Fight for the Lost

By LuxDragon

Scifi / Action

Interlude VII

Location: Normandy SR-2

"Welcome to the Normandy SR-2, Tali," Miranda said from her side of the table. She, Tali, Jacob, and Shepard were all assembled in the Comm. Room.

Tali crossed her arms and nodded. She stayed close to Shepard and maintained a certain distance away from the two Cerberus personnel, silently telling everyone her where her loyalties were.

"I'm Miranda Lawson, Shepard's second-in-command," Miranda introduced, before gesturing to her colleague. "This is Jacob Taylor."

"Cerberus saw footage of you in action, Tali'Zorah," Jacob commented. "We're looking forward to having you on the team. Your engineering expertise will really benefit the mission."

Tali paced behind Shepard, drawing herself farther away from the Cerberus operatives. "I don't care who you are. Cerberus threatened the security of the Migrant Fleet. Don't make nice," she standoffishly stated.

"You're one of the best engineers I've worked with Tali. Most importantly though, I trust you," Shepard said gently, but firmly. "But I need their help. And I need yours. I know I'm asking a lot, but we need to cooperate with Cerberus, no matter how much we don't like it."

"Neither of us were part of the operation against the Migrant Fleet," Jacob defended. "But I understand your distrust. I hope we'll get past that as we work together."

Tali turned to Shepard. "I assumed you were undercover, Shepard. Maybe even planning to blow Cerberus up. If that's the case, I'll loan you a grenade. Otherwise, I'm here for you. Not for them," she said with a pointed glance at Jacob.

Shepard couldn't help but smile at how straightforward she was being in front of Miranda and Jacob. A stark contrast to her personality two years ago. "You have free run of the Normandy, Tali. Check her out. We've gotten a few upgrades."

"I've taken the liberty of setting up the necessary security clearance for her to access our systems. She can start whenever she wants," Miranda said. She appeared unbothered by Tali's frosty stance.

"Thank you," Tali said neutrally to her. "It's hard to be a part of your 'team' if I don't know how the ship works." Before she left, she turned to Shepard again. "Remember, Shepard. These people thought enslaving Thorian creepers and rachni was a good idea."

Shepard nodded. "I remember. Funnily enough, Garrus said the same thing too."

Tali nodded back. "I'll be in engineering."

As she left, Jacob spoke up. "Oh, yeah. Don't forget to introduce yourself to EDI, the ship's new artificial intelligence."

Tali froze at the doorway.

"Jacob!" Shepard barked out angrily.

Jacob snapped his head at Shepard when he heard his name. "What?"

Miranda shook her head wearily.

Jacob had to suppress a shudder when he saw Shepard level a glare at him that would've made Grunt fear for his survival. A flicker of movement at the doorway allowed him to tear his gaze away from his terrifying commanding officer. Tali had turned her head slightly and was looking right at him. Despite the mask, he could feel her icy stare and felt another chill go down his spine.

Eventually, Tali turned and left without another word.

Jacob let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. He looked up and felt his lungs fail him again when he saw that Shepard hadn't even moved an inch. He was still leveling a stone cold glare at him that paralyzed the former Marine. "W-What? D-Did I do something?" Jacob croaked out.

"Jacob, Jacob, Jacob. I'm starting to worry about you now. One can't help but wonder if you'll survive this mission after all," Miranda chided.

Jacob knew she wasn't talking about the Collectors.

"Especially if you continue to say all the wrong things to the wrong people," she hinted heavily.

Jacob thought quickly about what he said that set them off before slapping his head. "Wait. I didn't mean it like that. I was thinking of her as an engineer and…"

"Enough."

Jacob closed his mouth immediately.

Shepard closed his eyes and mentally forced himself to calm down. "I'll talk to her. For now, return to your duties."

"Commander, I'd really like to…"

"Apologize," Shepard finished for him. "Yes, I know. But I know Tali and your apology won't be well received. I'll talk to her first and get her to calm down a bit. Then you apologize."

Jacob sighed. "Yes, sir." He looked back up and met Shepard's steely gaze. "I want to apologize to you too. I didn't mean it to come out the way it did."

Shepard nodded slowly. "Apology accepted. Dismissed."

Jacob snapped to attention, saluted, and then spun on his heel and left the Comm. Room.

"Let's go, Miranda. You have the bridge. Set a course for Illium," Shepard ordered.

Miranda nodded. "Of course, Commander."

"And I want Tali to be my Chief Engineer," he added. "Could you make the necessary adjustments?"

Miranda smiled. "I had a feeling you'd say that. Already taken care of. I suppose you want to break the news to her?"

Shepard raised an eyebrow. "Thanks," he said, impressed with her thoroughness.

"I'm good at what I do, Commander," Miranda said confidently.

They both stepped out and decided to go through the lab, instead of the Armory. As they were passing through, Mordin started to talk excitedly. "Shepard! Oh! Executive Lawson! Excellent timing! Have something to show you!"

Both of them stopped and waited for Mordin's news. The salarian gestured for them to come closer to look at his terminal. Humoring the Professor, they walked up and started studying the data, though it seemed only Miranda could make heads or tails out of the information on the screen.

"This is interesting, Professor. Are you certain?" Miranda asked as she tapped the screen and started scrolling down, perusing Mordin's research.

"Oh, yes. Ran exhaustive tests," Mordin nodded.

Shepard stood up, crossed his arms. "I have no idea what either of you could be talking about," he bluntly admitted.

"It's about the paralysis effect of the seeker swarms," Miranda said, still staring at the screen. "If you know about…" she paused and shook her head when she remembered who she was speaking too. "Wait. To put it more simply, the seeker swarms appear to inject nanomachines into its victim, not a toxin. The nanomachines attack the central nervous system, creating the paralysis effect we saw on Horizon."

"Yes. Leaves host unharmed physically. No adverse reactions from toxins. All technology based," Mordin nodded.

Shepard shrugged and shook his head in confusion. "I still don't see the relevance."

"They're taking extra precautions to take humans alive, Shepard," Miranda explained patiently. "Using a toxin on someone who's allergic might lead to complications. If they're using nanomachines however, then there are almost no complications whatsoever."

"Nanomachines are controlled by ship," Mordin explained. "Once ship left, nanomachines self-destruct. Reason why colonists were able to move on Horizon."

Shepard remembered Mordin talking about that after they'd returned to the Normandy. "So… what? Can you interrupt the Collector signal or something so the nanomachines can't paralyze us if we do get stung?"

"Working on it now. Wanted to show how seeker swarms work. Finally solved it!" Mordin said proudly.

Miranda eyed the salarian respectfully. "This is excellent work, Professor."

"Thank you, Executive Lawson," Mordin said. "Must get back to work now."

Shepard shook his head and started for the CIC again, Miranda falling into step with him.

In the CIC, Shepard saw Tali was still on Deck 2, talking to Kelly. Miranda walked past them, acknowledging Kelly's greeting, and stepped up to the galaxy map to select their course.

Shepard ambled over to Tali and the yeoman. "Hello, Commander," Kelly greeted. There was something in her voice though, a slight reservation.

"Something wrong?" Shepard asked.

"I saw the reports on Horizon, Commander. What you did was amazing," she praised.

"We did, Kelly. I wasn't alone down there," Shepard corrected.

"Of course, Commander," Kelly nodded quickly. She bit her lip. "Um… The report mentioned that Ashley Williams was there. How did that go?"

"Chief Williams? She's here too?" Tali asked in surprise.

"I'm afraid not. She's still with the Alliance. Working with Cerberus is akin to treason," Shepard explained to her.

Tali nodded in understanding.

He turned to Kelly. "And it was good to see her."

"Did you have strong feelings for her?"

Shepard raised an eyebrow at the blunt question.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to pry," Kelly apologized.

"We're still friends," he said. "I'm happy to still have that."

Kelly nodded. "Well, I should let you two get reacquainted."

There was something in the way she said her sentence and the way she left that mystified Shepard. Like she knew some sort of secret he should be aware of. Shrugging the feeling off, he turned to Tali. "Come on. I'll walk you to the engine room."

"Aye, aye, ma'am. Setting course for Illium. ETA: 20 hours," Joker's voice sounded throughout the CIC.

As they waited for the lift, Shepard sighed. "Look, about Jacob…" Already, he could feel the temperature drop a few degrees. "He was trying to appeal to you as an engineer, not a quarian. Believe it or not, that really isn't the stupidest thing he's said."

"I'm sure," Tali said evenly.

"He's not that bad a guy once you get to know him. He's actually former Alliance," Shepard said.

"Good for him," she dismissed.

The elevator arrived and they both stepped inside. "He wants to apologize. Is it a bit much for me to ask you to be civil?" Shepard said, hitting button for Deck 4.

Tali sighed. "Very well. But only because I don't want to make trouble for you, Shepard."

"And I appreciate that," he said gratefully. "I want to apologize for him as well."

"That isn't necessary," Tali protested.

"He's under my command. That means I have to take some of the blame as well," Shepard stated. "Plus, you're a friend." He glanced at Tali's profile. "I like your new look," he commented.

Tali turned her head. "What?" she asked with confusion.

"Your new environmental suit. It looks good on you," Shepard complimented, hoping the ease her reservations about working on a Cerberus frigate.

