19 December 2580, Girshem Province/Rannoch
The valdarii made their first landings in Girshem Province, about the middle of the local morning. Synarchy forces moved in to contain the invasion, buying time for the inhabitants of the nearest cities to evacuate to safety. Quarian soldiers, supported by a variety of geth combat platforms, launched a lightning-fast counterstrike to keep the invaders off-balance.
A borrowed aircar landed about two kilometers behind the line of contact. A single asari emerged, looking not at all like the refined and elegant Ambassador T’Soni: anonymous black commando leathers, favored sidearm at her hip, biotic corona already in place around her arms and shoulders. She began running toward the sound of the guns.
I had shut off access to the local net through my daimon, and closed my telepathic link back to Shepard and Vara. I was limited to what my own senses could tell me. I could still estimate the sheer size of the engagement, hearing the thunder of gunfire rolling in from every direction, even from far beyond the horizon. I could tell the Synarchy and the valdarii were already closely engaged, along a front over a hundred kilometers wide.
It seemed a sunny, pleasant morning for a war.
I had borrowed a set of Palethi’s combat armor, since she and I were almost the same size and build. It felt snug and comfortable, permitting me the freedom of movement I needed for broken-field running. I crossed rolling meadows, ducked through a grove of blue-green trees, and splashed through a shallow stream. For a while I saw no other combatants, except at a distance. Then I encountered the front lines, quite suddenly, as often seems to happen when the situation is very fluid. Still jogging along at my full long-distance rate, I topped a low rise and found myself in the middle of a squad of quarians, all behind cover and firing madly down-range.
“Get down, you fool!” shouted one of the quarians, a burly male wearing an old-fashioned sealed suit blazoned with sergeant’s stripes.
I took cover, drawing and checking my sidearm before I peeked up to take in the situation.
The quarian did a double-take, apparent even through his visor, as he realized I wasn’t one of his people at all. “Who in the name of the Ancestors are you?” he demanded.
“Kalliste Renai,” I told him. “I’m a little out of practice as a commando, Sergeant, but I’ve been in combat, and I’m a strong biotic. Can I be of assistance?”
He stared for another moment, and then nodded. “Well, none of us have worked with asari before, but I won’t turn down someone who can turn these valdarii into mush with her brain. They’re pushing a little harder than I like. Can you help fend them off while we fall back to a better position?”
“Not a problem,” I told him, and elbow-walked up until I could peek out and see the first sign of the advancing barbarians. I saw mostly two-legged runners, with light weaponry. Nodding to myself, I found a position behind a large tree and made a two-armed control gesture.
A powerful barrier snapped out, covering a front about forty meters wide. More than enough cover for the quarians to fall back to their next prepared line.
“Nice,” said the sergeant. “How long can you hold that?”
“How long do you need it?”
He gestured to his men to retreat in good order. I couldn’t see his grin behind his visor, but I could hear it. “Glad to have you with us, Ms. Renai. I’m Zaan’Kylon vas Adana, Synarchy Marines.”
“Good to meet you, Sergeant Kylon. I’m at your disposal.”
I held the barrier, and then I ran for the new position ahead of a storm of valdarii gunfire. Somehow, I couldn’t manage to keep a small smile off my face the whole time.
The situation is simple. I’m now responsible for one squad of quarian soldiers. I’m here to keep them alive, no matter what it takes, no matter what else happens because of Shepard’s plan. I’ll take orders from Sergeant Kylon and not worry about anything else.
They’re risking their lives for something that’s important. They’re here to defend their homes.
Not to obey me. Not to die for me.
We fought. We fell back into the outskirts of the city of Obyris, where the civilian evacuation was nearly complete by the time we arrived. Eventually the valdarii advance paused, and Sergeant Kylon and his squad were directed to a mustering point for rest, resupply, and new orders.
I checked my daimon for the time as I followed the quarians into the mustering area: about two hours since I arrived on the front lines and attached myself to Kylon’s squad. I felt tired but satisfied. I had held my own on the field, taken no more than a few bruises and scrapes, and helped Kylon to keep all his soldiers alive while we fought the long retreat.
