Fight for the Lost

Freedom's Progress

Location: Horsehead Nebula / Cerberus Facility: Minuteman Station

The Kodiak left FTL with a slight, but familiar lurch as space outside the window returned to normal. Shepard glanced outside, only to see a massive space station orbiting a planet.

Damn. That might be as big as Jump Zero.

After the shuttle docked with the station, Miranda took the lead, guiding their small group through another set of corridors, halls, and passageways.

Even though Shepard had a good sense of direction, he knew he’d be hopelessly lost in this labyrinth.

Probably designed like this on purpose.

Eventually, Miranda opened a door that led into what looked like a waiting room. Five rows of uncomfortable-looking chairs were welded into place next to two large windows that offered a view of the system’s star.

Miranda stopped and turned around to address her ‘guest’. “The Illusive Man is down the hall to the right,” she said, pointing toward the back of the room. “Jacob and I will wait here.”

Shepard turned around to see Jacob off to the side of the entrance, looking out one of the windows. Turning back toward Miranda, he saw her walk to the other side of the room toward a terminal. Looking to his right, he saw a trio of technicians working within some office.

Glancing around one more time, Shepard had the distinct feeling that something was wrong. There was nothing dangerous or life-threatening that would have prompted him to draw his weapons….

A flash of realization struck him as he realized what was wrong. No one’s disarmed me. He still carried his M-3 Predator heavy pistol and M-100 grenade launcher. A sneaking suspicion crept up in his mind as he turned away from his given directions and approached Miranda instead.

She looked up at Shepard, eyebrow raised, as he approached.

Stopping short, he bluntly asked, “I thought I was meeting your boss, face-to-face?”

Miranda tilted her head to the side and said, “You are.”

Shepard narrowed his eyes at her. “Not funny. Where is he?”

A ghost of a smile flickered across her visage as she regarded the former Spectre with something akin to respect. Dropping all pretenses, she asked, “How did you know he’s not here?”

Shepard merely tapped the pistol on his hip.

Miranda nodded in what seemed like acknowledgement.

Or is it appreciation?

Standing straighter and turning fully toward him, Miranda met his eyes unflinchingly. “You are not a member of Cerberus, Commander. If anything, you once stood against us. Many times, if the records are accurate.”

Shepard stayed silent, though he knew where this was going now.

Miranda took his silence as her cue to continue. “Naturally, we must take certain precautions in the interest of security for the Illusive Man and safety for you.”

Shepard barely held back a snort at the mention of his ‘safety’.

Evidently, Miranda still picked up on his feelings, if her sigh was any indication. “We don’t want to be your enemy, Commander. We simply don’t know how you may react to our organization, given your history. Both before your death two years ago and now.” Her gaze hardened. “If you want a personal meeting with the Illusive Man, I assure you, it would be much more unpleasant for you, likely involving the use of drugs, shackles, and many armed soldiers pointing weapons at you.” She took a step closer, her eyes like ice. “If you had any thought of doing any harm to the Illusive Man, two years or no, I would kill you myself.”

Shepard merely raised an eyebrow, impressed despite his best efforts.

She has more balls than most mercs I’ve fought.

Stepping away from him, she returned to her terminal. “Just go down the hall to the right.” Glancing at Shepard, she added, “Very few people meet the Illusive Man personally, anyway. Even within Cerberus.”

Shepard wanted to voice his question, if Miranda had ever met the Illusive Man personally, but knew he’d only be pushing his luck and probably wouldn’t get an answer anyway.

Turning around, he walked toward the hallway on the right side of the room and down some stairs. Peering inside the room below, all he could see was a silver disk on the floor with a blue light pattern etched just inside the disk within a darkened room. Seeing nothing else of note, he stepped into the center of the disk and waited.

An orange, cylindrical light rose up from the disk, shining its light from Shepard’s boots upward. Startled, he looked at his body as the cylindrical light continued rising, noting that the light was creating geometric figures on his body, which meant that it was scanning him.

Testing for something?

As soon as the light reached past his eyes, he no longer saw a small, dark room, but a very large, dark room with tall, foreboding shadows and a star outside a long window.

Immediately drawing his attention, however, was the figure sitting in front of him.

The leader of Cerberus: the Illusive Man.

~o~O~o~

Location: Unknown

Shepard studied the Illusive Man, trying to gain what information he could.

Definitely one for the dramatic.

Sitting in what appeared to be a simple chair—though judging by the way he was sitting, it may as well have been a throne—the Illusive Man was dressed immaculately in a designer and obviously expensive suit. A fresh cigarette was held loosely in his right hand between his index and middle fingers, and a drink was in his left. Sitting directly in front of the projection disk, he was between Shepard and a blue/red star, creating a rather powerful shadow that obscured most of the Cerberus leader’s physical features. The Spectre could still make out the silver hair that dominated the Illusive Man’s head and the strange glowing patterns within his unnatural eyes.

Implants?

Lifting his cigarette and taking a smoke, the Illusive Man looked at his guest. “Commander Shepard,” he simply said, exhaling his smoke.

Crossing his arms, Shepard replied, “Illusive Man.”

Finishing his drink, the Illusive Man regarded Shepard with knowing eyes. “I’ve waited a long time to meet with you. I’m glad we finally got the opportunity.”

Shepard didn’t move a muscle. He knew he was at a huge disadvantage in this meeting, but he was determined not to give the Illusive Man anything more. Not until Shepard had all his questions answered, at least.

“I apologize for all the trouble since you woke, but I’m glad to see that you’re still able to handle yourself,” the Illusive Man continued. “I’ve tried to take every necessary precaution, you understand, but there are always threats out there that we can’t anticipate. Threats that would do what they can to silence us. Not unusual for people who know what you and I know.”

“And what exactly is it that you and I know?” Shepard probed.

“That our place in the universe is more fragile than we’d like to think,” the Illusive Man answered with a knowing look. Pausing to take a smoke from his cigarette, he tilted his head as he regarded the hologram before him. “That one man—one very specific man—might be all that stands between humanity and the greatest threat of our brief existence.”

Shepard knew what the Illusive Man meant. “The Reapers.”

Tapping his cigarette over the ashtray in the left armrest of his chair, the Illusive Man said, “Good to see your memory’s still intact. How are you feeling?”

“You need to earn the right to ask me those kinds of questions,” Shepard retorted.

“Cerberus isn’t as evil as you believe,” the Illusive Man said, before taking another smoke.

Remembering finding Admiral Kahoku’s body amongst rachni experiments and Cerberus researchers, Shepard had long since been prepared to hear misdirection and lies from Cerberus, never mind its leader. Still, calling out his mysterious and suspicious benefactor on it wouldn’t help him get any answers, so he decided to maintain his silence.

“You and I are on the same side; we just have different methods,” the Illusive Man said.

Your ‘methods’ are just some of the many things that I have a problem with.

