Fight for the Lost

Interlude VIII

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Azure Spire Hotel

Miranda and Shepard tiredly trudged into the hotel she booked for the duration of their stay on Illium. Ignoring the odd looks of the guests when they openly stared at their weapons and armor, Miranda stepped up to the Reception Desk and started chatting with the Concierge.

Shepard yawned and rubbed his eyes tiredly. As much as he wanted to sleep, a new day on Illium meant a new day of work to accomplish on the Normandy. It wasn't the first time he had to go on without sleep and he was used to irregular sleep patterns anyway.

At the very least though, a shower and some breakfast. That can't be too much to ask for…

"Shepard?"

Turning around, he saw Miranda smiling at him. "Tired?" she asked.

"Nothing I can't handle," he replied. He spotted a salarian bellhop standing nearby.

"Let's get to our rooms," she suggested. She ran her hand through her raven locks. "I really need to wash up."

Shepard absently nodded and the both of them followed the salarian to the elevators.

"What are your plans for today?" Miranda asked conversationally once they started ascending.

"Oversee the armor installation on the ship," he answered. "Liara's tracking Thane and Samara now, but they're keeping low profiles. It might be awhile until we find them."

"Why don't I handle the installation for today?" she offered. "After all that you've done, it's the least I can do."

"What 'we' done was important," Shepard said. "I would've helped regardless."

"Thank you, but overseeing the armor installation is still my responsibility and at some point, you should have some leave of your own. I'll handle the Normandy for today," Miranda said as the elevator reached their floor.

The salarian stepped off and led them down the hallways toward their rooms.

"Are you sure?" Shepard asked.

Stopping in front of Miranda's room, she turned around and fixed a mock glare at him. "I think I can handle it, Shepard. You will go out and enjoy yourself today," she sternly ordered.

Shepard shook his head and smiled. "Don't push it," he said. "I'm still in charge here."

Miranda smiled back at him, before opening the door and entering her room.

The salarian moved to the next room over and slightly bowed before offering Shepard his key.

Raising an eyebrow at the location of his room, Shepard took the proffered key and opened the door. "Whoa."

"Is something the matter, sir?" the bellhop asked.

"Uh…" Shepard said before shaking himself out of his stupor. "This is mine?"

"Spectre Agent Shepard, yes? This is your suite."

He stepped past the threshold of the door and looked around. It was… extravagant, for lack of a better description. It was large, well-furnished, and posh. It was the kind of room some people who earned well beyond an Alliance Marine's yearly salary would stay in. "I get a suite?" he asked in shock.

The salarian blinked in confusion. "Is something the matter, sir?" he repeated.

"Um… no. I'm fine," Shepard quickly answered. "This'll do."

I really hope those retrofits take a while…

"Very good, sir," the bellhop said. He held out his hand.

Getting over his astonishment quickly, Shepard picked through a pouch and pulled out a few credit chits and passed them over.

"Thank you, sir. Please, enjoy your stay."

"I think I will," Shepard mumbled to himself. He remembered when he first saw the hotel for the first time. It was tall spire design, with a twisting, helical structure, and glass curtain walls. Artistic, functional, and very elegant, he was surprised that Miranda had booked a place like this to stay at for the duration of their stay here.

After the bellhop left, he did a quick circuit of the room. Not only to admire the luxurious décor, but to start his sweep for any monitoring devices. The moment the bellhop identified him as a Spectre, a few warning bells went off, but nothing unexpected or new. After finding a couple of poorly placed cameras and listening devices, he was satisfied he could at least take a shower and get a change of clothes before sweeping for the more cleverly hidden devices.

The shower was different than anything he had. Multidirectional nozzles, automatic variable temperatures, and expensive looking toiletries. After doing a more thorough sweep of the bathroom and finding one camera, Shepard conducted his usual morning routines. Once he finished his shower and putting on the comfy bathrobe, he stepped into the main room an hour later to find Jacob sitting on one of the couches. "Jacob," he greeted.

Jacob stood and returned the greeting. "Captain."

Shepard blinked at the title before remembering his conversation with Admiral Hackett. "Word travels fast."

"Only when EDI updates the records and starts calling you that," Jacob explained. "Miranda asked me to bring your clothes. Kelly's bringing hers." He picked up a duffle bag at his feet and handed it over. "Had to step into your cabin. Sorry. But I refilled your hamster's food and water containers for you."

"It's fine and I appreciate that," Shepard said as he took the bag. "I was going to put on yesterday's clothes and fetch this stuff. You just saved me a trip."

"Yeah. I was surprised to hear you checked in without collecting your stuff," he commented before looking around. "Nice digs."

"I was surprised as you are," Shepard admitted, ambiguously answering both statements. He pulled a few articles from the bag and walked back into the bathroom.

"Yeah. The rest of us are in the standard rooms. Still nice though." Jacob saw a bowl sitting upside down on a table and lifted it up. After seeing what was under it, he placed it back down and turned to the entertainment system and switched on some music. "You finish your sweep, Captain?" he asked over the noise.

"Shepard is fine, Jacob. We're off-duty," Shepard called back from the bathroom. A few minutes later, he came out dressed casually. "And no. I wanted a shower first. I just found the easy ones. You know, the ones paparazzi probably planted while for searching for anything on the rich and famous."

"Want me finish the sweep for you?" he offered.

"Nah. I'll finish here, and then head out to see the sights of Nos Astra."

"Alright, Shepard. I'll head out then. See you around."

After Jacob left, Shepard did a more rigorous sweep and found several much more sophisticated surveillance bugs. Definitely government-issued. Name of the game is corruption on Illium. Big shock. After collecting all the bugs, including the ones under the bowl, he threw every one into the toilet and flushed them away. A chime from the main room grabbed his attention and he wandered in to see that someone was calling him. Meandering up to the console, he accepted the call to see Nyxeris' image appear.

"Hello, Captain Shepard. I am calling on behalf of Liara to see if you are available to speak with her today."

Raising his eyebrow at the mention of his new rank from an almost total stranger, he nodded. "I can meet her. What time?"

