The greatest thing you can do in this life is give. Give life, give your love, your compassion, and even forgiveness. When you begin taking more than you give, your life will fall out of balance. Remember that. – Dannika Dark, The Vow


Ài[愛 – love] (whether spoken by Xiùlán or Samantha, the meaning is 'luv')]
Irin – Pronounced similar to the girl's name 'Erin' – Zaeed Massani's shortened form of 'Iringù-Eßizkur'
Kaffe – equatorial Thessian vine, the seeds of which are used to produce a non-alcoholic beverage of the same
· · · · · · name, the taste described as a mix of coffee and chocolate. (Thessian/Source: CDN)
Ø7 – An allegedly discontinued vocational code in the Systems Alliance military.
· · · · The Ø designates covert operations; the 7 refers to the highest level of proficiency.
Qíngrén – [情夫 – lover]


• T'SONI ESTATE, THESSIA · PARNITHA SYSTEM, ATHENA NEBULA •

"It would be virtually impossible for you to live on Palaven long term, Sammy." Liara paused to smile briefly before continuing. "In addition to having to wear self-contained full-body shielding anytime you're in the open, having to import all your food and drink would be terribly expensive."

"I hadn't even thought about the food. I guess a short visit would have to suffice." I had been staying as an honored guest at Liara T'Soni's estate in Armali since leaving the Citadel behind; Liara and I had spent the previous five days researching companies that could offer long-term employment suitable for someone with my education, military background, and computer skills. We had been discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each when I mentioned visiting Garrus on his home world.

"I know Garrus would love to have you visit, Sammy. I just don't think it's advisable at this time, as we really need to find a job for you." She pulled up yet another company profile on her monitor. "This one has a great deal of promise, Sammy. It's a multi-system freight forwarder with a limited side business transporting passengers. It's based in Milgrom, on Bekenstein."

"Bekenstein? I thought the Reapers flattened that world."

Liara shook her head as she replied, "Not completely, and the Repositories have been assisting the humans in rebuilding, along with help from a limited number of Geth platforms."

"Geth? This is the first I've heard of them since war's end, Liara. Chinami'Taelas made no mention of them in all the time I was with her."

"She hasn't returned to Rannoch, has she?" Before I could answer the obviously rhetorical question, Liara continued, "Since the Geth were still allied with them, the Reapers bypassed the planet. There was no organic intelligence on the surface, as the quarians were all residing in the migrant fleet."

I thought about this for a few moments before asking, "So, this company. Why Bekenstein?"

Liara canted her head to fix me with her intense, blue-eyed gaze. "It's a short jump to the relay in the Widow System. The Citadel is already overcrowded with companies shipping and receiving manufactured goods. Gillespie Frontier Logistics has avoided that by having their home office and main base of operations in Milgrom. Their business is growing rapidly – so much so, they've become a prime espionage target, with daily attempts being made to infiltrate their servers."

This struck me as a bit odd. "A freight forwarding company that's an espionage target? What secrets could they possess that would be worth stealing?"

"Apparently, it's a cut-throat business, Sammy. To hear them tell it, profit margins are quite thin, so they're all looking for an advantage … any advantage … that will allow one company to dominate the others. A company that can shave an hour off the travel time between two relays must have a secret that's worth stealing; perhaps it's being able to plan a passage that can take advantage of anticipated relay alignments to shorten elapsed travel time, or utilizing planetary positioning data in order to more efficiently discharge drive core heat while en route through a system."

I sat back in my chair and massaged my temples between thumb and fingers of my left hand. A set of soft, cool fingers gently caressed the fingers and top of my right hand where it still rested on the table. "It looks as if this job is tailor-made for you, Sammy," she said softly. "As the head of their communications security department, you'd be doing the kind of work you enjoy, while living and working in the Boltzmann System. Your education … your time spent in the Alliance Navy and their Ø7 program … along with your experience working for a clandestine data broker, have all led you to this point in your life."

I dropped my left hand to look at her. "I cannot use my time as the Broker for a reference, Liara."

