Interlude: Providing a Service(4)
AN -- Thanks ever and always to Reikson & DrakePendragon
Morinth struggled against the bonds that barely secured her thrashing body to the bed. She let out a wailing screech that echoed through the deck and seemed to chill the blood of everyone who heard her. Her flesh was already turning a mottled grey, as blue-white lightning arced across the medbay and danced up and down her body.
Karin Chakwas quickly darted out the door, sealing it behind her as the biotic storm picked up loose objects and hurled them around the room with great force.
Joan looked in through the medbay’s reinforced windows. “It’s bad, isn’t it, Doc?”
Mordin and Willow returned her pensive stare.
“Ardat-Yakshi DNA being resequenced,” the Salarian said finally. “Organic matter being… rewritten; no better term for process.”
“What’s she turning into?” Joan asked. “Doesn’t look much like a Husk, or at least any kind we’ve seen so far.”
Mordin nodded. “Theoretical supposition; final Husk state dependent on base form.”
“So the Husks we’ve seen up until now look the way they do because they’ve only been using humans?” Xander asked.
“What’s so special about us?” Karin wondered.
“I can think of a couple things.” Willow sighed.
When the group remained silent, she looked up at them only to see them staring back at her. “What?”
“Ah, Wills, you kinda dropped a bit of a bomb there.” Xander mentioned.
The redheaded witch only rolled her eyes. “Look, I’ve got some theories spinning up, but that’s all. Right now, we need facts.”
Chakwas stared at her for a moment before nodding. “She’s got a point. Everything I’ve seen since Eden Prime suggests that the Husk conversion process should’ve completed itself by now.”
“Morinth’s biotics slowing process.” Mordin explained.
“Maybe that’s a thing?” Xander postulated. “We amp up Morinth’s biotics a little so she can fight the conversion herself.”
“Considered possibility,” Mordin grunted. “Power of Reaper nanites beyond anything ever studied before. Power needed to fight them equally beyond anything available.”
“What do you mean?” Joan asked.
“Morinth an Ardat-Yakshi; process of melding amplifies biotics,” Mordin explained, somewhat unhelpfully. “Explains why Morinth as powerful as she is.”
“That’s a point,” Shepard muttered. “There are some Asari Matriarchs who can’t do half the things I’ve seen Morinth do in the field.”
“Actually there’s one that comes to mind right off the bat; Aria T’Loak.” Xander shrugged.
“Yeah, Aria was
pretty…” Willow suddenly trailed off as she realized something. “No,” she snapped, suddenly turning on Xander as he frowned at her. “No. Absolutely not.”
When his frown deepened into a scowl, her hair bled to black in the face of her anger. “Are you crazy?!?” she shouted at him. “Wait, why am I even asking? Of course you’re nuts; you’d have to be a lunatic just to consider this stunt.”
“What? What are you talking about?” Chakwas asked.
Suddenly Shepard remembered why Xander would even bring up Aria T’Loak at all. “Xander, you can’t seriously be considering-”
“Of course he’s thinking about it,” Willow cut Shepard off, prompting the rest of the crew to scatter in fear of their lives.
“Ooh, look at me, I’m Xander Harris,” the witch mocked him mercilessly. “Ever since I got this cool ‘get out of death free’ card, let’s just use it to mess with the whole cycle of life.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get the memo where you get to decide who does and doesn’t deserve our help in life-or-death situations!” he snarled back, his eyes glowing gold.
“Don’t you dare start on me about this, Alexander Lavelle Harris!” the enraged witch yelled, her eyes now completely black. “The way you throw yourself into these situations without a second thought is exactly the sort of thing that drove Dawn crazy!”
“Throwing myself into these situations?!?” he roared, incredulous. “Listen to yourself! How many times did we go to the mat for Deadboy and Captain Peroxide?!? You know exactly how much I hated both of those bastards and we still
went to save their lives because you
demanded it! Not once, NOT ONCE…
did you ever take my objections into consideration!”
“…and if we’d killed Angel or Spike like you wanted, you might not be alive to try this stupid stunt NOW
,” she smirked triumphantly.
“…and yet I never asked either of them to save my life now did I?!?” he bellowed. “But newsflash! So has Morinth!”
