15 Thargelia 3364 AR (21 January 2198), High Thessia Orbit
The twenty-seventh day of June, 2186. Five days after the Battle of Earth.
While fleeing the effect of the Crucible, Normandy had been hurled through the mass-relay network, out of control. The ship had ended up in a then-uncharted star cluster, crash-landing on the planet that had since been named Shepard’s World.
After making repairs, Normandy had returned to space, only to find the Reapers blocking passage through the mass relay at system’s edge. Strangely polite Reapers, who refused to attack Normandy, and even warned her crew to stand by until the mass relay could be repaired.
Then Harbinger had appeared, the oldest and wickedest Reaper of them all. Requesting a personal interview. With Liara T’Soni.
Miranda had been aboard Normandy at the time, a refugee from the Battle of Earth. She had watched as Liara boarded the last surviving shuttle, going out to meet the Reaper. She had seen the asari return three hours later, apparently unharmed, but strangely silent. Liara had never told anyone what had happened to her aboard Harbinger.
“Wait a moment,” she said. “Shepard is alive?”
Liara shifted in Admiral Hackett’s bed, propping herself up further against the backrest. She took one of Miranda’s hands and held it, as if for comfort.
“No,” she said, quietly but with calm certainty. “I’ve spent years thinking about it. What I encountered aboard Harbinger was an eidolon of Shepard, something the Intelligence that governs the Reapers created specifically for me. It didn’t even claim to be Shepard himself. Only a copy of his mind. A software entity running within the Reaper matrix.”
Miranda rested her head against Liara’s shoulder, and reached for that cold, ruthless clarity of mind. Difficult, given that she and the asari were still in one another’s embrace, intimate as if they had been lovers for years.
“It said the Intelligence had been reprogrammed,” she said softly. “Rewritten on the basis of Shepard’s mind. His memories, his morals, his personality. That’s why the Reapers stood down.”
“Yes. It’s even possible that the Intelligence could reconstruct Shepard again, just as you did after Alchera. It must have access to technology far beyond anything Cerberus put at your disposal on Lazarus Station.” Liara sighed. “I doubt it ever will, unless it decides the galaxy desperately needs him. The wishes of a few of his friends and loved ones can’t count for much on that scale.”
“I imagine you’re right.”
“Sometimes I go out at night, and look up at the stars, and wonder. I still miss him terribly. But I don’t think we’re ever going to see him again.”
“My God. Why have you kept this a secret? I’d think you would want to tell the galaxy.”
Miranda opened her mouth, then had a flood of second thoughts.
“You see the problem,” Liara murmured. “The end of the Reaper War is the great mystery of our time. Everyone knows that Shepard somehow got onto the Citadel at the last moment. Everyone knows that he did something to make sure the Crucible fired. Everyone knows that the Reapers, just at the point of destroying us all, simply stopped. That they turned around and vanished back into dark space. In all the galaxy, nobody knows why. Nobody but me. Until tonight.”
Slowly, reluctantly, Miranda nodded. “Right. There’s no way in hell you can tell people, by the way, the ghost of my dead bondmate took possession of the Reapers and turned them into polite little lap-dogs. Not without a whole raft of solid evidence, which you don’t have. They would think you’re barking mad.”
“At best!” Liara chuckled ruefully. “Do you see the irony? There are a million theories out there about what happened. Some of them are even more or less correct. I still can’t say anything. All I have is testimony from a thoroughly unreliable source.”
“Then why let me in on it?”
Liara put a hand under Miranda’s chin, tipping her face up, looking into her eyes from a breath’s distance away. “Because you’re my friend. Because I’ve come to care for you a great deal. Because you, of all people, deserve to know the truth.”
Those cobalt-blue eyes took on a fierce look, and Miranda suddenly could not turn away.
