I recently wrote this story, mostly to get it out of my system and my good friend Theodur encouraged me to post it here. So... I hope you like it.
Ghost in the machine
"If you want to come home, just say the word and I'll arrange for..."
Azara T'soni closed her eyes in frustration as the gentle and well-meaning words of her mother were broadcast into her room from the other side of the galaxy. The young asari loved her mother dearly, but found her to be more than a little overbearing at the best of times. And this was not one of the best of times.
"Mom, I'm okay, really," Azara sighed. "It was just an accident. I'm staying right where I am!"
The face of her mother on the screen in front of her seemed less than convinced. "Little wing, I..."
"Oh, azure!" Azara cursed and immediately regretted it. Whenever she got angry, she blurted out one of the many swearwords she had learned most courteously provided by her grandfather.
"Language!" her mother retorted. It was a relief of a sort; her mother had picked up that Azara's curse was aimed at the situation and not at her. Otherwise, the young asari would have been in a hell of a lot more trouble.
"I just want you to stop calling me that!" Azara snapped, not to gloss over why she was angry. "How old am I? Five?!"
The young asari rubbed her scalp and looked away from the monitor while her mother remained silent. "Look, mom, I'm sorry, okay? It's just that... Look, I'm having so much fun on Tuchanka right now and I *want* to stay here, okay?"
Her mother gave the same worried look she always gave Azara when she disagreed with her, but thankfully she decided to let it get, much to Azara's relief. "Alright," her mother sighed heavily. "But if you change your mind..."
"I won't, mom," said Azara. "Look, it's getting rather late and I'd like to get some things sorted for class tomorrow. Talk to you later, okay?"
"Okay," her mother replied, a little more demure than Azara would have liked. "I love you. Speak to you soon."
"Love you too, mom," replied Azara as she switched off the monitor. The young asari let out a heavy sigh before throwing herself on her bed, one of the few luxuries in her large room.
Certainly, there were benefits to being the daughter of a powerful information broker, one of the saviors of the galaxy and a famous archeologist. For one thing, her mother got her admitted to an off-world cultural exchange program which had landed her on Tuchanka. And further connections got her to stay with the most prominent krogan clan. However, there were some clear downsides too. Her mother's overbearingness, for one thing, as was the fact that her mother used her massive information network to effectively stalk Azara.
This was only the first week of her stay. If this was a sign of what was to come, she had no idea how to get through the remainder of the year.
Azara figured she should focus on the here and now. Her room was actually located near the top of a huge pyramidal structure in the capital city of Tuchanka. Even if it had been decades since the war had ended, Urdnot was still permanently under construction. The three huge viewing ports of her room didn't have any glass in it, and it wasn't really necessary in the balmy Tuchanka climate. Thankfully, though, there were several mass effect fields constructed within the frame which kept the wind and sand out. She'd hate to have to dig out her bed and desk whenever there had been one of the many sandstorms Tuchanka was rich.
There was a knock on her door. Azara sat up on her bed. "Come in," she called.
A few seconds later, a young krogan boy about her age came in, with his trusty friend Shivv in tow. Shivv was an overly friendly varren with enough slobber to fill a lake, as Azara found out whenever the happy varren knocked her over, pinned her down and licked her face. The krogan boy wasn't yet as muscular as his older brethren and his bone-plate hadn't yet fully formed. Otherwise, the young krogan wore a ready smile.
Azara yelped and dodged Shivv just in time as it made a running start for her bed. After looking over her shoulder, she found the bed well and fully claimed as Shivv started to roll around on the blanket. At least Shivv was too distracted to lick her face this time around.
"Hey Azara," the krogan boy said. "How's the head?"
"Hey Mordin," replied Azara, raising a blue hand to greet the first friend she had made on Tuchanka. "My head is considerably less broken than it was this morning."
"You're not angry with Kodos anymore, I hope," said Mordin, referring to his younger brother. "He didn't mean it, he just got a bit competitive. He was really scared when you went down."
Azara sighed and strolled over to the window to lean on it. She let the warm air caress her blue skin for a moment. "I'm not angry with Kodos, I'm angry with my mother."
"Your... mother?" Mordin seemed confused. "Well, uh, but she wasn't anywhere near the playing field or involved with the game, was she?"
