Disclaimer: As always, Bioware owns everything.
Author's Note: Starting this week, The Final Frontier will be going on a brief, three-week hiatus while this author is going off to get married and go on her honeymoon! I don't think I'll be able to post new chapters while I'm gone, but I'll definitely be working on the story, and will hopefully have something up when I get back after the 25th. In the meantime, thank you so much for all your kind comments and reviews. Your support of this story is deeply humbling to me, and I appreciate it so much. Enjoy Chapter 5!
Dr. T'soni finally arrived the next afternoon, blushing blue and stammering apologies. She was surprisingly shy and awkward for an asari maiden, Garrus thought; all the ones he'd known before had either been mercenaries (fearless) or strippers (shameless). But her excitement at this assignment was obvious. Shepard might not have been a Prothean, but to Liara, as she insisted on being called, she was the next best thing.
Garrus himself had never understood the allure of studying the Protheans, although he certainly appreciated the technology they'd left lying around the galaxy. He thought Shepard made for a much more intriguing research topic; not only was she actually living, but she also made the most fascinating facial expressions. Perhaps it was the investigator in him that understood the value of being able to read someone, but he'd been mentally cataloguing her expressions for a couple of days now, trying to assign meanings to each, although many continued to mystify him. She could scrunch up or puff out her cheeks, twitch her pointed nose, and make all sorts of shapes with her mouth. Sometimes, when she smiled, two mysteriously appealing dimples appeared in her cheeks. He'd even seen her wiggle her ears, although he couldn't figure out what purpose that could possibly serve. The most shocking thing was when she'd been prodding at the inside of her mouth with her tongue, and her cheek had actually bulged out to accommodate the tip – a sight that for some reason, made Garrus distinctly uncomfortable. Faces just weren't supposed to be like that. He briefly wondered if he could convince Liara to make a study of the phenomenon; Mordin had already refused, claiming the topic was "not sufficiently challenging".
Garrus had tried to prepare Shepard for the asari's arrival a bit earlier that day, but it was clearly beyond the limits of what he could communicate through his 20-word vocabulary, consisting mostly of nouns and a few adjectives. He had drawn a blue woman with no hair – he wasn't so good at details like fringes, so he left them out – and Shepard had simply stared at him uncomprehendingly. "Garrus, what?"
What was another word he'd picked up, and it usually meant that she didn't understand. He'd scratched his fringe; he hadn't really thought the pictorial explanation through, and it suddenly seemed very complicated to explain in pictures that an asari researcher was on her way to see Shepard and help her communicate. So he gave up, simply making a reassuring but apologetic noise and clearing the sketchpad screen. Later, though, when Liara actually arrived and knocked hesitantly on the door, Shepard had shot him a look of understanding before gaping openly at her first asari.
Liara had already read through Mordin's report to the Council, but she still looked a little awed at the sight of Shepard in person. "Oh!" the asari exclaimed. "I didn't expect her to look so…similar to me."
"Except the whole blue thing," Garrus was quick to point out. Shepard was looking at them expectantly. "Liara," he introduced.
"Liara," Shepard repeated dutifully, raising her hand in a wave.
"Shepard," Liara answered. Then, to Garrus, "You spend a lot of time talking with her. Does she know why I'm here?"
"No. It's, uh, kind of hard to explain in pictures. Or words, even. What are you going to do, exactly?"
Liara looked a little bashful. "I assume that you're familiar with mind melding?"
Garrus nodded. He'd thought it would come to that, except… "Isn't that a little wrong without getting her consent?"
"Oh, it doesn't always have to be for, um, you know," Liara said, looking uncomfortable. "It can just be for sharing thoughts or experiences. Councilor Tevos asked me to receive the knowledge of her language, and perhaps relevant memories about the attack on her ship. I can pass on my own language so that she'll be able to understand me. And that way, she'll be able to use omni-tool programs that translate into asari." Liara fidgeted; so did Shepard, who seemed to be getting bored of waiting and was starting to pick at her odd, blunted claws. "Do you think there's some way you can let her know what's going to happen? It feels a little strange just…well…" Liara looked uncertain, and somewhat guilty. Garrus could understand her trepidation; mind melding was a freaky experience the first time, and the fact that it essentially amounted to asari mind-sex…well…it wasn't exactly fair to Shepard. Or to Liara, really.
"I'll try. Shepard?"
At Garrus' mention of her name, the woman turned to him. "Garrus?"