Having never really understood why he hated Angel and Spike so much, Willow wasn’t in the mood to tolerate his behavior. “She’s an Ardat-Yakshi!” she railed at him. “Her entire biochemistry is hardwired to consume the neural energy from everyone she mates with! If she joins with you, she gets a boost from the power that’s been keeping you alive all this time, and I’m sorry but that’s not a recipe for goodness!”
“Oh, so we just let her die, then?!?” he bellowed, the gold glow in his eyes slowly shifting to a baleful green. “Typical Willow, she’s the one who knows best for each and every situation and God forbid that anything might prove her wrong!”
” Shepard finally butted into their argument, forcing the two of them apart and making them calm down. “Morinth’ll die, if we’re lucky! If we aren’t, she’ll become another Reaper thrall that Harbinger can use, just like he did the other Husks on Horizon!”
“The power she takes from me can make her strong enough to resist Harbinger.” Xander pointed out.
“You’re counting on the results being similar to what Aria displayed.” Shepard shot down his theory. “But Aria’s had close a thousand years to become as powerful as she is now. She’s got experience and practice in mastering both her power and herself.”
Willow joined in, pointing at the medbay. “Morinth is a high-functioning drug addict who gets more powerful every time she takes a hit on the pipe. She isn’t going to stop with just one meld; she’ll just keep on going and going and going until somebody stops her.”
Shepard recognized a too-familiar stubborn set to Xander’s jaw.
“Willow,” Joan snapped. “A little less
help, if you please.”
“Fine, but I won’t be responsible if he does something crazy.” Willow huffed, stomping off.
Anger, and old resentments that he’d once thought squelched, suddenly overwhelmed him and he punched the nearest wall. The sharp pain in his hands made him recoil, snapping himself out of his fury. Sighing heavily, he leaned back against the wall and slumped down to the floor. He seemed defeated; exhausted, weary.
Shepard impulsively sat down next to him, resting her head on his shoulder and sighing happily. “Over two hundred years and us Scoobies do some crazy stuff,” he said finally.
Then he shook his head. “But to Buffy and Willow, I might as well be the same idiot-goofball class clown of Sunnydale High who never learns.”
“Hey,” she scolded, reaching out to grab his uninjured hand. “Willow needs you to be that goofball clown from Sunnydale High.” He turned to look at her, a frown on his face.
Rolling her eyes, she explained. “If you don’t, then she isn’t Sunnydale High’s super-nerd Willow Rosenberg from a childhood that she can still remember fondly. No, she’s just some Queen-Bitch of the Universe, and just happens to be the Shadow Broker.”
He was silent for a long time. “Is that how you feel, too?” he finally asked. “Is that why you were so hot to get the band back together?”
She nodded, still resting her head on his shoulder. “I can’t do this without you, Xander. I can’t do this without Garrus or Tali, either. Otherwise, Ashley’s right; I’m just another so-called traitor who decided to join Cerberus and just happened
to be the Butcher of Torfan.”
Their weird reverie was interrupted by Joker over the comlink. “Ah, Commander, we’ve got a priority-one call from Liara. She wants you back there ASAP.”
Snapping to her feet, she barked, “Set a course, Joker, and don’t spare the eezo.”
She turned back to look at Xander as he got to his feet. “Xander, you’re a member of my ship and its crew. I know I can trust you to treat each member of this crew the same way I would.”
“Yeah… yeah, you can trust me.”
“Then, as your commander officer, I order you… to follow your best judgment.” With that said, she headed for the elevator. He stared at her retreating form until it vanished, before closing his eyes and taking a deep breath.
Much later, after Xander had made his way back down to Engineering, Shepard paid Garrus a visit in the ship’s main batteries. “Garrus, I trust you as much as you trust Xander, so talk to me.”
“This about Simone?”
“All right; one, with my head stuck in a service panel like this, I can’t actually see you nodding so I’m going to assume that you did.” His usual velvet drawl was perfect for his particular brand of sarcasm, making her grin.
“Two, Simone’s definitely trouble,” he added, drawing on his military expertise. “She’s not big on chain-of-command, and she clearly resents Xander for some reason, at least as much as Xander resents her.”
Not exactly news, given what Xander had told her in confidence. “That actually brings us to point number three; she’s been solid under fire and good in the field.”
