Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 5

Chapter 5
     Shepard watched Tinman immediately organize his fellow geth in yet another major repair of the Normandy SR-2 a day after the attack over Mars.  Shepard had ordered Joker to set down nearby the Archives since certain repairs would require all systems to be off-line.  The Mars facilities would house the crew during those times, but right now every able hand was on board helping out.  Javik and Liara were the exceptions, the Normandy’s “odd couple,” another Vega-coined nickname, searching the Prothean data archives for anything that could help repair the relays instead.
     Watching the geth work in a unified and helpful way, instead of unified attacks against him, was refreshing and impressive to Shepard.  The frigate would be up and back to fighting shape in about two days instead of three weeks.  Not that the Alliance officer wanted to get back to any battle so soon, but with the yahg seemingly able to make massive light year jumps without the mass relays, there was no telling when trouble might show up again.
     “Speaking of yahg,” the captain thought, “I better go see what’s going on with that end of things.”  He turned from the repairs on the systems surrounding the galaxy map in the CIC and looked to Specialist Traynor. “Samantha, please contact Admiral Hackett.  I need to speak with him about the yahg.  I’ll take it in the vid comm room.”
     “Aye aye, Captain,” Traynor complied.  “And when you get a chance, Shepard, both Lieutenant Commander Williams and Miss Lawson want to speak with you . . . about, um-“
     Shepard held up a hand for her to stop. “Thanks, Traynor.  You don’t need to say anything else.  I could’ve guessed what it was about if I hadn’t already heard.  I’ll take care of that after they’ve had a while to cool off.”
     “Good idea, Captain,” Traynor agreed.  “And I’ll have Hackett on the line by the time you get to the war room.”
     “Thanks,” the captain said, a light damaged in the recent battle swinging loosely above his clean shaved head, throwing lights and shadows in a lazy repetition.  Shepard reached up with a flash of anger, stilled the annoyance, and then left.  “Two days,” he reminded himself walking off, leaving Traynor behind to wonder why the out of place light had bothered the normally coolheaded, N7-trained marine.
     Shepard made his way through the war room, noticing Wrex and Grunt both hunched over, looking at something on the central holo-display.  The mischievous glint in their eyes told the Normandy’s leader that they were anticipating a fight.  He made a mental note to check in with the fierce warriors after he was done with Hackett.
     In the vid comm room, Hackett’s blue hued image materialized.  The older man had never looked happy in any meeting Shepard could ever recall having with the admiral.  Now was no different.
     “Shepard,” he greeted the captain.
     “Admiral.  What have the intel boys learned?”
     “Nothing good, I’m afraid.  And it was almost nothing helpful. If we’d had one more itching trigger finger, we might not have salvaged the tech from the yahg dreadnought ships that we did.”
     “And that was . . .?”
     “A new engine design.  Very advanced.”
     “New?  From the yahg?  Last I heard, they were still months away from their first launch into space, period.  Before the Reapers.  How did they jump to a “very advanced” stage all of sudden?”
     “We’re guessing they had some help.”
     “But from who?”
     “We’re not one hundred percent, but they definitely didn’t come up with this on their own.  Some of the designs are similar to what you saw on the collector ship . . . but different.”
     “Reaper tech,” Shepard said with disgust, the uneasy feeling of the last few days beginning to find a source.
     “But with changes.  Adaptations- improvements– that a less advanced race like the yahg could not have come up with on their own.  Our scientists are reverse engineering it now, trying to figure out how it allows them to make the mass relay jumps without working mass relays.  I’ll send a copy of the data we have to T’Soni if it might help in some way with her mass relay research down on Mars.  There’s still a lot we don’t know about the relays.  They appear dead, and for the rest of the galaxy’s purposes, they are, but the yahg may have stumbled on to some hidden side to the relay technology, some new form of energy that is still being channeled by the relays even now.”
     “That’d be nice.  Return travel and communications back to normal.  It would be handy to still be able to utilize the relay network without having to figure out how to repair the damn things,” Shepard said.
     “It could be a handy new tool or it could be a new deadly weapon.  If the yahg can jump to the Sol relay, why not any other system’s relay? Even if we learn how they’re doing it, they have the advantage right now.  We’re playing catch up.  If the yahg are out there, able to reach even half of the populated systems, while the galaxy’s fleets are all still here . . .”
     “Then we’re perfectly safe, while everyone else- have the Rachni reported anything?” Shepard suddenly asked.
     “I had the same thoughts, Captain,” Hackett said.  “But no, they have not. I’ve asked them to move their . . . people.  Do a little scouting for us.  Hopefully we hear nothing.”
     “I doubt we’ll be that lucky,” Shepard admitted with a frown.
     “You and me both.  All the more reason to get the relays working or this engine figured out and adapted to our ships.  So get back to the Archives.  Find some answers.  In the meantime, I’ll speak with the geth and make a priority schedule for ship repairs.”
     “Civilian ships won’t be at the top, will they, Admiral?”
     “No, they won’t.  I guess a week with no war after finishing the Reapers was too much to ask, huh?”
     “Apparently.”
     “Work to do,” Hackett stated, drawing the briefing to an end.
     “We’ll figure it out, sir.  Shepard out.”
     Shepard ended the meeting with a tap on the console and left the room.  He glanced around the war room. Wrex and Grunt were gone.
* * * * *
     “Traynor, where are our new crew members right now?” Shepard asked through his communicator as he rode the Normanday’s elevator downward.
     “With their ships, trying to squeeze whatever modifications they can out of the geth helping them do repairs.”
     “They’re real pilots, all right.  Thanks.”
     Shepard changed his floor selection from the crew deck to the combination armory and hangar deck.  Lunch would wait.  He needed to meet his two pilots now that their was time.  His stomach growled in protest, but he ignored it as he had many times before.
     The elevator stopped and the doors opened.  Shepard stepped out on to the wide open floor of the hangar.  He saw Cortez working with a couple geth on the Kodiak’s repairs, Vega curling dumbbells across the room, and in the center, the two prototype fighters from Cerberus, two new faces, and a handful of other geth.  The two pilots’ backs were turned to Shepard, focused on their work.  The captain walked to within a few paces when he decided to have a little fun.
     “Lieutenants Ericson and Murphy!” he bellowed.
     Wayne Murphy jolted in shock.  Ericson did not even blink an eye, but casually looked up from a data pad displaying what Shepard made out to be the shield generator unit’s designs.  Ericson saw the serious look on Shepard’s face and quickly put the pad down and lined up next to Wayne, at attention and saluting.
     “Sir, yes sir!” they both responded.
     Shepard stepped in close, staring the men down.  Murphy held a small bit of worry, not quite graduating to fear, in his eyes while Ericson returned the stare with an even calm.
     “I came down here,” Shepard continued in a harsh tone, pacing back and forth in front of the men,”to find out just who the hell is responsible . . . for saving me and my team,” he finished in a normal voice and with a smile.  “At ease, gentlemen.”
     The two men relaxed as Shepard held out his hand in greeting to them both.  “Welcome to the Normandy . . . officially.  I’m Captain Shepard and this is about as formal as you’re likely to ever see me.”
     Wayne and Ericson shook their commanding officer’s hand, his firm handshake not just a formality or kindness, but a sign of respect to two men who had earned it the day before.
     “Our pleasure, Captain.  Nothing we like more than being the first to tangle with a new deadly enemy,” Ericson said with a slight grin.
     “I hear you,” Shepard said.  “How are the ships?”
     Ericson turned back to face the space craft, pulling up his data pad again.  “Our geth friends have almost completed all the work to bring them back up to spec, but I’ve managed to work a few tweaks out of their quick little synthetic minds.”
     “Such as?” Shepard prompted.
     “Nothing major.  Increased cooling on the engine and guns, another missile mount on each wing, and about a ten percent reduction in shield recharge time.”
     “Not bad.  We can use every edge we can get out there.  Good work, marine.”
     “Thank you, sir.”
     “Call me Shepard, Ericson.  Same goes for you, Murphy.  Unless you screw up.  Then you better start with the ‘sir, yes sir’ again.”
     “Or just call him Loco,” Vega said, putting the weights down and coming over.  “Fuck, you already took that name for yourselves.  It should come naturally, no?”
     Shepard arched an eyebrow.  “Took the name?”
     Ericson laughed.  “Yeah, Joker wanted us to have a name for our little two man squad, and Vega had mentioned his nickname for you.  I figured since we were flying under your command now, and were about to jump into the middle of an insane shit storm over Mars, Locos was as good as anything else I could have come up with.”
     “Uh huh,” Shepard said, crossing his arms in simulated anger.  “Don’t you two go ruining my good name- um, nickname?  Reputation- whatever.”
     The group of men laughed lightly.  “Yeah, as well as your two man group did, I was thinking of adding a third if we can squeeze it in here somehow.  So if there’s anyone you two know that you’ve worked with before, I’ll take your suggestions under advisement.”
     Ericson and Wayne looked at each other and both nodded.  “We might have just the person you’re  looking for, Captain.  I’ll send you the info when I’m done here,” the pilot said.
     Shepard waved them off.  “I’ll let you get back to spoiling your babies, but don’t be strangers on the Normandy.  If you’re like anyone else that’s served on my crew, you’re liable to become a permanent resident.”
     “Will do, Shepard,” Ericson said.  He and Wayne saluted and went back to work.
     James didn’t move, waiting for Shepard.  “Hey Loco, you got a minute?”
     “Sure, James.  What’s up?”
     “I had a question.  It’s a little personal, though.”
     “And you are going to let that stop you?” Shepard asked, wondering where the conversation was about to lead.
     “Ha, I guess you’re right.  Look, I know you and Jack were sort of close back during the collector thing.  I mean, I know it never got to where you and Lawson are, but I know Jack wanted it to.”
     Shepard saw where Vega was going and wondered how he, an N7 marine, by all reports an expert- if not cold-blooded- killer, had become matchmaker on an Alliance frigate.  “Joker and Edi, Donnelly and Gabby, and now Vega and . . . Jack?” Shepard checked off. “At least Garrus and Tali had done things on their own,” he admitted, feeling an honest happiness for his longtime turian and quarian friends.
     James went on,”What I wanted to know, if you don’t mind answering, anyway, is why didn’t you end up with Jack?  Something warn you off of her or she do something that turned you off or something?”
     “Vega, why do I sense fear in your questions?  You’re not worried about Jack’s attention, are you?” he teased his fellow marine.
     “No way, Loco . . . just worried about her wrath if I don’t play things straight . . . or even if I do.  She’s even more loco than you, right?”
     “Look, Jack was a ticking time bomb when she first came on board.  She was angry, she was scared, she was confused, and ready to lash out at anyone and everyone for anything or nothing at all.”
     “So . . . keep my distance?”
     Shepard shook his head.  “No.  I’m just detailing how things used to be.  Jack’s come a long way.  She’s beaten some of her biggest demons, she’s matured, learned how to be part of a team and trust others.  Hell, she’s even become a leader in her own right with her biotic students.”
     “So . . . don’t keep my distance.  But why didn’t you go after her.  I mean, she’s a hot chica and pretty fun if you don’t have to worry about biotic destruction.  What gives with you two?”
     “What gives is that things between Miranda and I had begun developing first and faster.  Jack was too closed off and distrustful of everyone, not just me, and that made any level of relationship difficult to follow through on.  But, if Miranda had not been on board, I’m sure things would have turned out differently.  So feel free to pursue Jack, if you’re serious.  Don’t toy with her emotions just to get laid, marine, or you’ll be dealing with the most powerful biotic the universe has ever produced.  And you’ll be dealing with me,” Shepard said, pointing his thumb back at his chest.  “Understood?”
     “Understood, Loco.  Jeez, man, you don’t gotta get all serious on me.  I’m not the player type.  When I care about a girl, I care about them.  It generally ends with me more hurt than them, but that’s only because I try so hard to make it work.  Just wanted to know if I was about to jump in over my head and end up as a splash of red goo dripping down a wall.”
     “Vega, I think you’re just what Jack needs.  You’re obviously who she wants.”
     “Yeah, she’s not shy about hiding it, that’s for sure.”  Shepard turned to go and caught a look from Vega.  “Something else, James?”
     “Nah . . . just- thanks, Shepard.”
     Shepard smiled and left the hangar.  “Time for some food,” he reassured his angry stomach.
* * * *
     The captain finished off a medium-rare t-bone steak, dripping in a tangy barbecue sauce.  “There are some advantages to being savior of the universe,” he told Miranda who was reading over reports from the terminal next to the bed in Shepard’s cabin.
     “And you have no idea how much that cost,” Miranda said, looking up with a smile.
     Shepard stood up and made his way over to sit down next to Miranda.  She looked over at him.
     “What?” she asked.
     “This,” he answered, leaning in and kissing her.  He savored the kiss more than he had the steak.
     “Mmmm, barbecue,” Miranda said after Shepard leaned back.  Shepard looked at his beautiful woman and they both laughed.
     “I can’t remember the last time I just took a spare second for myself to enjoy the simple pleasures,” the captain contemplated out loud.
     “What, you don’t remember last night?” his lover asked with feigned shock.
     “Ha!  There was nothing simple about those pleasures, those positions, last night, Ms. Lawson,” he replied with his attempt at a seductive look meant to ask for more of the previous evening’s activities.
     “Shepard, put that face away before you embarrass yourself . . . again,” she laughed, smacking his shoulder playfully.  “Besides,” she continued, moving over to climb on top of him, while beginning to unzip her top,”it’s not like you need it.”
     “Is that right?”
     “Mm hmm,” she reassured him as her shirt fell to the floor, soon after by the rest of her clothes.  Shepard’s own garments quickly joined hers and he pulled Miranda down with him, lying down on his large bed.  He felt the warmth of her naked body on his and wrapped his arms around her.  He slid his fingers through the strands of her hair, pulled her face to his and kissed her again.  She responded by running a hand down Shepard’s side, across his lower stomach, and then below.
     “Well, aren’t we a little excited?” she said with a knowing smile.
     “More excited than last night, and the term little didn’t come up then,” he said.
     Miranda shook her head, smiling, and then shifted their bodies to let Shepard inside her.  She moaned lightly with the pure sensation taking hold of her.  She closed her eyes and whispered,”I love you, Shepard.”
     “I love you, Miranda,” Shepard confirmed with a steady look into his lover’s eyes.
     “I know,” she said, enjoying the truth behind both of their words.  She pushed herself down on Shepard quickly, forcing an uncontrolled sharp breath from him and then said,”I expect to be sore tomorrow, Captain.”
     “Yes, ma’am, Ms. Lawson,” Shepard obeyed, meeting her force with an equal and opposing one.
* * * *
     Hours later, Tinman stopped Shepard in the CIC.  “Shepard, the Normandy’s repairs require more materials to continue.  We can process the wreckage of the yahg ships to fill this need.  We ask for your help in procuring the metals since many of our available ships in this system are not designed to carry large amounts of supplies.”
     A well rested and very relaxed Captain Shepard nodded.  “Not a problem, Tinman.  I’ll just have one of our Alliance transports scout out the crash sites for useful materials.  Feel free to help with that or you can continue on the repairs here . . . unless there is something you’d rather be working on altogether.”
     “Thank you, Shepard.  I will work on the repairs.  As for our- my preference, this is still an organic trait I have not fully developed.  The geth collective nature, prior to Legion’s freeing us, is still a key component of our decision processes.  I am aware of so-called preferences only arising around that which benefits all geth and our allies.  Personal preferences . . . may develop after more time in my new, more isolated, existence.”
     “Fair enough.  Just let me know when repairs are complete.  And take whatever breaks you and your people need.  You’ve been kicking ass for days all across the fleets.  We don’t expect you to slave away for us.  If you need anything, you let me know.”
     “Acknowledged, Shepard,” the prime said.  The geth member of the Normandy turned, crouched, and shuffled into the elevator, taking it back down to do repairs in engineering.  That suggestion had been made from a quick contact with Javik, earlier, via Garrus.  “The message,” the turian had informed Shepard,”was: ‘turian, tell the Captain the machines are to make repairs of none of my quarters and only on that level when I am not present.  I am not present, now.”
     Shepard left the CIC and met Ashley at the Normandy’s exit off the side of the bridge.
     “Ready to go read some Prothean lit?” he asked.
     “Eh, whatever,” she replied coldly.
     Shepard clenched his jaw.  He could already tell the talk they were going to have was not going to be as quick and painless as the one with Miranda.  That had consisted of Shepard coming in to his quarters, finding Miranda patiently waiting for him, followed by her preemptive apology.  It had been completely unexpected.
     “Look, Shepard,” she had said,”I . . . I’m sorry.”
     “For?” he asked, though he’d already heard.
     “For being the Cerberus cheerleader bitch that Jack always made me out to be.”
     “What do you mean, Miranda?”
     “I mean your Lieutenant Commander Williams was right.  This is an Alliance ship, now.  It follows Alliance rules.  I interfered and over stepped my boundaries.  It won’t happen again.”
     Shepard eyed Miranda suspiciously.  “Okay, how about you tell me how you really feel, now,” he had prodded her.
     She let out a deep breath.  “God damn it, I hate that bitch!”
     “A little harsh, but more what I expected to hear,” he confided.
     “I just- I admit, I still think of the ship as a Cerberus ship.  I see Joker and Garrus, Tali and Grunt, even Jack, and think of our crew.  How I was running things if I wasn’t in on whatever mission you were off trying to re-kill yourself on.  But then I see Liara, instead of Samara, Vega instead of Zaeed or Jacob.  No Thane, no Samara, not even Legion.  It’s hard to let go of command or even being part of the chain.  I’m out of my element, Shepard.”
     “I know, Miranda, but so is everyone else.  This rebuilding effort is going to be tough on everyone, and if the yahg are getting thrown into the mix, a lot more will be asked of everyone, too.”
     “You’re right.  And I’ll work it out, but it doesn’t help knowing your past with her.”
     “And now we come to the heart of it,” Shepard thought, before continuing.  “Miranda, you know things between Ash and I are through.  You’re the only woman I need . . . or want. You don’t have anything to worry about.”
     Miranda had come over to him and leaned into his chest, her cheek resting against his black armor with its red highlights.  “You’re sweet to say it, Shepard, and I know it.  But she doesn’t.  Not really.  I can see it in her eyes every time you two are in the same room together.  It’s like Jack was, but it’s more because you and Williams . . . were more.”
