A/N: Again, sorry it's taking so very long between chapters. I'm NOT FINISHED YET! PLEASE continue to read and review! To all my loyal readers, stay tuned. There is more to come and things are just heating up!
"Come on. Get up." It was a command and not a request as I offered a hand to an exhausted Ashley. The last few days in Feros had been rough on everyone, and she, along with everyone else who had fought through the concrete jungle, had insisted on making the final trek down into the depths of the planet.
She held up a finger and swallowed a gulp of water from her canteen before refusing my hand and standing up. "Just needed a drink, Skip. I'm alright."
"Good. Get back out front."
She knew it was nothing personal. I had my 'game face' on and I was more than ready to end what had been nearly a week of guerilla warfare fighting on a foreign planet.
As we continued further down into the tunnels, the once dry, dust choked air became moist, thick, and humid. I could feel my arms and legs shaking under the weight of my gear and hoped my troops could push themselves just a little further.
To make matters worse, the tunnel was getting smaller and smaller and I feared we'd soon be crawling on our stomachs sooner rather than later.
I had been moving up and down the line to motivate my soldiers and keep a watchful eye on all. Once they had been accounted for I turned my rifle into the darkness behind me and watched the tunnel walls wash in harsh light from my flashlight. Satisfied we weren't being followed, or hunted, I began lightly jogging back towards the front.
Liara was looking tired, but no worse for wear. No doubt she was still digesting the revelation that the colony of Feros was essentially one great big science experiment.
I could tell she was still absorbing the information received several vertical kilometers ago while sitting around the briefing room listening to Lizbeth Baynham offer an explanation as to why Saren had attacked the colony.
"By the time we realized what we were doing, it was too late," she said. "It took less than a month for 80% of Zhu's Hope's inhabitants to become infected and begin performing tasks for Species 37." She had said. "Though the initial conditioning is painful, the Thorian doesn't force the thralls to perform dangerous tasks or hurt themselves." Lizbeth continued. "We compared this behaviour to that of a craftsman who is careful not to damage his tools."
Liara had seemed insulted that ExoGeni blamed these lapses in ethics and morals on the pursuit of science and knowledge. But science has a way of gaining knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.
In any case, the ancient sentient plant that lived beneath the colony of Feros was most likely the reason the Geth had attacked. There was nothing else here worth having. Nothing but ruin and death now. I doubted whether the colony would last the year once we had left.
I could feel by body temperature rising and the sweat beginning to drip underneath my armour. I shrugged to adjust the weight of the pack on my back and did my best to give no sign of fatigue, despite it being the most dominating thought on my mind. My God, I'm tired. I need sleep. More. I need a shot of adrenaline directly to my heart. I focused on the steps ahead and did another up-down of the row to check the troops.
Liara's head was down. She was breathing heavy and her arms hung with the weight of her weapon.
"I am fine."
I guess she felt my eyes on her.
"Need a break?" It had been a while since we had stopped for one. Just to rest, drink, and check on each other.
"No. We are nearly there."
I reached for her weapon and she resisted initially. "I'll hold it so you can drink. Relax." She gave me a look of silent gratitude before I returned her weapon.
"Chin up. We're nearly there."
When the line halted suddenly, I flashed my light out front and jogged forward. Just as I had feared, the small, carefully mined tunnel had become smaller, and we each had to slip through one at a time. Thankfully, the only non-humanoid we had brought was Garrus. And Garrus had figured that if Saren could fit, so could he. It was tight.
The chamber was dimly lit. Dim flood lights along the edges of a vast hollowed area. The temperature had cooled with the openness of the room. Insects on the walls, higher up than I could guess provided a little more light.
When Tali had finished with the fuse box to bring light into the entire chamber, I almost dropped my rifle along with my jaw.
This thing was gigantic. Half the size of the Normandy and alive, pulsing with life. It took several seconds to notice that the things I thought were stalactites that covered the ceiling and some of the walls were in fact moving tentacles. The size of it, The Thorian, was unfathomable.
I didn't have a lot of time to absorb my surroundings as I heard the alarm "GAS GAS GAS" being shouted by Kaidan. An instant later my NBC indicator flashed orange. Burn agent.
An instant, trained reaction I ducked my head, closed my eyes and took a deep breath as I deployed my breather, then vented the air. I opened my eyes and checked my seals before running to ensure the others were still okay.
Thumbs up all around, I started to evaluate the situation. A dense, toxic gas had been released by the Thorian clouding the air and obscuring my vision. Apparently it didn't want to discuss peace terms.
