A Matter of Race and Character
INTERESTING TIMES: CHRONICLE OF AN ASARI
Hierarchy Entarus Station (Gellix) computer terminal accessed. User profile: Order of Serrice Engineer, Erata D'Ceni.
Personal log enabled. Please select file to view.
Attention. Access to selected document is restricted –- Password required.
Personal log timestamped: 20.30 UTC, February 13th 2183CE (Galactic Standard), 3rd Day of the Feast of Athame.
Audio recording starts …
"The humans, I understand from my travels, have a curse: May you live in interesting times. Well, that can definitely be applied to the current situation here on Gellix. I am most certainly living in interesting times…
I have three passions in my life (not counting my family). My first passion, engineering, I've happily turned into my profession. This is often seen as strange by non-asari. I guess we're written off as either commandos, dancers or diplomats. And yet where would the asari be without engineers? We pride ourselves on our intellectual and technological superiority. But that superiority would be nothing without the skilled engineers to create the wonderful ships and magnificent architecture that are the envy of the Galaxy. We, the asari, lead the field in scientific advancement. Our technology drives the other races forward. It has always been this way, and it constantly surprises me that so few of the other races understand or appreciate this. There is power in creation. To shape a machine; give it life; turn it into a true work of art. There is such poetry in the interlocking mechanisms of an engine; an almost lyrical quality to the subtle vibration of thrusters at full power.
Secondly, I love to travel. This is not seen as strange. Travel for a young maiden is quite natural and actively encouraged. Travel brings you into contact with other races and generates fresh new experiences. It encourages new ideas, different ways of thinking, and with that comes an understanding of the other races. And my wanderlust is insatiable!
Finally, and I make no bones about this, I love sex!
I love the heat of another person's body against my skin. I adore the varying textures of the different races, some soft; some harder; some smooth; some scaled; all beautiful. I relish their different scents and tastes, the magnificent variety of skin colours. And, it goes without saying, I love the heady rush of the meld. To touch another person's mind, to lose myself in another's spirit and perceive their memories as if I had lived them makes me thank the Goddess I'm asari. I cannot imagine how the other races cope never having experienced the exquisite joy of melding… It is a gift for which I am eternally grateful.
Which might go some way to explaining just how terrified I am right now!
How the hell can I function properly with this hanging over me?
It all started two days ago. Entarus Station was in lockdown. Ordinarily I'd jump at the opportunity to be locked in an enclosed space with a squad of attractive turians, but during that lockdown I'm afraid I was openly moping around the base. It was a difficult time. The Feast of Athame is not a time for any asari to be away from home. The Feast of Athame is for family, and I was desperately missing mine. But, as it turned out, things were only going to get worse.
I have three passions in my life, and I'm in serious danger of losing all of them…
"Arcadias has been attacked!" I told Gabby, perhaps a little too bluntly.
The human's face blanched. "How badly? Was anyone killed?"
"We don't know," Pella replied, her voice strained. "Our orders are to maintain radio silence."
Gabby simply stood there, staring at us mutely. She looked lost. My first instinct was to step forward and embrace her. Assure her it'd be okay. But I resisted the temptation. She'd never responded to any of my flirtations and I feared I'd be crossing the line.
We followed the XO onto the upper catwalk above the maelstrom of swarming turian bodies. The place had become the epicentre of activity. Soldiers and sappers bustled up and down the hanger. The sirens were pounding relentlessly in my ear, making it hard to concentrate. I wondered how the turians coped with it.
Despite the clamour, the XO's voice rose above it all as he bellowed out orders, "Lock down the base! Issue rifles to all personnel. I want constant scans of the area. Extend sensor scans all the way to Anapondus – If anything moves out there you are to report it immediately. If a nathak lifts its leg to take a piss I want to know about it!"
The XO then separated the groups and issued commands. I looked at my colleagues. They were taking news of the attack hard. Gabby held her rifle to her chest, her jaw set and her eyes unfocused, staring at nothing. For a moment I don't think she was even aware anyone else was in the room. Pella didn't look much better. They both had friends on Arcadias. People they cared for. To my surprise Pella placed a comforting hand on Gabby's arm. Gabby looked up and nodded vaguely at Pella.
