As Shepard climbed down Normandy's starboard access to the crew deck, he heard the sound of conversation echoing through the ship's walls. As he stepped out into the main corridor he looked about for the source. To port, the hatch to the ship's lounge was closed, as was the one leading to the starboard observation lounge. All of the doors to the crew quarters were similarly sealed. It sounded like everyone was in the mess.
It was friendly, excitable chatter, he was relieved to hear. Recollections of close calls, "that close's," and "almost had me's," amidst the clatter of flatware on serving trays. With most of the crew on stand-down, they had gathered to share stories of their narrow escape from Dashta. Mixed mongst the voices were Kasumi's laughter, loud bellows of Grunt describing the enemies he'd torn limb from limb, and Zaeed's dry evaluations of the mercenary groups' skills as fighters.
He quietly made his way to starboard toward the infirmary. If he kept a low profile, he could get to the doctor without disturbing their bull session. Talking things out was one of the best ways to coping with traumatic events and he didn't want to interrupt. He rounded the bend, and to his surprise a tall figure stood in the dim light near the medbay door.
"Figured you'd be headed down here," Garrus said.
Shepard glanced into the mess. The Normandy's crew sat around the tables, eating and talking, some sporting bandages and medigel packs from their injuries. Unlike the squad, most of the regular crew hadn't seen real combat before the collectors boarded the ship. They were rapidly becoming veterans. He looked back to Garrus and wondered why the turian was not in the conference room. "You find something?"
Shepard folded his arms across his chest. "So you're hanging around down here to tell me you have nothing to report?"
"I'm waiting down here to tell you there's no point in going in there right now. If Dr. Chakwas had an update on Jack, she'd call you."
Shepard closed his syes. "Garrus, you have two seconds to get your ass back up to the conference room before I kick it up there."
Garrus shook his head and leaned against the wall next to the door, his own arms crossed. There were many times he'd ignored superiors, but he couldn't recall if ever there was a time when he disobeyed an order from Shepard. After Legion's dismissal from the collective, he'd talk to Shepard about the geth's situation and the Commander had been unusually terse with him. In the end, it wasn't Legion's predicament that bothered him so, but the lives that had been lost earlier. The fact that Shepard was skulking about the infirmary now indicated to Garrus that an unhealthy pattern was developing.
"You know, it's funny," Garrus ignored Shepard's growing impatience. "I knew this guy once who thought he made a huge mistake. I mean we're talking a colossal failure. A screw-up to end all screw-ups that got a bunch of his friends, people who looked up to him and trusted his judgment, killed. After which he spent the better part of a year pouting and brooding, wondering over and over what he could have done differently to keep from making that mistake. It became the focal point of his life, nothing else mattered. And nothing could change his mind, either. Not his friends, not his best friend."
Shepard blinked. Garrus never, ever talked about Omega. No matter how many drinks were poured, or opportunities thay gave him, it was a doorway that was meant to be forever locked.
"And did his best friend try," Garrus said. "He put his life, his mission, even his beloved ship on the line to try and make things right for the unappreciative bastard. It was only until much later that this guy realized how many lives his self-pity might have cost had things went differently."
"This guy sounds like a real idiot."
"You should meet his commander. The point being, he didn't have the luxury of wallowing in self pity. There was too much at stake. He had other friends who were still counting on him. He finally realized that if he didn't get his head screwed on straight, he'd let down the people who needed him now. As bad as the original mistake had been, if he failed again would have been worse. Fortunately, that didn't happen."
Garrus stepped close, nose to nose with Shepard. Even in the dim light, the gouges in his facial plates an mandible shown plainly, as did the gnarled skin on his neck. "If i see that happening to you, I'm going to kick your ass."
Shepard's jaw tightened. He didn't like anybody, even if it was his closest friend, telling him how he should handle his business. But the metal faced bastard was right. The casualties that happened on Dashta were part of the official record now, set in stone, and no amount of pacing or worrying could change that. The rest of the universe's problems weren't going to wait for him to try.
Garrus continued to stare at Shepard, unsure if his message had gotten through or not. He shook his head and walked past Shepard to the access ladder.