Pushing the conversation toward the point, Shepard decided to be blunt. “Cut to the chase. What are the Reapers doing that made you decide to bring me back?”

“We’re at war,” came the prompt answer. Standing up to look the Spectre in the eye, the Cerberus chief walked toward Shepard’s holographic projection.

Shepard managed to get a better look at him now. Guessing him to be around sixty years old or more, the Illusive Man appeared to have no obvious flaws marking his face, which was symmetrical, well-proportioned, and stern. He walked with confidence and a hint of a swagger.

Like most rich and powerful men.

“No one wants to admit it, but humanity is under attack,” the Illusive Man continued. “While you’ve been sleeping, entire colonies have been disappearing. Human colonies. We believe it’s someone working for the Reapers. Just as Saren and the geth aided Sovereign. You’ve seen it yourself. You bested all of them. That’s just one reason we chose you.”

“Fighting a war doesn’t seem like Cerberus,” Shepard said. “Why are you involved?”

“We’re committed to the advancement and preservation of humanity. If the Reapers are targeting us, trying to wipe us out, Cerberus will stop them,” the Illusive Man answered with conviction. “If we wait for politicians or the Alliance to act, no more human colonies will be left.”

Shepard still didn’t buy it, though.

Two years and four billion credits…?

“You could have trained an entire army for what you spent to bring me back.”

“You’re unique. Not just in ability or what you’ve experienced, but in what you represent. You stood for humanity at a key moment. You’re more than a soldier—you’re a symbol,” the Illusive Man pointed out. “And I don’t know if Reapers understand fear, but you killed one. They have to respect that.”

Shepard knew there was more to it than that pretty speech, especially since he had spent a significant amount of time destroying Cerberus resources himself.

Rather counterproductive for the self-proclaimed ‘saviors of humanity’. He’s trying to play to my vanity. Not bad.

Still, without a foothold over his opponent, Shepard knew he wouldn’t get anything more for now. He couldn’t help but wonder if the Reapers really were involved, though. “Sovereign was trying to harvest all life in the galaxy. Why would the Reapers target a few human colonies?”

“Hundreds of thousands of colonists have vanished. I’d say that fits the definition of ‘harvesting’,” the Illusive Man countered.

The news stunned Shepard.

How could anyone not know?

His surprise was not lost on his ‘host’. “Nobody’s paying attention because it’s random and the attacks occur in remote locations,” the Illusive Man said. “I don’t know why they’ve suddenly targeted humanity. Maybe you got their attention when you killed one of them.”

Shepard wasn’t naïve. Cerberus had to have spies all over the Alliance. Maybe even influence. “If this is a threat against humanity, you need to mobilize the Alliance.”

The Illusive Man shook his head. “They suffered substantial losses fighting Sovereign. They’re rebuilding, still stretched too thin to waste resources verifying the Reaper threat. Blaming the abductions on mercs and pirates is easier. And more convenient,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

“Isn’t there evidence of the attacks? Something to show who was involved?” Shepard asked.

“None. Evidence gathered by both Cerberus and the Alliance has found nothing indicating the identity of the attackers,” the Illusive Man answered. “Every colony that’s been targeted, however, has the same patterns. Every colonist, and I mean everyone, vanishes without a trace. Buildings are still standing, occasional marks that represent gunfire from defiant colonists, and no distress beacons.”

Shepard tried to get a better read on the man before him. He tried to process what he heard. He tried to put together what he learned.

With this much money and time invested, he’s either insane or brilliant… or both.

He didn’t believe the Illusive Man was lying, though. Looking up colony attacks would be easy enough, as well as Alliance responses.

He doesn’t look desperate, though. Is he recruiting me? Does he have a plan for me?

Choosing his words carefully, Shepard decided to go with his instincts. “If what you say is true… if the Reapers are behind this… I’d consider helping you.”

It’s like making a deal with the devil.

“I’d be disappointed if you accepted any of this without seeing for yourself,” the Illusive Man said, before turning back to his chair. As he sat down, he said, “I have a shuttle ready to take you to Freedom’s Progress, the latest colony to be abducted. Miranda and Jacob will brief you.”

“Miranda killed Wilson in cold blood. Jacob’s just a gun for hire. You expect me to trust them?” Shepard asked.

“Wilson was one of my best agents, but he was a traitor,” the Illusive Man answered, idly running his hand over his forehead.

Must be wondering who else could be against him.

“Miranda did exactly what I expected of her. And she saved your life in more ways than one,” he added. Tapping his cigarette over the ashtray again, he looked up and took a smoke. “Jacob’s a soldier, one of the best.” Glancing at Shepard, the Illusive Man said, “He’s never fully trusted me, but he’s always been honest about it.” Leaning back in his chair, he simply stated, “You’ll be just fine with them… for now.”

“Is this a volunteer job, or am I being volunteered?” Shepard asked in a low voice.

“You always have a choice, Shepard. If you don’t find the evidence we’re both looking for, we can part ways,” the Illusive Man said. “But first, go to Freedom’s Progress. Find any clues you can. Who’s abducting the colonies? Do they have any connection to the Reapers?” he said, though he was trying to make it sound like a suggestion, rather than an order. “I brought you back; it’s up to you to do the rest.”

With those parting words, the Illusive Man ended any further questions or comments with the press of a button.

~o~O~o~

Location: Horsehead Nebula / Cerberus Facility: Minuteman Station

Walking back into the waiting room, Shepard couldn’t help but wonder how many answers he had gotten compared to how many questions he still had.

I guess a lot really can change in two years. Am I still a Spectre? Am I even still in the Alliance?

Entering the waiting room, he saw that neither Miranda nor Jacob had moved from their original positions, though he suspected that they had still been briefed on mission he had been ‘given’.

Miranda looked up as he approached before turning her attention back to her terminal. “The Illusive Man is very impressed with you. I’m eager to see if you can live up to his expectations on this mission,” she said in an even tone.

I’m supposed to work with her? I think I’m missing the station with the homicidal mechs.

“I can’t have anyone disobeying my commands when we get there,” Shepard warned.

“I know who I report to,” Miranda said without looking up from her terminal. “As long as you don’t do anything to betray Cerberus, I’ll follow your orders.”

Ironic statement, since Shepard was entertaining the idea of reporting everything he knew to the Alliance ASAP.

Probably won’t be following my lead long, then.

Deciding on a different tactic, he said, “I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate what the Lazarus Project did for me.”

Miranda stopped typing and looked up to face him. “I just hope it was worth it. A lot of people lost their lives on that station.”

“So I saw,” he replied neutrally. “For someone who spent two years putting me back together, you don’t seem real fond of me.”

“I have the utmost respect for your abilities, Shepard. It’s your motivations that concern me. I believe in what Cerberus stands for. Only time will tell if you prove to be an asset or a liability to our cause.”

