11 Thargelia 3364 AR (17 January 2198), Eurotas District, Armali/Thessia
Once again Miranda found herself amid a crowd of asari, as they prepared to undertake collective action. This time, she had arrived on the scene before the procession got under way. She stood in an Armali street, in the middle of a gathering throng, watching an asari she didn’t know give a speech from atop a makeshift platform.
There certainly seemed to be more asari today, flocking in the narrow street. Miranda tried to estimate the size of the crowd, but gave up after a moment. No way to count the ones spilling out into side streets and vacant lots, or the new ones that arrived every minute.
“Comms check,” she said quietly.
“Clear,” said Vara’s voice. Other asari voices followed, more of Liara’s lead acolytes: “Clear . . . clear . . . clear.”
“No sign of trouble,” Miranda reported. “I think they’re getting ready to set out.”
“Understood,” said Vara. “We have eyes on the crowd.”
Miranda glanced up. Liara’s camera drones were almost impossible to spot against the blue-and-gray sky, but their stealth systems couldn’t quite render them invisible. The eye occasionally caught fleeting movement up there, or a transition when a drone moved between clear sky and clouds.
“Armali city militia?” she asked quietly.
“In position. Our hooks in their command-and-control network are active. No sign of any preparations for violence.”
Miranda nodded to herself, and began to ease closer to the center of the crowd.
“. . . Some have said that our movement holds the Matriarchs in contempt,” the asari on the platform declaimed in elegant koiné. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. Age, experience, wisdom, these are things that every asari should hold in the deepest respect. Yet simply being a Matriarch does not guarantee wisdom or sound moral judgment. A Matriarch can err in word or deed, and many have. When she does, should we not recognize the fact, and call her to account for it, just as we might for anyone else? To do this is not to hold her, or all Matriarchs, in contempt. If anything, it is to respect her for what she is, a moral agent with the same standing as any of us, one whose words and actions affect the universe.”
Not exactly firebrand rhetoric, Miranda thought, looking around at the quiet crowd. On the other hand, she certainly has everyone’s attention. I know asari aren’t any more likely to be swayed by pure reason than humans. She must be using code words I don’t know how to recognize. Either that, or she’s building up to something more confrontational.
“Then why do our opponents lie about our movement, claiming that we hold all Matriarchs in contempt? It is because of privilege, sisters. Privilege the Matriarchs have held for too long. Privilege which permits a few of them to hoard the wealth of Thessia, leaving the rest of us to subsist on scraps and leavings. Privilege which helps them make their voices heard behind closed doors, while the rest of us are silenced in the Assembly. Privilege which allows them to strangle the substance of democracy, even while they cynically permit us to put on a hollow show of its forms.”
“Who is this, on the platform?” Miranda subvocalized, for the comm link.
“That’s Erato,” said Vara’s voice, quietly.
Miranda blinked, examining the speaker with new eyes: an asari of average height, slim, with sharp features and bright blue eyes. She had a striking set of bars and stripes on her face, the markings so dark as to be almost black.
Like an asari in a raccoon mask. Not exactly a look designed to attract a human eye, but Vara must find it compelling. She certainly has a personality strong enough to appeal.
“The principle of social equality insists that no asari may expect to hold such privilege as if it was an inalienable right,” Erato continued. “Yet some of the Matriarchs do expect that! They regard this privilege as a matter of natural law, the universe smiling upon them and blessing their so-called aristocracy! Thus, they regard any challenge as a crime, a violation of the natural order of things. They regard any criticism as an attack, as an expression of hatred or contempt. Perhaps it is easy for them to do so, for they certainly hold us in contempt, sisters.”
The gathering began to murmur, a ripple of angry feminine voices surging across the open square.
Erato stepped forward, standing at the very edge of the platform. She slowly spread her arms, raising them above her head, and scanned the upturned faces of the multitude. “Yet who works in the fields and factories the Matriarchs own?” she cried.
“We do!” replied voices from the crowd.
“Who defends the Matriarchs from their enemies?”
“Who maintains order in the polis, so that the Matriarchs may sleep peacefully in their homes?”
“We do! We do!”
