"Open with footage from Battle of Citadel? No, no, no. Establishes combative tone, too melodramatic."
From his seat at the briefing room table across from Mordin, Garrus watched the salarian reorder video clips and slides on a holographic display, repeatedly asking questions that apparently were intended to be answered only by himself. Any direct response from the others at the table resulted in a brief but forceful shushing. Tali paced back and forth behind Mordin, muttering quietly to herself in khelish, occasionally clenching her fists or poking some imaginary person in front of her. Garrus wondered how long he should wait before asking what was wrong. She was winding up for something.
The briefing room hatch opened and Tali spun on her heel. "Shepard! I-"
Samara stood in the doorway and looked briefly over each shoulder to see if Shepard was behind her.
"Sorry," Tali said, wringing her hands nervously. "I thought you were the Commander."
Samara raised an eyebrow and walked around to take the empty seat on Garrus' left. "No. Though he did tell me he'd be here shortly, after asking that I join you here."
Garrus looked at the asari, surprised. "Really? I don't know why he'd bother you with this. Did he tell you what this meeting is about?"
"He did not," Samara said. "Would any of you care to enlighten me?"
"We're about to give a briefing to the Alliance and Council fleets on the reaper threat." Garrus pointed at Tali. "She's going to go over power and structural details of the derelict reaper and collector base. I'm to give a breakdown of offensive and defensive capability. And Mordin is-"
"Shhh!" Mordin snapped without stopping his hands or looking up from his presentation. "Don't say name. Breaks concentration. Editing video while collating data into charts and pivot tables. Can only do six things at once, efficiently."
Garrus closed his eyes. "The professor is going to provide an overview of our gathered intelligence on the collectors and reapers gong back to Eden Prime."
Tali stopped pacing long enough to point at Mordin. "Which exactly why I'm not needed. He's actually had time to study the data. He collected most of it to begin with! What I can say will take five minutes, and I'm sure what Mordin can tell them-"
"-will be far more valuable."
"Look," Garrus told her. "I don't want to be here, either. But Shepard said he wanted his department heads to give the briefing, and that includes his chief engineer."
Tali resumed her racetrack pattern behind Mordin's side of the table. Samara didn't want to add to the tension in the room, but she felt her question was pertinent. "Can anyone tell me why I am here, then?"
Garrus shrugged. "Haven't a clue. All know is I'm going to have move my console in here from the forward battery if Shepard keeps calling these meetings. I'm starting to wear a groove into this chair. Tali, you think you could spare one of your mechanical assistants to...?" He stopped when he noticed that Tali had halted behind one of the empty chairs and gripped it with both hands. Her eyes were fixed on the surface of the table, but there was nothing there to be seen. It was time to ask. "Spill it. What's wrong?"
Tali pulled the chair back and sat heavily. "Dr. Chakwas was going to bring Gabby out of her coma right before I got called up here. She could wake on her own any minute. I need to be there."
Samara and Garrus nodded understandingly. Even Mordin stopped his work on the interface long enough to give a sympathetic sigh. Everyone knew how close the engineering staff was, but Kenneth and Gabby shared something deeper. The physical trauma was bad enough. The emotional damage was going to be far worse.
Garrus had already offered to be the bearer of bad news- having been both a cop and a soldier, he was used to it. Telling a person a loved one was gone was his least favorite duty by a long shot. But Tali declined, preferring to bear the burden herself. Tali wasn't nearly as controlled with her emotions, but she never ran from a fight, especially when her friends were involved. The turian fired up his omnitool and opened a link to Shepard.
"Don't bother," Tali said. "I already asked him. He said this was more important. But thanks."
Garrus deactivated his omnitool. Interfering further would only make the situation worse. Lacking anything better to do, he drummed his talons idly on the table, which drew an immediate and severe glare across its surface from the salarian on the other side.
"Sorry," he whispered, and the four of them waited for the briefing to begin in silence, except for Mordin's manic, half enunciated outbursts as he put the finishing touches on his presentation.