Considering all the damage I did to Cerberus before, I’m surprised she doesn’t question my motivations immediately.

Recalling his new scars, Shepard wondered if he’d be able to pry further details from the icy woman in front of him. “I’d like to know more about the Lazarus Project from the person in charge.”

“I wasn’t in charge. The Illusive Man was,” Miranda said. “If I was running the show, we’d have done a few things differently.”

Raising an eyebrow, Shepard couldn’t help but ask, “What would you have changed, exactly?”

Without looking up from her terminal, Miranda said, “To start, I would have implanted you with some type of control chip. But the Illusive Man wouldn’t allow it. He was afraid it might affect your personality—alter your character somehow.” Looking up from her terminal, she continued, “He wouldn’t let us do anything that might… limit… your potential in any way.”

Brow furrowing, Shepard couldn’t help but wonder what they had really done to him. “Can’t say I like the idea of being brought back to life with a control chip in my brain.”

Miranda turned back to her terminal. “The Illusive Man is taking an incredible risk with you. I just hope his gamble pays off.”

Shepard knew that women were complicated, but the one before him was a complete enigma. He couldn’t tell if she was a scientist or a soldier.

Or something else entirely.

“Tell me a little about yourself,” he boldly asked.

Miranda stopped typing, turned, and stood straighter to look him in the eye.

Interesting. Now I get her full attention.

“Worried about my qualifications? I can crush a mech with my biotics or shoot its head off at a hundred yards. Take your pick,” Miranda said.

Shepard thought he could detect something in her tone, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Glancing at Jacob at the other side of the room, he asked, “Did you and Jacob serve together in the Alliance?”

“No. The Illusive Man recognized my potential and recruited me at a young age,” she answered, perhaps a tad too quickly, given her usual professional tone.

Quick answer. She’s hiding something.

“How old were you?” he asked.

“Old enough to know this is what I wanted,” she said with finality.

Shepard backed off. “I was trying to get to know you as a human being.”

Miranda’s eyes hardened. “I’m not looking for a friend, Shepard. Stay focused on the mission.”

Shepard didn’t flinch. “This is the last place I’d be looking for friends, and I’m focused enough. It’s your motivations that concern me. Only time will tell if you prove to be an asset or a liability to me.”

Miranda crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow at him. Staring for a moment, she appraised him, trying to see if there was anything she could detect from his body language. Shepard bore her assault stoically.

Nodding, she bluntly said, “I don’t have patience for incompetence or recklessness or heroes. I’ll complete this mission because of you or in spite of you. I’ll follow your orders. I’ll follow you into battle. But you’ll have to fight to earn my trust.”

With that, Miranda turned back to her terminal and ignored Shepard’s presence.

I stand corrected. She has more balls than most krogan I’ve fought.

~o~O~o~

Jacob turned around as Shepard approached him. Offering a grin, Jacob said, “I’m glad the Illusive Man convinced you to join us, Commander.”

Shepard shook his head. “I just want to find out what happened to those missing people. I still don’t trust Cerberus.”

Jacob nodded. “Noted. Do you trust me, Commander?”

To Shepard’s surprise, he actually did. “You’re a good man, Jacob, but you might be working for the wrong people.”

Jacob looked away, a scowl written clearly on his face. “Maybe, but I thought the same when I was with the Alliance. That’s why I’m here now.”

“How long did you serve in the Alliance?”

“Five years in total. Stationed all over the galaxy. Even spent a couple of years as a Corsair,” Jacob proudly answered.

Shepard gave him a questioning look. “I’ve never heard of the Corsairs.”

“It was an Alliance initiative,” Jacob said. “They hired independent starship captains and used them for missions that fell outside official Alliance jurisdiction.” He shrugged. “Technically, we weren’t part of the Alliance. If we ever got caught, they could disavow any knowledge of us.” He scowled again. “We were supposed to be free from restrictions and rules, but there was still enough red tape to sink a cruiser. I finally just gave up.”

Looking around the waiting room, Shepard asked, “Is that why you joined Cerberus?”

Jacob shrugged again. “I guess I just got tired of never making a difference. So much of what we did in the Alliance seemed pointless.” He sighed. “I thought things would change after the attack on the Citadel. Humanity was finally invited to join the Council.” Shaking his head, he continued, “But nothing changed. Politics, bureaucracy. Same bullshit, different leaders.” Crossing his arms, Jacob looked Shepard in the eye. “Cerberus is different. When colonies go missing, we don’t commission a team to write a report to figure out what the hell to do about it; we just go and find out.”

A man of action, not politics. Guess that’s why he doesn’t trust the Illusive Man.

“When are we leaving?” Shepard asked.

“Soon,” Jacob replied. “We’re just refueling the shuttle and waiting for our weapons to be delivered.”

“Weapons?”

Jacob nodded his head toward Miranda. “Miranda requested that our weapons be sent to us while you were meeting the boss. Since we have no idea what we’ll be up against, it’s best to be prepared.”

“And me?”

“We got you something. Not top of the line, but it’ll do the job.”

~o~O~o~

*Encrypted*

Project Lazarus Mission Summary:

Shepard escaped attack on the facility, along with operatives Taylor and Lawson.

Facility destroyed by remote detonation once survivors were acquired. Salvage teams will ensure no incriminating data survived. Per Miranda’s recommendation, I’m running security sweeps on other cells to ensure that Wilson was our only mole.

Regardless of the cost, Project Lazarus was a success. Shepard is back.

~o~O~o~

Location: UT-47 Kodiak Drop-Shuttle / En Route to Freedom’s Progress Colony

Shepard sat in the Kodiak shuttle as they traveled to their destination at FTL. Inspecting the M-8 Avenger he had been given, everything appeared to be in working order. The first of the evolved Avenger series using thermal clips and produced by Elkoss Combine, it was a common weapon found in militaries and with mercenaries all around the galaxy due to its accuracy and reliability.

Satisfied with his assault rifle, he moved on to inspect his shotgun. Produced by Ariake Tech, the M-23 Katana was built with a new cocking mechanism to eject thermal clips after five shots. Rugged, reliable, and completely unremarkable. There were easily better shotguns on the market, but it was still an improvement over the original Katanas, where any more than three shots overheated the gun.

Guess I should work with what I get.

Moving on to his last weapon, Shepard was at odds about his opinions. The M-92 Mantis sniper rifle, the newest line of sniper rifles created by Devlon Industries, it had been created to replace the older and weaker Striker series. The M-92 packed quite a kick and was definitely an improvement over the Striker, but the drawback was that the heat generated by the mass accelerators burned out any heat sink after one shot, making it barely any better than the original models of sniper rifles, since most sniper rifles had a tendency to overheat after one shot anyway. It was down to whether you wanted to take the time to eject a heat sink or wait for it to cool down.

