Miranda Versus the Mystery
Shepard was back—and not just his body. His memories, his experiences, his personality... it all seemed to have been restored. I had done it. Despite all the odds, all the obstacles, all the disruptions, I had actually done it. Not that I would admit to having any doubts out loud, of course.
Even if I had been willing to admit them, I wouldn’t have. I had more pressing matters: making sure the new Normandy ran as efficiently as possible, ensuring we stay on track and complete the Mission, that sort of thing. Foremost on my mind was the mystery of one Commander Shepard, the so-called hero. What kind of hero was he?
There was always the possibility that he’d become the hero simply because he was reckless and stupid enough to barge into situations without looking where he was going. His record did suggest that he ran into more trouble in any given day than most people did in a decade. And he did get killed. But that was quickly disproven within the first ten minutes on Freedom’s Progress. Shepard was very careful about entering potentially hostile situations. Always looking for cover—both for us and where enemies might be hiding. Always being careful about how much ammunition we had left—
Actually, that was one interesting thing about Shepard—he was very, very serious when it came to rationing thermal clips. It was one thing to exercise fire discipline and discourage unnecessary shooting. Refreshing, really, given the penchant for soldiers and mercs alike to go through clips like they were a credit a piece. Boys and their toys, I suppose. Or maybe some subconscious attempt at compensation. Who knows?
Whatever the reason, Shepard seemed to go to the other extreme. Sometimes, I found myself thinking he was reluctant or afraid to shoot. After some study, though, I concluded that this reticence was actually his way of adapting to the new realities of modern combat, which had changed significantly from two years ago. Back then, guns simply calculated the mass needed for a slug to reach a target given distance, gravity and atmospheric pressure, shaved the appropriate mass off an ammo block and fired the shot. This resulted in a near-infinite amount of ammunition, at the expense of heat buildup. The introduction of thermal clips effectively reversed the situation, eliminating heat buildup at the expense of finite ammunition.
Shepard’s policy, however unorthodox it might have been, ensured that we made the most of a limited resource and never had to worry about running low on ammunition. Which might also be why he actively encouraged, if not preferred, the use of other, more non-conventional, weapons. From electromagnetic pulses and plasma rounds to the wide variety of offensive biotic techniques, he made frequent use of these weapons, which were a renewable resource and one that, under Shepard’s direction, could be more effective than an individual bullet. As a result, we often found ourselves leaving behind more thermal clips from the bodies of our enemies than we ‘liberated.’
His caution in not using more ammunition than necessary was also reflected in the care he took to minimize the number of fire-fights he got himself—and, by extension, the rest of us—into. That isn’t to say he would only fire if fired upon, like some naive fool with outdated notions of honourable conduct. No, he was fully willing to open fire first—by his own hand, if need be. And he certainly had no compunction against inflicting the maximum amount of damage possible when the situation presented itself.
Yet he managed to defuse almost as many situations before guns were drawn or blood was shed. Shepard had a knack for persuading potential hostiles that he meant them no harm and that they should stand down. He could convince them that he understood their situation and could empathize with their predicament.
Perhaps he could. He certainly had no problem working with Jacob or I. No grandiose declarations or statements that a hero could never sleep—work, work with the enemy. He occasionally brought up his concerns about Cerberus, but that was in private. He never vocally lambasted us for our supposed sins or urged us to recognize the error of our ways. In fact, the only public dissent he displayed was his insistence on correcting people who said that he worked ‘for’ Cerberus. He preferred to say he was working ‘with’ Cerberus, much to my irritation.
Shepard never deliberately sent either of us into harm’s way, either. If anything, he did everything he could to ‘watch our backs,’ as the parlance goes, and expected that we would do the same. Which we did, of course. Jacob did it because he believed in what Shepard stood for, almost as much as he believed that Cerberus had more potential to advance humanity’s interest than the politics-laden bureaucracy of the Alliance. I did it because Shepard’s presence was needed to unify the admittedly eclectic group the Illusive Man had hand-picked, hone it to a razor’s edge and turn it against our enemies.
So Shepard wasn’t the reckless, testosterone-impaired kind of hero who was far too eager for a fight. And he wasn’t the kind of hero who was too caught up in his fantasy world of good versus evil to recognize the reality of the situation.