“Xander thinks she’s dangerous.”
“…and he might be right,” the former vigilante nodded. “We’ll be careful, but you saw what we’re up against, back on Horizon. We need every advantage we can get, and that includes the centuries-old demon hunters.”
“…which bring us to issue number two; Willow,” the Spectre-Slayer sighed. “Liara thinks that she can’t be trusted. I’m inclined to think that she’s not completely
“But she also saved your life a couple of times, and Xander seems to think that Earth’s sun rises and sets around her,” the unconventional Turian deduced. “So thinking that she might be a lying and manipulative bitch only complicates things.”
“Talk to me, Vakarian. Give some wisdom here.”
“Okay… the harsh truth is that Liara’s right.” Garrus grunted. “Willow is… or was the Shadow Broker for thirty years now. You don’t get that job by being straightforward and forthcoming.”
“What’s the best-case scenario?”
“At best, she’s hiding stuff from us,” he shrugged. “At worst, she’s hiding it from Xander. I guess it comes down to one thing; do you trust Xander or not?”
Now she was confused. “How does my trust in Xander come into it?”
“Because trust is all we have,” he pointed out. “The Council’s ignored us, the Alliance has disowned you, and our only allies thus far have been Cerberus.”
Wiggling his way out from the service panel, he padded over to the room’s main computer and began calling up datasheets for him to peruse. “Now… I don’t know about you,” he said finally. “But I still have some severe trust issues as far as Cerberus is concerned. But faith in our friends is all we have out here, and you’ve put a lot of faith in Xander.”
“He’s never let us down before.” Shepard pointed out.
“…and I don’t think, for a second, that he’s liable to start now.” Garrus nodded. “But do you really think that Liara’s such a bad judge of character that she’d turn into a complete psycho-bitch over nothing? C’mon, Shepard; you of all people are smarter than that.”
“This sucks,” she groaned.
“Be honest.” Garrus chided gently. “You trust Xander a lot, but Willow and Liara fighting is putting a lot of stress on that trust, and it bothers you.”
“When’d you get so smart?” she grinned wryly.
“Chasing after your ass around the galaxy, I’d think,” he shot back, chuckling.
“So what’s the solution?” she sighed.
“Find out what Willow’s hiding and have her on the same page with Liara. Do that, and all is right with the world.”
“That simple, huh?”
“Simple to say, yeah, but much less simple to do.”
“Commander,” Joker’s voice came over the comlink. “We’re in Hagalaz orbit, and the Kodiak’s ready for docking maneuvers with the Shadow Broker’s ship. I trust that you’ll be doing likewise with the good Doctor?”
Shepard’s brow twitched visibly. High time she put CO-privileges to good use. “EDI, please set Flight-Lieutenant Moreau’s current extranet access levels to child-level for the next week
“Aw, c’mon, Commander!” he groaned. She could almost hear his libido groaning in sympathy. “I won’t even be able to visit the celeb-gossip sites! How am I supposed to keep track of Aisha Ashland?”
Feeling a surge of vindictive pleasure at Joker’s complaining, Shepard added, “EDI, for every second that Flight-Lieutenant Moreau remains on this line, you’re to add another week to the restriction.”
“Shutting up now.” Joker said quickly.
“Joker without porn for at least a week…” Garrus chuckled at the image. “Remind me to stay clear of the CIC for a while.”
“Joker without porn isn’t the issue,” she grinned at him. “It’s when I cut off his coffee that he’s probably gonna mutiny.”
“Something to look forward to, I’m sure. So… what do we do?”
“Grab Mordin and come with me to the Broker’s ship. High time we hashed this thing out once and for all.”
“Should I grab Xander?”
“Nah, Xander’s busy.” She’d said that a little too quickly, so…
“…he’s doing something insane that you want total deniability for, isn’t he?”
“Garrus Vakarian, my profound respect for your wisdom has only grown.” She smirked at him, making him chuckle again.
The group met Feron at the airlock. The Drell was nervous and welcomed them with a grunt.
“Feron,” Willow smiled. “You look good. What’s been happening since we left?”
“Liara’s completely reorganizing the database,” he croaked.
“I’m already assuming that I’m gonna hate it,” the redhead groaned.