Azara shook her head. Mordin was a very nice lad, but he was more than a little slow at times. "I'm angry," said Azara, "because my mom was one who called the paramedics for me."
Mordin scratched his head, right underneath his bone-plate. "But... how is that a bad thing?"
"Because she called them from the other side of the galaxy, literally two seconds after Kodos head-butted me!" Azara gritted her teeth. "That means she's spying on the whole time and I've had enough of that! She reads my private mail, she watches my every move, every single bite of food I take is registered and catalogued ! She's been doing that ever since I was born!"
Mordin put a finger to his lips. "How do you know all this?"
"I just know, okay?" Azara sighed. "She hides her tracks well but there are signs."
Mordin shrugged. "Dad usually lets us run around whenever as long as we don't poke any klixxen or wild varren with a stick."
"Sounds lovely," Azara grunted and looked off into the evening sky. "Last year, uncle Zaeed took me out hunting on some backwater planet. It was seriously awesome; thick jungle, sounds everywhere, beasts all around us. We totally bagged an adult wild Shaffa! One of the best vacations of my life. Of course, my mom hated it; there were no camera's or computer networks out there to spy on us. And still my mom managed to butt in. Here I was, standing over the Shaffa I had just shot with uncle Zaeed clapping me on the back to congratulate me. We were just figuring out how to drag it back to camp while suddenly, my mom's voice scolds me from uncle Zaeed's suit."
"Huh?" Mordin blinked. "How'd that happen?"
"You see, mom hacked uncle Zaeed's suit computer through his wireless omni-tool connection just to tell me that Shaffa would have torn my throat out if I had waited any longer to take the shot," Azara sighed.
"Hey, look!" Mordin suddenly said, having completely forgotten about Azara's plight. He rushed to the window and leaned so far forward that Azara actually grabbed his belt for fear of him falling out of the window. Not that the slight Azara would be strong enough to actually stop the bulky krogan from falling, but it least Mordin would be aware that he was in danger. As it was, Mordin's feet couldn't even reach the ground anymore.
"Geez, Mordin, be careful!" Azara frowned as she futilely tried to yank the krogan back inside the room. "What are you so worked up about?"
"Look! Reaper!" Mordin said in an excited voice and pointed in the distance. Indeed, there is was; a Destroyer was walking along the edges of the city. "Look how big it is! Man, that's so awesome!"
"So?" Azara shrugged. "Nothing special. Those damn things are everywhere."
"I've never seen one from up this close before!" Mordin said. "I've mostly seen them in holo's."
"Really?" Azara said. "I see them all the time. There's one wherever I seem to go, actually. I mean, there's always at least one floating around the Citadel. There was even one walking around on that planet uncle Zaeed took me to. I wonder why this one is here, though."
"Dad says those Reapers are heavy lifters," Mordin shrugged. "And there's still a lot of work to be done on the city."
"I guess," Azara nodded.
Mordin grinned broadly, a grin he always plastered on his face whenever he got a silly idea. "Hey, wanna go hit the Fishdog Food Factory downtown? They got a discount on the deep fried items."
Azara felt her tummy. "I am getting a little hungry, yeah. Not sure if I'm hungry enough for deep fried klixxen legs, though."
"Come on then, my treat," he said and motioned for Shivv to follow. The loyal varren was quick to notice, jumped to his feet and trotted along as Mordin and Azara left the room. "And we might even get a better look at the Reaper from there!"
"How can you love one varren and happily eat any other?"
"Simple. I know Shivv. I don't any of the other ones."
"I told you there is nothing to worry about," said Wrex as he had an increasingly worrysome Liara on his screen. "One of the boys got a little caught up in the heat of the moment. Azara was a little rattled, but otherwise fine. She's a tough one. Takes after her dad."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Liara replied.
Wrex rubbed his chin. All Azara had wanted to do was to get away from studying for a bit and saw some of his kids and their friends play a game of khulat in the yard. Khulat was a rather vicious krogan contact-sport among adults. These were just kids playing, though, and to Azara it had looked like fun. It wasn't long before she had joined in.
Wrex had actually watched the match for a bit and saw the nimble and slender Azara claim the ball and slalom around the bulkier krogan boys and girls until his son Kodos decided to stop the asari's advance by head-butting her in the face. The boy never considered that Azara had a serious lack of bone-plate.
