AN: Thank you so much for the amazing wave of support, both in form of reviews and favs/subs!
Also, since FFnet apparently got rid of the notification email when a chapter gets updated (as in replaced): Ichihara Erioru pointed out, that the paragraph where Liara "questions" Shepard is not up to snuff. I agree. I never was actually satisfied with it. My intention was to convey the confusion and disjointness of the whole thing but I did a bad job. So I changed it. It's a lot more angsty now but I feel it's much better. There isn't much new in terms of hard information, but it might give some insight how the Commander has spent her last year.
Written to Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men.
Liara was feeling very anxious. They were orbiting Elatania and the sensors were already sweeping the planet for the beacon but no result yet. It would have landed somewhere along the equator but that still left a huge area to cover. Besides the beacon was designed to stay hidden, in case the Reapers ever had reason to visit the planet. It was still possible to find it but it would take a long time even with their scanning equipment which was at least on par with that of the Reapers and her insider information. Tali's estimate put the time frame at one week, maybe two.
Liara feared in all that time without much to do, Garrus or Tali would continue to poke holes in her story, figuring out that this, while worthwhile to investigate in itself, was only a diversion. That she kept a vital part from them.
She needed to go back to searching for Shepard!
But right now there was nothing she could do. She spent her time on the Extranet, as most people still called the vast information network that had replaced its predecessor. Had Synthesis not changed her, even the renowned Shadow Broker would have been stranded in the vast sea of possible avenues to pursue, doomed to wander from information node to information node.
Every species had met the phenomenon the Humans had called the 'Wiki Walk' in the early days of their Internet, where you could wander from something mundane like general information on light bulbs to a treatise of ancient Sumerian mathematics or STD's transmitted by Macaca mulatta, more commonly known as rhesus monkeys.
In this new environment it was even easier to get distracted – one curious thought could derail the unprepared for hours.
Liara was getting pretty frustrated with the situation. Despite the huge leap the Galaxy had taken in both knowledge and understanding she was no closer to solving the mystery of Shepard's situation than she had been back on Illium. All the brightest minds from literally billions of years and no one had a clue what had really happened when the Green Wave had hit.
Oh the obvious effects were, well, quite obvious. But how exactly had it happened? How was it possible that their bodies were machines at a cellular level but more like organics on a macroscopic level? And the change had been so rapid it was almost frightening. Life across the galaxy had changed over minutes.
It was no secret that life originated in space. Most ecologies, seemingly separated by tens if not hundreds or thousands of light-years, were far to similar for any other explanation. Some adventurous xenobilogists even proposed the theory of a galactic evolution. Considering the fact that most intelligent species followed a certain phenotype it wasn't that far-fetched. The theory only lacked proof. But just like planetary evolution took millions of years, galactic evolution worked over hundreds of millions of years. Not over the time it took to cook an egg!
And how did the connection all sentients and even some non-sentient machines shared, work? As an Asari, who had long ago embraced a similar philosophy, Liara wasn't as shocked as some other species like the much more private Hanar, but the ease with which the link worked puzzled her. It was akin to the mind meld abilities of her own species, the memory manipulation of the Protheans and even the platform-based FTL communications of the Geth, yet it was neither of them. But why? Why hadn't the Green Wave completed the change, gave them all the same tools?
Besides the encounter with Shepard, Liara hadn't tried to meld with anyone, but she felt fairly certain she still could, while a couple of non-Asari– say Tali and Garrus – could not. They could only share surface thoughts and their memory sharing was very limited. It was more like watching a vid with commentary and not the full spectrum of emotions, feelings and smells.
And from what she had read on the Extranet, the Geth were still able to communicate with every other Geth at FTL speed from anywhere in the galaxy, yet all other races needed access to communication terminals. But they needn't be connected to any comm-buoys. Why? It made no sense!
Frustrated, Liara pushed herself away from the terminal. She needed to get out of here. Tali, sitting across from her in the common room of the little frigate they had commandeered, raised a meticulously trimmed eyebrow. It had come as a little shock that the Quarians had hair very similar to the Humans. Now there were three species that shared very similar traits with only minor variations. Uncanny, considering that they had developed on different planets half a galaxy separated.
Tali, never having left her environment suit for over two decades had been confronted with the reality of personal hygiene and grooming for the first time. Perfectionist that she was, she had mastered it in the shortest time and practiced it with almost religious zeal. Some of her fellow Quarians however weren't accustomed yet. They often forgot to shower or trim their beards. Some of the more self-conscious stayed in their sealed environment suits for that very reason.
"I'll take the shuttle to the surface. I will be back for dinner," Liara told her friend just as she was about to exit the room.
"Are you okay Liara?"
"Yes, I am fine. I just need the sky over my head and some open space to think. Don't worry I will be back soon," she answered, knowing full well that both Tali and Garrus still worried for her as a matter of principle.