She giggled, "Of course not, Sammy. That's why I'll supply that reference for you. My pre-war work as a data broker on Illium is well known. If asked, I'll simply confirm that you contributed to my success from a location in deep space." She studied my face for a number of moments, then added, "Additionally, you'd be less than a two-hour flight from the Citadel, just in case you might want to have lunch or dinner with a certain Navy captain when the Hong Kong is in port."

That last one really aroused my interest. "I'd definitely enjoy that!" I leaned forward and studied Gillespie Frontier Logistics' company information on the monitor. After inspecting their requirements for the position one last time, I turned towards my companion and said, "Okay, pull up the job application – I'll fill it in and submit it. What do I have to lose?"


• AT LARGE, GFL · MILGROM, BEKENSTEIN •

It had taken only a day for the HR department at GFL—Gillespie Frontier Logistics—to contact me with a request that I travel to Bekenstein for a personal interview regarding my employment application. Iringù-Eßizkur had touched down at the far edge of their expansive property; two guards had traveled out in an X3M to meet me almost before I had moved a meter from Irin's null-gravity tube, then stood in apparent awe, staring up at the imposing silhouette of my guardian Repository. I cleared my throat as I walked up to them, bringing their attention back to the ground.

"First time you've seen a Repository up close?" They stared at me as if my skin had turned green and I'd sprouted horns. "It's a former Reaper destroyer, guys," I went on to explain. "Her name is Iringù-Eßizkur, and she's been my guardian and primary mode of transportation between systems since I returned from dark space aboard the Normandy." I didn't see the need to provide a more detailed description of our shared history together.

One of the guards, a young man of perhaps 24 – 26 years of age, stammered, "You ride around in that thing, Ma'am? Aren't you afraid of being turned into a husk, or Reaper food?"

Placing my hands on my hips as I slowly shook my head in disbelief, I replied, "I did say she's my guardian, correct?" I turned partway, looked up and quietly said, "Irin?"

In response, she noiselessly retracted the panels that covered her prime weapon; the deep obsidian inside the focusing lens was rapidly replaced by an increasingly intense crimson glow, which then briskly waxed and waned—much as a quarian's helmet light did when they spoke—as she softly said, I am not a monster. The human standing before you is my friend. The crimson light just as quickly faded back to obsidian as she closed the panels concealing what I thought of as her face.

Returning my attention to the security guards as Irin finished speaking, I said, "Now, if you two are done gawking at my friend, I have an appointment with your HR department, and I'd really appreciate not having to walk to that building in this heat."

The man that had questioned my transportation choice cocked his head, saying, "Of course, Ma'am. My apologies. It's just … well, I never met anyone that rode around inside a Reaper."

He motioned me towards the waiting speeder; I corrected his reference to Irin by saying, "She prefers to be called a Repository, if you don't mind," while approaching the X3M.

"Of course, Ma'am." He turned part way around to look at Irin again and said, "My apologies."


The woman conducting the interview was so impressed with my credentials, she offered me a position, to begin immediately, as the head of GFL's Communications Security department. "There are currently four people employed in there, but the department is quite disorganized," she told me. "It will be up to you to make whatever changes you deem necessary to secure our systems. She paused briefly to study her notes before adding, "I have no doubts you'll be able to ensure everyone is focused on preventing unauthorized access to our servers." After pausing for a moment, she added, "We will be happy to assist you in finding a place to live, Ms Traynor."

I grinned with my response. "There's no rush, Ms Vandenberg. I'm quite comfortable living inside Iringù-Eßizkur, as long as no one objects to her presence in the far corner of GFL's property."

Rising from her chair, she came around her desk and took the few steps needed to reach one of the windows looking out across the paved lot; Irin's form was barely discernable against the backdrop of large, native trees – a dense forest, standing tall just outside the property line fence. After silently studying the scene before her for less than a minute, she turned back to me. "I've heard all the scary stories about indoctrination, Ms Traynor. How can you be sure you're not in thrall to that machine, or any of them?"

