“I know this has been difficult…”
“The good news is, we have a diagnosis…”
“…Corpalis Syndrome. Signs and symptoms include memory loss, fatigue, loss of physical and mental coordination…”
“…No guarantees with a disease like this, but I can promise you, we’re doing everything we can.”
Solana spreads her mandibles wide and curls her fingers into claws, digging into the soil beneath her. It comes up easily in her talons, loose and crumbling. Freshly laid only a few months ago, not yet given the time to settle, to solidify.
Doing everything we can. She growls deep in her chest, feels it grinding under her ribs, and she leans forward to rest her forehead on the gravestone. It’s hard and solid under her skin, unyielding like an anchor.
Everything we can.
They’d all said the same things, in the end. First it had been the turian physicians at the best hospital in Cipritine, their faces pleasantly blank, mandibles unmoving, vocal subharmonics almost purged of all the grim finality that would have said, clear as if they’d spoken it aloud, “there’s nothing we can do.” Then it had been the salarian doctors at the Helos Medical Institute, with their “new treatments” and “clinical trials” and “potential breakthroughs,” all eventually coming to nothing but twitching fingers on her shoulder and murmured promises to “make her as comfortable as we can.”
Solana sits back and crosses her arms in front of her. For the thousandth time, she lets her eyes trace her mother’s name, carved into the stone in clear, no-nonsense, perfectly turian letters.
Everyone who’s ever said cemeteries are silent and still was full of crap, she thinks. It’s only here that the memories are louder than they’ve ever been.
Solana stills, but doesn’t turn around. For a moment she wonders if that voice is just another unwelcome memory, too.
Her fingers tighten around her knees, and she counts the seconds in her head. She imagines her brother fidgeting behind her, his mandibles flaring and talons flexing. He never was the most patient one of the family.
No, another unwanted voice whispers in her head. This time it’s her own. The most patient one in the family was Mom.
She sighs, and her eyes stay stubbornly fixed on the gravestone. “What do you want, Garrus?”
She hears the creak of armor, then soft footsteps on the loose soil, and then his own faint sigh as he settles himself next to her. He’s a blot on her peripheral vision, dark gray and silver and blue. The sunlight reflects off his armor to catch the corner of her eye, and she makes an irritable noise in her throat, shifting away by inches.
If Garrus notices her reaction—and he does, she’s sure—he gives no sign.
“Dad told me I would probably find you here,” he says. His voice is a quiet rumble, tinged with something like sorrow. Or perhaps regret. “Been a while since we last talked.”
Solana snorts. “Yeah. Wonder why that might be?”
She finally looks at him, jerking her head around as though he yanked her mandible, like he used to do back when they were kids fighting over stupid things. Back before they learned decisions and words could hurt far worse than scraped fringes or bruised mandibles.
The scar is the first thing she notices. It’s the first time she’s seen it since the funeral, when her world was such a haze of exhaustion and grief that she barely even registered her brother’s face wasn’t quite the same. The sheer size of it startles her, the lines in his skin cutting jagged paths all the way from his neck to his nose. She squints, imagining she can see the cybernetics beneath, holding the muscle and sinew together.
“Is that the real reason you wouldn’t sync up for video chat?” she asks, gesturing at his face. “Ashamed of your good looks getting messed up?”
Garrus turns his head to meet her eyes. He looks about as tired as she feels. “Maybe a little,” he admits. “But it was more because I knew you’d ask how I got it, and that would lead to a lot of questions I wasn’t ready to answer.”
The old anger and helpless frustration surges up again, and she tries to hold it back, her mandibles trembling with the effort. It doesn’t quite work the way she hopes.
“None of us were ready, Garrus,” she snaps, the words souring the inside of her mouth. “I wasn’t ready to be told my mother was going to waste away in front of me. I wasn’t ready to walk into her room every day and listen to her ask who I was. I wasn’t ready to put my career on hold, to leave my unit for spirits knew how long to spend every day feeding her, and helping her get dressed, and reading to her and trying to convince her to go to sleep. Dad wasn’t ready to spend his entire savings and then some on her medical bills, only to watch her die anyway. Why do you get to decide when you’re ready?”
Her voice dies away, and the cemetery is finally silent. The wind and the insects seem to have gone still, and even the far-off skycar noise dims. She knows it’s irrational, but Solana feels as though all of Palaven is holding its breath, waiting for his answer.
“You’re right,” he finally says. He blinks, looking past her, and she can only guess at what he’s seeing in his mind’s eye. “I wish I could have been here. I’m sorry, Solana.”