"At your earliest convenience, Captain. Liara has cleared her schedule for the day."

"Alright, I'll be there soon."

"I will inform her. Good day, Captain." With that, Nyxeris hung up.

Does she have information about Thane and Samara already?

Curious as to what Liara could be calling about, Shepard retrieved his pistol, and reluctantly left his suite. After knocking on Miranda's door, he stood around for a few minutes before coming to the conclusion that she left early to oversee the work on the Normandy. After stopping at the hotel restaurant and eating breakfast with his some of the crew, he finally stepped back out into the city.

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Liara's Office

As tempted as he was to go to the hangar and check on Miranda to see how she was doing, he knew if Liara already had information about his recruits, then he needed to act fast. After hailing a taxi and then making his way through the trading floor, Shepard found himself escorted by Nyxeris into Liara's office.

"Captain Shepard is here, ma'am," Nyxeris informed in her distant tone.

Again, Shepard found himself agitated by the asari's presence, but kept a lid on his feelings to focus on Liara. "You're really good. I was only informed of my last promotion yesterday evening," he commended as he sat down.

"The world of intrigue is not unlike archeology. Except that the dead bodies still smell," Liara replied.

Shepard was about to crack a smile when he realized she was deadly serious. Clearing his throat he said, "I have to admit, I was a bit surprised at your sudden career change. I thought you might've tried to get back to Ilos, speak with Vigil about the Protheans before he went offline."

He was shocked when Liara dropped her icy exterior and distinctly looked uncomfortable. "I… I wanted to. But something else happened and I found myself here," she vaguely answered.

"You don't want to study the Protheans a bit more? Run a few archeological digs or something?"

"It's not really about what I want, but rather than what I need to do," she stated firmly.

Shepard knew better than to push her. "What did you want to see me for?" he asked, deciding on getting to down to business. It was clear she wasn't ready to talk, not in the way they could before anyway.

Regaining her neutral look, she met his eyes. "Ah, yes. There's something I need your help with. I can only trust you to do this."

"What is it?"

"I need someone with hacking expertise," she said. Leaning forward on her table, she continued in a softer tone. "If you could disable security at key points around Illium, you could get me some valuable information I need. That would help me a great deal."

"Tali's a much better hacker than I am… why not ask her?"

Her eyes shifted guiltily. "Tali… I don't want her to ask too many questions. More importantly, I don't want her place in any danger if I can help it."

Shepard couldn't help but smirk humorlessly. "But you have no problem placing me in danger."

The look Liara gave him suggested that she saw nothing but supreme irony in his statement. "In some ways… this does involve you," she enigmatically revealed. "If you can get that data, I can reveal a little more." She stood up and faced the large window in the back of her office. "Hacking the security node won't get you the data. It just creates a minor glitch in the system," she explained. She turned around and stressed her warning with a stern look. "You'll have a short time to find a local server left vulnerable by that glitch and upload the data to my system. I'm leaving my own system vulnerable so that the data can be imported during that short time."

He frowned at her request. "Why do you need this information? Are you in some kind of trouble?"

"Trouble isn't the right word, Shepard," Liara corrected. "It's been a long two years. I had things to do while you were gone. Debts to repay."

"And this information you're asking me to retrieve?" Shepard prompted when she fell silent. "Can't you just tell me? You're being rather secretive about all this."

"I want to, but I can't," she waspishly said. Shepard raised his eyebrow at her tone. She took a calming breath. "This isn't because I don't trust you, far from it." She made a show of looking around her office. "This is Illium. Anything I say is probably being recorded."

Shepard face took on an annoyed look when he remembered all the bugs in his room. He'd probably have to do a sweep every time he got back to his room.

Liara nodded, correctly interpreting his expression. "I can tell you what that data is after you retrieve it. There are many things I have to tell you, but not right now. And it's also the reason why I can't drop everything to join you. I need to get that data."

Rubbing his face in agitation, Shepard nodded. "Fine. Where are the terminals?"

Liara tapped a few commands in her console. Shepard looked into his omni-tool and nodded.

"You have to do it tonight. That's when the window of opportunity opens," she instructed. "Remember: Hack one terminal to create a glitch, use the glitch to download the data from another server before it can lock you out."

"Do it tonight, do it fast. I got it," Shepard said uncomfortably. He couldn't ever recall a time he was ever uncomfortable in Liara's presence, even when she joined her consciousness with his.

"Thank you, Shepard. This will help me a great deal," she gratefully said. "Now, on to your business. Something interesting came up during my search for Thane."

"Really?"

"One name popped up during my search for any assassination contracts. Someone you might remember."

"Who?"

"Nassana Dantius," she dramatically revealed.

Shepard leaned back in his chair. "Her," he said shortly as he crossed his arms. "What's she done now? More sororicide?"

"Perhaps. It does seem likely after that fiasco with her sister, Dahia. However, I believe it's her business practices that are catching up to her," she commented off-hand.

"I'm pretty sure I know the answer to this, but what 'practices'?" he asked.

"Killing anyone threatening her reputation," she succinctly answered.

"Surprise, surprise," he mumbled. "Just don't say she put a hit on me or I'll have to accept that contract."

"I was more focused on locating Krios than the contract itself, but it seems like one of her other sisters might have something against her," Liara theorized as she typed away on her terminal. "Would you like me to…?"

"Just Thane. I really can't muster the will to care about Nassana or her family troubles," he replied.

"Very well," Liara acquiesced. "My contacts are asking around to see if anyone talked to Thane about Nassana."

"Do you know if Thane is even after her?"

"Sorry, no. I can't with certainty if Thane accepted that particular contract yet. But I'm still searching the other contracts I've managed to dig up. As I said before, all my inquiries will need to be discreet."

"That's fine. Anything else?"

"Nassana seems to be aware of the contract on her life. She's hired Eclipse mercenaries some time ago to guard her."

Shepard groaned. "More Eclipse…"

Liara had a small sympathetic smile on her face. "They're the dominate mercenary force on Illium, I'm afraid. Any problems you or Thane will face will probably mean you'll have to confront them first, regardless of who the target is." She had an odd teasing glint in her eye. "Of course, given last night's fiasco, I'm sure the Eclipse are something you can handle with little trouble."

