small part to the Second Victory of the Soul. She and James Vega had orbited each other for a while, before she claimed him in a more permanent fashion and spawned a generation of new Shepards to terrorize the galaxy. They had all been half grown by the time the asari now smoking her lungs black had been born.
Instead of having one Avatar, there were millions, each one being reborn as Shepard had in her history. And the galaxy changed with them. Where once biotics and benders were, with the asari's obvious exception, somewhere on the order of one percent of all people, the last millennium saw that number skyrocket to around one in five. If only the Pischacha hadn't been the absolute pains that they were, it would have been a millennium of unmitigated progress and peace. She scowled, letting the smoke stream out of her nostrils. They still weren't sure if it was even possible to kill a Pischacha.
Come to think of it, people didn't even realize just how monumentally powerful the Avatar of Victory, of all of the Incarnations out there, was, until Shazar Fisk came about. People had thought that the Avatar of Victory was simply a very powerful Incarnation, but Fisk quickly disabused the galaxy of that notion. The simplest thing about him was that he could bend reality itself as easily as others did the elements, twisting hyperfields and emitting hyperfrequencies to manipulate the canvas of the cosmos in subtle ways that were otherwise only possible with the most advanced machines that the galaxy could produce. But as terrifyingly new as that was, it was everything else about that man which staked his place as a worthy successor to Aimei Shepard. That vorcha singlehandedly reshaped his entire species, inventing and spreading the Endless Strain such that now almost all vorcha were now part of the Endless phenotype, on top of being a major scientific and social leader. By the end of his century and a half, Fisk had restructured the old Citadel Council from an old-boy's club with four members into a proper galactic parliament, rendered the Treaty of Farixen obsolete, and turned the vorcha from a vermin-race into a species of sophont vying for dominance against the salarians. And then, just like Dad, Fisk disappeared into the golden light, and another Avatar of Victory was born.
She took a moment to think of the others, the ones who had been by Dad's side during the war, and those who survived its end. Jack Nilsdottir ended up mustering out and spending the rest of her life first inventing, then disseminating the first truly human style of biotic martial arts. T'Soni had never been a fighter by nature, so that was about all she knew about the one Dad called 'her oldest friend'. It was a pity. These days, she wished she'd gotten a bit of training from the foul mouthed old human. It might have given her insight into what they'd turned her job into in the last century.
Thinking of biotic warriors made her think of Samara Yeldicheyv, the Justicar who had fought at Shepard's side. She actually died two years after the Rain of Dead Gods, during a visit to her daughter on Lessus. She had a stroke in her sleep, never awakening. In the end, the ancient warrior ended up dying in her bed, with her family at her side.
Panchen Erdeni and Asha al'Wahim, the Ardent and the Stalwart Adjuncts, ended up marrying, having a family, and slipping into a well earned obscurity. But it was known that most Avatars had an Ardent Adjunct, while only the Avatar of Victory would have both an Ardent and a Stalwart. Like the Avatars themselves, the millions of generations of people who'd fought at the Avatar's side now did the same even now, lovers, friends, and protectors of the Incarnations no matter where they were. She was fairly certain that at least six of the eight Avatars on the way to Andromeda right now were probably already paired off with their Ardents.
Mom would talk, sometimes, of Miranda, Yue, and Oriana. They'd taken on a new name – Lawless – after the Rain and did everything they could to disappear from the public record. The only thing which Mother could figure out about them was that Yue had an early pregnancy which Miranda played surrogate mother for. Within ten years, the Lawless family had disappeared, just as they had wanted.
Javik would spend what decades he had left either living in what luxury remained in the ashes of an existential war, or quietly doing what work there was to rebuild a shattered galaxy. His daughter Abylon on the other hand spurred a revolution in bioforming technology, to the extent that nowadays the reconstruction of species, hybrids, and new phenotypes was now commonplace. In another millennium, the differences between species might dissolve entirely. Mom referred to it as 'rediscovering the Victory of the Flesh', whatever that meant. And as for Ellidor, between her children, and the hoard of prothean genetic samples the League of One stole from the Collectors before the onset of the Reaper War, there came an entire new generation of protheans. Then, a new population. Now, there were billions. An entire race who had to invent a new history for themselves. Humanity's first Client Race still gave T'Soni headaches.
And then there was S'jet. The only living zhent ended up becoming a pioneer for a form of scientific theory which made Mass Effect look like drawing squiggles in mud. So driven was she to the mysteries of Hyperrealities that she created dozens of scientific breakthroughs, spent billions of credits, and digitized her mind so that her body's death wouldn't slow her down – a trick which Aria T'Loak copied a few centuries later. She eventually declared that she could create a gateway to another reality. A few billion in thoroughly wasted money later, she and her entire team disappeared without a trace. The galactic community would have left it at that, but everything to the lead up to S'jet's Folly was so damned useful and so damned innovative that even now people were trying to figure out if they could do as she did, and walk from this layer of creation and into another one.