Maybe he was the most dangerous kind of hero. The poser. The manipulator. The kind who worked the angles and planned for the long-term. It made sense: why else would he go around each and every deck and say hello—if not talk—to every single person, two or three times a day? Because he was trying to sow the seeds for some kind of coup. Either that, or he had way too much time on his hands. This would be my fault—I just had to take care of everything, even certain duties that a normal executive officer wouldn’t have to do. But then, I never was normal.
So I tapped into the surveillance records from the vid-cams scattered throughout the ship and began tracking Shepard’s activities. I could have had Chambers do it, as she was the only other person who had security clearance to access those records. She was also the only one who regularly made as many trips throughout the Normandy as Shepard did. These daily sojourns were conducted as part of her duties as ship’s psychologist, not that anybody else knew that. To the majority of the crew, Chambers—or ‘Kelly’—was just being friendly. And happy. And ridiculously effervescent, exuberant and vivacious. In fact, there was a time when I thought she was secretly administering herself with every known pharmaceutical on a daily—if not hourly—basis. So I obtained samples without her knowing to run drug tests. She passed them all. Her cheerfulness was just part of who she was. There ought to be a law.
In any case, some things you have to do yourself. Because no one else could do it properly. Well, not entirely by myself—I did have EDI do some of the initial searches to narrow down the number of logs I’d have to sift through. Logs where Shepard was talking to people, key phrases, that sort of thing. I spent hours and hours poring through each and every conversation, parsing every word, listening to every emphasis, straining to pick up any code that was being exchanged.
All I got was a bunch of useless information about the crew. If there was a secret code or devious campaign being waged, I couldn’t see it. I’d failed. Again. I even tried enlisting EDI’s help. It found nothing. I told it to try again. Same result. I may have suggested it wasn’t up to the task. It may have given a response that was as cold and icy as its programming permitted. Not that I would care. Why would I? It was just an AI. One of the most advanced and sophisticated AIs in the galaxy, mind you. One who had failed. Like me. Which left only one other option.
Gritting my teeth, I opened a comm channel to Chambers’ console. “Ms. Chambers? Come to my office. Please.”
I paused after closing the channel. Now why did I add that last word? I’d never used it before. Mostly because I never had to. In the past, I’d always given my orders and expected that they would be followed out. More efficient that way. So where did that nod to social convention come from?
Before I could give it any further thought, Chambers entered my office. “Operator Lawson?”
She’d remembered my title. Most people forgot and called me by my surname alone. Which was fine with me: only a few select people had earned the right to call me by my first name anyway. The Illusive Man was one of them. Jacob was another. Shepard... I suppose Shepard had by this point, though he’d been calling me Miranda from the beginning. For some reason, I never got around to correcting him. Too many other things on my mind, I suppose. “It’s about Commander Shepard,” I started.
The glazed, dreamy look that suddenly swept over her face told me it was a good thing I hadn’t had Kelly study Shepard’s movements. She might be brilliant at her job, but she did tend to get infatuated with men (and women—I believe she spent a good month or so drooling over me before she found a new object for her unrequited affection) at the drop of the proverbial hat. Right now, that target appeared to be Shepard. Which meant asking her to glean any information from his recorded conversations would be a waste of time.
Luckily, I’d thought of another way to get the information I required. “Ms. Chambers, I understand that Commander Shepard has been making his way around the ship.”
“Oh yes,” Chambers replied, bobbing her head enthusiastically. “Three times a day, unless he’s on a mission. Then it’s only one or two.”
“And what has he been doing?”
“Talking to the crew.”
“Why is he making such an effort to go to every deck every day?” I asked. “Why is he going out of his way to talk to everyone? Why is he doing whatever it is he’s doing?”
Chambers gave me a look. I recognized that look. It was the one I normally gave to people who I thought were being particularly dense or stupid—which, to be honest, was most of them. It was a bit jarring to be on the receiving end. “Operator Lawson,” she said, somehow managing not to speak like she was dumbing it down for my benefit. “He does it because he wants to get to know the men and women under his command. Because he wants them to know that they aren’t obeying—and potentially dying for—some faceless commander that Cerberus brought back from the grave.”
That couldn’t... that’s not...
...almost made sense.
Despite all the fawning and staring, Chambers had actually managed to acquire a fair amount of intel, which corroborated my own observations. It seemed he really did spend his time talking to people, asking whether everything was operating within normal parameters, seeing how they were doing, wondering if they had any issues or concerns. Everything you’d expect from a captain—even if he technically didn’t have the rank of one. Either he was being sincere, or it was one heck of an acting job.