Tali looked down at her clothes. "Oh, yes. The captain of the Neema gave it to me when I was welcomed aboard as a part of his crew." She turned away in embarrassment. "I gave the Colossus armor you bought for me to another quarian who was about to go on her Pilgrimage."

Shepard waved it off. "I'll get you a new one at Illium."

The elevator reached their destination. Tali looked around in surprise. "Wow. At least the lift is quicker on this Normandy than the last."

Shepard chuckled. "Yeah. Just another improvement," he joked. "Was your father proud of you? About your Pilgrimage I mean," he asked, his tone a bit more serious as they both walked on to Deck 4.

Tali shrugged. "I think so, but sometimes he's hard to read. He trusts me with some of the more vital missions for the Flotilla though. That must mean something." She turned to face Shepard fully. "Thanks for asking."

Shepard smiled. "Well, I should introduce you to your new coworkers down here," he said.

They both entered the engine room and walked up behind Ken and Gabby.

"As if running down the Collectors aren't enough," Gabby sighed. "But sharing our deck with a krogan…"

"I know. Isn't that peachy?" Ken sarcastically said.

Shepard shook his head at their antics. Shrugging at Tali, he stepped closer behind them and cleared his throat.

Both of them jumped in fright and turned around with wide eyes. "Whoa! Commander! We didn't see you there!" Gabby cried out with her hand on her chest.

"You scared the bejezzus out of me, Shepard!" Ken said, his Scottish burr coming out thicker than usual.

"Sorry," Shepard said, though he didn't sound it. He was too busy fighting his grin. "I wanted to introduce Tali," he gestured to the quarian standing next to him. "Chief Engineer of the Normandy and your new boss."

"What ? !" all three exclaimed at the same time.

"Shepard, are you serious?" Tali asked in shock.

"Of course," Shepard said to her before turning to Ken and Gabby. "She's fully qualified. She was on the engineering staff of the first Normandy where my old Chief Engineer had nothing but positive reviews about her knowledge and performance," he said before pausing. He tilted his head and crossed his arms at the two human engineers. "She's also a good friend of mine who helped me against Saren, the geth, and Sovereign two years ago. I hope you'll treat her well," he stated conversationally, but with a hint of warning.

Gabby saluted sharply and smiled. "Of course, Commander!"

Ken looked at Gabby before remembering his manners and saluted too, although it was a little sloppy. "Nice to meet you, boss!"

"Um… hello," Tali greeted uncertainly. She turned back to Shepard. "Are you sure about this?" she asked again.

Shepard nodded confidently. "If Adams were here, he'd say the same thing Tali. You're in charge of keeping everything running. I know you won't let me down."

What he could see of Tali's face through her opaque faceplate was crinkled, indicating that she was smiling. "Thank you, Shepard. I'll do my best to meet your expectations."

"Just do your best. You already met my expectations," Shepard assured. "Now try for yours, okay?"

Tali nodded.

"Right. Tali, this is Ken Donnelly, Power Control," Shepard introduced, gesturing the male half of the engineering duo before gesturing to the fairer half. "And this is Gabriella 'Gabby' Daniels, Propulsion Systems." He turned and gestured to his friend. "Tali'Zorah vas Neema."

"Tali will do," she said before sticking her hand out to both of them. Ken and Gabby shook it enthusiastically. "I hope Cerberus trained you well."

"Actually, both Gabby and I started in the Alliance, serving on the SSV Perugia," Ken corrected.

"She flew in the first wave at the Battle of the Citadel. We saw Sovereign first-hand," Gabby excitedly cut in.

"A cruiser," Shepard said to Tali. He looked at both engineers in a different light. "Why did you leave the Perugia?"

"After you… uh… died?" Ken said in confusion before looking to Gabby for clarification. Gabby only shrugged. "Right, um… Anderson lost political clout. The Council backslid on the Reaper menace."

Gabby continued, "They discounted Sovereign as an isolated threat, as a single –"

"Which was bullshit! They said your warnings of a greater danger were mistaken or delusional," interrupted Ken.

"We lost respect for Alliance leadership. We need to fight the real enemy, and only Cerberus seemed to be doing that," Gabby finished.

"So how did you two wind up in Cerberus?" Tali asked curiously.

"Once Shepard was gone, the Alliance brass descended like vultures, tearing apart everything he'd said," Ken answered before facing Shepard. "I was very public with my defense for you. I didn't hold back," he proudly said.

"That's an understatement. If Kenneth wasn't such a talented engineer, they'd have court marshaled him for insubordination," added Gabby.

"But it got me noticed by Cerberus. They made an offer, and here I am," finished Ken.

"Kenneth and I have been partners in crime since we graduated from tech academy. When he got the Cerberus offer, I insisted that it include me," Gabby said. She jerked her thumb at her cohort. "He'd fall apart without me."

"Thanks mum," Ken sarcastically replied.

"Also, I love engines, and Normandy is state-of-the-art. When I got the opportunity to work on her, I had to jump."

These two are really different. "What do you think about Cerberus?" Shepard asked.

"Actually, we don't know much about the organization other than the Normandy team. We know our mission and who's in charge," admitted Gabby.

"We're off to kick the Collectors right in their daddy bags. That's enough for me," Ken said eagerly.

Tali nodded approvingly at them. She seemed much happier working with two Cerberus engineers.

"Commander? I was wondering if I might have a moment," Miranda asked. "I need to speak with you in my office."

"On my way," Shepard replied. He faced Tali. "All settled?"

"I'll be fine, Shepard. The structure is obviously different from the last Normandy, but the systems still look the same," Tali assured.

"Alright. I'll leave you to it then. I'll come by later," Shepard said before leaving.

"Shepard. There's something I wanted to discuss," Miranda said when Shepard entered and closed the door.

"Something up?" he asked.

Miranda gestured to one of the chairs next to her table. He obliged her.

"I wanted to know how long we'll be staying in Illium," she said.

Shepard leaned back in his chair. "You probably guessed already, but I'm planning on staying there for a while. Our two last recruits are there, but after that? No rush. Not until we get some actionable intelligence, anyway." He stretched in his seat, trying to relieve the stress he built up over the past month. "I was thinking of give the crew a bit of down time too and Illium sounds like a great place for it."

Miranda smiled. "I was hoping you were going to say that, but I recently learned that I should never operate on assumptions."

"Good lesson to learn," Shepard nodded sagely.

"Strangely enough, I learned that lesson not long after meeting you," Miranda admitted.

Shepard smiled. "I also need to speak to Garrus. He promised me some new tech for the Normandy. Something that'll help us get an edge on the Collectors," he confided.

Miranda raised an eyebrow. "Really? Interesting."

"How so?" Shepard asked.

"That's precisely what I wanted to talk to you about," she answered. "Do you remember back on the Citadel when Jacob and I left for the wards while you spoke with the Council?"

Shepard nodded.

"We were speaking to some of our operatives," she revealed. "These particular operatives were involved in a high risk, high reward mission. I can't tell you the details, but Cerberus has long been interested in the asari dreadnought, Destiny Ascension."

Shepard raised an eyebrow of his own and silently urged her to continue.

"We recently learned about an asari-made armor they used on the Ascension. It's why it survived the initial attack made by the geth," Miranda explained. "They call it Silaris Armor. Cerberus recently managed to acquire the knowledge on how to make this armor and have fashioned some for the Normandy."

"So you wanted to know if we're going stay on Illium long enough to put in for retrofits," Shepard reasoned.

"Exactly. The Ablative Armor we're equipped with is adequate, but you of all people know that we need all the advantages we can afford against the Collector cruiser if we're to stand a chance."

"And this… Silaris Armor will work for us, right?" Shepard asked.

"I've studied the specs of the armor myself. It's really quite ingenious. The reason for its strength is the carbon nanotube sheets woven with a diamond Chemical Vapor Deposition, which are crushed by mass effect fields into super-dense layers able to withstand extreme temperatures. That process also compensates for diamond's brittleness…" she lectured before stopping.

Shepard stared at her with a blank look on his face.

Miranda sighed tiredly. "The armor will resist tremendous heat and kinetic energy of starship weapons. Imagine having dreadnought armor on our frigate," she simplified.

Shepard nodded knowingly, as if he understood everything she said. "What I'm curious about is why aren't all asari ships made of this stuff?"

"Two reasons. The first is the oldest reason found everywhere in the galaxy: capital. Creating this armor is prohibitively expensive. Second, the armor must be attached to the ship's superstructure. Because of this, protection isn't 100% guaranteed. Shockwaves generated from a massive amount of force can still destroy metals beneath the armor itself, not to mention the crew within," she explained. "But chances are likely that whatever generates shockwaves that powerful will destroy the Normandy anyway."

"The Illusive Man has it ready for us?" Shepard asked.

"We just need a dock and some time to install the armor."

"How long?"

Miranda shrugged. "I don't know. I wasn't given an estimate."

"Alright. Armor from Cerberus and a new main gun from Garrus and his friends," Shepard listed off. "We still need still need to do something about shields…"

"Garrus is providing new weaponry, then?" Miranda asked.

"He said he'd get in touch with some friends to see if they can't help us," Shepard answered before rubbing the back of his neck. "I haven't asked how that went. We've been so busy that it slipped my mind."

Miranda waved it off. "We've been under a lot of pressure. But you've handled it remarkably well."