On a ship like Normandy, there was seldom any need to talk to someone face to face thanks to the intercom, terminals and personal radios, but sometimes Shepard felt the need to speak to his crew in person, even if a crew member was not technically a person. He walked into engineering to find the the two geth platforms standing side by side in silence at the power and propulsion consoles. Thanks to the round-the-clock repair efforts by the geth, he couldn't see any signs of damage around what was ruined slag before. "Nice to see you two working together."
"Shepard-Commander," they said and turned in unison to face him.
"How are you two getting along?"
The blue geth's plates widened slightly. "We harbor no animosity toward the processes of Mobile Platform One. In spite of the outcome, they were intending to bring about positive change. There is no further cause for concern."
Legion picked up immediately where Platform Two left off. To Shepard, it would have been impossible to tell which one was talking if not for the twitching head flaps of the speaker. "We understand the reasoning behind our isolation from the Collective. The security of the whole must be the priority. However, this does not reduce our desire to aid our brethren, it only changes our available methods."
Shepard shook his head in amazement. If only organics could be so logical. "You're a good man, Legion. " He held his hands up quickly. "I know, you're not a man. But you get what I mean. Look, I'm sorry I ran out on you in the hangar deck yesterday. I should have listened to your side of the story and I didn't."
"You were reacting with a mixture of surprise and anger. Given your emotional nature, this was understandable."
"No, Legion," Shepard walked around and leaned against the power console. "It wasn't. I blamed you for the mess we're in. That's was bad enough, but I didn't back you up when you needed it. I'm sorry. If there's any way we can get them to let you back into the collective, we'll find it."
Legion shook its head. "Unnecessary, Shepard-Commander. We were given the opportunity to rejoin the geth network. We have elected to stay."
Shepard just stared at Legion. During its time on board, when it was unable to connect to the collective because it was out of range or security didn't permit an uplink, Legion made occasional comments about how quiet it found life on board an organic ship. It wondered how organics could exist without the constant, comforting presence of the combined consciousness shared by the geth. Even EDI, with her advanced AI and ability to respond to Legion at the speed of light was just a single voice. Shepard could not imagine the emptiness Legion now faced. "I'm glad you did," he told the geth. "I'd hate to lose you. Thanks, Legion."
"Thank you, Shepard-Commander."
"Say, listen," he stood up and put his arm around Legion's shoulders, slowly guiding the synthetic toward the door. "Unless you're doing something really critical right now, I want you to join Tali up in the briefing room. We've got some visitors coming aboard and I want them to meet you."
The blue geth's head flaps expanded and contracted as it watched Shepard and Legion depart. "You are referring to the occupants of the turian shuttle currently en route to the Normandy? Shepard-Commander, we must remind you that Mobile Platform One no longer represents the geth collective."
Shepard looked over his shoulder as he followed Legion out. "That's right. He represents the Normandy."
Five ships, over five hundred killed, and Shepard still roams free. Captain Lorian's reflection in the shuttle's window stared glumly back at him, daring him to turn away. Whatever back-channel magic had occurred to make his visit to the Normandy possible, he could not fathom. When word reached the Council that Shepard would allow their representatives to come aboard, the order to proceed came down almost immediately. In minutes, the newly-reinforced turian task force and Alliance flotilla were working together to secure the debris field as if that were the plan from the beginning.
To anyone watching, the two forces were working as one, just as they had been doing before the political turmoil of the past week. But no one truly believed it, especially not the crews of the ships who would ultimately face each other down if things turned violent. Too much bad blood had already bubbled to the surface, and too many lives had been lost to simply let let the rogue Spectre talk his way out of this. The Council had ordered Lorian's task force to bring Shepard into custody. That was exactly what he was going to do.
In the seat next to him, Enlea T'Vari studied case notes on a datapad. At 540 years of age, this wasn't the most dangerous assignment the asari had faced, but she knew deep down that it could be the most important. C-Sec had solid evidence of Cerberus involvement at the highest levels of Alliance military and political command, but they had not been able to capture or interrogate anyone who could positively identify who was pulling the strings. Now, the Goddess herself must have been smiling upon them because the ship commissioned by the Illusive Man and commanded by his top operative was now within their reach- and instead of running away, he invited them to come aboard. Surrender or not, it was too good of an opportunity to waste. "What do you think he's up to?" Enlea asked.