“Suppose it’s all true,” Liara continued. “Suppose that Shepard’s mind – his resolve, his raw courage, his compassion and integrity, all of that – is what saved us all. Those are the things you worked so hard to recover, aboard Lazarus Station. You were one of the ones who saved a trillion lives. Your choices, your actions, made that possible. Never doubt it.”
Paradoxically, it felt like a blow, a trigger for decades of self-loathing. A younger Miranda might have pushed violently away, leaping out of bed to go find her clothes and stalk out of the room. Even after all she had been through, all she had learned, it was still difficult to stay in Liara’s embrace.
The asari, of course, was still watching her, and smiling gently.
Damn it. I knew it was a mistake, going to bed with someone who could understand me this well.
“I know,” Liara said. “The first time I had an opportunity to get to know you, I thought it was strange: a woman who was so confident in her own abilities, and yet had so little regard for herself as a person.”
Miranda made herself relax. The sensual pleasure of moving slightly against her lover’s body, of running a hand down a broad expanse of warm skin, all of that helped. “Old story,” she said after a moment. “I grew up thinking of myself as a tool for the ambitions of powerful men. They designed, built, and trained me for their purposes. First my father, then Jack Harper. I didn’t frame it that way to myself, of course, but that was the truth.”
Liara nodded silently, listening.
“Shepard broke me out of it. Another powerful man, but he treated me as an equal, as a partner. He respected me. Me. Not just for what I could do for him. It made me rethink my relationships with my father, and with Cerberus.” Miranda gave Liara a moment’s cocked-eyebrow glance. “Although I seem to recall a certain asari information broker who had a hand in that.”
“Don’t give me any credit,” Liara said, amused. “Shepard was simply acting in accordance with his nature. I was doing my best to manipulate you.”
To her own surprise, Miranda chuckled. “Don’t be daft. You were acting in accordance with your own nature too, Liara. You manipulated me using cold, hard, objective facts. You used the truth.”
“I suppose I did.”
“So, it took me a long time, but I learned to think about myself in a new way. Sure, I was designed. All my skills and abilities are there because my father put them there, because he and Cerberus drove me to train them and use them. Still. Isn’t that true of everyone? We are what nature and nurture made of us. What matters is what we do with that.”
“Yes.” Liara’s arms tightened around Miranda’s body, a warm embrace. “We asari find this very natural. Every asari child is born because of her mother’s conscious decision. There’s even a process of design, as we select traits from the child’s father that we most value or desire. Then we spend decades raising the child, teaching her, giving her every opportunity to hone her abilities. Yet in the end, what matters is that the child reaches adulthood able to make her own choices, to build a life for herself.”
“God, save me from asari insights.”
Liara’s voice took on a haughty tone, rather like a Matriarch dispensing wisdom. “Well, child, if it only took you fifty years to attain this enlightenment, you have no basis for complaint . . .”
Miranda made a disgusted sound, and retaliated in the first manner that came to her. Apparently, the Shadow Broker was ticklish. After a few moments of laughing and struggling, she succumbed to a second impulse and trapped Liara’s lips for a deep kiss.
The response was rather forceful. She decided to run with it.
Later, the lights turned off entirely, they lay in the admiral’s bed like spoons. Miranda felt a certain pleasant exhaustion, nestled along Liara’s back, one arm curled around her waist. Desire was well and truly spent, for the moment, but she still felt a ghost of the other’s presence in the back of her mind. Memories and a sense of personality, comforting rather than intrusive.
“Miranda?” Quiet in the darkness, Liara’s voice.
“Mmm.” Miranda nuzzled the back of the asari’s neck. “What is it?”
“I was wondering. If this mission succeeds, if we destroy this Cerberus outpost . . .”
“What happens next?”
“Yes. It may finally be the end of Cerberus. You’ll be free of any obligation to keep chasing them down across the galaxy. Have you considered what you might do with your life, once that happens?”