"Thanks," Shepard said, a touch flattered.

"I'll need to inform the Illusive Man of our immediate plans then. If there's nothing else?" she asked.

"Actually, I need you to create lists for the crewmen taking leave. I want half staying on the Normandy at all times. We'll rotate the crewmen out to give the others a break as well."

"I'll get started and forward everything to you," Miranda nodded.

"Be sure to pass the word around so they'll be aware and plan accordingly so they can enjoy themselves. And let them know there will be repercussions for any trouble they get into. Fights, run-ins with the law, that sort of thing. Leave is revoked if they cause trouble or are late reporting back."

"Understood, Commander."

Shepard stood up. "I need to talk to Garrus. Thanks for letting me know about this."

Miranda smiled as she activated her console. "Anytime, Commander."

"Shepard. Need me for something?" Garrus asked when Shepard walked into the main battery.

"Have you got minute?"

"Just running some diagnostics. Killing some time, that's all. What can I do for you?"

"I wanted to talk about that new main gun. The Thanix Cannon?" Shepard inquired.

"Oh, right. I wanted to talk to you about that for some time, but with all these missions…" Garrus said before trailing off.

Shepard nodded in understanding. "Tell me about it."

"I got in contact with my friend and she has everything set up. We just need a place to dock and install it," Garrus said.

"We're going to put in at Illium for a while. Give the crew some leave while we find our two last squad members. Cerberus is going to meet up with us to reinforce our armor during that time. Might as well get our guns upgraded as well," Shepard informed.

"Alright. I'll be sure to let her know. One thing though," Garrus said.

"What?" Shepard asked, uncertain if he should be expecting good news or bad news.

"There'll be… ah… some assembly required," Garrus hedged.

"Assembly," Shepard repeated in a deadpan voice.

"This isn't really isn't a favor, so much as she really owes me for something that meant everything to her. I helped her out, so she's willing to bend over backwards to help me," Garrus ambiguously said.

"You're being awfully mysterious," Shepard observed.

"Remember that this is strictly turian technology," Garrus said. "Top secret and all that. In order to transport the Thanix cannon, she has to send everything in pieces. All of it is labeled as junk, failures or simply inoperable. Instead of melting the materials into scrap, she'll forward the equipment to us."

"Will she be in trouble for this?" Shepard worriedly asked.

Garrus shrugged. "I told her if she ever got caught, she can invoke your name and say she was following orders from a Spectre for a top secret mission. Just deflect all the blame on you. She should be fine after that."

Shepard smiled and shook his head. "The Turian Councilor is going to love that…"

Garrus shrugged again, except he was looking at Shepard in amusement this time. "That's your problem, not mine. I'm just the facilitator."

"Thanks," Shepard sarcastically said.

"No problem," Garrus said without missing a beat. "Let me go up to the Comm. Room and let her know where to send everything."

"Alright," Shepard said. He stepped aside and let the turian walk a few steps before speaking up. "I'm sure this friend of yours was very grateful for your help," he smirked.

Garrus almost stumbled at the overt innuendo, but managed to continue without embarrassing himself.

After changing out of his armor, a quick shower and a change of clothes, Shepard trekked back down to the Armory. "Jacob," he called out when he entered.

Jacob put down Garrus' sniper rifle and faced him. "Commander," he greeted with a bit of anxiety.

"Relax, Jacob. I'm here to calibrate my equipment." Shepard stated as he walked over to his locker and started taking out his weaponry. After placing them on the nearest empty table, he gave Jacob a sideways glance. "And to let you know that you can apologize to Tali in person now."

Jacob sighed. "I kinda messed up there, huh?"

"Just a bit. But we've all gotten used to EDI being around. Well, everyone except Joker," Shepard amended. "She's been a big help." He smirked and looked at the nearby pedestal. "At the very least, you're much better to talk to than a VI."

EDI's avatar appeared at the pedestal. "Thank you, Commander."

Shepard turned to Jacob. "Just keep your apology brief and succinct. She's in a better mood now, so don't press your luck."

"Thanks, Commander," Jacob gratefully said. He turned to leave, but stopped when he noticed Shepard wasn't following. "You're not coming with me?"

"You'll be fine on your own this time," Shepard said without looking up from his calibrations. "Quick and to the point," he reminded.

"Right," Jacob nodded before leaving.

"At some point, I'm sure either you or Tail will instigate a conversation," Shepard said to EDI when they were alone. "Whatever the topic, I'm sure Tali's feelings for AI's will cloud her opinion and her words. Anything she'll say will probably be much like Joker, except it'll be a bit more personal. Can I ask you to not to provoke her like you do with him?"

"Understood, Commander. I will endeavor to befriend Tali'Zorah so that we might be able to create a conductive relationship," EDI dutifully acknowledged.

"Take it slow and easy," Shepard warned while scanning his HMWA. "She grew up… disliking AI's. A little patience is warranted I think."

"Understood, Commander. Is there anything else?"

"Just a little help with my calibrations."

A few hours later, Shepard finally walked out of the Armory after finishing his long overdue maintenance on his Spectre weapons. Stretching and yawning, he made his way toward the elevator, intent on getting some sleep on the large comfortable bed in his cabin.

"Hey, Commander," Joker greeted while Shepard was waiting for the lift to arrive.

"Joker," Shepard said.

"It's great to see Tali on board, Commander. Just like old times… it is her, right? I mean, because with the mask it's… ah never mind," Joker commented. "Man, I need some rack time."

Shepard almost groaned. He almost forgot to check on Tali and Jacob since he was preoccupied with his checking his weapons and chatting with EDI. Getting on the lift with Joker, he decided to put off sleep a little longer to make sure Jacob was okay. Especially since he hadn't returned to the Armory after he left to apologize.

After leaving Joker at Deck 3, Shepard descended to Deck 4 and wandered toward the engine room. Peeking inside, he saw Tali and Jacob talking amicably with Ken and Gabby hovering near them.

"Made peace, I hope?" Shepard said, revealing his presence.

Jacob turned around. "Hey, Commander. Uh… yeah. We're okay now. Tali was telling me a few things I could do to improve our weapons," Jacob said before shaking his head in amazement. "Damn, some of her ideas are pretty good."

"We have to make do with older and cheaper models of weapons," Tali explained. "Since we can't afford to waste money on weapons over more valuable supplies for the Flotilla, we have to upgrade and maintain them ourselves."

"Yeah, but… wow. I should try some of these ideas," Jacob said as he typed away in his omni-tool. "If this works, we should see significant improvement on our gear."

"Well, so long as we're all working together," Shepard said in satisfaction.

"We are," Tali replied.

Jacob looked at Shepard and Tali before realizing that he should make a discreet exit. "I should get some rack before trying these ideas out. It was nice talking with you, Tali."

Tali nodded. "You as well."

After Jacob left, Shepard turned to Tali. "So the new Normandy isn't giving you any trouble, I hope?"

Ken scoffed and answered before Tali could get a word in. "Trouble? Ha! You weren't kidding, Commander. She really knows her stuff."

Gabby had climbed up some nearby pipes to investigate something. "I think she knows more than our old instructor back in the academy. We learned more from her in a few hours than our…" Gabby trailed off when something caught her eye. "Oh hell. Kenneth! What the hell did you do up here ? !" Gabby screeched.

Ken paled and clambered up to Gabby as quickly as possible. "Sorry! I meant to have that looked at! I forgot!"

"How could you forget ? !"

"Well, with our new boss suddenly appearing and…"

"Just fix it!"

Tali pressed her hand on her forehead and sighed. "They're not bad, but…" she said before pointing at them.

Gabby was still shouting at Ken for something or other that Shepard couldn't make out.

"I suppose it's something I need to get used to," Tali shrugged. "Especially since you placed me in charge. It seemed like such an honor a few hours ago…"

Shepard grinned.

"As for the Normandy, everything is…" Tali started to assure before looking back at her coworkers. "I'm sure everything will be fine," she amended. "I'm a quarian. Give me a chunk of scrap, a circuit board, and some element zero and I'll have it making precision jumps," she stated confidently.

"What were you thinking ? !"

"I'm sorry!"

"I was worried about working with Cerberus engineers, but they know what they're doing, do as they're told, and they've been very polite…" Tali said, artfully ignoring the bickering couple.

"You're not sorry yet, Kenneth! Believe me, I'll make you sorry!"

"Ow! Damn it, woman! That hurts!"

"At least to me," Tali finished. "Though it helps that they're ex-Alliance and on your side."

Shepard had to fight back his laughter at the chaos around him. Instead, he made a show of looking around. "How's she running?"

Tali patted the bulkhead next to her affectionately. "Say what you will about Cerberus, they know how to build ships. The Normandy's running even better than before. I think Engineer Adams would love to work here."

Shepard looked up and saw Ken and Gabby still preoccupied with their work. Leaning in close to Tali, he quietly asked, "And our chances against the Collectors?"

"I don't know yet. I'm still checking. There are a few ideas I'm researching that might help," Tali said shifting her body slightly.

One thing Shepard learned about Tali, and quarians in general, during their journey together was reading her body language. To make up for their inability to see their faces and their expressions through their masks, quarians instinctively developed the most expressive body language out of any species Shepard had ever seen. Judging from the way Tali was standing and her slight fidgeting, he deduced that she was probably hiding something.

