Location: Hades Nexus Cluster, Pamyat System, Normandy SR-2
"We need some help here!" Miranda shouted. "Dr. Chakwas, report to the hangar, ASAP!"
"Am I dead yet?" Garrus choked out in humor before groaning in pain.
"That ain't happening until I stop breathing," Shepard gamely retorted. He gritted his teeth as a fresh wave of agony rippled through his beaten and bruised body. He was sitting on the floor and leaning against the chairs, too tired and hurt to even sit down properly.
"Nice of you," Garrus said. Wisely, he chose to lie motionless on floor of the shuttle to avoid any more spurts of pain. "So… are you dead yet?"
Shepard chuckled only to groan immediately after when his ribs protested against the mistreatment. "I don't know. I suppose that's for Chakwas or Mordin to determine. Maybe Miranda too."
"Seeing as you still have your sense of humor, Shepard, I suspect you'll be with us for a while longer," Chakwas stated as she practically ran into the shuttle with her omni-tool already on. She was about to run it over him when Shepard protested.
"Garrus first. I know my injuries. We don't know about his," he gasped out.
The turian was lying still on the floor, staring up at the ceiling after Mordin managed to remove his helmet. "I don't know. I think I'm all right if don't do anything. Like moving. Or breathing. Or –"
"Talking?" Shepard suggested cheekily.
Mordin was already running his omni-tool over the worst set of Garrus' injuries, since he was the unluckiest of the lot. "Multiple broken ribs, broken ankle, several hairline fractures, some internal bleeding. Stay in Medical Bay for few days, should be fine."
"Joy," Garrus deadpanned.
"I'm more worried about Grunt," Chakwas interrupted. She ran her omni-tool over him quickly. "This leg doesn't look good."
"I'm fine," Grunt rumbled.
"No, you are not," she argued. "Your armor is compressed against your leg. If we don't remove this greave, we may need to remove your entire leg instead."
"I got some equipment in the Armory that can do it," Jacob offered. He frowned and added, "Except I've never modified armor while someone was still wearing it."
Chakwas shook her head and replied, "A first time for everything. Let's get these two upstairs quickly."
"Get some stretchers. Load us up two at a time in the lift." Shepard turned his head to look at Jack. "You need a stretcher too? Or are you tough enough to walk?" he asked while moving slowly to his feet in an effort to stand.
Jack look affronted at the question. "I'm tough enough. I can walk it," she declared.
"Oh, good. One less stretcher then," Shepard said. He sat back down on the floor of the shuttle. "Need someone to carry me. Don't worry about Jack; she can walk."
"You son of a bitch," Jack said. Defiantly, she sat down on one of the chairs lining the cabin of the shuttle. She kicked Shepard's boot out of spite, but grinned all the same.
"Never mind. We need a stretcher for Jack too," Shepard called out.
Garrus chuckled as he was being loaded on a hover-stretcher. "Hahaha… ah! Damn it! Don't make me laugh right now…"
"Miranda? Think you and Jacob can get Grunt on a stretcher?" Shepard asked.
"We got it."
Grunt growled deep in his throat as he tried to block out the pain as only a krogan warrior could.
"You're not doing well either," Chakwas stated as she checked over Samara.
"I will be alright," Samara asserted. There was a hitch in her throat when she tried to breathe, however.
"I don't think anybody on my team is," Shepard observed. "Things got hairy down there."
"It wasn't easy for us either," Miranda admitted. Jacob was pushing the stretcher to the lift, being very careful not to aggravate the injured krogan on it.
"It was certainly more difficult than I had anticipated," Thane agreed. He held still as Mordin continued his scans on him while Chakwas finished looking over Samara. "I can understand why you would label this as a 'suicide mission'. Even in reconnaissance, there was a slim chance of survival."
"Then we defied the odds. Let's hope that trend continues," Shepard said.
Thane nodded. A couple of crewmen walked in and placed him on another floating stretcher before carting him out. Another pair walked in to help Samara.
"You know what depresses me?" Jack rhetorically asked. "This actually isn't the worst part of your damn mission."
"Lovely thought," Miranda sarcastically said. She ran her omni-tool over Shepard herself while Chakwas and Mordin trekked back to the Med Bay to begin preparations.
"We'll be fine," Shepard assertively stated.
"You really believe that?" Jack asked dubiously.
Shrugging in response, he leaned against the side of the shuttle and closed his eyes. The last thing he heard before drifted off was Miranda's exasperated comment.
"Well, you have to admit, he certainly doesn't lack confidence."
Sleep claimed him seconds later.
The Illusive Man studied the files EDI forwarded to him with almost single-minded focus. The data received was certainly a boon. It revealed a great deal of the past history of the Reapers. To learn that they would repurpose other species, besides the Keepers, to help with their harvesting cycles was interesting. The Prothean's continued 'existence', for lack of a better term, was intriguing. Sadly, there was a lack of information on the Reapers themselves, but he had already had a dedicated site to study their origins and more importantly, their technologies. He expected to learn great deal about them soon enough. Most notably learned were the protocols hidden within the mass relays that the recon mission provided. Knowledge to unlock the full power of the relays could very well mean the difference of victory and defeat in any given battle.
What pleased the Illusive Man the most was the projected location of the Collector homeworld or base. The information he imagined that could be found there caused a small self-satisfied smile to creep along his face.
"Sir? Contact established," an aid reported via intercom.
"Dr. Chandana," the Illusive Man acknowledged, when balding, dark skinned scientist appeared on the holo-monitor.
"Sir," Chandana greeted respectfully.
"We've established our presence here and have begun collecting samples. Some of the artifacts are… well…" Chandana looked at something off to the side. "It's truly remarkable. I'll have a report ready soon. I think you'll be pleased with the results."
"Very good," the Illusive Man praised lightly. Taking a sip of brandy, he regarded the head researcher. "I've received intelligence concerning your project, Dr. Chandana."
"There is an advanced 'Identify Friend/Foe' system aboard. They're used to trigger encrypted protocols within the mass relays." Pausing only to take a smoke, he gave his orders. "I want you and your teams to search, recover, and secure this IFF. Highest priority. I'll send someone to retrieve it once you confirm you have it in your possession."
"An IFF?" Chandana queried.
"You don't need to know more than that, Chandana," the Illusive Man mildly cautioned.
The scientist nodded in understanding. "Of course. I'll see to it personally."