A tentative answer to that conundrum came during our first visit to Illium. Shepard had been wandering around when he bumped into an asari. No surprise there—Illium was an asari world. But this particular asari seemed rather agitated.
“Watch yourself if you go in there,” she warned. “Some human is causing trouble. He’s demanding that I sign the place over to him!”
“I’ll be careful,” Shepard said.
“Or you could kill him,” the asari suggested slyly. “You know, legally. In self-defence. I’d make a really good witness.”
The smile on her face indicated the asari was joking. Sort of. She clearly wouldn’t shed any tears if this human did meet an unfortunate end.
“Failing that, I’m hooking up security cams,” the asari continued when Shepard didn’t take the bait. “That crap might fly on Omega, but this is Illium. If he or anybody else causes trouble, I’ll have their asses arrested.”
Not surprisingly, Shepard was quick to investigate. More and more, I’d found that he was drawn to this sort of thing. It was like he had an obsession that compelled him to track down every sob story for some reason. Or maybe he was just a magnet for them—God knows he had no problems attracting trouble. Rolling my eyes, I followed him and the squad up a flight of stairs and into a bar. It didn’t take long to find the human in question. A blond man, dressed up in a N7 hardsuit. “You’re really holding out on me?” he asked out loud as we approached, hands on his hips as he glared at the asari bartender. “I’m a man on the edge! I’ve got nothing to lose!”
“Uh huh,” the bartender said wearily.
As we got closer, I noticed two things. One, the hardsuit seemed a little shinier than most hardsuits. And the man was moving with much more mobility than you’d expect. Which suggested that that hardsuit might not be combat-grade. Two, Shepard’s face seemed to slacken ever-so-slightly in shock. As if he was remembering something.
“I’ll do anything to get the job done!” the blond man insisted. “I’ll go all the way without a second thought!”
“Uh huh,” the bartender sighed.
“You want to see how far I’ll go?” the man demanded. “I learned how to shove a gun in people’s faces from—”
The man stopped as he saw one of the security monitors behind the bar. He paused, stared and turned around. “C—Commander Shepard?” he stammered.
“Keelah, is it—is it him?” Tali whispered.
“Oh, by the spirits,” Garrus chuckled. “This should be good.”
Shepard just stared at the man. A hint of panic and resignation was in his eyes, along with a bit of recognition. I was no stranger to such things: I saw the exact same look in the front man I used to contact the Illusive Man. More importantly, I wasn’t the only one who saw that. “Hey,” the bartender called out, “if you know this idiot, can you rein him in before I slap his ass with a singularity?”
“Shepard?” the man gasped, positively bouncing on his heels. “Is it really you? It’s me! Conrad Verner! We met on the Citadel? I wanted to become a Spectre?”
“Oh, uh, and then you shoved a gun in my face!” Verner continued. “You showed me what it meant to be truly extreme.” Verner looked skyward, a reverent look on his face. “I learned that lesson well.”
That seemed a little extreme for Shepard. Maybe our psychological profile had missed one or two things.
“Hey!” Tali gasped. “That didn’t happen!”
“Clearly he thinks otherwise,” Garrus shrugged. “Not that I’m surprised.”
Then again, maybe not. “Perhaps you could fill the rest of us in?” I asked.
Tali was still quivering in indignation, so Garrus took over. “Conrad Verner. Self-styled biggest fan of Commander Shepard. He kept lurking by one of the markets in the Wards, so we kept running into him whenever Shepard returned to the Citadel to do some shopping. First time, he asked for an autograph. Then he wanted a picture. Then he wanted his recommendation to become the second human Spectre. Oddly enough, Shepard turned down that last request.”
“By talking to him,” Tali hissed. “He never pointed a gun at him.”
“But then, Verner never had the strongest grasp on reality,” Garrus said dryly. “I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that he reinterpreted that incident.”
I returned my gaze to Verner who was... swaggering would be the best way to describe it. Yes, he was swaggering up and down the bar. “So you’re alive, huh? I hear it goes like that in the biz. Why don’t you sit back and watch how it’s done? I’ve got some asses to kick.”
I saw Shepard’s hand twitch. It was subtle, too subtle for most people. But a lifetime of training and genetically enhanced eyesight told me otherwise. It was clear that Shepard had briefly considered the option of smacking some sense into this idiot. Or punching him. Or maybe even shooting him. Instead, Shepard plastered a—mostly real—smile on his face. “Conrad... are you trying to act like me?”