As they received their orders the troops dispersed. Snipers and lookouts were stationed at every possible defensible position. Every member of the base, including Gabby and Pella, kept vigilant watch on the horizon, constantly scanning the surface and sky for any sign of movement or the merest hint of assault. The engineering base had become, to all intents and purposes, a military fortress. I think it actually helped them. The responsibility probably kept their minds focused, distracting them from dwelling too much on what was happening back on Arcadias. It was only during their down time that the strain started to tell. My own assignment kept me separated from Gabby, but when I saw the human again in the mess hall the next day she looked like she hadn't slept for twenty-four hours. Later, she told me she hadn't.
The lock-down was not without incident.
Not long after nightfall on the second day (just after breakfast), shots rang out. One of the cadets had started firing at shadows. He swore he'd downed a mercenary scout, but when the sun rose the only thing that could be seen was the fur-covered body of a nathak juvenile that had become separated from its pack.
Just two hours later every alarm in the base suddenly went off.
Everyone tensed ready for a fight. Then the XO called us up to the CIC. Gabby, Pella and I assembled around the central holo-display and were surprised by the readings coming from the scanner. A massive energy signal had flared to life in the mountains some thirty kilometres from our position.
"The readings are off the scale," the XO said as he stared at the display. "Over twenty terajoules. That's orders of magnitude above anything the Hierarchy has built on Gellix. The electromagnetic signature is colossal; even against the background gravity wells of the planet."
"A signal that large could power a medium-sized colony for over ten years," I observed. "What's in that region?"
"Nothing of note," the XO replied. "This area was occupied by the krogan. Geothermal vents make it ideal for colonization. In fact, Anapondus was built on the ruins of an old krogan settlement."
"An ancient krogan generator that we're only just discovering now?" Pella said incredulously. "It's dwarfing even the annual power output of Arcadias. That's huge! We'd have registered it on the sensors before now, surely?"
"Not if it was lying dormant," Gabby put in. "It could be it was activated recently and been steadily building in power."
"Could it be what's been affecting the heating?" I suggested. "Maybe it's driving an eezo core powerful enough to override the one at Anapondus, and the Entarus Station core?"
"That would certainly account for all the systems that had gone awry," Gabby agreed after a moment's thought.
"Looks like we found Gabby's rogue mass effect core," Pella said. "The question is: what do we do about it?"
"Leave that with me," the XO replied. "I'll speak to the commander when COMSEC is lifted. She'll decide whether it's something we should pursue."
After that we went back to guarding the base, although, other than a major storm rolling in from the west, little else occurred.
Commander Joric finally broke radio silence by late evening. Arcadias had made contact with Anapondus and verified it had engaged and destroyed several batarian slaver ships. The turian cruiser had taken damage and was now conducting repairs. There were no reported casualties.
The feeling of relief amongst the crew was palpable. After the tension of the last few days Joric permitted a slight relaxation of the dress code. Armour was no longer mandatory, and to help the crew unwind further, Entarus Station's heating system was raised to well above normal so that very soon everyone was positively basking in the sweltering temperature… Well, the turians were anyway. I found it rather uncomfortable, and I'm not sure Gabby was wholly enjoying it.
I found Gabby in the mess hall the next day, eating alone; a rare event. Pella had stuck to Gabby like glue throughout the lockdown, and I'd often catch her comforting the human. It seemed the pair had resolved their dispute, perhaps bonding over the current crisis.
Curiously, Pella had earlier been gossiping that Gabby had admitted she'd seen a turian man in the nude prior to joining the exchange programme; although Pella never revealed how they'd gotten onto that particular topic of conversation.
Sitting opposite her, I scanned Gabby's face. She looked flushed, her skin gleaming with a thin layer of sweat despite the thin sleeveless top she was wearing. Her expression was downcast and I tried to engage her in conversation.
"I hear we're going to be investigating this mysterious power source when the skies clear."
"Hmm-mmm," Gabby replied absently.
"And Joric says that we may have to add a further ten days to the mission because of the storms."
The human nodded. "I heard," she confirmed, not looking up.
"Guess we won't be getting off this rock anytime soon."
"That's a comforting thought," she muttered.