"Just get it done. I'll be waiting for your report." He narrowed his eyes. "The knowledge we could learn here is important. Remember: I expect daily reports."
Once again, Chandana nodded. "Understood."
Terminating the link, the Illusive Man leaned back in his chair and tapped his cigarette to remove the excess ash. Another series of holo-monitors appeared at the press of button, allowing him to continue to study the mission reports and the results of the Shepard's successful infiltration.
Location: Caleston Rift Cluster, Balor System, Normandy SR-2
Waking up in the Med Bay, Shepard blinked his eyes against the bright light and turned his head away. Sitting next to his bed, Miranda stopped reading from a data pad to observe him.
"You're awake," she said with undisguised relief.
"Yeah," Shepard said. He sat up a bit and stretched a bit. "I feel pretty good, actually."
"You've only been asleep for three hours," she informed with a bit of surprise in her voice. She picked up a flashlight and peered into his pupils. "You're feeling better?"
Enduring her examination, he poked and prodded areas he was sure he was injured. Bandages covered his torso and left arm. "My arm feels a little tender. Harbinger nearly crushed the bones there. My chest feels fine. I thought I cracked a few ribs."
"My initial scans revealed that too," Miranda replied. She moved away and engaged her omni-tool to continue her examination.
"So what's the prognosis?" he asked after a minute or two.
"Your implants are doing their job. Quite well, really." She sounded pleased.
"I'm glad to have validated your project and provided proof of your intelligence," Shepard teased.
Miranda smiled at him cattily and leaned in closely to whisper in his ear. "I told you before: I do damn good work."
The hot air blowing against his ear scattered his thoughts a bit, preventing an immediate reply. Memories of what transpired on Illium when she first said that flooded back with perfect clarity though.
"Finally awake, I see," Chakwas said before Shepard could make a rebuttal. Her voice was filtered through the helmet of an environmental suit. Stopping at her table, she took off the helmet placed it on the desk, followed by the gloves. She walked up to his bed afterwords and started typing at the terminal nearby. "You've been making friends, Shepard."
"Yeah, I'm real popular," Shepard groaned. He started twisting his upper body to test the range of motion as well as stretch the bandages a bit. Since they were soaked with medi-gel, coupled with his own rapid-healing implants, he was feeling much better than he was hours ago. "How's the status of your team?" he asked Miranda.
"Tali took a hit, but it didn't penetrate her armor. Thane's leg was badly broken from a Scion's Shockwave. He'll be out of action for the next few days," she reported. "The rest of us are fine."
"Executive Lawson and Mr. Taylor were also injured, but like Tali, their armor protected them from any lasting injuries," Chakwas added. "Those two have bruises to show for their troubles. Tali has a slight, hairline fracture that I've already treated. She informed me that she lost feeling in her right arm for a bit as well. The round struck a nerve cluster that numbed it."
"Is she alright?" Shepard asked worriedly.
"She's fine. She has full motion of her limb. A full day of rest and she'll be fit for duty, though at her insistence, she said she's ready for duty now. Against my better judgment, I'm clearing her." She nodded her head at the AI Core Room. "She's currently in the next room. I had it sterilized so she could take off her environmental suit and allow me to treat her."
Well, that explains why the Doc is wearing an environmental suit.
Shepard nodded and looked around. Garrus was resting nearby. Mordin was running scans over him while he slept. Samara, Thane, and Jack were awake. Both Samara and Thane were sitting up on their beds, eyes closed in meditation. Jack was just lying in the next bed over, but sat up when Shepard woke. Grunt was nowhere to be seen.
"Garrus should be awake shortly, I suspect. He's just resting. All of his injuries have been tended to, though he won't be cleared for duty for at least a few days, as well as Mr. Krios," Chakwas said. "Samara and Jack will need to stay overnight for observation, but I suspect they'll insist on leaving, citing they are 'fine' and will ask to go back to their rooms. Grunt's leg was treated, but he decided to go back to his room a few minutes ago, against my recommendations." Chakwas sighed in exasperation. "Does everyone on your team have to be so stubborn?"
"When recruiting the 'best', you have to expect a bit of pride," Shepard explained with a smirk. Chuckling a bit when Chakwas rolled her eyes, he turned to Miranda. "Anything else I should be aware of?"
"We've evaded the Collectors. That was the easy part since their ship was disabled from the demo charges," she reported. "We've cleared the mass relay and have retreated to the Balor System as per your orders. Right now, we're currently discharging our drive core and venting the IES heat sinks. Joker informed us that our hard burn to reach the Collector vessel strained our fuel supplies, so we'll need to refuel as soon as possible. No new intelligence or orders have been given, so we have nothing to do for now."
"I had your weapons taken to the Armory," she added. "Carefully. No direct contact to avoid the security precautions built into them. They're sitting in the corner."
"Captain? The Illusive Man wishes speak to you," EDI informed.
Shepard scowled at the news.
"I got a few words to say to that bastard," Jack snarled. She tried to get out of bed before Chakwas bravely restrained her. "Hey!"
"I need to finish checking to see how much your arm has healed. Remember, your bone pierced your muscles. You will need rest or risk losing some motion," Chakwas sternly said. "Let Shepard talk to him. If you show up, the Illusive Man will simply hang up and call again later."
Jack growled, but complied with the good doctor.
"And me?" Shepard asked.
"I would also recommend rest for you as well, Shepard," Chakwas replied. "Unfortunately, I also know that you will ignore my advice since you're the most prideful and stubborn one of the entire lot. You're cleared for duty."
"We all have our flaws," he quipped. Despite the humor, his face was grim, bordering angry. Getting out of bed, he looked around for his shirt when Miranda wordlessly passed the garment over.
"Thanks," Shepard said. He could've have sworn he saw Miranda and Jack checking him out.
"Leave the bandages on for at least six hours. Come down and either Dr. Solus or I will remove them," Chakwas added. She turned back to the terminal and continued her examination of Jack.
"Got it, Doc." With that said, Shepard slipped on his shirt and stalked out the Med Bay.
The Illusive Man was sitting and facing Shepard when the connection was established. "Shepard," he greeted. "Looks like EDI extracted some interesting data before the Collector ship came back online."
"Don't start with this bullshit," Shepard snarled. "You set us up and you better have a damn good reason for it."