"Garrus?" Shepard said.
"Yeah?" Garrus looked over his shoulder but did not turn around.
Shepard gave him a slight nod. "You couldn't even kick one of my butt cheeks by itself."
"Why should I bother, they're only worth five million apiece." His voice trailed of as he rounded the bend in the corridor. "Do the math, Shepard. Remember, mine are worth twelve..." Garrus halted around the base of the access ladder and listened for the sound of the medical bay hatch to open.
Instead, he heard the Commander's voice, loud and boisterous, addressing the crew in the mess. "I do my damnedest to get you all off my ship and you keep coming back!"
Garrus grinned as applause and laughter echoed up the corridor. Kasumi's sing-song voice rose above the din. "Home again, home again, jiggety-jig! You didn't rent out our rooms, did you, Shep?"
"Well it looks like I'm homeless, so I may be bunking with you..."
Catcalls and whistles filled the air as Garrus pulled himself up the ladder, a smile on his face, back on his way to finding who stuck the knife in their collective backs. The small moment of jocularity and relief non-withstanding, someone was going to pay.
Anadius' red glare was imperceptible to the Illusive Man for the array of the holo screens that blocked his line of sight. Assessments poured in from across the Terminus Systems and Council space as intelligence agencies and operatives tried to sift through a nebulae's worth of obfuscating dust and hot gas to find the truth behind the attack on Dashta.
The players, as it turned out, were all well known. Blue Suns, Blood Pack, Eclipse, and a half dozen lesser known groups had joined forces to eliminate Commander Shepard and the Normandy, much like they had done on Omega to try and kill Archangel. Both ambushes ended in failure. But there was no identifiable culprit at Dashta as there was with the traitor Sidonis in the Archangel incident on Omega. The best intelligence gatherers in the galaxy were now asking the same question. Who gave up the Normandy?
The Illusive Man pulled a drag from his cigarette as his eyes scanned over the screens. The quality and quantity of intel feeding into the chamber had been halved by recent interference from Alliance investigators and C-Sec. Worst of all, the most valuable source of intelligence in this instance, the Normandy itself, remained frustratingly silent. All communications had ceased, including the quantum array, and no one had a clue as to where ship had gone.
But that didn't mean that Cerberus had to stand by and wait for something to happen. The Terminus rulers, disorganized as they may be, seized upon the mercenary attack immediately as a terrorist strike by Cerberus. The Council, as usual, acceded as expected to the demands to withdrawal, as did the Alliance. Once again, humanity was cast as the greatest villain in the galaxy.
While the Commander Shepard might not be willing or able to defend his actions, The Illusive Man was not so constrained. "Have records pull up every one of Shepard's missions on the SR-2," he told his nameless, faceless subordinates beyond the screens. "The names of everyone he's assisted. For every story about the incident at Dashta painting him in a bad light, I want ten showing his true colors as a hero. Push the idea that the Normandy was attacked at Dashta, not the other way around, and that Shepard and his crew in fact saved the station from a criminal takeover. There were many killed who were utilizing combat armor and military grade weapons that would not ordinarily be found in the possession of dock workers and merchants. This should be the primary message. Put it out through through all of the mainstream channels and the extranet as well."
The Illusive Man stood and squinted into the bright light of the boiling red sphere in the window. "I want Shepard's deeds to be so well known that by the next time he docks, the galaxy will be begging him to establish himself as emperor."
A female voice drifted down from one of the screens representing Cerberus' covert media arm. "That may not be necessary, sir."
"What do you mean?"
"It looks like someone is doing that for us..."
The multitude of holo panels merged into one, providing a theater-sized screen for the single member in the audience. There was a moment of digital distortion as the playback queued up, then a familiar female human face filled the screen.
"This is Emily Wong for Future Content. Immediately after the savage firefight ripped through the docks of Dashta Interchange station, calls for the arrest and detainment of Commander Shepard of the Normandy went out across the Terminus Systems and Citadel Space. Outcry over the attack on the unarmed station has been unanimous. But a single extranet site, Normandy's Hope, went online a mere hour after the incident, extolling Commander Shepard as a hero who was being unjustly blamed for inciting the violence.
