At first, in the days just after her emergence, she seemed unable even to recognize anyone clearly. She behaved like an infant, looking at the world with wide-eyed confusion, as if she saw only a welter of colors and light.
She was most comfortable with several of the slender blue-skinned creatures, and the tall, hairy, pale-russet one with the beautiful crystal-blue eyes. These were the ones who came to visit most often, and who cared for her.
The six-limbed people who lived in that place, strangely varied in size and shape, appeared to make her uneasy. With time, as they treated her with gentle kindness and never did anything frightening, she came to accept their presence.
She lived in a house by the seashore, not far from a great city of the six-limbed people. There were trees with shimmering blue-green leaves that smelled sweet, and a garden full of flowers and golden fruit. When the weather was fine, she spent many hours sitting in the sun, practicing simple manual tasks or drinking in the sight of the world around her. Once some of her strength returned, she began to go on long walks, always escorted by three of the blue ones who carried weapons. She watched, and listened, and slowly her mind began to make sense of it all.
Soft voice. The petite blue one. “It’s been such a long time. She’s getting better, but it’s so slow.”
Deep voice. The tall, strong one. “Whatever happened to her aboard the Intelligence, it must have done a lot of damage.”
“Do you think she will ever come back to us?”
Cool, reassuring voice. Another of the blue ones, this one very beautiful. “There is no structural impairment that I can detect. She hasn’t become a tabula rasa. Deep scans of her brain indicate that there is a great deal of data lying dormant in her memory. It’s just been walled off, somehow. That suggests she may recover, given time and plentiful sensory experience.”
“I went through something like this, when I arrived on Mindoir. I was admittedly more functional, right from the start. Even so, sometimes I would get lost in all the information that had been crammed into my brain, the memories of being the Intelligence. Sometimes I had to hide away from the world, and sink into a kind of fugue state for a day or two.”
“How long did that last?”
“A few weeks. Then my brain must have figured out how to integrate all of it.”
“It’s been longer than that.”
“She was very badly injured, Vara. She has further to go.”
“Another thing to remember is that the Intelligence had plenty of time to rebuild me. It didn’t have to deploy me to Mindoir until it knew I was ready. It could do the job right. In her case, it was in a much bigger hurry.”
There was silence, for a long time. She frowned, struggling to make sense of all the richly patterned sounds. Her lips twitched, trying to form a syllable.
“Do you suppose this is even the same Liara? Could she be some kind of clone or construct?”
“It seems unlikely. Her physiology matches the baseline I had in my medical records, down to even very small details. The areas that we saw as the most badly damaged are the ones composed of younger cells now. That suggests repair, rather than cloning. Meanwhile, the infant is alive and healthy, and appears to be growing well. Why should the Intelligence have bothered to clone her pregnant?”
“Besides, the Intelligence had to rebuild me from the atoms up. There wasn’t anything left of my predecessor’s body to clone or repair. Her body was saved at the last moment.”
“I suppose it doesn’t make any difference. Her mind is what matters.”
“Don’t worry, Vara. She’s healing. She’ll be herself again.”
The deep voice reminded her of something. She concentrated mightily, trying to get her lips and tongue into just the right position, and made a soft sound.
“Sh . . .”
Sometimes, when she slept, she had nightmares. She dreamed of wandering through a devastated city, pursued by monsters. Or she dreamed of seeing her friends in danger, fighting for their lives. Or she dreamed of being a goddess, immensely powerful but insanely ruthless, with the blood of countless victims on her hands. Those were the worst of all.
After the first time she awoke screaming, she was never left alone. One of the blue ones, or sometimes the tall deep-voiced one, would sit and watch over her while she slept. If she seemed agitated when she awoke, they would hold her hand and speak softly to her, until she calmed down.
Two of them became her favorites, because they stayed with her the most often, and their touch and the sound of their voices was the most soothing. Vara was the petite blue one, with the smoky-silver eyes, who moved like an athlete or a dancer. Shepard was the big, strong one, with silk-soft hair on his face and the top of his head. The two of them seemed to be close friends, always talking to each other, always spending time with each other even when she was not close by.
Once she saw them walking down by the shore, holding hands as they meandered along, Shepard’s head bent to listen to Vara as she talked. Another time, late at night when she had been unable to sleep, she saw Shepard hold Vara in his arms while she wept quietly.
Somehow, seeing the two of them together made her happy. It also caused something to stir deep inside her, some desire she could not yet name.
“Good morning, Liara.”
Liara looked up and made a shy smile.
