The Withering

BY MISFIRE ANON

It was her first time shopping in over two years. She gazed at her surroundings with huge, round eyes, taking in the golden arches hung with blue and lavender drapery; the sun-dappled walkway, hewn from stone by skilled machines. What she didn’t pay attention to were the shops. Their storefronts were modest and tasteful, neon streaks of light tracing out elegant glyphs, just barely visible under the foliage of the ornamental trees lining the plaza. But weren’t enough, apparently, to draw her eyes away from the small, glittering birds that darted overhead.

Like a child—because that was what she was—she played the game of stepping only on the junctions of stones. She traced out periodic square waves behind her, as if she were sending out a signal of youth and freedom. Mother sighed. An asari-salarian couple walking in the opposite direction paused to glance at the pair, perhaps having recognised Benezia from an open lecture at the square. Mother turned to smile. The girl began to step more daintily, forgetting for a moment the quick pace from her beginner’s martial training. The self-defence courses were strongly recommended to students that planned to stray from the regular trade lanes, and Mother had ushered her into one as soon as she’d decided to delve into archaeology. If she couldn’t choose her daughter’s career, at least she could enforce these kinds of things.

Mother stepped through a holographic door. The advertisement of the sparkling blue dress shimmered as the Matriarch’s form seemed to merge with it, and returned to normal when the dark hem of her robe slid past the threshold. Liara followed suit. The hologram felt like nothing at all; she somehow expected it to be like stepping through a sheet of water. She brushed her shoulder off afterwards out of habit.

“Ah, Benezia. It’s good to see you again.” The shopkeeper stepped out from behind the counter and embraced Mother. Both women appeared secretly pleased, from knowledge on which Liara had no grasp. “I guess you’re as busy as always. What brings you here?”

“I’m here for my daughter. Come here, Liara.” She beckoned. “She needs that talent of yours.”

“Hmm,” the shopkeeper nodded, looking her up and down. She suddenly had the uncomfortable feeling that she should have changed instead of coming directly from the university. Her casual clothes felt shabby under the rich light. “What is your wish, precisely?”

“Something befitting a girl of her age,” Mother gave a reassuring look, “and beauty.”

The other asari returned to her terminal, scrolling through what appeared to be a long list. Liara looked around the shop. It contained a few comfortable chairs, a counter, and several life-size displays of the clothing it carried. There was a trickling pool tucked away in the corner, jade-green, complete with miniature plants to line its sides. The water was as clear as August sky, but obviously recycled through the pump. There were some hard-copy magazines on a low, ornate table. They were not, however, issues of Frontier Monthly or Gaze: Expedition Edition, so she ignored them.

“Hm, here we are.” The shopkeeper pulled up a triple view of a mannequin on the screen behind her. “We have one of Ilena T’Amai’s. Very beautiful, fresh, this one. And gifted designer. Another of hers was showcased last month on the Thessia-Illium Exchange; we sold that within the hour. The fabric is hand-spun, of course.”

Liara looked at it critically. It looked like the raiment of a goddess, to put it mildly. Everything about the dress seemed to be defying gravity—and probably was doing just that with small field generators sewn into the seams. Unfortunately, goddesses were not required to ride rapid transit, attend lectures, or go on field expeditions in the local aged forest.

So a few minutes later, when they left the store with a somewhat lighter-than-air bundle, she asked Mother exactly that question.

“That should not concern you. As you grow, you will find an abundance of occasions upon which to wear this dress.”

“But it won’t fit by that time,” she argued. “And I certainly do not see any such occasion in the near future.”

“I will be receiving a business partner and friend of mine next week. I would prefer that you present yourself appropriately.”

She stopped suddenly, her boots screeching against the stone. “But you said I didn’t have to be there! I had planned to look after the sample extraction for Matriarch Faela overnight, so I wouldn’t inconvenience the two of you…”

“Have you already informed the Matriarch about this?”

“Well, no, but I’m planning to…”

“Then you come with me.” She pouted. Mother sighed quietly. “Liara, when you take flight from this planet—and I know you will, judging by the school’s remarks—you will encounter many cultures—“

“I know, I learned about—“

“And their customs. Now, family values are more important to some than others, and I know for a fact that my friend would feel more at home if you were to show up.”

“Really?” She asked, suspicious. “It would be better for me to sit there and listen to you two sling economical jargon at each other?”

Mother smiled again—this was quite a bit more frequent than usual. “It will be an experience, like they try to convey to you when they take you into the forest. You will be glad to have it.”

“Just please don’t wield your words like blunt objects,” Mother added as she slid into the car.