“Yeah, considering you have some protocols in place that Liara can’t crack and-”
“We get the picture.” Shepard sighed, rolling her eyes. “It’s a big unholy mess.”
The doors to the inner sanctum opened to reveal Liara dressed in her white and gray body armor. It gleamed under the room’s harsh fluorescent lighting, looking like new.
Joan felt her heart stop, then immediately try and climb into her throat.
Willow snorted in spite of herself. “I see you’ve already mastered the Shadow Broker’s most valuable secret; the location of the laundry room. Good for you.”
Liara ignored her. “I heard about Horizon, it’s all over the extranet.”
“It’s okay, babe,” the Spectre-Slayer reassured her. “Things got hairy but we handled it.”
Mordin and Garrus greeted her as well, as Shepard got down to business. “Your message said it was urgent?”
“I’ve been going through the ship’s data-archives, trying to learn everything I can.”
“It’s a good thing you’re an Asari.” Willow sneered. “You can actually spare the time.”
“Your firewalls are impressive.” Liara sniped back. “Clearly, technomancy allows for a level of data encryption that I’m fairly sure only the Geth are capable of matching.”
“It’s not really data-encryption, Doctor,” the redhead shrugged, still with that cool grin in place. “Technomancy and technopaganism are both magic, just like any other.”
“I know,” the former archaeologist snapped. “Instead of drawing on elements from the world around you, you draw on the power of the extranet and other datastreams.”
“Ooh, someone’s been studying,” the super witch observed dryly. “Give it a few decades and you might actually understand what you’re reading.”
Liara just crossed her arms, mimicking Shepard’s confrontation stance. “Ordinarily, I’d agree with you, but you made it much easier,” she said severely. “I got to look at your personal grimoires, which is how I learned about so many things so quickly; especially about your dirty dealing.”
“Dirty dealing?” Willow parroted, amused. Suddenly the smile died away. “What are you, six?” she snapped, making Liara twitch. Insulting an Asari’s age in such a fashion was even more effective than when humans did it to each other. “I’m the Shadow Broker, and those are my files.”
“The files belong to the Shadow Broker. Right now, I am the Broker.”
“Yeah, for all of what, five minutes?”
A shrill whistle suddenly cut through the air and left only silence in its wake.
Shepard turned and gaped at Garrus. “How the Hell did you manage that?”
“I’ve been watching Xander… and practice; lots and lots of practice,” the Turian renegade nodded modestly. “Mind you, my version sounds like a Turian baby screaming at the top of its little lungs and more of a screech than anything else, but it’s something.”
“Okay, ladies, as much as I’m sure that Xander would find a good old-fashioned catfight appealing, how’s about we all calm down?” Joan asked.
Now that Liara and Willow were reduced to exchanging fierce glares, Shepard asked the question on everyone’s mind. “Now, Miss Rosenberg, you mind telling me what’s going on?”
The redhead just shook her head. “I’m not sure I trust you yet, Joan.”
“But you know that Xander trusts me, right?” Hook…
“That’s true.” Line….
“So… let’s just pretend that you actually respect his opinion for once.” Sinker.
Willow’s eyes widened at Shepard’s words, and turned to face her. It was only then did the redhead notice the feral grin on the Spectre’s face, realizing that their mutual friend’s old insecurities had proved quite a lure for a verbal cat-and-mouse game that she’d just lost.
“Pretend that he’s right…” Shepard pressed mercilessly. “…and tell us what’s going on.”
“Fine,” the über-witch huffed, fuming at being outmaneuvered. “I encrypted those files because I couldn't afford to erase them and I wasn’t sure that I should leave them on the server for HER
Shepard turned to Liara, the question clear if unspoken. “She’s locked me out of certain systems,” the former archaeologist explained.
“Those are my private files; they’re none of your business.” Willow hissed, her eyes already bleeding black as lightning started dancing across her fignertips.
, okay…” Shepard hastily interceded. “So what’s the deal?”
“They’re a list of all active human biotics; their families and their ancestors, dating all the way back to Earth’s twenty-first century.”
Shepard frowned. “What are you keeping track of them for?”
“…because I’ve noticed that families with magic in their history and bloodlines seemingly produce stronger-than-average biotics.”
“How strong?” Liara wanted to know.
