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12 Thargelia 3364 AR (18 January 2198), Eurotas District, Armali/Thessia

The Kandris Theater had once been a gorgeous building, broad and low rather than sky-challenging, rich with sweeping curves and elegant proportions. It had stood on the shore of the Eurotas River for over two thousand years, virtually unchanged in all that time, a centerpiece of Armali’s cultural and social life.

Then, as with so many other ancient landmarks, the Reapers had come and smashed the place into so much rubble.

Still, the asari survived, and even though they had lost much, they had begun to rebuild.

A painting hung in the entry hall, an image taken from the artist’s memory of the old theater in its prime. One could still see fragments of the ancient building: a nearly intact wall, three columns that had been broken and then lovingly restored, a marble staircase reassembled out of fragments. The rest was all improvisation, built by people who possessed a keen aesthetic sense, but who had been forced to work with found materials and manual labor. There was a great deal of wood and brick, paint and plaster that didn’t quite match, cloth draped to cover imperfections.

Miranda suspected that the acoustics were nothing like they had once been . . . but the asari didn’t seem to mind.

There were a lot of asari in the great hall, crammed in at standing-room-only. Miranda had to stop for a moment, rather overwhelmed at the babel of feminine voices, the scent of cloves and cinnamon, in an enclosed space this time rather than an open city street.

“Come on,” said Vara, setting out down the aisle.

Miranda followed, and found surprisingly easy progress through the packed crowd. A human mob of equal density would have been all elbows and stubborn resistance. Asari liked being packed in like sardines in a can, and they were far more graceful about it. Over and over, Miranda saw an asari become aware of Vara’s advance, and at once shift her weight or step to the side, just enough to let the petite commando pass.

They arrived close to the front, where Erato and the other protest leaders had set aside space for them. Miranda looked around for an open seat, and then froze.

“Hello, Lawson,” said Aethyta.

Liara’s father stood less than three meters away, hands on hips, a decidedly chilly expression on her unmarked face, reddish-brown eyes gleaming with hostility.

“Matriarch,” Miranda replied, her voice gone cold. I wondered when she would make an appearance.

Vara eased forward, as if to place herself between Miranda and Aethyta. “Ms. Lawson is here at Erato’s request, Matriarch. And Liara’s.”

“I know, therapōn. Don’t worry, I’m not going to make a scene. Just want this one to know I have my eye on her.”

For a moment, Miranda was tempted to let it pass.

Not the first time Aethyta has taken the opportunity to be mean as cat’s piss, but why should I care? It’s not as if I need her approval. She’s never tried to interfere in any of Liara’s work as the Shadow Broker. Aside from that, there’s no reason why I should have anything to do with the frightful old biddy.

This time, the anger was somehow harder to set aside.

“I’m curious, Matriarch.” The cold voice was out, the one she had used many times before, to flense away deception and evasion and get at the truth. “Just what is your issue with me? Ever since Liara and I began our association after the war, I’ve had nothing but hostility from you.”

“That should be obvious . . . Cerberus.”

“I haven’t been part of Cerberus in over a decade. I left at the same time Shepard did, and you never gave Shepard the same kind of nonsense. Even though he was much closer to Liara than I am.”

Aethyta snorted in disdain. “Shepard was never part of Cerberus, not really. He only worked with your boss because he had to, and he broke away the moment he could. Whereas you . . . you were a true believer, weren’t you?”

“At one time.” Miranda shrugged. “I still believe in humanity. Shepard convinced me that Cerberus was the wrong way to go about supporting human interests. I’ve worked with Liara to help everyone recover from the war, human or not.”

“Right.” Aethyta shook her head and sighed, some of the antagonism slipping away. “Look, Lawson, I didn’t really approve of Shepard either, but at least Shepard was good for Liara. She was always smart and talented, but when he was around she caught fire from him. Never thought I’d see such drive and passion in her. Ever since he died, she’s been running on nothing but the embers.”

“I know,” Miranda said quietly. “I’ve gotten to know her better than any human other than Shepard, I think. I can see it too. She’s still in mourning. She buries herself in her work because she doesn’t think life has anything better to offer.”

“You’re not what she needs, Lawson.”

“Because I’m a cold-hearted, ruthless bitch?” Miranda inquired, a trace of venom in her tone to conceal the sharp pain in her chest. “Not the kind of woman who inspires passion in anyone?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Miranda saw Vara cringe slightly.

“Maybe.” Aethyta cocked her head at Miranda. “Or maybe it’s because while you’re around, she won’t move on. You remind her too much of the old days. She needs to get it through her head that she has centuries ahead of her, and too much living to do to stay stuck in the past.”