She can hear the sincerity in his subvocals, but it does little to mollify her boiling frustration. “Wishes and apologies aren’t enough. Not now.” Her throat constricts as she tries to sigh, turning the sound to a ragged growl. “Look, presumably you came out here to find me because you wanted to talk. So talk.”
He shifts at that, and his spine straightens a little as he turns to face her. “You know me,” he says. His voice is quiet, but she can hear the resolve beneath the sorrow. “You know I would have come back if I could.”
“But why couldn’t you?” Suddenly she feels seven years old again, like the rejected, infuriated little girl who couldn’t understand why her big brother didn’t want to play with her. “Was someone holding a gun to your head? Did you get kidnapped by pirates or slavers or something? Tell me, Garrus, what was so damn important that you couldn’t come be with your dying mother?”
She half-expects another evasion or more stonewalling, but he looks her in the eye. His expression is as clear as it is grave.
“You know I’ve been talking a lot with Dad the past few days,” he says.
Solana frowns. “Yeah, I noticed that. I overheard him saying something about a task force? I figured he was just pulling strings trying to get you a job.”
“It’s not that.” Garrus shakes his head. “Something big is coming, Sol. Something big enough to wipe us all out. And I don’t just mean us here on Palaven, or turians in general. I mean everyone. The whole damn galaxy. And I’m one of the only people trying to do something about it.”
Solana flares her mandibles wide. “Come on, Garrus, you really expect me to believe—”
“Do you think I would take this to Dad if I were just making it up?” He fixes her in his gaze, and she can’t help but remember the hours they used to spend on the shooting range, and the intensity in his eyes when he stared down his targets. “You know he and I don’t see eye to eye on…well, much of anything. Do you think he would even give a second’s thought to putting together a task force if he didn’t believe me?”
A tiny wave of uneasiness thrills in her chest, her heart stuttering in its rhythm. “So…what are you telling me? Those conspiracy theories about ‘Reapers,’ is that it? Super advanced AIs that come around and wipe out all sentient life every fifty-thousand years or whatever?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it.” His voice carries its usual dry note, but the underlying gravity sends a chill racing over Solana’s skin. “I wish I could tell you they were just conspiracy theories, but after you’ve seen a Reaper, and heard the things it has to say? Trust me, they’re real. And if the Council didn’t have their heads up their asses, they’d actually be doing something about it.”
She stares at him, turning his words over in her head. She doesn’t know whether or not they’re true, but she can tell he believes them.
Garrus may be a lot of things, but he isn’t crazy.
The laughter catches her off guard, bubbling up and escaping her before she can stop it—first a quiet chuckle, then something louder and almost raucous, until she’s breathless and her entire cowl aches and Garrus is staring at her like she’s lost her damn mind.
“Solana?” His hand hovers over her shoulder. “What about this is funny?”
She stills, reaching up to wrap her talons around her quivering mandibles. “Nothing. And no, I’m not having a nervous breakdown, so stop looking at me like that. It’s just…I was pissed at you for not being here to help with Mom, and the reason you weren’t here for your family is because you were literally off saving the galaxy?” She shakes her head. “I’m not even sure what to believe, but if that’s all true…spirits, Garrus, you have an answer for everything, don’t you?”
He makes a rueful sound deep in his chest. “Me? Nah. I wish I did. Really, the only reason I know about any of this is because I happened to be arguing with Pallin in the right place at the right time a few years ago.” He peers at her, one eye partly obscured by the text scrolling across his visor. “Look, are you sure you’re okay? This is a lot to have dropped on anyone, and after everything you’ve been through with Mom…”
“I’m fine, Garrus.” The words come automatically, the words most any turian would say, even as her mind spins. I’m as fine as anyone could be after losing her mother to a horrible disease and then being told sentient machines are on their way to wipe us all out. “Really, I’m fine. I don’t need my big brother to look out for me.”
I managed just fine all that time you weren’t here, she wants to add, but suddenly it feels like a heavy fog has settled over her, stealing away her anger and leaving only exhaustion.
It’s only after several long moments pass that she realizes he hasn’t answered, and he’s still giving her that half-skeptical, half-concerned older sibling look.
“What?” she grinds out.
“I know you don’t need anyone to look out for you. Me least of all.” His voice is quiet, tone even. “But…I know Mom’s death hit you pretty hard. Dad says you’ve been out here at her grave almost every day, and you haven’t gone back to work even though they’re keeping your position open for you. I’m not here to lecture you,” he adds, catching sight of her flaring mandibles. “Trust me. I’m the last person to make any speeches about dealing with death, or letting go. I just want to make sure you’re all right. It’s the least I can do, after…everything.”
