10 September 2578, T'Soni Lineage Estates, Armali/Thessia
An asari matron sat alone at her desk, ignoring the golden sunlight that streamed through her windows in the middle of the day.
An observer would have found her unexceptional in appearance: of average height for her people, slender, fit from centuries of very active life. She wore a simple two-piece ensemble in white and blue, bodysuit and jacket, almost like a scientist's or physician's uniform. Her face showed no unusual marks, other than a spray of dark freckles across her cheeks and a matched pair of thin arcs over her eyes. She habitually looked at the world with calm appraisal, her thoughts concealed behind a cool blue-eyed stare.
At that moment she sat almost motionless, only her eyes flickering, her fingertips moving slightly. All her attention was given to the holographic display before her, light shining in her face as she rapidly paged through documents, flash-reading thousands of words per minute.
Footsteps, in the hall outside . . .
The matron blinked and turned away, the holographic display obligingly freezing in place the moment her attention shifted. When a second asari appeared in the doorway, she rose from her desk with sudden enthusiasm.
"Hello, patēr," said the newcomer.
The matron held her visitor out at arm's length, examining her closely. She saw a shorter asari, petite but wiry and strong, with cobalt-blue eyes and a dusting of white dapples across her face. The two asari bore a clear family resemblance, although the younger boasted a stronger jaw that suggested considerable determination. She wore silver and black, civilian clothes cut to suggest a military uniform.
"You're looking well. I didn't know you were on leave."
"The squadron is in dock for a few days for refit and resupply," said the younger asari. "Then it's off on patrol in the wild spaces again. I decided to surprise you and mata."
"Unfortunately, your mother isn't here. Business on the Citadel. I expect her back tomorrow."
"That's all right. I don't have to be back on board for two more days after that."
"How are things in the Navy?"
"Everyone is a little on edge, patēr," Aspasia said quietly. "They have been seen again."
The matron dropped her hands, staring at the other asari with wide eyes. "The Reapers?"
"Never close to any inhabited world, never more than two or three together. They move through the most remote segments of the relay network, almost as if they are searching for something." Aspasia shrugged. "They haven't done anything. Well, aside from looming out of the darkness and frightening the life out of a few independent merchant captains."
"I've heard nothing of this," said the matron calmly.
"It hasn't been widely advertised. Can you imagine the panic?"
"Yes." The matron turned away, moved to sit on a nearby couch and invite her visitor to join her. "With everything else that has been happening, I suppose the galaxy doesn't need yet another cause for fear. I wish I knew what they were thinking. I'm afraid I may need to come out of retirement again."
Aspasia snorted. "That would be, what, the third time?"
"One of the advantages of an asari lifespan." The matron shook her head ruefully. "You'll discover that soon enough, once you're a matron."
"I hope not. I have a lot to do before the nesting urge sets in." Aspasia smiled suddenly. "It's very good to see you again, patēr. I've missed you and mata both."
"She'll be glad to see you as well."
"Of course, it's just as well she's not here yet." The younger asari's eyes acquired a wicked glimmer. "This way, I have time to give you my critique of your memoirs."
The matron's eyes widened in surprise. "What do you know about those?"
"Mata sent me a copy of your draft thus far. I think she wanted a different perspective."
"Hmm. I really wasn't ready for anyone else to read it yet. I suppose another pair of eyes wouldn't hurt. What do you think so far?"
"It's a wonderful story. That was certainly a different time, back when you were a maiden and no one had ever heard of you. I loved reading the parts about Shepard . . ."
The matron cocked her head in amusement. "Aspasia, you are many things, but a romantic is not one of them."
"Things change, patēr. There are many humans in the Navy. Let's say that reading about your affair with Shepard has given me . . . a better appreciation for them."
"All these years, I was sure you would take after your mother and fall in love with another asari."
Aspasia only grinned.
"Well, good for you. When we founded the Navy and made it a joint service, one of the things we intended was to give asari maidens more opportunity to experience what the other species have to offer. Especially humans. Do you have one in particular in mind?"