The beautiful blue one named Miranda often came to examine her. At first Liara had not understood why, but eventually she learned that Miranda was, among many other things, a healer. She knew she had been hurt, and that she was slowly getting better, and that she needed a healer. Therefore, she was always happy to see Miranda. Besides, the tall blue person had gentle hands and a sharp mind, and she and Liara shared a secret.
“How are you feeling today? Have you had any more bad dreams?”
Liara shook her head.
Miranda glanced through a few documents, reports from Liara’s guardians, what she had eaten and done over the days since the last visit. Then she produced her instruments and gave Liara a quick but thorough examination, focusing at first around her head.
“Are you doing any better with your language since I last saw you?”
Liara shook her head again, her lips moving as if she struggled to voice a word, and then she made a helpless gesture with both hands. Then she picked up a tablet that lay nearby, and touched the screen to call up a column of text.
“You can read? That’s very good. How long have you been able to do that?”
Liara held up two fingers.
“Two days? I see that’s a complex text, too. Very encouraging. Have you tried writing anything?”
Liara nodded, but she looked woeful.
“Receptive aphasia almost entirely gone, but expressive aphasia continues unabated. Liara, I know this must be terribly frustrating for you, but please don’t lose heart. I can find nothing physically wrong. I’m confident you will recover full function in time.”
Liara smiled, the expression a little shaky, and reached out to touch Miranda’s hand.
“Now, would you like to see the baby?”
A different instrument scanned Liara’s midsection. Miranda’s omni-tool produced an image: a tiny creature, only partially formed, curled up and nestled into a small space.
“She’s growing very well, Liara. You’re going to have a fine, healthy daughter.”
Liara rested a hand on her belly for a moment, her smile gone wide and bright. Then she pointed to Miranda, who turned the instrument upon herself. Soon the omni-tool was showing a new, but very similar image.
Liara made an inarticulate sound of pleasure, and impulsively embraced Miranda.
Timo set the ball perfectly. Liara took two lightning-quick barefoot steps, and slammed it across the dividing line, flashing over the net at extreme speed and with scant millimeters of clearance. Kamala lunged for it at the last moment, too late to prevent it from smacking into the ground in a spray of sand.
“Point for the Blues!” shouted Palethi, from her line-judge’s position to one side.
Liara leaped up in the air, exchanging a high-five with Timo and emitting a high-pitched trill of excitement.
“Hardly seems fair,” Kamala complained, good-naturedly. “She’s obeying the rules about not using her biotics, and she’s still cleaning our clocks.”
“You’re forgetting that Liara used to be quite the skyball player when she was young,” said Shepard, dusting sand off his hands. “Anyone who can survive on the skyball court can play beach volleyball without breaking a sweat. Biotics or no.”
“Well, yes, but that was over four hundred years ago.”
“Less bitching, Major. More spiking.”
Liara looked smug.
“I don’t understand the point of this game,” muttered Grunt from the sidelines. “What’s it supposed to be practice for? Throwing grenades over head-high walls?”
“I don’t think this is one of those games that’s meant to be practice for fighting,” said Vara. She sipped at her drink and adjusted her dark glasses, watching the game with pleasure. “Still. Fast movement, eye-hand coordination, snap tactical decision-making. Good-looking, athletic people moving around with almost nothing on. What’s not to like? The humans have good ideas once in a while.”
“Point for the Spectres!” said Palethi, after Shepard exacted his sudden revenge.
Grunt cheered for the Battlemaster.
Even so, the game ended a few minutes later with a decisive victory for the Blues. Liara celebrated by handing out impartially affectionate hugs for everyone. She had become more physically demonstrative in recent weeks, as if that was the way she had chosen to say the things for which she couldn’t find words. No one complained, not even Grunt.
With the game over, Kamala and Timo decided to go back up to the house, to take a leisurely shower together and then start preparing dinner for the entire household. Grunt and Palethi began to wander down the shoreline, idly looking for shells and trading soldier’s stories. Vara reclined in her chair, basking in the sunlight, falling half-asleep.
Liara turned to head out for the water, but then she stopped, staring up into the zenith for a long moment. She made a small sound and pointed.
Shepard looked. The enormous orb of the brown dwarf hung in its almost-fixed position in the sky, only the fat crescent of its day face clearly visible behind the blue vault of heaven. At first, he couldn’t see what had attracted Liara’s notice, but then he saw a series of flashes of light, tiny but very bright. He glanced down and caught a pair of questioning cobalt-blue eyes.
“That must be the Project,” he told her. “Where Kalan and Tekanta are working, along with the rest of the quarians and the geth.”
Liara made a whoosh noise, miming an explosion with both hands.
“I don’t think anything has gone wrong, Liara. The last I heard, they were almost ready to start low-power tests. Maybe that’s what we’re seeing.”