Miranda scoffed. “I think you overestimate me, Matriarch. Liara has her own mind and she does as she pleases. My being here on Thessia isn’t going to change that. In the meantime, she and I have a job to do, and it will get better done if we work together.”

Then she turned her back on the Matriarch and went to find her own place to sit.

 

In any case, the meeting got underway soon afterward, and there was too much to see and hear to fume over Liara’s father.

As always, Miranda found asari democracy fascinating to watch. Asari political discussion looked like a free-for-all, no obvious rules or structure, anyone permitted to chime in at any time. Among humans, it would have quickly degenerated into a shouting match, or a riot. Somehow the asari made it work, with a courtesy system that was obvious to them even if a human observer couldn’t quite figure it out.

After an hour or so of open forum, Erato stepped out onto the stage and called a more formal discussion to order. She spoke first, then other leaders of the dissident movement, followed by a few political scientists and sociologists from the University. It all seemed very dry.

Then someone Miranda knew took the stage, and the hall filled with sudden anticipation.

 

“My name is Liara T’Soni. I am a citizen of the Armali Republic. I hold a doctorate in archaeology from the University of Serrice, with a specialization in Prothean studies. I am a T’Sarien, Praxis, and Nobel laureate for my work in that field.”

Interesting, Miranda thought. No mention of her time with Shepard, her identity as the Shadow Broker, or her role in ending the Reaper War. Nothing but her credentials as a scientist. Not that those aren’t considerable.

“Many rumors have circulated about certain historical and scientific discoveries made during the war. As some of you may have heard, I was closely involved in that work. I have always been prepared to describe those results – and their implications – to the public. However, since the war’s end, I have acceded to requests from the Citadel Council, and from several prominent Matriarchs, to remain silent. Today I intend to break that silence, because the truth is entirely relevant to the political questions we face.”

Miranda glanced around, as the entire hall became deathly silent. Many hundreds of asari were giving Liara their very focused attention.

Yes, they’ve heard rumors about this.

“Permit me to review what every citizen of Armali learns during her primary education.

“The polis of Armali was founded twenty-eight thousand years ago, as an offshoot of the ancient Calydonian culture. The Calydonians were among the first asari to practice intensive agriculture, to develop advanced mathematics, to develop the institutions of the Matriarchy and of participatory democracy. That ancient civilization defined many features that remain central to our present-day society.

“Ever since then, Armali has been a center of culture, learning, and science. It was at Armali that the cult of Athame built its greatest temple. An Armali script became universal for all asari. An Armali dialect gave rise to the koiné that almost all asari now speak, and that we teach to aliens as our common language. It was an expedition from Armali that first circumnavigated the world. It was in the Armali region that our first industrial revolution took place. It was Armali that funded our first ventures into space. The captain of the ship that discovered the Citadel was a citizen of Armali.

“Time and time again, Armali has been a shining beacon of enlightenment for the whole world, for the whole galaxy. We citizens of this polis, we like to think there’s something remarkable about us, don’t we? Some scrap of divine blessing, some thread of brilliance and wisdom that sets us apart as a people. We’re taught to take pride in that. Even now, after the Reapers, at our lowest point in thousands of years, we still remember it. It gives us strength.”

Liara paused for a moment, and then her voice became bitterly cold.

That pride is, and has been from the very beginning, founded upon a lie.”

She stood, looking out at her people, waiting for the rumble of discontent to pass.

“As most of you are aware, not long before the war, I mounted an archaeological expedition into the Eramethos Mountains. On that expedition, my colleagues and I proved for the first time that the Protheans had visited Thessia in our prehistory. Early in the war, we recovered a living Prothean from a stasis pod, the last survivor of his people. His name was Javik Taran, and he was one of the Protheans who had visited Thessia, fifty thousand years ago.

“Javik revealed that the Protheans did more than visit. They actively intervened in asari development. They meddled with our genetics, both through artificial manipulation and by mating with some of our remote ancestors. They taught us the rudiments of astronomy, mathematics, and agriculture. They protected Thessia against natural disaster and an invasion by space-faring aliens.”

Liara paused, watching the audience, listening to the tone of the muttering voices.

“I see that some of you recognize these assertions. Yes. We no longer remember the Protheans – but long ago, out of their vague memories of that contact, our ancestors created the myth of the Goddess Athame. It is no accident that the Calydonians were the first to worship Athame, that Armali was a major center of her cult from the very foundation of the city.

