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By Any Other Name

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“With the official debriefing now concluded,” Matriarch Laneia spoke and folded her hands next to her datapad, “we would like to broach the matter of your compensation.”

She cast her pale gaze about her fellow High Command – two others were present – then back to the commando in their midst. The asari below their raised podium said nothing. She tipped her chin a fraction higher and straightened her back in anticipation.

The Matriarch studied her features for a moment. Hardened, she imagined, through the years of warlords staring her down, looking for any sign of weakness. If it weren’t for the blue hue of the maiden’s skin, she might’ve been talking to a statue. In the harsh light of the room the lingering discoloration on her face and neck was obvious. Bruising and cuts, and a split lip that had just begun to heal. A raw purple line that would scar over her cheek in the coming months. Her right arm hung in a sturdy brace, an awkward, sterile white against her dark commando leathers.

Stifling her discomfort, Laneia glanced down at her notes.

“We cannot properly express our gratitude for your service, Lieutenant. We deliberated amongst ourselves at length and agreed that given your unusual circumstances, it is only fit we bestow upon you an unusual favor. Feala?”

The prompted asari rose from her seat on the other end of the circular dais. “First I must echo Laneia: there is no way we could ever truly replay you for the sacrifices you have made during your time in the Terminus systems. I’ve read every one of your reports in detail, Lieutenant, and as exhaustive as they were, I remain convinced you’ve spared us the worst of your experience.” She lifted her gaze from her datapad and offered her a thin smile. “I confess I am deeply thankful – for your discretion, and for your willpower to stomach that loathsome station.

“But I digress. The point I wish to address is this, Lieutenant: in you we recognize an exemplar of our people. You were— are brave, yet humble; you labored night and day for decades, under hostile – dare I say abysmal – conditions, and you carried with utmost dignity the tasks we burdened you with.”

Feala averted her eyes for a moment, and her voice grew quieter. “Even when we could hardly bear the orders ourselves.” She cleared her throat and resumed her normal, enunciated speech. “In light of that, we cannot in good conscience allow your family to continue wilting away in the shadows of shame.”

At this, the commando grew rigid. It was a nigh imperceptible change in posture, subtle enough to avoid the keen eyes of Asari High Command. If the Matriarch noticed at all, she continued undeterred.

“Since the beginning of our time, the asari peoples have placed great value and respect in our names. It has been that way for millennia – dynastic records are, in fact, our oldest. To have one’s name defaced, defiled, disfigured…” she shook her head. “Our offer, then, is such – we have the power to absolve your family of disgrace. Ancient bloodlines would no longer lambast you for your equally ancient trespasses. Doors that have been closed for centuries would open to you again. Your rightful place among their number… restored.”

As the last of her speech petered out into silence, every pair of eyes settled on the asari in the middle. Feala held the tip of a stylus above her datapad. As if the commando’s agreement was a foregone conclusion and the whole affair was a mere courtesy.

The Lieutenant, for her part, maintained her mute disposition. Only the faint crease in her brow betrayed her intense rumination. The expression drew her fierce red markings downwards, making her appear even more severe.

When she finally spoke, she delivered her words in a slow, measured manner – a surgeon making her first careful incision. Green eyes met the expectant gaze of the Matriarch. “Do you know why I accepted this mission when you came to me, all those years ago?”

At first Feala assumed the question rhetorical. But the younger asari continued to regard her, as quiet as ever. “I’m afraid I don’t grasp the relevance of your query, Lieutenant,” she said.

The commando smiled. “Please. Humor me, if you would.”

“Very well,” the Matriarch conceded, folding her hands anew. “I… suppose I’ve come to believe it stems from your unerring sense of duty to our Republics. You were already aware of your own considerable capabilities. We confirmed that notion through objective opinion when we approached you with the assignment. It was an unpalatable job. To this day it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. We might’ve asked you to assassinate our own people, and it would’ve been a more pleasant business.” She pinched her lips, then canted her head with wry amusement. “Still, you said yes. Out of the paltry few candidates with the skills and emotional resilience appropriate for the operation, you alone agreed. Perhaps you knew even then that no-one else would be willing or, indeed, competent enough to see it through.”

