A.N.: This one took a lot longer to write than I expected - sorry for the wait! Hope you enjoy this chapter.
Chapter 33: Foundations
The Illusive Man waited with equal amounts of anticipation and trepidation, swirling his bourbon absently in his glass, eyes fixed upon the inactive screen of the computer. If everything had gone according to plan, the strike team investigating the derelict Reaper would soon be reporting in. Until then, all he could do was wait. The Illusive Man was not used to just sitting around waiting, and he began to drum his fingers with growing irritation upon the arm of his chair as he waited in silence.
It seemed an age before the computer finally chimed, and the strike team leader's voice came over the line. The man was ex-N6, a grizzled black ops operative with years of experience with various Alliance units, but even over the line, his attempts to suppress his excitement was almost palpable.
"Reporting as instructed," he said crisply. "Fire teams are cleaning up the last of husk opposition. The engineers and scientists are looking through the Reaper now. We might have found a component that matches all specifications, but I'm awaiting confirmation. If this is all that the client is after… Preliminary scans show it is a tertiary computer of some sort. Speculation is that the data stored within would be retrievable and unimportant. Wouldn't take long to send it back with a dispatch crew, but I'm not sure why the client would want it."
"That is his problem," the Illusive Man replied. "All that matters is what Cerberus gains from this deal. Good work. There will be a crew waiting to receive the package."
"Noted. We will stay and hold down this place for the scientists to finish their work."
The Illusive Man nodded, terminating the call. He leant back in his chair, taking a long drink. He had been rather apprehensive about the strange runic device that the eldar Maeteris had left behind, but as it turned out, all it contained was a message, a series of instinctive commands that was quite reminiscent of the Prothean beacons. The device itself was puzzling, frustrating in how unremarkable it was, a mere piece of sculpted something with no visible electronics that was more akin to a mantelpiece ornament than a piece of high technology, made of a material that nothing could identify. The engineers barely had time to transfer it to a place for more in-depth study when it suddenly vanished. The request it had contained had been just as suspiciously simple – retrieve a certain object of interest from the derelict Reaper. The Illusive Man was not sure what the eldar would do with the computer, but it had to be very important, and that made the Illusive Man very curious. And so he had given orders for the device to be brought back to one of Cerberus' facilities to be quickly studied and its data copied. They would have to tread carefully, of course. The time window was small, and they did not want to get on Maeteris' bad side, considering what was on the table.
The shuttle that had picked them up from Thessia's spaceport was piloted by a grim-faced asari commando. She was not obviously armed or armoured, and, though it seemed rather foolhardy to Maeteris, she was alone in the shuttle, likely as a sign of deference to Samara's presence there. Both she and her daughter sat opposite Maeteris, just close enough for Samara to provide some semblance of support without compromising the sense of objectivity that she had.
The pilot set them down at a stately building that rose imposingly above its surroundings and leading them into a hall with high ceilings and sweeping wings out to either side. The asari led them down one of those wings, stopping before a grand set of double doors.
"The matriarchs are waiting inside," she told them, gesturing them on through.
Samara took the lead with Mirala precisely by her side to dispel any appearance of a justicar and her prisoner. Maeteris followed behind them, giving herself time to slowly take in the room. It was an ostentatious affair, all high arches and tall windows and broad decorative columns, but it was not without restraint. Here and there Maeteris saw clear signs that the designer of this place had tried with a certain amount of success to convey gravitas rather than simple, tasteless grandness. Her gaze settled last upon the members of the council. There were three of them, all matriarchs, seated in high-backed chairs spaced out behind a curved stone table. They waited patiently, and Maeteris was aware that she was being studied in turn. Samara and Mirala had already approached the table, the Justicar presenting the both of them in a quiet and confident voice that commanded the attention of all who heard it. Maeteris took her time joining them, expression drawn carefully in a mask that she often assumed when talking to those outside of the craftworlds, making it clear that she was here only out of courtesy. The three asari returned her gaze stoically.
"Councillor Ereyme," Samara introduced the one in the middle. "Responsible for locating and keeping track of the whereabouts of the ardat-yakshi. The councillor on her left is Alya, commander of the commandos who guard the monasteries. The one on her right is Faena, a researcher and leading expert on the ardat-yakshi."
"Welcome to Thessia, Farseer," Ereyme said as soon as Maeteris had stopped before the table. "Were that you could have visited through choice rather than necessity." Her words and composure were artfully collected, belying a wealth of diplomatic experience, but she could not conceal her thoughts, and her uncertainty at how she should begin her address was apparent.
"It is of no matter. I am used to being bound by the dictates of necessity. Now that we have gotten the niceties out of the way, do you suppose we could get on with things?"