Satisfied that his weapons were in working order, Shepard looked at the team that he’d been ‘assigned’.

Both were still in that armor that Shepard didn’t recognize. Both sets of armor were painted in the standard Cerberus colors, black and white with a gold trim, and decorated with the Cerberus logo.

Custom-made by Cerberus R&D, probably.

Jacob was packing an M-100 grenade launcher like Shepard. Unlike the Spectre, though, he was cleaning a shotgun whose design Shepard didn’t recognize. He was also equipped with an M-6 Carnifex hand cannon as his sidearm.

Noticing Shepard’s gaze, Jacob stopped cleaning his weapon and offered his shotgun. Shepard took the weapon and inspected it.

“M-22 Eviscerator. Heavily modified. Did the work myself,” Jacob said.

Shepard recognized the name. Instead of using chips or pellets as bullets, it used serrated metal wedges to help penetrate armor. “I’ve heard of it. Isn’t it illegal?”

Jacob shrugged. “It’s a civilian design. It breaks a few interstellar weapons treaties, though, so no military can buy it in bulk. Doesn’t bother me, though. You shoot someone, and they die. Does it matter what the gun is?”

Shepard handed the weapon back. “How’s it modified?”

Taking the shotgun back, Jacob continued to clean it. “I tweaked the heat distribution some, so now it can fire up to eight shots, instead of three, before changing clips.” He tapped a part on the shotgun’s underside. “I also added a separate firing mode. Instead of shooting buckshot, I can also shoot slugs, making it pretty good for long range. Crap against shields, but hell on armor. I can only manage four shots before clip change, though.” Looking proud, Jacob tapped the sides of the shotgun next. “And here’s my ammo converter. Incendiary rounds; my favorite. All in all, anything armored has no chance against me.”

Suitably impressed, Shepard reevaluated Jacob’s skills.

He probably knows more about guns than Ash did.

Looking at the hand cannon, he asked, “Is that modified, too?”

Nodding, Jacob took out his hand cannon and gave it to Shepard. “Standard only allows six shots, but I managed to boost it to ten. Modified the compensators, too, so I could reduce the kickback and increase the fire rate. Finally, I modified the ammo generator inside to match my Eviscerator, only smaller, so it could have a bit more punch against armor.”

Giving Jacob back his sidearm, Shepard looked at Miranda. She was inspecting an assault rifle that actually looked very familiar. Straining his mind, he knew the answer was at the edge of his mind.

It was silver-colored, but it looked very compact when it was folded, more so than most assault rifle designs. Looking at the tubes running from the top-mounted scope to the main body, Shepard mentally kicked himself for not realizing it sooner; he’d certainly been shot at with it enough times to recognize it. “That’s a geth assault rifle, isn’t it?”

Without looking up, Miranda nodded. “Almost. It’s based off geth weaponry, a new prototype that I’ve been asked to test. I’m told that R&D calls it the Pulse Rifle.” Engaging her omni-tool, she continued her examination. “It evidently uses high-energy phasic ammunition, making it very useful against kinetic barriers, but it sacrifices armor penetration.” She looked over the data on her omni-tool. “Most geth weaponry tends to have variable rates of fire, making them inaccurate with longer bursts. Our techs created a new, modified mass effect generator that reduces the variations, allowing it to be on par with your Avenger.” Anticipating his next question, Miranda casually added, “Jacob took the liberty of upgrading my Predator as well. More shots per clip, reduced recoil, that sort of thing.”

Jacob snorted. “You’re welcome.”

Miranda ignored him.

Any further discussion was interrupted when their pilot said, “We’re exiting FTL. Stand by.”

There was a small throb of deceleration before the energy waves seen in FTL were replaced by stars, once again seen in the window.

The pilot then said, “ETA to destination: ten minutes.”

Thinking back to his meeting with the leader of Cerberus and his ‘request’, Shepard wondered how much Miranda and Jacob knew about their mission and how much the Illusive Man had kept hidden. He knew next to nothing about their destination, having never heard about it until now. “What can you tell me about this colony we’re going to?”

Without looking up from his inspection of his shotgun, Jacob said, “Freedom’s Progress? Not much, only that we lost contact with them not too long ago. I guess we’ll find out when we get there.”

“Freedom’s Progress is a typical human settlement in the Terminus Systems,” Miranda added. “They had a small military force for protection supplemented by mechs and security drones. Average in almost every way, really. Completely unremarkable… until the disappearance.”

“Any thoughts on what we might run into there?” Shepard asked.

“A lot of empty buildings and one giant mystery,” she replied. After one last check, she collapsed her Pulse Rifle, apparently satisfied for now. Looking at Shepard, she asked, “The Illusive Man put us under your command. Do you have any orders?”

“Are you sure you’ll be comfortable following my orders?” Shepard asked.

Collapsing his shotgun, Jacob raised his head to look at Shepard as well. “We didn’t bring you back from the dead just to second-guess you, Commander. If the Illusive Man says you’re in charge, you’re in charge.”

“The Illusive Man told me that both Cerberus and the Alliance have found no evidence that led anywhere,” Shepard said.

“That’s right,” Jacob replied. “No signs of attack, no corpses, not even a trace of unusual genetic material to give us a clue. Only things we can find once in a while are bullet holes or spent thermal clips from colonies that tried to fight back. They just… disappear, and we’ve got no target to go after.”

Staring out the window, Shepard wondered for the thousandth time what he was doing here. Two years of attacks, and no information? “What makes you think this investigation will turn up anything new?”

“At other colonies, official investigators got there first. Sometimes looters or salvage teams as well,” Jacob answered. “We’re hoping to be the first ones there this time. Maybe find clues before somebody else disturbs the scene.”

“Fine. Let’s keep this simple. Until I see for myself, just keep your eyes open. Look for anything that tells us who did this. Any terminals with messages, security systems, unusual footprints, even discarded trash left by the attackers.”

“Understood, Commander,” Miranda said. “With luck, we’ll find something that was missed at the other colonies.”

“Then we can find out who’s behind it and get some payback,” Jacob added.

The intercom ringed. “ETA: three minutes. Prepare for atmospheric entry.”

Shepard picked up his helmet and put it on. Miranda and Jacob did the same and finalized their prep.

I hope I know what I’m doing.

~o~O~o~

Mission: Investigate the human colony Freedom’s Progress

All the colonists of Freedom’s Progress have mysteriously vanished. No other investigators have disturbed the scene.

– Look for clues regarding the identity of the attackers.

– Determine how the attacks are accomplished.

~o~O~o~

Location: Freedom’s Progress Colony

After going through the turbulent entry into the planet’s atmosphere, the Kodiak turned toward the colony and touched down on the landing pad next to a quarry.