Unsurprised that she already knew about his activities previous evening, he gave her a small smile of his own, before pushing the conversation on. "What about Samara? Any luck so far?"

"I may have an idea as to who Samara is looking for… but it's speculative at best. My contacts at Thessia have yet to call me. So there's nothing more I can offer at this point," she answered.

"Alright. I guess that's all the questions I have. Until you can give me more information anyway," Shepard said. They both knew he wasn't talking about Thane or Samara.

"I'll call you when the servers can be hacked. Then I can tell you more," she stubbornly asserted.

Shepard nodded and stood up. Just as he was about to leave, the door opened and Miranda walked in.

"Miranda?" – "Shepard?"

"What are you doing here?" they asked at the same time.

Liara stood up. "Shepard is here because I needed a favor," she explained.

"Ah," Miranda said understandingly before stepping around him and handing Liara an OSD. "Here."

"Thank you," she graciously said as she accepted the disk.

"Thank you, too," Miranda gratefully returned.

"Tali?" Shepard asked when he looked at the doorway. "You too?"

"Hi," she greeted, slightly confused at the gathered group. "Miranda was telling Jacob that she was coming here and I thought it might be nice to see Liara again since I didn't have a chance to yesterday…"

"I think I was finished here…?" Shepard said, shooting Liara a questioning look.

"Yes. For now, anyway," Liara concurred. She tucked the OSD into a pocket and walked up to Tali and hugged her. "It's good to see you again, Tali."

"You too, Liara," Tali said, easily returning the gesture.

Shepard quietly left with Miranda following. Once outside the building, he threw a questioning look at his companion.

"Dr. T'Soni was the one that updated my contacts about my father," she revealed. "A favor for a favor. That's all."

"What's with the OSD?"

"Just some information she asked for in return. Nothing you need to worry about," was all she said.

Slightly put off with all the secrecy surrounding him, Shepard sighed and grudgingly decided to leave it alone. For now.

"And you? What did you speak to her about?" Miranda inquired.

"A favor for a favor," Shepard parroted before pausing. "Or maybe just a favor among friends."

Miranda shook her head, but accepted the answer in response to her less than informative one she gave moments ago. "You'll be pleased to know that our new main gun has arrived. Or rather, the first shipment as arrived," she reported.

"How many shipments are we talking here?" Shepard asked.

This time, Miranda frowned. "I don't know. I asked the same question, but Garrus seemed… distracted. I didn't want to press the issue." She turned her head and eyed him. "Perhaps you might have better luck?"

Shepard nodded and made a mental note to himself to check on his turian friend. He turned to Miranda and was about to ask about her sister before catching himself and looked around. They were still on the trading floor and it was as busy as ever. Changing his topic, he asked, "When did you learn Pull?"

Miranda smirked. "You're not the only one sneaking off to learn biotics, Shepard."

"I don't 'sneak'," Shepard defended good-naturedly. "It's my ship. I go where I want, when I want. I don't need to sneak anywhere."

"Of course," Miranda indulgently said. "Captain," she added cheekily. "To answer your question, I've been practicing diligently since your own successes. While I admit that your learning curve is extraordinary, I decided to follow your example and try my best."

"It was pretty impressive, what you did."

She beamed under the praise. "I hope you didn't think that I spent all my time in my office, typing up reports," she quipped.

"Perish the thought," Shepard teased. "You have to come out and eat once in a while too. Maybe even go to the head occasionally."

"Ha, ha," she deadpanned.

"What was that last thing you did?" he asked. When Miranda raised an eyebrow, he elaborated. "You lifted Enyala into the air and then you brought her back into the ground. Painfully, I might add."

"Oh, that. A combination of mass-reducing and mass-raising fields," she explained as they neared the hangar. "I used Pull to levitate the object, and then violently raise the mass effect fields around the target to artificially increase gravity, not unlike how a starship generates gravity really. The effect 'slams' the target into the ground."

"I didn't read anything like it in any of the references of the extranet sites I've been to," he commented thoughtfully.

"That's because I just conceived it a few days ago. It's a personal creation of mine," she proudly informed.

"So how about a name for it? Slam, maybe? Sound like a good name for that technique," Shepard suggested. They entered the hangar where the Normandy was currently docked.

Miranda scoffed at his suggestion. "Hardly."

"Why?" he asked, feigning being hurt.

"Because it sounds too crude. Especially for such a complex technique," she argued.

"It's catchy."

"It's ridiculous."

"It works."

"It's absurd."

"It's memorable."

"It's ludicrous… And why am I arguing like a child?" Miranda rhetorically asked in frustration.

The various crewmen and workers snickered at their banter. She glared at them and everyone returned to work, trying desperately to hide their expressions to avoid her wrath. She turned her glare at Shepard when he snickered as well, but he easily endured it.

"I have more work to oversee," she muttered angrily, but Shepard was savvy enough to see that she was trying to play into his guilt.

"Of course," he said, staring her down and smiling.

She huffed in mild annoyance. "Is there anything else?"

"No, that'll be all I think," Shepard said, not bothering to hide his victorious grin.

She tried to hold on to her cross look, but relented under his irreverent charm and smiled back. "I'll see you later, Captain," she said while shaking her head. She turned around and walked over to Jacob and conversing with him.

Shepard left her to her work and wandered off to find Garrus. It was then he realized he forgot to ask either Miranda or Liara how they knew each other. "Aw, damn it."

"Something wrong?"

"Nothing. I just forgot… Garrus!" Shepard said, jumping in surprise. "Damn it!"

"Sorry," Garrus said, though he didn't sound it.

Looking around, he saw that he had wandered near the nose of the ship. Work was already underway to fit the new Thanix Cannon underneath. "Something on your mind?" Shepard asked as casually as he could.

Garrus shifted eyes away from him. He appeared conflicted and agitated; he was clenching his hands and his mandibles were opening and closing rapidly. "Nothing you can help me with," he eventually said.

Shepard sighed. "If you need to talk to someone, I'm always available, you know that."

