Author's Note: Just a quick writing exercise that I felt was worth sharing.
At ease. Please be seated.
It is the tradition of Cipritine Hill Services Academy to invite men and women who have been distinguished by great acts of valor to speak at the commencement address of the Hierarchy's foremost military educational and training institution every year. This is not to say the most powerful office-holder or the highest-ranked admiral available. These are offices and occupations, positions of responsibility, and we reward them no more for attaining that rank any more than we reward the specialist who made sure the cooling system on a destroyer remains functional so we do not cook inside our own ship. Turians don't need to be reminded of responsibility, only valor. The tradition calls for commencement speakers to be men and women – mostly turian, but we've had a few asari and salarians over the last few decades – people who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, to impart advice for the new generation, advice not just for success, but also for the most exceptional of all services.
You are a special class this year. You are the first class to graduate since the Reaper War, since we've rebuilt Cipritine Hill. You are the first class here to ever have krogan graduates among us, whom I congratulate for completing one of the toughest military courses in the galaxy. You are also the first class in the very long time to see Cipritine Hill break tradition, because if we are truly looking for the most valorous to speak to you today, then right off the top of my head, I can name several individuals I knew personally who should be standing here in my place. Professor Mordin Solus, who spent the last minutes in a crumbling, exploding tower to save the krogan who were instrumental in reinforcing our defenses against the Reapers in the Miracle of Palaven. Thane Krios, a drell with a terminal medical condition who stepped between an assassin's blade and a Councilor despite being told he had three months to live nine months prior. Or Admiral Tali'Zorah vas Rayya, who had been with me in almost every key part of the years leading up to the Reaper War despite the fact that most of the galaxy hated her and her race and let her down when she and her people most needed our help.
I can see some eye-rolling among you. I know what you're thinking, because that would've been what I was thinking years ago: "Of all the people he can nominate as heroes, and he chooses among them a quarian?"
I don't claim to hold the monopoly on the definition of heroism. In the years to come, and many years after that, you will find and establish your own definition of heroism and judge others based on that standard. But when you do, I hope you will remember that the speaker at your commencement address mentioned a young quarian woman who managed to help peacefully settle one of the galaxy's longest-lasting hostile grudge between the geth and the quarians and the rest of the galaxy, and I hope you can honestly figure out where that fits in your standards of heroism.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned are not available to deliver your commencement address today. Professor Solus and Krios are here in spirit, but are in no state to give speeches. Admiral vas Rayya is busy helping with the rebuilding of the quarian homeworld of Rannoch. So you're stuck with me, a turian general no one has heard about until three years ago. Unless you watched the holo Citadel from five years ago, the one about the hunt for Saren Arterius, in which I'm obligated to say that the holo was made without the input of any member of the crew of the actual Normandy, and that while Calistax Morium is quite handsome and I'm quite flattered, I'm still of the opinion that he looks nothing like me.
Who you have right now is General Garrus Vakarian, who was requested by the Cipritine Hill Services Academy to make this year's commencement address. Who you are probably hoping for, however, would be Detective Garrus Vakarian, Commander Garrus Vakarian, or even just Garrus Vakarian, depending on which year you found me on board either of the two Normandy's, serving alongside Commander Shepard, who needs no introduction. This is neither surprising nor offensive, and I'm fine with being second beside one of the greatest heroes the galaxy has ever known. In fact, it's probably better this way, because some of my most profound experiences came from serving alongside Commander Shepard, some of which made me rethink my attitude and beliefs as a soldier and as a turian. Some of them you will understand, others you will find are very much divorced from how we conduct ourselves as a society. It is my hope nonetheless that you will give everything its fair consideration.
There are a lot of things I can tell you about responsibility, duty, justice, and valor, and I actually nearly tore out my fringe trying to figure out how to write this speech. I spent months reading on the speeches made by previous speakers here at Cipritine Hill, trying to find a pattern by which I can formulate a speech. But then it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn't. I don't need to teach you about responsibility, duty, justice, or valor. Your commanders and instructors over the last two years have undoubtedly done an exceptional job in doing so already, and chances are that, at some point over the last two years, you've already read the commencement speeches of previous speakers for inspiration, and maybe for several research papers. I shouldn't be trying to emulate them, because then I wouldn't be telling you anything you didn't already know. So there are just four things I want to talk about quickly today, some of them lessons I've learned from great people I've worked with in my life. I want to talk about what it was like, being part of something that truly brought together this galaxy for the first time. I want to talk about strengths and weaknesses beyond what turians know, because we can be a stubborn bunch, and I know the krogan aren't very different in that regard. But mostly about my own mistakes, because that's the only thing I have worth sharing with all of you today.