"You should be able to contact the ship today." Gabby simply nodded again. "I'm sure you'll feel better once you've talked to Donnelly. Then you can see he's okay…"
"Well, he won't be when I'm finished with him!" Gabby said firmly. "What was he thinking? First he starts a brawl with the crew and then he lets the ship get attacked by bloody slavers. He's a born troublemaker that one."
"I very much doubt he was responsible for the attack, Gabby," I tried to reassure her, but she didn't respond, instead simply moving her food around with her fork. She still looked despondent.
I tried a different tack.
"You must really care for him," I observed.
"We've been friends for a long time. We've had each other's back all these years, why wouldn't I care for him?" She took a sip from her glass.
"You two ever get frisky?"
Gabby swallowed and glared at me as she slammed her cup down on the table, her eyes wide. She did at least have the self-control not to choke on her drink. "What? No! That's… no! And even if we had that wouldn't be any of your business."
"I'm simply trying to gauge the state of your relationship. In my experience being friends and being intimate are not necessarily mutual exclusive."
"You want to know if we're friends with benefits?" Gabby scowled; the worry lines on her face evaporating. "No, we're not. Contrary to what you may think not everyone jumps into bed with the first person they meet! And why are you so interested in my sex life?"
"Because it would be nice to know you have one," I replied, a well-practiced smile curling my lips. "I hate to think of you missing out on one of the fundamental joys of life."
"I'm not a nun, Erata!" she retorted, pouting. "It's not like I've never been approached by another person … Or taken an interest in someone. But, that stuff is private…"
"Well, you could do worse than Donnelly. Though, of course, if he's available, I might even be interested in him myself," I suggested, goading her. The expression on her face subtly changed. "He comes across as a bit of a ladies man…"
"I wouldn't bet on it. I doubt he'd know one end of a woman from the other. He's had girlfriends in the past, of course," – Was there a hint of antagonism in her voice? – "but nothing serious. I'm not even sure he knows how to commit to a grown-up relationship. He's too immature when it comes to women. He'd probably run a mile at the thought of moving in with someone. I don't think he's relationship material, frankly…" She suddenly narrowed her eyes, looking at me with suspicion. "Wait; is this another wind-up to keep me distracted?"
I smiled and held my hands up. "Guilty, I'm afraid." Gabby shook her head in frustration. I admit my strategy may have been crude but it did appear to have the desired effect. I leaned in closer to her. "For what it's worth, the way Donnelly was fussing over you before we left Arcadias, he obviously does care for you… And I apologise for making assumptions about you two just because you happen to be the same species. But humans are new to the galactic scene. You have to admit it's rare to see you guys hooking up with anyone outside your own race." I grinned, suddenly remembering what Pella had told me. "Although, from what a little bird tells me, it sounds like you might have some prior experience with turians?"
Gabby didn't appear to see the funny side of it. "You can tell that 'little bird' that right now I'd settle for someone with half-a-brain or an ounce of self-respect. And that doesn't appear to be present here!"
I shrugged. "You have high standards, I can respect that." We lapsed into silence while Gabby consumed her meal. I'm afraid curiosity got the better of me and after a while I voiced the question I'd been dying to ask: "So, you and this naked turian…?"
"I'm not getting into that!" she snapped, ending the conversation.
The comm-officer chose that moment to approach our table. He stopped beside us and looked at Gabby.
"Engineer Daniels – We've re-established communications with Arcadias. Commander Joric has given you permission to access the comm-buoy. You can contact Engineer Donnelly in two hours."
Gabby's face flushed, her body language radiating unbridled relief. "Thank you."
Then the man turned to face me. "And there's also a message pending for you, Engineer D'Ceni. I'm still trying to sort through the logjam of vid-link messages. All our comm-channels are busy at the moment but I will put your call through to your quarters once we have sufficient bandwidth."
"Who's the call from?"
"I'm not certain – It was marked as a private message from Thessia."
I nodded at him. "Cheers."
Gabby was quiet for a long time, though she seemed to be breathing easier now. Eventually, she looked up and actually smiled at me. "You've got an odd way of comforting people… but I appreciate what you were trying to do, Erata."