"The hospital checked her out and there was no permanent damage," Wrex said. "She wanted to play again the moment she got back to the compound. She's fine."
On the screen, Liara bit her lip and seemed to be lost in thought for a moment. "Wrex?" Liara asked. "May I ask you for an honest answer?"
Wrex frowned and crossed his arms. "Shoot."
"Azara thinks I'm too... overbearing. Is that true? Am I?"
Wrex chuckled briefly. "Do you want the honest answer or the vaguely evasive one?"
Liara shook her head. "Goddess... let's go for the vaguely evasive one."
Liara blinked. "That's the vaguely evasive answer?"
"So what would be the honest answer?"
"YES! By the ancestors, YES!" Wrex's deep voice resounded in the mostly empty room. On the other side of the screen, Liara could only nod.
"That bad, huh?" Liara said. "Yes, that's what dad told me too. And Garrus. And James. And Zaeed. And now you too. It's just... Azara looks and acts more and more like her every day. How long before she just... takes off?"
"I don't blame you for being protective," Wrex said. "I know why you do it. Didn't say I agree with it. Look, Liara, I wouldn't let my kids go out and play with a thresher maw, but I wouldn't keep a constant watch on them either. That's just another way of keeping your kid locked up. You can't build a safety net around Azara for the next thousand years."
Liara bit her lip and shook her head. "I... I don't know."
"Tuchanka is a lot safer than our Chamber of Commerce is making it out to be," Wrex shrugged. "Azara's got a big extended family to have adventures with. And there's more coming all the time. We krogan haven't really worked out the basics of family planning yet. Basically, the only contraceptive we've got right now is a swift kick to the quad."
Liara seemed to blink. "Does that actually work?"
"Depends how hard the female kicks."
"Do you you have personal experience with that?"
Wrex grunted and shifted uncomfortably.
"I'll take that as a yes," said Liara. "How do you do it, Wrex?"
Wrex frowned briefly. "Well, you see, when a male and a female krogan either love each other very much or just dipped a little too deeply in the ryncol , they..."
Liara seemed to be horrified for a moment. "No, not that! I meant..."
The old krogan held up his hands in jest. "I know what you meant. I know my kids will come home when they're hungry or sleepy. I'd costs me far more energy to keep them all leashed than just letting them run around. Occasionally, I lose some credits to damages done, but that's the only downside. Look, Azara's going to rebel. It's what kids do. Might as well let it go smoothly by leaving her alone a bit."
"Just like that..." Liara sighed. "Thanks for listening, Wrex."
"At least you didn't chew me out like you did with Zaeed," Wrex grunted. "Never saw a guy go timid that quickly."
"And then he called me a 'goddamn belligerent blue bint' and several other creative curses we he recovered," Liara replied.
Wrex snorted. "No comment."
Azara suppressed a yawn as she staggered through the compound enroute to her room. She had had enough food to burst the button on her pants and, really, it had gotten rather late. Mordin spent most of the time looking at the Reaper while eating. Then some friends of Mordin, krogan and vorcha, dropped by and it turned out to be an evening of fatty foods, chatting, joking, laughing and head-butting (though Azara decided to not participate in the last event). By the time she had returned to the compound, it was nearly midnight. A good way to end a good day on Tuchanka.
She let out a yawn as she staggered into her room and plopped down behind her desk. Azara wanted a quick check of her messages before going to bed and gave the screen a skim. A mail from her grandfather about a possible visit soon to which she replied with a quick 'I'd like that'. Next was a mail from her uncle Garrus with a link to a silly movie about dancing Turians; she'd watch it tomorrow. Next, a clingy love-letter from an asari classmate she had once kissed behind the hover-bike shed on a whim; deleted. A letter from uncle Zaeed about a new hunting trip in the Tuchanka wilds along with a few interesting war stories; she'd read tomorrow. A mail from EDI with come incredibly cheesy 'classic' earth jokes, with some addendums from her uncle Jeff to spice them up a bit; read tomorrow. A recipe for krogan-style gumbo from her uncle James; read tomorrow.
She sat back and smiled at her perpetually full inbox; she had a lot of friends, uncles and aunts.