"We needed information on the Omega-4 Relay. That required direct access to the Collector data. It was too good an opportunity to pass up." He paused to take smoke. "Without that information, we don't reach the Collector homeworld. And you and every other human may as well be dead."
"Agreed. But I don't like surprises. Especially when my ass or my team's is on the line," Shepard retorted.
"I admit, it was trap… but I knew you would suspect as much and I was confident in your abilities. Tipping you off could have alerted them in any number of ways." He crossed his legs and tapped his cigarette in the ashtray. "And don't forget EDI," he reminded. "The Collectors couldn't have anticipated her."
"If you knew, why didn't you tell me? You say I'm important, but you sure try hard to get me killed," Shepard ground out.
"If I didn't think you could handle it, I wouldn't have sent you in," he replied smoothly.
Shepard resisted the urge to growl. He knew he lost this argument. Any further words would be pointless and would only serve to attack his abilities and competency regarding the mission. "You have one job: information. If I can't trust your intel, you're useless to me," he warned.
The Illusive Man narrowed his eyes. "It's never that simple. You of all people should know that," he responded in a matching tone.
"The usual go-to excuse people use when they don't like justifying their actions," he countered. "If it isn't simple, it's complicated; the ends justify the means after that."
"I've never lied to you, Shepard."
"Coming from you, that means absolutely nothing," Shepard said, reigning in his temper and schooling his features to become more impassive. "Instead of lying, you omit the truth, making everything you say or don't say just as worthless. I'll be lot more careful. With the Collectors and with you."
The Illusive Man clenched his jaw. "This is no time for petty grudges."
"Any problems you and I have between us are never petty."
Both men stared each other down, neither gaining nor losing ground in their silent contest of wills.
Eventually the Illusive Man broke the silence between them. "EDI confirmed our suspicions," he said. He paused to take a smoke. "The Reapers and Collector ships use an identify Friend/Foe system that the relays recognize." He exhaled the rest of his smoke and tapped his cigarette into the ashtray again. "All we need to do is get our hands on one of those IFFs."
"You have a plan." It was a statement, not a question.
"I have another team tasked with retrieving the IFF. Once we have it, it'll be sent to you," the Illusive Man replied, more calm than he was a minute ago. "Until then, I suggest you tell your crew that I didn't risk their lives unnecessarily." He took a drink from the tumbler at his side. "It will make things easier going forward."
"How about you take your 'suggestion' and go to hell," Shepard snapped. "I'll tell them what I think of you and let them draw their own conclusions. You want my trust? Go out of your way to earn it. Otherwise, you get what you ask for."
"Shepard..." The Illusive Man tried to say. Or warn.
He would have none of it. Turning around, he 'left' the office.
Location: Caleston Rift Cluster, Balor System, Normandy SR-2
Stepping away from the cylindrical scanner, Shepard calmed down when he saw the familiar metal walls of the Normandy. More importantly, he heard nothing further of the Illusive Man's words. "EDI, terminate the transmission and tell the squad to assemble. Those that can't make it: set up video conferencing with the Med Bay. We got a lot to talk about."
"Of course, Captain."
Shepard sat down in his seat after the table and chairs returned to their original places. Running a hand down his face and blinking tiredly, he waited until the others arrived.
Jacob was first, having been in the Armory. Miranda, Mordin, and Kasumi entered next. Tali and Grunt were the last to enter. The others were displayed via holo-monitors on the center of the table. Garrus was awake and responsive, though still confined to bed as was Jack, Samara, and Thane.
"Well?" Jack asked impatiently once everyone was settled in. "What did that bastard say?"
"He admitted that he knew it was a trap and said that telling us might tip the Collectors off. He relied on EDI as our hidden weapon," Shepard listed off before smiling humorlessly. "And he also said that he knew we could handle it."
Jacob scoffed. "So the Illusive Man didn't sell us out. Could've fooled me."
Mordin nodded. "Lied to us. Used us. Needed access to the Collector data banks. Necessary risk."
Shepard leaned back in his chair. "I should probably let you all know: He also wanted me to tell you that he didn't risk our lives unnecessarily and that understanding what he did will make things 'easier' going forward."
"You mean 'gullible'," Jack spat out furiously from the Med Bay. "Y'know what? 'Fuck that and fuck you'. That's what you say the next time you see him."
"I'll take that under advisement," he replied. "He tries something like that again and the Collectors will be the least of his problems."
"So what now?" Tali asked.
"We wait," Shepard said. "The Illusive Man is securing a Reaper Identify Friend/Foe system from… somewhere." He shrugged. "We'll install it and use it to get through the Omega-4 Relay."
"Is it going to work?" Garrus asked from his bed.
"EDI?" Shepard asked.
"My analysis is accurate, Captain," EDI assured. "I have also determined the approximate location of the Collector homeworld based on navigational data from their vessel."
A miniature image of their galaxy appeared over the center of the table. One area was highlighted in red. Everyone leaned forward, studying EDI's findings with varying degrees of disbelief.
Miranda broke the silence. "That can't be right…"
"That's interesting," Shepard mumbled.
"The galactic core?" Tali asked incredulously. "Impossible. There's no way…"
"The core is just black holes and exploding suns. There aren't any habitable planets there," Jacob said.
"Could be an artificial construction. Space station protected by powerful mass effect fields and radiation shields," Mordin theorized.
"Even the Collectors don't have that kind of technology," Miranda argued.
"They don't, but the Reapers might," Shepard pointed out. "They're the ones that built the Citadel and the mass relays. And that's the technology they wanted us to find and use."
"That's what Sovereign said back on Virmire," Garrus agreed. "By using their technology, we develop tech based off everything they wanted us to make."
"While keeping the best for themselves," Shepard finished. The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. "It's the perfect defensive position and completely uncharted. No wonder nobody's ever returned from a trip through the Omega-4 Relay."
"The logical conclusion is that a small safe zone exists on the far side of the relay," EDI said. "A region where ships can survive."
"And we're going there?" Kasumi rhetorically asked. "I heard you were hardcore, Shep. But this is something else."
"This is actually something of a personal record for trouble for me too," Shepard replied with a sigh before turning back to EDI. "How does the IFF work?"
"Using standard relay protocols, drift of several thousand kilometers is common and would be fatal in the galactic core," EDI explained. "The Reaper IFF must trigger the relay to use more advanced, encrypted protocols."
"Any idea when we're supposed to get this IFF?" Jacob asked.