"What makes Normandy's Hope unusual is not just its message, flying in the face of the overwhelming negative sentiment towards Shepard, but its creator. A one-time consort of Matriarch Benezia T'soni, Shiala T'avo currently heads up the struggling colony of Zhu's Hope on Feros in the Theseus system. She has a long history with Commander Shepard, though initially, not a peaceful one. I spoke with Shiala via relay briefly about her experience with Shepard and why she erected the site.
"Shiala, thanks for taking the time to talk to our audience. When did you first cross paths with Commander Shepard?"
At first, the Illusive Man thought his top-of-the-line holo projector was out of alignment as the asari on screen had a decidedly green tint, but then the name Shiala registered. A green-skinned asari was not a rarity, it was unique to Shiala's exposure to the thorian's spores. He would have to give her file another look later. He leaned back in his chair and took a long drag from his cigarette.
"It is my pleasure, Ms. Wong," Shiala said. "As damning as it might sound, my first encounter with Commander Shepard was at gunpoint. The colony of Zhu's Hope was ravaged, consumed by the spores of a sentient plant known as a thorian, then an assault on the colony by the geth. Either the geth attack or the thorian would have been enough to eradicate the colony... and I was responsible for both."
"It was my fault. Regardless of how it happened, it was my fault. I brought chaos and destruction to a hundreds of people I didn't even know, and I was powerless to stop it. But Shepard wasn't. He eradicated the geth on Feros and saved its population by destroying the thorian. All that was left was to deal with the... the one responsible for bringing devastation to that peaceful place."
The green-skinned asari stopped and covered her mouth with her hand, an ordinarily certain tell that someone was lying, but the Illusive Man could tell the woman was not faking her outburst. Tears flowed from squinting eyes as she sobbed uncontrollably, doubly surprising to the Illusive Man because he could tell she was an individual of great internal strength.
"I wanted nothing more than to atone for what I had done. Failing that, death was my only option. And there stood Commander Shepard, with my fate in his hands along with a handgun of impressive caliber. I explained to him the mistake that I made, and how I intended to correct it, how I would make it my life's mission to save the colony.
"All he had to do was pull the trigger to send me to eternity. Even after the attacks he and his friends endured at my hands, he lowered his weapon and listened to me. He gave me a chance when there was no practical reason because I might yet have some positive effect on this insignificant, forgotten corner of space. Not to mention the fact he could have just taken what he came for and left the colony to fend for itself. Instead, he gave us our future.
"I will never forget what Commander Shepard did for me, for all of us on Feros. And I promise you, on the everlasting spirit of Athame, that he did not cause the tragedy at Dashta. I beg for anyone out there searching for the culprit to look elsewhere. It's not possible that Commander Shepard attacked the station. I stared into his eyes, into his soul that day... and he is incapable of the actions for which he is being blamed. I want the galaxy to know it."
Emily Wong once again appeared on the screen, walking through one of Omega's endless dingy brown, dilapidated corridors. "Shiala's experience was not unique. Immediately after Dashta, Commander Shepard and the Normandy became the most widely searched subjects on the extranet, and soon others began posting their own encounters with the Commander, including Celo Gr'ean, a batarian merchant living on Omega in the Sahrabarak system."
A batarian's face filled the screen. Ordinarily, when talking about human beings, all four eyes of a batarian would narrow, doubly enhancing the menace or distaste the species had for humanity. But this one's eyes were filled only with calm reflection.
"Commander Shepard," he said. "I remember him. I remember him well. A plague had come to the slums of Omega. Killed in the worst way imaginable. Your lungs would slowly fill with blood. You'd cough it up for days with the most horrible, wracking pain you can imagine. Every breath was like inhaling broken glass... until you could draw breath no more and you drowned in your own fluids. I can't tell you how many people I saw drop to the floor and die... or how many more wished they were dead.