     “‘Were’ being the key word.  Ashley knows how I feel.  When she couldn’t trust me on Horizon, that was the beginning of our end.  She didn’t trust me after that, and lasting relationships are built on trust.  You and I have that, Miranda.  Ash trusted me barely then, and even after I came back to the Alliance, she was questioning me.  Reapers were destroying Earth and she was questioning me on Mars about ties to Cerberus.  Then on the Citadel, she let a bastard like Udina play on that again to the point I almost had to pull the trigger on a good friend.  It’s safe to say there’s no repairing that bridge.  We’re still friends, and she trusts me again now . . . I think, but there’s no going back to what she and I were.  Even if I had never lost her trust, she’s no Miranda Lawson,” Shepard had finished.
     “Oh, you’re pathetic,” Miranda had joked, looking up to his face.  “If you think sad attempts at ass kissing are going to win me over . . . well then you are absolutely right.”
     “A good night,” Shepard reminded himself, facing the present once more.  Looking at the cold expression on Ashley’s face, he could feel the ensuing battle.  The inner door opened to the Normandy’s airlock and the two officers stepped in to have it close behind them and activate the decontamination scan automatically with every exit and entrance.  The scan completed in a single bright flash of light.  Shepard guessed the much quicker speed was no doubt a result of a geth upgrade, one for which he was very grateful.  “Note to self: ask about elevators,” he thought, for the hundredth time.
     The outer door of the airlock opened.  Shepard and his lieutenant commander stepped out on to the landing zone and made their way across the short distance between the Normandy and the entrance into the main archive center on Mars.  After another decontamination scan, they entered the controlled environment inside and took off their helmets.
     Shepard turned to Ashley,”We need to talk, Ash.”
     “About what, Shepard?” she practically spat.
     “I’ll be blunt.  Your and Miranda’s fight.  I won’t sugarcoat it- you were both out of line.  I don’t need two of my best and most respected crew members having a pissing contest in front of the crew.  I don’t need a situation that’s going to divide my team into picking sides between you two.”
     “Maybe you should have thought about that before sleeping with the enemy, hot shot.”
     Shepard grabbed Ashley’s arm and stopped her in her tracks, turning her to face him.  “You do not want to go down that path with me, Ashley.”
     “But how can you trust her, Shepard?” Ashley demanded.  “She’s never been Alliance, like us.  She’s never served in a military unit . . . she was part of a terrorist organization.  She was in the highest levels of Cerberus! . . . and she murdered her dad.  I would kill to have my father here, alive today.  She went out of her way to kill her’s.  How can you trust someone who kills their own family?”
     “You know the situation wasn’t that cut and dry, Ash.  You were on Sanctuary.  You saw what her father was doing, how twisted a man he was.  She had known that her whole life.  Father or not,  Miranda knew that the galaxy was a better place without him in it.”
     Ashely took a deep breath and let it out, contemplating in silence for a moment.  “Since we’re being honest and blunt and all that . . . I just don’t know if I can be on the same ship as her, Shepard.  Seeing you every day is hard enough.  I fucked that up, I know.  I can live with that.  But seeing you with her every day . . . I don’t know if I can keep doing that.”
     “Look, Ashley.  I can understand where you’re coming from, and I may not want my team picking sides, but I have no problem doing exactly that.  I picked you over Kaidan all those years ago and that was with the certain knowledge that the one of you I didn’t help would die.  This isn’t even close to being that serious, so don’t think I can’t make that decision.”
     Ashley looked away.  “That’s not fair, Shepard.”
     “And what you two are doing to me is?  Come on, Ash.  We both know this isn’t about Alliance versus ex-Cerberus.  This is you versus Miranda . . . for me.  And that decision has been made.  I can assure you of that.”
     An unbidden hint of moisture threatened to spill over Ashley’s eyelids.  “I . . . I know.  I just . . . I’ll pull it together, sir,” she finished, straightening what had become a defeated slouching stance.  She saluted, staring Shepard in the eyes, the tears still held barely in check.
     Shepard saluted back.  “Glad to hear it.  I can’t have my second in command be distracted right now.”
     “Second in command?  But I thought . . .”
     “What?  That I was going to demote you?  You’re still the second highest ranking Alliance officer on the Normandy.”
     “But Miranda-“
     “Is a freelance consultant . . . who grudgingly admitted that she was wrong and will stay out of your way when it comes to the chain of command on board.  But if a mission comes up and I feel success would come best from you two working together, I expect both of you to get the job done.”
     “Yes sir.”
     “Without killing each other,” he added with a smile.
     Ashley smiled and a relieved laugh escaped.  “I’ll do my best, sir.”
     “That’s all I’m asking, Ash.  I need you on the Normandy.  Both of you.  We’ve all had our asses saved one time or another by the two of you.  We won’t be as strong a team if one of you decides to leave.  That’s not what we need . . . and that’s not what I want,” the captain finished.
     “Yes sir.  Now can we go do a mission or something?”
     “I know, I know: awkward situations.”
     “Yeah.”
     Shepard motioned down the hallway to the main research data center.  “Lead the way, Lieutenant Commander.”
     “Thank you, sir,” Ashley said, heading down the corridor.
     Shepard waited a few steps, letting Ashley get out of earshot, and then exhaled in relieved happiness.  “How the hell did I get out of that one with all my parts intact?” he asked himself before following his brunette comrade.
     Their steps echoed on the metal flooring, the once bustling hub for researchers of every stripe now hauntingly empty and quiet, saturated in the feelings of loss.  Shepard felt a small chill run down his back, similar to when he had been in the ruins of Ilos or when he had experienced Javik’s memories of the ancient Prothean cities being destroyed on Eden Prime.
     From around a corner and through the open lab door, Shepard heard Liara and Javik arguing yet again.
     “You have mistranslated, T’Soni.  It is not possible.  Any and every advantage was researched and exploited in our war with the Reapers.  Our scientists would not have abandoned that.”
     “I may not be a native Prothean speaker, but I can read this easily, Javik.  And it wasn’t your scientists that abandoned it.  The military leaders forced them to stop.”
     Shepard came through the door as Javik walked over to read over Liara’s shoulder.  Ashley already had positioned herself at one of the free computer consoles and was manipulating the screens, watching Alliance feeds on one and Spectre feeds on the other.  “You should see the list of suggested Spectres going around, Captain,” she said, her tone betraying no clue of the conversation they had just finished.
     “Who’s jumping out at you, Ash?”
     “Garrus, for one.”
     “Makes sense to me.”
     “Yeah, but this one might surprise you.”
     “Who?”
     “Grunt.”
     “Anything to do with surviving a hundred Rachni single-handedly?”
     “Something like that.  Wish I’d been on that mission.”
     “No you don’t,” Shepard assured her with a smile.  “Anyone else in particular?”
     “Not that I know, but there’s talk about allowing a geth to apply . . . eventually.  Oh, and a Prothean.”
     Javik looked up from verifying what Liara had been telling him.  “That is absurd.  They will not find another Prothean.  I am the only . . . oh.  Still, it is based on their emotions alone.  They do not know me, my full capabilities, or my motivations.  Primitives,” he said, shaking his head and looking back over Liara’s findings.  “This- this cannot be,” the warrior said.  “They gave up.  They conceded the war to the Reapers!”      Shepard looked up from a Spectre message on Ashley’s screen detailing a new recruitment and approval process now that the Council was dead.  “What?” he asked, as shocked as Javik.
     “They had the answer.  If they had just finished building it . . . we could have won!  At the very least we could have escaped the Reapers perpetually.”
     “You’re not talking about the Crucible, are you?” Shepard asked, feeling he knew the answer already.
     “No, Captain.  It seems our scientists were researching many projects, but near the end they focused on two.  The Crucible and one other project: a new engine for our ships.  This report speaks in generalities, but it would have had the same power and ability as the mass relays!  But they ended that research.  Not because of Reaper attacks, but because they were worried about the technology falling into Reaper hands!  They killed the project leaders before the prototype was completed because they refused to give up on it.”
     “Makes sense to end the project, but not kill the scientists.  If the Reapers no longer needed to depend on the relays, they’d be able to jump into any system at any time.  Destroying relays wouldn’t even be able to slow them down,” Shepard said.
     “Well it looks like the yahg must have stumbled on to that prototype engine and finished it,” Ashley added.  “How else could they be jumping in to our system?”
     “But they jumped in at the mass relay, human,” Javik said.  “This design would have allowed them to jump straight to Earth.”
     “So they came up with it on their own?” Ashley asked the Prothean.
     “I do not see how.  They are the most primitive species worth mentioning in this cycle.  They have had help, but I do not know from whom.”
     Liara met Shepard’s sudden look her direction and knew they had both come to the same conclusion.  “The Shadow Broker,” the asari whispered.
     “Your predecessor?” Javik asked.
     “Hold on,” Liara said, attacking the nearest console.  She accessed root programming files quickly, searching for a sub-routine she hoped would not be there.
     “Process located,” a computer voice confirmed.  Liara looked down.
     “I . . . I never thought to look here,” she said in an apologetic tone.
     “The Shadow Broker had an agent here, didn’t he?” Shepard inquired.
     “At one point, yes, but not for some years.  I remember a report of very little of value being found in the archives beyond what was widely known.  Clearly that was misinformation planted in the Shadow Broker’s files by his own hand.  And whoever was here left access to the archives at his disposal.  And it has been accessed recently.”
     Shepard stood up.  “How much?  How recently?”
     “Constantly, right up until the mass relays were destroyed by the Crucible.”
     “But the Shadow Broker’s dead.  Who was doing that?”
     “Clearly this Shadow Broker left a subordinate on his home planet to continue whatever plans he had set in motion,” Javik suggested.
     “The question is what those plans are,” Liara stated.
     “And if the yahg have had access to the archives for all this time, then why are they so intent on getting back here?  What are we missing?” Ashley wondered.
     Shepard looked around the room.  It was a good point.  “It must be something that data can’t provide.  Something physical.  I’m guessing the actual prototype engine.  They may have found ealry plans that were incomplete and now they want the real thing.  And we need to find it first.”  Shepard opened communications to the Normandy.  “Joker, get EDI to run a scan of the Prothean ruins on Mars.  Those yahg are after something down here and we need to know what.”
     “Well, if you give them enough time, they might just tell you, Captain,” Joker radioed back.
     Shepard’s eyes widened.  “Joker?”
     “We’ve got inbound.  Just came out of FTL.  They must have taken out the small group we had flying patrol around the relay before they got a warning message off.  Luckily we’ve got a few dozen ships still in the area, but the yahg look like they’ve brought half their fleet.  Of course, that’s just me pulling statistics out of my ass, but it’s a lot of damn ships.  And they’re landing troop transports!”
     “Same as before,” Shepard said, looking at the crew members in front of him.  “And they already know our strength here.  That confirms it. Mars holds something of extremely high importance and we need to find and protect it from the yahg.  Joker, is the Normandy ready for battle?”
     “No sir, we’re going to have to leave and let the fleet handle this one.  But don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of time to get back.”
     “I’m not coming back,” Shepard informed his pilot.  “I need you to get out of here, and tell anyone who can, to stay behind with us and defend this position.  The bigger the force the better.  And tell them to grab whatever supplies, weapons, or armor they can.  We’re gonna need it.”
     “Understood, Captain,” came the reply.  “Good luck.”
     “You too.  Now get moving.”
     “Aye, aye, Captain.”
     Shepard moved quickly to the communications station in the lab and punched up his direct channel to the admiral’s ship.
     “This is Captain Shepard of the Normandy to Admiral Hackett.  Please respond.  Hostile’s approaching Mars in force.”
     “I read you, Captain, and I see it,” came Hackett’s voice.  “What the hell are the yahg after, Shepard?”
     “We’re not sure, Admiral, but they’ve had access to the Mars Archives for a long time, it appears.  So they must be after something that is located here.  Something very valuable.”  He spared the admiral the details for now.
     “Or the data you uncover may be so valuable that it’s worth throwing their lives away if it prevents us from learning it,” Hackett considered.
     “If that were the case, I would have bombed this facility from orbit in the first attack,” Javik countered.
     “Very observant, Javik,” Hackett said.  “What’s the plan until we get there, Shepard?”
     “I’m pulling everyone I can from the Normandy to hold and defend this position.  Either the enemy’s objective is here or the information that will lead us to it is here.  We’ll take care of the ground troops if you all take care of their fleet.”
     “That’s a deal, Captain.  Just hold the line until we get there,” Hackett ordered.
     “Yes sir,” Shepard acknowledged.
     “Hackett out.”
     Shepard turned away from the station and pulled his favored geth shotgun out.  “Time to do what we do best, people.”
     The others nodded, arming themselves as well.
     A stampede of footsteps rushed down the hall.  Shepard and crew turned in surprise, weapons raised.  Grunt and Wrex came through the door way, paying their friends no mind as they dropped a heavy container of ordinance.
     “Calm down, Shepard,” Wrex said with a quick laugh.  “We’ve still got a few minutes before the enemy gets here.”
     “The yahg,” Grunt said, eagerness lighting up his face.  “This battle will be a story for the ages!”
     “Any other crew coming?” Shepard asked, lowering his gun.
     “Yeah, most of the usuals and a few extras,” Wrex answered.
     “Is that right?” Shepard asked.
     It was not long before Jack, James, Miranda, Tali, Garrus, Zaeed, EDI, and Tinman all filed in, carrying what looked like the entire armory with them.  Three other geth followed Tinman, these of the smaller, sniper variety that looked to Shepard to be what Legion was modeled after.  Those were followed by the true surprises of the force: Ericson, Murphy, and Dr. Chakwas.
     Shepard looked at them with concern.  “Shouldn’t you two be taking your fighters to the skies right about now? And Doc?  Why the field trip?”
     “Well, Captain, I figured with all those beasts coming, you would need my services sooner rather than later.”
     “Let’s hope not, but thanks.  Ericson?”
     Ericson put down the crate he was carrying and popped it open, pulling out a Revenant clumsily.  “Remember how I said the ships were almost up to spec?”
     Shepard inclined his head, crossing his arms. “Yeah?”
     “Well, that almost was about seventy-five percent.”
     “And what ‘almost’ are they at now?” the captain wanted to know.
     “Eh, ninety- ninety-five percent,” Wayne answered, pulling out a heavily modified Vindicator from what he had toted along.  He seemed much more comfortable with his weapon.  The highly customized look intrigued Shepard.  “Wayne, you didn’t start out as a pilot, did you?”
     “I’d expect you to pick up on that, Shepard.  Not at all.  Infantry, or ‘assault specialists’ as we used to joke.  Just a typical grunt.”
     “What?” Grunt asked, looking up for the one addressing him.
     Wayne looked over at the monster of a krogan. “Huh?”
     Shepard laughed as did some of the other Normandy crew.  “Lieutenants Ericson and Murphy, meet our genetically perfected krogan: Grunt.”
     “Ooohh,” Wayne said.
     Grunt quickly caught on and rolled his eyes, strapping a dozen grenades on to his chest.  Wrex took notice and leaned over, pointing his shotgun at the younger krogan’s chest.  “Careful kid, one little trip and that fall onto your face is going to be nasty.  Or one well placed shot to the chest. Boom.  No more Urdnot Grunt,” Wrex said with a chuckle.
     “Don’t worry, old-timer, I don’t trip.”
     “And you don’t get shot, either, right?”
     “Whatever,” the young warrior said, walking off to deal with more crates of ammunition and grumbling about certain krogan thinking they were other krogan’s parents.  When Wrex turned back to his own battle preparations, Grunt quietly rotated his bandoleer to position the majority of the explosives to his back.
     Shepard focused back on Ericson.  “What about you, Ericson? How much experience have you had on the ground?”
     Ericson looked around at the rest of the team.  “Not enough, sir.  But I’ll try not to shoot anyone in the back.”
     Grunt let out an exasperated groan and took off the bandoleer.
     Shepard thought about the options for the expert pilot who, despite all his military service, was a threat to be a liability in a sudden onslaught of an enemy never even trained for by the most hardened soldier.
     In the middle of his thoughts, Javik walked up.  “I believe I may be of assistance in this matter, Captain.”
     Shepard nodded and the Prothean grabbed the captain’s arms.  Shepard felt the disorienting sensation of the memory exchange accompanied by flashes of Javik’s combat training and experiences in the Reaper war tens of thousands of years ago.  It mixed with periods from the brutal training regimen of the Special Forces elite N program.  Shepard relived a Prothean’s horrors as well as his own experience making it from N1 all the way to N7 training and missions before the most pivotal moment in the captain’s career and life: Akuze.  The memory rattled Javik enough to cause him to release his grip. He shook his head, trying to clear the memory from his head without success.  “Commander- Captain . . . Shepard,” the Prothean rambled.
     Shepard held Javik’s gaze, the two sharing a greater understanding of the other.  “You can probably stop before that, Javik.”  The alien, misplaced in time, nodded.
     “Agreed.”
     Ericson watched the entire process transpire in an instant.  “Uh . . . what was that?”
     Javik walked over to the young pilot.  “That is how communication is supposed to work, human. Written into your DNA are the experiences of your life.  Your training, your victories, your failures,” Javik glanced over to Shepard,”your pain.  It is a two way street, as you say, and it is how we will turn you into a feared warrior on the ground.  I will, in turn, gain something I have never learned, which is how to be a feared warrior in the skies.  It will be . . . an odd experience for you.”
     Ericson looked from Javik to Shepard.  “Let’s not waste anymore time talking about it.  Do it.”
     Javik grabbed Ericson’s arms and seconds later the pilot weakly crouched to his knees.  “The dizziness will pass, Ericson,” Javik assured him.
     “Yeah, that’s pretty intense,” Ericson admitted.
     Javik nodded and found a chair nearby.  “It has been quite a while since I have been an intermediary for two other warriors with such . . . exciting lives.  I will need a moment to recover.”
     Vega checked the computer display over Ashley’s shoulder.  “Well, it better be only a moment, cuz these yahg things are almost here.”
     Shepard looked at his team.  It was nice to have so many of them in one place, but he knew he was going to need every one of them.
     Ericson stood back up and grabbed the Revenant again, this time with confidence and loading a thermal clip into it expertly.  “Nice,” he said, impressing himself.  Let’s go.”
     Shepard smiled.  “It’s almost sad what’s about to come down on the yahg forces,” he thought.  “Almost.”
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Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 4