After telling the pilot to hold his position, Shepard stepped out of the shuttle to survey the scene. It was nighttime, and there was a light snowfall. Neither did much to hamper visibility. Lights were still on all over the colony, steady and constant, indicating that the power was working fine. However, what disturbed Shepard most was the lack of noise. Other than the wind, the colony was completely silent. No talking, no sounds of work, and no footsteps other than the crunching snow between the three investigators’ feet.

Pulling out his Avenger, Shepard looked around for anything out of the ordinary.

They weren’t kidding. This place is a ghost town, but there’s nothing here telling why….

Remembering that Miranda had mentioned that the colony was supplied with mechs, he turned to his team. “Let’s look for the mechs. If the colony was under attack, they should’ve deployed the mechs to defend themselves. How they were destroyed might give us a clue.”

Both acknowledged him, with Miranda adding, “They’ll be stored in a warehouse next to the loading docks, not too far from here. Security was disabled at every other colony, though, but I suppose it’s still worth a shot.”

Pulling out their weapons, they proceeded into the colony.

Stepping through the door closest to the landing pad, Shepard and his team swept the area, alert for any threats. They entered what looked like a cafeteria for the construction workers. There was still food on the tables, half-eaten. They appeared to have been there for some time, but weren’t spoiled yet.

“Looks like everyone just got up and left right in the middle of dinner,” Jacob noted.

Shepard stopped and knelt down, inspecting something on the ground.

“Something there, Commander?” Miranda asked.

Broken dishes and spilled food and drink littered the ground. There were multiple footprints leading out the other door.

“Looks like they were in a panic to get out. Something was chasing them,” Shepard said. “Look at these prints. Construction boots. Judging by the spacing, they were running.”

Miranda kneeled next to Shepard to inspect the clues. “There are no other prints. Just the workers’.”

“So they were being chased by something, but it didn’t leave any prints?” Jacob asked.

Shepard got up and held his rifle ready. “Move out.”

Once outside, the boot prints faded along the catwalk. Pressing forward, Shepard moved onto the catwalk and down the ramp.

Snow wiped the evidence from here on. We’re not gonna find anything on the ground.

“Strange. No bodies, no structural damage, no signs of battle,” Miranda said.

They were running from something, but no signs of struggle. Ambushed, maybe?

Moving toward the large door that lead to the colony proper, Shepard stopped. Holding out his arm to silently order the Cerberus operatives to do the same, he strained his ears, on guard for anything.

Something’s moving.

“Hear that? Sounds like FENRIS mechs,” Jacob said.

“Strange. Security systems were disabled at the other colonies,” Miranda said.

“This might be our break, then,” Shepard said.

Opening the door, Shepard kept his guard up; not surprising, considering his last run-in with mechs.

Past the door’s threshold, two LOKI mechs across a chasm stood up and pointed their weapons at the intruders.

Aw, hell.

“Open fire!” Shepard ordered. He pointed his Avenger at the mech on the left. His aim true, the left mech fell down, gaping holes in its chest.

Jacob wasted no time using his biotics to lift the other mech into the air, while Miranda followed suit with a short burst from her rifle, easily taking the LOKI out.

“On our right!” Shepard warned as he ran for some crates. All three ducked down at what cover they could find as six more LOKIs began firing on them. Looking around the crates, Shepard saw two FENRIS mechs closing in on them.

“FENRIS mechs coming!” Jacob yelled.

Miranda used overload on two of the LOKIs to disable them, while Jacob used his shotgun to put a solid slug into a FENRIS mech’s head.

Shepard pulled out his shotgun and took aim as the other FENRIS mech came closer.

Resembling oversized pit bulls, FENRIS mechs were more commonly used to detect contraband using the sensors built in their heads. The only weapons they had were tasers to bring down intruders. That pretty much meant that they simply charged at anyone they considered hostile.

Using his shotgun, Shepard aimed at the FENRIS mech’s front legs and took it down hard. Stumbling mere feet away from Shepard, it was helpless against the following shot to the head.

Looking up, he saw another unfortunate LOKI fly through the air, only to be blasted back into the other three LOKIs when Miranda took the opportunity to use the biotic power warp.

After the mech landed on top of its three fellows, it self-destructed, damaging the others. Seeing their chance, all three humans closed the distance, firing on any mech still moving. After a few minutes of firefight, all was quiet again.

“Something’s not right,” Jacob said. “Those mechs shouldn’t have been hostile. They should have recognized us as human.”

“Someone reprogrammed them to attack on sight. We’re not alone here,” Miranda said.

“Hopefully, it’s a survivor. Otherwise, it’s a scavenger. Either way, it’s someone that might know something,” Shepard said. “Let’s go.”

“Yes, Commander,” – “Yes, sir,” Miranda and Jacob said.

Moving past the remains of the mechs, Shepard led them through buildings and homes instead of staying outside, trying to minimize the chances of further combat.

“We must be getting close,” Miranda said. “Fewer homes and more warehouses here.”

Shepard merely nodded, keeping an ear out for the mechs’ synthesized voices. Nearing another warehouse, his caution was rewarded when he heard more voices coming from inside. Switching his Recon Hood’s voice module off, he activated his radio instead. Helmets allowed silent communication via radio, since it prevented sound from escaping, giving special forces teams the small luxury of speaking without giving their positions away, though hand signals were still taught and used.

Holding up his arm, Shepard said, “Wait. I hear voices inside.”

Jacob and Miranda disabled their voice modules as well and held their guns up toward the entrance to the warehouse.

“Mechs?” Jacob asked.

Listening harder, Shepard shook his head. “Voice modules.”

Approaching the warehouse as slowly as possible, Shepard tried to count how many were inside.

“Three, at least. Possibly more,” Shepard said while readying his shotgun. Better for close quarters.

Miranda and Jacob both nodded and took flanking positions on one side of the door, while Shepard took the other. Miranda turned on her omni-tool to open the door remotely and stood behind Jacob.

Shepard and Jacob enabled their voice modules and prepared to breach. The commander started a silent three-count.

Bursting into action, Miranda opened the door, and both men ran in, shotguns drawn, trained eyes sweeping for hostiles and shouting their demands.

“Get down! Get on the ground!”

“Drop your weapons!”

The six people inside were startled by their entry and tried to raise their own weapons, but Shepard and Jacob closed the distance, pointing their shotguns directly at the small group.

Only two raised their weapons, an assault rifle and a shotgun, at the humans as Miranda ran up with her Pulse Rifle pointed at the two obvious threats.

“Drop your weapons! Do it now!” one of them yelled, pointing his assault rifle wildly, as if he could hold back all three by himself.

“Wait!” a feminine voice cried out. She lowered her shotgun. “Prazza, stand down!”

“What?!” Prazza asked in disbelief.

Shepard’s eyes quickly glanced around.

Quarians!

“Stand down!” Shepard ordered, lowering his shotgun.

Miranda and Jacob turned in disbelief, but complied with the order.