The Lieutenant held Feala’s gaze as she shifted her uninjured arm on the railing of her podium. When she finally replied, the Matriarch was struck with the sense that she weighed every syllable for worth before articulating it aloud.

“You knew I had nothing to lose,” said the commando. “You knew I would do anything to get rid of our…disgrace.”

For a moment the elder asari appeared stunned, then rearranged her face into an emotionless mask. Her lips parted for a rebuttal, but the Lieutenant was quicker.

“Don’t deny it. Just revel in the fact that you were right, Matriarch. It’s why I’m down here and you’re up there. You sit in your web of connections, pulling the strings until all your asari puppets dance exactly the way you want.” The atmosphere had acquired a fine layer of frost. “So don’t you dare talk to me about duty. Don’t you dare sit there in your designer dress and million-credit jewelry and tell me how grateful you are.

“You want to know about sacrifice? You want to know how I left my morals face down in some Kenzo gutter? How many civilians I shot – how many children are motherless, or fatherless, or fucking dead because of what I did? For you?” She laughed. It was a sound entirely divorced from mirth.

“No. You don’t.” Her jaw flexed around the words as if they were poison. “So you tug on those precious strings again, thinking how you’ll buy my silence. What more could the poor girl want? The gracious mercy of the Matriarchy, after all, is such a rare gift. With a few effortless signatures, you can erase the shame of whole generations. Just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “A nice pat on the back, and you’ve got another compliant little pawn for your army.”

“That is quite enough!” Matriarch Vesara burst to her feet, stare dark with offense. “And to think we praised you as the paragon of asari virtues not five minutes ago!” She scoffed, turning to the other two officials. “I always said Omega taints everything it touches, and you would dismiss my claim time and again. Well, here is your proof—”

“All you do is talk. Shut up and listen for once,” the commando spoke over Vesara, who whirled on her with livid eyes. “I left a lot of things on that station, true. Does that mean I’m tainted, Matriarch? Probably. Certainly. What did you expect? That I would climb through those layers of grime for half a century and somehow – by the divine grace of Athame herself, maybe – emerge as pristine as one of those diamonds around your neck?” She waved the slighted Matriarch away and turned to address Feala again.

“I did what I had to do to get the job done. Don’t complain now that you’ve got your toy back and it doesn’t work like it used to. See, I may have left a lot of things on that station,” she leaned forward, her timbre dipping in pitch, “but I learned some things too.”

The Lieutenant let them stew a few seconds longer and swept her green gaze over the stiff assembly. Upturned noses, thinned lips, narrowed eyes.

“And I can’t be bought. Not with that. Not anymore. With all due respect, Matriarchs… fuck your charity.”

Vesara was seething, and Laneia reached out to calm her temper with a bracing palm on her shoulder. Only Feala appeared unfazed, scrutinizing the agent with impeccable composure. But the commando had learned to see through every mask, no matter how finely constructed. The traitorous purpose she’d harbored all those decades on Omega had seen to that. In a world where the smallest slip-up could put a bullet between her eyes, the agent had become fluent in the language of bodies like few others.

It was either that, or death. And before anything else, she was a survivor.

Feala seemed to be realizing this too. Her steel-gray eyes glimmered with nascent understanding as she turned off her datapad. “A talent for negotiation, at the very least,” the Matriarch hummed with persistent amusement.

The commando glared. “What?”

“Well, you said Omega also taught you certain things,” she said with a vague smile. “I apologize if we have offended, Lieutenant. We had only the best of intentions, but I can see your priorities have… changed.” She tapped a single finger against the side of her podium as she deliberated.

“I infer from your closing statement that you already have a clear idea in mind.” When she glanced back to the asari for confirmation, the Matriarch received a shallow nod. “Very well, then. What should you prefer?”

The Lieutenant exhaled and forced her hostility to recede. “I’m done with this. Done with this dirty job, with this dirty life. I’m young enough, or—” she let out a dry chuckle, “I appear young enough, at any rate. I’m not going back. Not now, not in a hundred years, not ever.”