“Very, by every measurable standard.” Willow smiled grimly. “The more that a family’s gone and experimented with magic in their past, the more powerful their biotic descendants of today will eventually become. Like a bloodline legacy.”
“…and you can prove this, how?” Shepard demanded, her mind already whirling at the implications of Willow’s assertion.
“Well, I have one way. I tracked down members of the Kalderash family, since one of their own came to Sunnydale and fought at our side for a while.”
“I remember Xander mentioning this story.” Shepard muttered, trying to remember. “Jenny Calendar… she was in love with Giles and then died.”
“She was murdered by Angelus.” Willow shrugged. “Well, Xander would say that it was Angel, but me and Buffy always saw Angel and Angelus as two separate people who just happened
to share a body.”
Shepard couldn’t help but shake her head at the fallacy of Willow’s assertions. Keeping such thoughts to herself, she instead asked, “So this Kalderash family went to the stars?”
Willow nodded. “They settled on a bunch of colony worlds, including Eden Prime. There, a daughter of the Kalderash family eventually gave birth to a child who supposedly died of extremely violent grand-mal seizures due to eezo contamination.”
“What happened to child?” Mordin asked, finally adding his two cents to the conversation.
“She ended up with Cerberus and then later popped up as Subject Zero.”
Garrus instantly understood Willow’s hints. “Wait, are you kidding me?”
“Nope,” the redhead shook her head. “Jack’s related to one of the more powerful magical families that Earth’s ever produced. I’ve never been able to confirm it, but I think that she might be descended from one of Jenny’s first cousins.”
Liara paled. “You're serious?”
“Xander’s… ability… isn’t magic, but the result of magic.” Willow sighed, running a hand through her hair. “Even if the Matriarchs tried to kidnap him and map his genes out, they wouldn’t find anything at all. But if an Asari maps the genetic history of a partner during a meld… well, that’s a whole different story.”
Shepard looked confused. “They don’t take traits; they copy certain desirable genetic features.” Willow explained. “But if an Asari knew
the genetic code of a human well enough to know where the genetic affinity for magic could be found, then she could give her daughter the ability to do magic.”
“Can’t see source of concern myself; admittedly, still trying to acclimate existence of magic to personal worldview and perspective…” Mordin mused.
“I’ve used magic to slow down my aging a lot.” Willow explained. “I don’t mean to brag but, by the time the good Doctor’s rocking her matriarch figure, I might
have a couple of gray hairs and some wrinkles to show for my trouble. What if an Asari Matriarch figured out a way to extend her life span in the same way?”
“I understand your paranoia, but is this really something to worry about?” Garrus noted. “I mean, very few people want
to die. You can hardly blame the Asari for wanting to find a way to extend their own lives and make themselves even more powerful.”
Willow glanced at him in a way that suddenly made him feel an inch tall. “Once humans found their way into galactic society, the Matriarchs set about altering Asari society in subtle ways.” Shrugging, she added, “Of course, it helped that humans naturally conformed to most standards of Asari beauty anyway.”
“Asari society fairly ablaze after humans first appeared at the Citadel. Lust was primary reaction.” Mordin noted.
“Exactly,” Willow observed airily. “The Matriarchs exploited these sentiments by secretly encouraging unions with humans, particularly strong biotics, and initiated certain policies in bureaucracy and government that go out of their way to accommodate the results of such relationships.”
All eyes in the room turned to Liara, reluctantly she nodded. “I saw it Illium. The media books vids the overarching message is that humans are in as it were. No Maiden’s lifestyle is complete without a human to trot around Even older Asari talk about humans as if you were pets.”
Elated at having her suspicions confirmed, Willow continued on. “More often than not, a bog-standard Human/Asari relationship has a human partner with magic somewhere in their family history. I’m telling you, the Matriarchs are searching for the magic gene. It’s quiet, but it’s happening, and when they find it…”
“It won't do ’em any good,” Shepard pointed out. “Asari hate purebloods. Tell her, Liara.”
“Actually, that wasn’t always true.” Liara said quietly. “History says that pureblood melds were in and out of favor in Asari society throughout the ages. One of the last times that pureblood melds were in vogue, so to speak, happened some time before my people discovered the Citadel and made contact with the Salarians.”