“Prazza, put your weapon down, now!” the female quarian said.

That voice…!

“What are you talking about, Tali?! Look! They’re Cerberus!” Prazza argued and confirming Shepard’s hope.

Tali stood in front of Prazza. “Look at the one in black! N7 armor! He’s Alliance! Put your weapon down!”

“Tali?! Is it really you?” Shepard asked, astonishment in his voice.

Tali turned around immediately. Shaking her head, she said with disbelief, “Shepard? No… it can’t be…”

Shepard took off his helmet. “It’s really me.”

“I’m not taking any chances with Cerberus operatives!” Prazza said.

Tali turned back to face the others. “Put those weapons down!” She faced Shepard’s team again, and Shepard could imagine the shock on her face. “Shepard? Is that… you’re alive?”

“Remember when I gave you that geth data, Tali? Did it help you complete your Pilgrimage?” Shepard asked, putting his shotgun away.

Tali let out a small laugh. “Yes, it did.” Turning toward the other quarians, she said, “Enough. Prazza, all of you. Weapons down. This is definitely Commander Shepard.”

Reluctantly lowering his rifle, Prazza asked Tali, “Why is your old commander working for Cerberus?”

“I don’t know. Maybe we should ask,” Tali said, and she turned her head toward Shepard and waited.

Deciding against telling her the whole truth until later, Shepard chose to give a simpler, more believable answer. “I nearly died, Tali. Cerberus spent two years rebuilding me. They want me to investigate attacks on human colonies.”

Prazza scoffed. “Likely story. No organization would commit so many resources to bring back one soldier.”

Tali shook her head. “You haven’t seen Shepard in action, Prazza. Trust me, it was money well spent.”

Shepard couldn’t help but feel a little flattered at her words.

If only she knew how much was really spent.

Facing Shepard, Tali noticed his scars in the dark room. Reaching out, she asked, “Is that where they…?”

Shepard turned his head away while gently grabbing Tali’s hand. “Yeah. It’s a long story.” Letting her go, he looked over her group. “You know why we’re here, but why are you all here? This is a human colony.”

Tali nodded, letting the subject drop. “We’re here looking for a young quarian named Veetor. He was here on Pilgrimage.”

Shepard’s mind raced at the possibilities. “If Veetor survived the attack, he may be able to tell us what happened.”

Tali hesitated. “That’s the hope. We’ve seen him, but he might not be in the best state to answer questions. He was injured and, um, nervous around—”

“She means that he was unstable,” Prazza interrupted. “Combine that with damage to his suit’s CO2 scrubbers and an infection from an open-air exposure, and he’s likely delirious.”

Tali sighed. “When he saw us landing, he hid in a warehouse on the far side of town. We suspect he also programmed the mechs to attack anything that moved.”

“Veetor’s the only one who can tell us what happened here. We should work together to find him,” Shepard said.

Tali nodded. “Good idea. You’ll need two teams to get past the drones, anyway.”

“Now we’re working with Cerberus?” Prazza angrily asked.

“No, Prazza, you’re working for me. If you can’t follow orders, go wait on the ship,” Tali shot back, before turning back to her old friend. “Head for the warehouse through the center of the colony. We’ll circle around the far side and draw off some of the drones to clear you a path.”

Shepard nodded. Looking at Prazza, his curiosity got the better of him. “Your people really don’t like Cerberus. What did I miss?”

“They killed our people, infiltrated our flotilla, and tried to blow up one of our ships,” Prazza angrily answered.

Shepard turned toward Miranda, eyebrow raised.

Miranda shrugged. “I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t part of that cell. Still, that’s not how I’d have explained it, exactly. It was nothing personal.”

Shepard narrowed his eyes.

All the more reason to leave this group ASAP.

Before anything or anyone could become more heated, Jacob said, “We can argue over who killed who later. Right now, we’ve got a job to do.”

“Agreed. We work together to get to Veetor,” Tali said, trying mediate the two groups.

“Alright. Make sure to keep in radio contact,” Shepard said.

“Will do,” Tali replied. “Good luck, Shepard. Whatever happens… it’s good to have you back.”

Offering her a reassuring smile and a nod, Shepard put his helmet back on. After Miranda and Jacob were ready, all three went through a door as the quarians left through another.

~o~O~o~

Moving cautiously through or around the buildings, Shepard’s team kept their eyes open for either mechs or quarians.

Jacob’s head perked up, and he looked around. “Commander, I hear something.”

Stopping immediately, all three moved to cover. Hearing high-pitched whines, all of them looked up to see a trio of drones patrolling in the direction they were going.

The radio crackled to life, and Tali said, “Be careful, Shepard. There’s a squad of security drones up ahead.”

“Got it, Tali,” Shepard replied, still watching the drones.

“Thanks for the warning. We’ll take care of ’em,” Jacob added.

The drones flew over a structure and broke line of sight.

“Move out,” Shepard ordered.

Moving around another warehouse and through another building, Shepard heard more drones; much more than three. Glancing back, he knew the Cerberus operatives heard it, too. Stopping at the exit’s threshold, he looked around.

About six. Damn. Three of them are rocket models, too. They’ll tear our shields down in no time.

He turned to his team. “Miranda, how many drones can you overload?”

Glancing around, she replied, “Two… maybe. They’re probably shielded. I could probably hit another with warp, though it’s not as effective. It’ll still lower the shields enough for me to shoot them down quickly.”

“I could probably snipe one, cloak, and take down another,” Shepard said. Turning to Jacob, he asked, “Can you take out the last?”

Jacob nodded, pulling out his grenade launcher. “So long as it’s just one. Shields aren’t my thing.”

“Ready, then?” Shepard asked, gripping his Mantis.

Both nodded.

Shepard lined up his shot on the rocket drone and fired. Immediately activating his tactical cloak, he ran as far as he could from the doorway as the rocket drone fell to the ground.

Hearing the electric crackling sounds of Miranda’s tech attack, Shepard slid into cover behind a railing, ejected the thermal clip, and lined up another shot. Seeing the second rocket drone, he fired a second time, dropping it.

As his cloak fell away, Shepard watched as Miranda’s Pulse Rifle tore through the drones’ shields and into their fragile bodies. Jacob continued to pound away at any that were remotely functional. Seconds later, all three were moving toward their destination unhindered.

The radio crackled to life again, and Tali said, “Shepard, Prazza and his squad rushed on ahead! I told them to wait, but they wouldn’t listen! They want to find Veetor and take him away before you get here!”

“Damn it,” Shepard said.

Miranda sighed. “We should have expected this.”

“Come on. We can still catch them,” Jacob said.

Moving quickly through the various buildings, they spotted a large door leading to the loading docks.

“Hurry, Shepard! We’re inside the loading docks!” Tali said.

An explosion was heard just beyond the door.

“Tali, what was that?!” Shepard demanded as his team approached the door.

