22 June 2578, T'Soni Lineage Estates, Armali/Thessia
Consider a small sitting room at night, only a little light coming from the nearby corridor, or through the windows from outside.
An asari appeared there, crossing the floor to kneel in front of a cold fireplace. Even in the darkness she moved with careful assurance, placing fuel and tinder, striking a long match, carefully tending the fire until it crackled with light and warmth. Once the flames burned brightly, she stood, gathering a white silk gown around her like armor.
An observer would have seen an ordinary matron of average height, slender and fit. Her face showed no unusual markings, only a spray of dark freckles across her cheeks and a matched pair of thin arcs over her eyes. At the moment she seemed drawn and pale, her eyes sunken with fatigue, as she sat in a large over-stuffed chair and stared into the newborn flames.
She did not move for a long time.
The asari who had lit the fire turned, and saw someone standing in the doorway: another mature matron, petite but strong, her skin pale blue, her face marked by a spray of white dapples, her eyes silver with dark rims.
"I'm sorry, Vara. I didn't mean to disturb you."
Vara crossed the room, knelt, and then sat on the floor at her bondmate's feet, leaning against her legs with boneless grace. "You didn't disturb me. What's wrong?"
"Hmm. Bad dreams, that's all." Liara sighed deeply. "Today's the twenty-second of June, by the human calendar."
"Is it? I must have lost track."
"I saw an article about the Day of Remembrance on an extranet news feed. Then I went to sleep, and got more remembrance than I really wanted."
Vara pressed her cheek against her bondmate's leg, a wordless gesture of comfort. Liara's hand moved to caress the other's crest.
"Every year, the galaxy loudly celebrates the end of the war against the Reapers," said Vara. "Those of us who were actually there tend to stay quieter about it."
"For good reason. Three hundred and ninety-two years, and I still wake up trembling sometimes."
"So do I."
"Goddess. It was so close. Even those of us who survived lost . . . so many things."
Vara sighed, staring into the flames. "I know. I miss him too, Liara."
To both of them, he only meant one person.
"You know," said Vara after a time, "I haven't seen anything of your book in a while."
"I stopped working on it. I haven't even looked at it in almost half a year."
Silence followed for a long minute, broken only by the crackle of the flames.
"I'm not sure. I had gotten all the way to the Battle of Bahak, and what came immediately after. The real horror didn't begin until months later."
"Maybe something else is discouraging you." Vara turned to look up into her bondmate's face. "I know you started writing because you wanted to give the galaxy some hope. Remind everyone of what he did for all of us, encourage them to live up to his example. But the news hasn't been very good, has it?"
"No." Liara her head fall, to rest against the chair back, and closed her eyes. "Barbarians run wild out in the Traverse, that weird human cult keeps spreading, and the Confederation seems helpless to do anything about it. I'm beginning to wonder if anyone would care, even if I did finish the book."
"You don't really believe that."
"No, I suppose not. Still. My enthusiasm for the work has suffered."
"Liara T'Soni, I think this is the first time I've ever seen you simply give up on something important."
Liara smiled wanly. "Don't try to guilt me into anything, Vara. Not in the small hours of the morning, right after a nightmare."
"All right. Sorry." Vara rested her head against her lover's knee once more. "I'll wait and guilt you into it after the sun comes up, if you prefer."
They sat quietly for a long time. Finally Vara looked up and saw Liara's eyes closed, her lips slightly open, her breath deep and even.
She shook her head, rose carefully to her feet, and tenderly covered her bondmate with a light blanket. Then she padded out of the room, to sleep in her own bed for the rest of the night.
In the morning, Liara T'Soni began to write once more.
10 February 2186, Shadow Broker Vessel/Hagalaz
The Shadow Broker stood in the control center at the heart of her ship, evaluating the forces deployed against her. "Report," she commanded.
"One cruiser, three frigates, two over-strength squadrons of fighters," answered an asari sensor officer. "They have the new armor, barriers, and weapons upgrades. They're hailing us."
"Let's hear it."