"Something else?" Shepard asked casually.

"No. Nothing," Tali replied, a bit too quickly.

Shepard raised an eyebrow at her.

She sighed. Turning away from him and gesturing that he follow her, she walked deeper into the engine room until they were standing at the console underneath the Normandy's element zero core. "I do know of a technology that will be helpful. But it's strictly quarian. It's forbidden to reveal outside the Flotilla."

Shepard nodded in understanding. "That's fine. We'll just have to make do with what we have."

"If you knew what I did about this, Shepard, it would change your mind. I'm sorry," Tali said dejectedly.

"Its fine," Shepard assured. Placing a comforting hand on her shoulder and giving it a squeeze, he smiled. "I don't want you getting in trouble with your people. Maybe I'll ask the Fleet for permission or something, but we're fine for now." Stepping back, Shepard crossed his arms and regarded Tali. "Something the quarians made, I'm guessing?"

Tali nodded. "It's something that we've been developing for some time now. It's only used on frigates or smaller craft, but we're hoping to see it used on larger vessels in the future." She sighed again. "We really didn't have time to chat back on Freedom's progress or Haestrom, did we?"

Shepard chuckled. "Between the killer mechs, the murderous mercs, the geth, and my 'recruitment' missions, getting all of you together seems to take up all my time."

"Mercs?" Tali asked in confusion.

"Long story. Ask Garrus about it sometime. He and I didn't have time to chat either when I tracked him down."

Tali giggled. "You seemed to be able to make things harder than they should be."

"Or it's everyone else and I come in and make it simpler," Shepard argued good-naturedly.

Tali appeared to be smiling again from what Shepard could see through her mask before she sighed despondently. "I can't believe so many people died."

Shepard knew she was referring to the marines and scientists back on Haestrom. He offered her a sympathetic look. After all that's happened, she didn't really have time to mourn the losses.

"Thank you again for getting Reegar, Raz, and Syrin out alive," Tali said gratefully. "All for data about stars blowing up. I hope the Admiralty Board gets some use out of it."

"They're good marines," Shepard praised. "Have you heard any word about Reegar? Is he alright?"

Tali nodded. "He sent me a message. It looks like he'll make a full recovery." She started fiddling with the sleeve of her environment suit. "Any time you get suit puncture, it's a matter of luck. Reegar got out with a relatively minor infection."

Shepard smiled in relief. "Good to hear. If he was at Freedom's Progress, more of your marines would have fared better."

Tali tilted her head and observed Shepard with what he could only guess as a confused or strange look if he was reading her body language correctly. "What?" he asked.

"Nothing," Tali said. "I was actually thinking the same thing yesterday back on Haestrom." She shook her head. "I wanted to introduce Reegar to you. I thought the two of you would get along."

"I respect him. He's proven himself capable and tough, ready to do what he can to see his mission through. Sentiments I share," Shepard said.

Tali nodded in agreement. "My father thinks the same thing of him."

"Speaking about your mission, any news on the data you sent?"

Tali shook her head. "I'm not likely to hear anything while." She made a show of looking around. "Or on an unsecured channel, for that matter," she said with knowing tone. "Still, with all its flaws, I missed being back here. I like the quiet. I miss all the old faces, though. Pressly, Engineer Adams, all of them."

Unbidden, Shepard's mind went back to the death of the Normandy. He couldn't shake the images of Pressly's face as he lied dead on the deck. He then started to remember what happened after. The painful constriction in his chest, the short gasps, the…

"It doesn't seem right having Cerberus in charge of this ship. Are you sure working for them is the right thing to do?"

Shepard shook himself free of the memories to focus on Tali's question. "I don't know. It wasn't an easy decision, but so far, Cerberus has actually helped me push back a Collector attack on a human colony on Horizon."

"Yes, Ken and Gabby talked about that. A lot," she said.

They both looked over to see Gabby was back on the deck, standing with her arms crossed and glaring, while Ken was still in the pipes fixing something or other.

"Cerberus gave me operational control of the mission, so right now, I'm calling the shots," Shepard stated.

Tali crossed her arms and settled into an aggressive stance. "So you ordered the listening devices and tracking beacons that are all over this ship?" she mockingly accused.

"Funny," Shepard deadpanned. "I'm not naïve, Tali. The Illusive Man wasn't going to give me a top-of-the-line multibillion credit warship without some strings attached."

Tali shook her head. "I know you need resources to fight the Collectors, but be careful, Shepard."

"I know, Tali. I know," Shepard assured. "But for now, one threat at a time, okay?" Shepard considered his quarian friend. "I remember what your friend said back on Freedom's Progress. Something about Cerberus launching an attack on the Migrant Fleet. Can you tell me more?"

"They attacked one of our ships, the Idenna," Tali spat out angrily. "It seems they were attempting to kill or control a young human biotic who was on the Fleet. I don't really know the details. I do know that Cerberus made an enemy of the quarian people."

"You allowed a non-quarian on the Flotilla?"

Tali shrugged. "He or she had information of some sort that Ysin'Mal vas Idenna, captain of the Idenna, was interested in. Not long after, the Idenna was granted permission to conduct long-term missions to look for new planets for us to settle on. Again, I wasn't privy to the details."

Shepard scratched his head. "I really missed out the last couple of years," he mumbled.

"You mentioned someone earlier. Is the 'Illusive Man' the one in charge of Cerberus?" she asked.

Shepard nodded. "Yeah."

Tali shook her head. "An… interesting name. Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

Shepard shrugged. "I fully expect them to betray us at some point. We just need to be ready when they do."

"I'm glad to hear that, Shepard. Remember, you're their best weapon right now. Their mistake is thinking they can control you. Just let me know how I can help," she said.

"A grenade would be nice," he joked.

Tali giggled. "I'll keep one on hand."

"You should get some sleep. You had a rough couple of days," he advised.

"I will. I just want finish familiarizing myself with the Normandy before I turn in. Thanks for your concern though," she said appreciatively.

They both started back down the short hallway. Shepard could now hear Ken's grumbling. "Bloody slave driver. So I forgot one little thing. She didn't have to hit me…"

"What did you say?" Gabby dangerously said.

"I'm almost done!" Ken hastily replied.

Shepard chucked and left the engineers to their work.

Tali walked up to Gabby. "What was wrong?"

As Shepard crossed the threshold of the doorway leading out, he heard Tali scream.

"What were you thinking ? !"

Poor guy…

"Commander, it is time to wake up."

After the fifth time, EDI's insistent voice finally roused Shepard from his well-deserved rest. "EDI?"

"You instructed me to wake you once we are four hours away from Illium."

"Right," Shepard said, forcing himself to wake up and roll out of bed. "Thanks, EDI."

"You are welcome, Commander. Logging you out."

Shepard stumbled into his bathroom and yawned. Looking closely at the mirror, he turned his head side to side and inspected his glowing scars.

Looks like they're almost gone.

After conducting the usual morning routines, Shepard left his cabin dressed in civilian clothes for incognito travel through Illium. He marched into the lift and pressing the button for Deck 3, intent on getting his breakfast.

Upon reaching the Crew Deck, various crewmen were mulling about. The difference today was the atmosphere. Miranda had spread the word that the Normandy was going to dock at Nos Astra spaceport on Illium and the crew was given leave to relax at the exotic locale. Excitement was running high as the crewmen began making plans about what to do, see, or buy once they reached their destination.

Stepping into the line for breakfast behind Hawthorne and Goldstein, Shepard looked around the Common Area to see that only Jacob was the only officer in the room so far.

"You okay, Hawthorne?" Goldstein asked.

"Yeah, just a late shift. I'd get some rack, but I really want to eat," Hawthorne replied before yawning again. He looked at Goldstein a bit more closely. "Are you wearing makeup?"

"I get leave first," Goldstein said smugly.

"Thanks for ruining my morning," Hawthorne groaned.

"I've never been to Illium before. I can't wait to see what it's like," Goldstein gushed.

Shepard raised an eyebrow as he accidently eavesdropped on their conversation. He'd never imagined Goldstein acting that feminine considering how professional she held herself in contrast to Hawthorne's brash personality.

"Illium is on the fringes of Citadel space, right on the border to the Terminus. It's probably the only planet that follows Citadel conventions, but acts like any world in the Terminus Systems," Hawthorne said knowledgably.

"What do you mean?" Goldstein curiously asked.

"Just about everything on Illium is legal, except, you know, violent crimes," Hawthorne explained.

"Wow," Goldstein said.

"Commander! What are you doing back there? You're in charge! You don't have to wait in line!" Rupert boomed out.

Hawthorne and Goldstein jumped up and turned around. When they saw him, they stammered and were about to stand at attention when Shepard waved them off.

"Its fine, I can wait. I really don't mind," Shepard said disarmingly.

Gardner shrugged. "Suit yourself."

Jack sauntered in at that moment, slightly damp from her shower. She walked right past the line, ignoring everyone except Shepard, whom she gave a nod to, before stopping at the counter. Rupert seemed to have expected it and reached under his counter for two trays and handed them over.

"Enjoy."

Jack wordlessly took them and walked out, thankfully without incident.

Hawthorne frowned at Jack. He was about to make, in what appeared to be, a disparaging comment about her, when Goldstein hissed in warning. He stopped and remembered who was behind them.