Elatania was quite peaceful when one hadn't to chase after indigenous lifeforms and their excrements.
Sitting on a low hill, a hundred meters from her shuttle, Liara mulled over what she had learned today, without much success. Her thoughts kept wandering and she would catch herself reminiscing about silly nothings, memories of the scarce quite moments shared with Lea, small but adorable mannerisms she had observed when the Human hadn't looked. Like the stance she had unconsciously copied now – hugging her legs, chin resting on her knees, gaze far away. It brought a smile to her face. Goddess, had she missed smiling!
Absent-mindedly she let her fingers trail the ankle-high grass, wondering what the plant may have made of the change. Did it still feel itself to be grass? Was it aware of its brothers around it?
Her eyes, previously half closed snapped wide open. That was the solution!
Goddess, let it work!
Tentatively she reached out with her mind towards the patch of grass she gently stroked with her long fingers. She felt herself a child again, struggling with the first biotic exercises, wishing for the faintest rewards of her actions.
It had taken young Liara a whole year of intense training before she was able to lift even the tiniest of rice grains but now she had no patience for a long and frustrating process. She wanted results now. Gritting her teeth against the strangeness she anticipated she pushed harder.
And was surprised to meet no walls, no barriers or complications. One determined push and the plant accepted her.
No. That wasn't right. It wasn't the plant that she had touched but the ecosystem of the planet itself. Through the meld, Liara gasped.
It's so vast!
Had she not shared Shepard's experience, even dulled as she now realized it had been, she would have been overwhelmed. A wild cacophony of impressions, feelings, sensory input – sheer life! - engulfed her, pulled her mind in several directions. There was the slow awareness of trees, moments measured in days not seconds, to the frantic action of short-lived insects in its bark, and even the strangeness of bacteria. And there was even primitive thought by the 'space monkeys'! Nothing sophisticated of course but at the same time more than mere animal instinct. Liara was startled to discover that primitive as they were, they still had a concept of love. For a moment she basked in the love a mother felt for her new-born, not feeling like an intruder but rather part of them, of their tribe and the whole planet.
For the next hour she simply explored the new sensations, sampling different lives – different ways of life no Asari could have imagined.
Or was it a whole day? She had lost her sense of time, experiencing a whole world at different speeds. The intelligent species had almost the same perception of time with the notable exception of the Salarians and the Elcor who lived a faster respectively slower life. The Asari had long since learned that a meld with them could screw with the inner clock.
Liara was lost. There was a real danger to simply disperse herself in the vastness of the planetary organism.
Is this how Lea felt? Has this happened to her?
With that simple thought came another presence, one she was intimately familiar with. Lea wasn't as coherent as back on Illium, still recovering her strength, but simply brushing her essence was all Liara needed to pull herself back together, disentangle her consciousness from the planetary unity. She felt a sense of loss. It had been comforting to be part of something greater, but that was only part of it. As soon as her sense of self returned to her, Shepard's presence dimmed until Liara could barely feel it at the edge of her being. Back in the physical world she cried out in anguish. But she pushed on.
Not being a part but still floating in the consciousness of a whole planet she could now trace how subtle patterns emerged. It was a ecologists wet dream but Liara had a single goal and no inclination to satisfy her scientific curiosity. She had to find the beacon.
Considering what patterns the landing of a small spacecraft might have left in its wake she branched herself out, hunting for telltale signs, but not allowing herself to indulge in the singular experience of unity.
Luckily Elatania had been undisturbed over the last hundred years. Besides her own shuttle the Normandy-SR1's Mako had been the only extra-planetary intruder that had left its mark. And the beacon of course. Still it was difficult to sift through billions of sensory inputs, most of them thoroughly alien to her. The only redeeming factor was the speed at which it happened. Liara was confident it was only a matter of hours.
In the end the monkeys proofed the most valuable tool at her disposal. Disturbances in the way plants were dispersed gave her the initial clue but she had no way to confirm that the beacon's landing had been the source. She had tried to analyze the chemical changes such an event would bring with the help of bacteria but they were just to foreign. She settled for coaxing the ubiquitous simians to investigate a promising site. It was not as fast as she would have liked but since she had narrowed down the possibilities to a hundred she just might make dinner after all. Oh how surprised Garrus and Tali would be!
Tali and Garrus sat in silence at the prepared table, clasping hands. They had called Liara when she hadn't turned up for dinner, which was slowly turning cold before them, but had not received any response. They worried of course but decided to give the Asari a little bit more time.
Real food! Tali could still not believe it. After a life on nutrient paste, sterilized to the point of tasteless blandness, her first bite had been a revelation. The whole experience of simply eating still left her shaking of pleasure at times. The smell, the taste, the texture of even the most simple dish appeared heavenly to the Quarian who still had problems handling the delicate utensils needed to get the food into her mouth. More often than not she discarded fork and knife and simply used her hands, much to Garrus amusement.