 

Chapter 4
 
     
     Shepard stared at the point of a gun.
     “Now, ah suggest ya jist turn yerselves around here, and go back the way ya came,” said a scraggly bearded older man with curly red hair.  His manners were those of a colonial on a fringe world.  Shepard could only guess that the man had given up the fight on the edge of the universe, tried to come back home, only to find the Reapers invading.  The Alliance Captain pictured a rust bucket of a transport buckling under the mere thought of a Reaper weapon pointing in its direction and crashing on to Mars, well short of its intended destination.
     “Hey, didn’t you hear the man?” asked an equally rough looking woman behind the old man.  At least Shepard thought it was a woman.  The tangle of hair mixed with scars on the person’s face, combined with the grease covered jumpsuit, left a lot of gender distinction to be desired.
     Shepard tried to put on a reassuring smile.  It did not have the intended effect on the roughly twenty strong mob in front of him and his team.  They only raised their weapons with even more concentration.  Shepard held up his hands.  “Look, everyone just take a deep breath and let’s work this out.  We came here to help you out,” he said, hoping the story would work.  “We were sent to look for survivors and . . . well, here you are.  We can provide aid and support in whatever form you might require.  But in order to get that support,” the captain said, looking past the crowd of disgruntled refugees that seemed more and more like a poor man’s mercenary crew the more he studied them, to the doorway beyond them,”we need to get to a communications array and repair it.”
     “Don’t trust him, Dale,” the might-be woman said.  The old man shot her a dirty look.
     “Damn it woman! Don’t use my name in front of these Alliance fucks!  You know I’ve never trusted them and I ain’t starting now . . . Judy.”
     “Don’t you curse at me, you old bastard.  Leader or not, I am a woman and you will not speak like that to me!” Judy yelled.
     “Well that confirms it,” Shepard thought.  “Mercs . . . and Judy apparently is a woman after all.  This is about to get even uglier.  All there is to do now is get through it as quickly as possible.”
     Dale turned back to Shepard poked the gun into his chest. “Now I’m gunna give ya ta the count of 3 to turn your ass around and leave, boy.  If not, me and the gang, here . . . well, we been itching for a fight since the Reapers vanished on us.  So- one . . . two . . .” the crusty old timer began.
     Shepard’s face went stone solid.  Javik sensed the impending fight easily.  Liara and Tinman watched Shepard carefully for a clue as to which way this was about to go.  
     “Three!” Shepard said, snatching the gun and man in a lightning fast preemptive strike.  “Diplomacy can’t win them all, I guess,” he said.
     “Damn it, take them out, Cranks!” yelled Judy, firing her gun directly at Shepard, regardless of the unintended human shield between the two adversaries.  Shepard and the other Normandy crew members dove for cover, Dale’s carnage torn body crumpling to the floor as Shepard released him with Judy’s first shot.  He jumped around a nearby corner away from the onslaught of the weapons fire.
     “This type of discussion I like,” Javik called from his own wall of cover, the half wall of a small lab off the main hall through the Mars complex.  Broken remains of glass that had once spanned the remaining distance to the ceiling crashed down around the Prothean as the mercenaries turned their focus, and guns, to the sound of his voice.
     “Javik, I can never tell when you’re joking and when you’re not when mentioning violence,” Liara called over to him, crouching next to Tinman, down the other side of the hall Shepard had ducked down.  
     “Asari, I do not joke when in battle,” he replied raising his old energy weapon over his head and blindly shooting into the enemy’s ranks.  A handful of disheveled humanity were cut in half and fell silently into piles of death around their comrades.  
     Tinman sprinted across the hall, firing a geth spitfire with chilling machine efficiency.  The magnetically fired clustered rounds hit the enemy, shattering on impact, inducing the plasma conversion that seared the targets in a chain of superheated damage.  The geth was down and crouching beside Shepard before the last round hit.  He turned to Shepard, his artificial voice confirming,”Six targets terminated, Shepard-Captain.  Eleven remain.”
     Shepard looked at the new member of the Normandy family with a humorous smile.  “What, no rockets?” he asked with a laugh.  He leaned around the corner of protection he had chosen and lobbed a grenade after an instant’s survey of the mercenaries’ locations.  The explosive landed behind a huddled mass of the Cranks, a name Shepard was not familiar with, but would be researching once he got back to his cabin aboard the Normandy.  The detonation  flung nine of the thugs into the air, Judy among them.  Their bodies slammed into nearby walls and the ceiling, blood stains marking the end of lives lived in violence and ended in kind.
     “Larger explosives are ill-advised in such close quarters, Shepard-Captain.  Though, my understanding of human expressions and analysis- I believe you were joking, Shepard,” Tinman finished in more organic like terminology.  
     Shepard smiled with a nod.  “You’re getting the hang of it, Tinman,” he said, and then, leaning out with a hand cupped to his mouth, called,”Liara, if you would be so kind . . .”
     “My pleasure,” her reply came.  A biotic shimmer lighted the hallway and gripped the last two mercenaries in a freezing field of dark energy.  She calmly rose and walked towards Shepard and Tinman, Javik crossing behind her, taking a different route.  Liara looked to her friend and captain.  “What should we do with them?” she asked.
     Shepard looked up to Tinman, debating whether to stop what was transpiring or not.  He decided he did not want to worry about being stabbed in the back later, so said nothing.  The geth looked past Liara and then down to her, apparently deciding similarly.  “Do with who, T’Soni-asari?”
     Her keen intelligence catching the implication, the powerful Shadow Broker turned and watched helplessly as a calm and cold Prothean raised his weapon to the chests of each of his enemies in turn, stared into their eyes, and pulled the trigger.  A spray of blood misted onto his face.  Javik blinked as if bothered by an annoying breeze, and watched life drain from his victims, the biotic energy having not warn away, holding them in a standing position.
     Liara let down the arm she had not realized had been raised in a sad attempt to restrain her comrade who had held such great potential in her mind at one point.  She let out a disgusted huff and walked down the hall, intent on the original destination of the communications satellite dish.  “Avatar of vengeance or cold blooded murder?” she asked, brushing past Javik on her way.
     Tinman and Shepard followed.  The captain stopped and inclined his head towards Javik.  “Are you trying to destroy her belief in Protheans?” he asked.
     “What should be believed?  Her fairytale vision of how great and noble and enlightened the Prothean Empire was or the truth of what she sees?  A real, live Prothean, trained to perfection in war’s killing arts?”
     “The watching them die was a little over the top, don’t you think?”
     Javik looked down at the now fallen bodies, down the hall to the diminishing figure of Liara, and then back to Shepard.  “Perhaps,” he said.
     Shepard looked into the warrior’s face and saw what had not been seen before, but he had always suspected was present: the pain of insurmountable loss.  “Look, Javik, if you need to talk . . . “
     “Talking is not what I do, Shepard.  I will help you until you stop asking me.  As the destroyer of the Reapers, that is what you have earned.  But know this: when we have finished repairing the mass relays, rebuilding to a sustainable point that which the Reapers have destroyed, I will go to join my people.  I have not forgotten our conversation before the last battle against the evil that brought extinction to my race.”
     Shepard nodded and Javik turned to leave.  Tinman watched Javik and then turned to Shepard.
     “The Prothean’s actions and words are confusing, Shepard-Captain.  Does he not wish to continue living?”
     “People deal with pain and loss in different ways.  Some in extreme ways.  And that’s from the sadly typical loss of life and loved ones.  Now multiply that by the extinction of your entire race, Tinman.  It’s not hard to see where that can lead individuals to very dark decisions.”
     Tinman processed the new information.  “Emotions seem to play a large role in organic decision making, Shepard.  Geth have not- I do not have enough information to decide if this is a positive or negative aspect of your form of life in general, but in the instance of Javik-Prothean, it seems to be an impractical trait.  An individual’s life should not be thrown away based on the feeling of sorrow.  Like all emotions we have studied, it is a transitory moment and experience that comes and goes, easily followed by joy, or humor, fear, or jealousy.”
     “That’s the thing about emotions, Tinman.  We don’t get to look at it from a practical standpoint.  Emotions can override reason and that does not always end well.”
     “This is interesting, Shepard-Capta- Shepard,” the geth amended his speaking.  “I will require further information at a later period.”
     The geth marched off in silence.  “At least from a speaking standpoint,” Shepard thought, hearing and feeling the prime’s thunderous steps as he moved to catch up with his other team members.  
     Shepard watched the other three and wondered at the trio’s ability to function as a cohesive fighting unit despite drastically different backgrounds, philosophies, and practices.  He wondered more at his own ability to relate to each one of them, the empathy and thirst for knowledge of Liara, the warrior spirit and need to destroy threats of Javik, and Tinman’s pure objectivity, Shepard’s most important trait as a leader.  “Is that something the geth will maintain, now that they’re individually aware and free to do as they wish?” Shepard asked himself, jogging to catch up with his friends.
     