“Act like you?” Conrad snorted. “Are you crazy? I’m nothing like you!”
At least he had one thing right.
“I’m not a Spectre working for the Council! I’m on my own, backed only by my wits and my nerves!”
His what and his what now?
“No rules, no laws, just whatever it takes to get the job done! I’m not like you at all!”
If only he knew how correct he was. To his credit, Shepard managed to continue without missing a beat. “How did you get that hardsuit, anyway?”
“Oh they make some pretty convincing replicas these days,” Verner said earnestly, “if you’re willing to pay. Getting the whole getup was pretty expensive, but my wife was really supportive. She even paid for my shuttle fare off-world!”
The bartender threw up her hands in frustration and shook her head. It was all I could do to avoid doing the same. It was hard enough keeping a straight face when various members of the squad were snorting or shaking with laughter at this oblivious dimwit.
“So... you just wander the galaxy righting wrongs?” Shepard asked.
“Hey, don’t say it like that!” Verner pouted. “I talk to people, you know? Ask them if they have big problems that only I can solve.”
It suddenly occurred to me that this sounded an awful lot like Shepard.
“You’d be surprised how many people are just waiting for someone to talk to them.”
Still sounded like Shepard.
“Sometimes I poke through crates, too. You know, for extra credits.”
Speaking of whom, Shepard was in the process of rubbing a hand over his eyes, no doubt hoping that it would help make sense of this fool. It didn’t. “How have you been doing all of this?” he asked, a hint of frustration entering his voice. “Any decent security system will detect that you aren’t in the military—any military—much less a Spectre or part of a Spectre’s squad.”
Verner furrowed his brows, equally frustrated that his hero and idol wasn’t taking him all that seriously. “I just say that I’m deep-cover and don’t appear on systems. I’m doing the best I can, okay?”
To anyone else, Shepard inhaled and exhaled, just a natural part of breathing. I, however, could tell that he was trying to muster some shred of patience before he said something that would send this delusional imbecile over the edge. “Conrad,” Shepard sighed, “do you have any actual combat training?”
Let’s be clear: getting beaten up and running away crying doesn’t count. Though it would display some common sense that had been sorely lacking thus far.
“I’m saving the galaxy, Shepard!” Verner bit out. “I don’t have time for training! Don’t you get it? You were a big jerk, but you saved the galaxy and showed other races that humans mattered... and then you died! The galaxy needed someone like you, Shepard. We all did. I had to do something.”
That was the first thing Verner had said that actually made sense. Regardless of how or why he did it, Shepard’s actions had showcased the impact and potential of humanity, on both a personal and galactic level. His death at the hands of the Collectors had an equally pivotal impact. Several people had reacted differently as a result. Garrus had tried to go back to C-Sec and attempted to make a difference as a Spectre before moving to Omega and driving three separate mercenary groups to despair. Kaidan Alenko had run back to his Alliance masters like the loyal lapdog he was. I had spent the last two years leading the ultimately-successful effort to resurrect Shepard.
I suddenly realized that Shepard was responding to Verner. “Why were you trying to get the deed to this place?” he was asking.
“This place is actually a front for a red sand dealer,” Verner blurted out excitedly. “I need to take it over to crack the ring!”
“What?” the bartender frowned. “Who the hell told you that?”
“The owner of that weapons store near the carport!” Verner replied obliviously. “She’s an undercover cop! She told me about it when I introduced myself.”
I had to recite the periodic table of elements to distract myself from the urge to smack this fool. Hard. Even if this was true, the fact that he would blurt it out to a potential participant in this supposed front... UGH!
It seemed I wasn’t the only one who was frustrated with this buffoon, judging by the glare the bartender levelled at him. “Listen, crap-for-brains: first, we don’t sell red sand. Second, red sand is legal on Illium! You just need a license!”
“I’ll talk to this undercover cop and figure out what’s going on,” Shepard smoothly interjected.
“Okay,” Verner said enthusiastically. “Just let me know if you need any help, Shepard!”
The dolt walked to the corner of the bar and assumed what he must have thought was a heroic pose. We ignored him. “Thanks for taking care of that crazy guy,” the bartender said to Shepard. “Saves me having to beat him to death with his own spine. That makes the other customers nervous. Plus, if I kill annoying customers, it usually causes property damage. That comes out of my pay.”
“We wouldn’t want that,” Shepard agreed with a straight face.