I stood and moved to stand beside her at the window. "My mind is my own, Ms Vandenberg. Commander Shepard's actions on the Citadel to end the war erased their programming, including any imperative to enthrall or harvest organics." Remembering how the Normandy had been propelled to the outer edge of the galaxy, I added, "Shepard's sacrifice merged her DNA with that of the Reapers, and joined synthetic nanoparticles from the Reapers to organic DNA … our DNA. It's why glowing bits can be seen in our eyes when our pupils are dilated."

I returned my attention to Irin's form. "That Construct … that Repository, has never done anything to cause me any concern regarding her motives. I trust her with my life every time I enter her structure, not to mention traveling between planets or systems."

"I've never heard anyone defend the Reapers, Ms Traynor. This relationship you claim to have with that machine …" she waved a hand in Irin's general direction "… seems extraordinary." She abruptly returned to her desk and picked up a datapad, which she held out for me. "Everything we discussed … everything GFL is offering for you to work for us, is listed on this device. Take it with you, study it at your leisure." She grinned as I accepted the datapad. "I'd appreciate an answer by noon tomorrow."

I mirrored her grin as I accepted the datapad. "You'll have it, Ms Vandenberg. Thank you for meeting with me." As I turned to leave, I added, "I'll see you in the morning."


• AT LARGE, BEKENSTEIN · BOLTZMANN SYSTEM •

It had taken me less than ten days to secure all of GFL's servers and terminals against an array of increasingly sophisticated hacking methods by a number of freight companies—human and alien—hell-bent on gaining whatever edge they could over my new employer's successful freight forwarding business.

As the newly hired head of their Communications Security Department, I had endured a bit of animosity from the four people—three men and one woman—already employed in the division. Unfortunately for them, I had been granted unconditional authority to do whatever I felt was needed to turn things around.

I had immediately terminated one man's employment and placed another on probation. The remaining two people quickly fell in line upon realizing I knew what I was doing, and that I refused to be intimidated or pushed around. This last point became abundantly clear when the man I had fired attempted a physical confrontation as I was walking into a restaurant for dinner a few days later. Upon seeing and recognizing him, I turned to walk away.

I heard him shouting as he rushed up behind me, "Damned miserable bitch! I'm gonna teach you a lesson you won't soon forget!" He clamped a rather strong right hand on my right shoulder at my neck in an attempt to force me around to face him. Fortunately, a number of people, all strangers to me, were nearby to witness the results of a physical assault on my person. I grabbed his wrist and forearm with both hands as I twisted my body around to the right, bent my right knee and planted my left boot hard in his armpit; an application of pressure, abruptly applied in a direction the human arm was never intended to travel, was all it took for him to see reason.

A guttural scream of agonized pain accompanied the sickening scrunch of tearing ligaments as I pulled and dislocated his upper arm from its accustomed place. I released his wrist and stood back up as he fell to the ground, clutching his now useless right arm while moaning in agony. In short order, a uniformed policeman appeared and would have taken me into custody, if not for being convinced by several witnesses that I was the innocent victim of an unprovoked assault. Needless to say, nearly two hours was wasted dealing with the authorities before I could sit down for dinner; it was approaching midnight when I was finally able to slide beneath the covers in my comfortable bed.

If I hadn't been so tired, it might have been amusing for me to comment on Irin's criticisms of my interactions with my attacker and the aftermath with the law enforcement people.


The three remaining members in the department were extremely quiet when I arrived for work the following morning. When I commented on their restrained behavior, Seraphina quietly informed me they had never met any woman that would dare to fight back against a male attacker.

"I've was in a similar situation a number of years ago." Thinking about Joesiar's attempt to teach me a lesson in 2179, I told her, "I was in the Alliance Navy … had to deal with three so-called men attacking me at once. The results for them were not pretty, but the message I gave them was certainly clear enough, Ms Diemer." I glanced meaningfully at each of the two men standing behind Seraphina as I concluded, "I don't suffer fools gladly, of any gender or species."