“Veetor reprogrammed a heavy mech! It’s tearing Prazza’s squad apart!”

Idiot!

“They did want to get to Veetor first,” Miranda commented grimly.

“Tali, get this door open! We’ll take care of the mech!” Shepard ordered.

“Got it!” Tali exclaimed.

Flanking the door, Shepard and Jacob brought out their grenade launchers.

“The mech will probably have shields on top of armor,” Shepard said. “Jacob, you and I will run in first to distract it. Miranda, you use your tech on it. It might not bring the shields down, but it’ll give us a chance to get its attention away from the quarians. We’ll split up and attack from all sides. Hopefully, it’ll confuse it enough that it won’t get a clear shot at any of us. As soon as the shields are down, let loose the biotics.”

“Shepard, the door is opening now!” Tali called.

As soon as the doors opened, the screams of the dying filled the air as the YMIR mech tore its way through the quarians. Utilizing its mass accelerator cannons and rockets, the quarians stood little chance.

“This is going to be one tough son of a bitch to take down,” Miranda hissed.

The moment the doors opened, Shepard forced adrenaline into his body and felt himself speed up. Running for cover on the other side of the battlefield, he began firing on the mech, explosions appearing all around it, but the damage was absorbed by the shields. The mech immediately ignored the quarians, turning to face the newest threat. Bullets began raining all over Shepard’s shields as he tried to make for the building ahead.

The mech’s aim got thrown off as another grenade struck it, courtesy of Jacob as he dove behind some crates. The mech turned to fire at Jacob’s position before a large electrical sphere struck it, further draining its shields.

Turning toward the open doorway, it tried to fire off a rocket at Miranda, but another grenade struck its back, causing it to stumble.

Slowly turning, the YMIR registered Shepard’s position in a building’s window. When it raised its cannon to shoot at Shepard, Jacob’s grenade struck it next, just before the unstable energies of warp drained the last of its shields.

Seeing their chance, Shepard called out, “Jacob, now!”

Raising his arm, Jacob lifted the mech into the air. “Ha! Gravity’s one mean mother!”

Without a stable platform, the YMIR flailed helplessly in the air. Taking advantage, Shepard left the building and shot grenade after grenade at the helpless mech.

“Fire at will!” Shepard ordered.

Miranda and Jacob needed no further encouragement as they used their assault rifle and grenade launcher, respectively, to pound away at the heavy mech.

Finally, when it was ten feet in the air, Miranda launched another warp, violently disrupting Jacob’s biotic energies already present on the YMIR. The resulting explosion shut the mech down as it fell, and it landed with the sound of twisted metal before exploding for the final time.

~o~O~o~

Following the firefight, Shepard activated his radio. “Mech is down. Tali, are you alright?”

“Yes, I’m fine. I’m in a server room tending to the wounded. Thanks for helping them,” Tali replied. “Please, find Veetor. I’ll join up with you soon.”

Shepard turned to his team. “Anyone hurt?”

Both answered in the negative.

Nodding in satisfaction, Shepard started his approach towards Veetor’s hiding place when something from the remains of the YMIR mech caught his eye. I don’t think I’ve seen a rocket launcher like that before….

After stopping for a moment to scan the remains with his omni-tool to peruse later, all three approached the door carefully, on guard for any last desperate attack. Stepping closer to the door, all Shepard could hear was someone inside mumbling to himself. No other voices could be heard.

“Have to hide. Swarms will get me. Need to protect myself. Can’t let them get me…”

Nodding to the others, Shepard pulled out his pistol, prompting them to do the same. Miranda opened the door for everyone as they slowly entered the small room, weapons ready.

The room appeared to be the control hub for remote control of the mechs in the colony. All the lights were off, illumination being provided only by the nine monitors a single quarian was sitting in front of.

Veetor didn’t turn around or even acknowledge their presence; he just continued to mumble to himself, typing feverishly on the console. “Monsters coming back. Mechs will protect. Safe from swarms. Have to hide. No monsters. No swarms. No-no-no-no-no…”

Collapsing his pistol, Shepard walked slowly toward the frightened quarian, taking off his helmet as he did so. “Veetor?”

“No Veetor. Not here. Swarms can’t find. Monsters coming. Have to hide.”

“Nobody’s going to hurt you anymore,” Shepard assured.

Veetor kept typing at the console, seemingly unaware of the three humans in the room with him.

Jacob took his helmet off. “I don’t think he can hear you, Commander.”

Shepard activated his omni-tool and waved it at the monitors, remotely shutting them down one by one.

Veetor stopped typing, looking at all nine monitors in confusion. When he heard the familiar whistle of an omni-tool behind him, he turned his head. Seeing the humans, he stood up. “You’re human. Where did you hide? How come they didn’t find you?”

Miranda took off her own helmet after putting her Predator away. “Who didn’t find us?”

“The… the monsters. The swarms. They took everyone,” Veetor replied slowly.

“We’re not survivors, Veetor. We just got here,” Shepard said.

Veetor bowed his head. “You don’t know. You didn’t see. But I see everything.”

Turning back to the console, Veetor typed in some commands, and the monitors lit up, each one showing some footage of the colony.

“Looks like security footage. He must’ve pieced it together manually,” Miranda said.

Tiny insects were flying around, moving too fast to see properly at the video’s current speed. What got the investigators’ attention, however, were the large bipedal forms resembling insects that were walking around the colony, pushing pods of some kind.

“What the hell is that?” Jacob asked.

Veetor paused the video as all three humans focused on the figure.

“My God. I think it’s a Collector,” Miranda said, surprise evident in her voice.

“I thought the Collectors kept to themselves,” Shepard said.

Miranda nodded. “They usually work through intermediaries, like slavers or hired mercenaries. If they’re involved with the Reapers somehow, it could explain what happened to the colonies.”

They watched as the video continued to play. Two Collectors were throwing a human into a pod.

“The Collectors have advanced technology,” Jacob said. “They could have a weapon that disables an entire settlement at once.”

One figure on the top-row, far-right monitor got Shepard’s attention.

Veetor’s explanation interrupted his study. “The seeker swarms. No one can hide. The seekers find you. Freeze you. Then the monsters take you away.”

“Tell me more about these swarms,” Shepard said.

“It’s how they find you. Seeker clouds. Machines like tiny insects,” Veetor explained. “They go everywhere. They find you. Then they sting you. Freeze you.”

“It must be those flying little insects we see on the monitors there,” Miranda said. “Miniature probes, maybe? Find victims, then immobilize them with a stasis field or nerve toxin.”

Last I remember, Alliance records on the Collectors were sketchy, at best.

Turning toward Miranda and Jacob, Shepard asked, “What do you know about the Collectors?”

Jacob shook his head. “Nobody knows much. Sightings are so rare, a lot of people don’t even believe they exist.”

