15 June 2186, Temple of Athame, Armali/Thessia
"Someone would like to talk to you," said Kai Leng. He reached behind his back to produce a projector drone, tossing the device at us with a gentle underarm throw. Once it became active, he turned to walk away, utterly disinterested.
The drone drifted toward us, shimmering with light, creating an image: a male human in a fashionable business suit, standing in the midst of the Temple.
The Illusive Man.
"Shepard," he said, not yet glancing at the rest of us.
"How did you find this place?" Shepard demanded, putting his weapon away for the moment.
"The Mars Archives, of course." Now he did look to the side, his eyes lighting on me with a gleam of malice. "Or did your Shadow Broker miss that one?"
"Show yourself," I said coldly. "I promise I won't miss."
"Stick to your talents, Dr. T'Soni," he said, his image appearing to walk forward until he could reach up toward the Vendetta hologram with one illusory hand. "You've helped uncover the key to subjugating the Reapers."
"Or destroying them," Shepard said calmly.
"Damn it, Shepard!" The Ilusive Man whirled, stared at Shepard, and began to pace back and forth. "Destroying the Reapers gains us nothing."
"I don't know. How about peace? How about our survival? I wouldn't call those nothing."
"Our survival isn't at stake," said the lllusive Man, causing all three of us to stare at him in raw disbelief. "The Reapers aren't after our destruction. They just want to control us. Think about it. If they wanted to destroy all organic life, they could do it. There would be nothing left."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Shepard demanded, beginning to lose his temper.
"I know them, Shepard. I understand how they think."
"I think you've gotten a little too close to the enemy."
"Your reasoning is flawed," I put in. "Our encounter with the Leviathans told us a great deal about the origins and purposes of the Reapers. They are not interested in controlling us in any coherent sense, Mr. Harper. Their only intention for us is complete annihilation."
As usual, the Illusive Man showed a flash of irritation at my use of his true name. "Those so-called Leviathans didn't give you anything to substantiate their claims, Dr. T'Soni. I'm surprised to see a scientist of your caliber accepting subjective and second-hand accounts as solid evidence."
"Ordinarily I would not," I said coldly. "On the other hand, we have more than enough objective evidence to demonstrate that the Reapers are out to see every one of us dead. The fact that you maintain otherwise leads me to question your sanity."
"I won't be questioned, Doctor." He seemed visibly angry now. "My mind is as clear as it ever was. More than clear enough to get the better of a traitor like you."
"That remains to be seen." I stepped up next to Shepard, stared into the Illusive Man's glowing eyes. "I will stipulate that you don't appear to be suffering from any ordinary form of mental illness. You are behaving as if thoroughly indoctrinated."
Shepard nodded slowly. "You sound a lot like Saren did, just before Sovereign filled him full of Reaper tech. Convinced that some way existed for organics to survive the Reapers. Rationalizing away every fact that said otherwise."
"I am nothing like Saren. I have no intention of surrendering to the Reapers, Shepard."
"Call it what you please," said Shepard, his voice gone very intense, his will focused on making the Illusive Man understand. "You've spent too much time close to them. They've dragged you so far over to their way of thinking, it doesn't matter whether you believe you're opposing them or not. If you're not careful, they will own you, and every action you take will be in support of their ultimate goals."
"If that has not happened already," muttered Javik. "Our own separatists believed themselves the bitterest opponents of the Reapers. They fought us with great determination. In so doing, they ensured the Reapers' victory."
Shepard nodded. "If you truly care about humanity, you will stop fighting me. You'll join me. Join the alliance we've built."
For an instant, I thought the Illusive Man actually considered Shepard's words. Then his face closed down once more. "Don't ever question my intentions, Shepard. I've sacrificed more for humanity than you will ever understand . . . and don't assume you know me. My methods for dealing with the Reapers are simply more refined than yours."
Shepard shook his head in disgust. "You've forgotten everything you ever stood for. Cerberus was supposed to be humanity's sword. Not a dagger in our back."
