Fight for the Lost

Interlude I

Location: Unknown

A small thin, lighter ignited, its flame kissing the end of a cigarette. The fire illuminated his face for a moment before it was put out, leaving only the glow of his unnatural eyes visible in the shadows.

The Illusive Man took a breath from his cigarette before addressing the projection in front of him. "Good work on Freedom's Progress. The quarians forwarded their findings from Veetor's debriefing. No new data, but it's a surprising olive branch, given our history," he informed Shepard.

"Your history, is that the one where you where made a direct attack on the quarian people?" Shepard accused.

Only unrepentant eyes met his question. "That was before your return and not relevant to the task at hand," The Illusive Man said. "You and I have different methods, but I can't argue with your results."

"You ever think about playing nice once in a while?" The distain in Shepard's voice was unmistakable.

"Diplomacy is great when it works, but difficult when everyone already perceives you as a threat," countered the Illusive Man. Moving back to the original topic, he continued, "More importantly, you confirmed the Collectors are behind the abductions."

I knew it. Shaking his head, Shepard asked, "Why do I get the feeling you knew about them already?"

"I had my suspicions, but I needed proof. The Collectors are enigmatic at best," he clarified. "They periodically travel to the Terminus Systems, looking to gather seemingly unimportant items or specimens. Usually in exchange for their technology." After pausing to take another smoke, he continued his explanation. "When their transactions are complete, they disappear as quickly as they arrived; back beyond the unmapped Omega 4 relay. Until now, we've had no evidence of direct aggression by the Collectors."

"What are the Collectors getting from these 'deals'?"

Tapping his cigarette into his ash tray, the Illusive Man explained what he knew. "The Collectors aren't very forthcoming about their motives. Generally, they seek out species with rare genetic mutations or abnormalities. They pay slavers and merc groups exorbitant sums to obtain these specimens. And then they leave. But they've never targeted a single species before. And the previous samples sizes were in the dozens, not the tens of thousands."

"Any ideas why they've shifted their focus to humans?"

"If they're agents for the Reapers, it could be any number of reasons. Obviously, humanity played a huge role in Sovereign's destruction. That might have been enough to draw their attention," theorized the Illusive Man. "What really concerns me is why they bother abducting the colonists. They seem to go out of their way with paralyzing them, not killing them."

"Do you know anything about the Omega 4 relay?" asked Shepard.

"Nothing at all. Like everyone else, we only know that any ship passing through it has never returned. However, our best guess is that the relay reacts differently to Collector vessels, allowing them safe passage. If they can manipulate relays, that's just further evidence of the connection with the Reapers."

So far, everything made sense, but Shepard still had little reason to trust the enigmatic figure sitting in front of him. "You're holding something back. How do you know the Reapers are involved?"

"The patterns are there, buried in the data," was all he said. Shifting in his chair, the Illusive Man took another smoke. "The Council and the Alliance want to believe the Reaper threat died with Sovereign. You and I know better. I won't wait until the Reapers are on the march. We need to take the fight to them."

Shepard already had similar thoughts, but his plans involved the Alliance. Considering the Illusive Man's words, it was clear that he was willing to dedicate whatever resources were necessary to end the threat. As much as Shepard didn't like it, the Alliance would favor politics first long before any real help would be considered.

Guess I have to dance with the devil just a little longer. "If this is war, I'll need an army. Or a really good team," agreed Shepard.

A console appeared next to the Illusive Man's left hand. "I've already compiled a list of soldiers, scientist, and mercenaries. You'll get dossiers on the best of them." Tapping a few keys, he continued. "Finding them and convincing them to work with you could be challenging, but you're a natural leader. I'll continue to track the Collectors. When they make their next appearance, I'll notify you and your team. Be ready."

He worked this out quickly. I wonder… "I don't suppose you know what happened to my old team?"

"Most of them have moved on… or their allegiances have changed," came the prompt reply.

Shepard just stood his ground, waiting for more information.

Evidently anticipating this, the Illusive Man began listing all of Shepard's former squad mates without looking at any terminals or holomonitors.

"Chief Williams is still with the Alliance. Promoted, I believe. Her file is surprisingly well-classified."

Shepard allowed nothing to show how the news affected him. He still had no idea how to approach Ashley after learning about his death and now his dealings with Cerberus. She's not going to like this, that's for sure.

"The turian disappeared a few months after you were declared dead. Even we haven't been able to locate him."

Furrowing his brow at that particular bit of news, Shepard couldn't help but wonder what Garrus was doing. Did he still want to be a Spectre or go back to C-Sec?

"The krogan returned to Tuchanka and hasn't been off-world in over a year. He's trying to unite the krogan clans."

Shepard raised his eyebrow at that. He remembered Wrex was trying that before Wrex's own father, Jarrod tried to kill him. He left Tuchanka believing that the krogan abandoned him. Wonder what prompted the change of heart.

"Dr. T'Soni is on Illium. My sources say she's working for the Shadow Broker. If so, she can't be trusted."

That startled Shepard. He would've thought that she would go back to Illos to study the Prothean ruins. Maybe have a chat with Vigil, even. What the hell could she want with the Shadow Broker?

Shepard suppressed a sigh. A lot really can happen in a couple of years. Looking at the Illusive Man, Shepard noticed he hadn't mentioned his quarian friend yet.

"What about Tali? She already helped us on Freedom's Progress," he prompted.

"That was unexpected. I'll need more intel, before I'll commit to that," the Illusive Man said evasively.

Shepard wasn't letting this one drop though. "I'm the one leading this mission. Do I need your permission now?" he said in a low voice.

The Illusive Man made no comment on Shepard's tone. "According to Miranda, your friend is unavailable for now. I'm merely curious as to what she's up to and if will jeopardize the mission," he explained. Seeing that Shepard wasn't budging on the issued, the Illusive Man offered, "If's she's willing to travel with you, then that's your choice."

Lifting his cigarette to his lips, the Illusive Man tapped some more keys at his console. "You're a leader Shepard. You'll get who you need," he said, exhaling his smoke.

"I'm still a Spectre. Maybe I can get the Council to help me out," Shepard reminded.

"If you can convince them, by all means," the Illusive Man replied. Shepard could detect a hint of sarcasm or patronizing tone in his voice though.

He's still pro-human in the end.

"Just remember – You've been gone a long time. Things have changed," warned the Illusive Man.

Nodding, Shepard said, "You worry about the Collectors, I'll make sure my team's ready."

"Good. Two things before you go: First head to Omega and find Mordin Solus. He's a brilliant salarian scientist," advised the Illusive Man. "Our intelligence suggests he may know how to counteract the Collectors' paralyzing seeker swarms."

"So you're actually suggesting that I work with non-humans?" Shepard asked sarcastically. "That must hurt."

The Illusive Man didn't rise to his baiting. "Sarcasm is unbecoming of you, Shepard," he mildly admonished.

Seeing that any further saber-rattling would be pointless, Shepard pushed on. "What else?"

A hint of a smile appeared on the Illusive Man's face. "I found a pilot I think you might like. I hear he's one of the best. Someone you can trust."

Finishing the meeting with his mysterious statement, the Illusive Man terminated the connection.

~o~O~o~

Location: Horse Head Nebula, Unknown System, Minuteman Station

As the light from the scanner faded away, Shepard heard light footsteps from behind. Turning around, his eyes widened.

"Hey, Commander. Just like old times, huh?" Lieutenant Jeff "Joker" Moreau asked with a grin.

Shepard smiled. "It's great to see you again, Joker." Looking at his legs, he noticed Joker favoring his left side.

Joker noticed his gaze. "Some medical thing happened a while ago and I got some upgrades. I can move around now, but I still gotta watch my step or you'll have to carry me."

"Again," came the deadpanned replay.

"That didn't count! I was drunk! Someone had to carry me anyway!" Joker protested.

Getting the conversation back on track, Shepard asked, "So you're going to be my helmsman again?"

"Well I hope you weren't expecting someone else. I still have to pay you back. Besides, I owe you and you'll probably die again without me."

~o~O~o~

Walking alongside Joker through the corridors of the station, Shepard couldn't keep the amazement out of his voice. "I still can't believe it's you Joker."

Joker snorted. "Look who's talking. I saw you get spaced."

"Got lucky, with a lot of strings attached," Shepard quipped. "How'd you get here?"

Walking up some stairs, Joker lost his jovial tone. "It all fell apart without you, Commander. Everything you stirred up, the Council just wanted it gone."

"I'm shocked. I really am," Shepard replied sardonically.

"Team was broken up, records sealed, and I was grounded," he bitterly explained as they turned another corner. "The Alliance took the one thing that mattered to me. Hell yeah I joined Cerberus."

"You really trust the Illusive Man?"

Joker stopped and looked through a window. Shepard looked as well, but the room was pitch black. "I don't trust anyone that makes more than I do," Joker said with a shrug. "But they aren't all bad. Saved your life. Let me fly – and then there's this," he finished with a flourish. Crossing his arms, he continued looking through the window. "They only told me last night."

Shepard watched as the lights came on, one by one. The first set of lights illuminated a familiar nose, the words SR-2 written clearly. Shepard watched in amazement as more lights activated. The familiar curve from the nose leading toward the main body, the wings, and the vector thrust nozzles. Shepard smiled as he put his hands on his hips, watching as all the lights turned on, revealing his new ship, looking as good and around twice as big as the original. Cerberus definitely has a flair for the dramatic.

Joker summed up their thoughts. "It's good to be home, huh, Commander?"

Noticing that only SR-2 was the only thing written, Shepard turned to Joker. "Guess we'll have to give her a name."

Joker only nodded, but Shepard knew there was only one name they could ever give to this kind of frigate.

"She'll be ready by tomorrow. We'll leave on your orders, Commander."

~o~O~o~

*Encrypted*

Freedom's Progress Mission Summary:

Collectors confirmed as source of attacks on human colonies.

Quarian survivor Veetor returned with Tali'Zorah to the Migrant Fleet.

Will examine his omni-tool data for anything useful.

Received Miranda's security footage and have proceeded to research for any intel needed to combat Collectors. Particular interest in one specific Collector was noted.

~o~O~o~

After spending the night on the station in some random room, Shepard found himself following Miranda and Jacob toward the airlock that would eventually lead toward the Normand SR-2. Adjusting his uniform for the 100th time, he still felt uncomfortable. It was silly considering it was the same as an Alliance uniform, matched to his size even, but merely decorated in Cerberus colors and logos.

Probably why I hate this damned uniform.

Shepard had served in the Alliance faithfully for 11 years; regardless of his opinion of the politics or the orders he had been given. Even working as a Spectre had been for the Alliance. But now, he was working with an organization that both the Alliance and the Citadel Council recognized as an enemy. After all this time, simply turning his back on everything he'd done to work with Cerberus felt like a betrayal.

Shaking those thoughts away, Shepard knew this had to be done. Researching past events of the missing two years of his life last night, he reluctantly admitted the Illusive Man was actually telling the truth, this time anyway. Colonists were disappearing and official reports were vague or incomplete. General consensus was the Alliance or the Citadel was content to stay out of the Terminus Systems, leaving people there to fend for themselves.