"No," Shepard replied. "It'll be sent to us when the Illusive Man gets it and I have no idea where or when he's getting it."
"So what are our immediate plans?" Miranda asked.
"We're going to the Alpha Draconis System."
Jacob's head snapped up at the news. Interestingly, Miranda also paid rapt attention as well.
"What's over there?" Tali asked in confusion.
"A distress beacon. We're going to investigate and rescue any survivors of a downed ship there," Shepard explained. "Only Jacob and I will be going to assess and secure the area. The rest of you will remain aboard and relax. Mordin, you'll be on standby. If we find any injuries, you'll need to come down to render any medical assistance."
"Understood," Mordin said.
"Jacob? Is that alright with you?"
"It's your call, Captain. Whatever you decide, I'm with you," Jacob acknowledged evenly. There was a subtle undertone of gratitude in his voice though.
"Any more questions?" Shepard asked.
Several people shook their heads.
"Okay. Dismissed." Everyone filed out or their monitors vanished, but Kasumi and Mordin hesitated at the doorway.
"I remember, Kasumi. I'll try to keep my schedule open and we'll head to the party soon," Shepard assured, taking a guess at what she wanted.
She smiled appreciatively and left.
"Mordin," Shepard said before rubbing his eyes tiredly. He looked up from his seat to see the anxious look on the professor's face. "Look, I want to help your assistant, but distress calls need to be answered. I promise: after we help the survivors, we'll make for Tuchanka immediately. I just need you to be patient."
Mordin sighed, but nodded in agreement. "Thank you, Shepard. Know you're busy. Understand your reasoning. Will help anyway I can."
"Thank you," Shepard gratefully returned. After Mordin left, he stood up and trekked to the Armory to place his weapons into his locker. Jacob and Miranda were talking in low tones at the other side of the room, but stopped when he had entered.
Miranda gave Jacob a nod before approached the Spectre. "The crewmen asked if they can have another party."
Shepard chuckled. "Alright. Since we're not in danger, I guess I can relax some of the rules. Just make sure they drink in moderation, though if anyone wants to get piss drunk, its fine too. Just this once."
She looked surprised. "Are you sure?"
"The couple of days have been hard on them. I'm willing to cut everyone some slack."
"Very well. There is one problem," she said. "Kasumi has taken residence in the observation lounge. We'll need to move the party to the Common Area. Is that all right?"
"It's fine. It'll allow the others in the Med Bay to join in a little. I'll probably go myself this time."
Miranda smiled. "I'll see you there, then."
Shepard nodded and followed her into the CIC. She entered the elevator while he made his way to the galaxy map.
Kelly was at her station and sighed in relief as his presence. "I'm glad to see you're alright, Captain."
"So am I," he replied. He stepped up to the galaxy map and inputted their newest destination.
"I was really worried when you were trapped on the Collector ship. Thank goodness for EDI," she said.
"The Normandy crew delivered. EDI included," he said.
"Coordinates locked in," Joker acknowledged. "Rosetta Nebula, Alpha Draconis system. We can leave in ten minutes, but we'll need to refuel somewhere and then make a long run in FTL to get to the Alpha Draconis System from the mass relay. Total ETA: 25 hours."
"Got it, Joker. Just get us there as quickly as possible," Shepard replied.
"The Illusive Man made sure EDI was installed for this mission. Now I see why," Kelly continued.
"So do I," Shepard agreed wholeheartedly. The ambush was fresh in his mind.
Kelly studied his face. "You look tired."
Shepard laughed lightly. "That's because I am tired. I'm going to get some rack. Let me know if there's anything that needs my attention. Or when the party starts."
"Of course, Captain. Pleasant dreams."
A shower and a brief nap did wonders for the aches and pains Shepard suffered from after surviving the Collector ambush. Kelly dutifully informed him that the party was well underway in the Crew Deck an hour after their conversation. Getting dressed, Shepard casually made his way to the lift. As he descended, the music from the gathering could clearly be heard in the elevator before he even got to Deck 3.
The festivities were in full swing when Shepard arrived. Despite being moved from the Port Observation Room, the crew was still having a good time. Glancing at the Med Bay, he saw that the windows were transparent. Garrus was sitting up and chatting with Tali. Thane and Samara were nowhere to be seen.
A voice from behind answered his thoughts. "They decided to rest in their quarters."
Turning around, Shepard spotted Chakwas walking up to him with a drink in her hand. "Sorry. I would've had this done in the hangar, but with the Kodiak's landing…"
"They're all resting," Chakwas said with a shrug. "Just resting in their own ways, though. I suppose with a squad such as yours, I have to take what I can get."
Laughing good-naturedly, they chatted for a bit before Mordin ran up to Chakwas. "Doctor! Glad to see you! Must talk! Acquired samples from Collector ship! Would like second opinion!"
"I heard the news. Protheans… It's quite shocking," Chakwas admitted. "Then again, a great many things seem to happen around you, Shepard."
"Two supposed extinct species and one undiscovered one!" Mordin chattered excitedly. "Can't wait to see what else you may have discovered!"
"I'm not an archeologist, exobiologist, geneticist, or xenogenealogist, Mordin," Shepard pointedly reminded. He couldn't help but grin at the salarian's infectious enthusiasm though.
"No, but very fortunate regardless," Mordin argued.
"In more ways than one," Chakwas commented.
Shepard cleared his throat. "I'm sorry to say, that was pretty much the limit of the unknown species I've met."
"For now. With you, Shepard, who knows?" Chakwas added teasingly. She turned to Mordin. "Well, Professor. Shall we take this to my office then? I should check on Garrus anyway."
"He's fine, right?" Shepard asked.
"He is. But I'm not allowing him to return to active duty for some time. I'll let you know when he's up and about," Chakwas replied. "And be sure to come by so we can remove those bandages."
"You're the doc, Doc."
She and Mordin made their way to the Med Bay, leaving Shepard alone. Surveying the room, he saw that Rupert was back on bartending duty. Donnelly, Matthews, and Hawthorne were engaged in a drinking contest, fully taking advantage of Shepard's change of heart about alcohol restrictions. Judging from the way Ken was shouting exuberantly after every round, he was probably winning. Credits were exchanging hands as various crewmen placed bets and shouted encouragements.
"I know you said 'moderation', but I lacked the heart to tell them to stop," Miranda said as she approached. She offered Shepard a drink. "I see you're not being a stranger this time."