The woman gave me a cheeky grin. "Your message from the previous evening was received quite clearly, Ms Traynor. I seriously doubt anyone that witnessed your reaction to Brandon's physical confrontation would be willing to risk their health and safety in a similar fashion." She looked at each of her coworkers and added, "You needn't worry about the people in this office."

"Good to know. Now, let's get to work."


"That's a nice hairstyle for you, Sammy," Oriana commented. "What can we do for you today?"

"I need the Shadow Broker to refuse any and all job requests that would involve Gillespie Frontier Logistics, on Bekenstein, or any other planet or station from which they operate."

Oriana Lawson seemed to be her usual, happy self, but her response to my reply had the hairs on the back of my neck standing at attention. "I'm afraid your request cannot be honored by the Broker, Ms Traynor. He is in the business of buying and selling information to anyone that can pay the fees."

"Let me speak to Buchanan."

"He will only confirm what I am telling you, Sammy."

"That wasn't a request, Lawson! Put Buchanan on, immediately!"

Her happy expression was instantly replaced by a frown. "What the hell, Sammy? Standby." In less than a minute, I was looking at Griff's equally somber face, while Oriana hovered in the background. "What's this about, Sammy? Ori told me what you wanted and I have to tell you the same thing she already did – we buy and sell information, and we don't refuse to do so based on a company's unhappiness with us. And just why in hell do you care about this one company?"

"Because I'm the head of GFL's Communications Security department, Griff. I was hired to put a stop to attempts by GFL's competitors to hack into the company's servers. I'm talking to you because I backtraced the most recent attempt; it came in at 0312 local, from Ahn'Kahar Station."

Griff's mouth fell in amazement; he recovered quickly and replied in an uncharacteristically snarky manner. "Well, congrats on finding employment, Sammy, but you are no longer in a position to tell me or Ori how to run our business, or have you forgotten it was you who left us?"

I scowled and shook my head. "Forgotten? No. But I believed we parted as friends, Griff, so I'm asking you, as your friend, to cease your attempts to hack into GFL's servers – please?"

Buchanan looked back at Ori, then leveled his gaze at my image on his monitor. "I get the feeling there is a threat implied in that request, Sammy; even if none exists, I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request, no matter how politely it was stated."

"You seem to have forgotten the amount of time I spent programming everything on that station, Griff. Your attempts at intrusion leave tracks, just as obvious to me as if you were actually here, touching everything with your sticky fingers. I know what to look for, and I know how to put a stop to it." I paused for several moments before concluding, "You would be wise to simply walk away from this, Buchanan." I cut the connection before he could respond. If the Shadow Broker thought he was untouchable, he had another think coming.


• AHN'KAHAR STATION, STRENUUS SYSTEM · HORSEHEAD NEBULA •

As requested by Griffen Buchanan, data research operative Chinami'Taelas had spent an entire day reverse-engineering the Samantha Traynor designed source code that allowed the Broker to covertly—and illegally—slide into a company's computer servers, no matter how distantly located, extract valuable data, and return it to the Broker's isolated data storage drives, all without leaving any indication of its momentary presence or place of origin.

So confident was she that her modifications to Traynor's program would not only disguise the source of the intrusion, but would prevent any attempt to back trace the signal to its true source, she ran the modified program to hit GFL's servers on Bekenstein at 0251 local time. She did not have to wait long for the results; unfortunately, she'd severely miscalculated the determination of her former colleague, now employed by GFL as that company's head of Communications Security.

The intrusion program had uploaded data from the company's servers exactly as anticipated. What Chinami had not foreseen was the damaging bits of code included in GFL's data stream; it was fortuitous for the Broker that any incoming data was routed to servers totally isolated from all the other electronics on the station. What was unfortunate was the explosion and fire that broke out in the server compartment when the buried malware program executed its instructions – instructions added by Samantha Traynor as soon as she broke the vid-connection with Buchanan.

The halon extinguishers in the ceiling and walls of the airtight compartment had quickly snuffed the fire; unfortunately, the small explosion had either destroyed or severely damaged every server installed within – not to mention the data that had been extracted from GFL's computer drives. As Buchanan and Lawson surveyed the damage, they were counting their lucky stars—as well as Traynor's obvious paranoia concerning this sort of problem when she designed the backups—that there were eleven other sealed compartments containing identical data storage units.