Walking on egg-shells here. I know Liara isn’t expecting some passionate declaration of life-long commitment. Not from Miranda Lawson. Still. Given that I was just inside her head, I know that this thing of ours is the first real happiness she’s had in years. Small wonder if she wants it to continue.
For that matter, if one night is any indication, it’s the best thing to happen to me in a long time too. She and I are a good match. I’m not used to wanting to keep a lover for very long, but I think she may be an exception.
“I must admit, I haven’t thought about it very much,” she said aloud. “I’ll want to find some useful work to do.”
Liara hesitated, then nodded decisively to herself. “I almost thought about offering you a job. But that wouldn’t work, would it?”
“No.” Miranda shifted slightly, to take the asari’s hand and smooth the sting away. “I want to be with you, Liara, but I don’t think I can be anyone’s subordinate anymore.”
“That’s all right. We’ve done very well as equal partners. I’d like to find some way for us to continue.”
“So would I.” Miranda lay quietly, fighting sleep, thinking about it. “First principles, then. What sort of thing is Miranda Lawson best suited for, aside from making the lives of Cerberus hold-outs miserable?”
“You’re a superb organizer and administrator. You have a talent for intelligence analysis. You’ve done little original work in the sciences so far, but you are very good at directing the application of scientific research.” Liara took a deep breath, as ideas fell into place. “Honestly, Miranda, what comes to mind is reconstruction work. Helping the galaxy to recover from the war.”
“I’ve thought about it. Oriana keeps pressing me to come to Earth and join the Kapoor-Cole-Taylor team.”
Liara snorted in amusement. “The Fantastic Four.”
“Well, yes. I’ve never stopped wanting to promote humanity, after all. I just stopped believing that it had to come at the expense of everyone else. Rebuilding the homeworld, to be an even better place than it was before the war . . .”
“All right,” said Liara. “Then I’ll come too.”
Miranda lifted her head up, to look down at the dim shape of Liara’s face in the darkness. “Hold on a moment. Leave Thessia?”
“Once this is over, once the situation in Armali is resolved? Why not? If we lose, I won’t have a home here anymore. If we win, it might be a good idea for the Shadow Broker to remove herself from the scene for a while. I can’t permit it to appear that Matriarch Ariadne was right, that I’m only involved because I’m power-hungry.”
“Are you sure? You tried that once before, and it didn’t work out well.”
“I know,” Liara said, her voice suddenly gone bleak. “If I had stayed, if I had refused to let Matriarch Thessala and her cronies drive me away, everything might have been different.”
“Then you should stay now,” Miranda told her, trying to ignore a sudden pang at the thought of leaving her behind.
“The situation isn’t the same. I have more resources than I did then. I can leave representatives here, to keep an eye on things, and facilitate help from the Shadow Broker if the new government asks for it. Vara would be a good choice. She can stay with Erato, who will probably be elected to the board of archons if we win.”
Miranda nodded, remembering something else she had seen in Liara’s memories.
Vara has feelings for Liara too. She has for a long time, but so far Liara hasn’t returned them. Maybe staying with Erato for a while, with Liara off stage, would be good for her.
“As for the Shadow Broker, I can run the network just as effectively from the Citadel as from here. Perhaps more effectively.”
Miranda closed her eyes and thought about it. Working on Earth, helping to rebuild human lives and human capabilities. Seeing her sister, her brother-in-law, and her nephews on a regular basis, not to mention Jacob and Brynn and their children. At last, a family worth having.
Liara close by: collaborator, partner, lover. Maybe they could even live together, on the Citadel. Miranda wasn’t sure if she would be any good at domesticity, but it might be worth the attempt.
“That would be very fine,” she said, hating how banal it sounded.
Liara heard the undertones, though, and knew how much had gone unsaid. “Then it’s a deal.”
They might have had six hours of sleep, before Three Banners arrived. Instead, what with making love like newlyweds, long pillow talk, and having to share a rather small refresher, they ended up with about three.