He hesitates a long moment, dragging one talon in a meandering line through the soil. “I’m probably going to be leaving Palaven soon,” he says quietly. “And I want everything to be all right between us. Just in case I—”
“No, don’t.” She turns her face away, avoiding him, avoiding the gravestones, staring hard at nothing. “Damn it, Garrus, Mom just died a couple of months ago, and now you’re talking like you’re living on borrowed time?”
She looks down to see her clenched fingers digging into the soil again. The clumps of dirt come apart between her talons, dissolving into dust, reminding her of the human custom of throwing the first handful of earth on top of the coffin. Does that give them a sense of finality? she wonders. Of closure?
“You know why I keep coming here?” she asks. “It’s because I keep asking myself if I should have done something more. Something that could have saved her, or even just made one tiny bit of difference.”
Her brother frowns. “It doesn’t make any sense to blame yourself. You’re a historian, not a doctor.”
“I know, but—” She breaks off with a growl, holding her mandibles tight against her face. “At my job, I’m not just recording my unit’s victories and defeats for posterity or tradition’s sake, or whatever. I do research, and lots of it. You know how it is—when your unit’s facing a problem, one of the first things you do is go to your historians and find out if that scenario’s ever been dealt with before, and what the solutions were. There’s no sense in—what’s that human phrase? ‘Reinventing the wheel?’”
She shifts in place, absently flicking stray bits of dirt from her fingers. “When Mom was first diagnosed, I did the same thing. I was at the archives for hours, digging up every piece of information I could find related to Corpalis Syndrome. I used every clearance I have, checked all the databases I could think of. I even accessed records from back before the disease was officially discovered, just searching for anything with similar symptoms. I looked at everything from the most obtuse medical jargon to home therapies posted by random people on the extranet. And—nothing. Nothing useful. It was like yelling for help and getting nothing but dead silence.”
“That still doesn’t mean you failed,” Garrus says. His voice is low and rumbling, and she’s not sure whether she finds it soothing or irritating. “You didn’t find a cure because there isn’t one. Not yet.”
“Not much comfort when you’re sitting in front of a grave,” Solana mutters. “I can’t think of anything worse than feeling completely powerless, throwing everything you have at a problem and still coming up empty.”
“Yeah.” Garrus’ eyes grow distant. “I know that feeling.”
Silence falls, and Solana lets her eyes return to the headstone, tracing the letters once again. In the distance the sun begins to set, the encroaching darkness leaving dark blue streaks across the sky like fingers trailing through blood.
“These Reapers of yours…” She trails off. “Is there any chance at all? Of beating them?”
“Yeah, there is,” he says, with a quickness that surprises her. “A pretty damn small chance, but still a chance. It’ll be the hardest fight the galaxy’s ever seen, and we won’t beat them through conventional methods. We’re gonna need every edge we can get. You could help there, actually, with all your archives and research skills. Any scrap of information we can get will only help us prepare.”
Solana smiles a little. “Is that your subtle, big-brother way of telling me to get off my ass and go back to work?”
She almost jumps when Garrus laughs. She’d nearly forgotten what it sounds like.
“You know me,” he says. “When’s the last time I was subtle about anything?”
She snorts. “Never.”
He gives a rumbling chuckle before he turns toward her, expression growing thoughtful. “Thanks, Sol,” he says.
“I came here half-expecting you would either chew me out or ignore me altogether,” he admits. “So…thanks for hearing me out. And for not laughing in my face when I told you the reason I didn’t come home.”
“Well...” Solana draws out the word. “You may be frustrating as hell sometimes, but you’re still my brother. And I’ll admit, I’m going to need to do more research on this whole Reapers business, but I’m glad you told me.” Her voice turns wry. “Nothing to motivate you to move forward like the threat of imminent galactic destruction, right? I can’t necessarily say I’m going to be ready to get up and go back to work tomorrow, but I will soon. If there’s even the smallest chance I can do anything to make a difference this time, I’m going to take it.”
She hesitates, then leans forward to brush a spot of dirt off the gravestone. “I think…even though I couldn’t do anything to help her, I think Mom would understand.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees him smile. “I know she would.”
They stay a moment longer, side by side. The sun creeps further down the horizon, throwing long shadows behind the headstones, and Solana takes a deep breath.
“Getting late,” she says. “Guess we should probably head back.”
She can feel Garrus watching her even before she looks over. “You sure you’re ready?” he asks, the words a low murmur.
“Yeah.” Solana nods, more to herself than him, and pulls herself upright. She offers him a hand up, and it’s easier than she expected. “I think I am.”