Earth. Described by some as a beautiful blue marble hanging in the darkness of space by some, as an ugly ball of muddy water by others. Scars from the Reaper War still showed here and there, but the planet was well on the way to healing.
Debris was always a bit of a problem around Earth's orbit, mostly fragments of ships lost in that climactic battle so long ago. Even after hundreds of sweeps, some bits still remained; nothing large enough to cause damage of course, but definitely enough to keep pilots like Finn alert as they flew through the atmosphere.
"Ten years." Finn whispered as Earth loomed large in the bridge's from window. "Has it really been that long?"
"Two for me." Mannon said quietly. "I was assigned to my first post; communications officer for J-27."
It was a somber moment for both of them, and like all somber moments aboard the Ulasomorf, something blundered in and messed it up like a bowling ball striking a stack of expensive china.
"Happily; Greetings, fellow heroes!"
Finn felt an odd sense of dread as he turned to face Darsan, only to find the elcor had swapped his usual hat for a massive straw hat. He was also wearing what could only be described as a poncho. The colors were quite nice, though the site of Darsan wearing them was as offsetting as one might expect. Finn couldn't help but wonder where Darsan found a pair of sunglasses, and even more mysteriously, how he was wearing them without ears.
"Darsan." Mannon said, struggling not to laugh. "What is all that?"
"Reasonably; since we're landing on the planet, I thought that I might take in a little sun. I hear the beaches are quite lovely.”
"You're going to take a vacation?" Mannon asked disbelievingly. "Cerberus are after us. They're got a Reaper."
"Unconcerned; they aren't here, are they?"
Finn rolled his eyes as Darsan walked off of the bridge. "I wish I had his confidence."
"Still thinking about the Reaper?"
"Pretty hard not to." He shuddered as the image flashed through his mind. "One Reaper could still do a massive amount of damage. I'm just glad we're not the ones going after it."
Mannon didn't reply.
Feeling that he must've said something wrong, Finn coughed and said, "I mean, I'm sure the Alliance will be more than capable of taking it out before it can cause any damage."
Finn was stunned for a few moments. "What?"
Sighing, she said, "I was posted on J-27; now that the station's gone, my superiors are going to reassign me."
“But under the circumstances, can't you request-"
She shook her head, cutting his question short. "They need as many soldiers as they can get to be ready in case the krogan situation gets worse. I'll be heading out tomorrow morning."
"I don't know what to say." Finn said, unable to keep the sadness out of his voice. "We're going to miss you."
She looked at her console as she replied. "I'm going to miss you too. All of you."
After a few moments, she slammed her fist on the console. "This sucks. For the first time, I've felt like I was part of something special; a family, a team. Now it's getting torn away from me, and there's nothing I can do about it."
Finn didn't know what to say. What could he say? Nothing would miraculously change her orders. He felt useless; it was a feeling he had always hated.
"I'll be leaving once we dock on Earth." She told him. "Could you wait until I'm gone to tell everyone? I don't want a big scene."
"Yeah." Finn said, nodding. "I'll let them know."
"Thank you." After a few moments, she said, "I hesitated."
"That's how I ended up on J-27. I was training in the N7 program."
"You were an N7?" Finn asked, impressed. It certainly explained how she came to be so good with a rifle.
"I never actually graduated from the program." She explained. "We were acting out a holographic scenario based on an old mission on Virmire, pre-Reaper War. I had sent Cole to assist a group of soldiers as part of a distraction while I snuck into the base from the rear."
"The plan was working; I managed to slip into the base and disabled the mission targets. As we started to deploy a bomb to destroy the base, we got a message from Cole saying that he and the other soldiers were pinned down. I left Hutchins with a few soldiers to guard the bomb, but halfway to Cole, Hutchins came under fire as well."
"There wasn't time to save both?" Finn asked, seeing where they was going.
Mannon shook her head. "I had to make a choice, but … I couldn't. I failed the mission, Finn, because I couldn't choose between two of my friends. It wasn't even a matter of a right choice versus a wrong choice; it was about making the choice, and I couldn't do it."
"I left the N7 program after that. I've always had a mind for strategy, but that kind of decision …" She shook her head and let out a sad sigh. "I don't want to be in that position, not ever. The Alliance higher-ups were disappointed in me; they gave me some quick training communications and shipped me off to J-27. A 'listening post', they called it."
They were both silent for a long while.
"Well, for what it's worth." Finn told her. "I'm glad things turned out the way they did."
She smiled at him, a hint of relief on her face. "Me too. Maybe if this krogan thing blows over and Darsan gets to make his new and improved J-27 …"
"We'd request you specifically." Finn assured her.
They landed at the Moreau Airbase in what was once Dallas, Texas. Although most of the city had been devastated during the Reaper War, the presence of a military installation helped the city recover to the point it was even bigger than it had been four hundred years ago.
"Ulasomorf; this is Moreau Flight Control. We are sending you coordinates where you may land. We ask that you do not deviate from theses coordinates."
"Gotcha." Finn replied as he moved the ship to the indicated position.
To Mannon, he commented, "Looks like they're giving us a wide berth."
"No transponder, remember? If I hadn't identified myself, they definitely wouldn't have let us land here." Shaking her head, she said, "I've already arranged for a few people to come on board to examine the cloaking device."
"They aren't gonna take it, right?' Finn asked. "I get the feeling we might be needing a cloaking device if things don't work out."
"Don't worry; officially, they're just here to perform some routine maintenance on the ship and installing the new transponder; they'll be scanning the generator, nothing more."
Nodding, Finn said, "Good. You didn't tell them about …"
"No, I didn't. I told them Darsan was the ship captain."
"I was going to say Billy, but you did the right thing anyway." He paused for a moment before saying, "I appreciate that, by the way."