“In short, the Protheans planned to uplift us. At first they intended to bring us into their empire as a servant species, as they had done with many others. Then their time ran out – the Reapers appeared – and their intentions changed. They began to think of us as their legacy to the next cycle of galactic history. We were to be the elder race, the ones who began the next cycle, the ones who would lead the galaxy to defeat the Reapers.

“Then, before they left us behind and went to meet their fate, the Protheans did one more thing. They left something for us, right here, in what later became the city of Armali.”

“The Temple of Athame!” shouted an asari voice, from the back of the hall.

Liara nodded. “Your deduction is sound. The Protheans left us an archive, like those on Kahje or Mars, one of the largest ever found. Later, our ancestors built the Temple around the archive, concealing it from view. If its existence was ever public knowledge, most of us have long since forgotten. Even so, for thousands of years, certain Matriarchs of Armali remained aware of it, and used it as a short-cut to the development of new scientific knowledge and new technology. After the unification of Thessia, the cabal opened its ranks to Matriarchs from other cities, but covert use of the archive continued.”

Miranda could hear several quiet but intense discussions within earshot. Some asari saw where Liara was headed. Others were busy rejecting the entire line of argument.

“The implications should be clear,” said Liara, raising her voice to be heard over the growing noise. “The existence of this archive was kept a deep secret. Very few asari, and no off-worlders, ever learned of it. Yet that archive gave Armali, then the whole asari people, a significant advantage. That was how Armali remained a leading polis for thousands of years, despite all the vagaries of asari history. That was how we asari reached the stars first in this cycle. That was how we asari maintained our position of leadership among the Citadel species.

“Oh, no doubt our native abilities as asari had something to do with it. Armali’s education system has always been superb. We have always attracted talent from all over the world – and now, from all over the galaxy. Knowledge does no good without skilled hands to put it to use.

“The fact remains: this city, and the asari people, have in large part succeeded due to the greatest deception in galactic history. While we lectured others about the need to share knowledge, we kept the core of our own knowledge hidden. While we passed laws requiring others to share Prothean artifacts, we kept the greatest Prothean legacy in the galaxy to ourselves.”

The audience was in full roar now, horrified asari shouting out their anger and denial, non-asari turning to their blue-skinned neighbors in sudden suspicion.

Liara waited for a long minute, then two. Then she thrust her arms out, a wide and commanding gesture, and ignited. Blue-white light flared from her entire body, at blinding intensity around her head and shoulders, and the hall was filled with a sudden clap of thunder.

“Please hear me!” she shouted. “There is more. You must hear it all!”

Slowly, slowly, the hall became somewhat quiet once more.

“If it were only a deception for the sake of advantage, that would be bad enough,” said the slender asari standing all alone on the stage. At last, her voice was no longer steady. “Here is the final calamity. The archive contained information about the Reapers.”

Dead silence.

“I can attest to this myself. I was here, in Armali, on the day the Reapers arrived. William Shepard, Javik Taran, and I discovered the presence of the archive. We gained access to its contents. It included everything the Protheans managed to learn about the Reapers before they were driven into extinction. Much of that information was locked away . . . but the Matriarchs who watched over the archive could not have been unaware of all of it. They knew of the Reapers, centuries before the monsters finally arrived.

“We could have been ready for the Reapers. We could have built and used the Crucible long ago. All that death and destruction could have been avoided.”

Out in the hall, a single asari stood up, staring at the stage. “Dr. T’Soni . . . I’m finding this very hard to believe. Why would anyone hide such a thing?”

“I don’t know,” Liara said simply. “My mother was one of those who knew. I’ve gone through all her encrypted records, but she wrote little about such matters. Councilor Tevos once discussed the matter with me, but she was not a member of the cabal and knew very little about their motives.

“Perhaps it was a simple matter of denial. The cabal saw no way to do anything about the Reapers, and thought the invasion would be far in the future . . . so why not put the problem off until a solution could be found? Of course, if they had revealed their knowledge to the galaxy at large, the secret of the Armali archive would have been lost, damaging the Asari Republics immeasurably. No doubt they thought it better to wait, and let someone else deal with the consequences a thousand years from now.

“Except that the consequences of our actions never remain in abeyance forever.”

“You speak of damage,” shouted another asari angrily. “Now that damage has been done, thanks to you!”

This met with more angry shouts, from asari who did not approve of the accusation.

“Oh yes,” Liara said in return, quite calm. “I’ve revealed the truth for all of you, which means it will be all over the galaxy by tomorrow evening.”

“The others will blame us for the Reapers!”