Mordin frowned thoughtfully.
“The Matriarchs of the time had enacted a massive social campaign designed to popularize selective breeding.” Liara explained. “All of it was done in the name of improving Asari bloodlines and making our natural gifts stronger; a society-wide eugenics project in every sense of the word.”
She leaned back on the hull of a nearby computer terminal. “For a time, it worked. Asari were being born with stronger biotics at an earlier stage of physical development.”
Then she shook her head. “But it wasn’t until these children reached maturity that we learned that these particular Asari were actually the first modern Ardat-Yakshi.”
Hugging herself, she tried to squash memories of old emotional wounds. “Ardat-Yakshi is the reason why Asari purebloods are essentially stigmatized in my people’s society,” she explained, mostly to Shepard. “Two Asari in a pureblood relationship, and purebloods themselves to a lesser extent, run the risk of birthing an Ardat-Yakshi when they breed.”
Shepard stared at her lover quietly, wanting to reach out and hug her. “That’s why my people were so ecstatic when humans made themselves known, Shepard.” Liara added, quieter than she had ever been before. “When we first found the Salarians, we were… comforted by the idea that our children would never run the risk of becoming hedonistic, soul-draining serial killers doomed to die of old age in isolation or at the merciless hands of a Justicar. But for all the other species that we would encounter over the next two millennia, they were never what my people would consider beautiful.”
“But the Relay 314 incident changed all that.” Garrus deduced.
Liara nodded. “There was the usual social flutter over the discovery of a new species with whom we could breed safely, never to produce an Ardat-Yakshi. But humanity’s physical resemblance to my own people, particularly their females, did not go unnoticed. While the masses saw a species that could’ve been a gift from the Goddess, the Matriarchs saw a cosmic evolutionary outlier that they had
to investigate. I don’t know what they found, but it’s why they’ve been going to all this trouble with biotic-acceptance movements in human society and enacting accommodative bureaucracy for Human/Asari relationships.”
Shepard groaned at the weight of Liara’s revelation. Garrus just shook his head at the motives behind the end of the Relay-314 incident. Mordin was busy making notes into his omnitool, muttering rapidly under his breath.
“Shepard, I know I sound like a bitch about this Morinth thing but I have a really good reason for it.” Willow said. “Xander has no control over what that power inside of him does. If Morinth, even by accident, found a way to fix whatever’s wrong with her, why she can't meld without killing, then she’d become unstoppable.”
“I apologize for interrupting you, Shadow Broker-” an unpleasantly familiar voice piped up.
“What is it, infodrone?” Liara and Willow snapped, before gaping at each other in surprise.
“You couldn’t fix it either?” Liara asked.
“I tried for years, and eventually I just gave up. Yahg-boy loved it.” Willow sighed.
“You asked to be informed if Operative Harris engaged in any prohibited activities. He is currently engaged in one such activity as we speak. Would you like to monitor?”
Liara asked for a visual and both she and Willow watched as Xander entered the medbay and sealed the doors behind him.
“That idiot… that absolute idiot!” Willow groaned, her eyes suddenly spilling tendrils of red energy in the face of her raw anger. “We have to get back there right now.”
“There’s no time,” Liara insisted, holding out a hand. “With my help, you should be able to reach the ship from here.”
“Channeling, are you kidding me?!? How much reading did you do?!?” the super-witch demanded.
“Quite a bit, but what I read only made sense of what I already knew.”
“What you already…” Willow groaned. “Your meld with Xander, the one that saved Shepard’s life; it’s the only time you could’ve pulled the knowledge.”
“All I retained were the basics, but that should be enough to let me help you.”
“I thought you didn’t trust me?‘
“I don’t … but If it weren’t for Xander I’d have lost Joan. As far as I’m concerned what I owe him will take more then my lifetime to repay.”
Willow nodded grimly, grabbing Liara’s hand. “Joan, get back to the ship. Get to Xander and… me and Liara will do what we can from here.”
“What are you doing?”
“I put a firewall in Xander’s brain; it keeps anyone from screwing around with what’s in there.” Willow grimaced, her eyes now solid black and her hair a luminescent white. “I have to hack that firewall before Morinth gets a taste of that sweet, sweet Xander or else she’ll die in a particularly-horrible fashion.”