“Anyway, this is Eternity, and I’m Aethyta, asari matriarch and bartender. Get you anything?”
I wasn’t too surprised when Shepard chose to ask about Aethyta instead of getting a drink. Another unusual characteristic of Shepard’s—the intensive, exhaustive curiosity that he displayed towards uncovering each and every facet of his crew was extended towards, well, everybody and everything. On the battlefield, he spent just as much time exploring every nook and cranny as he did fighting off mercs. Off the battlefield, he devoted equal amounts of time to wandering around, shopping for upgrades, and asking random people if they needed help. Often with this silent little grin that never appeared on his lips, but shone in his eyes. A side benefit of his annoyingly persistent curiosity is that he tended to learn more than the average soldier, which occasionally could be turned to our benefit. “Most matriarchs I’ve met or heard of tend to serve as honoured advisors,” he said neutrally.
“Right,” Aethyta nodded. “Which I do here at this bar. I know, not what you’d expect.”
That would be understating things.
“But nobody on Thessia wanted to listen to my wise counsel, so here I am.”
“You didn’t seem fazed by Verner,” Shepard commented. Looking back at the twit, I saw him—oh dear—I saw him take out a gun and try to twirl it like a cowboy in one of those old vids. He lost his grip on it, watched as it twirled up in the air, drop back down and bop him on the head.
“Dad was a krogan who fought in the Rachni Wars,” Aethyta replied. “Mom fought in the Krogan Rebellions. I’ve pretty much seen it all.”
“Your dad fought in the Rachni Wars?” Shepard repeated.
“Yeah, when he was young,” Aethyta nodded. “Loved showing off his war scars. Krogan think they’re sexy. Me, I go for asses.”
She wasn’t the only one. I’d seen six hundred and twenty-nine instances of people checking out my ass since we’d landed on Illium.
“When I was a girl, he’d tell me about landing on this poison-filled world and stomping a rachni queen into muck...” Aethyta shook her head, grabbed a rag and started wiping the bar. “The scientists say all that stuff about us getting genetic material from the father is crap,” she said, quickly changing the topic. “Seems like I got a bit of his mouth, though.”
“And your mother fought in the Krogan Rebellions?” Shepard asked.
“I don’t know whether she ‘fought.’ She scouted, sniped a few people and blew up a couple of space stations.”
Another account that sounded eerily familiar.
“She’d put the old commando leathers on for special nights with Dad. Goddess, that was embarrassing,” Aethyta shuddered.
That brought up an interesting point, one that Shepard was quick to bring up. “If your father was a krogan and your mother fought in the Krogan Rebellions, didn’t that cause tension?”
“They didn’t meet until a few hundred years after the turians put the boot in with the damn genophage. No offense, babe,” Aethyta added for Garrus’s benefit.
“None taken,” Garrus replied.
“As far as either one knew, they were both just warriors. Dad boasted. Mom stayed quiet.”
Men tend to do that. Makes things both easier and harder on women.
“Mom was a matriarch herself, and Dad was near-on a thousand, when the truth finally came out.”
“What happened when he found out?”
“I was about a hundred, shaking my ass in some sleazy bar,” Aethyta sighed. “They got me on the link, told me that they were going to have it out, and made me promise to love whichever one survived. Turned out to be damn easy, since neither one did. Family, huh?” Aethyta laughed bitterly. “What a kick in the quad.”
Clearly the centuries since hadn’t done much to ease the pain of that memory. Shepard sensed that as well, smoothly moving on to another question. “You were about to tell me why a matriarch is spending her days in a bar serving drinks?”
“It’s better than what most other matriarchs are doing,” she scowled. “Look at that screw-up with Saren and his geth a few years back! The matriarchs did nothing to strengthen the Citadel Fleet. No new ships, no upgrades, not even a few extra military exercises. It’s no wonder that the Fleet was hanging bare-assed in space when Saren’s geth started shooting. If not for you humans, we would’ve bought it right there. And I warned them! Told people on Thessia what was coming, and they didn’t want to hear it.”
“What didn’t they want to hear?” Shepard asked.
“That art and philosophy and political prowess wasn’t gonna cut it,” Aethyta said bluntly, her voice dripping with derision as she listed the usual asari pastimes. “We can’t go a single asari lifetime without some big war breaking out. We need to get our daughters working earlier, not spending their wild maiden years stripping their clothes off or fighting in merc bands. But no one wanted to listen. And when I started talking about making new mass relays ourselves, they laughed the blue off my ass. So now I serve drinks.”