Thinking of one digital ghost made her think of another. Uncle Jet and Aunt EDI still came by during the rosegarden parties, even after all the centuries. One asari lifetime ago, EDI alone would have been a blasphemy worthy of war, and Jet shedding his frail meat to join her was utterly unthinkable. Now, EDI served the geth who decided to go the other direction, and download themselves into organic shells, to better understand their quarian brethren. And Jet? Never stopped flying. She was pretty sure he downloaded himself into a ship once or twice, just to feel what EDI had felt in her earliest days.
Garrus Vakarian also faded somewhat after the Rain of Dead Gods, becoming a civilian leader working to rebuild Palaven, while Tali'Zorah vas Dawn-Bay spent her life integrating the Migrant and Rannochian cultures together. T'Soni wondered if Tali'Zorah would even recognize what her work had come to, these days. Dad seemed happy when Vakarian and Zorah retired together; wistful, even. And she shed quiet tears when she heard of their deaths, decades later.
If only things had been so kind to Tuchanka as they had on Rannoch and Palaven. An exploding krogan population quickly gave birth to rival warlords, which Urdnot Wrex spent the next four centuries crushing underfoot in the hope of a new, better krogan society. Then a group of regressives decided to assassinate Wrex and Bakara, thinking to decapitate krogan society several centuries after the Rain of Dead Gods by removing the Mother and Father of the New Krogan Race. After the deaths of the de jure leaders of Clan Urdnot, they almost succeeded, but his daughter Urdnot Mordin – named after a salarian who died not long after the end of the Reaper War, if memory served – and the rest members of the Urdnot alliance took open warfare against those warlords and gave birth to the Pax Urdnot, with the fundamental precept of 'don't make me come over there'. The Pax Urdnot was challenged every few decades. So far, Urdnot Mordin and High Shaman Grunt held the krogan together. So far.
Thessia was even worse. Poisoned as it was with ash and burnt cities, much of its ocean evaporated, its biosphere shattered, it was now a testament to what the Reaper War cost the galaxy as a whole. The humans had offered to restore it to the cradle of asari civilization, but the asari had refused. The symbol of a world killed by adherence to old structures was vital for the politics of a new and more vibrant asari federation. And now that the Jump Hybrid Drive was the standard of the galaxy, it wasn't like anybody was lacking for planets. There were hundreds of thousands outside of the Relay Network, now easily within reach. Exactly why the galaxy's population had skyrocketted from just under a trillion during the Reaper War to more than a hundred and twenty trillion today, and why there were resources abound to create vanity projects like the Great Ring. And enough even to make other Great Rings in the future, perhaps.
She coughed a bit at the taste of burnt filter, flicked the old one onto the gravel and crushed it out. She gave a thought, then lit another. Fuck it. She was having a rough couple of years. She had been a part of galactic governance since her Maiden days, just as her mother, Liara, had been part of its information infrastructure since she was barely an adult. It still hurt to think of Mother, since her passage a few decades ago. Feron had been a Maidenchild, so her mother wasn't that much older than she was. Like her mother, Feron managed to take on ever more crushing responsibilities, until she finally retired to a nice do-nothing job, the Grand Secretariat of Extragalactic Affairs. She thought she'd be able to luxuriate in a token position, far from having to wrestle with between five and thirteen breakaway salarian polities at constant war with each other in any given year, a schism amongst the turians, the humans discovering and claiming new Client Races, the religious weirdness of the new batarian state, and the meteoric ascension of the vorcha.
And then they found the fucking Rhul Hegemony in the Magellenic Clouds, and suddenly her office was in charge of a war almost on the same scale as the Reaper Invasion, if one on more even footing. There was no end to it. How long until the next report from Task Force Sigma came back, and how many casualties would there be this time? A hundred thousand? A million? How many tens of thousands of ships? When she got back from this 'vacation', she was going to grab the Grand Secretariat of Warfare and demand that somebody split her office. Her eight centuries of politics did not make her qualified to wrangle armadas, nor deliver the death-notices to tens of thousands of families each month. It was fortunate that she was asari. If she had any hair, the stress of her job would have made her pull it out.
She watched as the terminator began to sweep toward her. There was no twilight here on the Great Ring. Just deepest darkness, then high noon, and noon was coming fast. So too was the end of her vacation. She'd gotten into this office to do vanity projects and explore the trans-galactic medium, not fight wars. She dragged deep, and let the smoke smut the air that they had so carefully marshaled onto the Plate. Maybe she should just take down her shingle and go live on Okina Oni. She heard that the humans had turned that place into a delightful pit of debauchery. She could just tell her daughters she was on deep assignment, and spend a decade drunk, high, and fucked off her ass. She deserved it.
The thought brought a smile to her face, but in the end, it was only that, a thought. She was still the daughter of the first Avatar of Victory, and that meant she had a fucking job to do.