Liara didn’t consider herself well acquainted with turians. Acquainted, sure; there were many turian students and visiting professors at the metropolitan university. Most of them were very good in their chosen fields.

On the other hand, several of her fellow asari could be called well acquainted and too well acquainted, being involved in relationships of varying seriousness with said students.

She herself? For starters, she thought that watching them eat was a mortifying experience. Perhaps it’s some sort of ancestral memory, but seeing that many sharp teeth moving that quickly ensured that she will never lunch next to the foreigners.

In that regard, her mother’s guest was actually quite polite. It was something of an oddity to see him tear into his dinner with a set of spun glass utensils, but it did the trick of convincing her that turians were just as civilised as asari. That, and the fact that he and Mother were engrossed in a decidedly formal conversation about the company, the gist of which she had completely lost about ten minutes ago. She had her share of food in silence.

Until they began speaking in a language she knew. “Yes, exactly like The Shrike Abyssal. And look at what the surveys have to show. Bronze Age civilizations, barely a trace left.” The turian said, flexing his gloved talons to make a point. “Which is why I see better opportunities elsewhere.”

“The Xe Cha system is actually quite interesting,” she muttered.

“Xe Cha.” He looked to her so quickly, it would have given most people whiplash. She jumped slightly. Mother acted like that kind of reflexes were par for the course.

“Yes. I read a set of papers on that a while ago. I was looking for logic errors between the discredited interpretation of the Aphras sites and the new ones, and I found internal inconsistencies between multiple modern views instead…” she was suddenly aware of the utter silence of the other two people at the table. “…And it was, er, quite interesting.”

“Your daughter.” He turned to Mother. “What did you say she studied? It sounds…intense.”

“Archaeology.” Did Mother just look happy saying that? “She is rather intense about it, certainly.”

“That is obvious. And a good thing. Tell me more about your work?”

She must be brief this time. “I study…ah, cycles.” Quick, redirect the conversation. “Mr Arterius, have you been to Aphras? I’ve only read about its beauty.”

“Call me Saren. And yes, I have.” He folded his hands. “It was beautiful and desolate. But mostly the former.”



Even after years have passed, she could not come to terms with the fact that he was a Council Spectre. Mother had sworn her to secrecy, but she had been tempted to tell others simply because she didn’t think it was true. Somehow, there was a complete disconnect between Saren, the faceless galactic hero occasionally mentioned in broadcasts, and Saren, the businessman with a surprising wealth of facts about the Protheans and their legacies. She didn’t believe them until she noticed that turians did not normally fasten their mandibles to their faces with titanium rods as cosmetic surgery. And then she learned to recognise scars for what they were.

On the morning of the first day of Janiris, Mother attended the formal ritual with her colleagues. Liara was unpacking from her latest trip to a newly discovered dig when the comm rang.

“Hello.” Saren, with a bandage peeking from his collar. “Is the Matriarch in?”

“She won’t be here until late,” she explained as she opened the door for him. “Is it urgent? I think I can reach her…”

“It won’t be necessary.” Pause. “Thank you, though.” He stepped over her open suitcases en route to the nearest chair. “I’m afraid I must intrude for a while.”

“Oh, no, that’s—“she hurried to close the suitcases”—fine. I’m happy that you’re here.”

“Right.” Cybernetic eyes flickered in a brief glance. He pulled out an OSD and slid it across the table. “Here. Some first-hand information for you. How’s that project going?”

“It’s…going. It’s going well. Thank you. You’ve been so much help. I wish I could… oh, wait, Janiris… this’ll take a while.”

He watched her dart across the room with an expression that simulated mild amusement. When she opened the door to Mother’s maze-like garden, he shifted for a better view.

“Come on,” she beckoned. “There’s a chair outside, too.” He got up gingerly, confirming her suspicions about he being even more tired than she.

She pushed several tall strands of grass aside to reach a cluster of violet flowers. As she picked them, she heard him approach from the side. “It’s tradition,” she explained in his general direction, concentrating on the flowers. “Travelling has completely confused me. I didn’t realise until this morning.”

“Therum, I presume.”

Whatever sources of information he had, they were good. She had long ceased to be surprised by this. “Yes. The work there—well, it’s not as exciting as what you do; we rarely have to chase after what we need. But the site is wonderful. We hope to reveal a great deal about Prothean economy.”

“Not technology?”

“Not all of archaeology involves invaluable artifacts. Though I admit, most of the interesting parts do. They also include gratuitous gunfire. We didn’t have that there.” They both smiled, for completely different reasons.

“The Matriarch maintains this place?” He looked around, perhaps impressed by the hanging blue tendrils of that rare climber Mother had procured from a southern nursery. The expression was as ambivalent as always.