"Maybe." Aspasia's smile became contemplative. "I don't think I'm quite ready to talk about that just yet."
"You remind me of your namesake. One of her great loves was a human too."
"Tell me about it," Aspasia invited.
The matron frowned.
"If I'm not mistaken, when you left off in your draft, it was just before you went to Illium and set up as an information broker for the first time. You've never told Nerylla or me very much about that period in your life."
"It wasn't an easy time," said the matron, rather grimly. "Although I suppose it did have its share of joy and triumph, in the end."
"You're going to have to put it in your memoirs eventually. Consider this practice."
The matron took a deep breath, her gaze growing distant as she sifted through her memories.
She began: "Five days . . ."
3 July 2183, Amada System Space
Five days since the destruction of Normandy at the hands of some unknown enemy. Five days since most of us scrambled into escape pods and fled.
Five days since Shepard was declared dead.
For the hundredth time, I cursed Captain Mukherjee of the Melbourne.
To be sure, he and his crew diligently picked up all of our escape pods. Yet he expended no effort to search for Shepard. He was too careful of being caught by a gang of Terminus pirates . . . or by whatever force had destroyed Normandy in the first place. He proved far too quick to declare our missing crewmen dead and flee for the safety of Alliance space.
As a result, Shepard was left abandoned for five days.
Drifting alone in space, Shepard might have survived for three days. Even four, if he could keep his physical activity to an absolute minimum. His hardsuit could have sustained him that long. It almost certainly could not have sustained him for five days.
Of course, if his hardsuit was damaged in the final destruction of Normandy, or if he was pushed onto a trajectory down into Alchera's atmosphere, then he might not have survived for even an hour.
Every objective fact told me that Shepard was dead.
I ignored the objective facts. I ignored the terror of having my life turned upside down. I ignored the anguish and grief that tied my gut into knots and made me want to break down in tears.
If I started weeping, I suspected I might not be able to stop. That would be unacceptable. I had too much work to do.
My eyes remained dry. My face set like stone. My hands moved across the control board in front of me with assured competence, and they did not shake.
Themis dropped out of FTL about five thousand kilometers above the surface of Alchera.
"We're here," I told my passenger.
Garrus Vakarian stepped into the cockpit and settled into the copilot's seat, looking out the viewport at the planet below us. "Pretty bleak place."
I opened a new window and examined passive-sensor readings. "It's a failed core. Might have formed as a gas giant if things had gone differently, but it didn't gather enough mass. It's composed of ices and volatile compounds, with a small core of rock and metals. The atmosphere is mostly ammonia and methane. Very cold and dry."
"What brought Normandy here?"
"It was the next stop on the patrol route Shepard and I worked out, that's all." I sighed and rubbed my eyes. I might have banished grief but I couldn't exile fatigue. "There is a statistical spike in missing ships in this region of space, something that we couldn't attribute to pirates or slavers. We were looking for geth holdouts . . . or for some evidence of the Reapers."
"Do you think you found something?"
"It was more a case of something finding us." I shuddered at the memory. "Only a few minutes after we arrived, we found ourselves under attack. A single ship, very large, like an oversized cruiser. No one on the bridge recognized it. It saw right through our stealth systems and hit us with its first barrage. Some kind of energy weapon, not a mass accelerator, not a laser, not like any technology I ever saw before. It carved Normandy into pieces like a knife. We never had a chance."
"Spirits," he swore. "Not the geth, then."
"Not unless they've developed a lot of new technologies all at once. There's a new player at the table, and I would be willing to bet they are allied with the Reapers."
"Not taking that bet. Well, now that we're here, what's the next step?"
"We scan the surface. Any large mass of metal is probably the wreck of Normandy. We look there for life signs, for anything that might tell us what happened to Shepard."
Garrus turned his predator's gaze on me. "Liara . . . you know he has to be gone, right?"
"I know." I turned and tapped at the controls, inserting us into a high-inclination orbit around the planet. "It's my fault, Garrus."