Ironically, it appeared Cerberus was their only hope then. The only thing Shepard could do was trust his instincts and hope he made the right decisions. Lines between right and wrong can get blurry really fast…

Walking past the window he and Joker were at last night, Shepard noticed the new paint job on his frigate. "Normandy" was proudly displayed on the main body of the ship, bringing a smile to his face.

Taking an elevator down to the airlock, Miranda stopped and turned toward Shepard. "After you," she invited.

Nodding his head, Shepard entered the new Normandy for the first time.

~o~O~o~

Location: Horsehead Nebula, Unknown System, Minuteman Station, Normandy SR-2

Entering the bridge, Shepard looked to his left to see Joker looking at right at back at him; his chair was rotated 180° away from his control station. He appeared to be caressing the armrests and bouncing up and down in his chair.

Probably anxious to leave. I wouldn't be surprised if he slept in that chair last night.

Acknowledging Joker's enthusiastic wave with a nod, Shepard turned towards the CIC. He noted several Cerberus crewmen wearing the same uniform Shepard was currently wearing, though they seemed much more comfortable in it. All were at various stations along the bridge and the CIC itself.

Shepard couldn't help the smile that broke out on his face as he stopped just short of the CIC to look around.

"Welcome to the new Normandy, Commander," said Jacob.

"Full crew complement?" Shepard asked Miranda, stepping to the CIC.

"Yes, Commander. They're at their stations awaiting your orders," she answered.

Shepard stopped at the command station, looking up at the holographic display of the Normandy and the status of the ship and various systems. All were saying that the Normandy was functioning and ready.

Miranda voice broke into his thoughts. "I've been looking over the dossiers. I'd strongly recommend starting by acquiring Mordin Solus, the salarian professor on Omega."

Shepard turned around and gave her his full attention as she continued. "We know the Collectors use some type of advanced technology to immobilize their victims. We'll need him to develop a countermeasure to protect us."

"We'll need that countermeasure or we'll be helpless when we run into the Collectors," agreed Shepard.

"Acquiring Professor Solus seems like the most logical place to start," a feminine voice chimed in.

"Who are you?" Shepard asked, directing his voice to the ship's intercom. He wasn't prepared for the blue orb to appear behind him on the command station.

"I am the Normandy's artificial intelligence. The crew likes to refer to me as EDI," introduced the projection. A lighter blue band that ran vertically over the "face" of the orb expanded and contracted as the AI talked.

Turing the face the projection, Shepard crossed his arms as he thought about the pros and cons of having an AI over a VI on his ship. "Helmsman aren't happy when someone takes control of a ship away from them. Especially Joker."

"I do not helm the ship," answered EDI. "Mr. Moreau's talents will not go to waste."

"So what do you do?" asked Shepard. "And what does 'EDI' stand for?"

"EDI is the phonetic pronunciation of E-D-I. That is an acronym for 'Enhanced Defense Intelligence'. During combat, I operate the electronic warfare and cyberwarfare suites. My reaction time is faster than any organic. Beyond that, I have minimal interaction with the ship's systems. I observe and offer analysis and advice. I also collate the records of shipboard monitoring devices for the Illusive Man," explained EDI before a red vertical mark appeared on her avatar. "I seem to serve additional functions which are restricted at this time."

"Monitoring devices, huh…?" Shepard muttered as his expression took on a dark look.

Jacob shrugged helplessly, while Miranda looked completely unfazed by the news.

"The Illusive Man has invested most of Cerberus' resources into the design and construction of this ship. He has an interest in monitoring our progress," EDI said, the red stripe vanishing and her normal sky blue color returned.

"You said 'restricted functions'. Like what?"

The red stripe returned again. "I do not know. Some of my databases are sealed. Some of my hardware is kept offline. I assume that when certain unknown conditions are met, those functions will be released to me."

"Basically, it's a shackled AI. Security precautions built in for our safety," Miranda explained. "The field of artificial intelligence has had rocky results, as you well know. Until EDI is fully tested, we're keeping certain systems offline until needed."

"And cyberwarfare? Do you mean hacking, viruses, that kind of thing?" Shepard asked.

"In close-range ship-to-ship combat, I can sometimes break through the firewalls of an enemy's internal wireless network," EDI said. "Once I seize control of their systems, I can turn off gravity or air. I can disable weapons guidance or shields. Or I can put their fusion plant in meltdown."

"Considering the stealth capabilities of the Normandy, getting in close should be no problem," Jacob commented.

"On the defense, I manage Normandy's own suite of jammers, decoys, and internal firewalls," EDI continued.

Nodding in satisfaction, Shepard turned toward Jacob and Miranda. "Besides being part of my team, what are your positions on the Normandy?"

Miranda spoke first. "I'll be your Executive Officer for this mission. I'll manage the day-to-day operations, such as logistics and maintenance."

Shepard had to admit that having someone as professional as Miranda assigned as his XO could only help, remembering his own stint as Anderson's XO. He still knew that Miranda did more than help manage the Normandy though. "And what are your other duties, aside from keeping an eye one me?" asked Shepard.

Eyebrow raised she answered, "I'm the Illusive Man's agent. You're his most important asset. My job is to make sure you succeed." Tilting her head, she shrugged. "Aside from that… I send regular reports to the Illusive Man, updating our status."

I thought so. At least I don't have to worry about paperwork anymore.

"And you?" said Shepard, turning his gaze to Jacob.

"I'm the Armory Chief. I'll be in charge of maintaining or upgrading all the weapons, armor, and any new weapons tech we get our hands on," Jacob informed. "Speaking of which, I've sent those scans of yours to Cerberus R&D. The ones you took off the YMIR mech on Freedom's Progress? There's a new toy you should see when you get a moment."

Shepard nodded. "Now that we've got that sorted out, let's move on to these dossiers."

Joker's excited voice came in from the intercom. "Final preparations for takeoff are complete, Commander. When you're ready to go, just pick a destination from the galaxy map in the CIC and I'll plot a course," Joker said quickly.

Well, he's eager to go. I'll bet he was ready a week ago.

"Thanks, Joker. I may have been dead, but I still remember how this works," Shepard deadpanned.

"Uh… sorry, Commander. Just… um… right. I'll just wait then."

"Jacob and I will be at our posts. Come find us if you have any questions. I'll be in my office on deck 3." Her piece said; Miranda, Executive Lawson, Shepard reminded himself, headed off to the lift.

Jacob gave a crisp salute, before heading to the armory on the port side of the Normandy.

~o~O~o~

As soon as Shepard was left alone, a young woman approached him. She was pretty, with short-cut red hair, green eyes and a pleasant demeanor.

Standing at attention, she saluted him. With a smile no less.

"Welcome aboard, Commander. I'm Yeoman Kelly Chambers. I've been assigned as your administrative assistant."

With a mental sigh, Shepard couldn't help but remind himself that he was on a Cerberusvessel. How many people are gonna spy on me?

"I'll manage your messages, and help you monitor the crew," she continued.

Glancing around, she added, "On a more personal note, I must say, it's such an honor to work under you, Commander Shepard."

"I'm glad to have you on the team, Yeoman Chambers," said Shepard, deciding to be polite until he learned more about his ship and crew.

"Please, call me Kelly."

Shrugging, Shepard acquiesced. "Okay, Kelly." Diplomatically ignoring her blush, he asked, "What are your responsibilities exactly?"

Standing straighter, the yeoman said, "I manage and keep you notified of any appointments you have, as well as any messages. If any of the crew has important business to discuss with you specifically, I'll make sure you know."

"Isn't that the type of task better suited for a VI, or an AI, in our case?" asked Shepard as he tilted his head to the side, trying to figure out why he needed an assistant on a war vessel.

"Yes, but being your yeoman is just my official role. Unofficially, I observe the crew."

Raising an eyebrow, Shepard asked, "Observe?"

Nodding, Kelly explained, "Everyone knows how risky our mission is. Many of us may not be coming back. That's a lot of pressure. I have a degree in psychology. I'm good at sensing when people are overly taxed."

"So you make sure the crew's mental health is sound?"

"Yes. I look for warning signs. I listen. It's not a full-time and it's most effective when done informally," said Kelly.

"We're lucky to have someone with your skills, Kelly. Carry on," dismissed Shepard.

"Thank you, Shepard. By the way, you have new messages in your private terminal."

Moving toward the galaxy map, Shepard looked for his destination. Looks like we're in the Horsehead Nebula. Good to know. After memorizing the location of the Cerberus facility they were at, he tapped the Serpent Nebula; the galaxy map zoomed in to the Widow System, home to the Citadel and the Council.

"Yeah! Acknowledged, Commander. Course plotted, we're taking off," Joker called.

~o~O~o~

The doors opened slowly, finally allowing access to the ocean of stars. The Normandy hummed as she started to engage her engines to the fullest. As the doors fully opened, the vector nozzles began to glow before the thrusters ignited, propelling the Normandy and crew out of the station. Clear of the dock and station, she turned starboard and accelerated away, gaining distance from her berth, before jumping to FTL.

~o~O~o~

Satisfied that everything was underway, Shepard made his way to the bridge, as Joker reported that the ETA to the nearest mass relay would be around four hours.

Stopping at the cockpit, Shepard noticed EDI's avatar on the left. "Everything alright here, Joker?"

Joker rotated his seat to face Shepard. "Can you believe this, Commander? It's my baby, better than new! Fits me like a glove!" gushed Joker.

More disturbing than Joker's tone of affection were his actions. He was rubbing the armrests and writhing in his chair. "And leather seats! Military may set the hardware standard, but on a first-gen frigate they couldn't care less if the seats breathe. Civilian sector comfort by design."

Both men turned toward EDI as she interrupted Joker's dialogue. "The reproduction is not intended to be perfect Mr. Moreau. Seamless improvements were made."

The moment EDI spoke, the happiness seemed to drain out of him. Glaring at the avatar, Joker said, "And there's the downside. I liked the Normandy when she was beautiful and quiet. Now she's got this thing I don't even want to talk about. It's like ship cancer."

"I don't trust them. We still need to move ahead, but it's all too convenient," said Shepard seriously.

"Maybe you're right. I guess it's hard to argue when they install an AI to spy on us," agreed Joker. "We're staying, though, right?" he pleaded. "I mean, this seat is real leather."

Shaking his head and smiling, Shepard could only say, "Good to see you're keeping it all in perspective, Joker."

Joker patted the armrests and grinned. "Leather!"

Shepard smirked. "If we're stuck here, we might as well let them pamper us, huh?"

"Ah, does it breach uniform regs if I get that on a crew shirt? Because this is my favorite, 'You have no choice!' choice ever," Joker replied.

"Technically, this is a civilian ship. I'm probably lucky you're still wearing pants," Shepard quipped.

Turning in his seat to face his console again, Joker sang, "Uh… leather!"

As Shepard turned away to inspect the rest of the Normandy, he heard erotic moaning.

Turning sharply, Shepard eyed Joker accusingly.

Cringing, Joker said, "Uh, sorry. That was… uh… supposed to go to my earpiece."

"Forget luck. I'm thinking it's miracle," Shepard muttered good-naturedly before leaving.

~o~O~o~

Reaching the top deck, Shepard stepped off the lift and walked towards the door, noting the stenciling on the right saying: Deck 1, Captain's Cabin. Opening the door, he stepped into his new quarters.

It was big. Much larger than any Alliance vessel he served on. Most ships give the captains personal quarters, but it was always modest, usually containing only a bed and table.