He switched on his omni-tool and brought up the sketchpad. He drew the blue asari figure again. Then, he switched to pink for the pale tone of Shepard's skin, adding the familiar scribble for her hair and the whorled shape of her ears. As Shepard watched attentively, he drew a line connecting the human and the asari heads. Shepard's brow furrowed.
He drew the line again. "Shepard. Liara. Yes?"
She stared at him, looking confused and a little suspicious. "No."
Garrus sighed. It had been a long shot, anyway, that she would understand that. "I can't explain better in pictures, Shepard," he began, subharmonics rumbling in reassurance. "Liara's going to help you talk to us, but she's got to do this asari thing with your head. It'll probably be weird, but it'll be okay. Soon we'll be able to talk and this charades crap will be over." He paused. "Not that it hasn't been fun…" He trailed off at her increasingly blank look and turned back to Liara in frustration. "I just…I don't know. Can you just apologize to her after you can talk to her? Maybe she'll be okay with it and we're getting all worked up about this for nothing."
"I suppose…" Liara nodded, and she turned to look at Shepard, who stared back at her curiously. "Embrace eternity," the asari intoned, and her eyes grew dark.
It was one of the strangest experiences Shepard had ever had. One moment, she was sitting on her cot, with Garrus and the new blue alien, allegedly called Liara. She'd noticed that the shape of Liara's body was surprisingly similar to her own. That's why they had clothes for me, she'd thought. They have these alien ladies running around that look almost human. Well, except the blue part…and the head tentacles…oh, and no ears. I wonder what else about them is different.
Liara looked a little worried. Garrus had turned to back to Shepard and was trying to explain something to her, but whatever concept it was seemed a little too complicated for the simple mime-speak they'd practiced. And then Liara was looking into her eyes, gaze still distantly apologetic, but then her eyes had gone black and Shepard had felt like she was falling into some kind of void. Suddenly she was awash in memories – fleeting images of Earth, Alliance Command, the Normandy. Her crew – Ashley, Kaidan, Joker, the others. Her ship – and the attack. Four-eyed monsters – batarians, the word suddenly came to her out of nowhere – with their assault rifles firing on the engineers in the command center – the sensation of panic when she'd finally run out of ammunition – the surreal dizziness that had set in after the shot to her arm –
And then she came back to herself, gasping. Next to her, Garrus made a worried sound. "Shepard?"
Liara was also reeling, holding her blue, tentacled head. "I am sorry about that, Shepard," Liara said between panting breaths. "I know it can be…disconcerting."
"It's alright," Shepard replied automatically. Then – wait. Did she just – She turned to Liara so quickly she almost fell off the cot, still not having recovered fully from the lightheadedness."Did you just talk to me, and I understood?"
"Yes," Liara said, still trying to catch her breath. "I gave you my language, and learned yours in exchange so that we could communicate. It's a tiring process…I think I'm going to lie down now." And she collapsed onto the cot.
"It's something that we asari can do," Liara said, eyes closed. Her voice lapsed into the formalized tone of an academic. "Mind melding is a way of transferring thoughts, memories and feelings. Essentially the process attunes our nervous systems with those of our partners. It's also our primary form of reproduction."
Shepard's lips pursed and she raised one eyebrow, half impressed and half…well, weirded out. Next to her, Garrus stared curiously at Shepard's face, clearly never having seen that expression on her before, and unsuccessfully attempted to imitate it with his own brow plates. "So what you're saying is that we just had mind-sex. Are you going to have my half-alien baby now?" Because…there's something very wrong about that…
"No!" Liara's eyes flew open in surprise, and she shook her head in embarrassment. "It wasn't that way at all! I promise. This was only for informational purposes. Nothing else…oh, dear. I should have thought this explanation through." She looked genuinely upset with herself, and Shepard actually began to feel a little sorry for her.
"Just joking," she reassured the asari, though she hadn't been, really. Strange, she thought – asari – the words were just there now, in her head. And Garrus was turian.
Garrus was outright laughing now at Liara's distress. "Studying a dead species doesn't prepare you much for these interactions, does it?"
"She studies a dead species?" Shepard asked, turning to face him. Then, her expression turned jubilant. "I can understand you too, Garrus?"
She was immediately disappointed by the look of puzzlement on his face, but Liara intervened. "You can understand the asari language now, Shepard. Your omni-tool is now translating his turian speech into asari and feeding those meanings into your mind. But you're still speaking in your own language…English," she said, trying the word out. "So Garrus cannot understand you. Try speaking in asari instead."