"I know. And I appreciate it, Shepard. It's just something I want to do on my own."

"If you're sure…"

"I'm sure."

Shepard sighed again and nodded. "Alright. Is there anything I should be aware of? Something I can do to help? With the cannon I mean."

Garrus shook his head. "I got it. Next shipment of parts should be in by tomorrow."

"How many more shipments are we talking about here?" Shepard asked.

"Just two more. The last should be coming in the day after tomorrow," Garrus stated.

"How long until it's installed?"

Garrus turned and looked over the work being done. "I actually can't say for sure. I need the armor around that section finished before I can give you an estimate. I was about to coordinate my efforts with Lawson before you came here."

"Okay. Just keep me in the loop," Shepard said. He was about to say more when he spotted Jack entering the hangar with a troubled look on her face. "Is it me or does she look more pissed than usual?"

"I can't tell. Reading human expressions has never been a forte of mine," Garrus replied.

Both men saw Jack stomp toward them. Her footfalls definitely showed signs of rage. "I think she wants to talk to you," Shepard commented after seeing the look on her face and the strut in her step. He really hoped she wasn't pissed at him.

"I barely said 10 words to her. She's glaring at you," the turian nervously argued, trying to inch slowly behind his human friend.

Jack stopped a few feet away from them. "I need to talk to you," she said to Shepard.

"I got some work to do anyway," Garrus muttered. He left in the direction Miranda was working at.

"What's up?" Shepard inquired.

"Not here," Jack said. She turned around and swiftly walked out of the hangar.

Shepard looked perplexed at her behavior, but curiously followed.

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Azure Spire Hotel

Jack's room was the standard in the hotel: Decent size, single bed, bathroom, etc. Shepard still spotted the butt of a pistol sticking out from under the pillow. Predictably, she had her 'Do Not Disturb' holo-sign up.

No chance her room will get cleaned during our stay here, I'm sure.

Jack was pacing the length of her room, her actions suggesting a kind of nervous energy. Something was clearly bothering her as she tried to find the right words.

Shepard leaned against the wall and crossed his arms as he patiently waited for her to say something.

Evidently, his reticence was the wrong course of action, because she looked up at his relaxed stance and glared. "Aren't you going to say something?"

"I'm here, alone in your room, with you. I'm not entirely sure what I'm supposed to say or do right now," he dryly said with a straight face.

Jack looked shocked at his cavalier words and attitude. Maybe it was his imagination, but he could swear he saw her face flush with embarrassment. Her glare came back in full force as she let out a sound of impatience. "It's… I got thoughts like little bugs crawling in and out of my head. I can't stop them." She started pacing the room again, but she appeared frustrated with the small confines and kicked a chair over in anger.

Shepard stood straight and took on a more serious look. "What's wrong?"

She paced around the room some more, her biotics flaring as her frustration mounted. Eventually, she calmed down enough to sit cross-legged at the edge of her bed. She looked up at the Spectre. "You know I have a history with Cerberus. You know how far back it goes?"

Shepard furrowed his brow. "Only when they issued their first bounty," he admitted.

She scoffed. "You pal, the Illusive Man? Never seen him before, but Cerberus raised me." Her face took on a disgusted scowl. "First thing I remember is my cell door in a Cerberus base." She ran a hand along the top of her head and down to the back of her neck before involuntarily clutching her crook of her arm. "They did experiments. Drugged me. Tortured me. Whatever chance I had to be normal, they stole it by trying to turn me into some super-biotic."

Shepard recalled Miranda's words when they discussed his biotics.

"I forwarded daily reports to the Illusive Man. When he heard of our discovery, he sent data on several experiments involving biotics to me." She shrugged, "I don't know the details, I don't know how he got them, and I don't know who was involved in them. All I was given was the instructions to safely increase the modules in your body and wire you with the new L5x configuration."

"I found it strange that she needed to be in cryo-stasis when all the warden had to do was confiscate her biotic amp. Turns out that her amp isn't removable. It's completely custom made, just for her and only for her. It's also why she's so powerful. Her entire system of implants was designed specifically for her. To boost her talents well above the norm," she explained. "Some of the results those researchers produced were used to give you your biotics actually."

"Damn…" he cursed under his breath. He knew he shouldn't be surprised, not after seeing several failed results of Cerberus' experiments first hand. Seeing and talking to Jack though, it was a sobering thought.

Jack wasn't paying attention to him anymore, lost as she was in her darkest memories. "The doctors… the other kids… Every one of them hated me. They let me suffer."

Shepard head snapped up. "There were other children?" he sharply asked.

She shrugged uncaringly. "I didn't know much about them. I was kept separate. They hated me, just like everyone else there." She looked up with a dispassionate look. "When I broke out, I had to fight through them all. I showed them, but there's a loose end I need to deal with."

"Loose end?"

She stood up and stalked toward Shepard until she was centimeters away. "I found the coordinates of the base I was in from the files you got me. I want to go to the Teltin facility on Pragia, where they tortured and drugged me. I want to go the center of the place, my cell. I want to deploy a big fucking bomb. And I want to watch the whole fucking place blow," she demanded with a slight manic look in her eyes.

Shepard held his ground as she listed off her litany of desires. "You're asking me to attack a Cerberus facility. The same people that are supplying us right now for the current mission. As much as I'd like to add the destruction another Cerberus facility under my belt, it's not the smart move here."

Jack lost her footing when Shepard freely admitted destroying Cerberus property like it was nothing. She took a step back and stared at him in a different light. "Uh…" she started before shaking her head and getting her thoughts back on track. "Look, the files say it was shut down after my escape. It's been abandoned for years. They're not going to care if I blow up a garbage dump."

"You've lived with this your whole life. Something change?"

"Like I said, I found the coordinates in your files. You can't expect me to just sit on information like that," she answered harshly, as if she was expecting a negative answer.

She was surprised when Shepard nodded. "Give me the coordinates. I'll arrange time for you to go to Pragia." Catching her look, he raised an eyebrow. "It's going to be pretty hypocritical of me to deny you destroying an abandoned Cerberus base when I took a couple down myself." He shrugged. "Besides, I got some reservations with what they've done to you and others."