Shaking his head in defeat, Griff turned to Ori and commented, "Sammy warned me to walk away from this particular job, didn't she? Guess I should have listened to her." He slowly turned and left the room. "I need to contact her – let her know she has my attention."


• GILLESPIE FRONTIER LOGISTICS · BEKENSTEIN, BOLTZMANN SYSTEM •

It was early morning in my office. I was enjoying my second cup of coffee and the view of a brilliant sunny morning through my windows when my secure comms unit trilled to announce an incoming call. I grinned upon recognizing the header displaying the caller's identity – Griffen Buchanan. That I chose to ignore his call would no doubt piss him off … not that I gave a damn.

Having read through the previous evening's electronics activity report, I knew exactly why he was attempting to contact me so early in the morning; the Shadow Broker's identity, even though it was extremely well disguised, stood out like a beacon among the few attempted intrusions by other players attempting to gain access to GFL servers. The Broker's unsuccessful attempt appeared to be the work of Chinami'Taelas. If my guess was correct, the quarian's skills had become much more refined since I had hugged her and said goodbye.

I returned to my terminal to continue revising and refining the program code that would stop any attempt to hack into my servers; it would attach a particularly nasty piece of malware to the return string, ensuring the computer being used for the attack would—after an overload induced explosion—become a melted, semi-liquid puddle of thermo-set polysilicates and polyepoxides. I expected that outcome was exactly what Buchanan wished to discuss with me.

As if on cue, my secure comms unit trilled once more; this time I answered the call with a rather pronounced sigh. "I'm rather busy, Buchanan. Whatcha need?"

"That was a pretty nasty response to our intrusion attempt, Traynor."

"I'm positive I have no idea what you're talking about, Griff."

"Cut the 'innocent me' act, Sammy. You know exactly what I'm talking about."

I hardened my expression along with my response. "What part of please walk away did you not comprehend? I asked you in no uncertain terms to cease and desist in your efforts to hack into GFL servers. You had to realize any further attempts would be met with destructive resistance."

"We parted company as friends, Sammy. An explosion and fire in one of my server compartments is an overreaction, don't you think?"

I drilled him with my eyes and lowered my voice to the point it could freeze water. "Would you rather Iringù-Eßizkur and I pay Ahn'Kahar Station a personal visit?" His instant expression of worry was all the answer I required. "Griff, if it makes you feel any better, every other intrusion here is being dealt with in the same manner. You or anyone else that chooses to remotely fuck with the servers at this company will get fucked back, harder and deeper. I wasn't hired to make friends, and I'm sure as hell not taking any prisoners here."

I cocked my head as I concluded by asking, "What are you gonna do, run to the authorities to complain your illegal acts burned you?"

A heavy sigh preceded Buchanan's parting words. "Dammit, Sammy. You've really changed since leaving the Navy … and not for the better!"

"I've become more of a realist, actually. You're just pissed off because I'm no longer on your side." Before he could respond, I cut the connection, leaned back in my chair, and closed my eyes. Griff would either give up—not likely—or attempt an organic approach by assigning the Broker's all asari wet work squad to land in Milgrom in order to obtain whatever data they could steal.


"Horizon? Really?" It had been six months since I had started work as head of Gillespie Frontier Logistics' Communications Security Department. In that time, by dint of automatic and ruthlessly applied retaliatory malware programs, I had managed to bring the number of intrusion attempts down, from six or seven daily, to one, maybe two, in a week. More importantly—to me, anyway—the Shadow Broker had completely ceased all attempts to slither his way into the company's servers in search of whatever he had been searching for.

I took a sip of Kaffe from my mug while studying the face of company owner Jordan Gillespie, sitting across from me at the small table in my office. He had come to meet with me, in part to express his gratitude for my successful efforts to not only lower the total number of attempted hacks by all the bad actors in the immediate systems, but to drop the number of successful incursions to zero.