"I don't believe that!"
"It's true." My eyes lost focus for a moment, and I dropped my hands into my lap. "He ordered me to help others into the escape pods, to get myself to safety, while he went to rescue Joker. I should have disobeyed him. I should have stayed with him. I might have been able to save him from being thrown clear of the ship."
The turian's face wasn't capable of much expression, but his stare was eloquent. "You obeyed his orders. You're not to blame for that, or for bad luck."
I blinked and set my jaw, raising my eyes and hands back to the controls. "I disagree."
He shook his head in dismay, but turned silently to the copilot's board, ready to assist.
I had moved as quickly as I could, knowing that if Shepard still lived, he might have very little time.
Melbourne carried me from the Omega Nebula to Eden Prime. From there I insisted on making my own way home, as a foreign national not under Alliance orders. Captain Mukherjee tried to refuse, wanting to take me to his home port at Terra Nova with the rest of Normandy's crew. I made a scene, all but threatened to cause a diplomatic incident. Eventually he let me go. I managed about two hours of sleep on Eden Prime, and then caught a passenger ship heading for the Citadel.
In popular entertainment I have seen several versions of what happened next. The most common story is that I returned to the Omega Nebula several weeks later, aboard a batarian smuggler's vessel. It's true that after my search for Shepard ended, such a vessel did turn up drifting near Omega. A salvage crew found the batarian owner and his turian crew dead, battered and broken as if they had been in a fight on their own command deck. No one ever identified the assailant. Somehow this incident became conflated with my visit. I can attest that by the time the derelict Sharn-Adar appeared at Omega, I was already long gone.
Instead, at the Citadel I purchased a personal starship.
Themis was a ten-year-old military cutter of asari manufacture. Originally built for defense of a colony world, it was later refitted as a deep-space scout, and then excessed during a financial crisis. It was fast and agile, with a very good sensor suite, a pair of small mass accelerator cannon, and even some stealth technology to reduce its EM signature. It could carry a crew of four, but one person could conn it easily enough. It was cramped and uncomfortable, not anyone's idea of a personal yacht . . . but it would serve for someone planning to travel alone into the Terminus Systems.
Acquiring a military vessel for personal use, even a small one, presented something of a challenge. Especially if one needed to do it quickly. I called on the resources I inherited from my mother, moved many millions of credits, and began to slice through red tape.
I might have known that Garrus would notice.
He was on the Citadel when I arrived, once again working as a detective for C-Sec while waiting for the outcome of his application to the Spectres. I didn't contact him directly, but the speed with which I was moving set off warning signals within C-Sec databases. He came to find me, already aware that some disaster had befallen Normandy. When I explained my mission, he helped me avoid C-Sec interference, and insisted on coming along. I was glad to have him. A familiar face was a comfort, and I knew he was fearsomely competent.
Even spending money like water, even with Garrus running interference, even after a call to Councilor Tevos, the process of buying and taking possession of Themis took almost forty-eight hours. I barely had time to eat or sleep. I could feel Shepard's clock running down the whole time.
One hour after Themis was mine, Garrus and I were on our way back to the Omega Nebula.
Sure enough, our active sensors showed masses of metal scattered across several kilometers of ice in Alchera's northern hemisphere. Close scans revealed the ice in that region to be reasonably stable. Themis could easily land close to the site.
I made a single overhead pass before seeking out a convenient landing site. One glance out the viewports told us we were in the right place. A hull section lay in the open with the ship's name still visible.
"So, what do you need me to do?" asked Garrus as we put on our hardsuits and prepared to step out onto the surface.
"We will be building a map of the site," I explained. "We need to scan each section of the wreckage, note its exact position and orientation, tag it according to its original position in the intact ship, and send our results to the Themis VI. If you see any small items of interest – human remains, unique pieces of equipment, anything of that nature – then scan and tag those as well. Don't touch or move anything. Think of it as field archeology."
"Or the initial examination of a crime scene," he observed.