“Perhaps they will. Perhaps they should.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with that!” shouted someone else. “Why should I pay for the crimes of a few Matriarchs? All of whom are long dead anyway?”

“Because you – and I – and all of us – we benefited from those crimes.” Liara looked around at the audience, catching one pair of eyes after another. “Before the war, our world was built on a foundation of lies and deceit, whether most of us knew it or not. Still, it was peaceful and prosperous, and most of us were quite happy with it. Remember that pride, that satisfaction in being asari, being citizens of one of the greatest cities in the galaxy? Then the Reapers came along and shattered all our comfortable illusions. In a sense, fellow citizens, we have paid for those mistakes, in the only coin that mattered. Our blood.”

A sober voice, from off to Miranda’s right: “That won’t matter, once the others learn the truth. In part, they have us to thank for their own suffering.”

“I think I can reassure you on that score,” said Liara. “The existence of the Armali archive is only now becoming public knowledge, but I know for a fact that most of our Citadel partners have been aware of it since the war. Shepard reported everything to his superiors in the Alliance military, after all. Then there are the salarians. Can you imagine the Special Tasks Group being completely in the dark about something this important?”

A small miracle occurred: a ripple of cynical laughter that ran through the hall. Asari know the salarians very well, Miranda reminded herself. A lot of them have salarian relatives, after all.

“No, I think we can dismiss the idea of a vengeful armada showing up in our skies, demanding answers. That doesn’t mean the reckoning for our mistakes is over.”

Liara walked up to the very edge of the stage, her body language deliberately cast to suggest honesty and openness.

“The humans have a concept called original sin. It denotes a violation of moral order that occurs at the very beginning of things, that taints all that might possibly come afterward. It is the sin that seems so deeply rooted in the life of a person, or a society, that it cannot possibly be absolved. We asari do not think of sin in the same manner . . . but even the Athame Codex states that a thing must be clean at its beginning, or there will be no joy in its ending.

“This is our original sin. This deception, this secrecy. This trust in the Matriarchs to always know what is best, so the rest of us can go about our lives without being required to worry about deep matters. This is what prevented us, we asari, we citizens of Armali, from being everything that we might have been. This is what brought the Reapers down upon all of us.

“It could be worse. Imagine a warrior society founded upon an act of cowardly dishonor. Or a nation that prides itself on liberty, yet is founded upon genocide, slavery, and oppression. At least our original sin was not recorded in blood, and if there was blood in the end, ours was shed as much as anyone else’s.

“Sins can be forgiven. There is no original sin so terrible that it can never be mitigated or absolved. Yet before there can be any forgiveness, there must be repentance.

“We can change. But first, we must want to change. We must want to become a better people, the light to the galaxy that we always assumed we were. We must recognize the mistakes we made, and resolve not to repeat those mistakes, and seek out better ways to live. No matter how painful the process may be. No matter how difficult. No matter how many would prefer to go back to the way things were, when we were proud and satisfied and happy with the place we thought we had in the universe.

“Yes, we must insist that no Matriarch can ever again claim the privileges that my mother once claimed, the privileges that came within moments of dooming us all. But it is not just a few Matriarchs who must change. All of us must find a way to build a new Armali. A new asari people.

“That is what our revolution must be about. Otherwise, one day, we will stand once again on the brink of extinction. We might not be so fortunate next time.”

Liara looked around the hall once more, her face calm and attentive as usual. Then she bowed slightly from the waist.

“I thank you for your attention.”

 

“My name is Miranda Lawson.”

Miranda stood on the stage, a microphone clipped to her collar, her stance and posture under perfect control. She looked out into the darkness. The bright lights that shone on her from above nearly blinded her, making it difficult to pick out individuals in the sea of faces. The hall was silent, or as nearly so as such a large mass of asari could manage.

She continued, in koiné marred by only a trace of Australian accent.

“For most of my adult life, I have been involved with the human criminal organization known as Cerberus. For fourteen years, I was a member of that organization. For six years, I was one of its leading operatives, reporting directly and only to its leader, the Illusive Man. As a Cerberus operative, I was the leader of the Lazarus Project which revived Commander William Shepard. I supported his successful campaign against the Reaper agents known as the Collectors. During that campaign, I broke ties with Cerberus. I have worked independently ever since, to hunt down and destroy the last remnants of the organization.”

She paused, an expression of cold defiance on her face.

“I do not mention this to claim a moral position that you might be obliged to respect. My moral position is not relevant. What is relevant is that I am the galaxy’s foremost living expert on Cerberus: its ideological objectives, sources of power, operational methods, and current activities.

