AN - Thanks to Reikson ... for patiently keeping me on track
Ventralis was really shocked to see them again. That look of surprise was still etched on his face when Shepard shot him in the head.
Xander took plenty of mental photographs upon meeting his first Asari Matriarch. He wouldn't have said so in front of Liara, but those piercing eyes, that curve-hugging full-length pinstripe dress with the plunging neckline with the impressive cleavage to fill it, and the deadly biotic powers... well, Benezia was the total package.
She was definitely an easy ten on the scale of hotness. He mentally maneuvered Benezia onto his all-time greats list, right behind Anya and Ashley, but in front of Aria T'Loak and Harmony Kendell. That allowed him to finally kick Miss French, the giant praying mantis demon, off the list once and for all.
"You do not know the power of being a mother," Benezia intoned. "To take a life, and turn it toward happiness or despair." She gestured to the captive Rachni Queen. "Her children were to be ours, raised to hunt and slay Saren's enemies."
Benezia strolled toward them. "I will not be moved to sympathy, no matter who you bring into this confrontation."
"That's not why Liara's here." Shepard snarled.
"It's not?" Xander asked. "...'cuz I totally thought the whole not-killing-us-on-sight factor was what we were going for."
"Indeed? What have you told them about me, Liara?"
"What could I say, mother?" Liara demanded. "Should I have explained how to kill you? That you're insane? Tell me, mother! What could I say?" She was all but screaming when she finished talking.
"If I have a vote, I say all of the above." Xander muttered.
"Your insolence is a poor mask for your fear, immortal." Benezia snapped at Harris.
"I think of it less as a mask and more of a goes-with-anything accessory-" Xander paused. "Wait...what did you just call me?"
Benezia snorted, "The Butcher Of Torfan, the newest Council Spectre, arriving with an Urdnot. One of the greatest tactical minds that the Krogan have ever produced, and my daughter? Who just happens to be an expert in ancient and lost civilizations? You want me to believe it a mere coincidence that they're accompanied by an immortal. Do you take me for a fool?" the Matriarch snapped.
"...Then YOU know what he is." Shepard said, suspiciously.
"Indeed... him and all those like him. Was that why you joined with them against me, Liara? In the hope that you'll learn the secrets of creation? The answers to all of the lost mysteries?"
"Enough, Mother, this is getting us nowhere," Liara cut her off. "What are you and Saren trying to accomplish? Surely you cannot believe that all of the destruction you've unleashed is for the greater good."
"Oh, but it is, Little Wing, " Benezia smiled, a fanatical gleam in her eye. "Thanks to Saren, I see now that it is only through the return of the Reapers that the Asari can reach their full potential. The unworthy will be swept aside in order to make room for a new Asari Matriarchy. We will no longer dominate from the shadows, but from on high. We will be Goddesses. Submit yourselves now, and a place may be found for you in the new order."
Xander's slow clapping broke the silence that followed. "Nice," he said with scorn "Do you know how long it's been since I heard a decent bad-guy monologue?"
Shepard shook her head as she laughed. "We just killed our way through your army of rent-a-thugs. Do you really think that this will be any different?"
Benezia's smile was cold. "You killed a few disposable minions. Hardly the challenge that one would expect from an eleventh-hour battle."
Wrex snickered. "I was beginning to wonder when this was going to get interesting."
Benezia looked at them. "Have you ever faced an Asari Commando unit before? Few humans have. The least-trained among them spend decades... not years, but decades, learning combat skills. After that, comes training in the use of biotics. And we Asari have had thousands of generations to perfect our biotic training. And by the time an Asari reaches my age, her combat skill and power easily eclipses anything that you humans have ever produced."
Xander felt a odd sensation, a nagging feeling that he was missing something. He closed his eyes and concentrated hard, recalling his many lessons with Willow in fighting mental domination. That's when he felt it; the screen on his perception, the cloud that had been blinding them to danger.