Jack looked away. "I owe you Shepard," she said quietly, but gratefully.

Shepard waved it off. "It's fine. You're already coming with me on this mission." Walking over to the fallen chair, he picked it up and set it down. Taking a seat, he regarded the young woman in front of him. "In a sick way, I can see drugs working for results, but torture?"

"It was something about pain breaking down mental barriers and how it might clear the way for more biotic power," Jack explained as she sat back down on the bed again. Sitting cross-legged again, she scowled at the memories flooding back.

"Clearing the mind with torture… not sure I see that working all that well, though in your unique case…" Shepard commented.

She scoffed. "I'm sure there was a payoff due at some point, but I didn't see it until way later. I was too busy being wired up in a cell."

"So this facility was designed to make strong biotics? Through drugs and torture?"

She looked up and glared balefully. "Wasn't in a position to ask, Shepard." She looked away again. "All I remember is a little girl crying in a cell, begging for the pain to stop…" she confessed quietly.

"Can I ask how you escaped?" he asked, hopefully pulling her away from the darker parts of her memories.

"There was some kind of emergency and I made a break for it," she explained. "The other kids came out of their cells and attacked me. So did the guards. I just killed everything in my way and ran. Guess my biotics developed faster than I thought," she said with a shrug. "I managed to get a shuttle off the ground. Drifted until a freighter picked me up. The crew used me, then sold me. That's my uplifting escape story."

Shepard had to school his features into something impassive. Like Miranda, he was sure Jack wouldn't appreciate any sympathy. Especially given how much she despised weakness.

Jack suddenly smiled grimly. "At least I managed to escape. They thought they were so clever. Turns out, mess with someone's head enough and you can turn a scared kid into an all-powerful bitch. Fucking idiots."

Shepard privately admitted that Cerberus' mistakes tended to be awfully serious, but he couldn't help but remember the old adage for any clandestine agency, government sponsored or not: 'Failures are known, successes are not'. The only time he'd ever heard of Cerberus was because of Admiral Kahoku and the Shadow Broker. After that, he could only follow Cerberus when he was sent to clean up after their failed experiments, things that were forced to become public knowledge.

And now I'm working with them. Happy times.

"You going to be alright?" Shepard asked.

"Yeah," Jack replied.

"We're still going to be stuck here for a few more days. I'll get us to Pragia, but it might be awhile. Is that all right?"

"I said I'm fine, Shepard. So long as I get to see a crater where it used to be, I'm good," she answered impatiently.

"Fine. Just don't cause trouble here on Illium. Please?" he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he stood up and he started for the door. Just when he was about to leave, Jack's voice whispered to him.

"Thanks for this."

Knowing how much it probably pained her to express her gratitude, Shepard just gave her a solemn nod before leaving.

Deciding on getting lunch, Shepard slid into a seat in the restaurant inside the hotel and started browsing the holo-menu. Hearing someone sitting down across from him, he looked up to see Mordin smiling at him.

"Greetings, Shepard," he said while tapping on the button on the table to bring up a holo-menu of his own and reading through it.

"Mordin," Shepard returned. "Lab's not working anymore?"

"Installing new weaponry. Had to reduce power to ship. Decided to take a break," he quickly said. "Do more than just lab work. Wanted to study Illium."

Shepard observed the salarian as he read through the menu. He was even reading rapidly if his eye movements were any indication. "Well, it's nice to have company for lunch."

"Indeed. Thank you," he gratefully said.

Shepard shook his head and smiled. Like most scientists he'd met, they seemed to have similar social awkwardness or disregard for the niceties. Truthfully, he envied Mordin's bluntness when he observed something and didn't hesitate to point it out. Considering how much politics played into his life, it was a refreshing change of pace. "So what are you doing now?"

"Reviewing medical records with Dr. Chakwas. Am a little worried about Cerberus medical records," Mordin distractedly said. Apparently finished with the menu, he tapped the button on the side of the table to vanish the holo-menu and call the waitress.

Shepard eyes narrowed in concern and vanished his menu as well to better look at the professor. "Something wrong?"

"Was reviewing dental records. Found primitive cyanide capsule embedded within false tooth. Was thinking of suggesting to Executive Lawson for Cerberus personnel to utilize STG optic nerve flashbang instead. Much harder to disarm," Mordin answered with a serious look on his face. He turned and smiled to the asari waitress that approached them.

Shepard blinked a couple of times as he tried to process what he was told before realizing that Mordin was dead serious. Snorting in amusement, he turned to the waitress and placed his order as well before turning back to his companion. "So… anything you want to talk about?"

Leaving the hotel, Shepard stretched and yawned, exhausted from his lunch with Mordin. It proved to be a psychological challenge to keep up with the fast thinking, talking, and topic changing salarian. One moment, he could be speaking about biological sciences to chemical differentiations of different species.

All in one breath too.

Of course, much of the stuff Mordin spoke of slipped right by Shepard. The professor wasn't offended by the one sided conversation though. It was surprising to see him talk and eat as fast as he did before standing up after 10 minutes and thanking Shepard for lunch before leaving.

Sighing, Shepard prepared to make the trip back to the Normandy when he heard someone crying. Looking around, he spotted a familiar looking purple-hued asari standing near the entrance of the hotel. She was pleading with someone through her omni-tool.

"No, you don't understand! I lost it somewhere near the transport terminal!" she cried.

Remembering where he'd seen her, Shepard glanced back at the lobby before turning to observe the asari. Quickly judging the time it would take to get to his suite and retrieve the locket, he continued to eavesdrop on the conversation.

"It can't be replaced! It's a token from my bondmate! It's the only thing my child has to remember her father by! Please, if you find it… No, I understand…"

After she hung up, Shepard stepped closer and cleared his throat.

She turned around and looked up at him before sighing. "Pardon me. I'm dealing with damn Illium travel bureaucracy," she said while subtly wiping her tears away.

"Would it have something to do with a locket?" he asked carefully.

Her eyes widened. "Yes! Do you know where it is?"