Seconds later, we were attacked by bipedal creatures that looked like humans right up until the instant they exploded more noxious chemical into our direction. Slimy, fungal creepers spawned by the Thorian.
"Spread out! Alpha Left!" I turned and fired on a creeper mid-air as it leaped towards me. "Bravo right!" The thing erupted in a pool of acidic goo and I tried to avoid the splash. "Charlie center!"
A flash of blue light from the wrong side of the room. Biotics were in play now, and they weren't ours.
"Asari! Moving east towards bravo!" Liara's voice wasn't so much panicked as it was surprised.
"Bravo, roger, moving to intercept."
I led Charlie team from the center and I watched the Thorian vomit a naked, green, lean, asari with a slender face and distinctive markings above her brow. Her violet eyes looked into mine and I opened fire. This time, I dodged the impending flurry of biotic attacks and managed to throw a grenade before I hit the ground. When I popped back out from cover she was gone.
Listening to the commentary on the net, there were now several naked, green, angry asari wreaking havoc on the small, exhausted eight-man section I had brought to this chamber.
We need to kill this thing, I decided. And fast.It's attached to the walls, to the earth beneath the colony. So take it off the walls. Just like the geth ship. Cut it off from the supply. Cut the arteries.It was a huge risk, considering I had little idea of how far the Thorian had imbedded itself into the earth. If I took it down, I could cause the whole place to collapse. But I saw no other way.
I jumped on top of some analytical machines that the Thorian had now claimed as its own. Climbing an unstable ladder, I jumped onto one of the writhing tentacles connecting the Thorian to the earth around it. I started stabbing it wildly at the slimy tree- trunk-like artery, watching my armour cover in strangely coloured blood.
My Omni-blade wasn't nearly large or robust enough to have any real effect. So I made one deep cut into the artery, holding on desperately so I wouldn't be bucked off. I reached into my bag for one of the explosives Wrex hadn't used on the surface, and plunged it into the deep cut on the Thorian. Then I threw the bag, and leaped towards the ground.
I landed with a roll and came up sprinting towards Charlie team.
They didn't need to hear it twice, and soon we were thrown with the force of the blast as hot fire tore through the artery, and the Thorian detached from one side of the chamber.
Both sides of the fight were stunned for a minute, but soon I was running towards Alpha and Bravo and throwing explosives their way, my bag in one hand and the rifle in the other.
Pretty soon, the Thorian had become completely detached from Feros coming down with a wail and a crash.
The air began to clear and I approached it. It struggled to take its last breaths and I was again in awe of its sheer size.
"Shepard." Liara's voice echoed from the far side of the room. She was facing some sort of pod. "You need to come and see this."
The viscous outer layer of the pod was moving, as if something were trying to break free. When it burst, and a fairly young, athletic looking asari fell to the floor, and Liara instantly rushed towards her. When I tried to pull her back, for fear the pale violet skinned asari would attack, Liara broke free.
"I know her." She said breathlessly. "I knew her." The same hurt and confusion I had seen in her eyes on Noveria was present again.
Liara placed her hands on the other asari's shoulders and tried to jostle some sense into her. "Shiala?"
The other asari looked Liara in the eyes, then embraced her. We all stood behind them waiting for some kind of explanation as they conferred in private.
After about a minute, I approached and Liara introduced the other asari as Shiala, a High Acolyte of Matriarch Benezia's, and an apparent sacrifice of Saren's.
She thanked us for freeing her, but explained that in fact, she would never be truly free. She had become indoctrinated just as Benezia had.
"I was a willing slave when Saren brought me to this world. He needed my biotics to communicate with the Thorian, to learn its secrets." Shiala explained her story coolly, as if it had happened to someone else, and not her.
"You…joined with it?" Liara asked. The itself idea seemed repulsive to her.
"Yes." Shiala answered calmly. "I was offered in trade. I was sacrificed to secure an alliance between Saren and the Thorian."
She then explained that once Saren had got what he wanted, he had ordered the Geth to destroy the Thorian so that I could not gain the 'Cipher'. It was why the Thorian had attacked without provocation, it had been threatened by outside forces before. It did not want to risk another transaction.
"The beacon on Eden Prime gave you visions, as it did for Saren. But the visions are unclear, confusing. They were meant for a Prothean mind." Shiala explained.