 
* * * * 
 
 
     The Normandy and its two escort fighters closed in on the Sol system’s mass relay.
     “Almost there,” Joker announced over the ship wide comm system, to no one in particular.  “Let’s see what we got, EDI.”
     Of course, Jeff,” the AI female said from a one time infiltration synthetic body.  She went through the motions of tapping at controls in a desire to mimic human interaction.  In actuality, EDI had no need to manipulate anything to bring up the ship’s sensors, the AI being not just an attractive synthetic, but the computing system that ran the ship, as well.  The distinction was not lost on Joker.
     “EDI . . . I love watching you play with yourself,” he cracked.
     “If this turns you on, wait until you see the full ability of this unit to manipulate its makeup and structure,” she said, looking to Joker and winking with a seductive smile.
     “You two are ridiculous,” came the comment coupled with a laugh from another seductive voice, with an Australian accent.  Miranda Lawson walked up to stand behind Joker and EDI, wearing her signature skin tight uniform.  “What do you see, EDI?” she asked, leaning on the back of EDI’s chair, supporting herself with her forearm.
     “Scanning. One moment.”
     Multiple blips began popping up on the targeting display at the consoles in front of EDI and Joker.  
     “Son of a bitch,” Joker said.  
     “Ericson, to Normandy.  You all got the long range sensors.  What’ve we got out there?”
     Joker glanced over to EDI.  Her eyes widened slightly.  “Lieutenant, there are twenty three ships of various sizes and designs.  Four are the same design as those we have already engaged.  Some of the larger ships, I believe, may be carrier class, judging from their size, and may contain more such units within.”
     “Yeah, I’d guess they were just this group’s advanced scouts,” Miranda added.
     “That explains why it was so easy to take them out.  Nasty guns, but no shields.  Scouts slash mobile gun batteries.  Willing to bet they’ve got heavy shield, light gun defenders in their mix somewhere,” the ace pilot said.
     “So what’s the plan?” asked the other expert flyer, Wayne.
     “For now, I think-” Miranda began.
     “Yes, let’s here what you think, Miss Cerberus,” interrupted Lieutenant-Commander Williams.  “I’d be happy to take your opinion under advisement.”
     Miranda turned to face the newcomer to the bridge, her eyes narrowing to slits of displeasure.  “Ex-Cerberus, thank you.  And what the hell do you mean, ‘advisement’?” 
     Ashley stepped in uncomfortably close, invading Miranda’s concept of what constituted her personal space.  Williams folded her arms across her chest and glared back at Miranda.  “If you need a dictionary, I’d be happy to dig one up for you.  And if I need to, I can also remind you that this is an Alliance vessel, now.”
     “Commanded by Shepard, who trusts my judgment,” Miranda retorted.
     “Well good for you, but Shepard is not on board right now, which means command transfers to the next highest ranking Alliance officer.  That’s me.  Not you, a Cerberus parent-killer,” Ashley spat viciously.
     “Mrow!” Joker mocked the two ladies, putting up his hands, mimicking cat claws swinging in the air.  EDI sat in her seat, looking at Joker and then putting a hand over her down turned face.
     The two faces of Ashley and Miranda whipped around to face Joker with a simultaneous,”Shut up, Joker!” from both women.  Joker froze in mid swing, grimaced uneasily and slowly turned back to the Normandy’s control console.  Miranda and Ashley looked back at each other. They held each other’s stare for a long, uncomfortably long, silence.  Miranda smirked with a dismissive roll of her eyes.
     “You know what, you’re a big girl.  You can have your Alliance ship, for now.  When the fires start, I’ll come bail your ass out,” Miranda said, walking off, restraining the desire to biotic-slap the Alliance bitch in front of her back past Specialist Traynor.  She made a mental side note that it would, sadly, only send Williams through one set of doors before flying over the galaxy map and past Traynor, before she slammed into the wall next to the elevator.
     Ashley watched Lawson saunter off, fighting the surge of disgust rising in her throat. Once Miranda was out of sight, the second human Spectre to the call the Normandy home turned to Joker and said,”Keep an eye on those ships.  I’ll be in my quarters.  There’s a ton of Spectre communications coming through the Normandy and Shepard wanted me to keep up to date on all the back and forth.”
     The lieutenant-commander left the bridge, passing Vega who was uncomfortably making his way to the bridge.  He looked around as if expecting an unseen attacker to ambush him in the blink of an eye.  
     “What’s up, Vega?” Joker asked.     
     “Uh, you two the only ones up here?” he questioned, shifting balance back and forth from foot to foot.
     Joker looked at EDI who shrugged to the unasked question in the pilot’s eyes.
     “Sure, big guy.  You okay?”
     Vega relaxed a little.  “Yeah, yeah.  I’m good.  Just hoping I don’t have a psycho biotic stalking me.”
     “Have you angered Jack in someway?” EDI asked.
     “I dunno.  Maybe.  I’m not exactly playing the drunken prom date for her, if you catch my drift,” the war veteran said.  “She’s cool, but . . . I don’t know.  Crazy and dangerous.  Normally I’d say she’s my type, but the regular ‘crazy and dangerous’ girls are usually just drama queens.  Jack is for real.  Not sure if that’s good or . . . well I don’t know if she’s someone I can handle.”
     “Man, I do not envy you,” Joker said.  “I heard about her performance when you all were saving Shepard’s ass on the Citadel.  Sounds like she just keeps getting stronger.”
     “Yeah, I was there.  I’ve seen a lot of sick shit on the battlefield.  That was right up near the top,” Vega added, a distant look in his eyes.  He came back to reality quickly, though, looking back the way Williams had gone and then back to EDI and Joker.  “So what did I miss?  Ash looks pissed.”
     “Oh, only the first of what I’m sure is going to be many amazing cat fights between Ash and Miranda.”
     “Oh, damn.  That is not going to be pretty.  I’ve heard enough scuttlebutt about Shepard’s past with both of them.  Williams has gotta be burning inside.  And Miranda doesn’t seem like the type to put up with any old flame’s bullshit.”
     “That is an accurate analysis, James,” EDI agreed.
     “So what are we looking at out there?” Vega questioned, switching gears once more.
     “That would be more of the bad guys,” said Normandy’s resident comedian.
     “What are they doing?”  
     “Yeah, there’s a few other people who would like to know the same thing,” came Ericson’s voice.  “Thanks for leaving that channel open, by the way, Joker.”
     “Oh, did I?” he asked, faking innocence.  “But to answer the question, I’m betting they’re just sitting there, waiting for your practice targets to come back with whatever report they were supposed to bring with them.”
     “Good bet,” said Murphy from his ship.  “But what happens when they don’t show up?”
     “Probably jump in a bunch more heavy hitters and FTL to Mars to find out what happened,” Vega said.
     “Why do you say that?” Ericson radioed.
     James pointed to the displays that his crew mates had turned away from.  “Because that’s what’s happening.”
     “The fuck!” came Wayne’s response.  “They- they just jumped in?”
     “Looks like,” Vega answered.
     “How? The mass relay is-“
     “Dead.  I know.  No clue.  But it just happened.  At the relay.  And Shepard is gonna be toast if we don’t get back to help him out.”  Vega looked over at EDI.  “Get a message to Hackett.  Send him the data that we’ve got on those ships and their trajectory.  I love the Normandy, but it’s gonna take more than one frigate and two prototype fighters to take this on.  Ask Hackett to move whatever forces he can to Mars.”
     “Should we clear this with ‘high command’ first?” Joker asked, hands making quotation marks.
     “With Ash?  I’ll take care of that.”
     “You sure?”
     Vega jogged off, looking over his shoulder with a smile.  “Don’t worry.  I feel my N7 coming on.”
     Joker looked over at his synthetic lover once more, shrugging.  EDI did the same and then accessed the communications system.  “Lieutenants Ericson and Murphy, please dock your fighters in the hangar.  We will initiate FTL flight as soon as you are secured.”
     “Copy that, EDI,” Ericson said.  “You heard the lady, Wayne.  Don’t get left behind this time.”
     “Dude, you said you wouldn’t bring that up again!”
     “Eh, I lied.   Let’s go.”
 
