25 December 2580, Omega Centauri Space
Deep Inside the Intelligence
Shepard was the first to realize that the battle was won. He was leading a counterattack against a phalanx of valdarii troops, when a soundless signal crashed into his mind. He refused to be distracted, and risk harm to himself or to the soldiers fighting with him. Still, he felt a sudden exaltation, as if he had heard a fanfare of trumpets.
Then valdarii soldiers began to drop dead all around him.
Apparently, the Old Ones have gotten the message too, he thought. Running for their lives again, before they get cut off from their retreat. I hope my higher self catches the lot of them, and sends them straight to hell.
Or maybe it isn’t my higher self any longer. I can’t hear Liara over the link. God, I hope she’s okay.
“Marines!” he ordered over the voice comm. “Back to the shuttles. I think the way is clear, but we’ve got to get to our objective fast.”
Yet the company was in no condition to redeploy in a hurry. The fight had taken less than fifteen minutes from start to finish, but it had been very intense. Many had been hurt, a few had been killed, including officers and senior noncoms. Casualties had to be recovered, lines of command had to be shored up.
Shepard ached to be away, to find out what had happened. Find out whether he had sent one of the asari he loved to her death. Yet he had a duty to the soldiers who had fought under his command. So, after three lifetimes, he took up the role of small-unit commander once more, and got the company organized.
It took close to half an hour before the shuttles could get under way, on guard against any last-ditch attack by the valdarii. None came. The enemy seemed to have abandoned the field entirely.
Shepard turned, called away from his personal hell by a flanging turian voice. But it wasn’t Captain Rullianus who wanted his attention.
Vara. She looked pale, one arm in a makeshift sling, a bruise covering half her face, but she was alive and determined. “Shepard, where’s Liara? I can’t hear her through the link.”
He almost flinched, but then he squared his shoulders and sent her a thought. I’m not sure, Vara. I sent her ahead, when the enemy focused on us and left her in the clear.
“You sent her?” Vara’s face went cold, but after that one outburst she maintained her discipline, so as not to have a dispute in front of the men. Shepard, you had better be able to explain that.
He laid it out for her. The valdarii charge. Vara taken down, about to be killed if she wasn’t already dead. Shepard going into rapid-fire-vanguard mode to rescue her. The valdarii spotting and concentrating on him, leaving Liara and Timo able to advance. The Intelligence apparently in its last minutes of life, meaning that there was no time to beat the valdarii before going to its rescue.
I don’t know what’s happened to Liara and Timo. I can’t hear Liara on our link either. Kamala and Keana can’t hear Timo. They’re not answering the comm. I think we would have known if they had died, but . . .
Vara nodded, looking calm once more, and a little forlorn. Luck of the draw, then. Do you think there’s still hope?
He suppressed the impulse to reach out and touch the little commando, knowing her well enough to understand that the gesture wouldn’t be welcome just then. “I just don’t know, Vara,” he said aloud. “We should be there in a few minutes.”
The shuttles descended through a long shaft, hundreds of kilometers further down into the body of the Intelligence. Near the bottom, the pilot of Shepard’s vehicle spoke up. “There’s someone down there, sir. Can’t raise her on the comm.”
Shepard glanced at an external view, as the pilot zoomed in on the lone figure standing there, staring up at the approaching shuttles. Black body armor, sleek and tight-fitting, with a familiar back-swept helmet. Asari, but not Liara.
As soon as the shuttle touched down, Shepard slammed the hatch open and ran across the open ground. He took Timo’s shoulders in a fierce grip, and stared at her face through her visor.
Her face, streaming with tears.
“She ordered me to do nothing,” said Timo, her voice flat and dull. “Then she went up and took hold of those handles. There seemed to be an energy flow, as if a current passed through her. I could see it was hurting her . . . as if she was starting to . . .”
“Disintegrate,” said Shepard grimly.
“I tried to stop it,” said the young asari, her eyes moving to Vara’s face, begging for absolution. “I ran up to her, tried to grab her and pull her away. Something stopped me.”
He snorted. “Something threw you halfway across the chamber, most likely.”
“Well, yes.” Timo took a deep breath. “I saw a blinding light, heard a horrible noise. By the time I could look again . . . she was like this.”
Shepard looked down, at what was left of Liara T’Soni.