"The Thorian has this knowledge." Liara concluded. "No one is sure of its age. It must have gained knowledge of the Protheans when Feros was an active colony. Goddess. The things we could have learned from it…" I could hear the disappointment in her voice, see it in her eyes. She had wanted to learn from it. Not kill it.
"Yes.' Shiala confirmed, "The Thorian was here long before the Protheans built this city. It watched and studied them. When they died, it consumed them. They became a part of it. The Thorian holds the very essence of being Prothean. It is understanding. It is what you need to continue on your path."
"How did Saren get a hold of this knowledge from you?" I asked.
"She would have joined with it, then with Saren." Liara said quietly. "Goddess, Shiala. I am so sorry."
Shiala extended a kind hand. "I am fine, Liara. Or in time, I will be." She smiled and again turned to me.
"Shepard, I must give you this ancestral memory- the Cipher- I can transfer the knowledge from my mind to yours, as I did with Saren."
I'll admit I was apprehensive. I didn't quite trust Shiala but Liara had and that was enoughI needed the Cipher to unlock the visions and I needed that information to stop Saren. I was willing to do anything.
While vaguely familiar with the concept of asari 'joinings', I had never really understood the wider implications. I was aware that some asari shared memories with their family or close relatives, but I had no idea…the…importance of it. Just how intimate an interaction it truly was.
"Alright. Let's do it."
Liara turned and strode away, leaving Shiala alone with me. I didn't know it at the time, but Liara had been disappointed yet again that day. I don't doubt I still would have accepted the Cipher from Shiala, but I might have approached the situation with a lot less eagerness.
Shiala stepped closer to me and I felt my heart begin to race with nervousness. Her gentle stare assured me that the vision she was about to give me would be painless. This would be nothing like the beacon on Eden Prime.
She placed her hands on my temples and told me to relax. And then…
Every action sends ripples across the galaxy. Every idea must touch another mind to live. Each emotion must mark another's spirit. We are all connected. Every living being united in a single, glorious existence.
Images of darkness, death, and destruction. A great civilization, my civilization turned to ash. If we'd only had enough time. If we'd only known sooner. We could have stopped it. Nothing but ash now. Ash and dust. Nothing left. There was no more hope.
But there had been.
I still didn't understand. It wasn't quite clear. There were gaps in my knowledge, blurred comprehension of what we needed to do. And I suddenly had a headache.
Shiala offered as much information on Saren and his flagship Sovereign as she had. When I invited her to return to Council space with us, she declined. Crushed by the guilt of manipulating and harming the colonists, she resigned to stay in Zhu's Hope, and lend her talents to rebuilding. For everything the Thorian had done, Shiala was saddened by it's loss. It was a truly remarkable lifeform that would never exist again.
Liara had explained to me later that because asari feel a lifelong connection after a joining, the compassion Shiala felt was completely normal.
Compassion hurts. She had told me. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.
Shiala and Liara exchanged an emotional goodbye, and we were on our way back to the surface.
At the time, I didn't understand why Liara wouldn't make eye contact with me during the march back.
I had trouble sleeping that night. Whether it was the conference-went-wrong with the Council, or the throbbing headache, or the vivid nightmares, I couldn't be sure. By the fourth hour, I had had my fill of tossing and turning for the night.
Chakwas is on shift, I thought. She could give me some more pills.
When I stepped into the med bay, I found it empty, and I realized what had really been keeping me awake.
I knocked lightly on the door, hoping not to wake her if she were asleep.
When she answered the door, dressed in her lab gear, I almost regretted it.
"Liara….I…was…I can't sleep." I admitted.
"Neither can I as it seems." She smiled a bit. "Would you like to come in? I was just sitting down to a cup of tea."
I nodded silently and accepted her invitation.
'I don't have a second cup….I could go get another for you, if you'd like?"
"No, that's alright, I'm okay. Thanks."
We sat in awkward silence for possibly several hours.
"You seem upset." She finally blurted. "What is wrong?"
I relaxed my shoulders, "The vision is still unclear. I have no way of knowing what Saren wants or where he's going next. I keep feeling like we're one step behind all the time. I need your help, Liara."
"I need you to see it. You're the Prothean expert. This just seems strange and foreign to me. It's like a deaf man listening to a symphony. There's no understanding."
"Shepard…you have no idea what you are asking."
"What Shiala did…"
"What Shiala did…she melded with you." It was a word she did not take lightly.
"I thought this was fairly common among asari." I said.