He smiled warmly with his reply. "It seems you've worked yourself out of a job here, Ms Traynor." He shrugged with his eyes as I attempted to counter his statement, explaining, "I realize your skills will be needed here on Bekenstein into the foreseeable future, but our forwarding depot on the outskirts of Discovery has seen a steadily increasing number of electronic attacks, especially on our transportation management system, perhaps because we deal with so many other companies."

"I understand, Sir." I really did not want to revisit all the bad memories that were a permanent part of Horizon—for me, anyway—but it didn't seem I had a choice. "There'll be a bunch more servers and data storage units there than there are here. Will you grant me the same amount of freedom in dealing with whatever problems I encounter there?"

The man leaned back in his chair and sighed. "Whatever you need to do, Ms Traynor … including purchasing and installing new equipment, hiring a few more programmers … I have your back."

"When do you want me on Horizon?"

"Complete whatever you're working on, if it can be done by the weekend; otherwise, loop Ms Diemer into your project. I'd expect that, after six months of working with you, she can finish it."

"Okay, them. I'll be in Discovery on Monday morning."


• CAPTAIN'S TABLE RESTAURANT · CITADEL, WIDOW SYSTEM •

Fortunately for me, the Hong Kong had just returned to port after a four-week long patrol, split between Arcturus Stream and the Exodus Cluster. I nervously waited in the restaurant's lobby for Xiùlán to meet me for dinner – this would be the first time we'd met since I began a new job nearly seven months ago.

During that time, I had updated my wardrobe with clothes that were more in keeping with my increasingly visible public persona; I had to present a professional appearance at business lunches and dinners so, unlike at my previous meeting here with my Qíngrén, I was dressed in a conservatively cut, mid-sleeve silk blouse above a mid-thigh length dark blue skirt and opaque black tights. The stylish boots on my feet would allow me to run, if needed, and the supple leather jacket I was wearing served as modest protection against the cool, artificially generated breezes of the early evening. Additionally, the minimal amount of makeup I was wearing might cause her to totally overlook me when she arrived.

I spotted her as she entered and paused to speak to the Maître d' – after looking around a bit, her face split into a huge grin as she caught sight of me. I strolled up to her, whispered, "Hi, Luv," and flung my arms around her body in an intimate embrace. Caressing her mouth with my own, I allowed my lips to linger as I savored the feel of her muscled torso being held hard against my own, and I didn't give a damn who might be staring at our very public display of affection.

Our lips slowly, reluctantly parted. Looking into the dark eyes only a few centimeters from my own, I could readily see the passionate love this exotic-looking woman held for me – and could only hope my own eyes were reflecting the intensity of my feelings for her. "I've missed you," I breathed. "It's like a part of my soul is missing when I'm away from you." As I was speaking, I slowly withdrew my arms until my hands were resting lightly on her hips. "Come on – let's go sit down so we can order our meals. I'm really hungry."

She nodded slightly, the twinkle in her eyes denoting slight amusement along with intense passion. "Sà mi, zìcóng women zài yīqi yilái yijīng you haoji gè yuèle. [薩米,自從我們在一起以來已經有好幾個月了。 – Sami, it's been months since we were together.] I have missed you as well, my darling." She slid her fingers in between mine and we strolled hand-in-hand into the dining area, and to our table. Upon taking her seat, she cocked her head at me as she whispered, "It appears you have become a respectable businesswoman, Sà mi." A slight blush crept up her cheeks as she concluded, "Those clothes suit you really well."

I grinned back. "Can't run around Milgrom looking like a tramp, Ai. I work for a highly regarded company – one that pays me well, so I can afford to look respectable, even if I really am not."

Shaking her head slightly, she breathed, "I have to disagree with that assessment of your character, Sà mi." After taking a sip of water, she spoke softly. "So, tell me what you do for this company, my darling. Sounds as if you're happy. And now you're going to Horizon for them?"

