Fight for the Lost

By LuxDragon

Scifi / Action

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 above 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, she 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 star in the system.

Miranda stopped and turned around to address her 'guest'. "The Illusive Man is down the hall to the right," 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 the window. 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 a distinct feeling that something was wrong. Nothing dangerous or life threatening that would prompt 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 to 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 said, "I thought I was meeting your boss, face-to-face."

Miranda's tilted her head to the side and said, "You are."

Shepard narrowed his eyes as he looked down at her. "Not funny. Where is he?" he demanded.

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 his pistol at 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," she began. "If anything, you once stood against Cerberus, 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. 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 step closer, her eyes mimicking 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 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 ground with a blue light pattern etched just inside the disk within a darkened room. Seeing nothing else of note, he stepped up to 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 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. He saw a very large dark room with tall foreboding shadows created by the star directly in front of him.

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

The head 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 from the way he was sitting, it may as well be 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 finger and a drink 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 CEO's physical details. 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 greeted his guest. "Commander Shepard," he simply said exhaling his smoke.

Crossing his arms, Shepard parroted him, "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 got 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 is it that you and I know?" probed Shepard.

"That our place in the universe is more fragile than you'd like to think," he answered with a knowing look. Pausing to inhale his cigarette, he tilted his head as he regarded the hologram before him. "That one man - one very specific man – might be what stands between humanity and the greatest threat of our brief existence."

Shepard knew what the Illusive Man meant. "The Reapers."

Tapping his cigarette into the ash tray in the left side of chair, he continued. "Good to see your memory's still intact. How are you feeling?"

"You need to earn the right to ask those kinds of questions," Shepard retorted.

"Cerberus isn't as evil as you believe," said the Illusive Man, before taking another smoke.

Remembering finding Admiral Kahoku's body amongst rachni experiments and Cerberus researchers, Shepard had long since prepared to hear misdirection and lies from Cerberus, much less their leader. Still, calling out his mysterious and suspicious benefactor on it wouldn't help get any answers and decided to maintain his silence.

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

Your "methods" is just one of 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 closer toward the holographic projection.

Shepard managed to get a better look at him now. Guessing to be around 60 years old or more, the Illusive Man appeared to have no obvious flaws marking his face, symmetrical, well-proportioned, and stern. He walked with confidence with a hint of a swagger. Like most rich, powerful men.

"No one wants to admit it, but humanity is under attack. 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've bested all of them. That's just one reason we chose you."

"Fighting a war doesn't seem like Cerberus. Why are you involved?"

"We are 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've 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 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 spent a significant amount of time destroying Cerberus resources himself. Rather counter-productive 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 he target a few human colonies?"

"Hundreds of thousands of colonists have vanished. I'd say that fits the definition of 'harvesting'," countered the Illusive Man.

The news stunned him. 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. I don't know why they've suddenly targeted humanity. Maybe you got their attention when you killed one of them," he explained.

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 attacks on mercs and pirates is easier. And more convenient," concluded the Illusive Man with a dismissive wave of his hand.

"Isn't there evidence of the attacks? Something to show what was involved?"

"None. Evidence gathered by both Cerberus and the Alliance have found no trace as to the identity of the attackers," he 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 represents 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, he 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." Turning back to his chair, the Illusive Man continued. "I have a shuttle ready to take you to Freedom's Progress, the latest colony to be abducted. Miranda and Jacob will brief you," he briefed as he sat down.

"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 while 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 into the ash tray 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, the he simply stated, "You'll be just fine with them… for now."

"Is this a volunteer job or am I being volunteered?" said Shepard 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," offered the Illusive Man. "But first, go to Freedom's Progress. Find any clues you can. Who's abducting the colonists? 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 a 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 got 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 moved from their original positions, though he suspected that they were still briefed on mission he was "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. As long as you don't do anything to betray Cerberus, I'll follow your orders," answered Miranda without looking up from her terminal.

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 backed off a bit. "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 confidence in your abilities. It's your motivations that concern me. Only time will tell if you're an asset or a liability to our cause."

Considering all the damage I caused 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 corrected. "If I was running the show, I would've done a few things differently."

Raising an eyebrow, he couldn't help but ask, "What would you have changed exactly?"

Without looking up from her terminal, Miranda said, "To start, I would've implanted you with some kind 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 theyreally did to him then. "Can't say I like the idea of being brought back to life with a control chip in my brain," he retorted.