“Their loss,” Shepard shrugged.
“Nice try, but you still have to pay for your drinks like everyone else,” Aethyta snorted. “But if you want to start a tab, maybe I’ll break out the good stuff.”
“Thanks, but I’m on duty,” Shepard laughed. “One more question: what’s it like, living for nearly a thousand years?”
“Violent. Wars break out, colonies get destroyed. Sometimes you hear good news, like that colony on Feros surviving. That’s the exception, though. Most nights, you find peace in whatever arms will hold you. Turian, elcor, hanar... even had a pureblood daughter. I was the father. Didn’t work out.
“Then one day you wake up, your figure’s gotten matriarchal, and everyone else is too young to remember how the quarians looked inside those suits.”
Not surprisingly, Tali was nodding sympathetically with that last comment.
“I didn’t know,” Shepard offered. “Thanks for telling me about that. All of it.”
“That’s what I’m here for, babe. Get you anything else?”
Shepard shook his head. “No, I gotta figure this ‘undercover cop’ thing out before Verner gets any more ideas.”
“Good idea,” Aethyta agreed. “Hopefully you can sort it all out—hey!” Grunt was reaching for some bar snacks. “Don’t eat the nuts in the red bowls. They’re for turians and quarians. You’ll get cramps.”
Grunt looked dubious, but relented after Shepard shot him a look. We headed off to find the merchant Verner had mentioned. It turned out she was the merchant for the local Gateway Personal Defence kiosk. Shepard spent a few minutes browsing the inventory—which were predictably of high quality and even higher price—before turning to the merchant.
“Can I help you with something?” she asked.
Shepard assumed this... this look. Like he was trying to be sneaky and was doing a really bad job at it. “Uh, yeah. See, I talked to an old friend? Conrad Verner? You told him that the Eternity Lounge was selling red sand.”
A look of realization spread over the merchant’s face. “Oh, you’re Conrad’s friend. Yes, that place is really dangerous,” she nodded solemnly, the tone in her voice shifting to one that an adult might use for a child. Understandable: anyone who was a friend of Verner might easily be mistaken for being simple. “I should know. I’m an undercover cop. Did you get me the deed to the bar? I need the deed to, uh, stop the red sand dealers.”
I’ll admit part of me thought Shepard would drop the act and confront her. Tell her that he was on to her little game, that he wasn’t that stupid and she should stop jerking the nitwit around by the nose. Instead, he chose a sneakier and much more satisfying route:
“I softened up the bar owner, but you need to go in and finish them off.”
“Really?” the merchant asked, barely restraining her incredulity and excitement. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” he assured her. “You just need to close the deal. Shouldn’t be a problem—the owner’s a pushover. Go in, be tough. She’ll hand the deed right over.”
“Well... great!” the merchant beamed. “Here, I’ll set you up for a discount.” She turned around and quickly created an account for Shepard before running off. “Thanks for the help,” she called out over her shoulder.
“We are going to follow soon, right?” Kasumi asked. “Don’t want to miss the finale.”
I looked at Shepard...
...whose eyes were greedily poring through the inventory.
“Yeah, yeah,” Shepard was saying absently. “Give her a little head start first. In the meantime, will you look at this? Submachine gun upgrade, assault rifle upgrade—ooh! Would you look at that skin weave augmentation!”
Honestly, it was like watching a kid in a candy store.
We managed to pry him away after he bought several items. To be fair, all the upgrades would prove to be extremely useful. At the time, all I could think was that if he drooled over one more toy, I would have to... to... oh, I don’t know! Something!
Thankfully, I never had to imagine what I would do, as Shepard was eager to see what would happen when the merchant tried to ‘buy the deed.’ We made it back just in the nick of time. “Damn it, this is just a misunderstanding!” the merchant protested as a pair of cops closed in on her.
“Tell it to the judge,” the owner snapped. “My surveillance vids caught your extortion attempt from four different angles.”
“I was misled,” the merchant whined. “I was told that you had agreed to sell!”
“Take her away,” the owner ordered the cops, “before I have my bartender throw her out.”
After the cops dragged the merchant away in handcuffs, the owner left. Verner stumbled up to us. “Wh-what happened?” he asked dumbfounded. “The undercover cop from the weapons kiosk just got arrested.”
“She wasn’t a cop,” Shepard corrected him. “She was an deep-cover operative from a terrorist sleeper cell.”