Shepard nodded. "I have it in my room. If you'll wait here, I can get it for you."

"Oh! Thank you. Please, it's all I have of Steven," she begged.

"Just wait here. I'll be right back," he assured. Turning around, he almost bumped headlong into Miranda. "Whoa!"

"Sorry, Shepard," she apologized. She glanced at the asari before turning back to him.

"No problem," he said before walking back into the lobby again. Miranda followed, but turned toward the restaurant Shepard ate minutes ago.

After quickly rushing to his suite, picking through his armor to locate the locket, Shepard made his way back out of the hotel to see Miranda standing near the grief stricken asari, curiously watching the proceedings.

"Do you have it?" the asari asked desperately.

"Right here," Shepard said. He held the locket by the chain and presented it to her.

Taking it back delicately, she opened the locket and gazed mournfully at the pictures inside. "Oh. Steven," she whispered. She looked up and wiped away several more tears. "Thank you. Thank you so much," she gratefully said before swallowing back another sob. "My daughter was young when he died. This is the only memento she has of him."

"I'm glad to have helped," Shepard said. "Take care."

"At least let me pay you," the asari said.

Shepard shook his head when she tried to reach into her purse. "No, it's fine. Don't worry about it."

She looked up questioningly before managing a watery smile. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure," he answered gently. "Take care."

"Thank you," she said. Clutching the locket tightly, she gave Shepard a nod and left.

"That was very kind of you," Miranda praised.

"I found it while you were at the terminal spaceport. Thought I should do the right thing," Shepard said, purposefully leaving out any details about Oriana.

Miranda smiled thankfully at his tact before turning around and heading back to the carport.

Shepard noticed she was carrying several bags and moved to help. "I'll take some of that."

"Thank you," she said. She gave Shepard half of her load and readjusted the rest to evenly distribute the weight.

"What's in here anyway?" Shepard asked just before he caught the scent coming from the bags. "Food?"

"Lunch," she clarified. "Jacob's and my own, anyway."

Hailing a taxi, they entered and started heading for the hangar.

Remembering what he wanted ask Miranda about earlier he shifted in his seat to better look at her. "How do you know Liara?"

"She hasn't said anything?" Miranda asked with a raised eyebrow.

Shepard shrugged and shook his head.

"We worked together. Once. If she hasn't given you the details, then it wouldn't be prudent for me to say anything either," she answered.

"Why would Liara work with Cerberus, though?"

"She didn't work 'with' us, per se. It was more along the lines of having similar goals for my particular mission."

Shepard made a noise of frustration. "That's not very informative."

"She helped us a great deal. You and me both. If she doesn't wish to tell you…"

"Then you can't say anything either," Shepard finished in annoyance. "You can't tell me anything at all?"

"Our mission had just about everything to do with you. And just before the Lazarus Project," she revealed. "That's about all I can say unless Liara wishes to tell you more."

Narrowing his eyes at her, he grunted in equal parts satisfaction and annoyance. Leaning back in his seat, he crossed his arms and speculated the scenarios about what might have happened. He was shaken out his thoughts a few minutes later when Miranda spoke up.

"When she does tell you, just bear in mind that she did everything she did for you."

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

"Thanks, Shepard," Jacob appreciatively said as he took the bags from him.

"You're welcome, Jacob," Miranda said before Shepard could say anything. She was looking down at Jacob meaningfully.

He stopped rooting through the bags and looked up, slightly abashed. "You too, Miranda. You got the utensils too?"

Shepard snickered while Miranda rolled her eyes. She sat down on a nearby crate and shifted through her bags before tossing a small wrapped bundle at Jacob a little harder than necessary.

"Thanks," Jacob said before tearing into his lunch.

"What's wrong, Rolston?"

Shepard turned around to see Crewman Patel sitting nearby with Rolston, Hadley, and Matthews.

Rolston clenched his fists. "I just heard that there's been no contact with New Canton. It might be the Collectors."

"Aw, shit," Matthews cursed. "When?"

"I don't know," Rolston replied. "A while ago I guess."

"Fucking bastards…" Hadley snarled.

"Did your family get out of there?" Patel asked concerned.

"I don't know," Rolston repeated with a touch of worry. "There's been no communications yet. Director Lawson says she's looking into it."

"I'm sure they're safe. You'll see," Patel assured, trying to remain positive.

"Try to hang in there," Matthews rallied. "When we're finished here, the Normandy will tear through those bastards like tissue paper."

"New Canton's been hit?" Shepard asked the Cerberus officers quietly.

Miranda nodded. "We've just received word that New Canton has been attacked some time ago. Just before they attacked Horizon."

"We only just found out now?"

Jacob shrugged. "We've been out in the fringes, Shepard. Getting Grunt, Jack meant little time to link up with com buoys. We had to maintain zero communications before, during, and after Horizon. Then, we had to go get Tali in geth space. Now that we're back in civilization, we gotta catch up to the latest in current events."

"Rolston's family?"

"I haven't heard anything yet. I've put in a request for an update. For now, we can only wait," Miranda answered.

"Damn it," Shepard cursed.

"Cheer up, Shepard. The Collector's might stop attacking colonies for a while now that they know we're hunting them," Jacob pointed out optimistically.

Shepard nodded absently. "Yeah. Let's hope so."

Feeling the need to do something to occupy his mind, Shepard opted to remain at the hangar to assist with the retrofits. Trusting Miranda with the Silaris Armor, he elected to help Garrus with the more complicated installation of the Thanix Cannon. The turian was genuinely grateful for his help, but continued to remain distant and slightly distracted with something. Despite his best attempts, Shepard could not get Garrus to open up about whatever was bothering him.

Eventually, Shepard trekked his way to the Engineering Deck. Tali and her team as well as any available Cerberus workforce were hard at work to physically install the critical components that would allow the Tantalus Core and the fusion plant to safely power the new guns. "Tali?"

"Oh, Shepard. One moment…" Tali hurriedly said as she hefted a large cable and dragged it down the hallway toward the core.

"Lemme help," Shepard said as he quickly caught up to the engineer and picked up the cable to offset the weight.