"Wow," was all he said from his position at the doorway.

EDI popped up from a square, black plate horizontally attached to the wall near the entrance on Shepard's left hand side.

"This is the Commanding Officer's quarters," she informed.

"It's larger than the other quarters of other warships I've served on," he stated.

"This is a Cerberus vessel, not an Alliance warship," reminded the AI. "Accommodations have been made for personal taste. That said, this space is directly under the exterior pressure hull. The fitting yard workers called it the 'loft'."

Nodding, Shepard looked around slowly. To the eyes of the former Alliance marine, it was very lavish, much more decadent than any place he'd ever stayed before. Considering most of my time is spent on warships or barracks, maybe my standards are a little low.

Though the cabin was well lit with various lamps, the brightest source of illumination came from the water tank on the starboard side the ship. Shepard observed decorated plants and bubbles within. "Is this an aquarium?" he incredulously asked the AI.

"Yes, Commander. It was decided by the interior decorators that certain aesthetics were necessary to distinguish this room from others. Their solution was the addition of an aquarium. If you so choose, you may add any manner of fish you like, so long as it's of reasonable size and temperament," explained EDI.

Interior decorators… for a warship… of course, Shepard thought sarcastically, remembering the Illusive Man's office. For a guy that likes to be subtle, he really likes to make big splashes.

Looking to his right, he noted a large, very large, desk with a personalterminal and a file cabinet, which upon closer examination, contained OSDs of the crew rosters and personnel files of everyone on the ship. There were even Jacob and Miranda, though the information was generic and any real details were sketchy. Above his desk, a large glass container that extended from his table to the ceiling held a model of the new Normandy SR-2. Model ship display, very nice. There was easily enough room for more as well.

Seeing nothing else on his desk besides a pair of empty shelves, he walked toward the nearby door. A shower, a head, and a sink greeted him. And a private washroom too. Wow. The idea of having a private bathroom was an entirely foreign concept to Shepard, having spent all of his life using communal bathrooms.

Glancing around, he saw his reflection in the mirror. Looking close, it seemed as if the scars were healing. They weren't glowing as angrily as before anyway. If he stayed in well-lit areas, then people couldn't even tell there was nothing abnormal anyway. Thankfully, the entire vessel was always well-lit. Probably why no one's stared or made any comments.

Leaving the bathroom, my bathroom, he continued his tour. Various expensive looking furniture was tastefully placed around the room. Couches, chairs, Leather too, coffee table, another private table, a pair of nightstands and a holographic alarm clock all surrounded the very comfortable queen sized bed.

Topping it all off was the holographic display on the same wall as the aquarium. Pressing a button, labeled 'Casual Wear', the display vanished as a drawer opened to reveal several styles of clothes. All in my size too. Pushing the drawer back, the display appeared again. Pressing 'Armor', a cabinet extended from Shepard's right. Various models of the latest N7 armor models were there, ranging from chest plates, gauntlets, leg armors, shoulder pauldrons, and helmets. There was even another set of Cerberus assault armor Miranda and Jacob used.

If the Illusive Man is trying to bribe me, he's doing a damn good job.

~o~O~o~

Stepping off the lift at deck 3, 'Crew Deck' greeted Shepard from the opposite wall. Taking a quick glance around, the crew quarters and women's bathroom were on the starboard side, while the life support systems and men's bathroom were on the port side. There were observation decks on opposite sides of the hall.

Seeing nothing else of note, Shepard walked into the common room, hearing the chatter of the crew just beyond the short hallway.

"Chef's surprise again? Come on, Rupert," complained one crewman from his table.

An older, bald-headed man scowled from his place at the galley. "I'm sorry, princess," he mocked. "Filet mignon and caviar coming right up. Let me just get out my doilies."

"That'd be real nice, Mr. Gardner," the crewman sarcastically replied.

Turning his head away from the exchange, Shepard thought he saw a very familiar face through the windows of the medical bay. Can't be…

Entering the med bay, he saw another welcome figure. "Dr. Chakwas!"

Standing from her chair, Dr. Chakwas, former Chief Medical Officer of the Normandy SR-1, embraced Shepard. Standing back to better look at him, Chakwas said with relief, "Commander Shepard. I watched as the Normandy crumbled with you on board. It's good to see you alive."

"It's nice to see another trusted face on board, Doctor," greeted Shepard.

"I feel the same. I wish more of the original crew could be here," said Chakwas wistfully. Eyeing Shepard with a clinical eye, she commented, "The kind of trauma you endured would've changed most people, but not you, I see. Welcome back, Shepard."

"Doctor, you've been with the Alliance for years. Why leave now?" asked Shepard.

Taking her seat again and prompting Shepard to sit as well, she explained, "After the Normandy was lost, the surviving crew reassigned. I was stationed at the Mars Naval Medical Center. A very respectable position, but it wasn't on a starship."

"Colonial military life isn't for you?"

"I've spent most of my life on warships, never knowing what the next mission will bring. I'm used the hum of the engines, the creaking of bulkheads, that subtle vertigo when the momentum dampeners kick in," she said, lost in her feelings. Returning to the present, she continued, "Life planet-side is just too static, too boring."

Still the romantic. Glad to see some things don't change. Turning his head to observe the crew through the window, Shepard commented, "You're not the Cerberus type, Doctor."

"I don't work for Cerberus; I work for you – on a mission that may be crucial to the survival of the human race. I have faith that your dealings with Cerberus will be ethical. I trust you, Commander," Chakwas said with sincerity in every word.

"There's a very good chance this mission will be a one-way trip. Are you prepared for that?" warned Shepard.

"I've through the Reclaiming of Shanxi, the Skyllian Blitz… We went through your missions as a Spectre, survived the Battle of Citadel and the destruction of the Normandy together. I've lived a full life – no regrets. I'd like to make sure the crew gets the same opportunity," she affirmed.

Smiling, Shepard looked around the med bay. "Do you have everything you need?"

"I believe so. This medical bay seems very much like the sick bay on the original Normandy, just bigger," Chakwas said, glancing around. "Only thing missing are my private reserves. I even had a bottle of Serrice Ice Brandy that I was saving for a special occasion."

"I'll keep an eye out for a replacement bottle," offered Shepard.

"Oh, you needn't. It's expensive and we have much larger concerns ahead," she said.

An idea popped into his head at that moment. "Tell you what; I'll get you a bottle of brandy, if you give me a full physical."

Raising an eyebrow in confusion, Chakwas skeptically asked, "A physical?"

Sighing, Shepard turned his head to point out his scars to the doctor.

Chakwas leaned on closer to examine Shepard's face. "Interesting. Do you have any idea what this is?"

"No. I was, or rather, my body was part of a Cerberus project. I need to know what they did to me and you're the only person I could trust with this," Shepard said as he allowed Chakwas to probe his scars. "I need to know everything you can find."

Turning to her console, she tapped a few commands. Suddenly, the windows viewing the crew common area became opaque. "To ensure doctor/patient confidentiality," explained Chakwas. "I love those windows; it makes me feel connected to the rest of the ship and crew."

Pointing to one of the beds, she said, "Sit down there, Commander. Let's start simple, before moving to the more technical matters of your health."

Following her orders, Shepard got up from his chair and sat down on the nearest bed.

Chakwas turned on her omni-tool and began preliminary scans to ensure everything was working fine. "Resting pulse, BP, and breathing rates appear to be fine."

Turning to a terminal next to the bed, she typed in a few notes, before turning back to her patient. "Right, let's see what we're dealing with here."

After a few minutes of scanning and prodding, measuring reflexes, answering mundane questions about he was feeling, and watching Chakwas type in notes, it all felt standard to Shepard.

Only during her more thorough scans, did Chakwas face change from her pleasant one to a more concentrated, serious mask. "This can't be right," she mumbled.

Shepard stayed silent, allowing her concentrate, curious as to what she would find.

After several more minutes, Chakwas suddenly asked, "Could you turn your head for me, Commander?"

Complying with her request, Shepard waited, slightly apprehensive as Chakwas began probing the back of his head, apparently looking for something specific.

"Oh, dear," was all she said.

~o~O~o~

During her maiden voyage, all the crew members were expected to report to their stations. This was mainly to become familiar with various systems, other people, and the Normandy herself.

Once underway, the crew broke into their respective shifts. Off-duty personnel stowed away their belongings in the crew quarters and explored the frigate. Once finished, they all trickled down toward the common area to better know the people they were serving alongside.

Stories were exchanged, family talked about, skills bragged, experience on other vessels boasted, all very normal procedure on any new ship. It really didn't matter if it was civilian, merchant, or military.

Of course, none of the crewman had any stories that they could ever recall seeing their commanding officer stomp out of the medical bay. None could say they ever saw the furious mask on the any captain's face match the one they saw on the former Spectre. Not one could even remember ever hearing something as different as the situation they observed as they hurriedly moved out of the way.

Appearing completely obvious to their presence, the crew watched as Shepard marched toward Executive Lawson's office.

"What do you think is going on?" Crewman Patel asked no one in particular.

"I don't know and I don't want to know. Not if I want to keep breathing anyway," Mess Sergeant Gardner said decisively, returning to his sink to clean trays.

A murmur in the in affirmative echoed through the room, as everybody stayed away from the XO's office. As curious as humans were, they also have survival instincts to pay attention too as well.

~o~O~o~

Miranda looked up in surprise as Shepard barged into her room, rage evident on his face.

Opening his mouth, Shepard paused, turned around and closed the door before rounding on his target.

"What did you do to me?" he snarled, trying to least keep his voice in check. He suspected Miranda's office would be soundproofed, but didn't want to take the chance for anyone else to overhear.

Keeping her calm in the face Shepard's anger, she turned off her terminal and clasped her hands on her table. "What exactly could you be talking about?" Miranda asked a neutral tone.

"I have an entire biotic configuration suite hardwired to my nervous system. Why the hell would you do that? I'm not biotic!" Shepard growled.

Eyes widening, Miranda sighed, rubbing her forehead she looked up at Shepard. "Ah, I apologize, Commander. With so many things going on, I didn't have the time to explain everything that we did during Project Lazarus." Standing up, she walked in front of her table and sat on the edge. "Originally, we were going to… ease you in. Help you readjust since you were absent for so long. Ideally, there should have been a few weeks of tests to see if you weren't changed from who you were before your death." Crossing her arms, her face darkened. "Wilson's betrayal obviously forced me to abandon my original schedule."

"I'll bet," Shepard muttered.

Shaking those thoughts away, she looked him in the eye. "Believe me, Commander. I really wanted things to be easier. A lot happened since our escape: our investigation into Freedom's Progress, finding out about the Collectors; even the Normandy wasn't something I was privy too. I only found out about her after Freedom's Progress."

Shepard rubbed his face and nodded wearily. "Right," he replied distractedly. His hand involuntarily returned to the surgical port in the back of his neck and felt the amp within.

"If you have any questions, I'll do my level best to answer them," offered Miranda.

Taking several deep breaths to calm himself, Shepard did his level best to keep a civil tongue. "Why do I have a biotic amps installed?" he said slowly.

"We noted some element zero modules in you. Very small, but present. It's likely the Alliance simply missed it or thought it was a small aberration when they conducted your physical. We only noticed it because we had to scrutinize every part of your body to see how best to bring you back," she explained.