Shepard looked at both of them neutrally.

Hawthorne stopped frowning and offered a shaky smile he hoped would win over his commanding officer.

The effect was slightly ruined when Shepard continued to stare him down silently. "The line is moving," he pointed out.

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir," Hawthorne said immediately.

"Idiot," Goldstein said. She punched him in the shoulder and dragged him closer to the counter.

Shepard grinned at the action and moved up as well.

After getting a full tray he made his way to Jacob who waved him over with his spoon.

"Way to lay down the law, Commander," Jacob said.

"You'd know," Shepard replied jokingly.

"We all have our moments," Jacob nodded sagely, as if were imparting some grand wisdom. He grinned and took another bite. "It'll be nice to get some leave, but we'll probably be working, huh?"

"Not necessarily," Shepard responded. "I need to do some footwork to find out where our recruits are first. Illium's a big world and Nos Astra pretty densely populated. Might take awhile."

"So what do we do in the meantime?" Jacob asked.

"Officers will stay on the Normandy for a bit. Grunt and Jack too. I'd rather not let them go out without some kind of supervision." Shepard looked up from his meal. "Miranda told me about the armor. You would need to stay behind anyway to help her with the Cerberus logistics involved."

"She already told you, huh?" Jacob stated. "That works. Armor on its way then?"

Shepard nodded as he continued eating.

"Good. Hopefully, it'll work as advertised or… well…" Jacob trailed off, not wanted to voice out the worst case scenario in front of the crew.

"The Ascension seemed to benefit from it," Shepard pointed out. "The only problem I have is whether or not Cerberus read the instructions correctly."

Jacob grinned. "Devil's in the details."

Garrus finally stepped into the Common Area and took a tray from Gardner. Walking to their table, he sat down next to Jacob. "Heard from… what's the human expression? Scuttlebutt?" Garrus said, looking at Shepard for confirmation.

Shepard nodded.

"Scuttlebutt. That you said something stupid again," Garrus said to Jacob.

Shepard was grinning now.

"Just said the wrong thing to the wrong person," Jacob deflected, trying to play down the event.

"That would count as saying something stupid," Garrus teased. "Especially when you try to advertise an AI to a quarian."

Shepard snorted and tried to cover up his laugh by eating.

"Thanks, Garrus. As if I didn't feel bad enough before," Jacob grumbled.

"Ah, don't worry about it. Tali's tough. She'll bounce back," Garrus assured.

"I already apologized. She forgave me," Jacob informed.

"There you go then," Garrus replied without missing a beat. He turned to Shepard. "I got in touch with my contacts. They're sending everything to Illium. Expect it in two days."

"Fantastic. I can't wait to test it," Shepard said excitedly. He entertained thoughts of retribution on the Collector cruiser that destroyed the SSV Normandy.

"What's up?" Jacob asked.

"I imagine they're talking about the new weaponry for the Normandy," Miranda said, sitting down next to Shepard.

Shepard was rendered speechless as he stared at Miranda.

She was dressed in civilian clothes instead of her usual Cerberus uniform: a long sleeved blouse, a pair of loose slacks, and designer heels. She took the time to apply some light makeup, further enhancing her beauty. She looked like a supermodel or an actress rather than an elite operative for a clandestine organization.

Jacob raised an eyebrow at her. "Nice look. Going undercover?"

Shepard shook himself out of his stupor and waited for her answer, but Miranda ignored the question and started eating her breakfast.

Frowning, he was about tell her about his plans when Joker interrupted him.

"Commander, we're making our approach to Illium. They've queried us."

"On my way," Shepard replied. He looked at Miranda one more time, but she looked back at him with neutral expression and no answers. He thought he caught a hint of a smile, but he passed it off as his imagination.

"Take my tray back, would you?" Shepard asked the table at large. Garrus volunteered.

Glancing at Miranda one last time, Shepard was about to speak again when another thought came to him. He shook his head and quickly left, intent on getting in touch with another old friend.

"Nos Astra Control, this is Normandy SR-2, requesting vectors and a berth," Joker said as Shepard exited the elevator and stepped into the CIC.

"Normandy, this Nos Astra Control. Please state your business," a female operator requested.

"Nos Astra Control, this is Agent Shepard, commanding officer of the Normandy and member of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance Office," Shepard said. "I'm here on official business."

"Understood, Agent Shepard. Please verify your identity."

After transmitting his clearance, he waited until the operator called back. "Welcome to Illium, Agent Shepard. Transmitting approach vectors and a berth."

"I need a private dock," Shepard requested. "One that ensures secrecy."

"Understood, Agent Shepard. Stand by."

After several minutes, another female operator called. "A private dock has been secured for your use, Spectre. Will you need anything else?"

"No."

"If I may also ask, how long do you intend to stay?"

"As long as I need to complete my business," Shepard responded evenly.

"Understood, Spectre. Enjoy your stay. Nos Astra Control out."

"Vectors and clearance received, Commander. Beginning approach to Nos Astra. ETA: 51 minutes," Joker reported.

Shepard stepped off the platform and swiftly made his way to the Comm. Room. Once inside, he stopped at the table and looked at the hologram representation of the Normandy. "EDI, can you put me in touch with Liara?"

EDI's avatar appeared at the edge of the table in front of Shepard. "Stand by while I attempt to locate Dr. T'Soni."

Shepard composed his thoughts, but couldn't help wondering if the Illusive Man's intelligence was right or wrong. If it was right, why would Liara have anything to do with the Shadow Broker? Especially since he learned that the Shadow Broker paid the Blue Suns to retrieve his body. If the intelligence was wrong, the question was, is the intelligence just faulty or did the Illusive Man lie to him?

Oh, yeah. Like that's hard to imagine… Shepard sarcastically thought to himself.

"Commander? I have contacted Dr. T'Soni and she wishes to speak to you," EDI announced.

"Put her though," Shepard said.

The table lowered into the deck and the image of the Normandy changed to a life-scale image of an asari. She looked exactly the same the first time Shepard met her. Still young by asari standards, her face was slightly more round than most of the centuries old asari Shepard had met.

"Shepard," Liara said happily, but her voice sounded different than what he last remembered.

He studied her as her face ran through a multitude of emotions. Happiness, relief, surprise, but interestingly enough, there was also traces of fear and guilt. What shocked him the most was the sudden mask she placed on herself. Almost instantly, all traces of emotion vanished, leaving nothing but neutral look of slight interest, but little else.

"Hello, Liara. It's great to see you again." Shepard said, happy to see his old friend, but confused by her demeanor. Observing the image a bit closer, he amended his earlier observations. Her face lost some of the roundness and instead, gained a few feminine angles. She looked a bit hardened, perhaps a bit darker. In a strange way, she greatly resembled her mother, Benezia in the way she seemed to carry herself.

"You too, Shepard. I heard the news, but I wanted to see for myself. You're really alive…" Liara replied. Her voice seemed distant, almost disinterested.

"Yeah. It's a long story. I heard you were on Illium. I thought I could visit. Maybe catch up a bit?"

"I would like that. I'll waive your docking fees," Liara offered.

Shepard shook his head. "I invoked Spectre rights. I'm getting a private dock for some refits on my ship."

"Can I ask where?"

Shepard turned on his omni-tool and started searching for the relevant data. "Near the Nos Astra Trading Floor it looks like."

"Perfect. My office overlooks the trading floor. You can visit me there. We have quite a bit to speak about, I imagine. It's better if we do so in person."

Office…? "Sounds good, Liara." Shepard looked at the asari from head to toe. "You look well."

"As do you," she replied, also checking Shepard over. "For someone once thought dead, anyway."

Despite her attempt at humor, Shepard thought he detected something about her statement. As if she knew more than she let on.

"I'll see you soon. We should be docking within the hour," Shepard said.

"I'll see you then," Liara promised before closing the link.

As the table returned to its original position, Shepard couldn't shake the feeling that something was undeniably strange about her.

"Hello, Commander," Kelly greeted when Shepard stepped back into the CIC.

"Kelly," Shepard cordially returned. His thoughts continued to replay the short conversation he had with Liara, but he still couldn't put his finger on why she seemed different.

"Something the matter?" Kelly asked with a touch of concern.

"I don't know…" Shepard frowned.

"Anything I can do to help?" Kelly asked.

Shepard shook his head. "Not really. I think I should speak to Garrus or Tali about it, though. Maybe they might know something."

"Speaking of Tali, I had a wonderful chat with her yesterday," Kelly said.

"Sorry for interrupting."

"She's not what I expected from her psych report. I like her."

Shepard nodded in agreement. "She's a good friend. If it wasn't for her, I might not have been a Spectre. We've been through a lot together since then."

Kelly only made a slight disinterested humming noise of agreement. Like she knew something important that had eluded his attention.

Shepard didn't like the sound she made. He didn't care for the look she was giving him either. It usually meant trouble for him and it can only be made worse by the fairer sex. "What?" he asked, trying to keep the dread out of his voice.

"Hmmm… My female intuition says she wants to be more than just good friends," Kelly said shrewdly.

Shepard crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. "And what led you to that conclusion?"

"It's in her body language," she explained. "How she turns to you when you enter to room. How she watches your every move."

He almost sighed in relief. He was confident that he could read Tali's body language better than the yeoman. "I think you're imagining it, Kelly."