Shepard did. "Where am I, Garrus?" she asked, the mellifluous tones of the asari language coming surprisingly naturally to her.
"The Citadel," he answered automatically. Shepard whooped, and they grinned at each other.
"Finally," Shepard muttered. "It's time for some real answers. For starters…what the hell is the Citadel?"
We've created a monster, Garrus thought wryly.
They'd been answering Shepard's questions for the past three hours. Well, he had, at least; Liara had bowed out early, pleading exhaustion from the mind-melding experience, and had left to go report to Mordin, and then rest in the apartments assigned to her by the Council. It had left Garrus to handle Shepard's flood of inquiries alone. And she wanted to know about everything.
He'd taken out his omni-tool and together they sat on her cot, thumbing through pictures of all the known species in the galaxy. "I'm a turian," he explained. "We come from the planet Palaven. It's got a lot of radiation, which is why we've evolved all this plating to protect us from getting burned up." He gestured to his face casually.
Shepard studied him with interest. "Like armor. May I?" she asked, extending a hand out.
"Only if I get to touch your hair," Garrus blurted. Then he winced. Turians generally didn't let anyone except their mates touch their fringes, and he wondered if there was some similar convention among her species. "Um, sorry if that's a big cultural insult or something. It's just…I've never seen anything like it."
"It's okay, Blue. It's not an insult." Shepard made a crooked half-smile that revealed one dimple and Garrus relaxed, recognizing that particular look as one of amusement. She reached forward and gently ran three fingers down the side of his left mandible, brow furrowed in consideration of the texture. Garrus shifted a little at the unexpectedly intimate touch – she felt cool, soft, and alien, her fingers leaving a whispery trail of sensation– but he let her explore until she dropped her hand and then tilted her own head towards him. With a barely-concealed trill of glee, Garrus reached out and ran his fingers through the soft strands. She'd cleaned them in the sink yesterday, and they felt glossy and almost slithery between his fingers. He couldn't help running his claws through the strands over and over again, watching as they slid smoothly against each other.
"What's its purpose?" he asked.
"To keep our heads warm?" Shepard shrugged. It was an act that he'd realized straddled the line between "I don't know" and "I don't care". "People style it differently according to personal preference," she continued. "Men generally keep it shorter and women longer, but that's not always the case. It comes in different colors and textures, too, depending on where you're from, and it pretty much always turns gray when you get old."
Experimentally, he grasped a handful and tugged gently against her scalp. "It doesn't hurt?" he asked.
"If you actually try to pull it all out at once, it'll hurt like a bitch," she warned, and he let go immediately. "But one at a time, not so much. Just a little sting."
With that experiment complete, Shepard went back to scanning through the omni-tool codex entries, delighted that she could now read as well as speak. "It says here that turians are galactic peacekeepers."
"All of the different species play different roles in the galactic community," he explained. "We're just particularly good at this one because we're all pretty much taught to do our duty from the time we're born. Having the biggest fleet in the galaxy doesn't hurt, either."
Intrigued, Shepard read through the entry on the turian military. "Military service is compulsory starting at 15? Wow…an entire population of soldiers. That sounds incredible." She peered at him calculatingly. "So you must have been a soldier too. What do you do when you're not playing vocabulary games with strange alien prisoners?"
"I'm an investigator for C-Sec – Citadel Security. It's kind of a police force. So, you know, fighting crime, solving mysteries, getting the girls. I do it all," he said with a bit of a swagger.
And she laughed. Hearing it, and seeing her strange, malleable face crinkled in lines of mirth, he suddenly felt like he'd just won some kind of unexpected prize. It was, he realized, the first moment he'd truly connected with her, person to person.
They continued along, and soon the tables were turned as Garrus grilled Shepard about her own people. It turned out that Shepard was a human, and they were the predominant species on their planet, Earth. She described the flight of her spaceship, called the Normandy, and their encounter with what Garrus realized must have been an active mass relay on the edge of their system, Sol. When Garrus confirmed her suspicions about the relays being gateways into other star systems, she grew still. "The batarians could return at any time, then," she said. "I have to warn Earth…but unless we have help, there's no way we can defend ourselves if they strike again. The Normandy was our very best, and they cut through her like cheese."
Garrus didn't know what cheese was, but Shepard sounded worried, so he told her about the Council. It was the only place she could turn to for help.