It was then that the tired Azara noticed from the corner of her eye that something was off in her room. Something was blocking the light from outside. She turned her head sideways... and yelped.
The Reaper was standing right next to the building, right outside her room. This was so odd; if it was the same Reaper she had seen from the Fishdog Food Factory, she had never seen or heard it move. In fact, she had never seen it from the other side of the building because the entrance was on the opposite side.
Why was it here?!
Furthermore, why was the armor plating open?
The opened armor offered a view of the Reaper's interior clockwork, most notably of the gigantic red oculus. Because of the height of the building, the oculus was almost at the same level as her room was.
It was then that she saw that the oculus turned and pointed directly towards her.
"Ah!" she yelped and dove against the pillar dividing two of the windows. She pressed her back against the cold stone in an attempt to remain hidden. A thousand silly thoughts shot through her mind; did it even need an oculus to see her? Didn't it have loads and loads of sensors and other things? Could it hack her terminal and see her hiding behind the pillar? Then carefully, every so carefully, she peeked around the corner.
Yep, it was still there.
And, yep, it was still looking at her.
Again, she pressed her back against the cold stone, let out a heavy sigh and once again peeked around the corner.
"Go away!" she said lamely before once again hiding behind the pillar.
Of course, a third peek revealed that the Reaper was still there. Naturally, if that trick would have worked, Hackett wouldn't have needed to build the Crucible.
The Crucible... Azara's mind drifted back to the old stories. Told by vids, history books, her friends, her mother. Every source told the story differently, and it was hard to discern fact from fiction even at the best of times. Fleets of both sides decimated in Earth's orbit, the Citadel in flames, her dad racing to the Crucible in a desperate, final attempt to stop the cycle. Certainly not the best of times. And then her dad had given her life to stop the Reaper advance. The accounts varied, but she had heard some fantastical story that she basically uploaded herself to become some sort of central control program for the Reapers.
It was hard to believe this. Then again, it couldn't be denied that the Reapers were no longer single-minded juggernauts of destruction. In fact, if the tabloids were to be believed some of them had personalities. Most of them were dour, silent machines, while others were supposedly downright chatty according to their envoys. Maybe the Reapers had been slaves to the cycle too? Were they also freed by her dad's sacrifice?
Whatever the truth was, the one Reaper standing outside her window seemed to not be in the mood to chat.
"Okay, Shoo," Azara told the Reaper. "Move along now. Nothing to see here."
The Reaper did not reply, but rather just stood there like a silent cyclopic monolith... still looking at her.
Azara, wary of the Reaper, went to her pack and picked out a flashlight. After a quick test to see if it was working, Azara took a deep breath and raised the light to shine directly into the oculus.
"Dad?" she asked softly. "Are you in there?"
Of course not.
Azara cursed her own foolishness and tossed the flashlight on the floor. "Goddess, what am I doing?" Azara sighed as she looked the Reaper. "My dad's dead and she has been dead for a long time," she told no one in particular as she started to put away her flashlight.
It was then that the Reaper let out a deafening electronic hum. It was a sound she had never heard out of old vids from the war. It was a sound that nobody had ever heard a Reaper make in decades. The force of the hum knocked over Azara's terminal.
"Okay, okay," Azara gulped. "That... was a coincidence. Coincidence. Just a coincidence."
The door to her room opened, startling Azara. It was, in fact, Wrex who entered.
"Alright, alright, pipe down. You woke up half the neighborhood. If these krogan don't get proper sleep, they'll just end up rioting in the streets again, and we've only just finished cleaning up after last week's riot," Wrex said. Azara was just surprised that it wasn't her he was addressing, but rather the Reaper. Then the old krogan turned to her. "It was a really good riot, plenty of good old-fashioned violence. Shame you just missed it, but I'm sure there'll be another one soon. You got the best seat in the house up here to watch the riots in the square below."
"I'll, uh, keep that in mind," Azara said, still a bit shaken by this Reaper's weird behaviour.
"Come here, kid," Wrex said and Azara, very warily, sighed and stood next to the huge krogan. Azara was tiny in comparison, a bit willowy even. The krogan put a massive hand on her shoulder as both of them stood facing the Reaper. "You look a lot like her, you know?"
"People keep telling me that," Azara said. "Granddad keeps telling me it's bullshit that asari don't take traits from the other parent. Not sure if that's true or not."