"Thank you. This way."

Together, they hauled the cable to the core and slowly lowered it to Ken, who was at the base with two other Cerberus workers.

"Got it!" Ken yelled up to them.

Shepard looked up and saw that the core was fully shut down. No glow of dark energy, no clouds of cooling vapor, and no electrical arcs. "Keeping busy?"

Tali sighed. "Very. For now, we're running diagnostics to see if the cannon will actually work for the Normandy. Otherwise, this will be a lot of work to see it fail like all the other tests." She looked down at the core and shook her head. "Ken! Make sure the couplings are secured! We don't want any feedback that can damage to core!"

"Aye, aye, Boss!"

Tali turned back to face Shepard. "If I had a small team of quarian engineers, I'm sure we could get the Thanix Cannon working with no problems, but…" She shrugged her slender shoulders. "I suppose we'll have to make due with whatever's on hand."

"You'll make it work," Shepard stated confidently. After glancing around to see if anyone was within hearing range, he bent over to put his head closer to Tali's ear. "Garrus has been acting a bit strange lately. Do you know anything?"

Tali sighed again. "No. Not for lack of trying, though. I noticed it too, but he just says that it's a personal problem and that he'll handle it," she answered quietly.

"Damn."

"He didn't tell you anything either, I take it?"

Shepard shook his head. "I talked to him most of the afternoon. He just wanted to stay focused on the gun."

"I'm sure he'll open up to you at some point. He thinks very highly of you," Tali encouragingly said. She emphasized her point with a friendly pat on his arm.

"Thanks," he said. He turned his head to see another Cerberus worker move towards them.

"Ma'am? I was told to give this to you. Estimated power draw of the Thanix Cannon."

"Thank you," Tali said neutrally to the Cerberus personnel. She took the holo-pad off his hands and started looking through the numbers.

"I'll let you get back to work," Shepard said.

She nodded absently. "Tell me if manage to find out anything."

As he left the Engine Room, his com unit beeped. Shepard engaged his omni-tool and saw that Liara was calling. "Liara?"

"It's time. Please hurry."

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Near the Trading Floor

Shepard crept along the shadows as he approached the final terminal he was supposed to hack. Thanks to his Tactical Cloak, he avoided any uncomfortable questions as to why he was breaking into terminals in the dead of night. Regardless of his Spectre status and the disregard of whatever laws he was probably breaking, drawing attention to himself was something he wanted to avoid regardless. Tapping into the terminal, he typed furiously as he tried to find the right sequence to break through the firewalls.

Come on… come on…

A few tense minutes later, he managed to create the glitch and quickly, but stealthily made his way across the courtyard to another terminal where Liara had opened up her server. A quick set of commands later and he sighed in relief. Moving quickly to another shadowy spot, he disengaged his Tactical Cloak and casually walked away from the area. "Liara? I'm done."

"Thank you. I've got the data. Come see me as soon as you can."

"On my way." Shepard closed the link and quickly traveled to Liara's office. Ignoring Nyxeris' greeting and the woman entirely, he entered the office and stood in front of Liara's desk. "What did I just steal for you?" he demanded as he crossed his arms.

Liara saw that Shepard wasn't going to budge on the issue this time and gestured for him to sit down. He was tempted to be surly and defy her, but relented in the end. No matter how much she changed, Liara was still his friend.

"The data you got me was information caches from the Shadow Broker's agents," she revealed.

"Between your word and the Illusive Man's, I'll take your side any day," Shepard stated. "So, I know that you're not working for the Shadow Broker, so what's the deal? Why so interested in him? And why are you even in his line of business?"

"The Shadow Broker hurt someone important to me," she said.

Shepard eye's widened. Assimilating that information as quickly as he could he leaned back in his seat and nodded at her to continue.

"We crossed paths not long after you died. Since then, I've been working to take him down," she explained. She reinforced her point by slamming her fist into her table, upsetting a few odds and ends. "With this data, I'm a step closer."

Shepard watched her warily, another action he'd never thought he'd do toward the normally tranquil asari. "I've never seen you ready to execute someone in cold blood. What exactly did the Shadow Broker do to you?"

"I was on a job with a friend. The Shadow Broker's people caught us. My friend didn't escape." Despite her neutral tone, there was something in her face as she told her story. "I don't know if he's dead or being interrogated, but I need to find him. I owe him my life." She bared her teeth in a snarl. "And I need to make the Shadow Broker pay for what he did."

Shepard had to resist the urge to look at his friend like a combatant. He carefully crafted his features to look neutral, another set of actions he'd never thought he'd do to her. "If you're after the Shadow Broker, why would the Illusive Man say you're working with him?"

"I don't know," Liara admitted. She narrowed her eyes. "He should know what I'm doing. There's little reason for him to even think about any other conclusion. Perhaps you should ask?"

"How do you know Miranda? And you said this had something to do with me. What the hell is going on?" Shepard pressed.

"Miss Lawson and I worked together. At the time, it had everything to do with you," she vaguely said. Tapping on her terminal, she looked through something that Shepard couldn't see. "I will tell you everything if you'll help me just one more time."

"Liara…" Shepard said. He had to restrain himself from snapping at her.

She appeared unbothered by his impatience. "Just once more."

He looked at her for a few minutes before nodding. "One more time. Then, you tell me everything."

"The data you gave me was extremely helpful. I need time to shift through it. I should have a target soon."

"Target," he repeated evenly.

"My target. Not yours," Liara amended. "The Shadow Broker has several contacts here on Illium. The most powerful is someone called the Observer."

"You want to kill him." It was a statement, not a question.

"Taking down the Observer will put me closer to the Shadow Broker. I could use your help."

"How?"

"I need to study this data first," Liara said. "Once I finish, I'll call you."

Shepard sighed. "I think this goes without saying, but I'm not sure I like this."

Liara shrugged. "Nor do I. But this is something I need to do."

"You're eerily reminding me about Garrus. He's into something that I'm not sure I'm comfortable with either," Shepard admitted.

Liara's face betrayed nothing except for a slightly raised eyebrow. "You look tired. Get some sleep."