"Boss!" he shouted. "She's been messing with our heads! Concentrate! Focus, and you'll see them!"
Shepard looked around as the room seemed to shimmer like it was an oasis coming into focus. Surrounding them on all sides was an army of Geth Troopers and Asari commandos. Benezia had not only been prepared for their arrival, but had somehow found a way to shield the true strength of her forces from the squad's eyes.
Shepard looked around at the guns facing her, and then turned back to regard Benezia. "You really expect me to believe that you'd kill your own daughter?"
Benezia shrugged. "I now realize that I should've been stricter with her."
Shepard looked around the room, and then leaned over to Xander. "If you've got a way out of this, now would be the time to spring it."
"Sorry, boss, I'm all out of miracles." Xander muttered.
"What are you worried about? You'll survive this, anyway." Wrex pointed out.
"It still hurts when I die, Wrex, and the only thing worse then dying in the middle of a firefight is waking up in the middle of one." Xander snapped.
Life has a way of tossing you a gimme every so often. Xander had seen that happen a thousand times and had come to believe it wholeheartedly. Still, what happened next ranked a hard eleven, even his scale of weird.
Xander's omnitool gave a determined bleep. In hindsight, he recalled setting the thing for silent alerts, specifically so he would not be distracted during tense moments like the one that he was currently experiencing. He looked at it and saw an incoming email from Wicca-girl. Willow's old email account.
That should have been impossible; he hadn't seen Willow since Dawn's funeral. He'd spoken with her infrequently since then, but the last message they'd exchanged was a few decades back.
It'd been a heads-up about that artifact procurement gig on Shanxi. She'd described it as easy job that would be perfect for him. Instead, he'd ended up being at Ground Zero for a pivotal battle of the First Contact War, fighting for his life alongside a trio of mercenaries fighting a group of Turians that had been trying to capture a mysterious and dangerous artifact.
Xander looked at her message, which had a single command in the title; Get Down. Xander still remembered the rules; when Willow Rosenberg tells you to get down, you get the hell down.
"Boss, stop and drop right now!" he screamed as he hit the deck.
Shepard, Liara, and Wrex followed him to the floor just as every lighting fixture in the room overloaded and sent arcs of electricity everywhere. The arcs jumped from one Geth Trooper to another, frying all of them in a timespan of seconds. Several of them even blew up, the explosions taking out nearby Asari commandos; in a single moment, the tide of battle had been completely reversed.
Benezia struggled to get up off the floor, from where the explosions had thrown her. Fury was etched on her face.
Shepard sneered at her. "You'll give up now and tell me what Saren's up to, or this is gonna get ugly."
Her only response was to flare her biotics, and suddenly the debris of her troops rose off the floor. A windstorm tossed the flotsam and jetsam through the air with increasing speed. Liara concentrated and a Barrier flared into existence. The objects battered at the protective shield as they picked up speed.
"Ah, Little Wing," Benezia sneered. "Your Barriers weren't nearly this strong when last we sparred. What has made you so strong? Surely, it can't be the humans. Such short lives... they have maybe a century and they're gone. But maybe that's what you love; knowing that it'll be over before you're forced to feel anything real."
The bubble surrounding the team wavered. Benezia's mini-hurricane swirled ever closer.
"That's it, isn't it?" Benezia sneered, "You actually think that you're falling in love with one of them."
Xander saw several of the objects gouging holes in the walls. Shepard reached out and put her hand on Liara.
"Liara, don't listen to her. Block it out. You have what it takes to beat her, I know you do. TAKE HER DOWN! THAT'S AN ORDER!"
Liara closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the awkward hundred-and-six year-old archaeologist was gone. The Asari in her place narrowed her eyes. "Yes, Commander," she hissed as she fought back. The bubble firmed and began to push back against the storm.
"Xander... her feet," Liara managed. Xander looked down and saw a power lead sparking behind Benezia.