I explained what I did for GFL as we enjoyed our salads, then dinner and wine. She looked uncomfortable when I explained my run-in with the Shadow Broker. "Did it not occur to you he could have dispatched a wet squad to take care of you for interfering in his business?"

"Xiùlán, please. This is Griff and Oriana we're talking about. I showed them the consequences of their actions, and all the hacking attempts stopped that day – they haven't bothered me since." I grinned at her, adding, "My promise to visit Ahn'Kahar Station with Iringù-Eßizkur may have had something to do with that."

"By my ancestors, Sà mi! You would not." She phrased it between a statement and a question.

I chuckled at her response. "I seriously doubt I could compel Irin to open fire on that station with them, or anyone else still onboard. She considers Griff and Ori her friends, just as she does me."

Dark eyes told me she wasn't totally convinced, but she didn't pursue it. "The man that attacked you … have you heard anything further about him?"

"Why should I? I dealt with the authorities when they attempted to arrest me for an unprovoked assault. It's a good thing people in Milgrom are willing to get involved." I looked down for a moment before adding, "You know me, Xiùlán. I wasn't about to allow him any opportunity to hurt me; as it was, I injured him pretty badly. A direct result of that is my business acquaintances all realize they have to respect my personal space and keep their hands off of me."

She grinned and nodded. "Sounds like the same lesson you imparted on a couple of cretins during our Ø7 courses in 2179. Should I begin asking permission before I touch you, Sà mi?"

I leveled my eyes at hers from over the edge of my glass as I took a sip of wine. Looking down briefly, I returned the glass to the table, then reached across to caress her hand as I returned my gaze to her face and whispered, "Never."


• INSIDE IRINGÙ-EẞIZKUR · WIDOW SYSTEM, SERPENT NEBULA •

Xiùlán sat beside me on the comfortable couch in the lounge compartment inside Iringù-Eßizkur, who was currently in a slow, lazy orbit of the Widow Relay. We were enjoying the exquisite taste of a gift from Spectre Shepard; she had given me a bottle of Bushmills Black Bush, saying she kept a few bottles to share so she'd have plenty of their single malt 21 for her own enjoyment. I had enjoyed drinking Bushmills 21 with her at the estate, but she had given this bottle of Black Bush to me after Garrett Sutton had been taken into custody, making it a truly special prize. As we relaxed, I asked her, "Where do you see yourself in twenty to thirty years, Luv?"

"That's quite some distance from the present, Sà mi. Why do you ask?"

I twisted in my seat in order to face my Inamorata; bringing my leg up, I set my knee against the deeply padded backrest with my shin against her thigh. "You've been in the Navy for fifteen years, Luv, and you made Captain after only thirteen, less than half the time that's officially required – something that would have been unthinkable before the war." I took a sip from my glass as I thought about Xiùlán's career, then grasped her free hand as I continued, "Wartime losses of ships and personnel, particularly command staff, was just one of the major reasons for your rapid rise through the ranks, and truth be known, a captain's rank should automatically qualify you to command a cruiser or a carrier … maybe even a dreadnaught."

She used her thumb to lightly massage my knuckles while taking a couple of sips from her own glass. Voice barely above a whisper, she asked, "Why are you even bringing this up, Sà mi?

"I've recently been giving a great deal of thought to our future together, Luv, and …" I paused to polish off the contents in my glass, then plunged ahead. "I want to marry you, Xiùlán … as soon as it can be arranged! Your current rank is actually enough for you to be assigned command of a shore station; living quarters on a base would be large enough for both of us, as would quarters on a cruiser or carrier. If your plan is to continue on in the Navy, your next promotion could be awarded in as little as ten years, although I expect it'll be another thirteen to fifteen, at least."

The sudden look of shock at my declaration immediately softened to an expression of deep, abiding love, resulting in a pair of eyes awash in unshed tears … almost. She blinked, allowing a single drop of moisture to escape, where it drifted slowly down over the freckles beside her nose. "Ni xiang … jià gěi wo, Sà mi?" [你想…嫁給我,薩米?– (Do) You want to … marry me, Sà mi?] Studying my face as she leaned towards me, she gently brushed her lips across mine before whispering, "I can think of nothing I desire more than to spend the rest of my days with you by my side, Ài."