Feala gave a nod of her own, respectful of her finality.

“Everyone thinks I’m dead. It’s a good out. Better than I could’ve asked for – better than I ever thought I’d get. And you… you have what you asked for, too. I can’t promise you success. You must understand that, Matriarch,” she intoned, leaning forward once more. “Even if you forget everything else I’ve told you, you must remember this. With Omega, you’re gambling. You’re always gambling, and the odds change by the hour.”

She paused, letting her words sink in. Feala made a note before she met her eyes again, somewhat dimmed by the grave turn of conversation. “And your… replacement? What are our odds there, Lieutenant?”

“Of what? Getting her to bend her knee?” The commando shook her head. “Terminus isn’t like the Republics. It’s not even like the rest of Council space, and it never will be. But if you want your odds, Matriarch, I’ll give you some. With your meddling, my replacement will have Omega at her feet before the turn of this century. Nakmor Krin is history. He just doesn’t know it yet.” She chuckled. “You should be thanking Athame she hates politics with the passion of Krogan nuclear winter.”

“And why might that be?”

“Because she’s the finest exemplar of our people,” the Lieutenant parroted their flattery with hollow humor. “Just that she’s that other half – the half we’d like the galaxy to forget. In other words, Matriarch, she’s you.”

To her credit, Feala hardly batted an eye at the accusation. Vesara, unfortunately, wasn’t possessed of the same bottomless patience. She shook off Laneia’s grip to stab an imperious finger at the Lieutenant.

“Now listen here, you impertinent grunt. Just because you shoveled some dirt over there doesn’t mean you have the right to address Matriarch Feala with such insolence. Nor anybody else in this room, for that matter.” Her mouth twisted with distaste. “If all you’ve returned with is this disgustingly Omegan brand of self-importance, Lieutenant… I’d rather you hadn’t returned at all.”

Without another word, Vesara collected her belongings and stormed out of the room. Nobody attempted to stop her. Laneia cleared her throat and deferred to the other Matriarch with a subtle shift of her head. The eldest among them, however, was content to let the silence stretch a while longer. They had expended fifty years on this mission – what was a few more minutes?

“So what exactly can you give us? What might we expect from this… dark paragon?” Despite the many outbursts endured in the past hour, Feala’s serene mirth persevered.

“Discourse,” the commando replied, swiftly for once. “In the Terminus systems, culture doesn’t mean much. But for what it’s worth, she’s asari enough.” The Lieutenant shrugged. “Or more than anyone else I’ve ever met. Perspective, I guess.”

“And does this mythical asari have a name?”

“T’Loak.”

“Excuse me?” Feala blurted despite herself, eyes wide with surprise.

“Aria T’Loak.”

Laneia interjected as her colleague absorbed the weight of the statement. “Surely you jest, Lieutenant. No T’Loak scion would even speak of Omega, let alone seek to rule that station!”

The commando turned her acidic gaze to the other asari. “It’s what she calls herself. Whether it’s her actual birth name is irrelevant. To Omega it’s true, and that’s all that matters. Besides,” her mouth twitched with a fleeting grin, “what would I know of the T’Loak dynasty? As Matriarch Vesara was quick to remind me, our family hasn’t had a place among your distinguished elite in ages.”

Displeasure curled Laneia’s mouth. “And yet you deny our offer to restore you to grace. Spite, Lieutenant? How very typical.”

The asari flinched, flexing her good hand into a pale fist. She wrenched the level words from her throat with evident difficulty. “I told you. I don’t want your pity, and I’m done fighting other’s wars.”

Laneia waited for elaboration, but it never came. After a few moments of tense staring, Feala inserted herself back into the conversation.

“The Lieutenant has been quite clear regarding what she doesn’t want,” she spoke, recapturing the attention of the younger asari. “She’s been rather reticent in letting us know her desired alternative, however. If you would, please?”

“Expunge my records,” the commando said. “I never worked for you. I was never in the military. Clean slate.”

“And what do you propose we do about your squad, Lieutenant? Simply scrub their minds free of your memory?” Laneia spoke again.