Taking the proffered drink, Shepard smiled. "Thanks. I'm surprised you're not laying down the law a little."
"I would, but as you said, everyone was feeling the pressure." She took a sip of her own drink, before rolling her head side-to-side to relieve her own pent up stress. "I really can't blame them. Once we acquire the IFF…" She gestured to the assembled people. "I thought it would be alright to let them have some small pleasures."
"I have to admit, that's something I never would thought you would do," Shepard confessed.
She shrugged and before smiling. "Perhaps you're a bad influence on me."
"Speaking of influences, I want to thank you."
Miranda raised an eyebrow.
"For disobeying my orders and probably saving the lives of my team as well as myself," he clarified. "I really am grateful for the help."
"You're welcome," she replied before smirking. "Though, in your case, I saved your life twice."
"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" Shepard exasperatedly said.
"As the woman that brought the most famous human back to life, how could I resist?" she said with a small laugh.
Shepard rolled his eyes, but laughed with her all the same. He tried to ignore how musical her laugh sounded and instead, nodded his head in time with the music as he watched the party. Matthew's had bowed out of the contest, leaving Hawthorne and Donnelly to continue. Taking sip of his drink, he turned back to Miranda. "We should talk."
She looked at him quizzically before realizing what he meant. "Now?"
He shrugged. "Whenever. Soon. If you're not comfortable…"
"Maybe after the rescue mission?" she suggested. "It's not that I'm not comfortable. I just don't want to complicate things." She sighed and took another sip. "And what had happened… it's very complicated. I don't even know how to express what I felt."
Thinking back to that night, he couldn't help but agree. Even now, he couldn't help but be captivated of the woman before him. The feelings he had when his thoughts drifted to a certain Alliance Operations Chief faded just a bit, the sting of their break-up lessening. "Alright. But we do need to talk."
"I know. We will. Just…"
"Right." She finished her drink off and turned to face him fully. "We're still okay though?"
"Yeah. Of course."
"Good," she said, before sighing. "If it means anything, I wasn't… entirely adverse to our… moment," she confessed hesitantly before grabbing his arm and pulling him toward the rest of the crewmen before he could say anything. "Let's get another drink then. I believe Jacob and Kasumi mentioned a toast for a mission well done. It's only appropriate that the man of the hour should be in attendance."
"But Grunt's in the hold. Should I go get him?"
She rolled eyes and jerked his arm a bit harder than necessary.
Her smile couldn't be suppressed though, Shepard noted. He tried vainly to ignore how beatific it looked on her as he was dragged to the middle of the party. He remembered Ashley's words on Horizon.
"It's been two years. I've moved on."
At that point, Shepard wondered if he should do the same.
"…you all split up and moved on with your lives while I was just catching up to the fact that I lost two years of my life."
Amid the cheers and the applause for the successful mission, he made a resolution that despite the missing out on a couple of years, he should try and move on. Just like everyone else had, for better or worse.
Ken drunkenly whooped in victory when Hawthorne passed out.
Jack studied the readouts on her omni-tool, but this was something well beyond her abilities to understand.
Being educated in the penal system doesn't really help me here.
She took another pull from the bottle at her feet. The party ended an hour ago, but that redhead, Kelly, came down with a plate of food and some beer a while ago.
"Are you sure you don't want to join us?" she had asked.
Jack scoffed. The idea that she would ever join Cerberus in anything, much less in celebration was laughable. Still, she had to admit, with a deep sense of irony, that this was the best setup she'd ever found. Free food, drinks, a personal 'room', clean bathrooms, and all the fights she could want. It would've perfect if she didn't see the Cerberus symbol stenciled everywhere.
Huffing in frustration, she stood up and climbed the stairs. Entering the engine room, she marched right up to the quarian.
Tali was at her station as well as the other Cerberus engineers. They were working on something or other that Jack didn't care about.
Walking up behind Tali, Jack tapped her shoulder to gain her attention.
"Yes? What…?" Tali asked before turning around. "Oh. Um, hi," she greeted slowly.
"I want to talk to you about something."
Tali tilted her head, her posture suggesting that she was surprised.
Jack expected this. She'd barely said a whole sentence to the engineer since coming aboard.
"Um… sure," Tali replied uncertainly.
"In private," Jack stressed. "No prying ears."
Nodding in understanding, Tali gestured Jack to follow her into the Tantalus Drive Core Room. Jack glared at the other two engineers as they walked by. The man jerked his head the other way while the woman slugged him in the shoulder and snickered at him.
Stopping at the mass effect core console, Tali turned back to regard the convict. "We can talk here."
Jack looked around suspiciously. "You sure?"
"Bugs don't work here at all. Too much interference. The AI might be able hear us though, but there's nothing we can do about that thing."
"Damn it," Jack groused. "Can't be helped, I guess."
"I need you to look at this. Only you. Definitely not Cerberus." Jack turned on her omni-tool and sent the information she'd collected on the Collector Guardian Assault Rifle.
Tali looked down at her own omni-tool and looked through the data. "What is this?"
"Remember how these Collector Guardians can charge their guns with Warp?"
Tali nodded and looked closer at the data. "This is it?"
"I tore apart one of their weapons back on the Collector ship and scanned as much as I could. I was wondering if you could do something."
"Like reverse-engineer this and repurpose it for you," Tali said.
Jack nodded. "Pretty much, yeah."
"Maybe. I'd need to study this. Biotics isn't a specialty of mine though."
"Whatever you can do."
"I'd have to tell Shepard," Tali warned.
Jack narrowed her eyes. "I don't want Cerberus knowing about this. The only reason I'm telling you is because you hate them almost as much as I do."
"We're in agreement about that, but I trust Shepard."
Huffing again, this time in annoyance, Jack crossed her arms. After a moment to consider the options, she nodded in agreement. "Fine. So long as he keeps his mouth shut about this. Last thing I want is Cerberus getting their hands on some new weaponry."
"A weapon modification that allows bullets to be imbued with biotic powers? I wouldn't want them to have it, either," Tali concurred. "This will take a lot of time and I got a lot to do already."
"No rush. I just wanted someone I could trust to work on this. You ain't with Cerberus and you hate them. That works for me. Tech isn't really my thing."
Tali giggled. "I'm sure. I'll let you know when I have something, then?"
"Perfect," Jack replied before turning around and leaving.