"Shadow Broker, this is Colonel Alexandre da Silva of the Cerberus cruiser Vigilance. You are surrounded and outgunned. Lower your defenses and prepare to be boarded. You have my word that you and your personnel will not be harmed."
"Defense, you have free-fire authorization," said T'Soni, her voice still utterly calm. "Get those Cerberus ships out of my sky."
For decades the Shadow Broker's vessel had hovered in one of the terminator zones of Hagalaz, riding an eternal lightning storm, drawing power from the violence of its environment. It had rarely exercised its full capacity to direct the energy it stored. Now its kinetic barriers crashed into place, powerful enough to stand up to a dreadnought's main gun. Weapons turrets popped out from the hull, swiveling to aim at the Cerberus invaders. Within moments, the air filled with torpedoes.
Cerberus was not caught by surprise. Vigilance immediately retreated, permitting its smaller companions to move forward and begin strafing the airship's massive hull. GARDIAN lasers began to rake the sky, fleetingly visible as they flash-vaporized stray water droplets or dust particles in the atmosphere. Then the cruiser's spinal Thanix cannon boomed, sending streams of plasma-hot metal to gouge at the airship's defenses.
Unfortunately, while the airship had many virtues, maneuverability was not one of them.
T'Soni felt the deck rock under her feet, then again harder. She tried not to think about what kind of force could make a ship so massive recoil so strongly. She heard a distant roar, as Cerberus weapons fire breached some compartment.
"Four fighters down," reported a batarian voice. "Five. Six. Direct hit on frigate Alpha."
"I need that cruiser dead!"
"Working on it."
Too late. Vigilance scored a direct hit amidships, knocking down the airship's kinetic barrier with a flash of light, tearing the hull open and smashing one of the great engines.
"Goddess!" The Shadow Broker looked around her control center, seeing red lights on console after console. For a moment, she couldn't understand why everything had become so quiet.
"They're hailing us again," said the sensor officer.
She glanced around once more, evaluated the condition of her ship. Realized she would need to buy some time. "I'll take it."
This time, she did not see Colonel da Silva on the other end of the communication. Instead: a pale-skinned male human, his dark hair frosted with silver, his blue eyes shining oddly. He took a deep drag on a cigarette and watched the Shadow Broker with keen interest. "Dr. T'Soni."
"I hope I can persuade you to surrender now. There's no point in further resistance."
"There is always a point in further resistance. Still, suppose I might be willing to consider a bargain of some kind. What do you propose?"
"Much the same as you proposed the last time we spoke. Just before you helped Shepard cut ties with Cerberus. The major difference being that I now have the upper hand."
"Call it a partnership, with the Shadow Broker as the junior partner. Hand over your resources, your network, to Cerberus control. We'll use them more effectively than you could to stop the Reapers."
"I believe we've had this discussion before. Cerberus can't stop the Reapers, and even if you could, what you promise for the galaxy wouldn't be much better."
"Cerberus isn't after universal extinction."
"No. Only the destruction of all the things that make life worth living." The Shadow Broker shook her head. "There's no point in going over this ground again. The answer is no."
"Don't be a fool, Doctor. We have you exactly where we want you."
"Actually, I suspect the reverse is true."
The Illusive Man frowned, not understanding her intent.
T'Soni left the channel open, turning to the nearest console and beginning to enter commands. Her airship trembled as the full power of its remaining engines came online.
"What are you doing, Doctor?"
She heard an enormous roar, felt the deck shift beneath her feet. The airship rose, began to accelerate.
She turned back to the Illusive Man, a brave smile on her face. "Better watch your back, Mr. Harper. Your days are numbered. Especially if the Alliance ever chooses to release my bondmate and put him back to work."
Perhaps the crew of the Cerberus cruiser had been taken off guard. Perhaps they had simply not believed what their sensors reported. In any case, they reacted just a few seconds too slowly to bring their own engines to maximum power and evade.
The Shadow Broker's airship speared into the side of its foe, hull buckling, enormous spars of metal bending and shattering in the shock of collision. Within instants, both ships were hopelessly entangled, drifting to one side and sinking as gravity began to reassert its dominion. Then one of the mass-effect cores breached, giving rise to an eye-searing explosion.