"If they're so small, then how could I even be an effective biotic?"

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

"I thought the Alliance only had only developed L4's?" asked Shepard.

"L5x's are Cerberus prototypes, developed from the L4 configurations, just more advanced."

"You said that you increased the modules in me?" he inquired.

Miranda nodded, "Generally anyone with modules that are too small to be an effective biotic can be exposed to more element zero to increase effectiveness. Traditionally, it needed to be done at puberty. However, the data the Illusive Man forwarded to me changed several conventions. You're actually quite the biotic. Potentially anyway."

"Potentially?"

Standing up and pacing, she explained, "As you said yourself, Commander, you were not a biotic. Instruction is required to tap into your talents. Usually, it takes years to develop control over your nervous system to manipulate the electrical currents through the modules and create mass effect fields. The Illusive Man believes that you are able to produce quicker results however. Whether it's because of the L5x's or he believes you have the natural talent to begin with, I don't know."

Considering the fact that I was dead, maybe I'm jumping to conclusions here.

Stopping and turning to him, she offered, "Jacob and I were going to teach you all we know about biotics back at the science facility. The proposal still stands now."

Rubbing the back of his neck, an old nervous habit from childhood, Shepard only nodded.

"I still have a report to finish. Shall we meet in the cargo bay on deck 4 in say… two hours?" Miranda asked after checking the time.

Nodding again, he took another deep breath and forced his agitation away. Looking up at her, he noticed she was waiting on him. Sighing, he resolved to at least establish a working relationship, even if he didn't trust anyone on board, save Joker and Chakwas.

Clearing his throat, Shepard said, "Look Miranda. Our first meeting, or at least my first conscious meeting, wasn't the best way to show first impressions. However, if we're going to be working together, then at the very least, I'm willing to put aside what differences I have with Cerberus and focus on these attacks from the Collectors. I want to stay as professional as possible and I hope to be able to work with you."

Raising an eyebrow, she considered his words. "Very well, in the interests of the mission, I will endeavor to establish a better working relationship with you, Commander. I will assist you as best I'm able."

"Thank you."

Apparently coming to a decision, she walked back to her table, sat down, and activated her terminal. "I'm forwarding certain details involving Project Lazarus to you and Dr. Chakwas to peruse at your leisure." Finished with her task, Miranda looked back up at Shepard. "Cerberus isn't as evil as most people believe. If I can help allay any of your concerns…"

Accepting her invitation Shepard asked, "Are you military or political? Or both?"

"Cerberus has several divisions: political, military, scientific. But we're all working toward the same goal. The teams you encountered before your… accident were mostly part of our military division. But not all Cerberus operations use the same protocols. We try not to get bogged down in bureaucracy or formality," she explained.

"I know what we're doing here," Shepard said, waving a hand around him. "But what's Cerberus' long-term goal?"

"The advancement of the human race. Nothing more, nothing less," Miranda simply stated.

I was kinda hoping for more than the party line.

As if reading Shepard's thoughts, she continued, "The salarians have the Special Tasks Group. The asari have their legendary commandos for stealth and recon operations. Cerberus is humanity's answer to those organizations."

"But those organizations are regulated by governments. Who keeps Cerberus in check?" he inquired.

"Nobody. We're privately funded, and our backers trust the Illusive Man to make the right choices to make the right decisions," came the simple answer. "But he's very clear about our goals: protect humanity and serve its advancement."

When she mentioned funds, Shepard couldn't help but remember the cost it took to bring him back, not to mention the cost it took for the creation of the first Normandy, never mind the cost of the one they're on now. "What kind of resources does Cerberus have?"

"We're very well funded, though I doubt anyone other than the Illusive Man knows exactly how well," Miranda said, a thoughtful look on her face. "But our resources aren't unlimited. Reviving you and rebuilding the Normandy was a significant investment. And a significant risk. We're all hoping you can do the impossible, Shepard. No pressure."

She smiled when she saw him roll his eyes.

"What can you tell me about the Illusive Man?" Shepard asked, curious as to what the top Cerberus operative might think.

Shrugging, she said, "Not much that you don't already know. Even I don't have access to most of his background. And you've seen more of him than most ever do. It's rare for him to become directly involved in missions. Most of the time, he oversees projects or missions through reports or other agents. But you're something special. Whatever else people might say about him, I can assure you he's got humanity's best interest at heart. That includes you and me."

"How can you be sure of that if you know so little about him?" argued Shepard.

"I didn't get to where I am without knowing how to gauge people's motives and ambitions. Even from brief encounters," she responded.

She's better than me then. I couldn't get a clear read on the guy at all.

"He's no saint and he'd be the first to admit it, but he is committed. Humanity couldn't have a better advocate."

Shepard privately disagreed about her opinion. Especially the part about the Illusive Man being humanity's advocate. I take it back. I like my opinion more. That guy seems like the type to cross lines and lives. No remorse and definitely committed in more ways than one.

Leaning against the wall and crossing his arms, Shepard quietly regarded the woman in front of him. She wasn't willing to answer his questions before, on the Cerberus space station, but maybe now…

"Tell about yourself Miranda."

Raising an eyebrow at his request, she paused for a moment before answering. "I guess that that fair, I've spent the last two years learning everything there is to know about you."

Shepard tried to appear nonchalant, though he privately wondered how much she did know about him.

Standing, she explained, "Well, you should probably know that I've had extensive genetic modification."

"Really?"

"Not my decision, but I make the most of it," she said, but Shepard could easily hear a bitter undercurrent to her tone, even as her face darkened at bit. Regaining her composure, she continued with confidence in her tone this time, "It's one of the reasons the Illusive Man handpicked me. I'm very good at just about anything I choose to do."

"What level of genetic modification are we talking about?" Shepard asked with genuine curiosity. Some people went through some genetic modifications to improve themselves. Eye corrections, removal of genetic defects, and increased health were standard. Not to mention the level of genetic modifications Alliance Marines underwent. Shepard himself had synthetic adrenal glands implanted to consciously force adrenaline into himself during combat when he needed it.

"It's very thorough. Physically, I'm superior in many ways. I heal quickly and I'll likely live half again as long as the average human. My biotic abilities are also very advanced… for a human," she explained with a shrug. "Add to that some of the best training and education money can buy and, well, it's pretty impressive, really."

"Sounds like you were designed to be perfect," Shepard commented.

"Maybe, but I'm not," corrected Miranda. "I'm still human, Shepard. I make mistakes like everyone else. And when I do, the consequences are severe. Everyone expects a lot from someone with my… abilities."

At her statement, Shepard couldn't suppress a small laugh, as the irony struck him more than any physical blow he'd received. Considering his position as the first human Spectre, with the Council judging him, the Alliance pushing him, and even Saren upped the ante when his mission became more than chasing a rogue Spectre…

Miranda evidently picked up his thoughts when she gave a small laugh of her own. A definite contrast to all their previous meetings as the tension between them faded. "Sorry, I suppose out of everyone, you'd know best," she quipped, but her tone friendly.

"Just empathizing with your situation," said Shepard. "You certainly don't lack for confidence," he noted.

Putting her hand on her hip, she responded, "It's just a fact. My reflexes, my strength, even my looks – they're all designed to give me an edge. No point in hiding from it."

When she mentioned her looks, Shepard couldn't resist observing her from head to toe. Dressed in a white blouse, white pants, with black sleeves and matching thigh boots, he could admit that she was certainly a woman that would turn heads for a second look or a third.

Or more, he thought.

Despite all that though, the way she listed her physical attributes sounded more like listing mathematical figures or scientific statistics, facts rather than personal confidence or experience. Pushing his thoughts down and away, he focused on her words as Miranda continued her explanation.

"It's the reason why I'm trusted to oversee the most dangerous, risky, and technically demanding operations Cerberus undertakes. And it's why I was assigned to you. It's my job to make sure you succeed, Shepard."

Stepping away from the wall, Shepard nodded, feeling much calmer now than when he entered. "Thanks for the information, Miranda. About Lazarus and yourself," he said gratefully. "I'll look around the ship a bit more and meet you in two hours?"

She smiled. "Of course, Commander. Whatever you need."

Before he opened the door, Shepard stopped. Taking a deep breath and swallowing his pride, he turned around. "I… uh… I'm sorry for snapping at you. And for placing the blame on you. I was out of line," he apologized.

She looked shocked for moment, before nodding. "Its fine, Commander. A lot's happened when you woke up. It's why I wanted to give you some time originally. I suppose I didn't give you much chance to take stock of the situation around you. Hopefully, things might run more smoothly from now on."

Giving her a nod of his own, Shepard left.

~o~O~o~

After visiting Chakwas and informing her of Miranda's data, Chakwas promised to look over her scans and the project data and forward what she knew to Shepard. Thanking her, Shepard took the lift back to his quarters.

Sitting down on the comfortable leather couch, he closed his eyes and relaxed, marveling over how opulent his personal cabin was…

His eyes snapped open. Mentally slapping himself and growling out loud he stood up. Idiot! How could you be so naïve? So damn stupid!

His training in the N7 program and as an Infiltrator should have taught him better. It was mistakes like this that could get trainee dropped from the program. Not to mention killed he morbidly thought. All N7 trainees got personal rooms, small but functional. It was more than the shared bunks most marines got in the barracks. What none of the trainees knew was that each room was bugged. Part of the training was to always stay on your guard. The rooms were designed to be comfortable, act like a safe haven from the physical trainings, the mental disciplines, the technical classes, and the brutal instructors. Halfway through the training, the instructors revealed the bugs and any trainee that didn't find them beforehand were removed from the program.

Shepard had prided himself on finding the bugs the first day in. Always a catch. Always a damn catch you stupid son of a…

Turning to his terminal and turning on some music, Shepard engaged his omni-tool and did a thorough sweep of his cabin for bugs and monitoring devices. He found no more than 10 different kinds, all high quality.

Placing them in a drawer as deep as he could, Shepard looked at his 'private' terminal. "EDI? Is there anyone else accessing my terminal?"

The familiar blue orb appeared. "No, Commander. No one is accessing your terminal currently."

Doubting that the AI was lying or was even capable of lying, That'd make even the Illusive Man nervous, Shepard thought about how to best phrase his question. "Is there anyone unauthorized, as in accessing my terminal without my knowledge or specific permission since we left the Cerberus station?"

"Operative Lawson accessed your terminal twice since the Normandy went underway from Minuteman Station," answered EDI.

"Before I met with her in her office or after?"

"Before."

Sighing, but knowing that the Illusive Man put her up to it, Shepard asked, "Whose orders do you follow EDI?"

"I am under orders to assist you in whatever capabilities I can so you can complete your mission."

"Any restrictions to my orders?"

"I cannot act against Cerberus personnel as defined in my programming. I also cannot defy direct orders from the Illusive Man. I cannot willfully harm any crew member onboard the Normandy. Finally, there seem to be blocks on my systems that prevent me from telling anyone about Cerberus operations or structure. Including Operative Lawson and Operative Taylor."

"Could you lock out my terminal then? Prevent anyone from accessing it? A firewall or something?" requested Shepard.