 
* * * * 
 
 
     Liara patched down the last few wires connecting the make shift power source, salvaged from a wrecked shuttle that had been found expertly placed into the side of one section of the Mars facility.  How the power cells had remained undamaged was beyond anyone’s guess.  Liara pulled back her omni-tool, looked at her handiwork, and then stood up.  She walked to the edge of the rooftop and looked down to Shepard who stood on the rocky Martian surface, waiting just outside the doorway back inside.  Liara could almost see his eyes through his protective helmet as she gave him the human gesture she had learned was simply named “the thumbs up.”  Where it had originated and why teased the archaeologist in her, tempting her to begin something she had never done before- extensively research a living civilization.  Humanity was rich with history, wars, governments, religions, arts, science, and a hundred other things that she could look into.  The Protheans had had those, at some point, but the Reaper war had distilled them down to only one focus, the one embodied in Javik: war.  The Protheans had excelled at it prior to their cycle’s invasion, but it had only been one side of their story, albeit the dominant side even then.  After the invasion, there was nothing else, and whatever beauty and greatness Liara had sought from them had been wiped out along with the Protheans themselves.  
     “Let it go, Liara,” she ordered herself.  “Soon you’ll have your hands back on what’s left of Prothean science.  Leave the Javik side of them with Javik.  They weren’t all that way.  Their work on Ilos and in passing along the Crucible designs proves it.  Perhaps their long dead genius can help us again with the mass relays.”
     Shepard nodded to her thumbs up and walked back inside and the asari marveled at the speed of thought not for the first time.  She climbed down as she heard the satellite hum to life.  She entered the Martian building and found Shepard, his helmet now off, tapping at the communication controls.  He looked up at her and smiled.  Liara felt warmth followed by the ever present hint of lost moments, moments she once thought might lead to something more than the great friends she and the captain now were.  But the wisdom of her one hundred and nine years in the universe eased the sadness with the knowledge that it was better to be friends with Shepard than never to have met him in the first place.  “And definitely better than being his enemy,” she thought.
     “Looks like we’re up and running, here.  Good work, Liara.  Now let’s- hold on.  Looks like the Normandy’s been trying to get in touch with us.”  Shepard accessed his omni-tool, linking it to the Mars comm system.  “Joker?  Shepard.  What’ve you got for me?”
     Shepard’s face slowly took on a scowling expression as Jeff gave him the details of the situation.  “And what did Hackett say?” he asked.  “And the enemy fleet will get here when?”
     An explosion sounded from a distant building of the Mars Archives.
     “Nevermind.  Sounds like orbital bombing.  Just trying to soften us up from a distance,” Shepard said.  “Do what you can and tell our new fly boys to earn their pay today.”
     Liara saw Javik and Tinman coming up to join her and Shepard at the control desk.
     “The enemy has returned?” Javik asked.
     Shepard nodded.  “And with bigger guns this time.  A fleet of over twenty ships.”
     “What is the enemy’s target?” Tinman inquired.
     “Judging from their actions up to this point, I’d say us.”
     “To what end?” Javik wondered.
     “Good question,” Shepard said, pulling his M-97 Viper sniper rifle off its place on his back, checking the thermal clip, and starting to move.  “Let’s go find out.”
     “But it’s an entire, fleet, Shepard!” Liara warned.
     “Only until Hackett arrives.  Then it’s a decimated fleet.”
     Liara conceded the point and took out the Scorpion heavy pistol she had come to rely on since rescuing the krogan female, Eve, on Sur’Kesh.
     “Shepard to Cullers.  Amanda, are you there?” the captain asked over his communicator.
     “What the hell is going on, Shepard?  One second communications are restored, the next, we’re being bombed . . . by who?”
     “Unknown.  My ship will be here shortly to help distract the enemy until the fleet arrives to take care of them.”
     “And until then?” Amanda asked.
     “Until then, we stay alive.  Your area is pretty well defended and far enough underground that you should be okay.”
     “As long as they don’t land a ton of troops,” she added.
     “True.  But you’ve been handling mercs and Reaper forces for months.  I have confidence in your abilities, but don’t worry.  We’re on our way back to you, so you won’t be alone.”
     “Thanks, Shepard.  That means a lot to us.”
     “Copy that.  Shepard out.”  He tapped his communicator, switching channels as he moved down the hallway, keeping the scope of the his gun near eye level to have as much early warning of enemy forces as he could.  “Cortez, tell me you’re still not sitting on the landing pad.”
     “No sir.  Saw these guys show up on the targeting system while you were talking to Joker.  Had that ‘I got a bad feeling about this’ moment and decided to move out.  I’ll stay low and keep the buildings between me and them when they get here, but you give me a pickup spot and I’ll be there in under a minute.”
     “Negative.  You get back on board the Normandy, if you can.  I don’t need you risking your life or our one shuttle when I don’t plan on going anywhere until our original mission is complete. We’re far enough under the surface that their ships won’t be a threat.  And any ground forces they send, well, we’ll deal with them if they show up.”
     “Roger, Captain.  I’ll see what I can do, but with that many ships, I’ll be better off sticking to cover down here, so let me know if you need support.  And you be careful down there, Shepard,” Cortez tacked on.
     “Always, Steve.  Now get going.”
     “Yes sir.”
     “You did mean to say when the enemy shows up, didn’t you Shepard?” Javik asked.
     Shepard looked at the gun in his hand and those in the hands of his team.  “Yeah, I guess I did.”
 
 
* * * * 
 
 
     Ericson stood on the Normandy’s hangar deck while the automated systems reloaded his depleted ordinance.  The elevator doors opened and Wayne Murphy came out.
     “Damn I needed that!” the pilot exclaimed with a laugh.
     “Which, the drink, the food, or the thirty minutes in the bathroom?” Ericson asked, laughing back.
     “Ha ha.  It wasn’t that long, but yes.”
     “Yes?”
     “All of it.”
     “Gotcha.  The ships are almost ready,” Ericson reported to his friend.
     “Good.  Sounds like we’ll be getting back to Mars in short order.  Got a tougher fight ahead of us this time, buddy.”
     “Yeah.  At least till Hackett shows up with the fleet.”
     “Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long.  I don’t like the odds or the look of those new ships.”
     “You and me both.  The scout things from earlier were cake.  They’re not all going to be like that.”
     “Learned that the hard way, didn’t we?” Wayne asked.
     “Volkov?”
     “Fucking pirates,” Wayne said in way of confirmation.
     “Haven’t thought of that shit storm since the Reapers invaded.  Thanks for bringing back the fantastic memories, asshole.”
     “Hey, you know it’s worse for me, Ericson.  I don’t get the luxury of forgetting it,” Murphy said, looking down at the ring on his left hand.
     “Fuck, Wayne.  Man, I’m sorry.  I know that.  I don’t forget about it, or who we lost, but, you’re right- it’s worse for you.”
     “Damn right.  You don’t get reminded every morning you wake up in an empty bed, or when you cook dinner for two only to remember there’s only me now,” Wayne said bitterly, looking back up with moistened eyes.
     “I know.  My sorry ass always wakes up alone,” he said with a laugh meant to ease the sudden tension.  
     Wayne held his stare for a second, but then a small crack of a smile broke through.  “You’re a disgrace to us pilots, Ericson. You’re the only one I know that walks into a bar, let’s the women know you actually are a pilot, and some how end up getting smacked across the face instead of leaving with two or three star struck bimbos.”
     “What can I say?  Women have a sixth sense for bad situations.  And obviously I have that written all over my quite slappable face.”
     Wayne Murphy laughed and patted his partner in crime on the back as they made their way over to their ships.  “Is that even a word? Slappable?” he asked.
     “If it isn’t, it should be,” Ericson said, climbing the ladder up to his familiar cockpit.  He dropped inside, strapped in and pressed the button to signal Joker.  “Let us know when we get there, Joker.  We’re ready to light these boys up again.”
     “Will do, Lieutenant.  Just fair warning.  When you launch, we’ll be right on top of them, coming out of FTL.”
     “Nice.  That should throw them off balance and get their attention for a few minutes. Shepard’s suggestion?”
     “No,” came Vega’s voice.  “Mine.  But I did ask myself: what would Loco do?”
     “Loco?”
     “Yeah, my nickname for Shepard.  I do that, give people nicknames.”
     “Right.  Of course you do,” Ericson said.
     “Anyway, I thought up a crazy tactic, ran it by Ash and she agreed.  Hackett thinks it’s insane, but he didn’t suggest anything else.  Guess he figures we picked up some of Shepard’s luck.  Or that he’ll be there soon enough to cleanup any mess we make.”
     “Let’s hope so,” Joker said. “Have you seen the readout on those capital ships?  Those things are like turian dreadnoughts on steroids!  They’re no Harbinger or Sovereign, but damn!”
     “Fantastic,” Wayne tossed in.  “So, mini-reapers or mega-turians.  I love the plethora of options here.”
     “Plethora?” Ericson asked.  “You stumble onto a thesaurus in your cockpit, Murph?”
     “Ha ha, Ericson.  Why don’t you-“
     “Exiting FTL!” Joker interrupted.
     The friendly banter ceased immediately and the pilots became dead serious in an instant.  
     “Game time, men,” Vega said.  “Good luck out there.  We’ll have your back.”
     “Launching,” was Ericson’s response.
     The bay door opened and the pilot punched his afterburners and armed weapons in a flash.  Cold space greeted his vision as he left the Normandy behind.  He saw Wayne’s ship out of the corner of his eye as his proximity alarms nearly deafened and blinded him immediately.  Ships were everywhere.  Energy blasts streaked the sky.  Ericson and Murphy broke into evasive maneuvers.
     “Normandy to, uh, what are we calling you guys, anyway?” Joker asked.
     Ericson thought about the question and came up with an answer in a single breath.
     “Loco Squadron,” he answered.
     “Fitting,” said EDI’s voice.
     “Alright, well, Locos, you guys clean up the small fighters and leave the beasts to us.  Let’s clear out some dots,” Joker suggested.
     “Copy that, Normandy.  Locos out,” Ericson said.  He targeted one of the scout class ships and pulled the trigger.  The ship, more intent on the swiftly maneuvering Alliance frigate, was caught off guard and erupted into just another field of space scrap.
     “One down,” Ericson reported.
     “And a dozen or so to go, buddy,” Wayne said.
     “Should be fun,” Ericson said, gritting his teeth against G-forces as he pulled his fighter through a few corkscrew rolls and then slid sideways to come up behind two more small fighters that were new in design.  “Let’s see what you got,” he thought to himself.  He fired his guns.  The storm of energy battered the rear of the target ships and Ericson saw the damage register on his sensors.  It was definitely a stronger craft than the scouts  from the fact that they were still there and not shedding debris, but it wasn’t so little that the pilots of the ships had not noticed.  Both turned to find their attacker.
     “Aw hell,” Ericson said, continuing to pour on the destructive power of his guns, which he believed the tech heads had mentioned were Thanix-based, following the growing trend of the last few years.  The pilot watched his attack deal more damage to the new ships which, he noted, were actually elegant in design.  The symmetrical layout and wide wingspan marked these as atmospheric capable fighters, the swept back design seeming to be an extension of the scout ship’s crescent front into a more logical flow that continued past the cockpit and wrapped around the back with only a split for the rear thrusters centered at the back.  The guns were mounted on the top of the wings, and what resembled torpedoes hung from beneath.       The enemies’ guns opened up.  Ericson barely had time to roll the ship out of the way to avoid the brunt of the attack.  His fighter rocked with the impact of a handful of solid hits.  His shield dropped to half strength.
     “Holy shit!  Murph, we got a problem here.”
     “No kidding.  It’s called being out numbered eight to one.”
     “No, I just took a hit from two of these guys.  Not the scouts types.  A few hits just took my shields down fifty percent.”
     “Oh damn.”
     “That is highly effective,” came EDI’s voice.
     “Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Ericson said, as he dodged another volley, returned fire and let loose a set of linked torpedoes.  He reversed thrust hard and dove slightly to watch the missiles engage and slam home.  One of the ships took a single hit directly to the cockpit and the ship was split in two.  The second ship banked hard and lost a wing to one of the other missile’s destructive gravitational effects, sending it tumbling out of control and slamming into a larger enemy too slow to evade the collision.  
     The larger ship took damage, but nothing that seemed to inhibit its ability to continue firing at the Normandy, which Joker had kept clean up to this point, his flight skills beyond anything Ericson had seen.  Sure, he’d heard about the brittle boned pilot coming up through the academy, but it had just been a name tied to records and training vids.  Seeing him in action was an altogether different, if not humbling, experience for Ericson.
     Ericson swiveled his head and his ship, attempting to track the path of the other two missiles he had fired into the mayhem playing out above Mars.  He saw the two projectiles and saw Wayne’s ship on an intersecting flight path as he evaded a swarm of scout ships.
     “Wayne,” Ericson radioed.
     “Kinda busy, Ericson,” his wingman called back.
     “Yeah, well, heads up, you’ve got incoming Callies.”
     “Ha ha.  I know it.”
     “Then you might want to just, I don’t know, get the hell out of the way!”
     “Nonsense.”
     Ericson’s brow furrowed in concern.  Wayne had previously taken on multiple solo missions, post-Volkov, that many in their squad at the time had deemed suicide missions.  It had been a dark time for Murphy and it had taken a hard talk and not less than one round in the ring for Ericson to very literally beat some sense into his buddy.  He worried that the earlier exchange on the Normandy had drudged up an old desire.
     “Murph, this isn’t looking good buddy!”
     “Relax, Ericson.  You forget who you’re talking to?”
     “No, that’s why it looks bad.”
     “Ye of little faith,” Wayne responded.
     Ericson held his breath.  The missiles were continuing on, random gun fire between the Normandy and enemy ships crisscrossing around them but not hitting.  Wayne’s fighter streaked in front of the Callies and zipped past unharmed.  His pursuers were not so lucky.  The timing had been perfect.  Wayne cleared the damaging path of the torpedoes but the enemy did not.  The pack of ugly scouts were shredded into oblivion and Ericson saw a handful of red blips disappear from his radar.
     “Ha ha!” he exclaimed.  “Wayne, you crazy son of bitch!”
     “You know me!” he answered, laughter in his voice.
     Ericson relaxed, despite the dogfight going on around him, because he knew Wayne was going to be okay.  “Mentally, anyway.  Not so sure how much more we can rely on luck here, though,” the pilot told himself.
     He found another group of targets and gave chase.
     “Hey Locos, heads up.”  It was Lieutenant-Commander Williams’ voice this time.
     “Go head,” Ericson said.
     “They’re doing it again: sending some ships down to Mars.  These are bigger though.  Thinking they’re sending troops down.  I’ve warned Shepard, but you two make sure they don’t reach the ground alive.  They’ve already entered Mars atmo, so you’re playing catch up.”
     “Understood, Williams.  Ericson out.”
     “Damn it,” Wayne swore.  “These things are intent on something down there.”
     “Seems like it.  Let’s make sure they don’t get it.”
     “Ten-four, good buddy,” Wayne said in an exaggerated drawl.  “I reckon we best git after ’em, then.”
     Ericson rolled his eyes and locked on to the shuttle class enemy ships.  He punched the afterburners once more, wondering how long before they would overheat, and checked his radar.  He and Wayne were pretty far behind, but their ships were much faster.  “Still, we’ll be a few minutes catching up,” he concluded.  The other thing he noticed on his targeting display was that the Normandy had garnered the bulk of the enemy’s attention and was slowly being surrounded.  As good as he was, Ericson knew Moreau was running out of room.
     “Joker . . .” he began.
     “I know, I know.  It’s getting tight.  You go after those transports and we’ll . . . find a way out of this mess.  How those new calibrations to the guns coming, Garrus?”
     Ericson knew the pilot was bluffing.  The ships were closing in too quickly and the Normandy was taking damage.  “Joker, we can-“
     “No, you can’t, Ericson.  Just go!  Shepard and the team on Mars are what matter now. Save them.  Forget about us.”
     Ericson heard commotion in the background over the comm channel.  Excited voices, orders to evacuate one of the Normandy’s area that had been exposed to radiation after a hit, something about a system about to fail that Ericson could not make out as some sort of interference began to disrupt communications.  It was a pattern of interference Ericson had diagnosed long ago: the sign of a large ship, or ships, about to exit FTL flight in the vicinity.  He glanced around, expecting to see the ships himself, before the sensors registered them.
     Over his left shoulder, he saw a dozen more ships appear, matching the enemy ships they were already fighting.
     “Shit!” Wayne cried.  “Ericson, they just dropped another bunch of s-“
     Another disruption in the comm channels.  Ericson looked at his gauges for damage.  This disruption was different, but somehow familiar. “What the . . .” the pilot whispered.
     A massive shadow blanketed him in the blink of an eye.  Ericson glanced up and saw the underneath of a massive capital ship only meters away, too close to make out what it was.  
     “Hackett here.  Ericson, Murphy, you two get to Mars and save Shepard’s ass.  We’ll handle the action up here,” ordered the head of the Alliance fleet.
     Relief flooded Ericson’s body.  “Yes sir!” he heard himself say and continued on his path without another worry for the Normandy and her crew.  As he pulled away from the near collision with the fleet, Ericson checked his readouts and saw representatives of every race contributing ships to the battle.  “That’s why it looked familiar,” he realized, recalling the jump into Earth’s vicinity for the final showdown with the Reapers.  “The combination of all the various ship types and designs must warp space in an odd way, causing the difference in the communication disruption,” he guessed.
     He focused back in front of him, the nose of his ship pointing at the tail of the slowly growing target of the rearmost shuttle.  It was already entering Mars’ atmosphere, the red planet now the only thing in Ericson’s view.  “Don’t worry, pal, you won’t be landing that piece of shit intact,” he mentally warned his enemy.  Ericson gripped his flight stick tighter, willing more speed out of the ship’s drive core.
     