“I’d never have found her if it wasn’t for you.”
“Really,” Shepard nodded. “You did a great job, Conrad. But the next time, you might not be so lucky. Now please, go home. I’ll take it from here.”
“Can do, Shepard,” Verner nodded. “And thanks. It’s really good to have you back.”
As the idiot walked away, all I could think of was that Shepard couldn’t be the manipulative liar who pretended to be a hero. To lie on missions or when dealing with important issues, that was one thing. To lie on lesser matters, such as Verner and his self-appointed mission—even if it did score us some valuable upgrades at discount prices—was another thing entirely. It was still possible, mind you. But increasingly unlikely. Particularly given the mounting evidence of Shepard’s concerns for his squad, his crew and random passerbys. That level of consistency just couldn’t be faked.
So I was back to square one. I’d eliminated all the options—well, that wasn’t entirely accurate. I still had the hero with a divine fool’s luck option. But I’d already given him the benefit of the doubt and eliminated that choice. I wasn’t about to revisit them again.
At least, that was the plan before we went to Corang.
Located in the Verr system, Corang was known for its high density and active plate tectonics, which suggested a high internal heat fueled by a high concentration of heavy and radioactive elements. Core samples collected by probes confirmed this, but its distance from the nearest mass relay system made mining operations impractical and unprofitable until the last three years.
We had gone there to recover some artifacts uncovered by one of our science teams, as well as any clues to the whereabouts of a missing scientist. Unfortunately, what might have started as a simple retrieval mission quickly became more complicated when we detected geth signatures on the planet’s surface, including several armature-class units.
Having narrowly survived tangling with a colossus on foot when recruiting Tali, none of us were eager to repeat that encounter. So Shepard had Mr. Moreau drop us off in the Hammerhead.
“Scanning for mission objectives,” the Hammerhead VI told us. “Mission objectives located. Alert: geth units detected.”
That warning was hardly necessary, what with the four geth troopers shooting at us. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem. They were only using assault rifles. Unfortunately, the Hammerhead sacrificed shield capability and any significant form of armour in favour of constant fire—thanks to its built-in heat sinks—and sheer speed. This shouldn’t be considered as a design flaw: it was imagined as a mobile rapid-response vehicle that could deliver both infantry and heavy weapons support. Unfortunately, most people who had occasion to use it in the field tended to regard the trade-offs as a bit too much. As a result, it had earned the less-than-flattering nickname of ‘floating glass cannon’ or FGC.
I saw Shepard move a hand towards the cannon controls, while the other steered us out of the line of fire. He paused for a moment, then gripped the steering wheel with both hands. I turned to look at him. What I saw in his eyes sent a chill down my spine. It wasn’t a look of bleak despair, nor was it a haunted gaze. I didn’t see a blank stare or any indication that he was hallucinating. There was no sign of anger or irrational need for vengeance clouding his vision. No, what I saw in his eyes was a certain glint. A telltale sign...
...of pure, unadulterated mischievous glee.
We all jerked back as the Hammerhead leapt forward. “Shepard,” Jacob managed as we drew closer and closer to the geth. “What are you do—gah!”
The Hammerhead hit one of the geth, which splayed across the front window like a giant synthetic bug, then flew beyond the range of the remaining geth and their weapons. Once Shepard slowed down, the geth fell prey to the laws of momentum, flying from the Hammerhead into the nearby rock face. It fell to the ground, twitched for a moment, then lay still.
“Well, that was... different,” Kasumi managed.
“What’re we gonna do about the other geth?” Zaeed wanted to know. “Bad idea to leave enemies behind where they can sneak up on you.”
Shepard must have had the same thought, because he was turning the Hammerhead around. I noticed that he wasn’t even bothering to prime the Hammerhead’s weapons. “Shepard,” I said warily, “you wouldn’t be doing what I think you’re doing.”
He was. We all jerked back as the Hammerhead flew back towards the geth. Unfortunately, there was a piece of debris in the way. Not a large one, but sizable enough to deflect our approach vector. As a result, we wound up skirting past the geth without hitting a single one. The geth, on the other hand, chose a much more conventional method of attack. As a result, they successfully scored several direct hits—and set off the damage alarms. “Shepard!” Tali shouted urgently. “What are you doing? You have guns—use them!”
Ignoring this rather sound advice, Shepard turned around again and tried again. This time he managed to hit two of the geth. One of them flew into a rock. The other bounced off the very same rock and skidded forward for another hundred metres or so.