"Ahem?" A clearing throat pulled Feron's attention away from the pool of thin grey cloud over her head, and to a truly unexpected face. She looked at the quarian who should have been millions of lightyears from here, standing casual as you please in his typical, ridiculous t-shirt which was plastered with characters to some comedy series that her grandkids would yammer about, standing beside an alien of a species she couldn't identify. "I was told you were on vacation."
"And I was told you were supposed to be in another galaxy," Feron said, unable to keep the edge out of her voice. She had little contact with the Ryder twins, and found both of them weird in their own ways. And in Scott's case, it was because she found him insufferably chipper.
The quarian shrugged, looking slightly guilty. T'Soni sighed, and rubbed at her brow. Damn it all, she still had to be diplomatic. Even on her vacation.
"Right. I should probably offer my condolences. I'd only just heard about the loss of your father when I was coming to the Plate."
"He was... special," the quarian agreed. The other alien just stared at the approaching terminator with awe and confusion.
"But didn't he mandate that you be made Pathfinder in his absence?" the quarian Pathfinder nodded. "Then why aren't you heading the Andromeda Initiative. In the other galaxy. Right now."
"Well, there've been a few complications," Pathfinder Scott Ryder cast his thumb toward the alien. The quarian reached over and pulled the purple-skinned sophont to face T'Soni. "This... Buddy? Come on, focus. This, is Jaal Ama Darav."
Jaal gave a baffled look, but then entered into a formal looking bow. "I am honored to be in the presence of the highest," his voice was very pleasant to T'Soni's ears.
"And his nation, the Angaran Diaspora – in fact his entire species – is under threat of annihilation. And as they need to be present at Parliament to become signatories of the Mutual Defense Pact, and thus..."
"Ryder, shut up. Please," T'Soni said, kneading her head. The quarian smiled easily, while the angara now looked increasingly uncomfortable. "...how?"
"He and I took the Emergency Circuit of the Long Road," Ryder said. That would explain how they crossed millions of lightyears faster than communications could follow, but still it was ludicrous. She just stared at them. The thought of Okina Oni pressed traitorously on her mind. Or maybe just taking the Long Road to Andromeda and hiding from her responsibilities there. Only if he was telling the truth, Andromeda was going to be an even bigger problem than the fucking Rhul.
"Nothing ever ends, does it?" T'Soni asked, grimly, as the terminator swept past them and noon sun began to beat down.
Ryder simply grinned. Fuck, she needed another smoke.
And just like that, it's over.
This was something that haunted me, the notion of letting this story, so close to its conclusion, fade away. I hated that I lacked the will and the drive to finish it, but that's the thing about mental illness; it doesn't give a fuck about what you want. Let this be my message to everybody out there who is anything other than on the straight and even: Look after your mental health, because nobody else is going to, and if you don't, it'll take care of you, in the mafioso sense of the term.
This project still stands as the most ambitious thing I've ever done, and was the most thoroughly outlined work that I've put to page. In its way, it's a relief to see it ended, but it's still sad in a way. Letting go of something which was a part of me for so long always is, even if it was bitter to hold onto it in the first place. It was the same sort of bitterness that drove me to finishing it, in fact; seeing other projects withered on the vine was much of the driving force to my return. I cite as my trigger the work Purple Days by Baurus, left to languish as AoV was with the ending just ahead, as well as a yet-in-development tabletop RPG which I contributed for, before its primary author (who maintains all of the files) faded into the woodwork and left everything in the lurch.
I was sick of seeing things so ambitiously begun, undone.
With regards to the decisions I made, a lot of it was about versimilitude. Why are there still quarians on Rannoch? Because wiping out a billions-strong species is fucking hard work, especially for a group which didn't want to do it in the first place. Why was the Reaper's god a petulant narcissist? Because that makes the most sense for a creator-deity of something with as bizarre and foolish a design as the Reapers hold. Why was Liara nuts? Because I thought it was funny, and it took on a life of its own spawning the character we love today. Why did I leave the Pischacha slithering throughout the galaxy's underbelly? Because not everything gets to be wrapped up neatly.
Now, there's a chance that I follow this up some time in the undefined future. If I do, it will not follow ME:A's story much if at all. For one thing, the Ryder twins are quarians, and instead of having any humans at all, the Tempest includes raloi, protheans, and vorcha. The story won't be about a plucky band of underdogs trying to survive a hostile galaxy, but instead a vanguard of a society able to produce military might on par with a 40k Segmentum making an ideological stand against a foe with irresistable numbers and truly alien technologies to save the angaran race, as well as any others they find in their corner of the Andromeda Galaxy. As usual, nothing ever ends, and now the real work begins.
But don't put too much hope in waiting for it. There are other stories rattling around the old brain-vault, and I've a mind to explore a few of those before ever returning for a hypothetical Avatar of Victory: Andromeda. Until then, it has been a pleasure.