"On it, Doc," Xander reported, training his omni-tool on the lead. A burst of power quickly caused the thing to explode, making it jump and strike Benezia with whip-like force. The Matriarch shuddered, the pain of being electrocuted broke her concentration. The whirlwind in the room faltered for a few critical moments.
"Wrex, take her down!" Shepard shouted.
The Krogan broke from cover and charged the Matriarch, slamming into her with all the force of a truck. Benezia quickly found her body being hurled into a plasteel cage that dominated the room, before being sprawled upon the ground, gasping for breath.
Benezia looked up at the beast within the cage. Her ears ringing from the force of Wrex's blow. Slowly, Benezia could make out a kind of music just at the edge of hearing. The growing and swelling melody drowned out another song. A song that she hadn't even noticed, a melody in her mind with black and ugly notes. The black tune was being pushed aside by this new and brighter harmony. Benezia looked around as if she was seeing the world for the first time in months.
"Liara?" Benezia whispered.
Liara knelt by her mother as Benezia stared unblinking at the huge Rachni Queen.
"What is she doing?" Shepard growled.
"Waiting for me to kill her." Wrex sneered and started forward, but Xander held up his hand, pressing it against the massive lizard's armored chest.
"Wait, I think they're communicating," Xander explained.
"Wait, you can understand that thing?" Shepard asked.
Xander shrugged, "A Doctor friend that I know once explained that the reason we don't understand each other is because we just don't listen enough. Considering I have yet to see a language that he can't speak, I think that he might have a point." He explained as he tapped at his omni-tool.
"What are you doing?" Shepard asked him.
"Writing an app. You want to hear what I can hear, Boss? Well, short of making you like me, the only other way is to fix it so you can listen."
Suddenly the room was filled with a sweet singing. "...B-I-N-G-O and bingo was his name-oh." Xander sang happily.
Shepard gaped at the loudspeaker before turning back to Xander, "Are you kidding me? You re-wrote the universal translator?"
"I've had a LONG time to learn how do all the stuff that used to be amazing to me, Boss. and I do mean a long... long time."
Benezia bowed before the Rachni Queen's cage. Its strange melodies left a smile of joy on the Matriarch's face. "Thank you." She whispered.
"What is it doing?" Liara asked. "Mother?"
"Her song is countering the indoctrination." Benezia explained.
Shiala, Benezia's acolyte on Feros, had explained that Saren's compelling personality was being amplified by his vessel Sovereign. Somehow, just being near Sovereign made you WANT to follow Saren's commands and do his bidding. His cause became yours, his morals became your law, and this force had caused Shiala to willingly give herself to the Thorian. Even though she knew what kind of danger that she'd likely to be in.
"You mean her song cuts off the indoctrination?" Shepard asked.
"No," an odd voice came from the rooms' loudspeakers. "The Black Song... still hums... in the deepest reaches... of her mind. At best, I can... keep it at bay... given her strength."
Shepard approached the cage. "You're the Rachni Queen? You control the Rachni we've been fighting?"
"No... the needle men... took our children... from us. They could not... hear their mother. Their minds... were lost... to fear... and silence."
Shepard rolled her eyes. "Xander, translation please?"
"The BH science team snatched her eggs as soon as she popped them out. I'm guessing that Rachni Queens start teaching their kids in-utero, soi to speak. She sings over the eggs, that's how they learn... well, everything that a Rachni needs to know. BH must have separated them from her as soon as they could, so they could try establishing control themselves. Thing is, once separated from their mom, the kids went feral."
Wrex nodded. "My people used to say that Rachni Queens could control their offspring from long distances. But if you killed the queen before the eggs had developed or hatched, the Rachni came out insane, they'd attack like wild varren." the Krogan rumbled.
" ...sort of like what's been going on around here, Boss." Xander filled in.
"Was this what you'd hoped to accomplish, Benezia?" Shepard hissed angrily. But the Asari shook her head.
"My goal was the location of the lost Mu Relay."