On Rannoch many Quarians indulged in the new art form of cooking, experimenting with different tastes and rediscovering ancient Quarian cuisine. It was the one unifying cultural change everyone shared. All agreed that eating was good.
Tali's omnitool chirped, indicating an incoming call. Seeing who it was she breathed a sigh of relief just as she saw Garrus who had looked over her shoulder relax. Accepting the call she prepared herself to scold her friend.
"Liara, where are you? Dinner's almost cold and you know how much I hate eating cold!"
"Sorry," the Asari looked properly sheepish. "But you are never going to believe it! I have found the beacon!"
"You have what?" Garrus and Tali both exclaimed in surprise.
"So let me get this straight. You melded with the planet to find out where the beacon went down. What the fuck T'Soni?" Garrus pinched his nose like she had seen Shepard do on many occasions in a sign of exasperation.
How curious. It appears I'm not the only one infected with her mannerisms.
Liara still grinning sheepishly, nodded her head in agreement.
"I repeat. What the fuck? I thought Asari could only meld with other sentient beings? And then you come along and did it with a whole planet," Garrus continued dryly. The double meaning was not lost on Liara and she huffed in indignation, which brought a grim smile to Garrus face. Yes, Liara was catching on much faster these days.
"Well, what does it matter? We are changed," Liara tried to divert the conversation. "Just because no one has tried it before doesn't mean it can't work."
"Oh I belief it works, alright," Garrus conceded, gesticulating towards the beacon. "Still. What. The. Fuck?"
Deciding to ignore the Turian, Liara made her way towards the waiting beacon. It had been designed to hide itself. Automatic systems had made a small cave to hide it from prying eyes. Currently from their vantage point near the ground it was obviously an artificial structure but from above it could have been a natural hill. In time it would integrate more seamlessly into the landscape.
As she approached the heart of the beacon she brought up her omnitool, sending an activation signal to bring it back online. Had they waited a couple of hundred years, the beacon would have activated on its own as soon as it recognized an organic intruder, ready to assist them in any way to help them defeat the ancient enemy, but only years after the Reaper invasion all system laid dormant.
Unlike the Protheans before her, Liara had not taken any chances. The beacons were designed to be operable even by primitive civilizations, allowing them a rapid advancement that would catapult them up to the stars in a few generations even if they barely knew how to work metal. She wasn't stupid however. There were safeguards in place to prevent abuse of the power the discovery would give whoever got his hands on one of her beacons.
Machinery hummed to life and presently a copy of Glyph, the VI she had appropriated from the old Shadow Broker popped out of its holding slot.
"Greetings Doctor T'Soni. It has been four hundred twenty-three days since your last login. Would you like to run a diagnostic scan?"
"No thank you Glyph. Please display the plans of the Crucible and the Citadel side-by-side. Run a comparison between the two, check for spaces between the two where rooms could be hidden."
"Right away Doctor T'Soni."
Tali, Garrus and Liara looked on as the two holograms slowly rotated before them. Gently folding out their respective arms they began to connect. Indicators flashed over the structures, marking the progress of the analysis. It didn't take long.
"Analysis complete Doctor T'Soni," the orb announced. "There have been no hidden rooms found. The two structures fit perfectly."
"Well, that was a bust. Good idea though, maybe..." Garrus tried to not say 'I told you so' outright.
"No," Liara cut him off. Confidently striding forward she opened the main storage compartment. In order to conserve the data for as long as possible she had used biotically reinforced diamonds as medium, the most durable material known in the galaxy. The information was imprinted as lattice errors, nothing short of destroying the crystal would corrupt it.
Squinting her eyes she looked at the crystal. She knew how the information was written on them, knew how it could be read by the machines. Why couldn't she read them?
She refused to give up, knowing now in her heart that part of the answer was hidden in the gem before her. Her eyes flashed in a brilliant green, reflecting of the lattice and the information hidden within, tracing a curious pattern on the walls. Liara took in all of it, noticing where missing atoms disturbed the interference, distorting the normally regular pattern to something that held the answer. Slowly she rotated the crystal, changing the pattern on the walls.
"Just as suspected," she finally spoke. "The plans Glyph has shown us are not the same as on the crystal. Something is indeed trying to hide the real information from us."
"The. Fuck. Liara?" slowly turning back to her friends she saw them standing there, mouths opened in shock, incredulous expression on their faces.
Suddenly it seemed like a good idea to fall unconscious.
AN: There's an academic paper on 'Wiki Walking' somewhere on the Web. Look the term up on tvtropes and you'll find the link. And if you never went on a Wiki Walk – I can wholeheartedly recommend that page. Start with something like 'Crowning moment of funny' or 'Did you just punch out Cthulhu?' and just go from there.
You can thank me later. Or curse me. Whatever.