Two of the Cerberus frigates survived, fleeing with no more than superficial damage. Of the Cerberus cruiser Vigilance and the Shadow Broker's airship, nothing remained but a few kilotons of wreckage, falling to the surface of Hagalaz far below.
10 February 2186, Hagalaz Orbit
Surrounded by static and white noise, I stepped down from the communications stage. At once, Sheguntai's onboard computer cut the quantum-entanglement channel I had used to remotely control the airship's systems. The holographic emitters on all sides of the stage went inactive. The Strategic Information Center reappeared, ready for anything I might require.
"Do you think they bought it?" I asked the thin air.
"Looks that way," answered Feron's rumbling tenor voice, transmitted from his command position in the CIC. "Both frigates are running scared, straight on a heading for the Osun system. Probably about to push up to FTL . . . ah, there they go."
"No sign that they detected us?"
"None. We ran silent and kept the bulk of Hagalaz between us and them the whole time."
"Good." I glanced across several consoles. "The network is still in good order, even with the airship gone. No significant lag times."
"I should hope not, given how much you spent on these mobile command nodes."
"Well, hopefully the Illusive Man doesn't know too much about these ships yet. He may believe for a time that he's crippled the Shadow Broker's network. That should give us an advantage."
"He probably also thinks you're dead."
"Maybe. If he does, I doubt it will last long. I've already used that trick against him once."
"Last time, you weren't as showy about it." Feron paused for a moment, possibly receiving a report from one of his officers. "Everything looks green. Orders?"
I stopped, my hands clasped behind my back and my head bowed. I knew where I wanted to go, but I didn't trust my judgment on the question.
By the human calendar, it was early February of 2186, and time was running very short. According to my best estimate, the Reapers would reach a primary mass relay in no more than two months. The first weight of their assault would fall on Khar'Shan and the Batarian Hegemony. Shortly after that, they would be everywhere.
I shook my head. No matter how I set up the question, I kept getting the same answer. I wasn't making any progress. I needed to consult with my allies. I needed to see Shepard.
"Wait for an hour, and make sure Cerberus didn't leave any observers behind," I finally ordered Feron. "Then take us to the primary mass relay, and to Earth."
"Understood," said the drell.
12 February 2186, Vancouver/Earth
Admiral Hackett enjoyed a large but rather austere office, with few personal items or pieces of artwork to soften its impact. At least he had a great plate window, with a glorious view of Vancouver harbor. When I arrived, the admiral stood with his back to the door, sipping a cup of coffee and staring out of that window in contemplation. At first, I thought he was alone.
Then I saw Shepard, already present after all, sitting at the conference table where he hadn't been visible from the door. He looked at home in Alliance undress blues, even without any rank insignia on his collar. He rose and smiled at me, the admiral's presence inhibiting anything more demonstrative, although his eyes gleamed a promise for later.
"Shepard. Admiral Hackett."
The admiral turned, the ghost of a smile on his face as he glanced at the two of us. He crossed to the table and made a gesture, inviting us to be seated. "I'm triple-booked starting in half an hour, so we need to be brief. Will you be staying on Earth for long, Dr. T'Soni?"
"That depends on what we discuss here." I sighed. "To be honest, I feel as if I'm fighting fog: lots of effort for no obvious result. I'm beginning to think we need to change our strategy."
Hackett nodded. "Let's review our status first. Shepard?"
"The Red Team has gamed a number of scenarios based on what we know about Reaper capabilities. We've made different assumptions about Alliance preparedness, the dissemination of technological upgrades, the level of help we can get from the rest of the Council species, a few other variables." Shepard shook his head ruefully. "None of it makes much difference. The notional Reapers always disassemble the Alliance and drive the human race into extinction. It's just a question of how long it takes. The average estimate is twelve to eighteen months."
"So what you're saying is that we can't defeat the Reapers conventionally," Hackett stated.
Shepard shrugged. "Most of the Defense Committee members still seem to think it can be done. Somehow. Personally I think they're in deep denial."