"I have no idea." Lorian said gravely. "Nor do I care. The only thing that matters to me is that we accomplish our mission, so my crews will not have died for nothing."
Enlea blinked and turned back to her datapad. "I'm sorry, Captain." The brooding turian went back to looking out the shuttle window. Though she had known many turians over the centuries, she could never quite get used to their single-minded pursuit of their missions. As a diplomat, her mission was to learn everything she could about Shepard and the Normandy that the Commander was willing to provide. As a spy, her job was to gather information the Commander did not want her to have, without him becoming wise. She was exceptionally good at doing both. If Shepard elected not to cooperate, she would order Captain Lorian to let him go, and her tracking devices would take care of the rest. One way or another, they would find the Illusive Man.
She glanced once more at the turian officer. The humiliation and shame of losing in battle was evident in his face, his posture as he sat in his seat, and especially in his voice. If it were any other species, she would be worried about him taking matters into his own hands. But the turian had his orders, and she knew he would carry them out. She would not have to remind him.
"Approaching Normandy," the pilot announced. Enlea folded her datapad into its custom Lynique leather case and clasped it shut as she peered out the window past the Captain. As the shuttle veered toward the Cerberus ship, they caught a glimpse of the vessel from its ventral side. Instead of the sleek, sharply painted lines they'd seen in their briefings, its entire hull was scarred and scorched from bow to aft. Huge gouges crisscrossed its skin, patched over with unpainted rectangles of dull gray metal.
"For the most advanced ship in the galaxy," she scowled, "it looks awfully... used."
Lorian's eyes focused solely on the twin guns bulging from Normandy's underside like tusks. "Thanix cannon," he grumbled. The top secret weapon had so far only just passed the testing phase and a prototype fitted into a navy frigate the past month for trials. Not only did the Cerberus ship sport a pair of them, but successfully used them to to take out a dreadnought with a single volley.
The shuttle continued underneath the Normandy towards her waiting hanger deck. Lorian turned away from the window. Right then and there, he swore that willingly or not, Commander Shepard would divulge everything he knew about the terrorist organization, and there was no limit to the force Lorian would use to get it.
"Permission to come aboard."
Shepard stood at attention at the bottom of the shuttle's ramp next to Kelly for the Council delegates to descend. He was used to looking up at turians. Garrus was one of the few people on the ship taller than him, but Captain Lorian had at least half a head on his friend. Like most turians, Lorian was very lean, a look enhanced by the trim, dark gray uniform he wore, accentuated on the front by a single silver braid that ran neck to waist. His fringe was thin and sharp, and his mandibles pulled back with age which gave him the impression of wearing a perpetual snarl. Fine azure lines accentuated his face, with spirals above each eye and streaks down his cheeks like a warrior bloodied in battle. To Shepard's eyes, the turian looked uncomfortably like Saren, save for the Captain's dark gray complexion and the elaborate blue tattooing on his face.
Next to him, an unusually tall asari kept pace. Like most of her kind, her body was well proportioned, her sinuous curves accentuated by a form-fitting white jumper, her long legs made even more slender by black patent high-heel boots. Whereas the Captain kept focused on Shepard the entire time, the asari's eyes wandered all around the hangar deck, taking in every detail, committing the location of every piece of cover to memory.
Shepard nodded and stepped forward, extending his right hand. "Granted. I'm Commander Shepard. Pleased to meet you, sir."
The turian ignored his polite overtone. "Fleet Captain Venantus Lorian. This is Enlea T'Vari, Citadel Attache and personal liaison to the Council."
Shepard bowed slightly. "Madam."
"Commander Shepard," Enlea stepped forward, her gloved hand outstretched, a soft smile on her face.