"Poetic, but as usual you miss the point. You can't beat the Reapers with blunt force, and since that's all you have, you will never beat them."
"With the data in this Prothean beacon, I can end this conflict, once and for all." Shepard leaned in, staring at the Illusive Man from what would have been deep inside his personal space. "You're either with me or against me. Make up your mind."
"Done." The Illusive Man's image turned and began to walk away from us, back to where Kai Leng paced back and forth. The assassin had his sword in his hand now, moving like a carnivore waiting for a chance to kill. "Leng, the Commander has something I need. Please relieve him of it, and then bring me the data."
The hologram shimmered and vanished. Naked once more, the projector drone returned itself to Kai Leng's hand.
"Understood," said the assassin, pocketing the drone. Immediately he dropped into a combat stance, about twenty meters away from us, keeping all of us in his field of vision.
He did not attack, merely waited for us.
On the other hand, when a storm of gunfire and biotic energy swept down on him, he did dodge aside from some and put up a solid barrier to block the rest. Even Shepard's first flare didn't do any obvious damage.
Shepard gestured to us. We advanced, Shepard up the middle of the aisle, Javik fanning out to his right, me slightly behind him and to the left. We continued to attack Kai Leng with everything we had, and although he showed no signs of worry, he still refused to press an attack of his own.
A roar of noise. White light shone into the Temple from outside again, blindingly bright. Javik seemed unaffected, and Shepard simply tossed his head to slam down his polarized faceplate, but I had to squint my eyes nearly shut. Kai Leng seemed to vanish into the glare.
Then a storm of gunfire slammed into the Temple.
The three of us barely escaped with our lives, diving for cover as something filled the Temple's interior with death. I found myself separated from Shepard for a moment, as I crouched behind a row of empty seats.
What is that? A gunship, hovering just outside?
It seemed to last forever. I didn't dare peek out, for fear that exposing my head even slightly would result in its being torn off. I lost track of my friends, lost track of Kai Leng.
I'm not sure what prompted me to look down. Perhaps some part of my mind processed the odd sensation when I shifted my weight, tried to move my hand a few centimeters.
The slight stickiness of the floor, there where I knelt in hiding.
Why is the floor here purple?
Then I gasped in horror, as I saw the deep-indigo stains on my fingers, the palm of my hand, my knees.
I crouched in the middle of a pool of half-dried blood. Asari blood.
I peered under the row of seats where I hid, and came face-to-face with a dead asari.
I recognized her. Matriarch Thessala, once my mother's partner in their secret cabal, later one of my political adversaries. One of the Matriarchs who knew at least a little about the Reapers, and had kept that knowledge hidden from the galaxy for centuries.
Her eyes were open, her teeth exposed in a rictus of horror, her face twisted with rage. A great gash had been sliced open in her throat.
Now that I was almost on the floor, I could see two more bodies stuffed under the row of seats with Thessala. Two asari I didn't recognize, wearing jackets typical for scientists.
I barely noticed that the gunfire had stopped, that the light from the Temple's entrance had withdrawn once more. My mind was leaping forward, a chain of deductions unspooling like lightning.
"Damn it!" a distant part of me heard Shepard shout. "Where the hell did he go?"
Thessala and the scientific team came to meet us after all.
Someone got here first. Killed them. Hid them where we would be unlikely to spot them at first.
Then they put the kinetic barrier back up, so we wouldn't suspect anything.
I pushed myself back to my knees, leapt to my feet, looking frantically around me.
"Shepard! Watch out! It's a . . ."
A flicker of movement, much too close. Then a tactical cloak dropped and Kai Leng stood before me.
I had just enough time to start calling up my biotics, bringing my sidearm to bear.
Then his sword lashed out and ran me through.
I stood there, my eyes wide with panic, my mouth open in a soundless scream, impaled on the assassin's blade. The pain felt incredible.