"Not telling them about me. I'm guessing that means you found out why I left Earth."
She nodded in silence.
"S'okay." He told her, turning his attention back to the controls as he brought the ship down. "It's only natural to be curious. Besides, I did say I'd tell you when you told me, right? Just … don't go telling the others, all right?"
The ship's landing supports extended moments before the Ulasomorf hit the ground. The final shake told Finn that they were no longer airborne.
As he deactivated the controls, he said, "If you want to, go ahead and start moving to the docking room."
"Thank you, Finn." She rose from her chair and turned to leave. After a moment, she walked back to Finn and gave him a hug.
"Goodbye, Finn." She whispered.
He was a bit startled at first, but he eventually hugged her back. “Take care of yourself, sis."
She smiled at him. "Sis, huh? I can live with that."
As she left, Finn couldn't help but feel a bit empty at the thought of Mannon being gone. He was going to miss her.
Shaking his head, Finn gave Mannon a good minute or two before activating the ship-wide comm. "Okay, everybody; we're on the ground. Let's meet up at the cargo bay before anyone heads out."
It didn't take long for the crew to assemble in the cargo bay. Most of them were either looking at Darsan, or very pointedly not looking at the elcor.
"Okay, everyone." Finn said as he lowered the cargo ramp. "We'll be heading to the Citadel once the Alliance techs finish scanning our toy. Should be able to get a few hours of sightseeing in; just make sure you check in with the Alliance people; I don't want any misunderstandings here."
"Smug; I have already cleared it. There will be a shuttle outside, large enough for all of us if you all want to come along."
"I'm staying." Finn told them. "I've seen it all before anyway."
Kyra nodded in agreement. "I'm staying too. Someone's gotta keep an eye on the knuckleheads messing with my engine. Xyn?"
"It has been too long since I’ve felt the sun’s warmth.” She said, smiling, “And a walk on the beach sounds quite pleasant."
Eri shrugged. "Eh. I'll have a look around, I guess."
"Excited; then lets get moving!"
As Darsan led Xyn and Eri down the ramp, Jake looked up at Finn questioningly.
"Go ahead, bro." Finn told him.
Grinning, Jake hurried after the others. Once they were gone, Kyra asked, "So, what are you really doing?"
"Thinking ahead." Finn told her. "I'm going to have another talk with Billy, see if he can't give me a recording of the Reaper so we have some proof."
He scratched the back of his head; the small metal port of the neural implant itched a little. "Hopefully, he'll be a bit gentler this time."
As he pulled open Billy's hatch, he paused for a moment. "Mannon's not coming back."
Kyra didn't seem surprised, though there was a note of sadness in her voice as she said, "I had a feeling. Something about how she said goodbye last time we talked. Alliance called her back, didn't they?"
"Yeah." Shaking his head, Finn said, "Still, it's not like it's goodbye forever. We might see her again if Darsan ever gets his station rebuilt."
Kyra smiled at him. "Yeah. You're right. We'll see each other again."
After giving his hand a quick squeeze, she headed for the lift. "I'll be in engineering if you want to stop by later."
"I will." He promised her before shutting the hatch.
He tentatively reached his hands towards the parts of the console where the clamps had originally grabbed him. The panels slid open, but the clamps did not appear.
Taking this as a good sign, Finn reached into the consoles and leaned forward as the chair began to shift. When the mask emerged from the central panel, he took a deep breath before putting his face in it. He felt the neural interface jab him in the back of the neck again. It didn't hurt this time, but it was definitely not a pleasant sensation.
When Finn opened his eyes, he was once again standing on the Rannoch Beach. Billy, still looking like Finn when he was younger, was sitting on top of one of the shorter rock formations, staring out over the horizon.
"Hey." Finn said, approaching. "Sorry if I bugged out last time, but-"
"It is understandable, given the circumstances." Billy slowly turned his head towards Finn. "I overheard your meeting with the others; your intention is to warn the Council?"
"Yes." Finn replied. "They need to know."
"And if they do not listen?"
Not sure how to respond, Finn asked, "What would you do?"
Billy considered this for some time. Just as Finn started counting the number of waves that made it to his bare feet, Billy said, "I do not know. My purpose was to scout. I was given orders to sabotage Cerberus or the Reapers if I found a way, but given how much the situation has changed, I'm not sure how to react."
"I'd suggest worrying about one thing at a time." Finn told him.
Billy gave him an odd look. "Shouldn't we consider the option at least?"
"Yeah, when we get there. We aren't there yet, though. The Council might listen to us, and then the problem would be solved."
"I hardly think it's that simple." Billy said, a disdainful tone in his voice.
"Simple?" Finn replied, acting surprised. "Who said anything about simple? We've got to get an audience with the Council first, you know, and that means we've gotta convince the Alliance that there's a threat. That's why I was hoping you could get me some nice hard evidence."
Billy held out his hand. A burst of light shot from his finger like a hyper firefly, circling madly around Finn's head until finally settling on his arm.
"There. I've sent everything I have on the Reaper, Cerberus, and the Illusive Man to your omni-tool. Outposts, security codes, and what scans I was able to take of the Reaper itself."
"Should be more than enough to get some attention." Finn reasoned. "I'll send these to Alliance Command, see if we can't get the human councilor at least."
"I hope you succeed." Billy told him. "And I hope … I'd like it if you'd stop by and talk to me again."
"Why not move onto the Ulasomorf's mainframe?" Finn asked him. "Plenty of room, I'd imagine."
“I cannot. Even if I could, however, I doubt I would leave willingly.” Billy shrugged. "I've been in this ship for years. It's … comfortable."
Finn couldn't help but smile. "I think I know what you're talking about."