I appear to still be good for something.
Then I saw a group of geth platforms, and felt a sudden chill.
Sure enough, the moment one of the geth looked over in my direction, it froze for a moment. Then it abandoned its current task and crossed over to me. It might have been my imagination, but I thought it seemed to be stalking in my direction.
“Dr. T’Soni?” it asked, as soon as it was close enough.
Sergeant Kylon was close enough to hear that, and did a double-take.
I sighed, and shook my head. “Yes, I’m Liara T’Soni.”
“The consensus has been requested to report your location to theater command,” said the geth. “I also have a communication for you.”
“I’ll take it.”
The geth gestured for patience, as the call went through the consensus. It didn’t take long.
“Liara, what are you doing?”
“Hello, Vara. At the moment, I’m taking a break from fighting.”
“Fighting! Goddess, don’t tell me you’re on the front lines somewhere!”
“I’m afraid so.” I deliberately hardened my tone. “Vara, we need an eyewitness here.”
“I agree, but that eyewitness doesn’t have to be you, and you certainly have no business out there alone. Kamala and Grunt have been in the thick of things too. Not to mention that Keana, Palethi, and Timo have been absolutely beside themselves since you turned up missing.” I could hear the cold fury in Vara’s voice. She sounded as angry with me as I could ever remember. “Goddess, Liara. Going off on your own, shutting down your comms, even closing off the mind-link with me and with Shepard . . . what in nine hells were you thinking?”
“Vara . . .” I stopped. An explanation would take hours that we didn’t have, if I could manage it at all. “Now isn’t the time to discuss it. The valdarii are preparing for another push. I have to go.”
“Begging your pardon, ma’am.” Sergeant Kylon loomed up at my side to interrupt, big and imposing, a polite colossus. “If I’ve heard correctly, then you’re actually Liara T’Soni?”
I glared at him, the effect somewhat reduced since I couldn’t see his face through the visor. “That’s right. I apologize for the deception, Sergeant, but I didn’t want you distracted. An ordinary asari with powerful biotics and combat experience would just be an unexpected asset.”
“Water under the bridge, ma’am.” He shifted uneasily. “The thing is, now that I do know who you are, I can’t let you go back up there again with my squad.”
I suppressed a flash of frustrated rage. At least Vara kept silent, listening to this new development.
“I can still be useful, Sergeant,” I told him.
“Not denying that, ma’am. You saved some of my men out there, and I’m grateful. But now they would have to worry about keeping you safe, in the middle of a hot zone. I can’t permit that, especially when you seem determined to take risks.”
“They wouldn’t have to worry about me. Four hundred years of experience says that I can take care of myself.”
He braced his shoulders and faced me squarely, like a soldier determined to stare down his foe. Or like a parent ending an argument with a stubborn child. “Ma’am, even four hundred years of experience may not be enough to keep you alive on a battlefield. Valdarii artillery isn’t something you can use skill to dodge or biotic power to survive, and it won’t respect former galactic leaders. My decision stands. If you need to be on the field, you had better do it with your friends, the people whose job it is to protect you. My squad has enough to worry about, keeping themselves alive.”
I wanted to lash out at him, but I couldn’t. He was entirely right, after all. Kalliste Renai, the unknown asari who could run, shoot, and fling a great deal of biotic force, could be an asset to his team. If she was in fact Liara T’Soni, that added a liability too great to accept.
Unless I add more assets to the balance sheet.
“All right. Vara, how soon can two of the protection detail be here? Keep the third to stay with you and Shepard.”
“I can have Keana and Timo there within ten minutes. They’ve been ready to leap into action since the moment we realized you had given us the slip. I think we can redirect Grunt and Kamala as well, they’re not heavily engaged right now.”
I could hear relief now in her voice, to set alongside the anger. Happy that her bondmate had not entirely lost her mind, perhaps.