In spite of her best efforts, Samara could no longer find her center. The mediation exercises she had been practicing for centuries failed to work this time. She couldn't achieve inner peace. Her mind would unwillingly go back to her first mission alongside her new companions.
She fought all manner of mercenaries, pirates, and other assorted villains throughout her life, even before giving herself to the Justicar Code. When Shepard offered the opportunity to combat the Collectors, she knew they would be difficult foes. At the time, she relished the idea of pitting her talents against them.
Hubris strikes me with impunity.
The reality of the situation was far more than she could hope to prepare for. Scions, Praetorians, and Harbinger, in particular, proved to be more than anything she'd ever fought. Their frantic push through the Collector vessel showed how dangerous this undertaking would be. The young biotic woman, Jack, and the assassin, Thane Krios, were right. Even reconnaissance held a close brush with death; with the worst still to come. Dying wasn't the cause of her unease, however. It was knowing that her task, the reason she choose the path of the justicar, would remain unfulfilled. It was a distraction she couldn't afford.
Despite the doctor's instructions, Samara left the confines of her room. The party had ended some time ago, leaving the Common Area a mess with a few crewmen cleaning up after everyone. Politely acknowledging them, she glided across the room. The injuries she sustained were now minor, though it certainly felt significant earlier.
The men's bathroom opened behind her with the familiar pneumatic hiss, but she heard no footsteps. Turning around she saw Thane step out. She raised an eyebrow, clearly impressed with the drell.
He moved with a noticeable limp, though the doctor assured him that he would be fine within a few days. Despite the injury, he moved in complete silence. If the door hadn't opened, she wouldn't have detected his presence at all.
Thane silently, but respectfully nodded in greeting, before slowly making his way back to his room in the Life Support plant. As he passed by her though, Samara could detect a faint sense of worry in his manner.
She never fancied herself as the prying sort, even more so when she became a justicar. Some things were better left unknown. But there was something the compelled her to indulge in her curiosity. For reasons she couldn't fathom, she politely asked, "Is there something wrong?"
Thane paused and turned around. His face was neutral, but she could tell he was mildly surprised by her inquiry. "No. My injury bothers me a little, but it's nothing I haven't endured before."
"Forgive me. I wasn't referring to your injury," Samara said. "I was under the impression that something was bothering you personally."
He smiled thinly. "I could say the same of you."
Her respect for Thane increased. He was quite astute in his own ways. "I… was thinking of our last mission."
"As was I," he quietly said. He bowed his head. "Excuse me. There are several contacts I need to speak to." Looking back up, she saw his eyes. There was something there that she couldn't identify though it seemed so very familiar. "There is someone I would like to check … I need to know how he's doing."
"Of course. There is someone I need to speak to as well." Letting Thane go back to his room, Samara continued to the Miranda's office. Tapping the holographic display to announce her presence, she waited until she heard the intercom.
The door opened with a soft hiss. Samara walked inside and stopped short of the desk.
Despite the late hour, the Executive Officer was still up, typing away at her terminal. Working for a few seconds more, she shut down the holo-monitor and looked up. "Something I can do for you, Samara?"
"I need to use the communications room. There is someone I'd like to contact," Samara requested.
"May I ask who and what about?"
"Dr. Liara T'Soni on Illium. She is helping me locate my quarry while I assist with your mission."
Miranda nodded. "Permission granted. If I may ask, and you don't have to answer, what exactly is an Ardat-Yakshi? I've never heard of something like this."
"It isn't well known outside asari space," Samara said. "To put simply: it an asari that kills through mating due to a genetic anomaly. With every kill, she grows stronger. The effect is addictive, meaning she will keep on killing."
"And how long has she been doing this?" Miranda asked.
"She has been killing for over 400 years."
"So she's that dangerous now?"
Miranda nodded and typed a few commands into her terminal. "I suppose that will be all. I've arranged for you to use the Comm. Room. I'm contacting Liara now."
"Thank you." With nothing more to be said, Samara left. Making her way to Command Deck, she moved through the empty Armory and into the Comm. Room.
Liara's image was already waiting when she entered. "Justicar Samara."
"Have you any news?"
"I'm afraid not. 'Mirata' has proven quite… elusive."
Samara's face betrayed nothing. She was, however, beginning to suspect that the people Shepard surrounded himself with would continue to amaze and impress her as their time together continued. "She was always very capable."
"I must confess, my contacts almost lost her more than once, but I believe I have an idea where she may stop. If only for a little while."
"Omega. Death happens often enough over there that she could kill and be unnoticed. It would also provide sufficient means of escape from hundreds of ships, should she ever get wind of your presence. Finally, there is enough injustice there that you would be obligated to follow your Code, giving her ample time to get advanced warning and flee," Liara explained before shrugging. "At this point, it's a supposition, but ships she has been travelling on have very strong ties to Omega. Rest assured, I will continue to watch her."
Samara nodded. "I thank you."
"Good luck on the mission, Justicar."
"You as well."
Trekking back to her quarters, Samara sat back down and returned to her meditations. She felt assured that Liara would keep her word. The young woman proved most clever thus far. That knowledge settled her fears. Samara could feel her mind return to a state of tranquility. The sphere of dark energy returned to its place between her hands. As her thoughts calmed, she took a deep breath and relaxed into her trance.
It was in this state she vividly recalled her strange compulsion to speak to Thane. Her unusual interest into his affairs. His face when she asked. His eyes when he answered…
"There is someone I would like to check on. Someone… I need to know how he's doing."
His eyes… Abruptly, the justicar lost her concentration again. The wisps of dark energy in her hands dispersed and faded away.
She recognized the look in his eyes now; the haunted, devastated, anguished appearance. Whatever the species, that kind of pain always remained the same.
First hubris, now curiosity.
She saw those eyes every time she remembered her bondmate. Every time she looked into a mirror.
She had the same eyes every time she remembered her crimes.
Business as usual continued on the Normandy. The crewmen recovered from their frivolities to return to their shifts to ensure the frigate continued running smoothly.
Shepard was pleased to hear that the GUARDIAN lasers were back online. The Disruptor Torpedoes would soon follow in a few days with the Thanix Cannon not too long after, barring any further problems. Tali also mentioned that she was working on a 'personal' project for Jack and she would give him the details soon.
Dr. Chakwas cleared Samara this morning. Thane and Garrus were to remain off-duty. Shepard travelled below decks to see Jack had almost fully recovered, but also considered inactive until the doctor was satisfied. Grunt had already healed from his injuries as per the norm of his species and was also cleared for duty. Everyone else, including Shepard, was fit for active duty as well.