"The Illusive Man is taking an incredible risk with you. I just hope his gamble pays off," she replied as she turned back to her terminal.

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 100 yards; take your pick," Miranda said.

He thought he could detect something in her tone, but couldn't quite put his finger on it. Glancing at Jacob at the other side of the room, Shepard 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 pressed.

"Old enough to know this was what I wanted," she said with finality.

Shepard backed off. "I was trying to get 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're an asset or a liability to me," he said, throwing Miranda's earlier words back at her.

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 answered him bluntly. "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, he said, "I'm glad the Illusive Man convinced to 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," Shepard corrected.

"Noted," Jacob nodded. "Do you trust me?" he asked.

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," he admitted.

"It was an Alliance initiative," Jacob explained. "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 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, "Nothing's 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 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. We're just refueling the shuttle and waiting for our weapons to be delivered," came the reply.

"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're 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 is 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 were traveling towards their destination at FTL. Inspecting his M-8 Avenger the he was given, everything appeared in working order. The first of the evolved Avenger series using thermal clips by Elkoss Combine, it was a common weapon found in militaries and mercenaries all around the galaxy due to its accuracy and reliability.

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

Moving on to his last weapon, Shepard was at odds about his opinions. The M-29 Mantis sniper rifle, the newest line of sniper rifles created by Devlon Industries, it was created to replace the older and weaker Striker series; the M-29 packed quite a kick. Definitely an improvement over the Striker, but the drawback was the heat generated by the mass accelerators burned out any thermal clip 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 clip or wait for the cooldown.

Satisfied that his weapons were in working order, he looked at his new team that he'd been "assigned".

Both were still in their armor that Shepard didn't recognize. Custom made by Cerberus R&D probably. Both sets of armor were painted in standard Cerberus colors, black and white with a gold trim and decorated with the Cerberus logo.

Jacob was packing an M-100 grenade launcher like him. 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 gaze, Jacob stopped cleaning his weapon and offered his shotgun. Shepard took it and inspected the weapon. "M-22 Eviscerator. Heavily modified. Did the work myself," Jacob explained.

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

Jacob shrugged. "It's a civilian design. It breaks a few intergalactic 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 as he explained. "I tweaked the heat distribution some, so now it can fire up to eight shots, instead of three, before changing clips." Tapping a part on the underside of the shotgun, he continued. "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 him. "Standard only allows six shots, but I managed to boost it to 10. 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 tip of his brain.

It was a 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 toward the main body, Shepard mentally kicked himself for not realizing sooner. He'd certainly been shot at enough times to recognize it. "That's a geth assault rifle, isn't it?" he asked.

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." While looking over her omni-tool data, she explained the differences between her Pulse Rifle to geth rifles. "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 by their pilot: "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 chimed in again: "ETA to destination, 10 minutes."

Thinking back to his meeting with the head of Cerberus and his "request", Shepard wondered how much Miranda and Jacob knew about their mission and how much the Illusive Man 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?"

Jacob was the first to answer. "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," he said without looking up from his inspection of his shotgun.

Miranda added her own input. "Freedom's Progress is a typical human settlement in the Terminus Systems. They had a small military force for protection supplemented by mechs and security drones. Average in 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 found no evidence that led anywhere," Shepard said.

"That's right," Jacob confirmed. "No corpses and no traces of unusual genetic material to give us a clue. Only thing we can find once in a while were bullet holes or spent thermal clips from colonies that tried to fight back. Colonists disappear and we 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. We're hoping to be the first ones there this time. Maybe find clues before somebody else disturbs the scene," Jacob answered.

"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 from the attackers."

"Understood, Commander. With luck, we'll find something that was missed in the other colonies," Miranda acknowledged.

"Then we can find out who it and get some payback," Jacob added.

The intercom ringed: "ETA, three minutes. Prepare for atmospheric entry."

Shepard reached inside his chest plate and pulled out his Recon Hood he stuffed there earlier. Putting it on, he saw Miranda and Jacob also securing their helmets and finalizing 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 as to the identity of the attackers

-Determine how the attacks are accomlished

~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, no footsteps other than the crunching snow between the three investigators.

Pulling out his Avenger, he 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 mentioned that the colony was supplied with mechs, he addressed 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 supplying more information. "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."

Arming themselves, they proceeded into the colony.