I glanced at him. "I've never thought of it that way, but I suppose you're right. This will be closer to your field of expertise than mine. Most of the crime scenes I've examined have been thousands of years old."
He nodded, pleased.
"Garrus." I reached out and touched the turian's arm. "I know I haven't said this before, but thank you for coming with me. I'm very glad you're here."
"You're welcome," he said quietly. "I'll gladly do anything for Shepard . . . or for you."
We stepped out through the airlock, onto the frozen surface of Alchera. The wreck of the Normandy spread out in front of us. We got to work.
I found it a strangely beautiful place. There had been a fall of ammonia snow since Normandy's arrival, so the surface mostly shone silver and white, looking very pure in the starlight. The atmosphere was still and clear. It was night, but the three moons provided plenty of light. Countless stars shone down as well, and the arc of the galaxy stood high overhead. Even the twisted and shattered sections of Normandy seemed to acquire dignity and peace in that setting.
Garrus moved to one side, toward the crew deck and the engineering compartment. I took the other direction, toward the cockpit and the command deck, where Shepard had last been seen.
It was painstaking work, a careful and detached examination of objects. I felt myself falling into familiar habits of thought: cataloguing, tagging, gathering raw data with no attempt at interpretation. It helped. I could keep my composure when I came across certain things: a datapad that had belonged to Charles Pressley; a holograph of Helen Lowe's two children; a horribly damaged and incomplete set of human remains.
It took me almost two hours to become suspicious.
It was nothing obvious. My archaeologist's eye simply began to see signs that something wasn't quite right.
The path into the cockpit seemed surprisingly clear of debris. A workstation chair had fallen over, trapping a drift of ammonia snow between it and the deck plating, suggesting it had been upset some time after the crash. A set of high-capacity batteries sat on the deck close to the defunct galaxy map, bearing markings of a manufacturer that did not supply the Alliance military. A set of human remains still wore a uniform, but the pockets of the uniform had been sliced open with a sharp-edged instrument, and I found no sign of the dead crewman's ID or credit chit.
When Garrus finally called me, I knew immediately what he was thinking.
"Liara, can we get together for a moment? There's something strange going on here."
I stood up, stretching to ease the stiffness in my back. "I agree. I'll meet you by the Mako."
Garrus leaned against the side of the (miraculously intact) landing vehicle as I approached. Even through the faceplate of his helmet, I could see that something bothered him. I could always see something about his predator's eyes, some extra glimmer of focus, when he was angry or intent.
"Liara, I think someone else has been here," he said. "Possibly several people."
I nodded slowly. "I think I agree. They did a good job eradicating some of the signs of their presence, but I'm seeing too many objects that have been moved or tampered with."
He looked around, then shook his head in frustration. "I need a better view."
Suddenly he clambered up on top of the Mako. When he reached the top, he knelt and held out a hand to assist me in climbing up beside him. We both scanned the whole site visually.
"That's it," he said finally. "Look how the snow has drifted. It's not went-to-east like you would expect from the prevailing winds in this area."
I saw it. "Right. It's as if all of the snow drifts outward from a spot close to the center of the site."
"Thruster exhaust, from a shuttle hovering at low altitude?"
"I don't have a better guess," I told him. "Someone tried to cover their tracks. Possibly literally: boot-prints in the snow, signs of objects being dragged around, who knows what else?"
"What were they after?" he wondered.
"It couldn't have been simple salvage. They left behind a lot of valuable equipment."
"The engine core is still mostly intact too. You'd think scavengers would want to recover the eezo."
I shook my head. "No point in speculating. Let's stick to our original plan, but keep an eye out for any other evidence as to who was here, and what they wanted."
"Okay. I got a good scan of most of the aft sections of the ship. Do you think we have enough for your computer model yet?"
"Let's find out."
I connected to the Themis VI and finished uploading the data I had collected. After a few moments of number-crunching, the VI returned its results.
