Chapter 2 of Ghost in the Machine
One year before the attack on Eden Prime.
Liara was cold. She glanced at Mother, and Mother glanced back as if to say, stop fidgeting already. But Liara’s toes were freezing and she was trying to wriggle them inside her inappropriately light boots. The effort must have made her face look funny, for Mother shot her another scolding look.
Goddess, she was unbearable. If only they had been alone, Liara would have simply upped and left. She had gotten rather good at that during the past decade but it seemed like this meeting would throw all her ideas about standing up to Mother’s condescension to dark space. No matter how hard she tried to fight it, spite welled up in her and she stared back like a stubborn little brat. A vicious circle, as humans called it: Mother’s presence was insufferable enough to degrade her mental facilities, regressing her right into the child Mother took her to be.
Being drunk was not helping her case either. But she was not drunk enough to be warm and now she made a show of having shivers.
“I’ll turn up the heat,” Saren said, ending the silent quarrel.
Liara jumped at the sound of his voice. The three of them were sitting at an oval and ridiculously long table in the cavernous room that made up the better part of Saren’s apartment on Noveria. Everything inside was white, or at best, a pastel shade. Mother had told her that Saren did not like bright colors. For some reason, Liara thought it a mark of a sad man. But Saren did not look like he was sad. Ever. Most of the time, he seemed to be… annoyed.
Still, he was the perfect gentleman. On the way back from the control panel on the white wall, he picked up another bottle of white wine from the white cabinet, and filled her glass, and Mother’s. Mother had told her that Saren did not like to drink. He only took water and tea. And he ate surprisingly little for a biotic. Liara’s appetite wasn’t up to her usual standards tonight, perhaps on account of the cold. Between the two of them, Mother’s repeated servings of everything laid out on the white table seemed very unladylike.
Saren had served them many delicacies from different worlds and Liara was under the impression that he had prepared at least some, if not all of them, himself. There was a hand-made air to all of it, from smells to tastes to arrangements, though they certainly looked professional. She had spent many minutes gathering the courage to ask him about it. What if cooking was somehow… what was the word… emasculating in turian culture? But if that were so, why would he do it?
She became aware that he was watching her and she promptly blushed, then tried to hide it by gulping down her wine. Goddess.
“Liara, slow down,” Mother said, making her blush even harder. In that moment she hated Mother so intensely she could scarcely keep her biotics from flaring out. She hated dining with Mother and walking with Mother and being anywhere near any other people with Mother because she was never safe from embarrassments like this. Of course nothing could be done about it and she simply complied, putting the glass down. A finger of pale golden fluid remained. After a second of observing it, Liara snatched the glass and downed it.
Mother let out an exasperated sigh, then helped herself to some more cake. Saren was still watching Liara. He apparently had no scruples whatsoever when it came to staring at people and soon it became unbearable. She cleared her throat and said, “Did you prepare all of this yourself?”
“I did,” he replied. Then, after a second, “How can you tell?”
Liara shrugged. “Home-made food has… heart.” She offered him a wide smile, which convinced her that Mother had been right, and that she had drunk the wine too quickly. But it was nice. She could feel her toes again.
Saren’s browplates arched, just a little, and he surveyed the food on the table. “I assure you, none of the dishes contain-”
“What Liara meant,” Mother intervened before he could finish, “is that people who cook for their guests invest welcoming feelings into the process, and this can be tasted in the food.”
Liara turned to Mother with a mortified stare. Surely this explanation was completely unnecessary and even insulting? Saren was a strange man indeed, but certainly he was not…
“Mm,” he muttered, obviously accepting the interpretation, and Liara’s unbelieving eyes went back to him. She had to chuckle at his blank expression, and from the way Mother looked at her, Liara was sure she would have kicked her under the table if only they had been seated closer.
“I am sorry,” she said, clearing her throat, though Saren did not seem to be particularly moved by her indecency. “It was really excellent. All of it. Especially this… what was it called again?” She pointed with her finger and of course it went straight into the gelatinous sauce, and, being drunk as she was, she sucked on it with a delicious smack. It all happened in the course of seconds but Liara was entirely sure that Mother kept count of all her social failures.
Saren nodded. “Retu-pudding,” he said. “A quarian recipe. Made entirely from racemic ingredients.”
He started to say something, then seemed to change his mind. What he said in the end was, “Equal parts levo and dextro.”
“Ah. An unfamiliar term.” But the feeling that she was missing something was very familiar. “Ah! That’s why you’re not eating?”