Stepping through the door nearest from 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 everybody 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, spilled food and drink littered the ground. There were multiple footsteps leading out the other door.

"Look like they were in a panic to get out. Something was chasing them," observed Shepard. "Look at these prints. Construction boots. Judging from the spacing, they were running."

Miranda kneeled next to Shepard to inspect the clues. "There's no other prints. Just the workers."

"So they were being chased by something, but it didn't leave any prints?" asked Jacob.

Shepard got up and held his rifle ready. "Move out," he ordered.

Once outside, the boot prints faded along the catwalk. Pressing forward, the former Specter moved through 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 observed.

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

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

Jacob recognized the mechanical sounds. "Hear that? Sounds like FENRIS mechs," he declared.

"Strange. Security was 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 threshold of the door, two LOKI mechs across a chasm stood up and pointed their weapons at the intruders.

Aw hell. "Open fire!" ordered Shepard as his Avenger targeted 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 her 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 are more commonly used to detect contraband using the sensors built in its head. The only weapon they had were tasers to bring down intruders. That pretty much meant that they simply charged at anyone they detected was an enemy.

Using his shotgun, Shepard aimed at the front legs of the FENRIS mech 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.

Jacob spoke first. "Something's not right. Those mechs should've recognized us as human."

"Someone reprogrammed those mechs to attack on sight, we're not alone here," deduced Miranda.

"Hopefully, it's a survivor. Otherwise, it's a scavenger. Either way, it's someone that might know something," Shepard interjected. "Let 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 chances of further combat.

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

Shepard merely nodded, while keeping an ear out for the mech's 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 way, 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 reported, 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, putting their shotguns directly at the small group.

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

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

"Wait!" a feminine voice cried. She lowered her shotgun. "Prazza, stand down!"

Disbelief colored Prazza's words. "What?"

Shepard's eyes quickly glanced around. Quarians!

"Stand down!" ordered Shepard, lowering his shotgun. Miranda and Jacob turned in disbelief, but complied with the order.

"Prazza, put your weapon down, now!" the female quarian commanded.

That voice…!

"What are you talking about Tali? Look! They're Cerberus!" Prazza argued.

"Look at the one in black! N7 armor, he's Alliance! Put your weapon down!" Tali said as stood in front of Prazza.

"Tali! Is it really you?" Shepard asked with astonishment in his voice.

Tali turned around immediately. Shaking her head, Tali said with disbelief, "Shepard? No… it can't be…"

Shepard took off his hood. "It's really me."

"I'm not taking any chances with Cerberus operatives!" Prazza argued.

Tali turned back to face the others. "Put those weapons down!"

Facing his team again, 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 gave a small laugh. "Yes, it did." Turning toward the quarian group, she ordered, "Enough. Prazza, all of you. Weapons down. This is definitely Commander Shepard."

Reluctantly putting his rifle down, Prazza asked Tali, "Why is your old commander working for Cerberus?"

"I don't know," Tali said. "Maybe we should ask." She turning 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 jumped into the conversation. "Likely story. No organization would commit so many resources to bring back on soldier," scoffed Prazza.

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 grabbing Tali's hand. "Yeah, it's a long story." Letting Tali go, Shepard looked over her group. "Why are you all here?"

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 was here during 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, ah, nervous -" Tali hedged.

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

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

"Veetor's the only one that could tell us what happened here. We should work together to find him," Shepard offered.

Tali nodded in agreement. "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, hiss 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 explained.

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 became more heated, Jacob reminded everyone why they were here. "Look, we can argue about this later. We have a job to do."

"Agreed. We work together to find Veetor," said Tali, trying mediate the two groups.

"Alright. Make sure you stay in radio contact," Shepard said.

"Will do. Good luck, Shepard. Whatever happens… it's good to have you back," Tali replied.

Offering her a reassuring smile and a nod, Shepard put his Recon Hood back on. After Miranda and Jacob were ready, all three went through one 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 a high pitched whine, all of them looked up to see a trio of drones patrolling in the direction they were going.

The radio crackled to life.

"Be careful Shepard, there's a squad of security drones up ahead."

"Got it Tali," Shepard answered, still watching the drones.

"Thanks for the warning, we'll take care of them," 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, he heard more drones. Much more than three. Glancing back, he knew the Cerberus operatives heard it too. Stopping at the threshold of the exit, he looked around. About six. Damn, three of them are rocket models too. They'll tear our shield 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 guessed. Turning to Jacob, he asked, "Can you take out the last?"