“Yes. I’m surprised she hasn’t shown you before.”

He blinked. “No.” He fiddled with a blade of grass. He had pulled off his gloves sometime after stepping outside, and the motion with which he severed the leaf was almost a caress. “It’s quiet.”

“Dampeners, I think. Otherwise, the city will certainly make itself heard.”

A single nod was all the response she received. She gathered her bundle of flowers, just enough for her to encircle their long stems with one hand, and made her way back to the paved section of the garden. Spreading them out on an imitation bronze table, she chose four and began to weave them together.

“I used to do this so eagerly as a child,” she said, because the silence was getting overbearing. “Quite poorly—but it was fun.” She pinched off a stray stem. “It’s still fun, but as I said, it’s also tradition now.”

He gave one of those frankly-I-don’t-care blank looks. She buried herself in work, blushing a little.

“It is a whimsical one,” he declared. She jumped—that habit hasn’t left her.

Fortunately, the wreath was recently completed and did not come undone. Unfortunately, it slipped from her hands and fell to the ground. She picked it up, not sure of what to do. It looked slightly shabbier; those flowers were too delicate.

“I did not want that to happen.” She held the bruised wreath gingerly and awkwardly.

“I don’t mind.”

He inclined his head just so slightly, and she, on the tips of her toes, lowered the flowers into place.

“What is the meaning of this?” She tugged at the black cloth draped over his fringe. “There’s a symbol on it.”

“It means ‘you’re too close for your own good’.” He seemed to sneer, but there was no malice in it. “Tradition, Liara.”



That night, Saren argued with Mother over the comm.

“…But not now,” he was saying. “For one who has lived centuries, you are a fool.”

Mother had not come home from the ceremony. She could imagine her stern, holographic figure turn its nose up at the turian.

“Reneging on your promise, Saren? For one who has travelled across this galaxy, you are ignorant. You will rue the day—“

“Though you may be so heartless, I refuse to allow—“

“Then, to begin, I will withdraw all of my—“

“You have no idea what is truly at stake, Benezia.”

Liara, listening at the door, shivered at that. Hearing the voice of a Spectre for the very first time.

“Neither do you,” Mother challenged. There was a pause, then the sound of Saren smashing the disconnect switch.

She rushed in, swallowed; not sure how to begin. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re not at fault.” But she was at fault. She had approached him first. She had derailed the conversation first.

She had kissed him first. It was horribly awkward and plain wrong. She had done it anyway.

He could probably read the doubt right off of her face. “The Matriarch isn’t coming back tonight. And I don’t give a damn. About her. Not you.” Letting out a held breath, he sat down heavily on a creaking chaise.

She was pondering whether it would be appropriate to sit beside him when he looked up at her and said: “You stand by what you said.”

Numbly, she nodded.

“Don’t feel obliged.”

“I do not. I have told you before. This isn’t about the sentients that disappeared fifty millennia ago. Those projects don’t factor in here. This is about us. I feel it. I have always felt it, Saren.”

“Come, then.”



Embrace eternity.

The asari possess marvellous nervous systems. They have even more marvellous cellular regeneration mechanisms. Those translate into beauty products for less robust telomeres. You couldn’t bottle a mind-meld, but you could mass-manufacture R-V treatments.

Why would you want to, anyway?

Liara was walking. It felt like walking, at least. Or swimming, but without any effort on her part. There is no physical analogue for it, like there is no analogue for the tesseract in merely three dimensions.

One can imagine still.

There were others beside her. Flickering outlines; she couldn’t focus on them. They were everywhere, though, and provided familiar comforts to her small consciousness, lost in the databanks and half-hidden processors of another organic construct. Lost in the world beyond the curtain of identity, the world of a thousand voices and of nimble fingers that wove the curtain, that were the curtain. There were scraps of sound and scent and something she couldn’t process, longwave perhaps. Or ultrasound. A blind woman, seeing colour for the first time. Sight without eyes, sound without ears. Emotion, without clumsy muscles to lean on.

The world lived in the rhythm of heartbeats, of even breaths and the rapid pulses of neurons. She hurtled through decades on silver paths. Something bright flashed across her consciousness one moment and was gone the next. Something drew out her non-existent tears. Something made her biotics flare up and enveloped her mind with a rage so great that she couldn’t see the path anymore, just sheets of blood blue and white lightning.

The surge passed, but the road was gone. The silver peeled away. The ocean vaporised, as if the world was hurtling too fast towards a swelling sun. And Liara—Liara simply fell.