With only a few hours left until their destination, Shepard was sitting with Miranda at the Common Area eating lunch and talking about trivial things. Minutes before, she had informed him that Jacob had sequestered himself in the Armory a few hours ago and was exercising to try to release some of his nervous energy. Shepard made no comment, knowing exactly what might await them on Aeia. He suspected that Miranda knew as well. They avoided talking about the previous or upcoming mission since the entire crew still buzzed about their latest encounter with the Collectors, particularly the incredible discovery within.
"I can't believe the Collectors were once Protheans," Hawthorne said with a shake of his head. He was drinking quite a bit of water to assist his recovery from last night's drinking game.
"I always pictured Protheans being regal. Not giant… bugs," Goldstein said in agreement.
"Who knows what the Reapers did to them. Creepy."
Shepard and Miranda continued to talk until their conversation was interrupted by Mordin's jovial greeting. "Hello, Shepard. Executive Lawson."
"Professor," Miranda courteously replied.
"Afternoon, Mordin." Shepard took a bit out of his meal before speaking again. "Sleep well last night?"
"Only slept for an hour. Needed run more tests," he answered negligently.
Shepard and Miranda ceased whatever they were doing to stare at the salarian. "Are you alright?" she asked.
"Yes. Fine. Excited to learn more about Collectors. Protheans. Even rachni. Sacrificed sleep to continue to work. Hopefully get samples of rachni someday," Mordin said. He paused only to take a breath. "Would love the chance to study them. Was always curious about their species. Had always wondered why they instigated war."
"I actually have a theory about that," Shepard said.
"Really?" Miranda asked.
"You don't need to sound so surprised," he grumbled.
"Oh. No, I didn't mean it like that. It's just…" Miranda trailed off, slightly embarrassed by her slip.
"I get it," he said. "And it's fine. You're the scientists, I'm the marine."
"It's not like that. You're very intelligent in your own right," Miranda quickly and awkwardly said before shaking her head. "Just… never mind. What's your theory?"
"It pretty much boils down to the Reapers, really. The VI at Ilos, Vigil, once told us that Saren may have been Sovereign's most public agent, but not the only one."
"Ah, rachni indoctrinated by Reapers to cause war?" Mordin asked.
"Rachni have a hive mind. All Sovereign had to do was indoctrinate a queen the rest would follow. The rachni lived in an area that was undiscovered. They could multiply quickly, were powerful, and were dangerous; the perfect weapon for Sovereign. It'd use the rachni to attack the Citadel so Sovereign could activate the mass relay there, just like Saren and the geth tried to do. It was probably hoping to amass an armada powerful enough to overwhelm all of Citadel space."
Miranda nodded in understanding. "But salarian explorers unlocked the mass relay and made first contact with the rachni, forcing Sovereign to accelerate its plan."
"Except it didn't count on the resistance posed by the krogan," Shepard said. "Its existence managed to remain secret, but it definitely had to be careful and try again some other way." Shepard leaned back in his chair. "And now, we got a hidden rachni army that wants to help us fight the Reapers. Finally, something that goes our way."
"Hmm. Interesting. Adequate facts to support supposition. But still… too little information." Mordin sighed. "So much to study… so little time… May have to lose more sleep to keep up."
Shepard and Miranda laughed at his plight.
"That's actually a valid theory, Shepard," Miranda praised.
"I have my moments."
After lunch, Shepard decided to kill a bit of time by chatting with Kasumi since he lacked the opportunity last time. He walked to the Port Observation Room and entered. And then blinked in confusion. The room resembled an art gallery, rather than a social communal area.
"Ah, I see you like what I've done with the place."
Locating the source of the voice took a bit of effort. Kasumi was sitting on one of the leather couches next to the landscape window. Her dark clothes blended well with the dark sofas.
"I thought you said you packed light," Shepard said.
She smiled and shrugged. "Maybe I understated that." She stretched on the couch and made herself comfortable. "I usually travel hidden away in cargo bays. It's nice to be able to look out a window for a change," she said as she turned her head to see the flashing waves of energy seen in FTL.
"I see." Shepard took a closer look around the room. "Where do you get all of this stuff? Is all of this from your heists?"
"A few, but not all," she said. Standing up, she pointed at one of the paintings. "That one isn't one I've stolen, but it's still my favorite piece…"
She started explained the various works around him. Her favorite painting was done by a child, a prodigy, whose life she saved. It was made as a reward. Another painting was a memento of the first time she and Keiji met. Shepard grinned when he imagined the petite thief actually tackling someone. A bust on the table was something she had stolen on a dare from her late partner.
Shepard picked up a red rose on the table and glanced at her.
"The red rose," she explained fondly. "That used to be my calling card when I first started out. In place of whatever I took, I left a single red rose."
"Very theatrical. I was always under the impression that you had a flair for the dramatic."
She grinned. "Guilty as charged. It wasn't until I met Keiji that I realized how silly it was. He had a way of making you realize when you were just being sentimental."
Placing the rose down, Shepard turned to the shelf next to the cot in the corner. He looked through the spines of the books placed there, even recognizing a few. He couldn't help, but snicker at a couple of other titles.
"Don't laugh," Kasumi scolded with a swat on his arm. "I like those books." Her voice took on a wistful tone. "Romance novels-" She glared when Shepard tried vainly to hold in his laughter. "-Crime novels, the classics," she listed off. She picked up one of the books and turned its pages randomly. "There's something about the feel of actual paper in your hands, their musty smell… it's relaxing."
"Huh," Shepard simply said. He carried a few paper books up in his cabin, but he had never thought twice about it. Certainly nothing like the way Kasumi felt about paper books. In an age where holographic interfaces were common, paper seemed trivial and cumbersome. "I don't think I've ever looked at books that way before."
"Your loss, Shep," she teased before delicately placing the book in its rightful place. "Keiji used to find books for me while on the job. Some of these are more valuable than the objects he was hired to steal."
"Because of the information or the rarity?"
"Either. Sometimes both."
Shepard nodded and looked around before settling his eyes on a holopad. On it was a picture of the statue of Saren, prompting him to frown.
Kasumi followed his gaze and reached to turn off the holopad. "Still finishing the last minute details. Don't worry. Everything will be ready in time."