The asari smiled. "It's obligatory, you understand. This would be the first formal meeting between you and any of the governments of the Council states. There are many who wish to speak to you, you know."
"That is not my concern."
"No, I suppose it is not. Well, then. On to the matter of the ardat-yakshi, I suppose, and Mirala in particular. You are aware, of course, that the ardat-yakshi are required by law and tradition to remain in the monasteries, for their safety and that of everyone around them."
"Indeed," Maeteris replied blandly. "That was, of course, a crude solution for a problem barely understood."
The Councillor arched a brow questioningly. "Justicar Samara has sent us a brief on a new theory on the ardat-yakshi condition. A certain… psychological trauma, as I understand."
"It was a somewhat difficult topic to report on within the constraints of academic or military vocabulary," Samara explained in a low voice to Maeteris.
"Then it is an acceptable descriptor – barely. Mirala does not require a monastery. None of the ardat-yakshi do. A year with me and, if she could learn, you will not be able to tell her from any other of your kind."
"I vouch for her words, Councillor," Samara said. "I have seen her progress with Jack. I am confident that she will be successful with Mirala, too."
Commander Alya shook her head. "Obviously, this matter lies far outside of our areas of expertise, and so we will defer to your judgement, Justicar. Nevertheless, the issue remains that Morinth is the suspect of dozens of murders all across the galaxy – and not all of them were asari or took place within asari jurisdiction. And aside from that, if she does not return to the monasteries, the Justicars will hunt her down. None of us here could prevent that."
"I can," Maeteris said. "For their sakes, Councillor, give my words some thought."
"You cannot just brush aside the laws of this galaxy, Farseer!" Alya exclaimed, her voice rising.
"This is a matter in which your laws are insufficient."
"You are not leaving a lot of room for negotiations," Ereyme noted wryly.
"Then you are not looking hard enough." In truth, the Councillors were right. She had no intention to release Mirala into the charge of the asari – not out of any kinship towards Mirala, but simply because the task that had started with casting out the daemon would be unfinished until Mirala was trained. Of course, there were many reasons for Mirala to be detained, and so Maeteris had no intention of negotiating.
Councillor Faena, who had been quiet so far, finally held out her arm in a peaceable gesture, looking speculatively at Maeteris. "It seems that a Justicar has already deemed that isolation and strict control aboard a Spectre's ship is an approximate equivalent to the spirit and purpose of monasterial confinement," she observed, "and the word of a Justicar is enough to give us time to analyse the legalities of demanding that Monrinth be turned over to us, given your… esoteric understanding of the issue and lack of citizenship with established galaxy polities. The other Councillors may be harbouring doubts on the matter, but demanding the turnover of a fugitive is not a rapid process.
"Putting that issue aside, one of the reasons that we have called you here is not to discuss the precedence that this sets for the other ardat-yakshi. Not all ardat-yakshi are as dangerous to others as Morinth and her sisters are, but they exist. Others have not been discovered yet, or are concealing their condition, or possess latent mutation. Are they all also psykers, as you call them?"
"Perhaps all, certainly most," Maeteris told her gravely. "Many of them may never consciously use this gift, or even be aware of it, but yes, the potential is there."
"Well, if this… experiment with Morinth works, then it seems to me that there would be an alternative to the monasteries. If that was the case, then we are almost obliged to see that such training is given to all ardat-yakshi in the monasteries."
"Perhaps in a few generations, the ardat-yakshi who live now may develop their own methods of discipline."
"Perhaps, but the monasteries have always been a measure to prevent deaths, and to teach the ardat-yakshi control. It would be cruel to maintain it, should there be a way by which confinement is not necessary. If I understand the nature of the problem, tutelage would have to be individualised, too, and none but you could teach it yet. Is that right?"
Maeteris inclined her head.
"Well, you are obviously busy now, and we will not ask you to help with the ardat-yakshi. But if Morinth's time with you have favourable results, then perhaps it will be time to consider a change in the purpose of the monasteries. If that time ever come, and I hope that it would, then perhaps you would like to consider an offer for a position in one of the monasteries?"
Maeteris suppressed a sigh. Why did all of these asari feel the need to get her to teach others?
"Perhaps," she said distantly. "If we are done here, I shall take my leave." She nodded to Samara and Mirala. "Come along," she said peremptorily, turning on her heels and leading the way out of the chamber.
Outside, Samara fell in beside her.
"That went better than I could have anticipated," the Justicar said quietly. "But do you think it was a good idea to issue an ultimatum to the Council like that?"