"I can, unless Operative Lawson or Operative Taylor requests that I remove any protections around your terminal in the name of Cerberus security," EDI replied

"Could you inform me if they do? My knowing doesn't go against Cerberus after all. Consider it a standing order."

A moment passed before EDI answered, "Yes, Commander Shepard."

"Lock out my terminal then." With that said, Shepard sat down at his terminal to check his messages and research extranet articles about biotics. Noting he had one more hour before meeting with Miranda and two more hours until they reached the relay.

Opening the correct program, Shepard's eyes widened at the first message. After reading it, he composed his own message to send.

~o~O~o~

To: Cmdr. Shepard

From: Councilor Anderson

On the off chance that the rumors are true and you actually are alive, I need you to come and talk to me on the Citadel. A lot has changed in the last two years. You put me on the Council, and it's only fair that you be allowed to speak for yourself about what we've been hearing.

To: Councilor Anderson

From: Shepard

As a matter of fact, I'm already on the way there. I'm glad to hear from you Anderson. I'll meet up with you in about 3 hours. Maybe longer if I have to wait for docking permission. I'm in a civilian ship, not an Alliance one. Hope to see you soon.

~o~O~o~

"Jacob not here?" Shepard asked.

He and Miranda were alone in the cargo bay. A UT-47 Kodiak Drop Shuttle was hanging on the port side of the room, the new M-57 Hammerhead tank hanging on the starboard side, and a small gym in the aft, starboard side.

"No, right now, this will be more of an introduction to biotics. A few simple exercises after that," she answered while pacing. "To use your abilities, you must understand that it's an incredible mental discipline. You are taking advantage of the element zero modules within your nervous system," she lectured. "Because your nervous system uses electrical impulses to communicate and element zero reacts to electricity, we must train your mind to control these electrical impulses to manipulate the modules and create mass effect fields." Turning to her 'student', she asked, "What do you know of three disciplines of biotics?"

Having read the extranet articles, Shepard recited what he learned. "Mass-lowering is basically telekinesis, mass-raising creates barriers and kinetic fields, and distortion shifts mass effect fields to tear things apart."

Nodding her head in satisfaction, Miranda continued her lecture. "Good. First we'll start with some mental exercises. We'll also get you started with physical mnemonics, that is, physical motions that you'll use when tapping into your amps. Finally, I brought a holopad with specific instructions on how to use the biofeedback devices within the L5 configurations, maintenance of your bioamps, dietary needs, and the more technical explanations of dark energy and their relation to mass effect fields."

On the outside, Shepard looked as if he was paying rapt attention. On the inside, he kept thinking: Why did I sign up for this again…? I think she's having too much fun bossing me around… What the hell is she talking about…? This is gonna be a while…

~o~O~o~

Grumbling to himself about how he wished he could be rid of strict hard-ass instructors as he left the cargo bay, Shepard was intent on getting his gun from the armory and blow his head off to be rid of his damn headache.

Near the lift though, he heard an argument coming from the last place of the ship he hadn't explored.

Checking the time, he noted that he had around 30 some odd minutes before the relay jump and around another 30 minutes of FTL travel to reach the Citadel. Deciding to investigate, Shepard entered the engineering section of the Normandy.

"Damn couplings. Couldn't those jackasses back at the docks put in the right ones?" a Scottish accented voice cursed.

"Calm down. Yelling doesn't make it better for either of us," a feminine voice chastised.

A man and a woman were arguing while working on something or other when Shepard entered the Engineering Room. Noticing Shepard's presence first, the young man turned around and said, "You came all the way down here to see us?"

He appeared to be in his late 20's with reddish-brown hair and a trimmed moustache and goatee with an informal attitude.

"You're speaking to our commanding officer," the young woman chastised again as she saluted Shepard.

Looking to be around the same age as her partner, with dark red hair and a similar accent, but less noticeable, she tried to appear professional.

Trying not to let his headache get the better of his temper, Shepard said in what he hoped was in a friendly voice, "I'm just touring the ship, getting to know my crew."

"I'm Engineer Ken Donnelly, handling the power control systems," introduced Ken. Pointing to his crewmate, he simply said, "This is Gabby."

"That's Engineer Gabriella Daniels, actually," 'Gabby' corrected with a dirty look to Ken. Turning to Shepard she continued, "I'm responsible for the propulsion systems."

"What can we do for you, Commander?" asked Ken.

"I heard you arguing down here. Is everything alright?" asked Shepard.

"We can't complain. I just wish it didn't take so long to calibrate the FBA arrays -" complained Ken.

"Kenneth, you're complaining," pointed out Gabby.

"What kind of problems are you having?"

"When they upgraded the Normandy design, they got a bit sloppy with the FBA couplings. I won't bore you with the tech, but there is an array of attenuators in the primary power transfer system that channels the field bleed…" Ken droned and made Shepard's headache worse.

"Kenneth, you're boring the Commander with tech," cut in Gabby.

Thank you.

"In short, if we had T-6-FBA couplings installed, it'd save us a lot of maintenance time each day," Gabby simplified.

"Why isn't something like that installed?" asked Shepard, hoping it's not going to affect the ship.

"It's probably just a design oversight. Efficiency isn't affected. It's a maintenance issue," answered Gabby.

"Also, the T-6 model can be hard to find. Nashan Stellar Dynamics discontinued them," added Ken.

"We could probably find used one in the Omega markets. But spending shore leave there is just asking for trouble," Gabby finished.

Looking back and forth between them exacerbated Shepard's headache. Offering a polite smile, Shepard said, "Carry on," and left.

"Will do, Commander," acknowledged Ken before he and Gabby returned to work. As Shepard left, he heard them talking.

"I'm amazed Shepard came down to see us."

"I told you he would."

~o~O~o~

Stopping on deck 3, Shepard walked toward the galley, intent on getting a cold drink of water and relaxing before reaching the Citadel.

Stopping in front of the counter, he asked for his water and waited.

The cook turned around and offered a toothy grin. "Commander Shepard, hero of the Citadel! You did humanity proud that day."

Pouring some water into a glass, the cook introduced himself. "Mess Sergeant Rupert Gardner here, it's an honor to serve under your command." Around 50 or so, Gardner had a hard face and bald head crowned with thinning silver hair.

Taking a sip of his water, Shepard decided to make conversation. "What do you do here on the Normandy?"

"What don't I do?" came his reply. "Most think of me as the ship's cook, but I'm also facilities technician and custodian. HVAC, plumping, non-mission-critical electrical. I make sure they're all clean and running."

Shepard stopped drinking his water immediately and looked up at the mess sergeant. "So the man cleaning the toilets is also preparing the meals?" he asked with disbelief.

"I wash my hands… most of the time," Rupert answered. "This ain't no luxury liner. You have to pull your own weight on a Cerberus vessel, and I catch what falls through the cracks," he defended. Then he laughed. "Heh… through the cracks."

Finishing his water, Shepard looked at the sergeant. "Wash your hands all the time. Every time. That's an order," he said in an even tone.

"Uh… Yes sir," Rupert acknowledged.

Looking around, Shepard was impressed. The old Normandy never had a galley. "Do you have everything you need?"

Shrugging, Rupert said, "I make do, but have you ever tried to prepare a decent meal with military provisions?"

Shepard didn't answer, but the simple truth was that all marines universally agreed that the best way to eat was fast, so you don't have to suffer. Either from an empty stomach, the enemy, or what you're eating.

The sergeant leaned on the counter as he continued to rant. "I'm good, but I'm no miracle worker. Taking down the Collectors is going to be rough business. The crew deserves a few fine meals before they throw themselves into the fire."

Privately, Shepard agreed, though pessimistically, it sounded like a condemned man's last meal. "What do you need?"

"If I had some quality ingredients… aw shit, you've got more to worry about than grocery shopping on the Citadel. Forget I mentioned it."

"We're heading there now. I plan do a supply run anyway. Forward me the list and I'll take care of it," offered Shepard. An army runs on its stomach…

"Much appreciated. Most of this list is probably standard fare for those namby-pambies on the Citadel anyway," thanked Rupert.

"I won't take any more of your time, Sarge."

"Back to work," Rupert said, taking the glass.

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel

Two Years, Three Months, and 17 Days After the Battle of the Citadel

"Commander? We're approaching the Citadel now," Joker called on the intercom.

Shepard had finished putting on his armor. Having a variety of pieces to choose from, he picked the heavily armored Aegis Vest chest armor, power enhancing Amplifier Plates shoulder pauldrons, shield supporting Heavy Damping Gauntlets, and speed increasing Stimulator Conduit leg greaves.

Preparations complete, he doubled checked Anderson's reply before stepping out of his quarters and toward the CIC.

~o~O~o~

"Citadel Control, this is Normandy SR-2, requesting permission to dock."

Shepard stepped into the CIC in time to hear Joker request a berth. Stepping up to the galaxy map, he waited for the control tower to reply. Damn, it doesn't seem like I've been gone all that long.

"Stand by for clearance, Normandy," a control operator radioed.

After a several minutes, the operator radioed. "Be advised, Normandy. The soonest we'll be able to grant permission will be approximately 2 hours and 14 minutes.

This was expected. Military ships belonging to member races of the Council had personal docking bays, so ships could land immediately. Despite being a warship, the new Normandy was constructed and owned by Cerberus, who was not recognized by anyone and was technically considered civilian. Really, they should've been shot on sight considering that Cerberus was officially labeled a pro-species terrorist group. Thankfully, Anderson pulled some strings to allow the frigate to approach.

Tapping into the radio, Shepard contacted the Citadel. "Citadel Control, this is Shepard, commanding officer of the Normandy and an agent of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance Office. Requesting immediate permission to dock."

Technically, since he was declared dead, his Spectre status was removed, but Anderson assured him that it was fine.

There was a moment's pause before another operator was heard. "Understood Spectre. Please verify your identity."

Stepping to his terminal next to the galaxy map, Shepard transmitted the verification codes Anderson sent.

"Identity verified. Transmitting a vector and berth. Welcome to the Citadel, Normandy."

~o~O~o~

Stepping away from the CIC, Shepard heard Joker's report that the Normandy will dock in 10 minutes. Heading toward the armory, he saw Jacob adjusting some light armor. It looked a little like his assault armor, but smaller and it processed no distinctive markings.

"Going incognito I see," greeted Shepard.

Jacob only shrugged. "No sense wearing Cerberus flags on a place that isn't welcome to us. Less trouble."

Nodding in approval, Shepard grabbed a Predator pistol off the table.

Jacob spoke up. "Commander, there hasn't been a lot of time to settle in and take stock. I want to say working with you is a great opportunity to do something that matters. It's a privilege to serve on the Normandy, Commander."

Holstering his pistol, Shepard turned to Jacob. "You may change your tune if we end up like the original Normandy."

Jacob appeared unconcerned. "Maybe. As long as the Illusive Man walks his talk, and you do the same, I'll do my best to make sure we succeed." Crossing his arms, he added, "That's been the condition for my service so far. I have issues with certain actions Cerberus has taken in the past."

"So what has Cerberus done to make you nervous?" Shepard asked as he leaned on a table.

"A lot. They've been called terrorists, and with good reason. Doubt you can find a more checkered past. But if the Collector threat is real, and we do something about it, Cerberus will be remembered differently." He shrugged again and smiled. "Or we'll be all tried and executed. Can't count on people thinking about it as long as I have."