Shepard took her hand and shook it briefly. "Welcome aboard. We're still awaiting the arrival of Commodore Rehme. This is Yeoman Chambers. She will escort you to our briefing room and provide you with anything you need during your visit."
Lorian's eyes never broke from Shepard, who found himself staring face to face for what seemed to him to be an uncomfortably long time. He extended his arm towards the lift. "Sir?"
"Right this way, Captain," Kelly said, clutched her datapad and waited for the aliens to follow. Enlea gave Shepard a small smile before she and Lorian followed the human to the elevator. Shepard watched them go. He should have been excited about finally being able to tell his side of the story, but after seeing the look in Lorian's eyes, he wondered if the turian just might be less receptive than even the Council had been... and that was saying something.
In the elevator, the short-haired human babbled to the Captain about how appreciative Shepard was they had joined them on the Normandy. Lorian listened politely but said little, giving just enough feedback so the enthusiastic woman felt obliged to keep talking Enlea calmly examined her datapad, reading the DNA evaluation from the receptors in her glove. The match with the records from the Spectre office's personnel file was a complete. There was no doubt now. She had shaken the hand of Commander Shepard. She gave Captain Lorian a slight nod.
Lorian stiffened at the signal. In the back of his mind, he had always hoped that the rumors about Shepard had been false, that the human who led the defense of the Citadel from the geth was truly dead, and that Cerberus had only been using his likeness to stir controversy and drum up sympathy for their cause. That it was really Shepard he had seen in the hangar deck only made him angrier. It was one thing to see a ghost. It was quite another to look into the eyes of a traitor.
The lift door opened and the human led them into an expansive control center. Even the CIC of Lorian's cruiser was half the size, with living bodies crammed tightly between the machines that made the ship go. The display of opulence and excess only made him hate Cerberus more. Enlea on the other hand listened with interest as the Yeoman gave them a standing tour of the room, as cameras and sensors hidden in the fabric of her suit captured every detail down to the grit in the deck plating for future examination. If time permits, Enlea thought, you'll have to ask for a tour of the ship. This one seems like she would grant it.
The humans around the CIC took little note of Kelly and her two charges as they walked though the hatch to the lab on their way to the briefing room. Enlea paused to ask the Yeoman about the purpose of the room, carefully recording the space in holo. They already had more raw data about the ship than she ever hoped to get. Maybe, if she could get the Yeoman alone, she could coax even more information from her.
"Here we are," Kelly said, opening the hatch to the conference room and standing aside. "Commander Shepard will join you as soon as the Commodore is aboard."
"Thank you, Miss Chambers," Enlea said. "If I may ask, who will be conducting the briefing-" her voice trailed off as she and Lorian entered. As her cameras only registered her immediate surroundings, they could not record the look of shock on her face. Instead of a room full of humans, she found herself being examined by a turian, a salarian and astoundingly, a quarian in the briefing room of the Cerberus ship. Captain Lorian wore a similarly confused expression, though the fourth person at the table, an elder asari by his estimation did not cause him nearly as much consternation as Enlea.
Clad in red armor with golden neck guard, the asari stood and walked slowly toward the younger member of her kind, her pale blue eyes full of curiosity. Enlea dropped her gaze immediately to the floor, as every shred of confidence drained from her posture. "Justicar," she whispered reverently, her hands shaking so badly that her datapad clattered to the floor and tumbled from its designer case. She knelt hurriedly to pick it up, ashamed at her clumsiness in the presence of one of the guardians of her people.
As she reached out for her datapad, a metallic, two-fingered hand clasped the device and lifted it to her face. She took it gingerly and stood upright along with the hulking metal figure before her, coming face to face with a white spotlight of an eye surrounded by undulating flaps. Standing now between a Justicar and a geth platform, all she could do was pray her recording devices were functional so someone would believe her.
Lorian bristled at the sight of the synthetic, but remained calm. There had to be an explanation. All he had to do was wait for it.
"Captain Lorian, Miss T'Vari," Garrus said, standing up from his chair. "Welcome aboard the Normandy."