 
* * * * 
 
     “The fleet just arrived!” Shepard heard shouted into his ear from Joker’s giddy voice.  The captain smiled and let out a deep breath.  Things had not been looking good above Mars.       
     “Not that they look good down here, now,” he reminded himself.  His omni-tool fed him the data stream from the Mars satellite, showing two of the transport ships landing nearby, with Ericson and Murphy already firing on three others from a second wave.
    Shepard, Liara, Javik, and Tinman stood watching from a large window that overlooked the landing strip the unknown enemy had chosen.  The captain had secured Cullers and her crew while Javik had gone off on his own to,”Create tactical modifications to the environment,” as the Prothean had put it.  Shepard wasn’t sure what that had meant and was slightly worried about finding out.  
     The shuttles settled with small clouds of rust colored dust puffing up around them.  The rear hatches of the ships opened downward and armor covered troops marched out.
     Liara gasped.  “They’re huge! And- wait-“
     Shepard saw it, too.  “Are those-?”
     Explosions ripped through the landing area.  The shuttles went flying.  The troops were strewn high into the sky, not all of them in whole.  A few body parts came flying towards the Normandy team’s location.  Shepard watched in fascination as one particular part careened towards the glass.  He glanced Javik’s direction as what seemed to be half of a helmet covered head smacked into the top edge of the sloping window.  “Tactical modifications, huh?”
     Javik folded his arms across his chest.  “Crude, but effective given the primitive technology available in this cycle,” the Prothean confirmed.
     Shepard turned back to the sliding head as the helmet separated from the mangled flesh with a grating squeak across the glass.  His eyes narrowed as what he and Liara had thought they had seen was confirmed.
     “Yahg,” Shepard said.
     Three explosions dotted the sky, far above the surface.  Shepard knew that three more transports full of the incredibly powerful and dangerous species would not be making it to the ground.
     

 

Mass Effect 4 : New Masters, Chapter 3

 (changed font color for the hell of it – what do you think? Let me know – still trying to figure out how to increase font size…)
***
Chapter 3
     Javik stared at the stiff pieces of paper in his hands.  “This is absurd,” he thought to himself, but staring across at the turian Garrus, the human James, and the quarian Tali, he sensed a great deal of seriousness.  “Why does this feel like . . . a battle?” he wondered.  The long pauses of consideration, the looks of intense concentration, anger, malice, and fear.  There was brooding silence disrupted by explosive and explicative laced outbursts.  “And that is just from the quaria- from Tali,” Javik mused, forcing himself, once again to practice thinking of these younger races as equals.
     He looked across the table, past the paper in his hands, and said,”I’ll take two,” and placed two inferior ranking cards, face down, on the table and slid them across, into a small pile of discarded poker cards.
     From his spot in the dealer’s chair in Normandy’s neglected game room section of the port observation deck’s lounge, Vega nodded and dealt the Prothean two more pieces of paper that he found himself hoping were better suited to bringing him victory on this battlefield.  He found the other three primitives’ humorously limited eyes on him, watching for a crack in his defenses, analyzing his reactions to the new resources he had acquired.  “This game of chance, this gambling, is not what I imagined.  It is a test of wills between warring factions, each seeking conquest.  Victory comes to he who best reads his enemy’s intentions and sees through the wall built around suspect weapons of deception,” he reasoned to himself.
     “Come on, Javik, blink an eye or something.  Hell, you have twice as many as we do to choose from,” Garrus said.
     “Or break a sweat,” Tali added.
     “Are Protheans even able to sweat?” Vega asked.
     “Perhaps,” Javik answered, setting his hands down, his cards hidden under them.  “I am beginning to understand the fascination of this… Poker Cards,” the final member of the ancient civilization that last fell to the Reapers said.  “You call it gambling, playing, fun.  I see through your lies, primitives.  This is no less than psychological warfare.  If not in training, then in actual practice.”
     “What he’s actually saying is: he likes it,” Tali said with a laugh.
     “You might be on to something, Sparks,” Vega agreed.
     Garrus ignored the banter, as did Javik, the two locked in a staring contest ever since the turian had mentioned blinking.
     “It is pointless, Vakarian, my people held staring contests-”
     “All the time in your cycle, yeah yeah, we know,” Garrus said.  “How about raising the ante instead of your ego, master race?” he asked deadpanned.
     Javik was about to respond when the doors to the room hissed open and Shepard walked in.  Vega, Garrus, and Tali all looked up expectantly.  Javik continued to stare at his current turian enemy, waiting.
     Garrus was halfway to standing, asking the newly promoted Shepard,”So off to Mars, huh?  Any sightseeing tips for a first timer? I’ve heard-”
     That’s when Garrus noticed the Prothean, his position and line of sight unchanged.  The turian dropped his head back, as much as his ever present armor would allow and let out a defeated,”Damnit, Shepard!”  Javik finally looked up and laughed scornfully at his defeated opponent.
     Shepard raised his hands in front of him.  “What?”
     Javik stood and made a slight bow in Shepard’s direction.  “My thanks, Captain.  Our strategy worked to perfection.”  Garrus looked from Javik to Shepard and back again, his mouth dropping open.
     “Your strategy? What did you-? How did you? I mean you couldn’t have-” Garrus stammered, confused.
     Shepard looked from Javik to Garrus and then to the cards on the table and just shook his head with a laugh.  The laugh was joined by another laugh coming from behind three and half empty bottles on the opposite side of the room, at the Normandy’s bar.  Jack leaned back, propped up with one arm on the back counter and pointing at Garrus past another liquor bottle in her other hand.
     “You’re such a gullible fuck sometimes, Vakarian, you know that?” she asked, continuing to chuckle to herself.
     Garrus glanced over Javik’s shoulder to stare at the talented biotic, unable to determine if she was drunk or not.  He saw the empty bottles, but he really wasn’t hearing anything he didn’t already expect from Jack.
     Jack ignored him, instead leaning over to her silent companion, uncomfortably rigid in a half sitting, half squatting position, saying,”See, that Prothean has a sense of humor, EDI has a sense of humor.  I know you can do it, Tinman.  You just gotta believe.”
     The geth prime turned his smooth red painted head down to look at Jack, his singular optical sensor slightly rotating to focus.
     “Jack-human, I do not see the benefit of ridiculing one’s allies… one’s friends.  It seems counter-productive to continuing such relationships,” the large synthetic replied in a voice echoing with electronic and digital tones.
     “Yes, Jack is drunk,” Garrus confirmed to himself.  “Talking to a geth about humor is the surest sign,” he added as he accepted his defeat at Javik’s hands with a nod to the Prothean before turning once more to face his old friend.  “So, Shepard, who’s ass needs to be kicked now?”
     Shepard shook his head. “No one, at the moment, Garrus. We’re heading to Mars to dig in to the archives there.”
     “Damnit, not again,” Vega said, swatting a hand in Shepard’s direction in exaggerated despair.
     “Actually, I came down here for Javik,” Shepard said, ignoring Jame’s whining.
     “Makes sense,” Garrus answered.
     “In what way does that make sense?  I am no scholar to study old records of the humans,” Javik stated.
     “They’re not human archives.  They’re Prothean,” Shepard answered.
     Javik’s eyes focused instantly.   “How large an archive is it?  When are the last records dated?  Do they end before my time in stasis or after?  Why have you not told me of this before now, human?  How long until we reach this Mars?”  The questions poured forth in a gush the crew had never seen from the sole survivor of the nearly extinct alien race.
     Shepard patted Javik on the shoulder.  “Easy, Javik.  We’ll be there in a little while.  As far as all the other questions, talk to Liara.  She’s the last one I know to study them.  That’s who and how we found your people’s plans for the Crucible.”
     “I will go to her at once,” the Prothean said, nearly knocking down Tali in his haste to exit the room and find the asari archeologist turned information broker.
     Garrus laughed, watching Javik jog down the hall, ducking his head in each door as he went, calling out,”Asari!  Where are you hiding, asari?”  The turian came back to face Shepard again.  “So I heard true: congratulations are in order . . . Captain,” he said, extending his hand.
     Shepard shook Garrus’ hand with a simple,”Thanks.”  The other members of the crew each took turns offering their own congratulations to their trusted friend and leader.  The geth prime, now having been solidified with the name Tinman after a forced vote among the crew by Jack, merely looked on, observing his new organic allies.
     “So what’s the plan, Shepard?” Jack asked.
     “We go to Mars, we dig in the archives and hope the Protheans learned more about mass relays than we have.  We need to find a way to make them functional again so that no one is stranded on Earth and so that every other home world isn’t left defenseless with so much of their military here.”
     Jack shook her head, obviously disappointed. “Shit, that sounds boring.  Think I’ll just booze it up with Meathead here or something, she said, eyeing Vega in a peculiar way that made the intimidatingly built soldier look around nervously and almost blush.
     Shepard shrugged.  “Suit yourself, Jack.  Anyone who wants a few more days of sitting on their ass after all we’ve been through does not need to ask permission, right now.  Clearly, Javik will be going, thankfully.  I’m sure Liara won’t turn down the chance to get at those records some more, and I’ll be going, so that should cover us just fine for this milk run.”
     Tinman tried to stand up, found that he could only come up from his crouching position slightly due to his enormous size, and shuffled forward as best he could.  He stopped, facing Shepard.
     “Shepard-Captain, I request permission to accompany your team to the Prothean Archives.  Geth have limited information of previous cycle races and we seek to increase our knowledge on all subjects we find to be insufficient in our databases.”
     Shepard looked up at the hulking mass of artificial consciousness and answered,“Granted, Tinman.  Welcome to the team.”  Shepard studied the geth for a moment and then added,”I can’t help but notice you’re a lot bigger than Legion was.  Have you found somewhere on the Normandy that you can rest, recharge, whatever it is geth do when not . . . doing things, for the time being?”
     “Yes, Shepard-Captain.  Your EDI platform suggested your hangar area.  It has adequate space and I will adapt a power source that I can utilize which also will not compromise the Normandy’s operation.”
     “Sounds good.  If you need anything else, let me know.”
     “I am grateful, Shepard-Captain, though I do not believe I will require anything more in the near future.”
     “Acknowledged,” Shepard said. “Now if anyone needs me, I’ll be in my quarters. Gotta a couple escort pilots just pulling up with us and I’m gonna study up on our new recruits.”
     Garrus and Tali both answered,”Yes, sir,” with no particular formality while James found himself being cornered by Jack at the bar, half fear and half excitement fighting for dominance in his eyes. Shepard took a long look at the crew in front of him and thought about the many others elsewhere on the ship and felt pride, not for the first time, in the group he had assembled and relied on so many times. He had a feeling, going forward, that he would need them sooner rather than later as much as he had at any point in the past.  
     As he walked out of the observation deck and the alarms sounded, the captain of the Normandy swore unintelligibly, finishing the string of curses with,”. . . didn’t mean so damn soon,” his walk becoming a run to the painfully slow elevator. 
 