Fortunately, Miranda had coffee. Liara had to just tough it out. She certainly seemed bright-eyed and ready enough, when all the principals gathered around the central display “tank” in Normandy’s war room.
“Cannae is in stealth mode, in high Kerotis orbit,” she said, calling up a schematic view of the distant moon and its immediate neighborhood. “Cerberus was quite clever, to place an outpost there. Without active sensors, it’s almost impossible to spot. Until, of course, there’s a break in the high-altitude haze.”
A wire-frame globe of Kerotis appeared, then zoomed in on a region near the moon’s equator. Then came imagery, based on visible-light and near-infrared instruments aboard Cannae. The viewing was poor – there was still some haze – but Miranda could still see a suspiciously regular set of surface features, located close to the shore of a hydrocarbon sea.
Liara continued, using her cool, calm lecture-voice. “Captain Mkapa’s assessment is that this station resembles pre-war Cerberus bases on Binthu or Nepheron. An extensive facility, placed on a remote world in a very hostile environment, using obscurity and stealth rather than heavy armament for protection. Ms. Lawson suggests that the location will also have the effect of isolating any Cerberus personnel assigned there. This aids in maintaining discipline.”
Miranda nodded. “The flow of information from the outside is kept under strict control. And if anyone steps out of line, they can always be sent out onto the surface. Without an environment suit.”
Ashley gave Miranda a short glare. “Charming people. Did you ever use that leadership technique?”
“I never needed to,” Miranda said coldly. “I should point out that Cerberus ran out of competent leadership years ago. Whoever is in command of this facility is likely brutal, violent, and driven by Cerberus ideology. A bloody-minded fanatic.”
“Now, I wish to call your attention to the physical environment,” Liara continued. “The surface of Kerotis is dominated by water ice. In the normal temperature range for that environment, water takes on the geological functions of a mineral. The problem for Cerberus is that their facility generates a great deal of heat. Any portion of their facility that is in contact with the ground must be extremely well insulated, or they risk melting the surface out from beneath themselves. They must vent almost all of their waste heat into the nearby ethane-methane sea.”
“They’re vulnerable,” Ashley concluded, with a predatory look in her eye.
“Extremely so. If we can get close enough to identify their heat-transfer equipment, we can render the entire facility uninhabitable with a well-placed kinetic strike.”
“But you want to infiltrate the place first.”
“If possible. Our assessment is that this one facility represents the bulk of all remaining Cerberus resources. If we can data-mine it, that may be the key to ending Cerberus as a coherent organization. That requires that we tap into their computer core before they have a chance to wipe its memory.”
“This is all sounding horribly familiar,” said Miranda.
Ashley cocked an ironic eyebrow at her. “I was wondering when you would notice. Remember the day Shepard infiltrated the Cerberus facility on Binthu?”
“How could I forget? You lot nearly got me killed, when you remotely opened all the cages and let a pack of rachni warriors out into the lab space.”
“Hopefully this facility isn’t doing anything quite that dangerous.”
Miranda shook her head. “I don’t think we can assume this is just a logistical base, channeling Cerberus support to the Black Hand and the asari reactionaries. They wouldn’t need anything this big, if that was all there was to it.”
“Do you think they’re performing dangerous experiments here?” Liara asked. “The data don’t indicate that.”
“The data are very spotty, Liara, and you know it.” Miranda stared at the image in the tank, trying to chase down an uneasy sensation in the back of her mind. “It’s just intuition, but I can’t shake it. They’re up to something.”
“All right,” Ashley said, in her take-charge voice. “I suggest a reconnaissance-in-force. Normandy puts a heavy squad on the surface in heavy protective gear. Joint operation, Alliance Marines and the Shadow Broker’s commandos, including tech specialists. We move in from a distance, blind any sensors around our infiltration point, and break in. Once we’re inside, we improvise based on the layout of the facility.”
Just like Shepard would have done, Miranda thought. Let’s hope she can carry it off.