“Shepard,” I called out urgently. “You might not be aware of this, but the Hammerhead is on fire.”
Fortunately, Shepard recognized what that meant and decided to take cover behind some more debris until the self-repair mechanisms had fixed the damage. Unfortunately, Shepard’s next move was to run over the last geth, which set off the damage alarms again.
Once the din had died down, we moved towards the first survey site, located on an elevated platform. Sure enough, there was a mobile research site set up there. It looked like we could download the data to the Hammerhead’s computers remotely.
“Warning: geth dropship approaching.”
Of course, we had to deal with the geth first. Three geth troopers and a geth colossus plummeted from the dropship onto the research site.
“Oh no,” was all Garrus said, clearly anticipating Shepard’s next move. I had come to the same conclusion myself. Rather than wasting my breath, I just reached down and double-checked that the seatbelts were tightly fastened.
Sure enough, Shepard boosted the Hammerhead on the platform seconds before the geth landed. Accelerating forward, he rammed into the colossus and drove it to its knees, its sheer bulk the only thing shielding us from the incoming weapons fire. Manoeuvring around the colossus, he drove into two of the geth troopers, sending them flying off the platform before following suit. Once he confirmed that the impact—and landing—had destroyed the geth, he flew back onto the platform and repeated the tactic with the remaining geth trooper. I found myself wondering what he would do with the colossus. We’d established that the Hammerhead could definitely make use of its speed to fly circles around it, and that a good impact would knock it over, but it would still remain very much intact and functional.
That didn’t stop Shepard from getting back onto the platform and ramming the colossus again. Then he backed up and drove into the toppled colossus again. And again. And again. He repeated this process until the colossus fell off the platform. It stumbled shakily back to its feet, paused...
...then collapsed with a loud squawk. I suppose it had had enough.
“That’s it?” Grunt pouted. “We just got started! Can we run over some more geth?”
“Sure thing,” Shepard agreed.
Ignoring the glares and pointed looks I was shooting his way, Shepard retrieved the artifact from the first survey site and moved on. We soon found ourselves at a cliff face. Beyond it was a yellow lake filled with highly concentrated acid, strong enough to corrode right through the Hammerhead—and us—in a matter of seconds. A few patches of rock acted as narrow islands, which we could use to hopscotch to the second survey site. Beyond the site lay the wreckage of some kind of industrial complex. Of course, that site was guarded by geth. Of course, the cliff face was also guarded by geth—two more troopers. Of course, Shepard had to plow into one, sending it careening into the acid at terminal velocity.
Of course, Shepard then had to fly the Hammerhead back up the cliff face so he could deal with the second trooper in a similar fashion. This one bounced across the acid lake like a skipping stone before succumbing to the acid. Grunt was positively giddy by this point.
Following a reading from the Hammerhead’s sensors, Shepard proceeded to mine a small platinum deposit from one of the islands. A momentary blip of what passed for him as normal behaviour. Then he started an attack run. His first pass knocked a geth destroyer into the acid, while the return pass took out one of the geth troopers. To everybody’s surprise—including Shepard’s, judging from the look on his face—the second pass actually sent the colossus flying off the survey site and into the industrial complex. Not surprisingly, the dual impacts were enough to take out the colossus. Just to be sure, though, Shepard nudged the colossus into the acid. Then he sent the last geth trooper flying into the acid before acquiring the second artifact.
Shepard continued to use this unorthodox tactic to deal with the majority of geth opponents. The lone exception were the remaining colossi we encountered—who were not on any platforms or near any acid and thus had to be taken out by repeated gunfire after knocking them to their knees—and a trio of rocket drones—who were flying above us and thus couldn’t be rammed. While we were ultimately successful, it was not without cost. Garrus had been grinding his mandibles throughout the entire mission. Kasumi had a death-grip on her armrests and had developed a nervous tick. Jacob was white as a sheet, which was impressive given his skin tone. Tali was wearing out her air filters with all her hyperventilating.
And I? I had a pounding headache, both from the stress of watching the Hammerhead catch fire twelve times as well as from listening to the damage alarms blaring in my ear.
As we returned to the Normandy, Grunt’s whoops of joy and excitement filling the air, I was forced to reconsider certain assumptions. Maybe I was premature in eliminating the reckless hero option. If not...
If not, then the only remaining choice was the divine fool’s option.
I wasn’t sure which option frightened me more.