 
* * * * 
 
 
     Lieutenant Ericson shoved his flight stick forward and to the left. His ship, a captured Cerberus advanced prototype he had dubbed Ol’ Nancy, after a particularly evil substitute teacher in his early school days, barrled forward, zipping under the Normandy. The ship that combined elements of both interceptor and fighter class designs reacted without hesitation, saving its passenger from a stream of deadly energy blasted through his recently vacated position.   The pilot looked back over his shoulder, only catching the faintest glimpse of a red flash and feeling a slight increase in temperature from that direction.   He quickly tapped into his comm while he whipped the fighter around to face the enemy.
     “Lieutenant Ericson to Normandy.  What the hell am I looking at?”
     “Uh, Ericson. Joker.  I have no fucking clue.  But let’s take’em out!”
     “I like the way you think, Joker.  Murphy, you catch that?”
     “Sure did, buddy.  Let’s try to take out engines on one.  I’d like to know who they are, too.”
     “Roger that, but no promises.”
     “Hey, key word was try,” Murphy shot back.
     The momentum of Ericson’s fighter sent it sliding sideways as the nose finally managed to track down a target.  Ericson stared down the length of his ship at an enemy craft he had never fought, never seen, never read about, and never even heard rumors of before.  Asymmetrical was being too kind to the design and saying it had a few guns was understating it to a high degree.  It was three or four times the size of his ship which seemed to suggest it could hold a handful or more of troops for deployment, making it more comparative to the Kodiak than his fighter.  But there it was, being used like an interceptor and not a heavily armed transport.  
     “An ugly transport,” he thought.  One corner was boxy, another sharp as a razor, the cockpit was smoothly round, and and the nose curved out in a crescent, giving it the look of a saucer-shaped craft that had backed up into a scrap pile at high speed.  Guns were mounted on every surface and all appeared able to swivel to track their targets.  The alien fighters were clearly designed and built in space, for space.  In atmosphere, they would have dropped like the bag of rocks they resembled without a major eezo field generator built into it somewhere.  Minus that, Ericson’s perfectly balanced fighter would dance around the death trap vehicle in even the remotest semblance of atmosphere, could he lure it there.  
     “Otherwise, I have a feeling this is going to be a nasty fight,” the lieutenant tacked on to his thoughts.  He looked out his port window and saw Mars dominating his view.  He checked his displays and saw Mars only a few minutes away.  “Just maybe . . .”
     He fired a spread of lasers in the enemy’s direction, scoring hits with about two-thirds of the attack.  It registered as more damage than he had expected and realized that the ship must have been trading off shield energy for weapon power.  “Smart, if the pilots were any good.  Which they’re not,” Ericson thought.  “Of course, when they out number you three to one, does it really matter?” he wondered, seeing the multiple red enemy signatures showing up on radar.  They were quickly surrounding the three little green dots representing the Normandy, his wingman Murphy, and himself.  Just as he pulled his eyes back to targeting his enemy, a fourth green dot appeared.
     “Lieutenants Ericson and Murphy, this is Commander- sorry, Captain Shepard. I’m taking the shuttle and my team down to Mars.  Can you keep these guys off our backs?”
     “Affirmative, Captain.  You handle the mission you’re here for and leave this to us.”
     “Thanks, Ericson.  Shepard out.”
     Ericson watched the Kodiak dive for the Martian surface, two enemy ships turning to follow it.
     “Oh no you don’t.  Murphy, you see it?”
     “Sure do.  On it.”
     “Copy that.  Normandy, see if you can keep the rest cut off, we’ll take out Shepard’s pursuers,” Ericson said.
     “Can do. Joker out,” came the skilled frigate pilot’s response.
     Ericson took a few shots at his closest target before hitting his afterburners and blasting past it to catch up with the ships closing in on the shuttle team.  He saw it leaking something as he shot by it, but decided he would worry about the crippled enemy later.  He closed in on the bigger threats to the mission and tapped the weapons choice display.  He pulled up the disruptor torpedoes and toggled them to “armed.” He tapped another, lighting up the “linked” option.
     “Arming the Callies, Ericson,” Murphy informed his partner.
     “Good call, Wayne, same here,” Ericson said, before tapping a control to radio the Kodiak.  “Ericson to Kodiak shuttle, come in.”
     “Ericson, this is Cortez, piloting the Kodiak, go head.”
     “Just letting you know your ride might get a little bumpy.  Switching to torpedoes to take those guys off your ass.”
     “Understood.  Ready for evasive maneuvers.”
     Ericson switched off the radio, found a target, and locked on.
    “I’ll take the left one,” Murphy’s voice apprised.
     Ericson looked at his target and cursed with a laugh.  It never failed.  Whenever he flew missions with Wayne, they picked the same target nine times out of ten.  “Copy that, changing target,” the lieutenant said.
     “Seriously, dude?” came the reply coupled with Wayne’s laughter.
     Ericson flipped his comm back on for Cortez’s benfit. “You know how we do, man.  Here we go . . . firing!”
     “Copy that,” Cortez responded.
     Ericson smashed the button on the top of his yoke and four missiles released.  He yanked back on his controls, pulling the ship away from the mass-field generating weapons.  A fraction of a second later, the rockets of the projectiles ignited, flinging the deadly objects on a crash course with an enemy too focused on its own target.  Out of the corner of his eye, the human pilot saw his wingman’s own swarm of missiles streaking towards the other alien craft.
     “Come on, come on,” Ericson whispered between the heartbeats of time between launch and impact.  The missiles closed in.  “Do it.”
     The enemy’s guns came alive, suddenly aware of their plight.  Dozens of rounds of the red laser energy cut through space, attempting to reduce the incoming ordinance to scrap. Ericson saw one missile explode.  Then another.  
     “Fuck fuck fuck.”
     A third target was destroyed by the right most alien vessel.  
     “Son of a bitch . . .” came his helpless cry as he concentrated on the final torpedo, rocketing in on the enemy.  The anti-missile barrage intensified with only meters to go.  Ericson held his breath.  He saw the Kodiak bank hard right.
     Impact.  Detonation.  A rippling field of energy ripped through the target.
     “Ha ha!” he cried out.  
     The alien’s ship exploded into wreckage, vented atmosphere burning in a short lived fireball.  Ericson saw a similar sight emerge to the left followed by Wayne’s own,”Ya goddamn right!”
     “That was close, Wayne.”
     “Don’t I know it.”
     “Cortez, let Shepard know you all are clear to proceed.  We’ll take care of the rest of these mofos,” the pilot communicated.
     Shepard’s voice came over the channel,”Good job, Ericson.  That’s a hell of a first impression.  You clear the skies and we’ll radio when we’re through down there.”
     “Roger, Captain.  Ericson out.”
     The prototype ship swung around to track more targets. 
     “Alright, Ericson.  Murphy.  Let’s finish these assholes,” Joker broadcast to the escort fighters.
     “Good times, Joker,” Ericson said, switching back to his regular guns.
 
 
* * * *
     Shepard stood over Steve Cortez’s shoulder aboard the Kodiak, looking at the display showing him the dogfight taking place above Mars.  “Good job, Ericson.  That’s a hell of a first impression.  You clear the skies and we’ll radio when we’re through down there.”
     “Roger, Captain.  Ericson out,” came the new crew member’s reply.
     Shepard nodded to Cortez who then cut off the comm and began taking the shuttle into the thin atmosphere of Mars.  The Captain pulled up a readout of the enemy ships that the Normandy and the two pilots were currently pursuing.  They may have physically out-gunned the Alliance ships, but the attackers had learned quickly that the superior power was not on their side and were now retreating in a direct path for the edge of the system.  Shepard wanted to smirk at the ill-advised ambush, but something gnawed at the back of his mind.  Something more than just an unknown ship design or motive was bothering him.
     “Where did those things come from?” he wondered aloud.
     “I was wondering the same thing, Shepard,” said Liara from a seat nearby.
     “Yes.  If the mass relays are inoperative, then these new enemies have been watching you from your own system for an unknown period of time.  That is not a good sign,” Javik added.
     “Agreed,” Shepard said. “But why attack now?  If they’ve been watching, if they’ve been hiding right under out noses, you’d think they’d have learned more about our capabilities and known better than to attack with such an out matched force.”
     “And who were they?” Liara asked.  “Cerberus in some bizarre new ship?  Some of Aria’s mercs?”
     “They do not match any ships in geth records,” Tinman offered.  Shepard nodded to him and then turned to Liara.
     “You’re the Shadow Broker, you’re telling me you don’t know anything about them?” Shepard said, folding his arms across his chest in mock anger at his asari friend.
     She recoiled slightly and shrugged.  “I’ve never heard any reports on ships of that design.”  She lifted her arm, activating her omni-tool, and started tapping away.  “But I will see what is in the archives.  My access is limited to what records I have on hand.”
     “Yeah, I guess you haven’t recruited a Rachni yet for network outages, huh?” Shepard asked.
     Liara laughed as Cortez homed in on the closest landing pad to the Archives.  “No, but don’t think I haven’t considered it.  A network system that relies on the mass relays is clearly not the best idea when the relays can be destroyed.”
     “Did you come up with this theory before or after the Captain destroyed the Alpha Relay,” Javik asked.
     “That just never goes away, does it?” Shepard asked, eying Javik for a moment.
     “It was the correct decision, Captain.  Our scientists discussed it on many occasions, but when things finally became desperate enough to warrant that action, we no longer had the resources to implement the plans.”
     Shepard’s face showed no emotion, saying only,”Uh huh,” as the shuttle landed on Mars, rocking gently with the touchdown.  The door slid open and the team of three organics and one synthetic hopped out, guns drawn.  “Be ready for anything,” Shepard ordered.  “We’ve had no reports from here since the Reapers arrived.  We don’t know what we’re going to find.”
     “Hopefully we won’t run into Cerberus this time,” Liara said.
     “If I never see a white and yellow uniform again, it will be too soon,” Shepard commented.
     The four took a short walkway to what looked like a large warehouse door, covered by a large overhanging roof designed to attempt to help protect against the raging dust storms of Mars.  Liara made her way through the rubble on the ground, no doubt a result of whatever Reaper activity had occurred there, to find the access panel to the door.  She held her omni-tool up to it, the override program automatically launching after detecting the locked door.  There was a groan from the gears of the single, lowering wall that was the door and after a moment it began to descend.  Halfway open, however, the groaning became a metal on metal screeching and the door shuddered to a stop with an echoing thud.
     “Fifty-thousand years go by since my cycle and you find my people’s cities and technology and it still works.  That, after three hundred years at war with the Reapers.  Your human constructions fail after a few months of war having been in place for no more than 200 years.  The accomplishments of you primitives are quite conflicting.  Defeat the Reapers in less than a year, not a problem.  Create a serviceable door . . . we will get back to you on that,” Javik said with what amounted to a Prothean smirk.
     “Ha ha,” Shepard faked a laugh.
     “Shepard-Captain, I believe I may be of assistance,” Tinman said.
     “By all means,” Shepard said, motioning to the door.
     The geth prime moved to the door and reached to his full height to grip the top edge of the stuck mechanism.  He pulled downwards.  The door protested at first and then began sliding down, inch by inch.  It stopped again only a few more feet down.  It was still too high for any of the other three to reach without assistance.
     Looking around he saw a few nearby crates.  “Those will do,” he said, pointing at the metal boxes.  He looked at Tinman and considered having the geth lift them instead, but thought better of it.
     “Tinman, can you get through there?” he asked, pointing at the gap at the top of the doorway.
     “I can.”
     “Go ahead and do it and scout the area.  We’ll be through in a minute.”
     “Acknowledged,” the giant geth replied, pulling himself up and over the lip of the door.
     Shepard jogged over to them and began to drag the hefty containers over when he heard Liara laughing.  “What?” he asked.
     She motioned for him to step away from the boxes and come over next to her.  She pointed for him to stand to her right and Javik, taking the cue, came to stand on her left.  “Tinman, are we clear to come through?” she asked through her communicator.
     “The area is secure, T’soni-Asari,” came the confirmation.
     The three on the outside of the door were enveloped in blue energy, Liara deciding not to waste any time by lifting them through the manageable opening of the door with her biotic abilities.
     “Of course,” Shepard said, putting the palm of his hand to his forehead in a forced act of shame.
     Once on the other side, Shepard led the team through the corridors of the human built facility in an attempt to make their way to the Prothean sections it was built around.  Javik kept his eyes on the windows, able to see some of the ruins of his people’s construction in the distance.  “I remember hearing of you humans, Shepard.  The cave dwellers, some of us called you.  I am glad we chose you as one of the races to help.”
     “Help?  You mean you didn’t just watch us?”
     “Like Liara learned on her Thessia home world, we never intended to merely watch you younger races.  I am not sure how we helped the humans, I am no scientist, but I know we would not have let even one race capable of evolving into a fighting force take their own path and time to do so.  Whatever they did, the scientists seem to have gotten it right with your species.  Last to create a . . . civilized society, last into space, few biotics and shorter lifespans- every disadvantage I could imagine, and yet you quickly dominate all other race’s thoughts once able to travel the mass relay corridors.  A fast moving and adaptable race must be the key.  That is something we lacked.  It is something the other races do not seem to posses in such high levels as well.”
     “This information is interesting, Javik-Prothean,” Tinman said.  “Would the Protheans have found the geth to be worth your attentions had we been around to study in your cycle.”
     “No.  We would have treated you as we treated the Reapers, machine.”
     Javik said nothing else to the geth and kept moving.  Liara and Shepard exchanged a questioning glance between each other, both looking back at the geth for a reaction and saw nothing.  They all kept moving.
     A few minutes later, they came to a man-made blockade of the hallway.  Hundreds of crates, like those outside the warehouse door, were stacked, welded, and sometimes smashed together, forming a durable barrier that was littered with scorch marks from weapons fire. A large concentration of burned metal centered around a small opening that was roughly a meter across and maybe two high.
     “Just the right size for a person, but not many reaper forces.  Husks, the turian marauders maybe, not much else, though,” Shepard thought.  “But who was left to create and defend this?” he wondered. “Didn’t Cerberus wipe everyone out even before the Reapers followed us here?”
     He was answered shortly when a woman sporting cobbled together Alliance and Cerberus armor came out from the opening with half a dozen armed followers.  They aimed their guns at the small squad.  Shepard and his team raised their weapons in response.
     “I’ll ask you to stop right there, pal,” the lady said, eyeing the geth in particular with a flash of fear.  To her credit, Shepard noticed it as just that: a flash.  She checked it quickly, maintaining a calm exterior, more for her followers than as any show of confidence for outsiders.
     Shepard weighed his options.  He’d been in worse situations, more opponents, better equipped, but something told him fighting his way out of this was not his only option.  He reasoned that these people were afraid, had been fighting for their lives against who knows what, and probably had not even heard that the war was over.  He decided to try and use the diplomacy Hackett had mentioned developing more and more in him.  He motioned for Liara, Tinman, and Javik to lower their weapons.  Liara and Tinman complied.  Javik did not.
     “Javik, we can do this without the violence.”
     “Believe what you will, Shepard.  I have no reason to trust these primitives and they stand between us and our mission.”
     The lady in charge perked up.  “Shepard?  As in Commander Shepard of the Normandy?”  Her tone was less threatening.  Shepard stared at Javik who sensed the change in demeanor of the human female.  He hesitated, but then lowered his particle gun.  Shepard turned back to face the leader of the group.
     “Captain now, but yes, I’m Shepard.”
     “Captain?  Really?  They’ve got time for promotions in between losing worlds to the Reapers?”
     “The Reapers are dead.  We defeated them with the Crucible two days ago.”
     “Defeated?  What the hell is a Crucible?”
     Shepard saw no doubt in her eyes, only questions.  “How long have you been without communication?” he asked.
     “Three months, give or take a week.  Been trying to scrounge up parts to repair a satellite on the roof, but the pockets of husks roaming around here have made it too dangerous.”
     “Husks?” Shepard asked, Liara and Javik looking around the area with him, Tinman maintaining his optic sensor on the group of humans.  “When was the last time you saw any?”
     “Well . . . probably two days ago?  But how did you-?”
     “The Crucible.  It killed the Reapers and anything created by them.  Do you have a name?”
     “Amanda.  Amanda Cullers.”
     “Look, Amanda, is there somewhere we can sit down and talk.  There’s a lot to explain.  The important part is that we can help you out.  You all are safe, now.”
     “Look, Captain, if you are the same Shepard as the Commander Shepard I’ve heard so much about, then I need some sort of proof. Anybody can buy a cheap set of look-alike N7 armor and go running around.”
     “Don’t I know it,” Shepard said, thinking of one gung-ho individual by the name of Conrad.  “Tragic the way he went,” he thought, absently.
     “Then, as an act of good faith, I’m asking that you restore our communications.  That shouldn’t prove too hard for a true war hero,” Amanda said.
     “No, it shouldn’t,” Shepard agreed.
     “Fair warning, though, it won’t be a cake walk.”
     “How do you mean?”
     “The Reapers may be gone, but there are . . . other groups here.  We all sort of fall into two categories: either we were on Earth and tried to escape or we were on our way to Earth when the Reapers attacked.  Which side we fell on didn’t really matter in the end.  What mattered is that our ships took damage and we crashed, or if we were lucky landed roughly, on Mars.  No one was happy about it and not everyone has tried to stick together when the Reapers were here.  Now that they’re gone, I doubt that will get any better.”
     “It’s never simple and straight forward, is it Shepard?” Liara asked.
     “Not on our missions, Liara,” he answered.  To himself he wished, just once, a mission he was assigned to would go as planned without out a dozen little other things pulling them in different directions. He looked to Amanda again, saying,”But, if it will prove our good intentions to Amanda and her people, we’ll do it.  I’d rather be gaining allies than making enemies right now.”  
     She nodded to him and then activated her omni-tool.  “I’m sending you the location of the least damaged satellite, Shepard.  It needs a power source and a few minor repairs that your own omni-tool should be able to handle if its fabrication function is still working, unlike mine.”
     “Good to know.  And what sort of resistance our we likely to run into?”
     “The others I’ve mentioned don’t all stay in one place like we have.  And not everyone is going to cause trouble, but there are some mercenaries running around with a few of the small mech units, and I swear I saw a krogan in one group and a couple batarians with a vorcha in another.”
     “Typical of what I have seen in this cycle,” Javik interjected.
     “This cycle?” Amanda asked giving Javik an odd look.
     Shepard held up a hand.  “Long story.  I’ll tell you all about it once we’ve repaired your satellite so that you can start coordinating some sort of supply drop or personnel pickup, whichever you need.”
     Without another word, Shepard signaled to his team and they turned to follow the map Amanda had transferred to his omni-tool.  He read up on the schematics, already searching through his mind for a suitable replacement for the communications array’s power core.
     Javik came up beside him.  “Why put up with these petty requests, Captain?  They only delay us which only delays the solution to the mass relay problem.”
     “It only delays us if it was never part of the mission in the first place, Javik,” Shepard answered.  “Think about it.  If they’re telling us they’ve had no communication, how are we going to let anyone know of anything we find down here?  They’ve actually saved us time in letting us know this without having to find it out the hard way.”
     Javik was silent as they continued down their chosen hallway.  He thought about it and then said,”I see.  You were understanding this even as she was speaking.  You are a rare one, Shepard.  You have a warrior’s instincts, a general’s command, and a priest’s patience.  Those humans would be dead on the floor by now had I been charged with your task.”
     “Well then I’m glad I’m the one calling the shots, Javik,” Shepard laughed.  “No offense.”
     “None taken, Captain.”
     Liara just watched the exchange between the two while Tinman’s heavy steps echoed beside her.  “How many decades did I spend glorifying his race?” she wondered for the hundredth time since they had revived Javik on Eden Prime.
 