"Okay, I'll bite," Xander sighed. "What's so important about finding a lost Mass Relay? And how the Hell did you manage to lose a Mass Relay? They're kind of hard to miss, what with the largeness and all."
"The Conduit, a really big explosion, and an even bigger ball of dust." Benezia's response was unusually human in its light sarcasm.
Something about her reply made Xander burst into laughter. "I like her! Can we keep her? Please?"
"She was serving Saren not too long ago." Shepard pointed out,
"I still hear Saren's whispers in my mind. With the help of the Rachni Queen, I have more control. But I will never entirely be free, not until Sovereign is destroyed. And perhaps not even then."
"If you... permit me... to leave this place... I will keep... the Black Song... from her." The Rachni Queen offered.
"What?" Shepard was mystified. "After everything she's done to you, you'd still trust her and protect her?"
"Our Mothers... sang of the Black Song... Crying... as it soured... our souls... making us black and sick... turning us to seeding chaos... and destruction... across the sea of stars."
Xander didn't even wait for Shepard to ask.
"Whatever Saren's screwing around with may have started the Rachni War."
"She's blaming the Rachni War on the Reapers?"
"Makes sense when you think about it, Boss," Xander replied. "If we're too busy fighting each other, it only leaves us weaker for when the Reapers finally show up."
"...And Saren has the location of the Mu Relay. Which means that whatever system it links to is the location of The Conduit, and the key to the return of the Reapers."
"We must inform the Council." Liara insisted. "With this information, they can protect the Queen and keep it from harm."
"Keep it from harm?" Wrex sneered. "Are you an idiot? Rachni are dangerous! Millions of my people died to put these things down. Now you and the idiot humans want to bring them back?"
Shepard looked at Xander, "Aren't you going to chime in here?"
"One of my closest friends, someone I came to trust with my life... well, she once tried to kill me. Came damn close to doing it, too. My life was saved by someone that I would've happily seen dead. I might not be here right now if I'd gotten my way."
"...and your point is?"
"Boss, I learned a long time ago that sometimes you have to trust your instincts. You do that, and you almost never screw up."
Shepard nodded, "Well then I guess I know what I have to do." She said as she reached for the controls.
Saren needed the Mu Relay to find the Conduit. Benezia had taken the Relay's location from the Rachni Queen's mind. Apparently, since her people had once controlled that area of space and thus remembered the location, the Queen could somehow remember it as well.
And once I had the location of the Relay, I knew that I had to find Saren soon. He'd been one step ahead of me all this time and that had to change. I still didn't know where Saren was heading off to beyond the Mu Relay. And in the meantime, I had other problems on my plate. Xander could not have timed his revelation any better if he'd tried. I was close enough on Saren's heels and just dependent enough on my entire crew including Xander I literally did not have the time or resources to be suspicious of his motives for keeping what he was from me. I had to deal with the more immediate fallout of my choices.
"Is this report accurate, Commander? You found Rachni on Noveria?"
"...and then released the Queen?" the Turian Councilor snarled. "What were you thinking?"
Shepard's reply was fairly smart-ass free. For her, anyway. "Since Saren's plans seemed to hinge on keeping her tortured and imprisoned, I figured that going the other way might be a good idea."
The Asari councilor sighed. One consistency that she'd noticed was that Shepard's reports to the Council stayed polite and congenial; that is, until her Turian counterpart opened his big, fat mouth to say anything.
"...and what of Benezia, Commander? Did you manage to apprehend her?" The Asari Councilor interjected, mostly to head off the inevitable argument that would end up with Shepard abruptly disconnecting their conversation, as had become her habit when she was annoyed by the Turian councilor's chronic poor choice of words.
"Benezia was in the hotlab when BH's Neutron Purge System was activated. According to my Tech Sergeant, there won't be much left of her, given how close she was to the reactor."
"We understand." The Salarian Councilor replied.
"Please extend our sympathies to Doctor T'soni." The Asari Councilor said "I'm sure she is upset by the outcome."