Liara stared upward, but the tiny flashes of light had ceased.
“If everything goes well,” said Shepard, “we’ll all be able to go home soon.”
She glanced at him, her face suddenly quiet and sober. Then she looked around her at the beach, the house on its low hill, the deep-blue ocean under the bright sun. Suddenly all the brightness and energy abandoned her. She looked nearly ready to weep.
Shepard hesitated for only a moment, then he stepped forward and took the asari in his arms. She responded at once, holding him tightly, resting her head on his broad chest.
“I understand. You’ve been happy here, haven’t you?”
She nodded, glancing up into his face and blinking back the unshed tears.
“You’ll like Thessia,” he told her. “You have a house there, a little like the one where we live now, but bigger. It’s close to the seashore, so you can go down to the beach in the early morning and run on the sand, or swim in the ocean.”
She tapped on his chest with one hand, and gave him a questioning look.
All at once, he had a hard time keeping his own voice under strict control. “Yes, Liara. I’ll be there, and Vara, and Keana and Timo and Palethi, and a lot of other people you don’t remember just yet. Our other friends will have their own work to do, but they’ll visit too.”
Her eyes considered him for a long moment, and then she hugged him again and turned away, running down to the water at last.
Shepard sat on the sand, watching as Liara played and swam in the ocean, the sun slowly descending into the sea behind her.
It hurts, doesn’t it?
Shepard didn’t turn his head, to look where Vara still lounged in the sunlight, a few dozen meters away.
Yeah. She’s still that brilliant asari we both fell in love with, happy and vibrant and full of life, but she just doesn’t remember what we all were to one another. I’m beginning to worry that she may never recover completely.
I know, she said. We’ll just have to love her, and care for her, in any way she’ll allow us.
Do you know the worst of it?
Vara signaled a negative.
I sometimes catch myself hoping she doesn’t recover. She seems so happy now. If all her memories come back . . . if she remembers the war, remembers being the Intelligence, that might be a terrible burden for her.
Vara considered that for a few moments. Then: I think you give her too little credit. All her old strength is still there too. If she remembers, the bad with the good, it won’t be more than she can bear.
I hope you’re right.
I know I am. Vara rose from her place, and began picking up her gear. I’m going to go inside and help with dinner. Bring Liara in when she’s done swimming, won’t you?
Shepard sent a flicker of agreement.
A while later, Liara came walking up onto the beach, unconsciously doing an imitation of Aphrodite rising out of the surf. Shepard’s breath caught for a moment, but then he saw her face, intense and turned inward, as if she was chasing a difficult thought into its hiding place. He recognized that look of old.
Liara crossed over to her own pile of gear and picked up a towel to dry off the seawater, giving Shepard a speculative look the whole time. Once she was done, she retrieved her tablet and carried it over, sitting down on the sand beside him.
“What is it, Liara?”
She tapped at the tablet, calling up a specific document, and turned it so he could see.
A Memoir of the Reaper Invasion, by Liara T’Soni.
She pointed at herself. Her eyes demanded answers.
“Yes,” he told her, nodding slowly. “You wrote that book. In a way, that’s how you started everything that’s happened recently.”
She pointed to him, cocking her head.
“Yes. Well, sort of. I’m not the same person as the Shepard in your book, but I remember being him.”
She pointed to herself, then to him. Then, with infinite gentleness, she took his hand and brought it up to her face.
Shepard took a deep breath. “Yes. I love you, Liara. I’ve always loved you.”
She made a matter-of-fact nod, setting the tablet down in the sand. Then she moved, leaning forward onto her hands and knees, bringing her face close. Before he could withdraw or push her away, she had pressed her lips to his, in a warm and thorough and rather knowing kiss.
“Liara . . .” he whispered, once she came up for a moment’s breath.
She glared at him from very close range, putting a finger firmly across his lips. The gesture became another caress, fingertips ruffling through the fur of his beard, and she eased even closer. He put his arms around her, as much to avoid being shoved onto his back in the sand as anything else. The scent and taste of her filled his head, sea air and sunshine with a hint of cinnamon. The sensation of her bare skin under his hands nearly unseated his reason.
What is it . . . Oh. Oh!
I think you had better come rescue me.
A flash of ironic amusement. Absolutely not!
The two of them were thoroughly intertwined now, Liara pressing as close as she could manage, her face tucked into the hollow of his neck, her fingers clawing at him behind his shoulders.
Look, it’s not that I don’t want her. I do. But she’s not in her right mind.
I would say she’s sane enough to make her own decisions about such things. Besides, have you considered that this might be just the way to help her reintegrate her memories?
For one more moment, he hesitated.