"Based on the way the pieces we can see came to rest, and based on what little Joker saw of Shepard's trajectory when he was blown clear of the ship . . . there's a ninety-five percent chance that he came down somewhere in that direction." I pointed almost due south, past the ruins of the Combat Information Center, not far from where a lone escape pod had come to rest.
"Let's go," said Garrus.
We found a long flat shelf of ice, stretching out away from the nearest wreckage to a deep crevasse about a kilometer away. At first it looked barren and empty, but then my eyes caught hints of structure under the snow. I started walking a slow transect away from the wreckage, carefully scanning the ground with my omni-tool. Garrus trusted his eyes more, skimming more quickly over the ice and snow, drawn to the crevasse itself.
Suddenly, under a thin layer of snow, I found traces of foreign material. Metals, ceramics, glass.
I looked and saw telltale irregularities in the snow cover. I fell to my knees, all thought of careful procedure cast aside, and dug frantically in the snow with both hands.
Armor. The right boot. The left greave. Both gloves tossed aside in a heap.
The chest plate, with the N7 insignia on it.
Shepard's armor. Empty.
Garrus pelted to a stop in front of me, scattering a spray of ammonia snow. "What is it?"
"I found his armor." I glanced around us in all directions, looking desperately for more. I could hear my voice spiraling upward into panic. "Just his armor, Garrus. Where is he? Where's Shepard?"
"Liara!" Turian hands on my shoulders, pulling me to my feet, holding me steady. Turian eyes staring into mine, trying to project calm and assurance.
"He's not here," I wailed. "This is the armor he had on when the ship was attacked. So where is he?"
"Obviously someone took it off of him," Garrus said grimly.
I felt a shock. "They came here for his body?"
"Yeah. And I think I know who. Come on."
Shaking my head and fighting for self-control, I followed Garrus across the ice. He led me to one of the nearest branches of the great crevasse, a smaller crack in the ice, almost narrow enough to jump across.
"I wanted to see if any of Normandy's wreckage had fallen down in this crack," Garrus explained. "I scanned for metals and magnetic anomalies. That led me to my friend here."
I looked down into the crack. It was dark down there, but I could see a bipedal figure, wearing armor, lying very still on a ledge about four meters down. "That's not one of the Normandy crew."
"No." He held his omni-tool out and activated the hand-light function.
It was a batarian, wearing armor colored in blue and white, an abstract sigil of nested ellipses on his chest. He had fallen into the crack. His head rested at a very odd angle, suggesting a broken neck.
"Blue Suns," I said flatly.
"There's your body-snatchers," Garrus agreed.
I clenched my right fist, tight enough to feel the blood pulsing in my fingers. Blue light flared around my shoulders, down my right arm, around my fist, as I called up my biotics. As gently as I could, I took hold of the dead batarian with my mind and lifted him up to the surface. He rose out of the crack, shifted to the side, and fell to the ice at our feet.
Garrus bent to examine the body. "The suit's still operational on battery power," he reported. "It's still warm in there. Decomposition has barely started. Forensics isn't my best field, but I'd say this fellow hasn't been dead more than a day."
"They don't have much of a head start, then. Assuming we can figure out where they would take Shepard's body in the first place."
Garrus stood, closed his omni-tool, and lashed out with a booted foot to shove the dead batarian back into his icy grave. "I think we can guess. The same place every piece of corruption and rottenness in this part of the galaxy ends up."
I nodded. "Omega."
Back in FTL, Themis flew toward the Sahrabarik system.
At that time I had no contacts of my own on Omega, but the place had no shortage of informants for hire. Working over the extranet, I sent messages to a few carefully selected data drops. I asked for details on any unusual Blue Suns salvage operations, any sightings of Alliance equipment or personnel in unusual circumstances, any sightings of Shepard himself.
Finally, I left the VI on autopilot and went to sleep in my tiny cabin.
When I awoke six hours later, groggy and light-headed, I found a short encrypted message in my inbox.
I may have information for you. Meet with me in Afterlife. Come alone or not at all.
I had a lead. I suspected Garrus wouldn't be happy about the conditions.