"... Assuming she wasn't a part of this from the very beginning." The Turian Councilor sneered, "Honestly, Commander, how can you let her just wander around the Normandy unsupervised? What kind of puppy-and-horse operation are you running over there?"
As if given a cue, Shepard rolled her eyes, "The term, Councilor, is Dog-and-Pony show, and I think that technical glitch with our communication system is back. Isn't that right, Joker?" the Commander said.
The holographic image of the Council de-rezzed as Joker answered, "Oh, yeah... Sorry about that! Signal lost, Commander." She could hear his snickering, and smirked.
Shepard turned to Xander. "So what happened in the Hot Lab? I thought we were done?"
"So did I. I'm not sure what happened. If you need to call it something, call it a miracle."
"Is this kind of stuff going to keep happening?" Shepard asked.
Xander snorted. "Weird and unexplainable things happening while chasing ancient, lost secrets? Yeah, you'll get used to that. So, are WE good?" he asked.
"You have a special ability," Shepard replied. "...just like everybody else aboard this ship and you'll notice that I make use of their skills. You can't be killed by conventional means. I'm sure I'll find a way to make use of that at some point."
"It's not a party trick, Boss. It's like I said to Wrex, I feel it every time I die; the pain, the fear... everything. I mean, to quote a really outrageous man... I have died so many times." Xander's face took on that world-weary expression again.
Shepard was stunned. She'd never really associated her wisecracking tech specialist with the type of exhaustion that she usually saw in veterans of the Skyllian Blitz or the Torfan Assault.
"Being... dragged back to life..." Xander murmured. "It's like every last aspect of your entire self suddenly being thrown onto broken glass. And the worst part is that I get to wake up and know that, somewhere down the road, I'll get to experience that all over again. So I actually try and avoid death whenever possible."
Feeling sobered by this raw declaration, Shepard could only shrug. "That's a very human reaction, makes me inclined to keep trusting you. You're scared to die and you fight hard to avoid it."
"So what happens when the Council finds out you let Benezia go, along with the Rachni Queen?"
"If I left the Queen to the mercy of the Council, she'd end up exploited. If being on Noveria taught me anything, it's that." Shepard answered. "As long as Benezia is with the Queen, she's free of Saren's control. Letting them go hurts him and anything that hurts him is a good thing."
Xander handed her a datapad. "Hackett called, he wants you to look into some missing scientists."
Shepard nodded. "...They were all working on the same project and the last one is somewhere in the Kepler-Verge system."
Xander startled at his commander's advanced knowledge. "You already know?" he asked.
"Someone sent me the same massage while we were at Port Hanshan. Whoever it was covered their tracks pretty well. They even included a detail that Hackett might not know; the project that they were all working on, turns out that they were all on Akuze right around the same time."
"Akuze?" Xander stared into space. Her words seemed to transport him to another place, another time.
"Whatever Saren's up to, I'm going to need your head in the game, Harris." Shepard replied. "If accomplishing that means dealing with this, then I'm fine with that."
She watched Xander's face and the emotions playing across it. Shepard nodded, musing to herself, "Definitely a human reaction," as she left him behind in the comm room.
His omnitool bleeped again with another message from Willow. She'd relayed an alert from Noveria traffic control. An executive-class shuttle had disappeared from Binary-Helix's exclusive landing pad. Obviously wherever she was, Willow was tracking the escaping Rachni Queen and Benezia.
Xander thought about asking Willow about the Shanxi Job. Did she know what had happened to that merc, Jack Harper? Or Saren's brother, Desolas? Did she know what that Artifact had really been? What it could do?
In the end, he just sent back a message asking if she was okay. Her only response was a simple phrase before terminating the connection. It told him everything he needed to know about what his oldest and dearest friend was up to; that she was, in many ways, still the girl he'd grown up with in Sunnydale for all those many years. And, just how different and dangerous Willow Rosenberg had become over the centuries.
"The net is both vast and infinite... I'm always watching, so be good."