The subconscious is a terrible creature. It’s wired according to the laws of survival; it’s the trapped instinct that claws and snaps at the firm but brittle grasp of sapience. It’s the adrenaline and dopamine that sentients translate with fumbling tongues into courage, into love. Both of which are fleeting. But despair, despair is bottomless here; evolution has no victor.

Fear tugged at her. And pain. The comforting outlines were replaced by cybernetic monstrosities whose very shapes spoke of pure torture. She was still falling. She was falling from and towards something she couldn’t escape, at once; tapping out a message into the ether so that others may avoid this fate.

Liara?

Someone called for her. A comrade? Couldn’t be. They were all dead. She made sure of it. Their blood was splattered down her front and their bodies lied contorted on the lightbridge. This was a last stand and the things out there knew it.

The machines knew it. They taunted her. No no no, she taunted herself. Every pore was sweating. The machines were not there. They couldn’t be. It was her mind playing tricks. Of all her people’s havens, this was the last.

Wait, wasn’t that her commander, passing by the window? Wasn’t her commander dead?

Liara?

White-knuckled, she gnawed on her lip until she tasted blood. The weapon, already too heavy for her hands, threatened to fall.

Wait, she burst out, I’m coming. Wait for me. I’m coming. Don’t leave me behind. Her commander was alive. Everyone was fine. There was no need to hold back, after all. There was no reason to bar that door. Everything would be fine if she stopped being her stubborn self and accepted—



Her back smashed into the floor, knocking from her what breath she had left. The violet glow from Saren’s biotics shimmered and faded.

“I’m fine,” she said hoarsely. “My spine might not be.”

“The last thing you saw. Now.” An order.

“They were alive—but who were they? It didn’t feel like…”

“Anything you should know.” He snapped. “What about your spine?”

She sat up gingerly, rubbing her back. “I think it’s nothing. I’ve definitely had worse during training.”

Wordlessly, he helped her to her feet; she felt as if he’d pulled her arm out of its socket by doing so. They returned to the chaise. Her mind still spun from that long fall. It was barely half a metre to the ground, but thoughts travelled on the order of nanoseconds. And that black despair had dominated hers for what felt like years.

Night had fallen over this half of Thessia. The console on the desk was in sleep mode, the slow waxing and waning of its status screen mimicking orange drowsiness. Saren’s eyes were unblinking.

“What was that? A memory?” She asked, after a long silence filled only with their breathing.

“No. A message. Something you will hopefully forget in time.” He sighed. His voice was not softer, but quieter, and that was as far as it would go and she could accept that. “I knew it would happen.”

She read something from that. “Did my mother–?”

“Yes.”

They sat in silence again. She leaned into him, found it comfortable, and smiled a painful smile.

“Let’s begin again. The turian way.”

His surprise was almost certainly genuine. A low subvocal utterance was lost to the air.

“I live it again when I try to keep my mind blank.” Her grip on his suit tightened. “It’s too fresh.” The blood was too fresh. Dripping, still, from the butt of her rifle and the knuckles of her left hand. Maybe there was some flesh left in the bore, despite her attempts at cleaning. She checked the door code again and again. Those things could hack anything, if they put what’s left of their minds to it…

“Help me, Saren.”

She had thought about this before. Prepared for it, even. Surfed the extranet through proxies. Asked for advice from her more gregarious friends. She knew how to work the clasps, the correct order, the correct timing. But somehow, it was still easier to keep her eyes on his mechanical arm, rather than the surfaces she revealed with every layer of cloth. Machines were the same everywhere. Cold, metallic, jointed, and dotted with connectors and signals. The rest of him was still metallic, but sculpted by forces that flesh cannot fathom. An alien landscape, with bones in the wrong places, and hills and valleys composed entirely of blades. Occasionally, they glinted dangerously in the city’s everlasting light.

Tentatively, she reached out and touched the seam between metal and metal, the smooth joint of the artificial ribcage and the central ridge of his chest. “How did you survive this?”

“Power supply and load-bearing framework for the arm.” He said flatly. “An actual wound would have been fatal.”

“And this?” Bare fingers traced over the rare patch of skin not covered by plating.

“There is a story,” he murmured, “but for another time.”



“Hey, Liara.”

The Shadow Broker turns from her screens for a brief moment and regards the human Spectre, who looks quite at home in the space station’s control room.

“Why do you have all these hardcopies?” Shepard is leafing through some tattered magazines. Though the letters are faint, she can recognise the iconic covers of Frontier Monthly in any situation.

“For old times’ sake.”

She turns back to her work, trying to ignore the lump rising in her throat.

As Shepard turns the worn pages, memories tumble from them. And the ground becomes littered with the corpses of pale violet flowers.

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