Shepard. Love her. Bring her back to us.
“Liara,” he murmured, looking into her eyes. They seemed to fill up all the universe. “I love you . . . but are you sure this is what you want?”
She nodded solemnly.
“All right. Can I make a suggestion?”
She cocked her head at him, the corner of her mouth turning up in a smile, the expression so familiar as to make his heart hurt.
“Let’s go inside and have dinner, and wash up, and go to bed together. Trust me, you do not want to be doing this on a sandy beach.”
She thought about that for a moment, and then kissed him once more. Then she rolled out of his arms and climbed to her feet, extending a hand to help him rise as well. Slowly, they walked toward the house together, holding hands, her head resting comfortably on his shoulder.
16 May 2581, T’Soni Household, Arukena Province/Zhentovar
I awoke in the morning, and remembered everything.
Vara had guessed correctly. Joining with Shepard had been just what I needed. Seeing a copy of my own memories in his mind had helped me integrate all of them once more. Seeing his memories of being the Intelligence had helped me make sense of my own. At last, I was myself again.
I lay in a darkened room, in a comfortable bed, draped slightly over Shepard’s warm bulk. I felt safe and cherished. I could sense the slow evolution of his dreaming mind, his unconscious awareness of my presence. I couldn’t “hear” Vara anywhere, but I knew she must be nearby. There would be plenty of time for renewed intimacy to re-establish my mental link with her.
The Intelligence had downloaded a wealth of knowledge into my mind, everything up to its very last moments, just before it cut me loose and sent my life-pod through the final wormhole. I considered all of it, realizing that it might take me many years to truly understand.
One thing I did know. The Intelligence had sacrificed itself to end the Adversary’s threat to all life, and to liberate even most of the Old Ones from enslavement. It was the last thing I might have expected from such a creature. Perhaps it had learned a few lessons from Shepard after all.
Now I wanted nothing more than to take Shepard, and Vara, and all the others I loved, and go home.
Shepard stirred, one hand running up my spine in an idle caress. His head rolled to face me, and his eyes opened.
I smiled at him. My voice was rusty for lack of use, but I got it to work. “Shepard. Good morning.”
His eyes flew wide. “Liara?”
I kissed him. “I sincerely hope you weren’t expecting to wake up next to anyone else. Well, aside from Vara, of course.”
A few meters away, the door-partition slammed open. Vara herself stood there, magnificently nude, as if she had just tumbled out of her own bed and come running. She stared at us. “Liara. You’re speaking.”
“Yes. Apparently, I’ve figured out how.” I sighed. “Goddess, no doubt I’m going to be getting that reaction all day. Well, we had better get started.”
24 May 2581, Zhentovar System Space
Once more, Chandragupta had the honor of leading the fleet.
We climbed up into space, followed by all the thousands of ships that had come to defeat the valdarii. Five months later, the valdarii – the zhentakan, as they called themselves – had become our fast friends. So had millions of the Old Ones, already taking advantage of the opportunity to join the geth consensus.
Ever since I had come back to myself, I had studied the records of the expedition, and marveled at the alliance that had begun to grow at this edge of the galaxy. Quarians and zhentakan, geth and Old Ones, they all seemed to get along with surprising ease. I wondered whether they, not the Citadel species, would one day constitute the heart of galactic civilization.
Witness their first great accomplishment.
It circled in a carefully selected orbit, inside the path of Zhentovar, but still high above the surface of the brown dwarf. An elegant structure: two fifteen-kilometer arms, a pair of revolving gyroscopic rings, a fiercely glowing core of Element Zero. The first working mass relay to be built in over fifty thousand years. One of the few mass relays ever built by anyone other than the Reapers.
Many more, no doubt, would follow. After all, with the Reapers gone forever, we would need to build our own roads to cross the galaxy. The geth spoke of developing a new version of wormhole technology someday, perhaps in ten thousand years. For now, this: our first gesture of true independence from the Intelligence.
Aspasia sat in her command chair, confidently managing her ship and its crew. EDI sent an interlock signal to the new relay, which responded at once, turning smoothly in space. Chandragupta flew down the outbound lane, the relay seizing us as we passed . . .
Flash. Different stars shone down upon us.
Aspasia accepted reports. She verified that the rest of the fleet was beginning to make the transition behind us, that we had made a proper handshake with the extranet. Once she was satisfied that all was as it should be, she turned to me. “You’re on, patēr.”
I raised my face, consciously striking a pose, knowing that images of this moment would probably appear in the histories. Again.
“Chandragupta calling Rannoch Control. This is Dr. Liara T’Soni.”
I paused for just a moment.
“We’ve come home.”