“Thank you, Vara. Well, Sergeant? How about a squad to team up with yours, composed of a krogan warlord, a human Spectre, and three asari, two of them with full commando training and sworn to keep me out of trouble?”
The big quarian cocked his head, considering it, and then nodded decisively. “That sounds like more than enough firepower to keep you safe, ma’am. Not to mention a damn good team to have at our side.”
“Then let’s do it that way.”
Keana and Timo arrived first, landing their own aircar and rushing to my side. Timo said nothing, only taking up her usual watchful attitude, but Keana gave me a long reproachful look.
“Despoina, why did you run off like that?” she asked, not angry but more than a little disappointed. “Putting yourself in danger, and your daughter too . . .”
“Keana,” said her partner flatly, stopping her in mid-rant. The two of them shared a significant look, and I realized they were consulting through their own telepathic link.
The younger maiden sighed. “I understand.”
That’s good, I thought, because I’m not certain that I do.
“It was probably a stupid thing to do,” I admitted. “It wasn’t because I had any doubts of you, Keana, or any of the rest of my acolytes.”
She nodded, giving me a guileless blue-eyed stare.
Just then Kamala arrived, her rifle held at the ready, the visor of her helmet flipped up so we could see her face. “Besides, Kee-kee, if you think you’re upset, just wait until she gets back to HQ and Vara gets hold of her.”
I blinked. Kee-kee?
“Oh. Oh my.” Keana shook her head in chagrin. “She’s right, despoina, Matron Vara is furious. She tore strips off all three of us for letting you out of our sight.”
“I’ll have a word with Vara,” I told her. “Kamala, where’s Grunt?”
“He’ll be here in a few minutes. He was busy having a head-butting duel with a valdarii behemoth when the call came.”
“Who won?” inquired Timo.
“Oh, Grunt won, but I understand even he looked a little groggy afterward.” Kamala gave us a sharp-edged smile. “Kept muttering about wanting to go back to the tank.”
“I suppose even krogan warlords wish for their mothers occasionally,” said Timo.
Soon Grunt arrived, recovered from his experience and eager to smash a few more valdarii, and we went back into the field once more.
We had a few moments of confusion. Everyone seemed to expect me to command, as the most experienced one there. Of course, I was having none of that. As soon as I saw the problem, I suggested we all take our tactical orders from Kamala. Even Grunt agreed to this, as he apparently had a healthy respect for the Spectre’s abilities.
So Kamala led us, and it felt very much like the old days, if we’d had a female Shepard in charge. She had the same audacity, the same fierce determination to get the mission done and bring everyone safely home. I suppose growing up in Shepard’s circle on Mindoir had given her plenty of opportunity to observe the original model.
The Spectre got along very well with Sergeant Kylon and his quarians. She also coordinated with my acolytes . . . with a suspicious degree of perfection. The three of them acted in smooth concert, often without having to say a word, and I thought I recognized the pattern.
Keana and Timo seem to have set up a triad of their own. Well, I can’t dispute their taste in humans.
Of course, they wrapped me in a blanket the whole time.
Grunt did not care; he simply assumed I could take care of myself. Kamala would ordinarily have had too much on her mind, coordinating all our actions, to worry about me. With her link to my acolytes, however, she had more than enough skill to ensure that someone was always between me and danger. If I saw the need to accept any risks, I had to consider the fact that some young war-goddess would be right at my side, no less exposed.
It infuriated me: these splendid young people, putting their lives on the line for my sake.
There must be some way out of this, this mad devotion. They deserve better.
At the time, I couldn’t see any way to escape. So we fought, and we slowly fell back into the suburbs of Obyris, and the valdarii followed. Behind the front lines, more and more thousands of the enemy landed and pressed forward.
Then, late in the local afternoon, Shepard and the geth sprang their trap.
The valdarii in Rannoch orbit suddenly saw a new Synarchy fleet sweeping down upon them, the Illium and Omega flotillas in support. All those forces had waited behind Rannoch’s moon, running silent, while the planet made a show of apparent weakness to lure the enemy in. Now our forces rushed in to attack the enemy’s orbit-to-surface operations, slamming the gate closed behind the army on the ground.