Mother was positively appalled, but Saren looked… amused. In fact, one of his mandibles was slightly slanted in the turian substitute for a smile. A very small smile, but more than enough to make Liara smile back. He turned to Mother, then, and they exchanged some silent communication Liara could not understand. After that Mother relaxed a little. She ran a hand over her stomach, probably full to bursting, then reached for the other cake anyway.
“What is your next destination?” Saren said after a while.
It took Liara some seconds to understand that he was addressing her, and then a few more to understand the question. “Oh! That. I will be flying to Therum in two weeks.”
“The human colony in the Traverse?”
“Yes. It is riddled with Prothean ruins, but of course the colonists have picked them clean a long time ago. The University paid a great deal of money to EAE to preserve any new ones they might find while mining. This is the first time they called.”
Saren grunted, but this time, Mother spoke before he could. “Humans are greedy.”
“Everybody is greedy, Mother,” Liara said. “And given the recent shortage of Prothean artifacts on the black market, it is a wonder EAE did not decide to plunder the new site themselves and sell the findings – they would surely stand to profit.”
There was actually nothing wondrous about it; Liara simply relished every opportunity to contradict Mother. Of course the human mining company had tried to change the terms of the agreement, but the University had threatened to sue and she had overheard more than a few heated debates in the Department about the prospect of working anywhere near humans again. It turned out it was well worth it, though. The technicians who had gone ahead of the research team had already reported detecting buried chambers, possibly untouched since the Exodus.
“Shortage,” Saren repeated after her, exchanging yet another mysterious look with Mother. Liara was almost sure it was not a question, but decided to answer anyway.
“Indeed. Either the AFPPOL became a lot more efficient than they used to be, or there is someone out there, collecting. Whatever the cause, the prices have never been this high. It is making my job very difficult.”
“And dangerous,” Mother said. “I don’t understand why you can’t have the artifacts shipped to the University.”
It was supposed to be a challenge, but Liara refused to be drawn into that quarrel again. Instead, she opted for a slight change of subject, and addressed her question directly to Saren.
“How did the humans get to settle so many Prothean worlds?”
Saren inclined his head to the side, studying her, and either that or the wine suddenly made her very warm. “Prothean worlds are damaged goods. Nobody else wants to settle them. But at the rate the humans have been expanding, they can’t afford to pick and choose.” He paused. “Your mother is right. Humans are greedy, only not for riches. They hunger for power. At the moment, quick expansion is the most obvious way to secure their place in Galactic society and the Council finds this agreeable. They intend to let the humans settle the border regions, then adopt them, when the political climate is right.”
“You mean, let them join the Council?”
“It is bound to happen.”
Liara nodded. Nothing she did not know already, but listening to Saren was a rare pleasure. She had no outstanding feelings for humans in general, and was always confused by the dislike so many people had for them. Mother and Saren being among those people. Liara thought to use the context of the conversation and ask why, but Saren spoke before she had a chance.
“Yes,” said Liara.
“No,” said Mother at exactly the same time.
But Saren was up already, and despite the refusal, he filled both their glasses again. He swirled the remaining wine in the bottle, sniffed discreetly at the neck, and finally drained it into his own glass. It barely reached the half mark. Liara’s hand was on her glass already, but fortunately she checked herself in time and left it alone as Saren lifted his.
“To your health,” he said, giving her an elegant bow of the head and turning to mirror the courtesy to Mother. They all sipped. For the first time since the beginning of the dinner, Liara was sufficiently at ease to actually taste it. Sweet, fruity, and just the right temperature. As in everything else, Saren seemed to have a perfect taste in wine.
She liked him. A lot. She blushed again, but she had learned the lesson and only took another sip from the glass. Was he watching her again? She did not dare look. He was still standing, rising the glass to his mouth every so often. Both his and Mother’s capacity for long spells of silence was infuriating. Perhaps that was how they became friends? By sitting together for stretches of time and saying nothing at all? Liara smiled at that image, shooting another shy glance at him.
Saren was tall and oddly proportioned, for a turian. He had broad shoulders, narrow hips and unusually heavy arms and legs. Mother had told her that he had lost his left arm in some terrible accident, and that he was wearing a prosthetic replacement, but Liara would never have guessed it just by looking at him. He moved with the grace of a dancer. Or a martial artist. Yes, that was much more likely. Liara had met him several times in the past and had seen him in different kinds of attire, which seemed to bring out different aspects of his personality. The one wearing a custom-built hard-suit riddled with all kinds of unrecognizable upgrades, she would be comfortable never meeting again. But tonight he was wearing a long white robe over a suit of gentle gray that went well with the colorless pallor of his inexpressive face. When wearing robes, he appeared and acted… regal. Yes. And she found it incredibly sexy.