It was still recognizable as asari, barely. Her body had fallen backwards, away from the interface. Her head was thrown back, her mouth gaped, her empty eye-sockets stared into space. Her arms curled in front of her, as if she had been holding something in a death-grip. All her skin that was visible was horribly blackened and tattered. Her fingertips, nose, and the ends of her crests had burned away entirely. Dim blue light shone out of her mouth and eye-sockets, and one could see alien machinery twined obscenely through her body. A nest of cables wrapped around her, burrowing into her torso and the back of her head at a dozen points. The whole assembly was wrapped in a protective shell of ceramic and metal, like a sarcophagus, the lid made of some transparent material.
“Timo, none of this was here when you arrived, correct?”
The maiden shook her head, balling her fists to keep from wailing aloud. “No. The whole chamber was empty. There was nothing but the ramp, leading up to this ledge. This machinery just grew up around her, up out of the floor. I saw the last stages of that, as it finished wrapping her up.”
Shepard looked around at the others nearby, the ones who had been closest to Liara. Vara stood by herself with her back turned, refusing comfort from anyone, not even looking at any of the others. Miranda and Kalan stood closest to the bizarre casket, sensors and medical gear out, trying in vain to pick up readings through the hard shell. Keana stood very close to Timo, offering her lover the comfort of her presence, Kamala looking grim and vengeful nearby. Palethi had collapsed onto the floor, her shoulders shaking in soundless grief, with Grunt of all people standing protectively over her.
“Miranda, are you getting anything?”
The asari scientist shook her head in frustration. “Whatever this material is, it blocks or reflects every sensor I have. All I can go on is visual inspection.”
Shepard nodded. “Give us what you have.”
“Massive damage to her external surfaces and extremities. A great deal of Reaper machinery invading her body cavity and skull cavity. She does not appear to be breathing, or to have a pulse. I have been examining her closely for several minutes, and I have seen no movement, voluntary or involuntary.” For the first time since Shepard had met her, Miranda appeared visibly upset. “If a patient appeared in my clinic presenting like this, I would have already recorded a time of death.”
“She looks like a husk,” rumbled Grunt quietly.
“Yes,” Shepard agreed. “Which makes no sense.”
Something in his voice pulled Vara around to stare at him.
“Look around us,” he suggested. “This chamber looks almost identical to the one in the head of the Crucible. A machine designed for destructive upload of an organic mind into the Intelligence. When my predecessor reached it, on the last day of the Reaper War, his mind and body were read, and he was vaporized in the process. Nothing physical left of him, except for a few organic traces.”
“That’s not what happened here,” said Kamala.
“No,” said Miranda, bending close to look through the transparency once more. “From the appearance of her body, a process like that might have started, but something arrested it before completion.”
“Is there any chance that we can save her?” Vara whispered, her voice rough with unshed tears.
Miranda only shook her head. “We can’t even reach her in there. Even if we could . . . no one has ever succeeded in removing Reaper technology from an invaded organism. Not when it has infiltrated the body this pervasively.”
“I don’t understand,” said Kamala. “If Dr. T’Soni didn’t fully upload into the Intelligence, then what happened? The Intelligence has stopped hitting Admiral Shepard or Matron Vara with its distress signal. It seems to still be active. The valdarii have been abandoned. Did we win or not?”
All of them fell silent, looking to one another for insight.
Shepard found himself pacing, glaring up into the vastness of the chamber around them, grief giving way to incandescent rage in the pit of his stomach. At last he turned his back on the others, stalking down to the bottom of the ramp, close to the center of chamber. His fists bunched, and he snarled into the empty space.
“All right, damn you! It should have been me here, to save your ass at the last minute. If it had to be Liara, then the least you could have done is given her a clean death. Show yourself, you fucking monstrosity. You owe us answers!”
Everyone held their breath. Even Palethi looked up, as if hoping for a response.
Nothing, only the swift-dying echoes of Shepard’s shout.
He stood abandoned. Slowly, as if his strings had gone slack, he began to collapse. First his head fell forward, his eyes closing as if he wanted to shut out the universe. Then his shoulders slumped, his hands fell limp, and his knees buckled. He came down with a great clatter and knelt there on the floor, silent, his face hidden from everyone. He seemed unlikely to move again.
Then Vara stirred at last, crossing the floor to stand behind him. She reached out to put a gentle hand on his shoulder.
He didn’t move at first. Then, slowly, he turned his face up to look at her.
“Come on, Shepard,” Vara said quietly. “She wouldn’t want us to give up. Not when there may still be a war to fight.”