"Would you advise us to call a halt to Project AEGIS?"
I frowned. AEGIS was the Alliance Navy's effort to roll bleeding-edge defense and weapons technology out to as many ships as possible. Thanix cannons, Silaris hull armor, cyclonic barrier technology, all the same upgrades that had rendered Normandy capable of meeting and destroying a Collector cruiser. AEGIS had been Hackett's top priority, ever since the Shastri government ordered a change in Alliance defense strategy.
"No," said Shepard. "The upgrades are worth doing. They might give our ships more of a chance when the Reapers arrive. I can't think of any better place to spend the resources we have."
"But in the end, all it can do is buy us a little more time."
Shepard nodded, slowly and reluctantly.
"Dr. T'Soni, do you concur?"
"I'm not a military expert, Admiral . . ."
"You have military experts on your staff," he interrupted me. "What do they say?"
"I'm afraid they have an even lower opinion of your chances than that," I admitted.
Hackett leaned back in his chair and looked at the two of us. "Then we need a game-changer."
Shepard and I exchanged a glance. His expression shifted, ever so slightly, but I could read him almost as well as if he had shouted aloud.
I've been effectively locked up for the last four months. I've got nothing.
I leaned forward. "I may have a possibility. It's not much . . ."
"Any port in a storm, Doctor," said Hackett. "Let's hear it."
"Over the last few years, the yahg spent a great deal of time studying the Protheans. He sent his agents out to acquire Prothean artifacts. He reviewed every academic paper he could find on the subject. He sponsored scientific expeditions." I looked down at the tabletop in embarrassment. "Apparently at one point he even sponsored me. Some of the money I used to fund the dig on Therum came from a front corporation owned by the Shadow Broker. He had copies of all of my papers."
"The Shadow Broker was one of your fans?" asked Hackett, amused.
"Too bad we had to kill him," said Shepard. "What use is all of that now, though? The Protheans gave us the beacons, and the Conduit on Ilos, but we've already used those against the Reapers."
"The yahg seemed to think there was more out there. The more I consider the evidence, the more I find I agree." I used my omni-tool to call up a galactic map, illustrating my point with graphics. "Remember that the Reapers struck directly at the Citadel to begin the Prothean extinction. The message from the Eden Prime beacon suggests that this shattered the galactic community into independent regions, which couldn't easily coordinate their resistance. One of those fragments developed the Conduit. What if other Protheans tried to develop their own strategies to strike back against the Reapers?"
"What are you proposing?" asked Hackett.
"A crash effort to study Prothean records, from all over the galaxy," I said. "We examine anything we can find from the Fourth Age, the time just before or during the extinction. We look at any artifact or record that might give us more ideas about to how to resist the Reapers. Even knowing what the Protheans tried that didn't work might be of some use."
"The Alliance can't do that on its own," Hackett objected.
"You can examine Prothean artifacts and archives within your own territory, Admiral. Mars, Eden Prime, a few other worlds. Meanwhile, I can work the scientific community elsewhere, see how many asari and salarian experts I can pull into the effort."
Shepard shook his head. "This sounds like a terrible long shot, Liara."
"I know." I looked at both of them. "I'm afraid I'm out of other ideas."
Hackett nodded slowly. "Doctor, this sounds like the best thing you could be doing, both as a scientist and as the Shadow Broker. Go ahead. I'll give you as much support as I can."
"All right. My network will continue to feed intel to the Alliance, of course."
"Good." The admiral checked his omni-tool for the time, took the last sip of his coffee, and stood. Both of us rose as well. "Now I have to go. Shepard, I'll leave Dr. T'Soni in your charge for the rest of the day. Check in with Lieutenant Vega, but I believe the two of you have meetings scheduled with the Red Team and the Defense Committee."
Shepard saluted. "Understood, Admiral."
The terms of Shepard's "imprisonment" limited his freedom of movement. He rarely left the secured Alliance Navy compound in Vancouver, keeping up the appearance of being under investigation for a litany of crimes. He spent every evening in his "cell," a comfortable apartment tucked away deep inside officer's quarters. There he had almost every comfort, including occasional visitors who had been cleared to know the truth about his status.