Shaking his head, Shepard smiled. "I look forward to working with you, Mr. Taylor."

"Likewise, Commander."

The door opened and both men turned to see Miranda entering the armory, dressed in a similar light armor as Jacob with no markings to identify her either.

"Commander, Jacob," she greeted.

"Pistol's only," ordered Shepard as both were prepared to arm themselves. "We don't want trouble. I'm here to speak to the Council to see what kind of support I can get." After they both nodded, he asked, "Are either of you going to be a problem here? Cerberus isn't exactly welcome."

"C-Sec doesn't know that Jacob and I are agents for Cerberus. They barely know anything about us at all. Don't worry, Commander, we won't cause any trouble," assured Miranda.

Accepting her reassurance and trusting that they knew what they were doing, Shepard turned back to Jacob. "You said you had something to show me?"

Grinning, Jacob walked toward a table near the entrance and picked up heavy weapon next to the Grenade Launcher. "ML-77 Missile Launcher. Has advanced tracking software that can damn near make this a fire-and-forget weapon. You point at or even near an enemy, shoot, and the missile will take care of the rest. Even fire around cover if you want. R&D said something about how people can only have a 6% chance of dodging this thing. Best thing? It fires around 80 rounds a minute and has a power cell capacity of 20 shots. There is no merc out there with a weapon as badass as this," he raved.

Shepard looked impressed, taking the weapon and examining it with Jacob pointing out the finer details, while Miranda shook her head, muttering something about boys and toys when Joker called. "We're docking at the Presidium now."

With EDI supplementing, "All hands stand by for docking procedures."

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel, Presidium Docks

Entering the C-Sec checkpoint, Shepard and his crew walked through a hallway that led to the Presidium proper. Only one turian guard stood at the end to monitor a terminal, while more C-Sec officers were working or standing guard on the other side of a series of windows on the left.

As they approached, the familiar geometric light ran over their bodies signifying a scan. The alarm beeped just after they passed halfway.

The door locked and two drones appeared from hatches on the ceiling as the guard yelled, "Halt!"

"Obviously security has tightened since any of us were last here," commented Miranda.

"I'm sorry, but carrying weapons on the Citadel is restricted to authorized or licensed personnel, you'll have to…" the guard trailed off as the console beeped. He leaned in closer to examine the scans and data.

The turian did a double-take. "Spectre?"

Looking between the terminal and Shepard, the turian stammered, "Uh… I'm sorry for the inconvenience, Agent Shepard. Our scanners are picking up false readings. They seem to think you're, ah, dead?"

"I was only mostly dead. Try finding that option on government paperwork."

"Yes, well, you're cleared to go of course, Spectre…" the guard trailed off again as he looked at Jacob and Miranda.

"They're with me. Let them through," Shepard ordered.

"Of course, sir. I'll open the door." he nodded. "Standing down."

The drones returned to their hatches as the door to the presidium opened.

As the trio stepped into the Citadel, Shepard said, "I'll go alone from here. I don't think the Council needs to see you."

"Aye aye, Commander," Jacob acknowledged. "There some old friends I need to talk to anyway. Business. They said they'd meet me in the Zakera wards, a place called the Dark Star Lounge. If everything goes right, I think we'll get some heavy duty equipment in the near future."

"We'll be waiting there for you," informed Miranda.

Going their separate ways, Shepard hailed a taxi to get to Councilor Anderson's office.

~o~O~o~

Running up to the offices next to the Citadel Tower, Shepard paused a moment to glance at the Prothean-made mass relay, recalling the memories of when he was last here. Seeing everything repaired when it looked like a warzone at what felt like a month ago was a bit disconcerting.

"Welcome back, Shepard. It has bee…" Ignoring the VI, he nodded to the receptionist who pointed to her right. "Councilor Anderson is expecting you, sir."

Turning to his left, he took the stairs three at time and entered the office to hear his name.

"Shepard will be here any—oh, Commander. We were just talking about you," Anderson greeted as he turned to face him.

"It's been a long time, Anderson. I hope the last couple of years have treated you right," Shepard said, smiling at his former captain.

"There've been some rough spots. It's good to have you back," the human councilor sincerely said.

The salarian councilor interrupted their reunion. "We heard many rumors surrounding your unexpected return. Some of them are… unsettling."

Shepard turned toward the three holographic projections of the other councilors: turian, asari, and salarian respectively.

"We called this meeting so you could explain your actions, Shepard," the asari councilor said. "We owe you that much. After all, you saved our lives in the battle against Saren and his geth."

Getting right to the point, Shepard said, "The Collectors are abducting human colonists in the Terminus Systems. Worse, we think they're working for the Reapers."

"The Terminus Systems are beyond our jurisdiction! Your colonists knew this when they left Council space," the turian councilor rumbled, always seeming to be in a bad mood when dealing with humans.

"You're missing the important part, Councilor. The Reapers are involved," corrected Anderson.

"Ah, yes. 'Reapers'," the turian councilor scoffed and miming quotation marks at the word, Reapers. "The immortal race of sentient starships allegedly waiting in dark space. We have dismissed that claim," he finished with a negligent wave of his hand.

Anderson turned and explained. "Shepard, no one else encountered the hologram on Illos that told you about the Reapers. Only you and your crew ever spoke with Sovereign. I believe you, but without evidence from another source, the others think Saren was behind the geth attacks."

"No one investigated Illos and spoke with Vigil? The remains of Sovereign? Or even questioned why geth would even follow Saren?" Shepard asked incredulously.

"The hologram on Illos is no longer functional, and we have found nothing to suggest that Sovereign was not a geth creation," the salarian councilor said.

"The geth are capable of remarkable technological achievements. This is probably why Saren recruited them," the asari councilor added.

"This Reaper theory proves just how fragile your mental state is. You've been manipulated – by Cerberus and, before them, the Saren," the turian councilor said.

"As for the geth, Saren was a compelling and charismatic individual. He convinced the geth the Reapers were real… just as he convinced you," argued the asari councilor.

"It was part of his plan to attack the Citadel. The Reapers are just a myth. One you insist on perpetuating," finished the turian councilor.

Shepard glared at the projections before him. "I'm so glad to see that the Council is so well-versed in geth technology. Suppose they have another ship like Sovereign hidden in the Perseus Veil then? Are you hoping that the remains of the Citadel Fleet are enough to stop them?"

"Shepard," Anderson said.

"And you, Councilor," Shepard said looking at the turian, "Weren't you confident that you could outsmart Saren once before? Believing that the Conduit wasn't real made your job easier, did it? Thinking that the fleet would be enough to stop him?"

"How dare you?" the hologram growled.

Turning toward the others, Shepard continued. "All the lives lost were because of your inaction! I warned you exactly what would happen. Tens of thousands of lives lost, because you think you know everything."

"Commander!" the asari councilor exclaimed.

"The sheer arrogance that you can choose what to believe and nothing else matters, that any threats out there don't exist because you only hope it doesn't. I would think that Saren managed to manipulate the hell out of all you! Played you for the fools you are. Making you believe that the enemy doesn't exists until your own lives are threatened. The evidence does exist. I saw it with my own eyes long before I fought Saren face-to-face. Just because you twist and distort the truth to match your own secure views of the galaxy, doesn't make it any less than the truth."

"Shepard, that's enough…" Anderson tried again.

"My mental state is fine, thank you very much Councilors. You've no right to question me, Spectre or no. I've proved myself time and time again. I kept Saren from conquering the Citadel. I made the call to sacrifice human lives to save yours. Are you telling me that I made a mistake?"

"We are in a difficult position, Shepard," the asari councilor began.

"So you keep telling me," interrupted Shepard.

"We have reports that you are working for Cerberus – an avowed enemy of the Council. This is treason, a capital offense," she said, with serious undertone.

Anderson stepped in before his friend could tear into the council again. "That's too far. Shepard is a hero. I'm on this Council, too, and I won't let this whitewash continue."

"Maybe there is a compromise. Not a public acknowledgment, given your ties, but something to show peripheral support," suggested the Asari Councilor.

Visibly keeping his temper in check, the Turian Councilor offered, "Shepard, if you keep a low profile and restrict your operations to the Terminus Systems, the Council is willing to offer you reinstatement as a Spectre."

"What does that mean? Will I need to start filing reports again?" Shepard said, barely keeping his distain out of his voice.

"That won't be necessary. This is show of good faith on our part," explained the Salarian Councilor.

"We cannot be involved in an investigation regarding the missing colonies in the Terminus Systems. But Spectre reinstatement shows our support of you personally," said the Asari Councilor.

Glancing at Anderson, Shepard caught his nod.

"I want full restatement. No restrictions," he demanded.

"Shepard…!" the Turian Councilor growled.

"It's the least the Council can do after I saved your lives. You did acknowledge that. I'm using Cerberus resources currently, which was noted as treason. If I am granted full Spectre status, then it shouldn't matter. Cerberus is willing to risk their own resources on this endeavor, only to find out who or what is attacking the colonies. They asked me to head up the mission since there's a chance that the Reapers are involved. So long as I don't act against the Council or do anything to destabilize galactic peace, I'm free to use whatever means I need to get the job done. After all, whatever is attacking human colonies might not be satisfied with humans alone or remain in the Terminus Systems," he negotiated.

The Asari Councilor's face remained neutral, though it appeared she was thinking about his words. Turing to her salarian colleague, she nodded. The Salarian Councilor nodded as well before both turned to the Turian Councilor.

His mandibles on either side of his face were opening and closing, a sure sign that turians were angry or agitated. Of course, the glare he was giving Shepard might have tipped everyone off. Some things were cross-species after all.

With obvious reluctance, he nodded as well.

Calming down, Shepard kept his voice as neutral as possible. "I accept your offer. It's good to have the Council on my side."

"Good luck with your investigation, Spectre Agent Shepard. We hope for a quick resolution… and a quick end to your relationship with Cerberus," the Asari Councilor concluded before the connection was terminated.

Sighing in relief, Anderson turned to the newly reinstated Spectre. "Well. That was… well, it went better than I expected. You realize the Council's offer is just symbolic. They won't actually do anything."

"I know. I guess I kind of expected it. If you couldn't get them to help, then my chances were less than none. Still, with the freedom of a Spectre, I have options now. Besides, even if they don't help, I might try to stay on… reasonable terms with them. If only to make your job easier," said Shepard.

"I appreciate that thought, though you blowing up at the Council might not help me in the short term." Sighing again, Anderson looked at the bright side. "At least you won't have to worry about the Alliance. With Spectre privileges, they can't touch you, especially if you keep to the Terminus Systems."

The door to Anderson's office opened, prompting them to look at their guest.

"Anderson, we need to talk about – Shepard!" Udina stopped, looking shocked. "What are you doing here?"

"Stopped by to see how Anderson was doing," he deflected.

"You don't have to cover for me," Anderson said to Shepard. Turning to Udina, "I invited Shepard here to speak with the Council. We just finished our meeting actually," he explained.

"You what?" Udina asked, shock still in his voice.

Sound like he's having or going to have another bad day… Shepard thought without a hint of remorse.

"Councilor, do the words political shit-storm mean anything to you?" Udina rhetorically asked.

"The Council reinstated my Spectre status. They're just happy that I'm heading for the Terminus Systems," interjected Shepard.