I could still hear my pulse, so I guessed he had missed my heart, but it seemed quite likely that he had sliced open something else vital. Some cool, detached part of my mind said: Liara T'Soni, you are dead.
I looked into his face, and saw just a hint of satisfaction.
"Liara!" Shepard's voice, raw with terror.
Leng turned away, whipping the sword back out of my body, and I collapsed like a sack of wet sand.
Suddenly I had an uncontrollable urge to cough. Fresh indigo blood splashed onto the floor, not much, but enough to tell me I was in serious trouble. It took all my willpower not to cough more than once.
My sidearm had fallen out of nerveless fingers. I didn't know where it had gone, and I didn't bother to search for it. Instead, with the hand that wasn't clamped to the entry wound in my torso, I reached up and triggered the medi-gel tab on my jacket.
That helped. The external bleeding stopped at once, and the pain receded. I tried not to think about internal bleeding, a collapsed lung, maybe one of the big blood vessels in my torso severed.
You may be dying, but you're not dead yet. Get up!
Sounds of combat, not far away. The scuffle and thud of bodies running, jumping, slamming into one another. Shepard growling his hatred and rage, like a great angry beast.
Somehow I pushed myself up on one elbow, gasping for air the whole time, and looked around.
I saw no sign of Javik. Shepard stood a few meters away, engaged in close-quarters combat with Kai Leng. The assassin backed away slowly, sword and kinetic barriers deployed in a defensive pattern. Shepard absolutely blazed with blue-white light, enough biotic power in hand to crush Leng.
Except that he couldn't quite hit the assassin.
Powerful blows, spinning kicks, eruptions of biotic force, blasts from the Claymore: Kai Leng somehow dodged or deflected every attack, sometimes by the narrowest margins, but always by just enough to avoid Shepard's wrath.
Oh Shepard. It's a trap. All of this is a trap. He has you fighting in a rage.
I tried to call out, but I just couldn't get enough air for more than a bloody gasp.
Too late. I saw the moment when the jaws of the trap closed.
Kai Leng had led Shepard some distance away from me, out into one side of the sanctuary.
One hand flashed back to the assassin's belt, came up with a small device, just large enough to fit comfortably in his palm. His thumb opened a safety cap, and then clamped down on the button it had just exposed.
The explosions felt like the end of the world. I felt myself thrown about like a limp bundle of rags.
The Temple, mortally wounded, shook and threatened to topple.
I collapsed again, my arms up in a futile attempt to shield my head from falling debris.
Kai Leng, forewarned, could leap back to the central aisle. Somehow, by some accident or malicious intent, that part of the sanctuary floor remained intact. The assassin remained safe.
Great spans of the sanctuary floor to either side cracked, crumbled, collapsed, dropped into the depths beneath the Temple. Priceless artifacts, many thousands of years old, fell to be crushed.
Shepard fell with them, vanishing into chaos.
Given more air, I would have screamed my denial and loss.
I think I must have lost consciousness for a few moments. When I came to again, somewhat surprised to find myself still alive, quiet reigned over the shattered Temple.
I rolled onto my back, blinking furiously to clear my faded vision, and then froze.
Kai Leng stood over me, looking down at me with cool detachment, probably deciding whether to finish me off. After a moment, he contented himself with a sarcastic comment.
"Cerberus thanks you for all your hard work."
Then he turned his back and left me.
I knew I couldn't stop him. I had other concerns in any case.
The space seemed very wide, between me and where I had last seen Shepard.
Slowly, painfully, pausing every few moments to cough and splatter more blood on the floor, I crawled.
Outside the Temple, I could hear an engine roar, fading into the distance. Kai Leng, getting away with whatever he had come for.
I glanced at the Prothean beacon, still shimmering in the distance. No sign of the Vendetta hologram. Doubtless the assassin had taken it.
I shook my head, ignoring the darkness that threatened to close down on my vision, and crawled on. Four meters. Six.