"Your matriarchs are great orators and diplomats. That was their reason for requesting my presence here. Doubtlessly they would have had points already planned. To allow them a chance to speak would have been imprudent. I would much rather appear brash than insensible and unreasonable, would you not agree?"
"Wholeheartedly. I'm simply pleased that the outcome was what we'd hoped for."
Mirala turned to Maeteris. "Thank you for speaking to the Council."
"It is a formality on both our parts," Maeteris said. "Notice that we covered nothing that was not already understood. I did not come for the summons, nor for your sake. There are more asari psykers who dwell in secret among the asari, those who would prefer to live outside of the monasteries, those who have not been found, those whose gifts are as yet uncovered. When the Reapers come, I would rather their ranks not be bolstered by psykers."
"It is too late, even if the monasteries were changed to be nothing but a place to train psykers. Those ardat-yakshi who would return would be those already there. The others are not going to immediately return to the monasteries, no matter what changes – not in any timeframe that's going to matter."
As they returned to the waiting shuttle, the asari Huntress came forward to meet them.
"We understand that the Normandy will not be returning for at least a few days. The matriarchs would like to extend to you an invitation to stay here on Thessia. A place has been booked for your use, if you so choose, and all expenses would be covered."
Maeteris had to fight down a scoff. Whether it was to keep an eye on them or to gain some goodwill, the ulterior motive behind the offer was transparent. A quick probe of the asari's thoughts told Maeteris that she knew nothing of the intent behind the offer, however. The revelation did not surprise Maeteris; the huntress was merely a messenger. Within the asari's thoughts, however, was a faint suspicion that the matriarchs had been deliberate in keeping their reasons from the huntress. That was slightly more revealing. It seemed that the matriarchs were actively trying to bypass Maeteris' arts. That had always been inevitable, Maeteris knew, and she found that a part of her was eager to see what the matriarchs would attempt next. For now, she withdrew from the skeins, granting the matriarchs their little ploy and not further pursuing their motives.
Samara had nodded in response to the pilot's question. "The hospitality is appreciated."
"We'll take the shuttle to the suite then," the Huntress responded. "It's not far."
The suite that the pilot led them to was sparsely but comfortably furnished, the large window that stretched from floor to ceiling overlooking tier upon tier of skylanes that vanished into fog below. The city was an affair of gleaming white and shining glass, interspersed with swathes of green. It was not a design that an eldar would have settled on, but it was far from the lumpen hives and ostentatious edifices that characterised the worlds of the other races that Maeteris was so used to. All in all, it was rather aesthetically pleasing.
Samara let out a gentle breath, clasping her arms before her. "It is not often I get to see Thessia. It is different here than the other major asari hubs in the galaxy. Peaceful – strangely enough."
Mirala moved to stand next to her. "It has certainly been a while."
"I am going to step out for a while," Maeteris announced calmly, tilting her head ever so slightly to Samara.
The Justicar returned with a brief and grateful smile, turning back to the window.
Outside the door, Maeteris stopped, glancing at an innocuous spot to her side. "I am going to take a walk through the streets now."
There was a pregnant pause, and their pilot decloaked, appearing where Maeteris was looking at. "It was worth a shot."
"Hardly," Maeteris replied primly. "Come along, then."
The asari stared blankly back at her. "What?"
"You are going to follow me anyway. I am going to save you the trouble of having to skulk along – it is always very distracting." She turned upon her heels, beginning to make her way toward the elevators. "Come along," she called back over her shoulder, not bothering to so much as glance back at the asari.
Garrus made his way quickly across the highway, past the bodies of mercenaries strewn there. Grunt waited at the other end, breathing hard from exertion.
"That has to be about all of them," the young krogan said as Garrus approached, shaking blood off his hammer.
Garrus nodded at the hospital behind Grunt. "Seems like they really did not want us to get in there."
"They weren't trying all that hard if that's the case," Grunt scoffed.
"Unsurprising," Mordin's voice came over the radio. "Experiments conducted in here – tests."
"Any mercenaries giving you trouble in there, Mordin?" Garrus asked.
"No. Appeared to have all been drawn out by your assault. Seems protecting research is Clan Weyrloc's main focus. Krogan – always predictable. Anyway, irrelevant to point at hand. Experiments conducted here to cure genophage. Brute force testing; crude but advanced. Clever methods of counteracting, suppressing, bypassing genophage."
"Well, we already had an idea of what they were trying to accomplish," Garrus noted. "Are they close to a cure?"
"Insufficient data to form conclusion."
"Any sign of Maelon?"
"All right, stay put. We're coming in now. Don't want you going too far in. Didn't see their leader on the highway, so he's probably still somewhere inside, probably menacing Maelon."