"It is. Among asari. It's a part of how we reproduce – we attune our nervous system to another's and use it to randomize genetic sequences, which we can then isolate, and use to ensure host viability when…" she shook her head and refocused herself, "It's a common part of our mating process." She finished.
Shiala had apparently used her physiology to attune our nervous systems at a very basic, less intimate level in order to exchange the collective memory of the Thorian.
"Besides," She continued, "It's doubtful that I could gain any more information from the Cipher than you can. By now, you are more of a Prothean expert than me." Her smile was faint and sad. "Shiala can perform a basic mind meld with an ancient sentient plant. And I can't bring myself to…" she trailed off. "I've exchanged memories with my mother, but I've never been comfortable enough to give another such access to my mind. And I suspect if you had known what you were asking, you would not have asked for my help in this way."
"I uh…" She had a point. If there was one place I didn't want to give her access (or anyone access), it was the deep, dark recesses of my mind. "This was the only idea I had, Liara. I really don't know where to go from here."
She thought in silence for a moment while I bent my head in disappointment. I've lost Saren's trail. I've lost the war if I can't find him.
"Perhaps we could find another beacon." She suggested, a little more light in her voice. "If this information was vital to their cause…"
Suddenly it clicked, "They wouldn't put all their eggs in one basket." I mumbled.
"They wouldn't store all the information in a single beacon for fear of it being recovered by the Reapers. There's another beacon out there with the missing pieces of the puzzle." There's got to be or else we're all in trouble. "You're the Prothean expert," I reminded her, "Think you can track it down?"
She smiled genuinely for the first time that night. "Of course."
I stood to leave and she did the same, intending to walk me to the door, when suddenly my curiosity got the better of me.
"What happens during a true melding?" I asked quietly.
The question seemed to catch her somewhat off guard, but she thought for a second and she caught my gaze with her beautiful blue eyes. She suddenly felt so much closer to me.
"Two become one – two minds intertwine, thoughts and senses merge in their entirety. An asari can consciously attune her nervous system to her bondmate's, and two souls become one. It is the closest thing to a true union two people can get. It is the most intimate act an asari can commit. It is one of trust, and love."
We looked at each other for a minute, not saying anything, but I could feel the air between us shift. It became thick, sultry, and tangible—like when the air changes right before a storm. I could feel its power envelop me as it brushed across my skin. Even though I couldn't see it, I knew a storm was coming.
"That sounds…almost mystical." I had somehow backed her against the wall and I could feel her breath on my skin.
"I have never experienced it." She admitted, "But I have heard…similar." We were nearly touching now. I could feel my heard pounding against my chest as she arched her lithe frame against mine.
"You've never done it?"
I barely heard the sound of the medical crates moving when Liara's back made contact with the wall. My right hand rested on her hip, while the other made its way to the soft curve of her neck, lightly caressing her smooth skin. Her eyes fluttered, barely open and she just enjoyed the closeness between us.
When my hand moved from her neck to her cheek, the full impact of silver-liquid fire, hot and flowing hit me hard in that place in your belly that doesn't exist for food, but for something else entirely. It exists solely to possess the feeling that it barely held in check right then. I don't know what it was. I don't think it has a name.
"Are you going to kiss me?" She murmured.
"I'm working up the nerve," I said softly."
"Well you should do it quickly, because I'm losing mine."
When my lips hit hers for the first time, every synapse in my brain fired on all cylinders and I was suddenly very aware of every cell in my body. I tried to focus on her lips, tried to pay equal attention to both upper and lower, to taste each one thoroughly. I tried to focus on the feeling of her hand fisting my t-shirt and pulling my closer.
My body was wound tight like a spring, stopping myself from launching at her full force. When she opened her mouth and urged with her tongue, I took the invitation and explored her fervently.
It was pure psychedelic inebriation. Not just lustful petting, but transcendental metamorphosis when I became aware of the greatness of the being was breathing into me. The first kiss of the rest of my life.
And it was over all too soon. My senses caught the better of me and I stopped. I felt the cool rush of air and her eyes told me she had felt much the same.
I couldn't do this.
Not now. Not when so much at stake.
"I'm sorry." I choked out, still reeling from our kiss. "We need to focus on the mission." Before I could stop myself I was slipping out the door and Into the mess hall.
I slumped against the wall of my cabin, dejected and absolutely vibrating from the energy between Liara and I moment earlier. I wanted her. I wanted her in a way that was probably unhealthy.
But the order of priority goes : Mission, Men, Self. Self was always last.
I lay awake for the rest of the night. And the mission was the furthest thing from my mind