Narrowing his eyes at her, another first, Shepard stood up and left without another word.

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Azure Spire Hotel

For the second time today, Shepard trudged tiredly into the hotel. Wanting nothing more than to sleep, he walked as quickly as he could toward the elevators. Seeing one still open, he pushed himself into a light jog. "Hold the elevator!"

A hand slipped in between the closing doors and pushed them open again.

Shepard sighed as he slipped inside. "Thanks… Miranda," he said with a bit of surprise when he got a good look at the other occupant inside.

"No problem," Miranda said. She made a show of looking at him from head to toe as the elevator climbed toward their floor. "You look tired."

"Must be from trying to figure out all the secrets around me," Shepard grumbled.

Miranda had a sympathetic look on her face. "You spoke to Liara, I take it?"

Shepard glanced at her and nodded.

"I'm not surprised she didn't say anything. Yet, anyway."

"And you? You're not helping me out here, either," he pointed out.

She sighed. "Alright. If we leave Illium and you still haven't gotten your answers, I'll tell you everything I know. Does that sound fair?"

"I guess so," Shepard said with a shrug. "I don't seem to have many options."

They reached their floor and stepped off the lift. While walking down the hallways, Miranda glanced around. "Did you find out what was wrong with Garrus?" she quietly asked.

"Another secret I couldn't crack," Shepard grumbled in annoyance. "Call me nosy."

"He'll open up to you. I really can't see him not talking to you," Miranda stated reassuringly.

Shepard smiled. "And you? How's your… situation?"

They stopped in front of her suite. Miranda put a finger to her lips and shushed him. Opening the door, she stepped inside and started sweeping for any bugs. Shepard sighed wearily and took another part of the room and helped.

After finding more high-end bugs, Miranda took all the devices and stuffed them into a shiny looking bag. She turned to the entertainment system and switched on some music. "They might come in handy," she explained as she stuffed the bag into a specialized box of some kind.

"Can we talk?" Shepard asked.

"It shouldn't be a problem now, but better safe than sorry," she said as she turned up the volume a bit. She turned around and headed for a reclining chair facing the large window. Settling herself in, she stared outside the window and relaxed. "You have to give the asari credit; Illium is a cultural marvel. Humanity can learn a lot from their ingenuity."

If that had been said from any other Cerberus officer, sans Jacob, Shepard might've been surprised. After working with Miranda for a month now, he found himself getting a better idea of the woman in front of him. "It is rather nice. I can see why you placed your sister here."

She stretched in her chair before reclining back. Turning her head upward, she looked at her guest and smiled. "Speaking of which, I want to thank you again. Taking the time and braving the dangers to help me with Oriana…" She looked back out the window. "I couldn't have reached her in time without your help."

Shepard shrugged. "You might have an advantage, genetically, but that doesn't change your personality. Your choices, your decisions. What happened down at the spaceport? That was all you. You looked at a situation clearly and you acted without hesitation. Believe me, I wouldn't have followed your lead if I didn't think that you weren't capable."

"That's very flattering, but I still have to admit that your presence was the tipping point. Especially when I confronted Niket…"

Shepard moved over to the nearby chair and sat down.

Miranda sighed sadly. "I'm glad Niket tried to redeem himself… for what good it did." She turned her head again to face him. "Thank you for stopping me."

"He was your friend. And I thought you might've had a soft spot for him."

She turned back to the window and gazed out to the vista. "I didn't have many friends. Niket was one of them. He never wanted anything from me. He was…" She paused for a moment. "Safe? Comfortable, at least. I reminder of a more innocent time, I suppose."

"Are you happy about your sister's relocation?"

"She has what I wanted her to have – a normal life and the freedom to choose her own path." She couldn't help but smile at next words. "And she knows she has an older sister. A friend."

Shepard shifted in his seat to make himself a bit more comfortable. "Can I ask what you talked about? Or is that too private?"

Miranda blinked and turned her head away. He was about to apologize for the personal question when she coughed lightly into her fist. Turning back to face him, Shepard could've sworn she was blushing.

"I introduced myself. Her family was shocked. She adjusted quickly, of course. She's as smart as I am." She smiled again at the memories. "She plays the violin. Loves the adagio movement Nielsen's Fifth, just like I do. She wants to work in colony development. Told a joke about it." She glanced meaningfully at Shepard. "She's really funny. Something we don't share."

"Difference between sisters, I guess. Or upbringing." Shepard commented. "So, the important question is: Are you going to keep in touch?"

She laughed a bit. "I honestly don't know. For once, I haven't planned that far ahead. I'd like to though. She wanted me to." Miranda shook her head. "I'll deal with it after our mission. I have to stay focused and she needs time to adjust to her new home."

"That's a good idea," Shepard said as he stood up and stretched. He looked down and met her eyes. "Y'know, I always think of you as all business. It's not a bad attitude, but it's nice to see you relax your guard once in a while."

Miranda smiled and stood up as well. She placed a hand on his arm and gave it a gentle squeeze.

Shepard was surprised by the show of physical contact, but kept his face impassive.

"The mission's too important to let personal feelings interfere," she said.

Shepard grasped her hand and gave it a rallying clasp of his own before pushing her hand away gently. "I couldn't agree more," he said as neutrally as he could. After his breakup with Ash, he wasn't really sure what to make of his feelings right now.

Miranda smiled again. "Thank you again, Shepard. My sister is safe again, thanks in large part to you. I won't forget that."

"You're more than welcome," he said. Taking a deep breath, he nodded his head at the door. "I should probably go and get some sleep. More work to do tomorrow and we still have two more recruits to find."

"Good night, Shepard."

"Night."

Author's Notes:

References to make. First is The Recruit. Great movie. As for the hotel, the Shanghai Tower is inspiration. Look it up at Wikipedia if you want to know what it looks like. Very sweet.

I have some new polls up. Jacob's Loyalty mission. Do I arrest him or kill him? Either choice is fine with me here. It ends at 20 votes.

Once that poll is finished, Overlord. Put it in or not? 100 vote limit.

Please review if you have the time. I always appreciate hearing your thoughts.

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