"Indeed." He turned to Grunt. "Clear the way. You know what to do if you see any Blood Pack."
The young krogan grinned viciously, breaking into a jog.
They pushed deeper into the hospital, finding more signs of experimentation as they went.
"Why are there so many humans?" Garrus asked in bemusement as they passed the unmoving test subjects. "I thought they were experimenting with a genophage cure?"
"Humans useful as test subjects. Genetically diverse. Enables exploration of treatment modalities. Concept testing. Likely testing on varren later on."
Then they came to a set of double doors, which rolled open promptly as they came into view. Through it an imposing trio of krogans came stomping through, glaring with great displeasure at them.
"Hostiles!" Garrus barked, moving immediately into cover.
"I am the Speaker for Clan Weyrloc, offworlders!" the krogan in the middle announced grandly.
Almost as once, Garrus and Mordin raised their guns. The head of the left bodyguard vanished in a mist of orange blood and worse from the armour piercing explosive munitions of Garrus' Krysae rifle, and the other bodyguard was thrown off his feet by a series of explosive projectiles from Mordin's pistol. With a bemused expression on his face, the Speaker reached for his weapon, but then Grunt was upon him, hammer swinging in a wide arc. The heavy weapon collided with the Speaker's unprotected head in a loud crack, and the krogan's head snapped back from the force. Grunt brought his hammer down, again and again, until the Speaker fell twitching to the ground.
"That's the leader of this lot?" Garrus asked. "Maelon must be close by, then."
Mordin nodded, pressing eagerly onward.
Maelon, however, was not in the room beyond. Instead, there lay a single operating table, surrounded by scores of machinery and medical equipment. Upon the table was a lone, unmoving form.
"Krogan, female," Mordin identified promptly. "Tumours indicate experimentation. No restraint marks. Volunteer." He fell silent for a moment, and when he spoke again, the matter-of-fact tone that he usually adopted was gone, replaced by an uncharacteristic sullenness that Garrus could not quite place. "Sterile Weyrloc female willing to risk procedures. Hoped for cure. Pointless waste of life." He shook his head, a mix of anger and sorrow clouding his face. "Her mistake forgivable. Doctors' not. Risking own clan's females for new data. Ruthless. Disgusting. Short-sighted. Wrong."
"How's she different from the humans back there?" Garrus asked.
"Captured subjects, unethical, crude, characteristic brutality of krogan, but very different from volunteers. Willingly give life to untested procedure, based on empty hope and desperation. Irrational. Can understand it logically, but pointless waste of life. Intent of genophage was to stabilise population. Never wanted this. Foolish waste of life. Hate to see it." He held a hand over the corpse. "Rest, young mother," he muttered. "Find your gods. Find someplace better." Then his arm fell limply to his side and he simply stood, staring mutely at the dead krogan. He started when Garrus reached out to touch his shoulder.
"Come on, we still have to find Maelon, and then we can shut this place down."
Mordin nodded decisively. "Yes."
They came across more krogan as they made their way deeper intot he hospital, and Mordin's expression grew grimmer with each they passed.
Eventually they found themselves before a day that opened promptly on their approach. A quick scan confirmed that it was empty, save for a lone salarian bustling about in the center of the laboratory that had been set up there.
"Maelon!" Mordin exclaimed incredulously. "Alive, unharmed. No signs of restraint, no evidence of torture. Don't understand."
"For such a smart man, Professor, you always had trouble seeing evidence that disagreed with your preconceptions," Maelon said derisively. "How long will it take you to admit that I'm here because I wish to be here?"
"You're working voluntarily?" Garrus asked, leaning nondescriptly against the wall by the door.
"We went to a lot of trouble coming here. You better have a very good explanation."
"I did not ask for a rescue."
"Contact said he was with Blood Pack. Assumed. But why? Never argued with necessity of genophage."
"How was I supposed to disagree with the great Dr. Solus?" Maelon retorted hotly. "I was your student! I looked up to you."
Mordin gesticulated angrily. "Experiments performed here. Live subjects. Prisoners, torture and executions. Your doing?"
"We've already got the blood of millions on our hands, Doctor. If it takes a bit more to put things right, I can deal with that. The end justify the means. You taught me that."
Garrus looked between the two of them, somewhat taken aback by Mordin's sudden outburst. It did not take long for the reason to come to him. Mordin had always stood by his argument that the genophage was necessary and the best solution for both the krogans and the galaxy in the long run. The female krogans, however, were undeniable symbols of the extent to which the krogan had fallen. Garrus could almost see Mordin attempt to reconcile the two beliefs, placing the deaths of the krogan solely on Maelon's experiments rather than on the genophage itself. Garrus leant back further upon the wall, not wanting to get involved. He was not suited to such philosophical discussion.