Kelly put finger on her lip and started tapping in thought. "No. No, I don't think so."

Shepard decided that he also disliked the confident romanticisms females tended to have when they're sure of something. It really almost made him doubt everything he knew.

Completely unfair.

"Quarians are so fascinating to me, but they also make me a little sad," Kelly frowned.

"Why?" he asked.

"Their environment suits are so beautiful, but with their immune systems, they're also trapped inside," Kelly explained.

Shepard silently nodded.

"I wonder what they look like under those helmets or what their skin feels like under those suits…" Kelly said wistfully.

The Spectre tilted his head. "Are you attracted to other species?" he asked plainly.

"Well, part of my job is predicting the motives and feelings of humans and aliens. Intimacy brings understanding," Kelly said. "And passion is nice wherever you find it. Character matters, not race or gender."

Definitely a romantic. She's worse than Chakwas.

"It's a good way to look at life," Shepard genuinely praised.

Kelly shrugged modestly. "I try my best."

"Preparing for atmospheric entry. All hands, stand by," Joker reported.

"I need to go," Shepard said, remembering that he needed to speak to Garrus and Tali.

"Of course, Commander."

The Normandy flew at almost reckless speeds toward the commercial planet, Illium.

Moments before entering the outer atmosphere, the frigate pulled her nose up, revealing her hardened belly which she used to withstand the heat generated by the friction of atmospheric entry.

Once clear of the atmosphere, the Normandy leveled out, flying toward the capitol of Illium, Nos Astra. The city bore semblance to some the major cities on Earth, but with a distinct artistic and alien flair of the asari. Looking at the vista, one could easily identify Nos Astra as home to the galaxy's richest, or most powerful, individuals. A venerable paradise on the outside.

Flying over the ocean, the Normandy cruised at a steady speed, deftly avoiding the other vessels that were coming or going. She cleared coastline and made her way toward the spaceports. Upon reaching her destination, she nimbly turned and hovered in place, facing the opening doors leading into a hangar. Slowly, she proceeded to enter the building where she was to dock.

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Normandy SR-2

"Can't help you, Shepard."

"Sorry."

Shepard sighed and leaned back in his chair.

He, Garrus, and Tali were all sitting together at the Common Area. The crewmen that were designated to leave were all standing around and chattering impatiently.

Garrus shrugged apologetically. "After you 'died', we drifted apart. I really can't say that I've kept in touch with anyone."

"Me too," Tali said, her tone contrite. "I returned to the Flotilla and since then, I've had to conduct dozens of missions. I couldn't keep in touch no matter how hard I tried."

"Wrex went to Tuchanka and we all know that it's not the friendliest of places," Garrus listed off. "And you know about Chief Williams."

"Maybe I should pay Wrex a visit," Shepard mused thoughtfully. "Maybe he'll be able to keep Grunt in line."

"If he'll come," Garrus responded realistically. "He looked like a krogan on a mission. Something about securing the krogan future."

Before anyone could speculate further, Jacob walked in and sat next to Shepard. "You wanted to see me, Commander?"

"I need you to lead a team to run a sweep of the dock we're going to be using. Bugs, camera, etc. Sweep for everything and run periodic checks," Shepard ordered. "No sense in letting our guard down."

"Watch for prying eyes and ears. Gotcha, Commander," Jacob nodded.

"Initiating docking procedures," Joker reported. "Please hold the cheering until we've come to a full and complete stop. I need to concentrate here, people."

The crew laughed and cheered regardless of the instructions.

"Docking procedures complete. And none of you have any idea how close we were to dying. Thanks a lot," Joker said before clearing his throat and taking an imperious tone. "Ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed that we have come to a full and complete stop. When you exit, please do so calmly and accordingly."

Jacob looked shocked at the seriousness and professionalism Joker was displaying. Shepard, Garrus, and Tali were all waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"I hope you continue flying Space Normandy, (not that you have a choice), where we'll get you where you need to go, (whether you like it or not)," Joker said, purposefully mumbling his words into the intercom. "For some of you that are more charitable, I never say no to gifts. You know, for getting you all here quickly and in one piece. That is all."

"There we go," Shepard said, smiling at the helmsman's atics before turning to Jacob. "You're up."

Jacob nodded and stood up. "Right, Commander. Tali? Can you help?"

Tali nodded and stood up as well.

"Commander? There is a representative of the Nos Astra government outside. She wishes to speak to you," EDI reported.

"Miranda?" Shepard called into the intercom. "You're wanted in the CIC. Meet me there."

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Spaceport

After retrieving their pistols from the Armory and securing them in specialized holsters at the waistband near the small of their backs for concealment, Shepard and Miranda stepped out of the Normandy airlock and navigated the hallways until they stepped into a reception lounge.

Two LOKI mechs were standing behind a well-dressed asari concierge. She stepped forward and bowed her head in greeting. "Welcome to Nos Astra, Agent Shepard. We've been instructed to waive all docking and administration fees for your visit."

"Thank you," Shepard replied courteously.

"My name is Careena. If you need information about the area, it would be my pleasure to assist you." She caught both humans glancing warily at the mechs. "My apologies. We're the gateway to the Terminus Systems. That element of risk requires greater security." She used her omni-tool to dismiss the mechs.

"Do you know Dr. Liara T'Soni?" Shepard asked.

"Oh, yes. Liara is one of Nos Astra's most respected information brokers," Careena answered.

That drew a look of surprise from Shepard. Miranda raised an eyebrow at the news, but opted to remain silent.

"Nos Astra is based upon trade. Information is valuable currency and Liara has done quite well," Careena elaborated after seeing Shepard's surprised look. "Her office overlooks…"

"The trading floor. I know," Shepard finished. "The trading floor is where?"

"Straight down the hallway, past the public spaceports and to the right. You can't miss it. It's one of the busiest areas on Nos Astra," she supplied.

"And what gets traded on Illium?" Shepard asked, curious about the culture.

"Anything you can imagine, Agent Shepard. Illium is a wonder world for those who can afford it," she answered with a smile. "In order to remain competitive as a Terminus Systems port, we've relaxed many of the standards you'd find on other asari worlds."

"Such as?"

"Most drugs are legal, provided they are labeled properly. You can buy almost any weapon or technology. You can even buy indentured servants."

"You have slave trading here?" Shepard asked, shocked an asari world would condone such a practice.

"We try to avoid calling it slavery," Careena amended. "All indentured servants on Illium have voluntarily agreed to a term of service."

"Why the hell would people choose something like that?"

"Most choose indentured service as a means to pay off debt or avoid imprisonment. A contract holder is responsible for the well-being of his or her servants and a servant's duties are agreed upon before the contract is signed."

Can't say I like this, but I suppose the alternative is worse, Shepard thought to himself. He remembered breaking up several batarian slavery rings during his career as a N7 Alliance Marine.

"Is there anything else I should know?" Shepard asked.

"For your own safety, I recommend against signing anything. Well, I recommend your crew against signing anything," she advised. "As a Spectre, contracts don't really apply to you."

"Besides the obvious or suddenly becoming an 'indentured servant', why would signing something be more dangerous here than anywhere else?"

"Illium is a free-trade world. Contract term requirements are more relaxed here than on other planets. It's a small price to pay for keeping our competitive edge in goods from the Terminus Systems," Careena explained.

"Thanks for the help," Shepard said.

Careena smiled. "Again, welcome to our city, Agent Shepard. Please enjoy your stay."

After she left, Shepard turned to Miranda. "I think we just stepped into the opposite of Omega."

"That's the culture here," Miranda replied. She checked the time on her omni-tool.

"Warn the crew about 'signing' things here and also tell them that I'm lenient on contraband, but no drugs. Red sand and the like, all right?" Shepard ordered.

Miranda looked up and fidgeted. "Of course, Commander."

Shepard turned and fully faced her. "Do you need to be somewhere?"

"I wanted to talk to some contacts of mine," Miranda answered vaguely.

"What Cerberus contacts do you have here?" Shepard asked.

"Not Cerberus. Mine," Miranda corrected.

Shepard stared at her a bit before realizing what she could be talking about. "At a distance, huh?" he knowingly commented.

Miranda shifted uncomfortably.

"I'll take care of it. Go visit whoever you want to visit," Shepard allowed. "Be sure to keep your com on so I can contact you when we find the people we're looking for."

Miranda smiled. "Of course. I should only be a few hours," she said. She opening her mouth to say something more, but appeared to change her mind at the last second. She just smiled again and nodded. "Thank you, Commander."

Shepard nodded in return. "No problem." As they both parted ways, Shepard heard Miranda stop and run back. "What's up?"

Miranda looked uncomfortable again and actually fidgeted in place while he waited. "If you see Dr. T'Soni, tell her… tell her I said her efforts weren't wasted and her sacrifices weren't in vain. She'll understand."

"You know Liara?"

Miranda looked up and met his eyes. "That's for her to say."

After warning the crewmen about inappropriate conduct, and conveying the warnings he was given, Shepard stepped back out into Illium with Garrus as his travelling companion. They both walked swiftly, so the other crewmen could file out. Each of them were gazing at the scenery or pointing at something or other in amazement.

Shepard led the way to the trading room floor, telling Garrus his first impressions about Illium and the contrast and comparisons he thought of with Omega.