Liara wondered, and not for the first time, if Mother thought so too. If they were lovers. There were no obvious threads of intimacy running between them. Oh, certainly they were very close; the level of their nonverbal communication testified to that in no uncertain terms. But was there more? Liara caught herself wishing that the answer was no. She could have asked Mother on a number of occasions, yet she never did, out of fear that she would not like the answer. Of course she was aware that Mother took lovers from a time to time, but Saren had been around for almost two years now. No, they probably were not lovers, Liara convinced herself. A couple with a history of two years would not be so careful to avoid… touching.
Her train of thought was interrupted when someone’s omni beeped. Mother’s. She glanced at her wrist, then stood up. “I apologize. I have to take this.”
“You may use the terminal in the bedroom,” Saren said, indicating a general direction with his chin, and Liara secretly rejoiced. Had they been lovers, surely he would not have to tell her where the bedroom was.
Mother stalked away, her lush silver gown rustling luxuriously around her long legs. A gorgeous woman; Liara’s own childish cuteness was a distant echo of that aristocratic, almost ethereal, beauty. She got up with an envious sigh, casting a mournful look down her own body, still somewhat chubby, yet not rounded enough, and the simple uniform of her research institute was doing little to compliment it. It would be another fifty years or so before she would start showing some real curves, and by that time, Saren would be an old man. If he lived that long at all. Spectres tended to die young.
“Let me help you clear the table,” she said.
“It’s not necessary.”
“But I want to.”
Saren muttered a reluctant approval, and as Liara picked up her plate and Mother’s, he took the heavy bowl with leftover soup and led the way to the kitchen, separated from the big room with a wide curtain of white glass-beads. Liara inspected the contents of the plates in her hands and recited a quick little prayer for pardon before allowing herself to stumble over a nonexistent bump on the floor, slamming the dishes into Saren’s chest just as he turned after putting down the soup.
“Goddess,” she exclaimed, and there was no reason to fake distress, because she had failed to include the shattering of the dishes into her calculation. But how could she have guessed they were really ceramic? It was so decadent! Yet unbelievably fitting. “I am so sorry!”
She looked up at him, and there it was: annoyance. It shone from his predatory gaze like a warning beacon and, Goddess forgive her, Liara felt it like living touch on her skin. “I am so very sorry,” she repeated, then made a motion as if to go down on her knees and collect the greasy shards.
“Leave it,” he instructed, and she straightened up. His expensive white robe was a mess, which was exactly what she had planned, and now she snatched a dry cleaning cloth from behind him and started patting the wet stains, relishing the warmth of his stone-hard body, readily felt even through so many layers of clothing. But he would not have it. He caught her wrist with his right hand, although it would have made much more sense to use the left. Still, the grip was not gentle. When she looked into his eyes again, she found a kind of serious contemplation there that was very different from his usual assortment of non-expressions. Yet it was not new.
Liara had already attempted something like this close to a year before, when Saren had come looking for Mother on Thessia. He had been in a more… receptive mood then, or so it seemed, although of course he excused himself and left in a hurry before she could do anything other than steal the lightest touch of his magnificent fringe, as if by accident. He would not allow anything like it now; that much was clear. Liara pouted, trying the last desperate measure: the cute-attack.
She thought she would either freeze or melt under his stare – she was not yet ready to decide which – and then Mother had to come back and ruin it, as she always did.
“What happened?” she said, looking at the mess of the shattered dishes between them.
“Nothing,” Saren said, spelling the word very carefully. He released Liara’s wrist, but still held her gaze. “Nothing at all.”
Liara nodded, although she did not want to. The message was clear enough.
“We have to go,” Mother announced, a purple blush covering her face and bust. “Liara, come.”
Saren followed them to the door with the marred robe folded over his arm, looking even more imposing in the tight-fitting suit, even though it made the asymmetry between his right arm and the prosthesis that replaced his left, very obvious. Which would not have bothered Liara the least, had she… had they… She was feeling absolutely defeated and kept casting sad glances at him, but the way he deflected them, expertly, just buried her lingering hopes deeper and deeper. He helped Mother into her rich fur coat without a word, and when he dropped Liara’s inadequate jacket over her shoulders, he managed to do so without touching her even for a split second.
The cold air outside the apartment sobered her up in no time. On their way to the car, a tall turian with striking white markings that made him look a lot alike Councilor Valern walked past them. He paused when he saw Mother, and Mother paused when she saw him. They only exchanged a polite little bow of the heads, however.
“Who’s that?” Liara asked several steps later. “He’s handsome,” she added with a smile.
“Nobody important,” Mother said. But the nervous twitching of her right eye, a trait Liara unfortunately seemed to have inherited, gave an entirely different answer.
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