There I saw the edge, the abyss beyond, the place where Shepard had fallen. I had to at least look. I think, once I had looked, part of me planned to hurl myself in after him.
A strained grunt. A gauntleted hand appeared, clenched on the edge of the shattered stone floor. The other one appeared as well, scrabbling for purchase.
I gasped. Somehow I levered myself onto hands and knees, gathered all my willpower, and lunged.
The pain in my chest felt as if I had just been stabbed all over again. I ignored it.
My hand closed on Shepard's wrist, an instant before he would have lost his grip.
15 June 2186, Interstellar Space
I awoke to the sound of a vicious argument, carried out in asari dialect on both sides.
"With all due respect, Commander, you had no right to take Dr. T'Soni down there without one of us as escort."
"I understand your concerns, therapōn, but my selection of mission teams has to be based on my tactical judgment."
I groaned inwardly. I did not call on the Goddess, I resolved that I would never call on the Goddess again, but at that moment I truly wanted supernatural assistance. Anything to help me face the fact that two people who each loved me sounded ready to come to blows.
"Your tactical judgment doesn't seem to be very reliable. It very nearly got my principal killed today."
"You think I don't know that?"
I took stock. It seemed pleasantly dark behind my eyelids. I could hear familiar sounds: the ship's main drive pulsing in the distance, medical instrumentation chirping softly close by. I caught a faint scent of antiseptic. I lay supine on a firm surface, a light cover over my body, comfortable, feeling no pain. I breathed easily and evenly.
"Your remorse does not interest me, Commander." Vara's voice, laden with poorly suppressed anger. "I want your word that you will not expose Dr. T'Soni to risks like that again. Not without one or more of my people on hand, to protect her more effectively than you appear able to do."
"You know I can't promise that, therapōn. The mission has to take precedence. You may have noticed that we're at war."
"My home world is being destroyed even as we speak, dull stone. You may safely assume that I know we're at war."
I tried my voice. It worked, after a fashion. "Vara."
Footsteps, hurrying across the floor. A sense of presence leaning over me.
I opened my eyes.
Karin Chakwas stood there, glancing at the medical monitors above my head, glancing down to check my condition. "Liara. Don't move."
I tried to speak again, produced nothing but a low rasp.
Dr. Chakwas produced a small bottle with an attached straw, helped me wet my mouth and throat.
"Vara," I said, more clearly this time. "I don't have the time or energy to say this politely. Shut up."
I saw my acolyte's face, her coloring faded, her eyes wide with chagrin. "Despoina . . ."
"Not another word," I husked. "It is my decision who among us goes with Shepard on ground missions. My responsibility. Not yours. Remember your oath."
She looked mutinous for a fraction of a second, but then she regained control of herself and made a tense nod. "Commander. You have my apologies."
"I understand, therapōn." Shepard gave her a sharp glance, but refrained from pressing the point. "You're right. I've been under-utilizing your team, and this time it hurt us badly. With more hands on deck, asari who knew the territory, this mission might not have been such a disaster. Now we have to pick up the pieces. You have my word that I will give due consideration to including some of your team on any future ground missions, whether Liara is there or not."
She stared at him for a long moment, and then seemed to relax, let go of her anger. "Thank you, Commander."
"Good." I took a deeper breath, still felt no pain, and closed my eyes again. "Good. What's the situation?"
Shepard's voice, bleak as winter: "Kai Leng got away with all the Prothean data. The Reapers are on Thessia in force. The whole planet has dropped off the grid, but we have to assume the worst."
Vara's voice, full of despair: "Millions dead already, despoina. Organized resistance has already collapsed across most of the planet. Within days, it's going to be as bad as Palaven or Earth. If not worse."
I wanted to say something, ask more questions, but instead my mind just shut down. I feared that if I opened my mouth again, nothing would come out but a long wail.