Garrus made a noise of agreement when they both stepped out the spaceport to see Nos Astra clearly from the trading room floor. "We were always told that Illium is one of safest places in the galaxy… until you fell off the grid."

"Really?" Shepard asked as they meandered through the various stalls and stock market monitors.

"Yeah. Sign the wrong contract, join up with the wrong company, or walk down the wrong alley, and it's as dangerous as anywhere else." He looked around, seeing past the glamour and majesty of Nos Astra. "Don't let this place fool you. It's no safer here than Omega."

"I'll keep that in mind," Shepard stated.

They both walked until one of the stalls caught Garrus' eye. Shepard walked a few steps before realizing Garrus had stopped. "Something up?"

"Colossus Armor," Garrus pointed out.

"Perfect," Shepard said, walking back to look. "Get one for yourself. Put it on Cerberus' credit," he said before an idea came to him. "Be sure to get one for Tali and Grunt as well."

Garrus nodded and looked around. "I think we should get some more equipment here, if that's the case."

Shepard looked around as well. Seeing the various vendors hawking their wares, he couldn't help but grin. "Whatever upgrades you think are best."

"Go on. I'll catch up with Liara later," Garrus said as he stepped up to the armor vender to make his purchases.

Shepard nodded and left his friend to his business.

"Hello, Commander Shepard. Liara will be pleased to see you," an asari greeted when Shepard walked into a lounge.

Shepard felt there was something wrong with this asari the moment she spoke. She seemed… too inconspicuous. She spoke with a lilting voice that sounded ethereal which made her stand out, but the manner she held herself and the way her eyes tracked every nuance in the room the moment he entered. All of this reminded Shepard of the asari commando Alestia Iallis on Noviera, a hidden agent or an assassin beneath a guise of an everyday worker.

I must be getting paranoid…

Still, Shepard wasn't one to doubt his instincts. He held himself a respectful distance away and nodded politely. "And you are?"

"My apologies. I am Nyxeris, Liara's assistant. Liara relies upon me to acquire useful intelligence. I don't have her network of contacts, but I supply her with supplemental data." She smiled, though it didn't reach her eyes. "It really an honor to work with her."

At this point, Shepard had to resist the urge to reach behind and grab his gun.

If that didn't sound like a lie…

"Can I go in?" Shepard asked as evenly as possible without appearing like he wanted to run away. Or shoot her.

"Of course, Commander."

Shepard walked in, keeping his guard up when Nyxeris followed behind him. He saw Liara talking to an image of a human male.

"Have you ever faced an asari commando unit before? Few humans have."

Shepard's eyebrows rose at her veiled threat. He immediately recognized the words and remembered who spoke those words to him, two years ago.

"I'll make it simple. Either you pay me or I flay you alive," she warned before stressing her next three words. "With my mind."

The man had a frightened look on his face when he nodded. The moment the call was cut, Shepard spoke up, announcing his presence. "I expected more from an asari commando," he said, parroting his words he'd once spoken to Benezia.

Liara turned around in surprise. "Shepard!" She rounded on her assistant. "Nyxeris, hold my calls."

Stepping forward, Liara embraced Shepard, though the gesture seemed to lack the same warmth Ashley or Tali presented. "Ah… Shepard…" she whispered. She took a deep breath and stepped back.

"My sources said you were alive, but I needed to see you for myself. That's when I would believe… It's very good to see you."

Despite her words, all emotion seemed to be void in her voice. After the hug, she kept herself out of arm's reach and maintained a certain distance from him. Shepard couldn't help but note it was similar to how he acted around Nyxeris. "Sources. Right. I heard you became an information broker."

"Sources, contacts, even a little hired muscle," she admitted.

"I'm surprised you'd need that muscle. I mean, threatening to kill people with your brain?"

"Oh, that?" Liara asked, embarrassed by her display. It was just another hint of emotion that he'd seen since contacting her. "That was just a customer unhappy with the information he received. He'll pay. They always do." She turned away from him and stared out the large window overlooking the trading floor. "Ever since I helped you stop Saren, people have wanted to be my friend… or not my enemy. I've set up a respectable business as an information broker." She turned around to face him. "It's paid the bill since you…" she hesitated on the word and pushed on. "Well, for the past two years. And now you're back, gunning for the Collectors." She took a seat and gestured for Shepard to do the same.

Settling himself in the chair, he regarded his old friend. "Not exactly public knowledge," he stated, impressed with her intelligence.

"Information is my business now. These are things I have to know well before others do."

"I don't suppose I can convince you to come with me?"

Liara smiled sadly. She was probably expecting him to ask. "I'm sorry, Shepard. There are… things I need to take care of. Commitments I must honor."

"Do you need help?" Shepard asked.

"No. This is something I must do on my own.," she resolutely stated.

Shepard frowned. "I'm working with a Cerberus operative. She wanted me to tell you that 'your efforts weren't wasted and your sacrifices weren't in vain'. Does that mean anything to you?"

Liara swallowed, but smiled as she scrutinized Shepard. He had to resist the urge to squirm under her unblinking eyes. "Miranda Lawson, I take it?"

Shepard nodded.

"I'm sure I'll see her soon enough. While I appreciate her candor, I still have things to. Debts to repay."

"Someone told me you were working with the Shadow Broker. Is it true?" Shepard asked bluntly. He was taken aback Liara narrowed her eyes at him. The room's temperature dropped several degrees. In all the time they worked together, he had never seen so much hate on her face.

"No… I am not working for him," she resolutely stated. Her voice was calm, a stark contrast to her face. "It's complicated, but whoever made that accusation clearly has faulty intelligence."

"Do you know the Illusive Man?" Shepard asked.

"He is the one that said that?" Liara asked in return, surprise etched on her features.

Shepard nodded again.

"Strange. He, of all people, should be aware of what I'm doing." She frowned at the implications. She shook her head. "I'll need to consider this. Meanwhile, what business brings you to Illium? Or were you just visiting me?"

"I was visiting you and I have people I need to recruit for my team."

Liara smiled. "You're fortunate that I'm an information broker then. I'll help, free of charge even."

Shepard smiled back, though his was a tad shaky. "There's an asari named Samara here on Illium. A justicar, according her to dossier. Do you know where I could find her?"

"Justicar Samara," Liara nodded knowingly. Without turning to her terminal, she answered, "She arrived recently and registered with Tracking Officer Dara." At Shepard's impressed look, she shrugged. "Justicars are required by their code to announce themselves. Her presence here caused something of a scene, particularly with local law enforcement."

"What can you tell me about justicars?"

"They're a monastic order, almost akin to a religious group, really. They're asari that have chosen to give up everything to follow their code. Families, possessions, name, everything." Liara leaned back and shifted in her chair to make herself comfortable. "They're dedicated to stopping injustice whenever they encounter it." She smiled at Shepard again, this time in humor. "Many will say the STG was the model for the Spectres, but justicars are perhaps the true inspiration behind them. Much like Spectres, justicars undertake personal missions and are exempt from many laws, but only within asari space."

"Spectres are authorized by the Council though. Who do justicars represent?"

"They don't represent anyone. They're dedicated to following a code that defines their lives and tells them what actions they take," Liara answered. "It may seem strange to you, but in asari space, justicars are revered." Liara sat up and frowned. "The problem the local authorities are facing is that Illium is not in asari space. While other 'law-abiding' asari have little to worry about, a justicars code compels them to stop any illegal activities they face. In most cases, such conflicts end in lethal force. And you've noticed what kind of city Nos Astra is."

"And other species won't care for a justicar's authority," Shepard guessed.

"No, they won't. As you can see, there's an interesting diplomatic incident waiting to happen." Liara leaned forward on her table. "This is usually the reason why justicars rarely leave asari space. Because of this, it is likely that Samara is here for a specific target. One that has left asari space," Liara guessed.

"Will this be a problem for me?" Shepard asked.

Liara tapped her chin in thought. "I don't know… It really depends on her I suppose." Turning to her friend she stated, "Because she registered with tracking officer, it will be likely that her target will be aware of her presence on Illium. That means that whoever Samara is after will try to get off-world as quickly and as discreetly as possible. To avoid further detection, Samara will probably keep her presence hidden until she's located her quarry. It will probably be extremely difficult to find her until then."

"Damn…" Shepard cursed. "Okay. What about Thane Krios? He's supposed to be here too."

"The assassin. He's lived on Illium for a few years now. I understand that he recently arrived in Nos Astra a few days ago though."

"Any idea where I can find him?"

Liara shook her head. "I'm sorry. Thane kept his movements discreet ever since coming here."

"I doubt I'll be finding him soon then. Or Samara. Looks like I got my work cut out for me," Shepard grumbled.

"Yes, I suppose it would be difficult to locate Thane, but I suspect he would be easier to find than Samara," Liara corrected, smiling indulgently.

Shepard looked up at her. "Really? How so?"

"It is likely Thane is still on Illium for a job. Considering his talent and reputation, not to mention your own interest in him, then he's probably scouting the target right now. Studying them, learning routes and habits. Then, he'll plan his course of action. He's not an amateur. He will strike when the moment is right. During that time, I doubt I, or anyone else, could find him," Liara answered. Turning to her console and typing rapidly, she continued. "Instead of trying to find Thane himself, I could look into his target."