“You’re right.” Slowly, Shepard pushed himself back to his feet, only to find her standing well within his personal space. On an impulse, he reached out and pulled her into his arms.
She returned his hug, and didn’t break down. Not quite.
I thought you would hate me, he said silently after a time.
I did hate you. When we got in here, and found her like . . . like that, I hated you with every particle of my being. For about three minutes. Then I took a moment to think.
He frowned, staring down into silver eyes. I don’t understand.
“None of us knows how to save Liara,” she said aloud, for the benefit of the others. “You remember being the Intelligence, though. Don’t you think it could save her, if it wanted to?”
He considered the question. “Not easily,” he concluded. “The technology to produce husks and other Reaper foot soldiers . . . it was never designed to preserve the victims, and it’s not reversible.”
“That was before the end of the extinction cycle. It’s had a long time to develop new techniques, based on the new moral parameters your predecessor gave it. It was eventually able to rebuild you, after all.” Vara glanced back up the ramp, to her bondmate’s tomb. “It did something to avoid destroying Liara’s body entirely. It seems to be trying to protect what’s left. Maybe once this is all over, she’ll be given back to us.”
“Do you really want to count on that?”
She sighed, resting her forehead against the chest-plate of his armor. “I know it’s a forlorn hope, but it’s all we have. And we still have work to do.”
“True.” To his own surprise, he mustered a small smile for her. “Thanks, Vara.”
“When we’re sure the war is over, and the Old Ones can’t hurt anyone again . . .”
“We’ll come back here,” he said, the old determination back in his voice. “And we won’t rest until we can bring her home, one way or another.”
An hour later, the company’s shuttles finally emerged from the body of the Intelligence and soared out into space. They probed the surroundings with sensors, and located the wreckage of the great battle. Moments after that, they contacted the allied forces, and Shepard reported to Fleet Admiral Sinopus.
“You’ve had no direct contact with the Intelligence?” asked the battle-scarred old turian, once Shepard’s terse account was finished.
“None, sir. We only deduced that the Intelligence had been saved when the valdarii on the ground were suddenly abandoned. What did you see out here?”
“It was rather unequivocal.” Sinopus flared his mandibles, in a turian grin. “One moment we were fighting for our lives, as hot an engagement as I’ve ever seen. Then the Intelligence suddenly started flooding ambient space with a transmission. Dense, deeply encrypted, like nothing in the records since the Reaper War. None of our specialists have a clue what it might have been saying. The enemy just turned tail and ran, as if a thousand devils were on their track.”
“What is the Intelligence doing now?”
“You don’t have any idea?”
Shepard suppressed a moment’s pain. “Sir, it doesn’t seem interested in talking to me anymore. I think I’ve become surplus to requirements.”
“Not to us, Admiral.” Sinopus glanced to one side, reading something on another display. “Well, the valdarii departed through their wormhole nexus, which collapsed behind them. The same old trick, right? Jump in a hole and pull the hole in after them, and leave us with no trail to follow.”
Shepard gave a grim nod.
“Well, not this time. About ten minutes ago, a new wormhole nexus opened about ten million kilometers from the fleet, and it’s just sitting there. No valdarii coming through. Our sensors say the Intelligence’s power-generation curves spiked hard, just before the new nexus appeared.”
“Sir, are you saying the Intelligence is holding open a wormhole nexus?”
“It appears so.”
“It doesn’t have that capability. Otherwise it wouldn’t have needed to use the mass-relay network to move the Reapers around the galaxy.”
Another turian grin. “You mean, it didn’t have that capability, back before it sent you out into the galaxy. Apparently now it does.”
“Where does the wormhole go?”
“We’re not sure. My intel staff has a hypothesis that the Intelligence is giving us a route to the valdarii home stars, wherever those might be. That’s one of the things we would like to discuss with your team, as soon as you return to Chandragupta. If we can determine the wormhole’s other endpoint, then I propose to take the fleet through. Hopefully we will engage the enemy in their home space, and possibly force an end to this entire conflict.”
The thought pulled Shepard erect, and encouraged him to give Sinopus a sharp salute. “Aye-aye, sir.”
The fleet admiral watched Shepard for a long moment. “I am very sorry for your loss. Please convey my condolences to Dr. T’Soni’s bondmate, and to Captain T’Rathis.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll do that.” Shepard gave a grim smile. “Although we’re not quite ready to give up on Liara yet.”