"That's what I'm here for, Kitten."
The call didn't come through to my quarters for another two hours. It was odd that the comm-officer didn't know who it was from. It meant that it was sensitive enough to supersede the Hierarchy's filtering policy, despite being flagged as simply 'private'. And the fact it was from Thessia led me to believe it could only have come from my superiors back in the Order.
Goddess, how wrong was I?
The face of the asari that eventually appeared on the screen was familiar to me, but not one I was glad to see. It belonged to a rather elderly asari Matron who I'd known since I was young. Almost six-hundred years old, she looked aged even compared to most Matriarchs. Her brow was lined with frown marks and her yellow facial markings looked dull and faded next to her pale mottled skin. The overriding memory I have of her is the pain she inflicts whenever she draws my blood.
"Doctor." I inclined my head just enough to show respect. "It's been a while."
"Erata," the doctor greeted me. Her eyes darted left-to-right, examining my quarters. "Are you alone? Is it safe to talk?"
"Yes, I'm alone," I confirmed. "I take it this isn't a social call?"
The doctor shook her head. "No. I'm afraid I have some bad news regarding your latest blood work… Your results show unusually low T cell and NK cell production…"
"Genetics was never my strongest subject, doctor."
The doctor hesitated before she continued in a solemn tone, "There may be a correlation between your test results and Melpomena's situation."
I scowled, glaring at the doctor. Any reference to Mel, especially coming from a doctor, made me uncomfortable. "My sister's condition is well known to me, doctor!" I fumed. "I fail to see what that's got to do…" Then I stopped, a cold feeling of dread seeping into my gut. "Wait… What are you saying?"
"This deficiency is only found in purebloods."
I could feel my whole body stiffen at the phrase. I'd never gotten on well with the doctor assigned to my family; she'd always come across as cold and insensitive. I briefly considered hanging up and reporting the doctor to the authorities, but realised that would be futile. The doctor represented the authorities. They'd only side with her.
The doctor held up her hands. "My apologies if you're offended," she said in a firm, but placating tone, "but I am using the term in its correct medical context. Your latest results indicate you may have similar recessive alleles to your sister."
It's not often I'm shocked to silence, but at that precise moment I was slack-jawed. "No. That can't… Are you telling me that I could be…? That's ridiculous! I've melded before; there's never been any problem." I could hear my own voice rising steadily in pitch. "It's happened many times, they were all successful!"
"The condition has varying degrees of severity. And I can't confirm what this is until we conduct more tests. As you know, this… disorder is incredibly hard to diagnose. There have been reports of the symptoms appearing as late as the Matron stage, but those are extremely rare cases. I'm not ruling anything out yet. This could simply be a case of x-linked immunodeficiency, which is entirely treatable."
"That's got to be it, then," I muttered, grasping at any scrap of hope. "That's what it is. You've got to be wrong."
"However, there is also a chance, albeit a remote chance, of what is known as epistatic quiescence – Of latent genes suddenly becoming active," the doctor explained.
"I was rrr…ruled out as a carrier," I insisted, my childhood stutter rearing its ugly head under the stress. "The tests were negative."
"That was a while ago. Science has moved on since then. The tests have become more sophisticated."
I stared at the screen in shock; my heart thumping rapidly in my chest. A thousand different questions were fighting for attention in my mind. None of which I really wanted to know the answer to. I let the silence drag on until finally, I voiced her fears.
"Worst case scenario?"
The doctor hesitated again before answering. "I couldn't say with any certainty. We're not at that stage yet. We need to run more tests."
"Will you… Will you be informing the Justicars?" My voice sounded very small.
"The Justicars have been involved since your sister was diagnosed. Your family have been under close observation ever since. That's standard procedure, I can't change that. But it's also the reason you have such a dedicated medical team here to support you and your family. You're not alone in this. We will do everything we can, I assure you."
I wasn't convinced. I'd seen what 'doing everything we can' usually entailed. The breath caught in my throat. The thought of a Justicar suddenly showing up and carting me off to that place… That I might be forced to make the choice – 'choice', yeah right! – between self-imposed imprisonment and isolation or summary execution was more than I could bear.
My eyes stung with the first hints of excess moisture, but I blinked them back rapidly, turning away from the screen.