“You won’t have to. They’re dead.” At a prompting eyebrow, she added. “Pirate skirmish in the Traverse.”

“Omegan pirates?”

“Yes.”

For a brief spell, they all fell quiet again. The Matriarch closed her eyes and lifted a hand to massage her temple. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant. We weren’t aware…”

“It’s been twenty years.” The commando pinched her brow, stemming the creeping exhaustion. “Just… let me go. Since Krin plastered my face over the whole damn station, I have no use as a field agent anymore. By next week, every criminal between Illium and Omega will know what I look like. Or… what I look like after two hours with a pissed-off Krogan, anyway.” She resisted the urge to touch the angry purple line on her cheek. “Which brings me to my last point.”

Though Feala bore that distinct expression of premonition again, she tilted her head for the Lieutenant to finish.

“I want a full facial reconstruction. And get rid of the markings.”

Laneia lifted her brows. “Even the markings? But the crimson of your bloodline… it’s such a rare color in this era, Lieutenant, you can’t—”

“My bloodline, Matriarch? The one your cast from favor before my mother’s mother was even born? That bloodline is dead. Might as well give it a proper burial.” She set her jaw. “Spare me. Vesara wasn’t wrong in assuming Omega taught me pride. She was wrong in assuming it somehow makes me less than you.”

The High Command representatives entertained another bout of quiet. Laneia for reflection, Feala to consult her notes.

“If I might,” inquired the elder asari, “what do you intend to do with your freedom, Lieutenant?”

“I’ll enjoy hearing my name again,” she retorted, eliciting a mild smile from the Matriarch. “And then… I’m not sure yet. I honestly never thought I’d get this far.” The commando shook her head with wonder, as if she were only beginning to grasp the gravity of her situation. “I do love our people. I just can’t serve them with blood on my hands anymore. I’d like to build things for once, not tear them down. But… for what it’s worth, this’ll serve me, invaluably. Forever.”

Feala nodded and handed the Lieutenant her datapad. A brief legal document, devoid of details by necessity. She read the text three times before applying her signature next to that of the Matriarch. In a few seconds, the scrawled names of the remaining High Command appeared on the form.

She wondered if there was an actual T’Loak in there somewhere. Before she could attempt to decipher the script, deformed to illegibility by infinite repetition, the document sealed itself and disappeared from the screen. The commando – No, she reminded herself, civilian – was left staring at her reflection in the glossy black surface.

Her gaze tracked the bruising up to the red markings on her forehead and cheekbones. They cut across fine blue scales in a near-perfect abstraction of lightning. The trait had earned her many names in just as many languages. If there was one thing Omega didn’t lack for, it was diversity.

“Tempest,” she mouthed under her breath.

“What was that?” Feala said as she accepted her datapad with quirked lips.

The younger asari shook her head. “Nothing. Just saying goodbye.”

“Quite.” The Matriarch pocketed the device and stepped off the podium to join her former agent. “I would say it’s been a pleasure working with you, but in the interest of candor…” Feala let her sentence wither as she proffered an open palm.

Unbidden, the gesture called forth the memory of their first handshake. Her people often perceived the passage of time differently simply for the luxury of being afforded so much of it. Despite this, the last fifty years had felt as long as the preceding few hundred. And if she’d experienced them so, far removed from the gruesome reality of the Terminus systems, what terrible mark had they left upon this girl?

But the hand wrapped around her own was firm. It wasn’t the faltering farewell of a broken warrior – rather the undaunted grip of a maiden matured centuries before her time.

Feala found herself at a loss. What she’d meant to say had drowned in the pools of green that met her eyes. The younger asari held her gaze far longer than customary, but the Matriarch couldn’t look away. When the agent finally did, the strange connection faltered, and her faculties returned. She schooled the confusion into a staid façade and retrieved her hand to her side. With this newfound revelation still fresh on her mind, Feala revised her words.

“I hope one day we might work together again under more pleasant circumstances.” And for once, it was the truth.

The “Why?” caught her as she was leaving the room, and the Matriarch stopped. She sought out those curious greens over her shoulder, and smiled her little smile.

“If I’m right, you already know. Good day, Tevos.”