“Who entertains the Matriarchs in their idle hours?”
“Who attends the Assembly, providing a show of democracy so the Matriarchs can rule from the shadows in peace?”
“We do, sister! We do!”
“We. Are. Asari!” Erato shouted. “Heirs to twenty thousand years of freedom and democracy!”
The crowd roared.
“The very poorest among us should be no less a citizen, the very wealthiest no more. Yet from time to time, we forget. Patriotism and civic virtue fall into a deep slumber, lulled by easy living and a thousand bright distractions. We decide it’s easier to let someone else make the decisions. Let someone else take the risks. So long as our rulers keep us happy and comfortable, why not leave them to it, and enjoy all that the universe has to offer us?
“Then something comes along to threaten our way of life. The rachni. The krogan militant. The Reapers. And we wake up, stare around us, blinking in the harsh light of sudden day, and we wonder how things could have been allowed to reach such a pass. We notice how alien the world has become, while we were enjoying our pleasant dreams. Then we start to remember what it means to be asari. What it means for all of us to speak, all of us to serve, all of us to take the risks that make our lives worth living.
“It’s that time. Here and now. Are you ready to be asari once again?”
Thunder from ten thousand throats: “YES!”
“Then let us march to the Plaza of Explorers once more, and remind the Matriarchs of it too!”
Erato jumped down from the edge of the platform, into the midst of a swarm of reaching hands and grinning asari faces. She began to walk, at a deliberate pace, and the crowd began to move with her.
Miranda shook her head in wonder.
If I’m not mistaken, she just managed to criticize young asari as well as the Matriarchs, and get them to love her for it.
I’ve never been a talented political operative. I’m a knife in the dark, not a voice to whisper in anyone’s ear or shout on a stage. I can still recognize raw charisma when I see it.
Miranda pushed through the crowd, until she was only a few meters away from the dissident leader. She relaxed, walking with the flow of the asari around her, pushing her awareness out along all her lines of sight. She watched without conscious attention, listened for the first sign of something out of place.
“I’m following Erato,” she said to the comms. “After a speech like that, she’s a target.”
Silence on the channel for a long moment, and then Vara: “She has been for some time now. Thank you, Miranda.”
At first everything seemed fine. The march made its way through the Eurotas district, picking up more and more asari along the way, even a few humans, turians, and salarians as well. The atmosphere felt more charged than on the previous day, more anger and determination in everyone’s faces. Miranda kept her eyes open, picking out Liara’s drones overhead, the occasional militia spotter on the rooftops.
She turned and saw a young, violet-skinned asari pushing her way through the mass of others, a wide grin on her face. “Hello, Yesira.”
“You’re here from the beginning this time, I see.” Impetuously, Yesira reached out and hugged Miranda, asari lips brushing against human for an instant. She ignored the sudden stiffness of the human’s spine. “Where’s Matron Vara?”
Miranda made a vague gesture toward the sky, as they turned to walk together side by side. “She’s watching over us.”
Yesira nodded, a knowing expression on her face. “Rumor has it T’Soni is becoming involved. About time! I know she doesn’t want to see this get out of hand, but she could do so much good here. One of the most powerful maidens in Armali history. She’s a living example of everything we’re arguing for.”
“Her lineage doesn’t bother you?”
The young asari frowned for a moment. “Benezia, you mean?”
Miranda nodded in agreement, glancing around again to maintain situational awareness.
“Benezia was everything we’re arguing against,” said Yesira. “A powerful Matriarch who kept secrets from the public, made decisions on everyone’s behalf without consultation, and made mistakes that nearly killed all of us. But I don’t think anyone in the movement holds Liara to blame for any of that. She’s done more than any other asari to make up for her mother’s crimes.”
Miranda nodded in agreement, but then she found herself distracted. She looked at one rooftop, one street corner after another, and noticed something had gone missing.
Where have the militia gone?
“Vara,” she muttered. “What’s happening with the Armali militia?”
“Stand by,” came an asari voice. Not Vara.
Miranda thought quickly. “Yesira, how are your biotics? You mentioned yesterday that you had to fight a few Reaper troops when they were on Thessia.”