Four rooms made up the apartment: living area, kitchen, study, and bedroom. He had only a few personal items. A painting of the first Normandy hung in the living area. A battered N7 helmet and a set of dogtags rested on a side table. Two portraits hung in the study, one of his long-lost family, the other of me. His father's Bible, old and worn, lay on a corner of the desk. A few other books stood on a nearby shelf. Otherwise Shepard kept the whole place impersonally neat and clean.
At the moment a trail of garments, Alliance Navy undress blues and an asari business ensemble, stretched from the outer door across the entire floor to the bedroom.
I rolled aside, pressing the entire length of my body against him, enjoying a sense of euphoria and pleasant fatigue. Once I felt comfortable, my head tucked into the hollow of his shoulder, I closed my eyes and reviewed the memories I had just acquired from him. I knew he was doing the same.
After a few moments, I sighed. "I must admit, I do enjoy debriefing."
Shepard chuckled, a deep rumble in his chest. "I don't think I've ever heard it called that before."
"Well. Consider it one of the benefits of marrying an asari. Given how rarely we get to see each other, it saves hours of conversation each time."
His arm tightened around my waist, his head turned slightly, and I felt his lips caress my crest. "Blue goddess. I wish I could have seen the Illusive Man's face, when you sent the Broker's airship on that kamikaze run."
"Hmm." I took another deep breath, suddenly feeling serious. "To tell the truth, Shepard, I'm worried about Cerberus."
"So am I." He shifted his body slightly, permitting me to slide a leg between his. "I've been following all the intel we get, from you and from our own sources, ever since that incident with Paul Grayson. I don't like what I've been hearing about their interest in Reaper technology. Cerberus has a habit of playing with fire. I'm afraid we might all get burned this time."
"I agree. Some of the news I've heard from the Terminus Systems . . ."
"That agreement the Illusive Man reached with Aria T'Loak?"
I nodded. "They've been using the Omega-4 Relay, with her permission and support. Visiting the wreckage of the Collector base you destroyed. Goddess alone knows what they're finding there."
"It does fit their usual strategy," he observed. "Cerberus has always wanted to improve their operatives and soldiers. Reaper technology certainly promises one way to do that. Saren was a tough bastard even before Sovereign implanted him, and he became almost unstoppable afterward. Paul Grayson was a sickly red sand addict, and Reaper implants turned him into a biotic super-soldier. If Cerberus can find a way to harness that capability . . ."
"Don't forget the control aspect," I reminded him. "Reaper technology also indoctrinates its victims."
"I don't get that part. Why would the Illusive Man want to create an army of Reaper agents?"
"Perhaps he thinks he can override the Reapers' influence. Turn the indoctrination to his own purposes."
"Hmm. It would have to be very tempting, to someone as obsessed with control as he is. The perfect tyranny, where your subjects never even consider betraying or opposing you."
We lay in silence for several minutes, each lost in our own thoughts. Slowly I sensed the return of a certain urge.
"Shepard," I said at last.
I could feel the muffled laughter under my arm, like a tremor deep in his body. "T'Soni, you are outrageous."
"I'm also a biotic, and I seem to recall it getting very bright in here a while ago."
"I suppose I should have fed you first."
"I was in too much of a hurry. You may feed me now."
"Well." He stirred, began to slide out from under my arm and leg. I lay back and enjoyed the sight of him rising nude out of the bed. "As it happens, I have anticipated your desires. There's a very good Thessian sunfish in the refrigerator, along with soba noodles, some fresh salad, and a bottle of Serrice white. Give me fifteen minutes and we can have dinner in bed."
"What about dessert?"
"I'm sure I can think of something."
"Hmm. That sounds wonderful. You launch a frontal assault on the kitchen, I will perform a diversionary raid on your shower cubicle, and we can meet back here to compare battle damage assessments."
If only all our strategic decisions were that simple, I thought, as I rose and padded across the thick carpet toward the refresher.