The first thing I want to talk about are rules and regulations. I know what you're thinking: "Spirits, not another stuffy general talking about rules and regulations." Which is funny, because that was precisely what I used to think, and I'm not just saying that to earn sympathy points with you. In the years before I first met Commander Shepard, I worked at Citadel Security Services under Special Response. There was a hostage situation developing on Zakera Ward, and I was assigned as a sniper on a building two hundred meters away because it was the only building that had a good elevation advantage for sharpshooting. The suspect was a salarian smuggler who had taken a human girl hostage on a hotel suite, and was holding a knife to her throat. These were the days before omni-blades were commonplace. The suspect was becoming increasingly erratic, and I felt the hostage was in imminent danger. But the C-Sec playbook said not to take the shot until the suspect initiated "direct hostile action" against the hostage, which I felt was stupid, because I didn't understand what part of "hostage-taking" didn't constitute as "direct hostile action". My captain also radioed me to emphasize that I was not to take the shot.
I took it anyways.
It's actually one of my prouder moments at C-Sec, if for rather trivial reasons. It didn't help at the disciplinary hearing several days after when I was charged with insubordination and reckless behavior, but it was very difficult not to wipe the smile off my face for a week. After all, I just shot off the wrist of a suspect in such a way that the round not only passed harmlessly by the hostage's neck by only several centimeters, but also prevented the blade from giving the girl anything but a superficial scratch, and I did it from a range of two hundred meters across two rotating local gravitational fields on the Citadel, which makes the entire shot look more like bombardment than sniping. For those who do not realize how difficult this shot actually is, feel free to consult your fellow servicemen who have taken sharpshooting training.
Of course, that didn't stop then-Executor Venari Pallin from exercising disciplinary action against me and transferring me from Special Response to Investigation, where he hoped – incorrectly – that I'd do less damage without a sniper rifle.
I was young, I was hotheaded, and I thought justice – saving the hostage – trumped everything else. The rules and regulations and red tape seemed to be so insignificant when I had the power to stop a young victim from being knifed. And at this point, you might be thinking the message I'm trying to give you is "don't let the rules and regulations stop you from doing what's right". I'm afraid that's not the message this time, because four years ago, I was promoted to commander for a position as special consultant against Reaper activities. Initially, it was just a token gesture from the late Primarch Fedorian, largely to get me to shut up. Then, three years ago, the Reapers attacked, and suddenly, the Hierarchy was giving me almost everything I needed: Access, clearance, manpower, equipment. I had generals two or three paygrades above saluting me across the hallway, which terrified me the first time it happened and caused me to walk into a wall as I stared. And these series of promotions put me in a position to learn a few things, including why the rules and regulations exist.
You will learn early on in your career that your superiors, in fact, do not appreciate heroics. Heroics are often flashy, they're daring, they're dangerous, and they can get people killed. Our protocols exist because they are tested by time, and successful heroics generally tend to be flukes rather than actual heroics. Every once in a while, you will find someone so talented, he can make the impossible seem possible. But the rules aren't written to accommodate them, they're written to accommodate everyone else, and we can't pretend the rules don't exist just for these select, blessed few. Let's go back to my miraculous shot back on the Citadel: What if my shot had missed? There were half a dozen things that could've thrown off my aim and done a number of things. I could've hit the hostage instead. My shot could've been off by millimeters and blasted the knife out of the suspect's hands only for it to bury itself into the hostage's throat. There could've been a shift in local gravitational forces. My targeting VI could've miscalculated those gravitational fields and the Citadel's rotation rate, or at least maybe it wasn't calculating them fast enough when I took the shot. Of course, I did make the shot. The hostage was safe, the suspect was arrested and missing a hand. It happened because I'm a damn good sniper, and it'd be false humility for me to suggest otherwise. And perhaps you'll think, at the end of the day, that's all that matters, that the heroes win, the villains lose, end of story.