"I was taking my last breaths right here where we're standing. Humans weren't affected of course. Everybody but them and the vorcha. But then this human and his friends come wandering through the plague zone on some kind of mission. Bodies everywhere, but I'm still kicking, one of the last ones alive on this block. He says he's trying to find this salarian doctor is working on a cure. My first instinct? Tell the pink-skinned bastard how he can go -bleep- himself. What does he do? He gets down right in front of me and pumps me full of medigel. Takes as much as he can from his team as well, tells me to hold on, help will be coming.
"Medigel, I think. Big deal. It'll keep me alive for a few hours, maybe the rest of the day. So I sit there, too weak to move, hacking up what's left of my lungs all over the deck of this place. And damned if a little while later a med team doesn't come right to where I was lying on the ground. I ask them how they found me... The dead were everywhere, I could have been just one more body for the pyres. They say this human commando came into the clinic wanting to know how he could help with the cure. He went out to find it, but he told them about a batarian who was still clinging to life back in the slums... and he gave them my coordinates and told them them to come find me. The next day, they were injecting me with the vaccine, along with everybody else who'd come down with the plague. How many lives did Shepard save? I can't even begin to count. But I can start with one," the batarian pointed to himself.
"Humans are the scum of the galaxy. They take what they want, then hide behind rules and regulations and politicians to make it 'legal.' And they don't give a crap about anybody but their own... At least that's what I used to think. You're not all like Commander Shepard. You can't be. But if your species can produce just one like him... maybe you're not the worst scum in the galaxy. And I tell you something else. Dashta is one step down from Omega on the list of places a hero would visit, but damn if we didn't need him here. There is no way on Khar'shan he started that fight."
Emily Wong once again dominated the screen. "Stories like Shiala's and Celo's began to pop up all over the extranet, with the Normandy's Hope site becoming an informal nexus for people sharing their experiences with Commander Shepard and the Normandy, their backgrounds as varied as the system they represented. Noveria. Feros. Illium. The Citadel. People from all species, all walks of life. But what propelled Normandy's Hope to the top of extranet searches were not the impassioned testimonies of common citizens of Terminus and Citadel space, but one uploaded from the krogan homeworld of Tuchanka."
The screen fizzled and popped with static, then resolved to show a rubble-strewn, gray-green chamber dominated by a throne where a massive krogan in crimson battle armor and three parallel gashes across his right cheek stared regally into the camera.
"This is Urdnot Wrex, of clan Urdnot, former member of the SSV Normandy crew under Shepard's personal command. Did Shepard do that damage to Dashta? Well, he sure as hell could have. Shepard could kick the living -bleep- out of anything in this galaxy, with the possible exception of me. And even then, I only give him a thirty percent shot. Twenty-five if he brings the turian with him. If you're watching, Shepard, Vakarian only slows you down."
"Wrex," demanded a female voice from off screen. "Stay on message."
"Right," Wrex regained his focus. "Sure, Shepard could have started that fight on Dashta, but he didn't. You know how I know? It's still there. If Shepard's goal was to wipe out that station, it would be GONE. You wouldn't be interviewing survivors. There wouldn't be evidence left to sift through to tie him to the deed. There would be NOTHING. But that wouldn't matter because he'd come right out and tell you to your face. That's how Shepard works. He doesn't -bleep- around."
"Wrex," said the off-screen voice again. "This is going on a public forum. Don't embarrass us."
The big krogan shifted in his seat, avoiding eye contact. "Well, what am I supposed to to? Pretend this doesn't piss me off? Someone out there tried to kill my friend, hell, the only friend the krogan ever had, and they're gonna try and pin this -bleep- on him?"
"Wrex, calm down! We need this to be respectable."
Wrex stood up from his throne and paced back and forth, his red eyes filled with rage. "Don't talk to me about respectability. Shepard's the most honorable man of any species I've meet in five hundred years! He saved the whole -bleep-ing galaxy from extinction, and they're gonna come at him like this? Call him a traitor and a murderer?"
Urdnot Wrex advanced on the person holding the camera, his face contorted in the most horrible scowl imaginable or possible for a krogan. "When I find the son of a bitch responsible for this, I'm gonna crack his bones, suck down the marrow, and when I -bleep- it out the next morning I'm gonna feed it to the pyjacks that infest this place, and then feed the pyjacks to the varren!"