"She's right! Same green eyes, same cheekbones, jawline," Wrex said. "Same angry stare when someone tried to mess with her. I bet you're a heartbreaker too. How many girls have you kissed already?"
"Uncle Wrex, that's private," Azara frowned. "Three..."
"Twelve! Okay? It was twelve!"
"Atta girl," Wrex said as he nodded towards the silent hulking Reaper. "Jane Shepard was the best friend I've ever had. Warrior without equal, never gave up, always up for a good fight. Nasty head-butter too. I'll take you out to the Shepard monument in the Kelphic valley tomorrow. The krogan owe a lot to her."
"I wish I could have known her," Azara cast her eyes downward.
Wrex grumbled slightly. "If she had known you were on the way, she might have chosen a different path back on the Citadel. Who knows what could have happened. But I know for a fact that she would have moved the stars themselves to be with you and your mother. Don't be too hard on your mother, by the way. You're the last thing of Shepard that she has left."
"I never thought of it that way," Azara replied and looked directly at the Reaper. "Uncle Wrex?"
"Do you think my dad is really... in those things?" Azara said. "And if she is, do you think she's... aware of us? Of me?"
Wrex rubbed his chin. "I don't have an answer for you, kid. For one, it's not a question about the best way to hit or shoot something. Besides, I don't really know how machines think. Maybe you should ask one of those Geth or EDI. But what I do know is, that somethings, there's signs of... strange things whenever one of those things get near."
"Cryptic messages in your inbox without a clear sender, electronic hiccups in the lights which seems to be answers to questions when you talk to yourself, strange rhythmic static coming from your vidscreen late at night." Wrex shrugged. "The old Normandy crew all get them from time to time. Are they all glitches or signs of the ghost in the machine? Ah, listen to the ramblings of an old man."
"My birthday," Azara whispered.
"My birthday, two months ago," said Azara as she picked up a frame from her nightstand. "This was mailed to me from an unknown source. I had it framed."
Wrex looked at the frame and saw a picture of Azara and her mother, sitting on the couch of the living room of their apartment at the Silversun Strip on the Citadel. However, a third person was in the frame; Jane Shepard, smiling as she stood behind the couch and leaned forward with an arm wrapped around the shoulders of both her girls.
"I always thought it was a holoshop made by EDI," said Azara. "But she completely denied it and you know how bad a liar she is."
Wrex snorted and looked back to the Reaper. "Kid," he said. "I guess even machines like to dream once in a while."
On a whim, Azara climbed onto the windowsill and swung her legs out. One of the Reaper's legs was in reach now and, while being careful not to fall down a very long and lethal drop. Her hand touched the metal; it was warmer to the touch than she had expected. The oculus moved again, and rolled to look directly at Azara. The willowy asari looked up at the great machine with sadness in her eyes. "You've always been near me, haven't you?" she whispered.
Suddenly the Reaper's armor plating came to life and slid over the oculus. Wrex acted quickly and pulled the stricken asari teen back into the room. The gigantic machine came to life and gently shifted along the large plaza outside of the compound as to not cause damage to the city.
"Back to work, ey?" Wrex nodded at the Reaper. "Don't worry, old friend. We'll keep a good eye on your family."
"Do you... do you think she's angry with me?" Azara said, the feeling of rejection obvious on her voice.
"Nah," Wrex shrugged as they both watched the Reaper move away. "I suppose that, even if you get turned into some kind of super-intelligence, there are still things that overwhelm you. And I think you just did. Give it time, kid. One thing, though."
"What?" Azara said.
"If you think your mother's intelligence network is bad," Wrex chuckled, "your dad's is far, far worse."
Azara smiled softly, tears in her eyes. "I don't think I mind as much anymore."
"Good kid," Wrex clapped the young asari on the back. "Well, it's late. You should get to bed. I've heard Mordin has plans to show you the Tomkah graveyard tomorrow.""
Azara nodded, though she doubted she would sleep much tonight. She had a lot of thinking to do. "Alright," she said, still looking at the Reaper now almost at the other side of the square.
Just as he was about to leave, Wrex turned around and stole a final look at the Reaper as it was about to round about the corner and leave their sight. "Shepard," he nodded, before leaving his friend's daughter to her private thoughts.