But what if I wasn't there? I'm an exceptional sharpshooter, but what if it was someone who wasn't as good as I was perched on that building two hundred meters away that day? Remember, I'm the exception. I'm one of those rare few that can make the impossible possible once you put a sniper rifle in my hands. But the rules aren't there for the exceptional, they're there for everyone else. And it would've been a nightmare for C-Sec if I had missed, if I directly a hand in causing the hostage to die. That shot was dependent on a lot of luck, don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I could've been less lucky. No one's lucky all the time, and I've missed easier shots since then out of stupid mistakes. And if that had happened at that time, it would've been hell for C-Sec. Lawsuits would've been filed. Funding would've been cut. Jobs would've been lost. There could be a dead hostage and many C-Sec officers out of a job or even in jail because a young turian hotshot sharpshooter thought he could take the knife out of a hostage-taker's hand. It did connect in the end, but that's not the point; the point is even if they seem pointless and senseless to you, even if you feel like it's getting in your way, remember that those rules and regulations are making lives easier for almost everyone else. I didn't get to see it as a member of C-Sec Special Response or a detective in Investigation, but I eventually got to see it when I was given my own anti-Reaper task force, where I began to see the big picture and how all the dots connected. I might've been exceptional, and many of you here might be exceptional in your own fields, but that does not mean the rules and regulations no longer mean anything to you. And if you ever find yourself frustrated by restrictions and red tape, remember that most of the time, it's giving everyone else an easier time to deal with things. Sometimes, you need to think about them too.
Of course, now that I'm supposedly older and wiser, would I have done anything different that day? Actually, I probably still would've taken the shot, and this factors into my second point: You alone live with the choices you make. And this is where I get to tell you the story about the final days of Professor Mordin Solus.
The Salarian Union, with some pressure from the Citadel Council, passed the Post-Reaper Information Act last year, declassifying intelligence and information, most of which were related to the krogan, in hopes of facilitating better relations and greater faith in intergalactic relations. For those of you who don't know, among the materials declassified were the details of Operation: Firebreak, a STG operation conducted more than a decade ago to modify the genophage, an operation Professor Solus had been part of. The operation had begun with questionably benevolent intentions, to stave off a projected intergalactic war that analysts said would occur in the event of a krogan population explosion. But it was also a decision, one Professor Solus didn't make, that haunted him for years to come. This was a man who woke up every morning knowing that, because of his actions, thousands, if not millions, of krogan children would be stillborn because the genophage was designed to keep the krogan population in check, so they'd grow just enough to keep a sustainable population, but not enough to be a significant threat to anyone. There are many ways you can interpret what Professor Solus did. He interpreted himself for a long time, by salarian standards, as a murderer – an elegant murderer, but a murderer nonetheless – who did what he felt he had to at the time. Was he right to hold such a harsh opinion of himself? I didn't agree with that, and I still don't now, but my opinion wasn't the one that mattered.
Some of you here who paid more attention than I did in military ethics may point out that this is natural within the chain of command, that this is the protocol we call "superior orders": Soldiers obey their officers, and are insulated from the consequences of those orders if things go wrong so long as the orders are legal in the first place and carried out competently. You might believe that Professor Solus was simply a good soldier obeying the orders of a more highly-ranked officer, a view that would be supported in the Services Protocol. The Hierarchy has one of the most developed military codes in the galaxy, thousands of clauses and statutes that define our operational integrity in the armed services. You'd think these thousands of seemingly all-encompassing jargon that made up as significant part of your finals will have armed you with everything you need to respond ethically to every conceivable situation you find yourself in. Trust me, it's not. I checked last night just to make sure, and the Protocols still haven't given me any insight on what I'm expected to do when machines millions of years old bent on destroying galactic civilization attack. They still haven't given me any clue as to when it's acceptable to help a terrorist organization that happens to be the only group fighting to stop the Reapers. And I'm sure there will be instances in your life where answers don't come easy.
During the Reaper War, Professor Solus willingly sacrificed himself on top of the Shroud Tower to ensure the genophage cure could be disseminated across Tuchanka, and he did so in defiance of salarian leadership who did not want to see a possible violent krogan resurgence. His insubordination is the reason why we're all here today, from the krogan graduates here on Palaven because krogan-turian relations have never been better and hopefully will continue to improve despite more than a thousand years of animosity and mistrust that had simmered between our ancestors, the turian graduates here on Cipritine Hill because the war on Palaven would've gone worse had we not received timely krogan reinforcements, and all of us because without the kind of cooperation made possible Professor Solus, we would not have survived the Reaper War.