"I've stolen things for the Alliance before, but certainly not like this," he said.
"Not used to dressing up and going incognito, Shep?"
"I've done undercover work before," he said, trying to keep his voice from sounding defensive.
Kasumi laughed and sat down at the desk. "By the way, did you see the formal wear I left for you in your closet?"
Shepard blinked and shook his head. "I guess I must've missed it. Unless you're sneaking around my ship again."
"Take a look when you get the chance. Latest style. Much better than your Alliance dress uniform. I'm sure you'll look splendid." She didn't confirm or deny his accusation.
"Great," he mumbled.
Laughing again, Kasumi turned back to the datapads and continued working before turning around again. "Hey, do you know if there's anything going on between Miranda and Jacob?" she asked in an innocent tone.
Shepard raised an eyebrow at the question. "I don't know, I've never asked. Why are you asking?"
"Yes there is," Shepard countered childishly.
"Is there anything going on between you and Miranda?" she boldly asked.
Shepard crossed his arms and said nothing.
Smiling impishly in return, she turned back to the table and continued working on her newest heist.
"Well, I'm glad to see you've made yourself comfortable," Shepard said before turning to leave.
"Thanks," she replied without looking up. "Though I was a bit surprised by your assistant. Kelly, wasn't it? I thought she was coming on to me at first, but I guess she was just being friendly to the new girl."
Shepard shook his head and waved before excusing himself.
"We're approaching Aeia. ETA: 2 hours. And if anyone sees Hawthorne, tell him he owes me for taking a double shift because he's too hung over to fly," Joker said.
"I'm sorry! Okay? !" Hawthorne shouted from the Common Area. "Damn Donnelly. Drinks like a camel or something…"
Chuckling to himself, Shepard entered the elevator with Kelly and hit the button for his cabin while she hit the button for the CIC. Because of Shepard's authority, the elevator would go to his destination before anyone else's.
As the lift ascended, Kelly turned to him. "I saw you leaving Kasumi's room."
"I just wanted to see how she was adjusting. I understand that you talked to her as well."
"She's an interesting addition to the crew. I can see why she's good at her work… she never reveals anything meaningful about herself," Kelly said.
"Really? I thought I learned quite a bit about her," Shepard said.
"Maybe because it's you?" Kelly replied with a grin. "All I got was the surface, the face she presents to the world. It'll be a challenge getting to know who she really is."
The doors opened, revealing the entrance to the Captain's Cabin. "You mean besides being a kleptomaniac?" Shepard jokingly said before stepping out.
The doors closed before Kelly could respond.
"Distress beacon received, Captain," EDI reported.
Equipping his armor, Shepard turned to the orb next to his aquarium. "And?"
"I have identified it as the MSV Hugo Gernsback, registry BW4610034087. It is a privately held civilian ship under the command of Captain Harris Fairchild and first officer Ronald Taylor."
"Preliminary scans show a sizable settlement not too far from the crash site. Thermal scans indicate the presence of fires. I believe there are multiple survivors. I will get a more accurate number as we approach."
"Call Jacob. Tell him to arm up and meet in the hangar. This is a rescue mission, so only light arms. Is Hawthorne cleared for duty?"
"Dr. Chakwas has approved Hawthorne for duty one hour ago. I will inform Operative Taylor, Mr. Hawthorne, and Ms. Goldstein to report to the hangar."
"Thanks, EDI." Finishing his prep, Shepard got on the elevator and quickly retrieved his armaments. Hadley and Matthews were inside, temporarily taking over Jacob's duty while Shepard equipped himself.
"So the Collectors were once Protheans, repurposed by the Reapers. Sad end," Hadley said.
Matthews nodded in agreement. "Makes you wonder if the keepers on the Citadel were once something different." Looking up, he spotted Shepard and snapped to attention. "Sir!"
Hadley followed his example. "Sir!"
"Log my weapons," Shepard ordered. He was only equipped with his HMWP and HMWSG.
"Yes, sir," Matthews acknowledged before typing away at the terminal. "All done."
Absently nodding, Shepard traveled to the hangar and spotted Jacob standing impatiently next to the Kodiak. He was only equipped with a pistol.
"Captain," Jacob tersely said before realizing who he was addressing. "I mean-"
"Its fine, Jacob. Remember: this is a rescue mission. We're to recon and secure the area before calling in the Alliance."
"Understood, Captain." Jacob swallowed and took a deep breath. "Thanks for this."
Shepard gripped his shoulder. "Don't mention it. I just hope we'll find some good news about your father."
"I'm not getting my hopes up, but thanks."
"We're almost in orbit. ETA: 10 minutes."
Just as he and Jacob were about to board the Kodiak, Miranda called out to him.
Both men turned around to see Miranda walking toward them. She was in full armor, sans helmet, and equipped with her Predator Heavy Pistol. "Going somewhere, Miranda?"
"Permission to come along," she requested.
He turned to Jacob. "Your call."
Jacob stared at her for a bit, silently considering her offer, before nodding. "Yeah, she can come."
"Permission granted," Shepard said.
Goldstein's head popped out from the door of the shuttle. "Captain? According to the scans, there's a suitable LZ near the wreckage of the Gernsback."
Shepard entered the shuttle first and helped Jacob and Miranda inside. "Prepare for launch!"
"Aye, aye, Captain," Hawthorne acknowledged. "And don't worry. I don't feel hung over at all!" he cheerfully added.
"Hawthorne, if you kill us, I swear to God, I'll disembowel you," Jacob retorted.
Shepard couldn't help but laugh as he settled in and awaited the signal to depart.
Well… another very original chapter. For me, at least.
In the course of characterizing everyone, I find rather interesting little things about them. I had never thought Samara and Thane to be so similar (Outside the meditation thing) until I realized that they had children to look after. In Samara's case, she had to kill her daughter. Thane was trying to save his son. They both carry themselves distantly from the rest of the squad, not because they are outcasts or anything, but because they are tortured by their past. Writing this chapter certainly opened my eyes to their personas. Especially to what drives them.
I felt that, while neither of them fears dying, the mission proved their mortality and thought of their respective children forced them to look into their 'loose ends'. Seemed like a good time after the Collector ship mission.
About Samara, when I say 'her' crimes, the meaning is a bit deeper than at first glance. Hope you spotted it.
New poll up regarding Kasumi's loyalty mission. Graybox: Keep or destroy. 20 vote limit.
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