Dr. Chakwas, warm and reassuring: "Your own condition is surprisingly good, Liara. The blade didn't sever any of your major blood vessels, although in one case it was a very near miss. The main difficulty was a puncture wound through your left lung, and some minor damage to your heart. I've performed surgery to repair the gross damage, and you appear to be responding well to quick-heal. Still, it's a good thing you asari are tougher than you look."
"How soon can I return to duty?" I whispered.
"I want to keep you here for a while. If all goes well, three days before I release you to your quarters and clear you for light duty."
I opened my eyes again, did my best to project confidence. "Vara, I want you to work with Commander Shepard and Specialist Traynor. Keep the network moving. Support the mission. Can you do that?"
She braced her shoulders and looked resolute. "Yes, despoina."
"Good. Now go."
She went, not without a backward glance.
As soon as Dr. Chakwas withdrew as well, Shepard leaned close to take my hand and place a gentle kiss on my forehead. "Oh God. Liara . . ."
I shook my head and looked up at him, saw the pain and rage in his eyes. "None of that, love."
"He played me. That Cerberus bastard played me."
"Yes." I sighed. "He played all of us. He couldn't access the Prothean beacon without our help, but he knew exactly how to pull us into a trap once we had given him what he needed."
"That's twice he's gotten the better of us." His jaw set in grim determination. "It's not going to happen a third time."
"Is there going to be a third time?" I asked hopelessly.
He nodded, and I saw a flash of the old confidence. "I think so. We have a lead."
Something in his voice gave me a scrap of courage. I struggled for a moment, pushed myself up a bit against the pillows behind me. "Tell me."
"It was Traynor who found it, actually." He gave me a small smile. "You'd be proud of her. It was a very nice piece of analysis. She projected the path of Kai Leng's ship through the relay network."
"So we might be able to chase him down. Recover the Prothean data."
"It's possible," he agreed.
"We can't be entirely certain. She lost the signal. It looks as if he was heading for the Iera system."
I frowned, my mind starting to work again. "Horizon?"
"Looks that way. Seems strange. There's nothing there but the Sanctuary facility, but Traynor also noticed that the planet has gone completely silent. Suspicious."
"Yes." I frowned. "I wish I could go to my office. It's just across the crew deck . . ."
"Don't even think about it," he commanded. "Listen to Dr. Chakwas and get some rest. You'll be back in action soon enough."
After an hour under Karin's watchful eye, I graduated to sitting at a desk and eating a light meal. Then the door opened and my next visitor stepped in.
My spork stopped halfway to my mouth with its load of noodles and spaghetti sauce. I carefully put it back down and glared.
"I have come to apologize," said Javik, standing at attention with his hands behind his back.
I blinked in mild astonishment. "That has to be a first. What do you feel the need to apologize for?"
"During the battle with the Kai Leng human, I lost sight of him. Before I could reacquire, he had moved to attack you. I regret this."
"I think all of us lost track of him, Javik. You have nothing to apologize for."
He lifted his head slightly, somehow contriving to look smugly self-satisfied, even while trying to apologize. "I am not concerned with the inefficient visual organs of asari or humans. Very little escapes these eyes. I did not lose him in the glare of his support vehicle's lights. His pathetic invisibility device did not conceal him from me. But in the moment when I sought cover from the support vehicle's gunfire, he created some manner of holographic image of himself, which distracted me. I did not realize the truth until it was too late and you had already been injured."
I gave him my best aristocratic stare and nod. "Then I accept your apology, Javik."
"Good." He cocked his head, watching me. "Are you well, asari?"
"Well enough. And I have a name, Prothean."
"Yes . . . Dr. T'Soni. Or do you prefer Liara?"
"My friends call me Liara. You may call me Dr. T'Soni."
"Then, Dr. T'Soni, are you well?"
I sighed and looked down at my plate of pasta, toyed with the spork for a moment. "Dr. Chakwas assures me I am going to be fine. Light duty for a few days, nothing more."