Now, before the military police forcibly escort me offstage for telling you to hold the chain of command in contempt, I want to clarify: I'm not saying that you should disobey orders. Insubordination is a punishable offense, and rightfully so. I am, however, going to ask you to question your decisions before you make them. You may not always have answers. Sometimes, you won't even have the time to think up for any answers. And, usually, when mistakes are made, when things go wrong, it's usually your superiors who made the call who takes responsibility for it. They can take away reprimands, disciplinary measures, demotions, court-martials. But your superiors and the chain of command we all report to can't take away your guilt. They can't take away months of silent suffering, of questions of what-if or what-could've-been. They can't take away waking up every morning and looking at the mirror and thinking "this is who I am" or "this is who I am not". They can't take away the time you'll spend tucking the barrel of a handgun under your chin and wondering if you have more courage to exert the five pounds of force it takes to pull a trigger than to keep on living. So ask yourself hard questions. Make decisions you can live with, because you alone have to deal with that. No one else can take that from you.
The third thing I want to share has two stories. One of them is my own, taking place four years ago on Omega. It was a year after the attack on the Citadel by Saren and the heretic geth when I quit C-Sec and, through a series of convoluted events, ended up leading a small, independent team of specialists, mercenaries, smugglers, and other colorful characters in bringing gangs on Omega to justice. For the record, this was not an operation that was sanctioned by any government, military, or organization; I wasn't working for the Hierarchy, or C-Sec, or even for the Spectres. It was an independent operation of myself and several others, hunting down gangs one by one and delivering a blow from an iron hammer unto all injustice.
If you would look slightly to the right, you will see that your commanders and instructors are currently looking uncomfortable, if not appalled, thinking, "Who is this Garrus Vakarian person, and who agreed to let this lunatic speak at the commencement address for the first graduating class of Cipritine Hill after the Reaper War?" Well, for starters, this "Garrus Vakarian person" was a failure, because he let his team down. One of the men under his command broke under torture, gave away the location of the team's safehouse, and then attacked and killed the men and women I had been fighting alongside with on one of the worst places in the galaxy while I was out checking a false lead. One mistake, one slip-up…and then, all of the sudden, ten good men and women were dead, and all the work we had done trying to make Omega a better place instantly evaporated into nothing. I felt angry and betrayed, not only towards the one who was torture into giving up our location, but also towards myself, because I was the one responsible for my subordinates, putting them into the position where everything could go wrong. Turians don't take kindly to leaders giving their subordinates more responsibilities than they can handle, and sometimes, we can judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else can ever judge us. I think Professor Solus would attest to that if he were alive today.
For a long time, that betrayal defined me more than it should've, influenced how I lived, how I worked, how I fought. It was a mark of shame, hanging over my head. I was being unreasonably unforgiving of myself, perhaps. My training at both Cipritine Hill and at C-Sec, as well as my own personal experiences, told me that everyone broke under torture. You could make anyone do anything with enough time and enough pain. But that wasn't what I was thinking about at the time. All the sentiments behind "I know better" were erased by a single moment in my life, a single mistake, one that might have led to more mistakes had Commander Shepard not talked me into letting it go. But that took a while, and that didn't stop me from hating myself for a long time, until my friends and family finally helped fit the remaining pieces together.
And then there's the story of the late Captain Tarquin Victus. He was a lieutenant when I met him during the Reaper War, before he received his posthumous promotion. Most of us have heard of his heroic sacrifice on Tuchanka, and choose that moment to define a man who stopped Cerberus from forcing a wedge between the krogan and the turians. Victus himself, however, chose to define himself by the time he made an error in tactical judgment, attempted to minimize casualties by taking an alternative path to the objective, and was caught in an ambush with little room to maneuver, creating many casualties in his platoon. It was a simple mistake, one anyone could make, but it was judged three times as harshly because he was a Victus, son of the primarch and a man who was supposed to have war in his blood. He was an officer who, minutes before being ambushed because he tried to be creative when he didn't need to, thought, "People expect me to be my father, so what would my father do right here, right now?"