“I don’t have commando training, but my mother always insisted that I learn to defend myself.” Yesira stared at Miranda. “Why?”
“You might want to gather a few of your friends and stay close by Erato. Just in case.”
The maiden opened her mouth to protest, but then thought better of it. She gave Miranda a tense nod and moved off, as quickly as the mass of people would allow.
“Armali militia has been ordered to withdraw,” said the comms, the same glacially calm asari voice. Miranda recognized it now: Nerylla, Vara’s second-in-command. For a moment, she wondered where Vara had gone, and then she dismissed it as irrelevant.
“If the militia has been ordered out, then the archons are either planning to let the protest go on freely, or they have something else in mind and they don’t trust the militia to carry out their plan.” Miranda checked the perimeter of the procession again, a cold ball of fear forming in her gut. “Do you have any clue as to which it is?”
“Not yet. Stand by.”
“You’re bloody well right, I will stand by,” Miranda muttered, first making sure her comm was not engaged. She deliberately moved closer to the head of the procession, dodging around knots and clumps of asari, until she could almost reach out and touch Erato’s shoulder.
The march turned a corner and began to move up a wide thoroughfare, the Plaza of Explorers about a kilometer ahead.
Miranda checked the perimeter. Still no sign of the Armali militia.
Then, without warning, blue-white light flashed almost in Miranda’s face. An eruption of force detonated with a sound like a cannon shot, sending her ears ringing.
Across the front of the procession, in a matter of seconds, more of the same. Flash-boom. Flash-boom. Flash-boom.
Asari recoiled, some of them knocked off their feet entirely, screaming in shock and pain.
Miranda’s corona ignited, blue light forming a nimbus around her head and shoulders, crawling down her arms. She made a snap assessment of the situation.
Vanguards: half a dozen of them, asari in black commando dress, flash-charging up to the procession’s front line to throw it into chaos. Now more asari ran out into the street behind the vanguards, their own coronas already active, biotic throws lashing out to knock marchers off their feet.
Miranda heard shouting from behind her, and to the sides. She knew the dissidents had encountered the same black-clad threat approaching from the side streets.
The march came to a confused, milling halt.
Up ahead, a line of commandos now stretched across the street. Miranda could see they carried firearms, but for now they were only plying their biotics, continuing to knock down the front line of the procession.
Miranda stepped forward, pushing confused asari aside, until she reached the very front of the crowd. Then she put both hands out and slammed a biotic barrier into place. Not enough to cover the whole width of the street, but enough to oppose the commandos in her own vicinity.
“We’re being kettled out here,” she snapped into the comm. “I have asari in unmarked commando dress blocking all the streets, carrying sidearms and putting active biotics into play. Give us an escape route!”
Then she felt support from either side, asari dissidents bringing their own biotics to bear. For a moment Miranda’s barrier fluttered, then asari began to synch in, spreading the protective shield across the full width of the street. She was reminded of the last time she had worked as part of a biotic team, linked in with Samara and Jack to keep seeker swarms at bay in the bowels of the Collector base. She glanced to one side and saw Yesira there, her corona fully alight, looking afraid but determined.
Standing three meters away, one of the commandos stared at Miranda, her eyes suddenly wide. Perhaps it was surprise, to see a human standing in the front ranks of the protest march, wielding biotic power to match an asari adept.
Or perhaps it was recognition. One hand went to the side of the asari’s head, as she made a comm call.
Oh, bloody hell.
“The commandos are Black Hand,” said Nerylla, still distantly rational. “Violent and extremely dangerous. Get out of there, Miranda.”
“Can’t.” Miranda focused, trying to make her section of the barrier as hard as diamond. “I’m a keystone. I move, and the front of the march is wide open.”
Someone jostled Miranda from behind. Then it happened again, and she heard panicked shouting from somewhere back there. The dissidents were being compressed, the cordon winding tighter with each moment.
“Ms. Lawson,” said another asari voice, just behind Miranda and to her left. She didn’t bother to look, recognizing the timbre of it from the speech on the platform.
“Bring down your barrier,” said Erato. “This isn’t your fight.”
“Like hell it isn’t,” Miranda hissed, through clenched teeth.