"I do not speak of your physical health." His stance relaxed slightly, his hands coming out from behind his back, his head not held quite so rigidly. He reached to pull a chair across the floor, and sat down in it a safe distance away from me. "You have learned a great deal that you did not expect, Dr. T'Soni. About your own people, and about mine. I am aware this has disturbed you greatly. I am concerned for how it may affect your effectiveness in the war. How it may affect the Commander's effectiveness."
"Naturally, you have no concern for me as an individual."
"Naturally. I have no concern for myself as an individual. We fight for our very survival, against an implacable enemy whose powers we can barely fathom. There is no time for us to indulge in useless sentiment."
"I suppose you are right."
I stared at him for a long moment, evaluating.
I would never like him. It would be very difficult for me ever to feel much compassion for him. He was too alien. He was too warped by his experiences: fighting a hopeless war against the Reapers for a lifetime, and then awakening into a universe in which his entire species had been hounded to extinction. He responded to his situation with a bigoted cynicism, bordering on cruelty. I could see only one redeeming feature in him: he was just as cruel, just as harshly demanding, to himself as to everyone around him.
That infinitely stubborn integrity made me realize that I might be able to respect him.
"In that case, Javik, no. I am not well."
He nodded in understanding. "You were proud of being asari. Proud of asari accomplishments, proud of what you believed to be your people's moral superiority."
"Rather like we Protheans," he said.
I snorted in bitter amusement, recognizing the accusation I had directed at him so many times, at least in the privacy of my own mind. "I suppose so."
"Now you feel that you have been robbed of this," he said relentlessly. "You did not accomplish these things on your own. Indeed, your people have behaved with dishonesty and hypocrisy, concealing your Prothean heritage for the sake of selfish advantage. To the point that you failed even to warn the galaxy about the Reapers, when that might have done some good."
"Yes." I took a deep breath, enjoying the sensation of air flowing through my lungs without pain. "Javik, I have a confession to make, and I suspect you may be the only person on board who will understand it."
He inclined his head, waiting.
"I'm not sure the asari people, my own people, are worth saving."
"Rrrh. Now this, I understand very well." Javik frowned, looking down at the floor for a moment. "Such a sickness of the spirit, it was very common among my own people in our last days. We were a proud people as well. Proud of our science, our technology, our golden cities and invincible starships. Proud of our unity of purpose. Proud of our ability to rule over others, harshly but with absolute fairness."
"Then the Reapers came and took all that away from you," I said quietly.
"Yes. So easily that it constituted a profound insult. One we never managed to avenge." He looked back at me, the usual heat of his eyes subdued. "Some of our people simply lost the will to continue. They saw no reason to preserve a species that had been so profoundly mistaken about its own merits."
"Did you ever have such doubts?"
"I have a confession to make," he echoed me, "and I suspect you may be the only person on board who will understand it."
I felt a smile on my lips, growing slowly.
"I still have such doubts, Dr. T'Soni. Every day." He cocked his head at me. "Yet now it seems my people may live again, if we are victorious, and these liberated Collectors fulfill their promise. Do you think we will be able to build the Unity again, just as it was, glorious and sovereign?"
"Not if the rest of us have anything to say about it."
"Then it seems we will be forced to discover new ways to be Prothean. We will need to give up conquest and domination. We may even find ourselves learning this thing you call humility." He gave me a cynical smile. "Rrrh. What a concept. It will be difficult."
"So. Perhaps after this war, my people will need to find new ways to be asari."
"It seems likely."
"More honesty. Integrity. Generosity to others. Maybe a little humility of our own."
"You are asari. You would know best what flaws your people must correct. If you wish at last to fulfill the potential we saw in you, so long ago."
I picked up the one glass of wine Dr. Chakwas had permitted me with my meal, and took a sip. "Is that why you came to uplift us? Because you thought we had potential?"
"We thought you might become a useful subservient race. Given time, and a great deal of careful work."
I found myself smiling, a twisted smirk not unlike his.
Now, that's more like the Javik I've come to know.