"You can't face the truth, can you?" Maelon was shouting. Between one word and another, he reached behind his back and drew a pistol, his grip awkward and stiff as he waved it at them. "Can't admit that your brilliant mind led you to commit an atrocity!"
Garrus leapt forward to disarm him, his movements mirrored from the other side of the room by a roar and the thundering sound of Grunt's charge. As quick as they were, however, Mordin was even faster. He threw his fist out in a quick jab, and Maelon's head snapped backwards, pistol falling to the floor as he reeled back. Before he could recover, Mordin had slammed him up against the wall, the barrel of a pistol pressed firmly beneath Maelon's chin.
"Unacceptable experiments," Mordin grated. "Unacceptable goals. Won't change. No choice. Have to kill you."
Maelon's eyes widened briefly, lips moving to protest. Mordin did not give him the chance to do so.
Mordin did not spare Maelon a second glance, instead pacing about before the screens.
"Waste of time," he muttered angrily. "Misunderstood mission parameters. No kidnapping. Suggest expedient return to Normandy. Should not let mistake keep other teams isolated."
Garrus nodded to the screens. "What about the research?"
"Could destroy it. Closure, security. Still, valuable thought."
"You're really considering destroying it?"
"Worked for years to create modified genophage. Maelon's work could cure genophage. Effects on krogan and galaxy… too many variables."
Grunt huffed. "The genophage makes strong krograns, but this gives us options."
"We can always destroy it down the line if that turns out to be the better move," Garrus pointed out.
"Points taken. Capturing data, wiping local copy. Still years away from use, but closer than starting from scratch." He straightened. "Done. Ready to be off Tuchanka. Prefer to be anywhere else."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Garrus asked as they began to make their way out of the hospital.
"Not necessary. Can't change what happens. Life continues. Back to mission, back to work. Become like Maelon otherwise."
"It's that easy to make peace with it?"
"Salarian emotional processing faster than other species. Has to be. Short-lived culture. Can't spend time reminiscing."
"Just as well. Shepard's really much better at the whole listening thing than I am."
"Let me know if you want to hit something," Grunt offered. "I'll go a couple rounds with you. That always helps me ease my mind."
"Will keep that in mind."
Kai Leng waited in the back of the club, seated in a spot that was concealed in shadows and which put him in full view of the door and the rest of the club. It was an exclusive place, expensive to get into, but well worth every credit. Privacy was the primary service provided here. For all their pretensions, such establishments were not unusual on Thessia, nor were the secrets and unsavoury deals that went on behind those doors.
The eldar entered discreetly, an asari following her closely behind. Kai Leng knew who she was, of course. Cerberus agents had tracked their movements from the moment they had landed on Thessia and had run her details up – a highly-decorated special operative and Huntress. Her presence was a concern, and Kai Leng had initially thought that the eldar would have called the meeting off. But that had not happened, and it meant that whatever happened here, it would be reported directly back to the matriarchs. Even now, Cerberus operatives were attempting to locate the other asari agents that were undoubtedly nearby. Whatever happened, the Reaper component could not be allowed to fall into the hands of the asari.
He looked questioningly at the eldar as they approached.
"Who's she? No one else was mentioned apart from you."
The eldar turned slightly to cast the asari a sidelong glance. Now that she was closer, he saw that everything about her – her features, her eyes, even the way that she moved and spoke – were only superficially human-like. She was unquestionably alien, just barely enough to be uncanny. A cold shiver ran down his spine, and he fought down the rising feeling of fear and awe, keeping his thoughts as composed as he could.
"A representative," she replied, "nothing more."
He nodded, placing a canvas bag upon the table before him.
"Here, the salvaged part you requested."
"I trust that your engineers found what they wanted from it?"
He frowned, finding that he was unsurprised. Of course she knew about that. "I suppose they did. They did not find much. Most expected it to hold a lot more value."
"And did you and the Illusive Man think likewise? I am disappointed."
"If this is something that could help us against the Reapers-"
"It is not," she interjected with towering arrogance, reaching out to pick up the bag. "Humans. Always so childishly inquisitive and suspicious."
He leant back in his seat, staring after her retreating form. He was not sure if he trusted her words. Perhaps Cerberus ought to take a look again at the data that had been pulled, and perhaps more pieces to this puzzle could be found in the Reaper. He stood, heading quickly out of the club. Perhaps it was time to arrange for it to be moved to a location that is more accessible to the Cerberus crews.