“To the north, along Latheia Street and Kysandra Street,” said Nerylla’s voice suddenly. “The cordon is thinner there, and Vara is about to hit the Black Hand with a commando team from behind. Once the marchers get out, they’ll be able to scatter in a maze of buildings to the north.”
“Acknowledged.” Miranda glanced over her shoulder. “Matron Erato. There’s about to be an escape route available along Kysandra and Latheia Streets. I suggest you direct the march to make a breakout in that direction. I’ll cover you from here.”
There was only silence for a moment, and then: “Very well. Goddess keep you safe.”
Miranda bared her teeth, a frigid expression that only vaguely resembled a smile. Then she concentrated for a moment, the fingers on her outstretched hands flexing slightly.
Watch this, she thought.
Suddenly the blue-white curtain of her barrier flashed, causing the nearest commandos to flinch. At least one of them drew her sidearm, and then hesitated as she wondered where to shoot. The barrier began to shimmer, displaying a coruscating moiré pattern that slowly extended out into her allies’ sections, all the way across the street.
“What is that?” asked Yesira, her voice full of wonder.
“A technique an asari justicar once showed me,” said Miranda. “You put a little rhythmic flutter into your biotic output. It takes fine control, but if you do it correctly, the barrier becomes almost impossible to see through. Almost as good as popping smoke.”
“You’ll have to teach me.”
“If we have the time. Is Matron Erato moving?”
Just then Miranda heard a series of loud explosions, behind her and to her right: the sound of biotic singularities being detonated.
I’d say Liara is back there. That’s almost a signature technique for her.
She also heard gunfire. Not much of it, not yet, but any at all was a matter for concern.
“Erato is on her way,” Yesira reported, excited. “Everyone is moving. Come on, Miranda!”
“Not yet. Someone has to hold this barrier in place.”
“The commandos already know what’s happening. You don’t need to keep up the concealment.”
“Hmm. All right.” Miranda raised her voice. “You asari supporting the barrier! On three, drop it and run!”
A ragged chorus of agreement.
“One. Two. Three!”
The barrier fell, Miranda suddenly face to face with a wide-eyed commando. Quick as thought, she made a biotic throw to knock the Black Hand sister back on her heels. Then she turned and sprinted after the last of the vanishing dissidents, wishing hard for her own sidearm. Yesira ran at her side, all youthful grace.
The maiden was laughing at the escapade as she ran, the little fool.
The tactical situation seemed . . . better than expected. Asari on other sides of the march had reacted as quickly as Miranda, putting up their own protective barriers and keeping the Black Hand at bay for a few critical moments. Once an escape route appeared, the crowd moved with surprising discipline.
Miranda turned a corner onto Kysandra Street. She saw asari and other dissidents scattering into the city, and no commandos but a few who wore Liara’s livery while directing traffic.
The petite acolyte turned, sword held at her side, and gave Miranda a grim smile. “Good to see you. We need to get off the streets.”
“Too right.” Miranda turned to Yesira. “You’d better come with us . . .”
To the last day she lived, the image stayed with Miranda, seared into her memory.
The young asari, slamming to a halt less than a meter away, a grin of wild excitement on her face. Her lips parting to say something.
The gout of indigo blood that erupted from the center of her chest.
Miranda barely noticed the flare of her corona, as it shed the spent round that had transfixed Yesira. She felt nothing but the maiden’s body, as it pitched forward into her arms. She saw nothing but the maiden’s face, excitement shading into momentary confusion, and then into the vacancy of death.
Vara and the other acolytes had formed a protective phalanx, looking around in every direction for the sniper. Someone else was shaking Miranda’s shoulders, trying to pull her attention away from the dead asari in her lap.
“Blast it, Miranda, they’re shooting at you!”
Then her mind processed the image a little further. Realized what the trajectory of the shot meant.
Realized that Yesira had died simply because she had been in the way.
She looked down at the young asari’s face once more, and then gently eased out from under the body. She rose to her feet, feeling suddenly very old and tired. She went with her friends, fleeing from the disaster. Her mind concentrated on the blood on her hands, and the cold knot of rage forming in the pit of her stomach.