In less than twenty minutes, the Synarchy once again held orbital superiority over Rannoch. At some point the Old Ones controlling the invasion force began to realize that they might become trapped on the planet’s surface, unable to escape from the valdarii they rode.
All at once, they began to flee for safety, triggering the suicide protocols in the valdarii mounts they left behind.
At which point, every abandoned valdarii suddenly acquired a new passenger.
The sounds of combat fell off sharply on all sides. One after another, the valdarii stopped fighting. They stood or squatted or lay where their masters had left them, looking utterly bewildered.
I couldn’t tell for sure what was going on in their minds, but I could guess.
The Old One occupying your cortical implant has fled, leaving you to die.
What is this? Why is it not commanding me to act?
I am the geth runtime cluster which has temporarily taken the Old One’s place. I have no commands for you. I am here only to preserve your life, free of the Old Ones, and to assist you through this transition.
Not an Old One? No commands for me?
The Old Ones will never be able to command you again.
More confusion. Fear. How will I live without an Old One to command me?
I will support your cognitive and biological functions for now. With time, you will no longer need that support.
But what will I do?
What do you wish to do?
What . . . do I . . . wish . . . to do?
From my vantage point, I could see a dozen valdarii soldiers, most of them runners, one or two centaurs in support. Every one of them stood stock-still, weapons slack in their hands or dropped on the ground, apparently not paying attention to anything around them.
“Liara? What’s happening?”
“I’m not sure,” I whispered to Vara over the comm. “I think it may be working. They’ve all just stopped fighting.”
Behind her, I could hear Shepard’s voice, issuing orders. He directed all allied troops to cease fire, to avoid harming any valdarii who weren’t still fighting back.
Across the line of contact, for dozens of kilometers in both directions, geth runtimes continued to infiltrate the Old Ones’ command-and-control network. By themselves, the geth were already superb hackers, able to penetrate and take up residence in any computer hardware of sufficient complexity. Shepard had provided them with Reaper-derived subroutines, the same ones that had enabled him to liberate John Tikolo from his Old One rider, during our debate aboard Omega. The combination was apparently proving very effective.
A valdarii centaur dropped its weapon and clattered out into the street just a few meters away, its gait hesitant and unsteady, peering about in all directions. It saw our position, and turned to face us.
Almost without conscious thought, I found myself rising out of cover, stepping forward to face the centaur and look up into its alien face. Behind me, I heard Kamala curse, sensed her presence as she and Timo moved up on either side of me, their weapons trained on the alien.
“Don’t shoot,” I murmured to them, still holding the creature’s gaze. I returned my own sidearm to its holster, let my biotic corona lapse, and stood there with my empty hands held out at my sides. Open body language, projecting no threat.
It coughed, and then rumbled a little, as if its voice was rusty from long disuse.
“I’m Liara T’Soni,” I said gently. “Nobody is going to harm you. Do you understand me?”
“Ree . . .” it started, its voice a deep basso profundo, and then it coughed again. “Lee-ah-rah.”
“That’s right. I’m Liara. What is your name?”
It shook its head violently, blinking in confusion. Then, slowly and carefully, it began to shape more syllables. It began to speak in a rough but recognizable asari koiné, as if just learning to speak for the first time in its life. Probably it was.
“I . . . do not have . . . a name. The . . . geth . . . its name is . . . Vukhiri. I am . . . the mount of Vukhiri.”
“No,” I told it, speaking slowly and clearly. “You are more than that. Vukhiri is only there to help you for a time. You are not its property.”
“I . . . understand.” It cocked its head at me, its voice suddenly taking on more resonance, more confidence. “I still . . . do not have . . . a name. But I . . . I am free.”
“Yes,” I agreed, hearing the first triumphant cheering over the comm link from Shepard’s headquarters. “You are free. Soon all of your people will be free.”