But as they spoke, he realized, with a sinking feeling, that she was in a hopeless position. There was no way the Council would help her; they simply had no reason to. With batarians on the move, the Council would dedicate their resources to protecting the Citadel, the home worlds and their own colonies. There was no way they would agree to send any kind of meaningful support to a backwards, unknown world with nothing to offer.
Garrus knew that as a C-Sec agent, his duty was to put the welfare of the Citadel above all. Perhaps he should have been more suspicious of Shepard, or aloof; perhaps others would accuse him of growing too fond too quickly of the strange pink alien who'd become his charge over the last week. But there was something about her that Garrus innately recognized and respected. He had a better sense of the various facets of her personality now that they could actually hold conversations together. Shepard was curious – incredibly so. Every explanation he gave led to another three questions. She also seemed to be practical. Even that first day, he remembered, she'd escaped her cell within minutes of waking up. She was a person of action.
But there was something else that was compelling about her. As he spoke to her, he discovered that she had not been a soldier on the Normandy, but in fact, its commander. The ship and the lives of its crew had been her responsibility. And despite the fact that she'd faced impossible odds during the attack, she accepted no excuses for herself, choosing to bear the full weight of her failure. The need to honor her fallen teammates and ensure her peoples' welfare was what drove her now.
And in his gut, he knew simply that he liked her. She was a good person, full of integrity and honor. He knew she was not going to get what she needed from the Council, and it bothered him – much more than it probably should have.
They had gotten through learning about all the Council races and were discussing batarians when they were interrupted by a businesslike rap on the door. Mordin entered, clutching a datapad in his hand. "Ah, Shepard," he said pleasantly. "Glad to see language barrier no longer an obstacle."
"Mordin," she greeted him. "Thank you for your help. My arm feels almost completely better."
"Certainly," the salarian acknowledged. "Deployed experimental bone growth treatment successfully. Was concerned about adverse side effects: itching, hallucinations, seizures. Pleased to note worries unfounded."
Shepard nevertheless looked a little worried by that revelation.
"Have been monitoring your conversation," Mordin continued without missing a beat. "Wanted to inform you Council wishes to meet tomorrow morning to discuss situation."
Shepard tensed. "What can I expect?"
"Purpose of meeting twofold: observe Shepard and determine course of action," Mordin explained. Then, he shook his head. "Attempted to convince Council through report that Shepard unthreatening to Citadel civilians. Some still suspicious."
"If they think I'm going to go Rambo on everyone, they're probably not going to want to help Earth, are they?" She frowned.
Garrus scratched his head, wondering what a Rambo was, as Mordin replied. "Unsure what aid they will offer, but suspect it will be minimal. Council more concerned about possible batarian attack on Citadel."
Shepard sighed. "I can't see why they'd help, to be honest. I can't offer them anything they'd actually want. But I have to try anyway. I owe it to my crew…and to Earth."
"Hey, you never know. We don't know what the batarians were looking for when they went through your relay. Maybe they won't come back to Earth at all," Garrus suggested gently.
Shepard looked at him, her eyes hard and focused. "If it were Palaven, would you take that chance?"
He didn't respond. She already knew the answer.
As far as Shepard was concerned, the Council meeting had been an abject failure.
She couldn't say she was entirely surprised. She'd argued eloquently for her people, but in the end, they simply had no reason to do anything. All they'd promised her was that eventually she would be spared a ride home and an escort team of diplomats to make official contact with Earth's government. When she protested, the turian councilor went so far as to imply that she should have been grateful they hadn't just put her down when they'd brought her in.
She'd been very tempted to walk out at that point, but she still needed their help, and she wasn't able to doom her planet to alien conquest just because she'd lost her temper.
That didn't mean she wasn't frustrated though. "Politicians are the weeds of the galaxy," she spat. "Hated them on Earth, hate them now."
"Can't say I like them much myself," Garrus admitted. He was escorting her back to her cell, keeping a cautious eye on the onlookers who were staring at the first human they'd ever seen. "Too much talking, not enough action. Plus the Council never wants to deal with anything themselves – they just send Spectres to do all their dirty work for them."
"Spectres?" Shepard asked. So as they moved across one of the bridges overlooking the Presidium, Garrus told her about the Spectres, the elite force of operatives that collectively served as the right hand of the Council.
"They're above the law?" she asked, eyes wide in astonishment. "That sounds like a recipe for trouble."
Garrus hesitated. "Some might think so," he began slowly. "Personally I always thought it would be…liberating. No red tape." Shepard didn't miss the note of longing in his voice, and wondered what he wasn't saying. "Besides," Garrus continued, "the one who found you – Nihlus. He's a Spectre."