"Will you PLEASE calm down?" the woman growled. "And stay still, you keep going out of frame!"
Wrex grabbed the camera from her and screamed into its lens, his sharp teeth and black maw filling the screen. "Do you hear me? Whoever you are, you're DEAD. Kill yourself right now by sliding down a mountain of razor rock into a crater full of nuclear waste you cowards, because that will be a hundred times quicker and less painful than what I'm going to do to you when I get my claws on you!"
The krogan woman attempted to wrestle the camera from Wrex. "Stop it! No! It's our last one-!" But it was too late. Wrex reared back and with a mighty roar hurled the camera high into the air. The video frame to spiraled wildly showing flashes of daylight and wrecked stone walls before it impacted against a solid surface and the feed went dark.
Emily Wong appeared once again on screen and tried to suppress a smirk. "Since being uploaded to the site, Urdnot Wrex's video has surpassed over two billion views in less than an hour. And the video feeds and testimonies continue to pour in, with over one hundred submissions to Normandy's Hope since the site's creation. In the interest of fairness, this reporter must offer full disclosure. I, personally, have met Commander Shepard and personally benefited from his intervention three years ago on the Citadel. His help in exposing criminal activity there was instrumental in my rise as a reporter, and attaining my position with Future Content.
"But more than that, I remember the lives he changed, the people he saved when he stopped the Spectre Saren and his geth army on the Citadel, a debt that millions of us can never repay. And while my opinions do not reflect those of Future Content or any of its affiliates, I would be remiss if I didn't invite miss Shiala T'avo to include my testimony with those on her site.
"That a horrible act of violence occurred on Dashta is undeniable, but the identities of the perpetrators is far from certain. We may never know who is directly responsible. All I can say is like everyone else on Normandy's Hope, that I'm certain of who is not. This is Emily Wong, reporting live from Omega, for Future Content."
On the bridge of the Vellius, Captain Artuis stared at the pair of contacts on her sensor screen, that of the Normandy SR-2 and the volus trader MV Pollus Maskawa. What a volus ship was doing in the darkest reaches of the Xe Cha system alongside the most wanted ship in the galaxy was anybody's guess, but Artuis was more interested as to why the Council representative on her ship wasn't letting her report it. Instead, they waited and watched, shielded by the Vellius' stealth systems, as the Normandy conducted repairs from damage suffered at Dashta.
Meanwhile, Enlea T'vari stayed focused on her omnitool, waiting for orders from her mysterious patron as they all listened to the conflicting reports coming out of Erinle about the attack on the interchange station. Throughout the bridge, muted chuckles and sighs erupted as the the exalted ruler of the krogan gave an impassioned speech touting Commander Shepard's innocence before summarily executing the planet's last remaining video camera.
"He got some hang time out of that throw," Rusi commented from her station. "I tell you one thing, though. I'd hate to be whoever that beast decides is guilty."
Artuis nodded absently and watched T'vari closely. She had never seen one of the blue-skinned species pale before, but in the CIC's dim light, Enlea's skin looked positively ashen.
Enlea leaned back against a bulkhead and powered down her omnitool for the first time since coming aboard. Whatever the last message was she had received, she obviously did not care for it. "Captain?"
"Yes," Artuis swiveled her chair around. Any order would be preferable to what they had been doing since tracking the Normandy to Xe Cha.
Enlea T'vari closed her eyes. The afterimage of the last message still burned in front of her. "Ensure the destruction of the Normandy by any means necessary."When she opened them again, she saw the entire bridge crew was staring at her as more testimonies of Shepard's heroism flowed from every video screen. She contemplated what it would be like to be considered a traitor to her species, which she would surely become if she did what she knew she had to do. Captain Artuis risked it when she ordered the Vellius to Normandy's side at Sahrabarik. Fleet Captian Lorian did it when he put Shepard in direct contact with the highest commanders in the fleet instead of the Council. Not to mention Commander Shepard himself, who always seemed to face the worst opposition from people he was trying to save.Now, it was her turn. How do the turians stay so calm? Enlea wondered and took a deep breath. "Hail the Normandy. I need to talk to Commander Shepard immediately."