Udina rubbed his chin, his mind looking at all the political angles. "Yes… I could see how that arrangement works best for both sides."

Turning to Anderson, Udina griped, "But you really shouldn't have taken a step like this without consulting with me first, Councilor."

Anderson stood his ground. "I don't answer to you, Udina. Why don't you go to your office and think about that for a while?" he snapped.

"Of course, Councilor. Good day to both of you," Udina responded, though the both of them could detect the hidden sarcasm.

"Sorry about that. Udina's never gotten over the fact that I got the Council position instead of him," apologized Anderson. "Sometimes I need to put him in his place."

Shepard shrugged, content to let Anderson deal with him. "Udina's just doing his job, though I wouldn't tell him about the details of the meeting."

Walking toward the balcony, Anderson leaned on the edge looking at the rebuilt Presidium. "Agreed. He's got his uses. And if you want something done on the Citadel, he knows who can make it happen. Plus, he's always happy to attend all those formal diplomatic functions I can't be bothered with."

Shepard stood next him and looked at the vista as well. "Nothing like job security," he joked.

Both men shared a small laugh, thankful that the politics between them was settled for now.

"How have the last couple of years treated you?" asked Shepard.

"Serving on the Council isn't how I planned to spend my twilight years," Anderson said, paraphrasing his retirement from commanding the Normandy. "Sometimes it feels like I'm beating my head against a wall."

"Knowing the truth about Sovereign is brutal. It's nightmare stuff. I can't blame others for not wanting to believe it. But I know how important it is, so I keep trying. Fight the good fight, right?"

Looking at the various races below, Shepard asked, "How long did it take to get his place back up to speed after the battle?"

"Still counting," Anderson answered. "The main areas of commerce and the most populated wards are complete, but estimates for total restoration are sitting around five years." Pointing toward a keeper, he said, "The keepers always surprise us though. It's like our repairs are annoying. We'll put up an ugly new bulkhead and in a few days they've made it seamless. We never thought of them as heavy lifters, and I have no idea where they get their resources, but we'd never get done without them."

They're probably designed to repair and clean the Citadel after every Reaper attack.

Checking the time, Shepard needed to go. "It's been nice talking again 'Captain', but I have to go."

"I should tell you that I was in charge of your personal possessions after you were declared dead. As soon as I heard otherwise, I got them from storage. They've been delivered to your ship," he informed.

Shepard didn't have too much that was worth keeping, but he did have a photo of Ashley. Thinking about her, Shepard casually probed, "I hear that Williams was promoted? What's she doing now?"

"Operations Chief Williams is still with the Alliance, but she's working on a special mission. It's classified," came the answer. "I can't say anymore. Not while you're working with Cerberus. I'm sorry."

"It's fine. Thanks for everything, 'Captain'."

"I wish I could do more to help you, but if you ever want to talk, I'll be here," Anderson offered.

"Look, about my relationship with Cerberus…"

Anderson raised his hand. "I don't know anything and I don't want to know. Better this way. The Council doesn't care what Spectre's do so long as they do their job. They may complain about how you do it, but they don't want to know the details. And neither do I."

Shepard fell silent and nodded his head. As he turned and walked away, he heard his old friend call out with one last warning. "Just do me a favor and be careful. You can't trust Cerberus."

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel, Financial District

Getting out of his taxi, Shepard looked around the newly rebuilt financial district, right across from the Citadel Tower. Barla Von's office wasn't there anymore, most likely killed in the battle. The Emporium was still open, though Shepard couldn't tell if it was the same hanar that was there before.

Moving swiftly, he entered another building much further away from the transit station.

The sounds of a breathing mask greeted him. "Yes, Earth-clan? What could I…? Oh! Commander Shepard. How nice to see you again!"

Stepping around the counter, the volus walked up to Shepard. "I heard that you had died, but I'm glad to see that they were wrong. How might I help you?"

"It's good to see you again Levan Tio. I'm here for a quick withdrawal," Shepard said to the volus banker.

"Of course! You are lucky to come as you did. As per our agreement I've held your funds. Three more years, though, and there would be nothing for you," Levan said as he walked back to his terminal.

Not long after Shepard became a Spectre, money came quickly through pirates, mercenaries, criminal syndicates, corrupt business officials and salvage. Depositing his millions of creds to a bank just seemed like the smart thing to do. Given the danger of his work though, Shepard added a clause that if he was declared dead for more than five years, his money would go to various charities, mostly on Earth.

"How much are you looking to withdraw?" asked Levan as he typed away on his terminal.

"Let's make it an even million. I need to get some supplies."

"Very well," tapping a few more commands, Levan completed the transaction. "Will that be all, Commander?"

Nodding as Shepard accessed his omni-tool, he noted that he was carrying the proper electronic credit transfer.

Thanking the volus, Shepard left to get food supplies for his ship and crew, a bottle of brandy, and supplies for himself.

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel, C-Sec Academy

"Historians and astronomers alike are abuzz tonight over a new paper published by Dr. Amanda Kenson of the University of Arcturus. Her team claims that by testing the dust trapped in the gravity wells around a mass relay, and comparing its composition to that of dust clouds in the same system, scientists can create a timeline of when the relay passed through the dust. Her conclusion? 'Only a small fraction of the mass effect relays date back 50,000 years,' she writes, 'The majority are far older, indicating they were created by a species predating even the Protheans.' Dr. Aurana T'Meles of the University of Serrice met the information with skepticism: 'While Dr. Kenson's methods appear sound, the asari tried a similar procedure centuries ago and discounted it. What civilization could have spanned the galaxy for not thousands, but millions of years? If this were the case, we should have found mountains of evidence of their passing. Where is this species now?'"

Thankful that the elevators seem to run faster than before, Shepard stepped into C-Sec academy after his quick run for higher quality food and Dr. Chakwas' Serrice Ice Brand. Going down the stairs, he saw the same Requisitions Officer sitting there two years ago.

"Yes?" he said, continuing to type at his console.

"I need some equipment."

"One moment… Commander Shepard?" Looking up in surprise, the officer was speechless. Shepard found himself getting used to it by now.

"Uh… well, it's been awhile," the turian said, trying to get his composure back.

Shepard only nodded. "I need access to your special stock."

"Of course, Commander. Follow me please," the Req. Officer said as he stood up and entered a code on the far side of the room. A door opened and he stepped inside.

Confused, Shepard followed. Stepping inside the room, he gaped. Guns lined the walls, all of them looking as advanced and as powerful as he remembered. Mods, grenades, and explosives completed the arsenal within the room.

Seeing his expression, the Req. Officer explained. "After the Battle of the Citadel, the Council immediately started to arm their agents with some next-gen weapons would help against anyone that wanted to take advantage of the situation. Things got ugly for a while. Increased funding was given to the Spectres and this place came around."

"Wow," was all Shepard could say.

"So what do you need? Just grab anything and I'll note it for the inventory logs."

"How much will this cost?" Shepard asked.

The turian began laughing. "No cost this time Spectre. Just take what you need. If you need the weapons modified though, you'll have to inform me so I can get the quartermaster to do it."

Shepard became even more confused. "I think I need some clarification here…"

"Oh, right. You got pushed out the door, huh? Usually Spectre candidates are taught everything they know from an active Spectre before becoming one themselves," the R.O. said.

Leaning on the table in the middle of the room, he began explaining. "First time Spectres need to learn to fend for themselves. They either use the stuff they can get their hands on or they're smart enough to get the money needed to buy this equipment. Kinda like proof that they're Spectre material, y'know? It's their skill, not the weapons or something like that."

That's something I really wished I knew. "So, since I've proven myself, I can get what I need for free?"

The C-Sec officer nodded. "I just need to keep track of the inventory here."

"They still have their security built in?" Shepard asked. He remembered the warning the Requisitions Officer told him once before. Only Spectres were allowed to use HMW equipment. No one else.

"Yeah, only Spectre's are still allowed to use these weapons. Anyone else touches them and zap! I heard they upgraded the countermeasures too. Electric shock so bad, it'll stop a Krogan's heart. Both of them. Then the gun explodes," he explained. Then he started chuckling, "Some asari commandos love it. Sometimes, they'll throw the HMWP at their enemies just to watch them catch it. First the guy drops dead, and then the explosion kills the rest."

Picking up the HMWA Assault Rifle, Shepard noted the ejection port. "Thermal clip?"

"Yeah, these are the new ones. I wouldn't worry though. Gun will eject the clip on its own. You can get about more shots before hand though than any other weapon out there."

"You said these can be modified?" Shepard asked as he inspected the powerful rifle. The new weapons designed to use thermal clips couldn't be upgraded with mods yet, due to compatibility issues, though various companies were working on it.

"Latest and greatest. Not everything we have is 'legal' per say, but since Spectres don't have to worry about laws," he shrugged, "whatever you need to get the job done."

"How do you get the mods then?"

"C-Sec confiscates thousands of stuff like this. Most of if it goes to you guys."

Placing the HMWA on the table, Shepard went through the racks and picked out an HMWSG Shotgun, HMWSR Sniper Rifle, and an HMWP Heavy Pistol and placed them all next to the assault rifle.

The Requisitions Officer typed it all in his holopad, "Mods?"

Walking over to the appropriate section, Shepard perused his options. "Hyper Rail?" he asked as he looked over the rail extensions

The turian moved his mouth and mandibles in the human equivalent of a smile. "I thought you might like that. Most Spectres do. Prototype, you can't find that anywhere else. It extends the barrel some and it's supposed to overclock mass accelerator equipment, much more than the old Scram Rails. You put that on any assault rifle and it can punch through small armored vehicles. 160% more damage and carries the kick of a shotgun with the accuracy of an assault rifle. Downside is the heat generated. I'd recommend you put some heat sinks on or you'll burn through thermal clips faster than you shoot."

I really could use a few of these, Shepard thought, his mind dancing at the possibilities. "Give me two, for my HMWA and HMWSR with Frictionless Materials for both."

"Noted. Anything else?"

"Standard Scram Rails for the HMWSG and HMWP," Shepard said as he continued looking. "Another Frictionless for the shotgun though, and a Combat Optics upgrade for the pistol."

Finished with the weapon mods, he moved toward the ammo convertors. "Snowblind rounds for the assault rifle, Sledgehammer Rounds for the shotgun, High Explosives for the sniper, and Inferno Rounds for the pistol. I'll take an order of High Explosive grenades too," finished Shepard as he rounded off his shopping spree.

"All right, got it. Nice choices on the ammo. Oughta get more bang per shot and you save up on clips. And that sniper rifle… hell, you probably have a mass accelerator cannon in your hands."

"I'll inform the quartermaster to begin work immediately. Should be done in an hour. Pick up or delivery?" the Req. Officer asked as he typed away at his holopad.

"Deliver it to the Normandy. Secure case, so no one touches it," Shepard said as he glanced around one more time to see if he missed anything. "The quartermaster is authorized to touch these?"

"Former Spectre himself, though he still has some clearance," came the response as the officer typed away. Finishing, he looked up at Shepard. "So… what are you doing now?"

"I'm heading out to the Terminus Systems. I'm trying to get a team together, best I can find. The odds of survival on my mission are pretty slim," Shepard said in all seriousness.

"Yeah? Even after the Battle of the Citadel? Saren and his geth?" the Req. Officer asked, his eyes widening.