"Yeah. And if he wasn't…well, he probably couldn't have brought you here and gotten away with it."
They stood in silence for a moment. It was a lot to take in at once, Shepard thought. Maybe if she had the support of one of the Spectres, she could convince the Council to lend some token defenses to Earth, or at least a more frequent patrol for the Arcturus relay, which led to Charon. Perhaps she could appeal to this Nihlus.
She looked down at the Presidium. It was really a beautiful view, elegant white buildings surrounding a vast lake, lined by thriving green trees. There were a lot of people out, many of them walking along the edge of the lake and enjoying the weather. Garrus had explained that the climate was all simulated, but it didn't mean that she appreciated it any less, especially after a week cooped up in that prison cell.
Looking up, she noticed a line of skycars whizzing by. Suddenly she had an idea. "Hey, Garrus…"
She pointed up at the cars. "You think we can take one of those around? I want to see the rest of the Citadel. I'm kind of overdue for a tour anyway, don't you think?" She gave him her most charming smile.
"Oh, uh…" he looked taken aback, and glanced up. "…I don't see why not, I guess. I don't think you're a big Council secret anymore, now that they know you won't Rambo the Presidium." He flared his mandibles at her.
Shepard laughed at the attempt. "Go Rambo on the Presidium," she corrected. "But good try."
It was wonderful, Shepard thought. Garrus had taken one of the C-Sec issued cars and now they were speeding through the air. From this view, she could see the overall shape of the Citadel, a ring surrounded by five arms. If they opened up, it would be a giant star; if they closed, the Citadel and all its inhabitants would be protected in an impenetrable cylinder.
Garrus' work gave him great familiarity with the various areas of the Citadel, and he pointed them out to her as they flew over. There was the Citadel Tower, where she'd met with the Council, and the ring on which it rested, which was the Presidium. The arms were known as the Wards – Zakera, Kithoi, Tayseri, Bachjret and Shalta. Each one was a self-contained city housing millions, and each one shimmered with lights. It reminded her of New York City or Hong Kong.
Garrus was a good driver, she noticed. "Do a lot of car chases in your line of work, Blue?" she asked.
"Not as many in Investigations," he explained. "Enforcement takes care of that stuff, mostly. But once I did have to chase around a salarian scientist that was involved in illegal organ trading. He was actually growing them inside his own employees." Shepard shuddered, and Garrus winced at the memory. "Didn't catch him, though. He led us on a merry chase in his ship, but they wouldn't fire at him because he was too close to the Wards. So he got away."
"Do you know what happened to him?"
"No," Garrus sighed. "He's not on the Citadel, but I don't know where he went. I put some feelers out after the whole thing, but the guy must have changed his name. Haven't found anything yet."
"Don't give up. You'll find him."
Garrus eventually guided their skycar down to a lookout point near the tip of Zakera Ward. It was a stunning view; behind them, nearly the entirety of the Citadel's structure was visible, and before them stretched the great expanse of space. He parked their car and they walked up together, sitting down side by side in the grass. Some of the other people were staring at Shepard, but she simply waved to them and then ignored them. After a while, they dispersed, reassured that she was not hostile. She was with a C-Sec officer, anyway.
After taking in the view, Shepard closed her eyes and breathed deeply as she considered the events of the previous week. "Hey, Garrus," she murmured.
She turned over and regarded the turian at her side. "Just wanted to thank you. For, you know, not shooting me when I tried to escape. Sorry about that, by the way."
He laughed. "To tell you the truth, I was pretty impressed. Didn't expect that out of someone who'd been asleep for five days straight. You'll have to teach me how you jumped over that cot so fast. Never seen that."
"Yeah, well…we're not spiky and covered in a natural coat of armor, but we humans can still do a thing or do." She winked. "Seriously, though…whatever happens with the Council, and with Earth, I'm glad I got to meet you." She grinned over at him, and he flared his mandibles back at her.
"Same here, Shepard."
They sat in companionable silence, and Shepard relaxed as she watched the ships entering and leaving the Citadel atmosphere. They look so different from Alliance ships, she thought. I've never seen anything like them…except that one. That one looks a little familiar…
Suddenly, she sat up in horror. Garrus' head immediately swiveled in her direction, surprised. "Shepard? What's wrong?"
She pointed at the ship, which was approaching the Citadel docks with speed.
"Garrus…that ship over there. That's the same one that attacked the Normandy." Shepard's eyes narrowed. "And it's coming this way."