Jacob nodded, picking up 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 engaging his Tactical Cloak, he ran as far as he could from the doorway as the rocket drone fell from the sky.

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

As his cloak fell away, Shepard watched as Miranda's Pulse Rifle tore through the drone's 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. "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," cursed Shepard.

"We should have expected this," Miranda sighed.

"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."

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 team 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. Jacob, you and me 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, make with 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 his 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 stumbling it.

Slowly turning, the YMIR registered Shepard's position in the window of a building. Raising its cannon to shoot, 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 into the air, Jacob lifted the mech into the air. "Ha! Gravity's one mean mother!" Jacob crowed as the mech left terra firma.

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, 10 feet in the air, Miranda launched another Warp, violently disrupting Jacob's biotic energies already present on YMIR. The resulting explosion shut the mech down as it fell, landing with the sound of twisted metal, before exploding a final time.

Following the battle, 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. 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, he started his approach towards Veetor's hiding place when something from the remains of the YMIR mech caught his eye. Don't think I've seen a rocket launcher like that before…

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 his head at 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 looked like the control hub for remote control of the mechs in the colony. All the lights were off, illumination provided only by the nine monitors a single quarian was sitting in front of.

He didn't turn around or even acknowledge their presence. Veetor 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 Recon Hood as he did so. He tried to get his attention. "Veetor?"

"No Veetor. Not here. Swarms can't find. Monster's coming. Have to hide."

"Nobody's going to hurt you anymore," assured Shepard.

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

"I don't think he can hear you, Commander," observed Jacob after taking off his helmet.

Shepard activated his omni-tool. He wasn't skilled enough to use Overload as a weapon, but against some monitors, it wasn't that difficult. He waved his omni-tool 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?" she asked.

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

"We're not survivors, Veetor. We just got here," Shepard explained.

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 deduced.

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

"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 answered, surprise evident in her voice.

"I thought 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. They could have a weapon that disables an entire settlement at once," Jacob hypothesized.

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

Veetor 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 requested.

"It's how they find you. Seeker clouds. Machines like tiny insects," Veeter 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. Miniature probes, maybe? Find their victims, then immobilize them with a stasis field or nerve toxin," Miranda theorized.

Last I remember, Alliance records on Collectors were sketchy at best. Turning toward Miranda and Jacob, Shepard asked, "What do you know about 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 queried.

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

If he didn't know already.

Studying Veetor, Shepard asked, "Why didn't the Collector's take you?"

"Swarms didn't find me. Monsters didn't know I was here," answered Veetor.

"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," interjected Miranda.

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 all we're getting out of him, Commander," Jacob said.

"We appreciate what you told us. You were very helpful," Shepard said, attempting to calm Veetor down.

"I studied them. The monsters. The swarms. I recorded them with my omni-tool. Lots of readings. Electro-magnetic. Dark energy," Veetor blurted out suddenly.

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

Before Shepard could respond, Tali's voice angrily interrupted. "What? Veetor is injured! He needs treatment, not an interrogation!" Tali yelled, stepping to the room and glaring at the Cerberus operatives.

Jacob tried to placate the irate quarian. "We won't hurt him. We just need to see if he knows anything else. He'll be returned unharmed."

"Your people tried to betray us already. If we give him up to you, we'll never get the intel we need," Miranda added.

"Prazza was an idiot," spat Tali, rolling her eyes, "and he and his men paid for it." Looking at Shepard, Tali pleaded, "You're welcome to 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 got a mission of my own. It's too important for me to abandon, even for you." Tali 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 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 gave his orders. "Veetor's traumatized and needs medical care. Tali will give us his omni-tool data and take him back 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 gratefully. Giving Shepard a hug, Tali said, "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 ordered, "Jacob, call the shuttle. Then, you and I will sweep for anymore 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 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 at the monitors. "Wait."

Pausing the video Miranda looked for what got Shepard's eye.

"There," was all he simply said, pointing toward a monitor on the right. 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 as if was on fire.

"Focus your efforts on that. There's definitely something different about that one," he 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 with me and forced me to get some sleep before proof-reading 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 ago, having spent that last two years dead/coma/unconscious. Right now, I felt 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 aesthetics. 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 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 is 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, 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 and gravity and space and time. 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 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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