Once again, she applied her lips to mine, more passionately this time. When I withdrew slightly to take a quick breath, I whispered back, "Xiùlán, you have become the other half of my soul. My continued existence is meaningless without you!" I hugged her a bit awkwardly, as I added, "If you can arrange it, I will travel wherever and whenever I need to, in order to declare my vows to you."

Xiùlán slowly stood, pulling me up along with her; touching her forehead to mine, she gazed into my eyes as she purred, "We can get married on the Normandy, my darling Sà mi. It would be …"

I closed my eyes while a tiny shudder ran through me. "Please! Do not suggest that Bill Cody perform our ceremony. I have not forgotten his interference in our lives, my love. Perhaps …"

I could see my lack of enthusiasm for having the Normandy's captain preside over our wedding was slightly upsetting, so quickly suggested an alternative. "Perhaps Fleet Admiral Hackett would agree to marry us on the Orizaba, Ài. After all, he promoted us both when the Normandy returned from the outer rim." The slow return of her happy grin told me all I needed to know. "And we'll need to find a way to include General Park in the proceedings."

"Who will you ask to stand for you, Sà mi? You'll need a maid of honor, or a best man."

"That's easy – I'll ask Liara T'Soni." I grinned as I put forth a name for her maid of honor. "And I expect Miranda Lawson will be thrilled to stand for you, since you rescued her from the Blue Suns. She'll be happy for a chance to get all dressed up in party clothes."

She narrowed her eyes as she cocked her head slightly. "You've been thinking about this for a while, haven't you?" came the accusation.

I wrapped my arms around her in a proper hug; molding my body tightly to hers, I murmured, "You are in my thoughts daily, Xiùlán. Don't ever doubt that, nor my love for you." Our intimate embrace caused a slight tickle of heat to stab me in the groin. "Our first week on Mars … do you remember me telling you I could not continue to live without you in my life." At her instant look of recognition, I added, "Just as true today – even more so, since we've been lovers for so long."

"Losing you would be the end for me as well, my darling. So, let's get married, soon as possible."

My lips brushed hers as I slowly said, "Wo ài ni, Xiùlán … Wo ài ni! [我愛你 – I love you!]


I awakened gradually to find my face buried in a luxuriant tangle of jasmine-scented ebony hair. I was lying alongside my Qíngrén, right leg relaxed across her hips, with my lower leg and foot resting alongside her scarred thigh; my right arm was bent, lying on a set of washboard abs, hand resting loosely on an exquisitely formed breast.

Just waking up with my nude body draped on and over the equally nude body of my lover brought a pulse of wanton desire to my increasingly moist center. This was a bit surprising, as we had spent a majority of the previous evening pleasuring every centimeter of each other. It's never enough, I thought. We're together so infrequently. Will I ever be sated? I moved my pelvis minutely, rubbing my naked pubes against her thigh; the slight amount of movement was actually enough to wake my sleeping companion. "Sà mi," she groaned. "Is it time to get up already?"

I chuckled. "Only if that's your desire, my darling. Do you have someplace to be?"

She tipped her head and placed a kiss on my cheek. "What time is it?"

"0620," I grunted. "You probably need to return to the Hong Kong."

A heavy sigh preceded her answer. "I'm afraid I must, Sà mi. And you probably should be on your way to Iera. You have a job to attend to as well."

I raised my upper body and leaned on my forearm. Placing a quick kiss on her nose, I gazed deeply into the slitted eyes of my future wife – eyes within which I could easily get lost. "What about us, Ài? How soon do you think you can arrange a meeting with Admiral Hackett?"

Pursed lips widened into a sultry smile. "I'll contact him today, as soon as I'm back on my ship. I'll talk to Miranda as well – I think she'll be happy for me – for us."

"Okay, darling – keep me updated. I'll be ready whenever you are." I placed a kiss of loving promise on her lips. "I love you, Xiùlán … forever."