“Dr. T’Soni has described how a culture of secrecy and maternalism has harmed asari society in general, and the Republic of Armali in particular. Despite what you went through during the war, I imagine that may seem rather dry and theoretical. I am here to testify that the same culture is harming you right now, today.

“Recall what happened yesterday. Many of you gathered peacefully in the streets, to exercise free association and free speech. You intended to peaceably petition the Republic for redress of grievances. These are rights guaranteed to you, in the charters of the Republic of Armali and of the Asari Republics.

“You were met with violence. Many of you were arrested. Some of you were injured. A few of you were killed.”

Miranda looked out across the sea of faces. The audience had become completely silent, the air in the theater heavy and brooding.

“If this was a human world, that wouldn’t have surprised me. Such things are common in human cities when they experience political unrest. I was appalled to see it happen on Thessia. I gather most of you were as well.

“The first question that comes to mind is, where were the Armali militia? They were present in force when the march began, watching and showing no sign of planning to intervene. Then they disappeared, and the Black Hand swept in to attack the march.

“It turns out that the Armali militia were ordered to withdraw, by the board of archons. Dr. T’Soni and I have been unable to determine why the board would do such a bloody foolish thing. Of course, had the militia stayed in place, they would likely have protected the march from the Black Hand, when the mercenaries made their appearance. Perhaps someone on the board preferred that not happen.”

A surge of angry muttering, out in the audience.

“Now let’s consider the Black Hand. If I may speak for a moment as an outsider to asari culture? The failure mode of asari Matriarchs expresses itself in conspiracies, secrecy, and the arrogant confidence that they know what’s best for everyone. The failure mode of asari maidens is something like the Black Hand. Selfish, callous, violent. Devoted only to their own pleasure, including the pleasures of killing. A tool in the hand of anyone who can afford to feed their appetites.

“The Black Hand have been a plague in asari space for years. Yet it surpasses belief to think that they just happened to appear in Armali yesterday, moving in at exactly the moment when the city militia were ordered to withdraw. Dr. T’Soni and I became suspicious. Since the march yesterday, we have used all our resources to uncover the reason for the Black Hand’s presence here.

“It turns out that the Black Hand were paid to attack the march yesterday. Paid, because the Armali militia could not be trusted to turn against the people of this city while you exercised your sovereign rights.

“Where did the money come from? Well, some of it came from certain Matriarchs who sit on the board of archons, and who apparently feel threatened by your displeasure. Most of it, though, came from off-world. Specifically, from certain banks in human space. Banks which were once owned by Cerberus and may still be serving Cerberus objectives. We’ve managed to trace specific payments all the way from those banks to the leaders of the Black Hand in Rhamnos. If you want the evidence, Dr. T’Soni and I are prepared to release it in full.”

Miranda walked slowly along the edge of the stage, waiting for the audience to grow quiet once more. It took a long time.

“I can assure you that no matter what happens here in Armali, Dr. T’Soni and I will continue to track down the Cerberus assets interfering in asari politics, and deal with them. With extreme prejudice.

“But I want you to consider what we’re seeing here. Once again, we have a few Matriarchs making the same mistakes that nearly got all of you killed during the war. Deciding for themselves what’s best for the asari people. Making those decisions in secret and behind closed doors. Enforcing those decisions without regard for the law. And once again, we have a few maidens up to their old tricks, having their bloody fun at the expense of others. Playing into the hands of anyone wealthy, powerful, and unscrupulous enough to make use of them.”

Miranda stopped. She applied a few tricks she had learned from Liara over the years, softening her facial expression and body language, a silent gesture that the audience would read without knowing it.

“Even when I was a young woman, and a fool who thought that humanity was the only cause worth fighting for, I liked and admired the asari people. I first came to Thessia less than a year after I joined Cerberus, sent here not on a mission of subversion or political violence, but simply to study and learn more about you.

I know you can do better than this. As terrible as the war was, it gives you the opportunity to build something new, something cleaner and saner than what you had before. In the history of any sentient species, such opportunities come only rarely. Seize the day.”

 

Finally, Miranda returned to her seat in the front row, not far from where Aethyta still watched the proceedings.

She couldn’t resist. She leaned over and muttered to the Matriarch: “Well? Do I meet with your approval a little better now?”

The older asari cocked her head, an expression of grudging respect on her face. “It’s a start.”

Beginning of Story: [Arrival]
Previous Chapter: [The Battle of Rhamnos]
Next Chapter: [Duet]
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