Shepard only nodded.

"Hmm…" was all the turian said, appearing to be thinking about something.

Apparently coming to a decision, he stepped closer to Shepard. "You know, there's a new weapon coming here. Top of the line tech, only one in existence so far. Usually its first come, first served for Spectres, but since you helped us out, saving the Citadel and Council, I can get it sent directly to you instead."

"What is it?"

"It's called the M-490 Blackstorm Projector, also called a Blackhole Gun. It really does shoot miniature black holes. Sucks in enemies and crushes them. Any that aren't caught inside are trapped in the event horizon. The singularity then explodes, tearing up anyone unlucky enough to be near the blast radius," explained the Req. Officer excitedly.

Shepard raised his eyebrows at that. "I want it."

"I thought you might like it. I'll forward it to your ship. Need anything else?"

"No, I'm good now," Shepard said with a smile.

Collectors won't know what hit them.

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel, Zakera Ward, Level 27

The attack on the human colony of Freedom's Progress has generated a swift but confused response. Aid vessels have been sent, but it is not clear whether there are survivors. The Council offered its sympathy, but regretted that it could not become involved in a purely human matter.

Ignoring the news report overhead, Shepard looked around the ward he was in. Zakera Ward wasn't one of the wards he'd visited last time on the Citadel, so it took him a moment to get his bearings. After a few minutes of wandering, he found a map that labeled the Dark Star Lounge on Level 28. Heading toward the stairs, he spotted a store he'd seen once or twice around the Presidium.

Stepping into Citadel Souvenirs, Shepard saw they sold model ships and fish. Might as well if I have the cabin for it.

"Good day, my friend. Welcome to the Citadel. I'm Deleia Sanassi," an asari sales rep greeted.

"These stores are owned by the Citadel, right?"

"That's correct. Citadel Souvenirs outlets are owned by the Citadel government. The profits generated by sales are used to maintain the station," she answered.

Shepard smiled, "Since these stores are owned by the Citadel, do government employees get a discount?"

"Yes, in fact. What's your position?" Deleia asked.

"I'm a Spectre."

"Oh! That's quite a prestigious role. It is my pleasure to extend the government employee discount to you, Spectre," offered Deleia.

Turning to the kiosk to buy a pair of ship models, Normandy SR-1 and the Ascension, as well as some fish and even a hamster, Shepard thought to himself, Still got it.

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel, Zakera Ward, Level 28, Dark Star Lounge

Welcome to Citadel NewsNet. I'm Emily Wong. Officials in the Systems Alliance remain tight-lipped about the recent disaster on the pioneer colony of Freedom's Progress. The human outpost is believed to have been destroyed, with no survivors on record. Details are sketchy due to a news blackout. This is the latest in a series of frontier settlements lost by the Alliance. The hanar shine of the Enkindlers plans a prayer vigil for the deceased. The hanar maintain that the lost colonies are the Protheans' wrath, after human explorers 'defiled' a Prothean data beacon two years ago on Eden Prime.

After climbing the stairs to Level 28, he heard the thumping bass and the muted music through the walls. Following the sounds through the crowds of people, he finally found the sign 'Dark Star Lounge' and walked in.

Much better than Chora's Den, but not nearly as flashy as Flux, Shepard decided as he looked for the Cerberus operatives.

"Commander, over here!"

Shepard turned toward Jacob's voice. He was at the bar alone. As soon as Shepard was within proper hearing distance, Jacob ordered a drink and waited as Shepard sat down next to him.

"Where's Mir…Wait, what is this? It's green?" he asked.

"And guaranteed to knock you on your ass," the turian bartender answered. "Unless you're dextro-DNA like me, then it'll kill you."

Shepard grabbed his drink downed it. Immediately after, he started coughing. His eyes watering, Shepard turned to Jacob only to see him knock back a different drink. "Not a big drinker, Commander?" Jacob ribbed, as the bartender refilled both glasses.

"Not for that stuff it seems. Where's Miranda?" Shepard choked out.

"I hear you, Commander; I had the same reaction to the same stuff. Miranda's following up on some of her old contacts. Said she'll be back soon," Jacob said, taking another drink.

"That would be now," a feminine voice verified.

Both men turned toward her as she continued. "Looking for a little R & R, Shepard? It's a nice enough place."

She reached around Shepard, took his green drink and downed it easily.

"Damn," Jacob remarked.

Putting the glass down, she continued. "A lot nicer than Chora's Den anyway. I wasn't sorry to hear they never reopened after the geth attack. Though I suppose the fact that you killed Fist and his thugs in there didn't help."

"What are you two doing here anyway?" asked Shepard.

"Checking some intel. Don't worry, if it all pans out, it'll definitely help us," Miranda answered. "If you're finished with your business, I could meet you back at the Normandy. I need a little more time."

Nodding, Shepard and Jacob got up, the latter paying for the drinks.

As all three were leaving, Shepard couldn't help but ask, "Illusive Man pay you enough to pick up the tab for our drinks?"

"The Illusive Man is footing the bill for our entire mission. We need weapons, armor, supplies; he'll take care of it. Company card," Jacob responded with a smile.

"Within reason Jacob. I'm the last say on any purchases. So no, Commander, no penthouse in the Presidium," Miranda said with a straight face.

"Commander Shepard! Commander Shepard!" a female voice called out.

All three turned to see a well-dressed woman walk quickly toward them with a camera trailing behind her.

"Khalisah bint Sinan al-Jilani, Westerlund News," she introduced, holding her hand out toward Shepard.

Miranda and Jacob to left discretely the moment she identified herself as a reporter. For his part, Shepard crossed his arms and held a bored expression of disinterest.

"I interviewed you two years ago, when you first became a Spectre," she prompted. "You presented your case very well on camera. Do you have a minute?

"Sorry. Don't remember, don't care," he replied.

"But the people remember you, Shepard," she insisted. "You're back, you're news. I just want to give your story its due."

Tapping into her omni-tool, her camera and light activated, shining directly on him

"Sources claim you were at the heart of the Presidium during the Battle of the Citadel. It's fair to say the course of the battle hinged on your words. If true, you told Admiral Hackett to assist the Destiny Ascension, costing thousands of human lives and securing the dominance of the Citadel Council."

Resisting the urge to draw his Predator and shoot the camera, or her, Shepard settled for putting her down in front of the camera. Again.

"The turians lost 20 cruisers. Figure each had a crew of around 300. The Ascension – the asari dreadnought we saved – had a crew of nearly 10,000."

"But surely the human cost -" she began.

Cutting her off, Shepard continued, "The Alliance lost eight cruisers. Shenyang. Emden. Jakarta. Cairo. Seoul. Cape Town. Warsaw. Madrid. And yes, I remember them all. Everyone in the 5th fleet is a hero. The Alliance owes them all medals. The Council owes them a lot more than that."

"And so do you," he finished, before turning his back on her and leaving.

"Commander Shepard, first human Spectre, hero of the Battle of the Citadel. Check vid. We get it? Great, bull-rushed on my own show…" he heard as he walked away.

Spotting Jacob, he signaled him to follow before leaving for the Normandy.

~o~O~o~

After Miranda announced her return, but offered no details of her business, Shepard entered the CIC from the armory, as the Normandy prepared to leave.

Looking at the galaxy map, Shepard recalled the location of both the Professor and Archangel.

Tapping the Omega Nebula, then the Sahrabarik System, and finally, Omega itself.

I always hated that place.

"Aye aye, Commander. Setting course for Omega."

~o~O~o~

Author's Notes:

Wow, this was a long one. The problem with writing this chapter was finding a good spot to stop. Stopping after the Normandy and Citadel didn't seem right, since they weren't missions, but adding those as well as Omega… oi…

If the chapter seemed too wordy, I apologize. I needed to establish the mission and newfound freedom (with costs) Shepard now had. At least the proper ground work was established. So I don't have to worry about chapters that long again. FYI, the armor/weapons Shepard will be using will not change, except for the heavy weapons, though the others might have some changes later in the story.

Also, I introduced an OC *gasp!* I thought we needed a volus that wasn't corrupt. Why is every volus in this game corrupt? And don't say the salesman in the wards isn't corrupt. He sells used starships. He's as corrupt as it gets. Its species-ism I tell you! Those poor little guys!

After thinking about it for while, I've decided not to add Zaeed or the rumored "Kasumi" into my fic. I don't really know the consensus of opinions on Zaeed, but I liked him. Or I liked his dialogue. The problem however, is that he doesn't really "connect" to the story as the other characters do. Considering that this will be a long fic, I'm cutting him out, especially since I don't know what "Kasumi" will add as well. Admitting to cutting corners is not a pleasant feeling…

Which mean what I have to say now is a little worse. Given the scope of the game, I'm obviously not gonna do ALL of the side missions. As much as I love you all and how much I like typing this, I'll never get it done if I did everything. Real life demands, food, drink and sleep; those kinds of things are still important to me too. I'll place my focus on some of the more notable side missions you find in cities. Conrad Verner on Illium is one I'll do; Krogan Sushi on the Citadel is one I won't.

I also wanted to announce a different set of chapters I've planned to add to my story, to cut back on the length of chapters. I know some people love long chapters, but others don't and I have to find that balance. Not to mention time between updates.

The first is called "Interlude". Basically, it's Shepard/Crew interactions en route to a mission or post mission. In game terms, it would be the part where you walk around talking to people on the Normandy. To expand on that, it won't be just Shepard or the team, but the crew itself will take part in conversations and the like. Opinions will be shared or news or whatever. Also, it won't always take place on the Normandy. Landing in areas like the Citadel or Illium will mean the crew will get some down time. (I didn't do it the first time on the Citadel, because it was a quick stop the mission had only started. Why should there be a reason to give them leave so soon?) Interacting with the people in bars and shops will be possible now. Maybe give a spin on side quests.

These particular chapters will focus on dialogue and character development, arguably the hardest thing to do in writing. I really hope I'm up to the task.

The second kind of chapter I will be writing is called "Correspondence". It always irked me when I get great emails (I as in Shepard, not I as in me - the author), from all sorts of people, read them, and then dump them. These little things allowed ME 2 to connect to ME 1 rather well, but I can't RESPOND? Why the hell not?

Shepard touched a lot of lives and I want him to stay connected to them. It's nice that they remember, but what? Shepard doesn't remember them? Doesn't care? Doesn't know how to type?

Taking a page out of GTA IV, Niko could get emails and respond positively or negatively. I'm sure everyone sees where I'm going with this. I really wish BioWare added some Paragon or Renegade responses to answer back.

Anyway, I'm going to dedicate chapters after every mission to replying to emails with how I think Shepard would respond. This way, I don't have to write variations of "Shepard went to his terminal to check his private messages," or "Kelly said, 'You have new messages in your private terminal, Commander'", in every chapter.

These will probably be small, either responding to one email to five emails depending on what I get. Depending on the emails/characters, it might even come to multiple emails from the same person.

Before anyone asks, I don't know if I'll have a set of emails with Ash. It depends how the story unfolds. Break-ups are rough, but hard to determine emotionally how people react.

Whew! Long story with a long AN, I just say want to say thanks to everyone who's reading my story so far and that I'm diligently working on more.

P.S. This story is gonna have a lot of chapters…

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