The reason I'm telling you this story is not because I wish to sully the name of someone who was indeed a hero, but imperfect, just like the rest of us. Rather, it is because I want to shed light on the expectations being placed upon you, and your reactions to these expectations. There will be many unspoken, invisible goalposts in your life that you have to struggle to find and reach to achieve recognition and acceptance by your peers. And it is far too easy for one mistake to destroy years of effort and hard work into cultivating your career, just as Victus' single tactical error nearly stigmatized him and his father before the rest of the Hierarchy. This is not how it should be. It is doubtful that the desire to redeem himself was what drove him to make the sacrificial play in preventing the bomb from detonating on Tuchanka. Tarquin was a military officer through and through, and I doubt he would've done anything differently if he had not been bearing the weight of guilt. "Victory at any cost", he said, seconds before he dropped himself and a disengaged bomb down a dark chasm. But it is as Doctor Liara T'Soni said of Victus as we met him: "Children shouldn't be burdened with the successes of their parents any more than their failings." If Tarquin were alive today, I would tell him that we are not the sum of our names, but of our deeds.
I doubt he would've listened, but I suppose one doesn't have the luxury to listen to my drivel when one carries the name of Victus.
The point I'm trying to make is that we can't let any one aspect of our lives define us. They destroy us too easily. I was burdened by a single mistake, Tarquin by his family name. These were things that tied us down, drove us to the edge, pushed us to a place where we were liable to make more horrendous mistakes had people close to us not pulled us back. It does not mean we should not acknowledge these things. It does not mean we should pretend they do not exist, that we should not be aware of these expectations, or that we should not learn from our mistakes. We retain responsibility for these things, even if we do not want them. But we are not our mistakes or our names. They make up part of us, but not all of us, not by a long shot. They're ghosts that come back to haunt us at night in our dreams and whenever we're not holding a bottle, but ghosts can be defeated by everything else you are. When they have you bogged down and pinned in the corner, then it's a good time to tell yourself, "I've been handling twenty-plus years of this crap; this is just another steaming pile of it."
The last topic for today is direction. Attitudes are changing years after the Reaper War, with a galaxy more interconnected, more united, more tolerant and welcoming than any other time in our history. Like many other civilizations, the Hierarchy has become more open to ideas beyond Palaven, adopting mentalities, philosophies, and attitudes from beyond our comfort zone. But by the standards of the days before that, I wasn't a very good turian. You've probably figured it out by now, but I was something of a renegade as a young officer. I clashed constantly with authority on moral wavelengths that were far too black-and-white, I disobeyed orders because yes I can take the knife away from a hostage's neck from two hundred meters away across two rotating gravitational fields, and then I violated a lot of laws and statutes that fortunately aren't exactly violations since they happened on Omega, which doesn't exactly have a government to lay down laws. Those of you who look back at my dossier might tell me I did what I had to given the circumstances of the moment. I sure as hell thought that way. In reality, though, I was drifting. I was picking a direction at random based on intuition – not always good intuition, either – and just hoping I got somewhere. Maybe that's the default state of life, drifting. Life is all about drifting, and direction's just one of those rare things tucked in between the drifting.
This was happening long before I had my personal disaster on Omega, in case you're wondering. I was drifting unhappily along at C-Sec as well. I was being held back by red tape and regulations that seem to focus more on protecting criminals than victims. When then-Executor Pallin refused to stall the Council for my investigation into Saren, I felt like he was trying to protect a mass murderer. Which was silly, of course, because hardly anyone at C-Sec at the time was more opposed to the Spectres than Pallin, and it wasn't as if he had the political clout to stall the Council. But while they didn't push me over the proverbial edge, it came pretty damn close. It felt like there was no justice in the galaxy, that everything I've been trying to work for, everything I've been taught about responsibility and what's right, was utterly inapplicable to life in its actuality. But then along came this human, this commander from the Systems Alliance who was, unbeknownst to me, to be made a Spectre several hours after she offered me a spot on the team to track down Saren, and then suddenly I was part of something that did anything. There were a few rough bumps in the beginning, but I felt like I was actually doing justice a service. I felt like I was learning things. I felt like I belonged. I felt happy.