“More importantly, why are they abducting human colonists? What are they after?” Miranda asked.

“Maybe the Illusive Man can figure it out,” Jacob said.

If he didn’t know already.

Studying Veetor, Shepard asked, “Why didn’t the Collectors take you?”

“Swarms didn’t find me. Monsters didn’t know I was here,” Veetor answered.

“The Collectors aren’t known for being careless,” Jacob said to Shepard. “Maybe his enviro-suit kept him from showing up on their sensors.”

“Or they were using technology specifically designed to detect humans. Only human colonies have been hit,” Miranda added.

Turning back to Veetor, Shepard asked, “What happened next?”

Looking at the monitors, Veetor’s voice trembled, bordering on hysteria. “The monsters took the people onto the ship, and then they left. The ship flew away. But they’ll be back for me. No one escapes!”

“I think that’s probably all we’re getting out of him, Commander,” Jacob said.

“We appreciate what you told us. You were very helpful,” Shepard said, hoping to calm Veetor down.

“I studied them. The monsters. The swarms. I recorded them with my omni-tool. Lots of readings. Electromagnetic. Dark energy,” Veetor blurted out suddenly.

“We need to get this data to the Illusive Man,” Miranda quickly said. “Grab the quarian and call the shuttle to come pick us up.”

Before Shepard could respond, Tali angrily stepped into the room and glared at the Cerberus operatives. “What?! Veetor is injured! He needs treatment, not an interrogation!”

“We won’t hurt him. We just need to see if he knows anything else. He’ll be returned unharmed,” Jacob calmly said.

“Your people tried to betray us once already. If we give him to you, we’ll never get the intel we need,” Miranda added.

“Prazza was an idiot,” Tali spat, rolling her eyes, “and he and his men paid for it.” Looking at Shepard, Tali said, “You’re welcome to take Veetor’s omni-tool data, but please, just let me take him.”

“You don’t have to take Veetor and go. We could work together. Just like old times,” Shepard offered.

Tali bowed her head. “I want to, but I can’t. I’ve got a mission of my own. It’s too important for me to abandon, even for you.” She sighed. “When it’s over, and I’m still alive, we’ll see what happens,” she finished with a shrug.

Shepard’s brow furrowed. “That sounds dangerous. What are you doing?”

Glancing at the Cerberus operatives, Tali crossed her arms. “I don’t think Cerberus needs to hear about it. But it’s in geth space. That should tell you how important it is.”

Shepard nodded in acceptance. Turning towards Miranda, he said, “He’s traumatized, and he needs medical care. Tali will give us the omni-tool data and take him to the flotilla. His omni-tool data will be more reliable than his testimony anyway.” His tone brooked no argument.

Miranda nodded in acceptance. “Understood, Commander,” she said in a neutral voice.

“Thank you, Shepard. I’m glad you’re still the one giving the orders,” Tali said. Giving Shepard a hug, she added, “Good luck out there. If I find anything that can help you, I’ll let you know.”

Shepard returned the hug. “Stay safe, Tali. I hope we can talk again.”

Stepping away, Tali took Veetor’s hand and led him out of the room.

Turning toward his companions, Shepard said, “Jacob, call the shuttle. Then you and I will sweep for any more hostiles and secure a landing zone. Miranda, get on this terminal and download everything Veetor’s recorded. Hopefully, it’ll supplement his omni-tool data.”

“Yes, Commander.” – “Aye, Commander.”

As Jacob called the pilot on his radio, Miranda sat down in the chair Veetor had vacated and began typing.

“Miranda, go back a bit. There was something that caught my attention,” Shepard suddenly said.

Confusion colored her face, but Miranda complied.

After a few seconds, he pointed at something on the monitors. “Wait.”

Pausing the video, Miranda looked for what had caught Shepard’s eye.

“There,” was all he said, pointing at the top-row, far-right monitor. She turned her gaze and saw it.

A Collector that looked different from all the rest. Instead of having a dark-brown carapace, it was red and orange. It looked like it was on fire.

“Focus your efforts on that. There’s definitely something different about that one,” Shepard ordered. Standing straighter, he couldn’t help but wonder what they were doing, what was going on, and, more importantly….

What am I going to do?

After spending his career making split-second decisions and facing seemingly impossible choices, for once, Shepard was at a loss.

~o~O~o~

Author’s Notes:

I actually had this finished sometime around 3 a.m. before exhaustion finally caught up with me and forced me to get some sleep before proofreading and tweaking this chapter into its final draft.

First off, this IS a Shepard/Miranda pairing. Right now, though, Miranda is Cerberus. Shepard felt like he was Alliance only a week earlier, having spent that last two years dead/in a coma/unconscious. Right now, I feel that animosity would be natural, since neither would trust each other yet and both are very strong-willed. I certainly wasn’t about to have “love at first sight” or something insipid like that.

Miranda respects Shepard’s abilities. Shepard respects Miranda’s intelligence. I’m sure they admire each other’s looks. As it all stands, Miranda will treat this like any other job, while Shepard will still have feelings for Ashley. Don’t expect things to change too soon.

Also, don’t read too much into Shepard and Tali’s scenes. Tali is a familiar face (so to speak) in an unfamiliar time. I think I would be glad to have a friend when I find myself surrounded by people that, by all rights, I’ve called enemies. Tali, for her part, owes a lot to Shepard, and I wanted to convey that their friendship stayed strong despite Shepard’s “death”.

As for Miranda’s abilities, as an RPG, all characters start at the bottom. That works for games, but from a novelization point of view, I can’t help but wonder why the hell Miranda, a top operative from a super-secret shadow organization, wouldn’t take the time to develop her abilities. It’s like saying, “You’re a super-secret spy, best of the best. Oh? You don’t know how to shoot? Guess you better learn, huh? Now go save the galaxy!” Jacob is the same. A veteran from the Alliance, the main character in Mass Effect Galaxies, and all his biotics are n00b-level?

With that said, all the characters are going to have some real abilities that make them worthy of their respective roles. I mean, Garrus wasn’t dead, so how the hell did he slack off from Mass Effect 1? So for now, Miranda has Unstable Warp and Jacob is biotically strong enough to lift a heavy mech once shields are down. Still, everyone can still find room for improvement, so don’t worry—no Mary Sues or Marty Stus (whatever the terms are).

I’ve also changed the rules of combat a bit. How the hell does ARMOR stop biotics? Armor stops bullets, not energy blasts that fools around with mass, gravity, and spacetime. Because of this, there is no “health bar”. Armor is the last defense before grievous injuries. Most characters will have barriers or shields, since I felt that energy can stop energy. Because of this, other biotics will have the same abilities as the main characters. They can use pull, singularity, shockwave, etc. instead of just warp.

Finally, I want to thank all that took the time to review. You make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside that no matter what, I will push myself to write this story and make it the best I can do.

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