Don't let anyone see you like this. You have to be strong.
The doctor was silent as she gave me time to process this. Eventually, I turned back to face the screen. "What do you recommend?"
"I'd ask you to refrain from melding for the time being. For your sake and the sake of others…"
"I'm no danger to anyone!" I blurted out.
"Just until we know more," the doctor insisted. "We can take your case further, together. You've been extremely cooperative throughout this whole ordeal. That will surely count in your favour should the Justicars make a judgement."
I couldn't believe this, the way the doctor talked you'd think she'd already made a diagnosis. The face on the screen smiled at me. "You're not alone in this, Ms D'Ceni," she repeated.
And now she starts calling me by my family name. That's exactly what happened before they came for Mel.
I cut the transmission.
"I'm sick of your platitudes!" I spat at the empty screen.
I was still sitting there in shock when the voice of the XO filtered through my omni-tool.
"Engineer D'Ceni. Please report to the CIC. Commander Joric wants to speak to you on vid-comm. If you see Artificer Vettiill and Engineer Daniels please inform them that their presence is required. I believe Daniels may be in the comm-room."
There was a long pause while I tried to collect my thoughts. "…Yeah. Sure," I finally replied.
I stood up and left my quarters, my mind reeling. I was numb. This didn't feel real. My legs steered me through the corridors with no conscious thought. I was still in a daze when I heard voices drifting from the comm-room. Pella's voice could be heard down the corridor, unusually high and shrill, "I'm warning you, not another word!"
Then the voice of that other human, Donnelly, interrupted her, "Pella, please, let the woman finish…"
"A slight towel mishap…" Gabby's voice chimed in.
Pella's reply was a screech. "Gabby! This is revenge, isn't it?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean. But we can trust Kenneth. He's not going to spread it around. He's a lot more trustworthy than he looks, actually." Gabby replied. The human sounded playful. Normally, I would have joined in the fun without hesitation, but I wasn't in the best frame of mind right now.
"Aye, that's right…" the voice of Donnelly replied. "Hang on…"
"Yeah, but you don't know who else might be listening!" Pella hissed.
I poked my head into the room and called out to the pair sitting before the view-screen. "Gabby! Pella! Joric's expecting us." The image of Donnelly smiled at me and waved. "Donnelly," I said, nodding. "Good to see you're okay."
"Thanks. You too."
I turned away, not wanting to engage in a long conversation and powered to the CIC. My colleagues trailed behind. The face of Commander Joric was on the vid-screen when we entered. She greeted us and then started talking about the plan to investigate this rogue power signal. She wanted us to be the survey team on point and began asking Pella's advice.
Hardly any of what they said sank in. My mind was still elsewhere. Eventually, we were dismissed and I rushed out, retreating back to my quarters, when Gabby called out behind me, "Erata? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine!" I called back, my head down, my pace never slowing. I couldn't bring myself to even look at anyone else in the corridors. I think some part of me was actually ashamed by the possibility I might be…
I slammed my room door behind me, sealing myself off from the rest of the base. My hands were shaking. My mouth was dry. I was scared! I still am scared. If the results come back positive, it'll be the end of everything I've worked for – My career, my life, I'd lose it all, one way or another.
Am I really such a danger to the turians? To Gabby? To other asari? I'd never fully appreciated what my sister had gone through until now. She seems so much stronger than me.
I prayed. I implored. I entreated to Athame: Oh, Goddess, please don't let it be true! But, as always, the reply was silence. No answers for me.
Finally alone, I curled up on the bed, dragged my pillow into my arms, and wept…"
Author's note: An ever-so slight delay in the publishing of this chapter (nine weeks! Cough, cough). Not a conscious decision on my part; circumstances kinda got in the way.
The first-person narrative of this chapter is something I've wanted to try for a while. It was partly inspired by the work of author Sharrukin. I'm a firm fan of his 'Memoirs' series and if you enjoy well-written Liara/Shepard romance sagas I thoroughly recommend that you check it out.
In case you're wondering, this chapter runs in parallel with chapter 9. The narrative will be back to third-person for the next episode, but I might play around with different points-of-view again later on in the story.