Okay, well, no, I wasn't "happy". I found out machines several thousand times older than our civilization were out to kill us all, I took a missile to the face and somehow survived that, I teamed up with a terrorist organization that later tried to kidnap the Council and indoctrinate people into husks because they seemed to be the only people doing something right at the time, I got myself front-row seats to the end of galactic civilization, and my father stopped talking to me for about a year. That isn't "happy".
Oh, and my little sister kicked me in between the legs for pissing off my father and not being there for my mother's funeral. That's not "happy" either. All the older brothers down there who have little sisters, General Vakarian knows your pain and sympathizes. All the younger sisters with older brothers, you may roll your eyes as long as you try and refrain from kicking your older brothers between the legs, please.
A lot of people will go through life without ever becoming good friends with that one exceptional, inspirational person that brings out the best in you. They might show up, but you might never realize that's someone you should've befriended. Sometimes, they'll never show up. I was lucky. If anyone here ever finds someone like that in their future lives, I congratulate you for being lucky as well. Because I sure as hell didn't even realize how important Shepard would be in my career, my life, when I first met her. I initially teamed up with her because we were following the same lead, and then I followed her onto the Normandy because I wanted to see firsthand how Spectres work, how they fight against injustice. Weeks later, I was watching her climb over Sovereign's debris during the Battle of the Citadel in awe. Two years later, I jumped at the chance to join her crew once more, and not only because I was being chased after by three different mercenary groups on Omega. And one more year after that, I was picked up off Menae after having informed Adrien Victus that Fedorian was dead and that he was the new primarch. Every time something happened, every time I had the chance, I jumped to join her crew. Admiral vas Rayya faced different circumstances, but otherwise did the same thing. And if both an admiral and a general are giving the same recipe for success, I hope it carries some weight.
My initial decision was a gamble and probably not all that well-informed, but this is probably the only thing that I have that wasn't a mistake that is still worth sharing. It'll probably take forever for you to figure out, because it only took most of my young adult life and my career at C-Sec to figure it out, but determine who or what matters most to you. Whether or not you can ever do it, whether or not it will betray you…these aren't things you should be worried about, shouldn't be things you afraid of, shouldn't be things that should stop you. Figure out what it is you want, and follow that the best you can. Maybe things don't work out in the end, but you'll be in a very different spot than you had been in before, with very different choices and very different opportunities. And you'll get to look back, think back about those times gone by, and say to yourself, "Yes, for good or for ill, I did all this." And while you most certainly shouldn't hold your breath for it, maybe one day, you get to look think back about those times gone by, and say to yourself, "Why, yes, I fought beside the woman who saved the galaxy."
What I've shared with you today is nothing remotely resembling a complete lifestyle philosophy, or even a career philosophy, nor is it meant to be any kind of philosophy. In fact, as you move through life, you'll probably realize that the advice I have given here can oftentimes be mutually exclusive. I don't have answers to all the questions that will show up in your career, never mind in your life. But maybe that's the whole point. Maybe what I'm really telling you here is that answers don't come easy, but don't be afraid to go rushing off to look for them, and don't be afraid to make mistakes while doing so. I'm not here to tell you about the mistakes I made so that you might not make them in the future, I'm here to tell you about the mistakes I made so when you make them, you'll know what to look for. Don't be afraid of making them, because that's the only way you grow. Many of these failures will hurt, and, frankly, they're going to suck. But people who have never made a mistake don't know how to succeed, they just don't know how to fail. Don't be afraid to take that step because you might fail, because Captain Victus nearly shamed himself and his family for trying to be daring and creative, because Professor Solus spent much of his elderly years hating himself for doing what he thought was right, because Garrus Vakarian got his team killed by antagonizing three separate major mercenaries groups on Omega. Do you know what all three of them have in common? They succeeded in the end. And while there are billions of people in the galaxy who may never get the chance to succeed because the universe isn't a fair place, you can't learn without failing a few times, without testing the puzzle the same way it tests you. I'm not telling you to be reckless, for you hold the lives of yourself and those whom your protect in your hands. But I'm telling you not to be crippled by indecision. I'm telling you not to avoid the unknown. I'm telling you not to be afraid to try. You're graduating from Cipritine Hill. You've earned the right to do so.
Because even if you make mistakes, chances are they're mistakes worth sharing.