"I look for whoever Thane is after and meet him there…" Shepard finished, amazed at the brilliant deduction.

"Exactly. I'll use my more… less than reputable contacts and see what contracts were made in the last four months. Then, I'll narrow the search to high-profile targets to see which one Thane would accept," Liara said.

"How long will this take?" Shepard asked.

"To avoid problems with the authorities… I'd say three days," Liara guessed. Taking on a more apologetic look, she explained, "I'd go faster, but some of my contacts won't share my feelings. They'll need to make more quiet inquires to sidestep any misunderstandings."

"That's fine, Liara," Shepard assured. "It's better than what I had before."

"This will take some time," Liara said. "But I promise I'll remain in contact."

Shepard sighed when he left Liara's office. He felt mentally drained from speaking with her. There were so many secrets she was keeping that he wondered if he knew her at all now. Roaming past the various shops and wares, he looked around for Garrus, but couldn't find the turian anywhere.

Everyone keeps leaving me. Maybe it's my deodorant?

He wandered for the next hour until he saw a pair of quarians chatting. Both of them he knew. "Tali!"

Tali turned her head and waved back. When Shepard walked close enough, she turned back to the other quarian to introduce him. "Shepard, this is…"

"Kenn'Vael nar Selani," Shepard greeted with a nod of his head.

"Yes. It's very good to meet you again, Mr. Shepard," Kenn said, stepping forward and shaking his hand. "I want to thank you again for helping me."

"Just Shepard will be fine."

"You met?" Tali asked, looking between the two of them.

"He's the one I was telling you about. The one that gave me the credits I needed to get off Omega," Kenn responded.

"Oh. That's very kind of you, Shepard," Tali praised.

"Finished at the hangar?" Shepard asked her.

"Yes. Jacob told me that I should go and enjoy myself afterword. I think he's still taking responsibility for what he said and now he's trying to stay on my good side."

"I hope you use that power wisely," Shepard smirked.

Tali giggled, but didn't say anything.

Hoping Tali won't abuse her newfound power over Jacob, Shepard turned back to Kenn. "I hope your Pilgrimage is faring better now that you're here."

"Oh, yes. I've opened another shop here with another quarian on his Pilgrimage. We're hoping to raise enough money to buy a ship and critical supplies to bring back to the Migrant Fleet," Kenn replied.

"That's a good gift," Tali nodded.

"Is it normal for quarians to work together for Pilgrimages?" Shepard asked.

"Not at all. If there are twins or other family members of similar age, cousins or the like, they would often band together to help each other during a Pilgrimage. However, to maintain genetic diversity, they will need to choose different ships. That means they each must have something to present," Tali explained.

"Rol is a friend. We both met here and decided to set up a shop. After talking, we decided on what ship we wanted to join as well. All we have to do is raise the money to do it." Kenn turned to Shepard. "I want to thank you for what you've done. You said you were looking for a specific part, yes? Some couplings?"

Shepard nodded.

Tali bowed her head in thought. "I remember. We have the wrong couplings. We need T6-FBA models or we'll have to realign the couplings every day."

"You're in luck. Rol has some pristine T6-FBA couplings at our shop. If you want, you can have it, free of charge!"

Shepard really wanted to pay for it, but given the earnest stance Kenn was giving him, he didn't want to insult the young man either. "Thank you. I'm sure my engineering team will appreciate this," he said as gracefully as he could.

Kenn nodded happily. "I'll have it delivered to your ship as soon as possible."

"Are you sure about this, Kenn?" Tali asked gently. "We have plenty of money. We can pay, it's not a problem."

Kenn shook his head. "I wanted to take responsibility for my actions on Omega, but your captain made a convincing argument. This is the only way I can think of to pay him back."

Tali nodded her head and patted Kenn on the shoulder. "I understand. He seems to have that effect."

Maybe it was his imagination, but Shepard could swear Kenn was blushing underneath his mask when Tali touched him.

Interesting.

Liara embraced Garrus warmly. "It's good to see you again, Garrus."

Garrus awkwardly returned the gesture. "You too, Liara." Stepping back, he looked around her office. "I see you've done well for yourself."

Liara glanced around her office as well. "On the surface perhaps, but I've had my share of hardships." Looking Garrus in the eye, she added, "Similar to yours actually."

Garrus tilted his head in confusion. "Really?"

"In the beginning, yes. While nothing like your mercenary squad, I've had my share of violence," Liara explained as she walked back behind her table and sat down. "Later on, when I established myself here, my dealings became much more private, but no less deadly."

Garrus walked over to the front of her table and crossed his arms. "You knew about my squad?"

Liara smiled. "I kept tabs on everyone. And it was rather hard to miss you, 'Archangel'. Many extranet sites declared you a hero, a champion to protect the underprivileged and destitute. Some of the photos were quite flattering; Colossus Armor suits you. Not to mention the slogans: 'I believe in Archangel'. It's a definite contrast to what others called you. The various mercenary groups called you a terrorist and that's one of the nicer things they said about you." She sighed as her hand traced random patterns on the tabletop. "I missed everyone. Despite the danger and hardship and pressures… the time we spent together was the best I've had all my life," she quietly said. "The best group of friends I've ever made."

Garrus sighed and sat down in the nearest chair. "Yeah. I know the feeling."

The silence between them lingered as they lost themselves in past and present memories.

"I know where Sidonis is," Liara suddenly said, still in her quiet tone. Her gaze was boring into Garrus though, watching him carefully.

Garrus' head snapped up at the news. "What ? !" Standing up, he placed his hands on the table. "How do you know ? ! Where is he ? !"

"I know because, as I said, I kept tabs on everyone. The moment I heard that your squad was killed, I looked for everything related to the incident. I was worried about you and hoped that you were still alive. When I confirmed that you were alright, I dedicated resources trying to find out what had happened," she explained, leaning back in her chair. "As soon as I found out the truth, I kept my ear out for any mention of Sidonis." Leaning forward, she accessed her console, to answer Garrus' last question. "As for where, I'm sending you everything I have."

Garrus looked down at his omni-tool. "The Citadel…" Looking through the information he was given, he noted that Liara had found the new name, identity, even the address of where Sidonis was living at now. "I got you, you bastard."

"Approaching him will not be easy," Liara warned. "He's contracted an identity forger named Fade. As I understand it, Fade is quite notorious on the Citadel because he can help people disappear. Even C-Sec can't find anyone he's made vanish."

Garrus dismissed her warning. "I lost my respect for C-Sec a long time ago Liara. Besides, you found him."

"Regardless of your opinion of C-Sec, they haven't a clue to Fade's real identity," Liara countered. "It's likely that Fade protects the identities of his clients. If he or she got wind of your arrival at the Citadel, then Sidonis might get tipped off. Your best shot would be to deal with Fade directly to ensure that he can't contact Sidonis. Maybe even use him to draw Sidonis out, instead of attacking him directly," she suggested.

Garrus considered her words. "Hmm… That's a good idea." Looking at her, he asked, "Any idea who Fade is?"

"Sorry. I'm afraid not," Liara sighed. "My primary focus is here on Illium as well as… elsewhere," she evasively answered. "I can tell you that Fade has operators working out of a warehouse in level 26 of the Zakera Ward. If you approach them, you might find where Fade is hiding," she suggested.

"Thanks Liara," Garrus said gratefully. Sitting down again, he regarded the asari carefully. "Um… look Liara. I trust you. We've been through too much for me not to, but why?"

"Why am I here as an information broker or why am I helping you like this?"

Garrus shrugged. "Both, I guess."

Liara sadly smiled. "Well, lucky for you, my answer is pretty much the same for both questions." At Garrus confused look, Liara bowed her head. "I understand what you're going through," she started before hesitating. "Because I'm doing the same thing, right now."

"The same thing?" Garrus prompted.

"I'm after the Shadow Broker," she explained before her face took on a dark look Garrus had never seen her have before. "He… hurt… a very good friend of mine on top of trying to give Shepard's body over to the Collectors." Looking up, she fiercely finished, "I want to repay the favor."

"Do you need help?" Garrus asked.

Liara smiled, almost laughed. "Shepard offered as well. This is something I'd rather do on my own."

Garrus was stunned. He was actually thinking of ways to approach their old commander for help with Sidonis.

Apparently, the shock showed on his face. Liara stood up and looked out the window. "We both know what will happen if Shepard comes with either of us Garrus. He'll help us. He'll do everything he can, brave any danger. But he'll also try to talk us out of it." Turning around and facing him with a sorrow-filled look, she said, "Right now, we believe ourselves to be right, that we're merely removing monsters from the galaxy. Can you really hold that conviction when Shepard tries to convince you otherwise?"

Garrus' eyes narrowed in thought as he considered her words. Saleon…

"The worst part is… he's probably the only one in the galaxy that actually could talk us out of our choices," Liara continued, aware of Garrus' internal struggle. "As much as I want his help… I can't afford to have it."

All of a sudden, it didn't seem so easy anymore.

Author's Notes:

Wow. My chapters are getting kinda long. Still within the average, but Interludes aren't meant to be this long…

I want to credit Ronnie James Dio again for his work. He allowed me to take a quote from his story, Immortality, for use in my story. I made another couple of references to Firefly and old game most may not know about: The Dig. Great game.

Please review! Thank you!

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