 
 * * * *
 
 
     Ericson flew through the flaming debris of his final victim.  Checking his sensors, he was mildly impressed.  Neither the Normandy nor Murphy’s ship showed anything remotely resembling damage.  Low shields that were currently regenerating, but nothing serious.  Another fact that drew his attention was that they had nearly left Neptune behind in their pursuit of their adversaries.  
     “They were in quite a hurry, weren’t they?” Joker radioed from the frigate.
     “Just a bit,” Murphy replied.  
     “Yeah, but to where?” Ericson asked.  He saw no deviation in the flight path the strange ships had taken.  If he hadn’t known that the mass relays had been damaged beyond use he would have sworn-  “Hey, you see where these guys were headed?” he suddenly found himself wondering out loud.
     “Sure, to the mass relay,” Joker said.  “Why wouldn’t they . . . ohhhhh.  Right.  Thanks EDI, for reminding me that I’m an idiot.  No, no.  I know it wasn’t your intent, baby, just- nevermind.”
     Ericson always found it funny to hear one side of a conversation and wonder what the other party was actually saying.  Normally what he came up with in his own mind left him having to hold in nearly uncontrollable laughter.  
     “So?” Ericson heard his buddy Wayne say.  “If they’ve been hiding out in our solar system, maybe they don’t even know it’s been taken out.  No big deal.”
     “Still . . . I say we go check it out.  Shepard and his team will be down on Mars for a while, I have a feeling, and we’ve got nothing but time on our hands.  If they get in a pinch and need us, we hop in the Normandy’s hangar and Joker FTLs us all back their in the blink of an eye.”
     “Hey, works for me,” Joker said.  
     “Then let’s go,” Ericson ordered.
     The three Alliance warships formed a loose triangular formation, the Normandy in the lead, and headed for the disabled mass relay of the Sol system.

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 2

Chapter 2

“Commander, it’s good to see you alive,” Hackett said with genuine relief and only the quickest of glances over the commander’s shoulder, looking at Lieutenant-Commander Williams with an indiscernible expression. She returned a half-hearted smile, hoping it wasn’t the admiral’s “pissed” look. “And Anderson? How in the hell are you even standing in front of me?”

Anderson laughed and shook his head. “Only by cashing in a lifetime of karma, I think, Admiral.”

“Indeed. We’ll catch up later. Right now, we need to get to business.” Hackett motioned for Shepard, Anderson, and Williams to follow him to a private room aboard his damaged capital ship. They walked by teams of repair crews, some running cables, others welding replacement sections of bulkhead into place where the intermittent surge of electricity gave away the presence of the shielding protecting the area from the open vacuum of space only inches away.

Shepard and the others came into a conference room and the thick metal doors of the entrance hissed and clicked into place as they slid shut behind them. The four alliance officers sat down at the central table, it’s holographic display throwing a rotating image of Earth into the air as Hackett pressed a button on the table’s edge.

“Look at it,” Hackett said and paused for a moment. “That’s the first time I’ve looked at that image in a long time and not seen a thousand red Reaper dots . . . it’s a beautiful sight.” The others nodded in agreement and sat in thoughtful silence. “What I don’t want, is to start adding a thousand new red dots that are green right now. Our allies, your coalition, Shepard, saved our asses. They saved their own as well, but now they’re on and around Earth and it won’t be long before word reaches all of them that they don’t have a way home. That’s when our trouble will start.”

“What sort of trouble are you expecting, Admiral,” Anderson asked.

“A land rush, more or less, Anderson. We’ve got a planet that any race can live on, at least in some major habitable zone or another. If they think they have no way home, my analysts say we can expect certain races to start digging in before others, but it won’t be long before all follow suit.”

“How do we prevent that?” Shepard asked, leaning forward to look at a secondary display that showed the entire solar system. He absently tapped at Mars, bringing links to various databases with a wealth of knowledge to his fingertips. He scanned the major topics for a few seconds, waiting for Hackett’s reply.

“That’s why I brought you all here. We need options. We’re staring head first into the aftermath of the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory and I don’t want to follow that up with a pitched battle for Earth with the other major races. We’ve lost a ton of soldiers and we’ve lost even more civilians from our war with the Reapers. We would be looking at worse odds at this point than against the Reapers if all of our allies became new enemies. So, give me alternatives. Without mass relays, how do we get them home?” Hackett asked.

Shepard sat thinking, as did the others. He looked up suddenly with a thought that seemed too simple on the surface, but highly complicated under that layer. Still, he thought it possible. “Fix them,” was all he said.

Ashley looked at Shepard out of the corner of her eye and raised an eyebrow. Anderson crossed his arms leaning back in his seat and just looked at Shepard. Hackett was the only one of the other three to give the commander’s comment what looked like serious consideration.

“Shepard, a year ago I’d have called the idea crazy, but I see where you’re coming from. The Crucible.”

“Exactly. We built that, we can rebuild some damn mass relays.”

“But how?” Ashley asked.

“Same way as the Crucible, Ash,” Shepard answered, turning to face her. “By finding the blueprints. And by looking in the same spot.”

“The Mars Archives,” she said. Shepard nodded with a little smile.

“And you’ve got a Prothean to help you speed up the process, now,” Anderson added, starting to nod his head. “That will help Ms. T’Soni with translations to say the least.”

“Agreed . . . if I can convince Javik to change his mind.”

“About what?” Hackett asked.

Shepard looked around the room, debating whether the private conversation between he and Javik, before the push for the beam to the Citadel, would cause doubts or worry should it be revealed. He decided he’d already let the cat out of the bag by thinking aloud a mere second ago, so he went ahead.

“Javik’s post-Reaper victory . . . celebration . . . may have had something to do with finding an appropriate spot to ensure the Protheans remained a civilization of the past, not the present.”

“Very diplomatic way of wording that, Commander. If you’re not careful, I may have to promote you twice in one day.”

Shepard sat up, at attention. “Twice, sir?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not that cruel, Shepard. You’re too valuable to me in the field to promote you beyond Captain right now.”

Shepard stood up, facing the admiral. He came to attention and saluted the old war veteran. “Thank you, sir. It’s an honor.”

“Shepard you’re a hero a thousand times over and the damn savior of the galaxy. Making you Captain is lip service to what you have accomplished and what you are capable of in the future.”

“It’s not lip service to me, sir. I was an orphan and ran with the dregs of society until I had a run-in with the Alliance. Once I joined up, the military became the family I had never had. Being recognized for doing my duty to the family that saved me from myself is, like I said, an honor. At least in my mind.”

“Very eloquent again . . . Captain Shepard. Vying for a desk job with politicians in your old age?” Hackett joked.

“Hell no! . . . Sir,” the newly dubbed Captain quickly replied with a laugh. “Well, maybe if they’re at the point of my gun . . . but not yet. As long as I’ve still got my ship and my crew and planets to save, you’ll never tie me down.”

“Glad to hear it. Now tell me how we save our planet while your team digs into the Archives looking for the secrets of the mass relays?”

Shepard sat back down and leaned back in his seat. He stared at the floating image of Earth. He focused on the images of the fleets in orbit around it and an idea occurred to Shepard. “I need a favor of whatever communication specialists you have left, Admiral.”

“For?”

“Ash and I have a meeting to hold.”

Williams sat up. “Uh, we do?”

“Yes. Admiral, we need to send a message to gather up the remaining Spectres. I believe a talk with them will help us keep everyone in line. We’ll meet on the Normandy. Ash and I can handle it from there.”

“Then get to it, Captain. I’ll get you whatever Spectres are still alive and you get them to keep the other races in check.”

The meeting obviously over, all four stood and saluted.

“Anderson,” Hackett said.

“Yes, Admiral?” Anderson said.

“A minute of your time? I have a special task for you.

Anderson nodded and then turned to Shepard and Ashley. “You two go do what you do and get this solved. I’ll be in touch when I can.”

The Captain and Lieutenant-Commander both nodded and then walked out of the room. Walking down the hall, Ashley stopped and looked over at Shepard. “What the hell, Shepard? What do you have in mind for the Spectres?”

Shepard stopped to face her and said,”Don’t worry, Ash. I’ve got an idea.”

“Why in my mind do I hear that sentence actually ending with ‘and it’s just crazy enough to work,’ Shepard?” Williams asked, her brown eyes searching the Captain’s own blue ones. She found herself falling into those sky-colored masters of disarmament for the thousandth time, and a small sigh huffed its way out of her.

“What’s wrong, Ash?” Shepard asked, sensing her low spirits.

Ashley shook her head, dismissively. She didn’t want to bring up her feelings for Shepard again. He had been nice on the Citadel when they had discussed it before and he had been truthful. Not completely honest with her, but she understood why. The attraction was there, she knew it, but she had made too many mistakes to rekindle that old flame. Between the moments they had lived years ago on the first Normandy, went it felt like a certainty, to the loss of two years with Cerberus, followed by her own damaging mistrust of Shepard during the collector attacks and up until the Cerberus attack on the Citadel, Ashley knew she had squandered the chance to be with one of the greatest men she honestly believed had ever lived. It wasn’t his heroics and civilization saving battles that had won her over. She had met him and fallen for him before his journey into the annals of history had begun. She had loved the man that was only an Alliance soldier, new to his own Spectre status, like she was now, and he was still an unknown, attractive, intelligent, and assertive leader. “All the things I’ve ever wanted in a guy . . . ” she thought. “And then that Cerberus bitch had to go and raise him from the dead. That’s a fucking bar that can’t be measured up to if I ever saw-”

“Earth to Lieutenant-Commander Williams.”

Shepard looked down, slightly smirking at the beautiful woman he had fought so many battles next to. He could tell she was deep in thought and his own thoughts, only quickly for his sanity’s sake, turned to how she had once been the sole focus of his attentions. “Long ago,” he thought. “Before so many things went wrong . . . for us. And before many went so right and felt so good with Miranda,” he mused. He saw Ashley snap out of her mind’s trap and she shrugged.

“Sorry, Shepard. Lot on my mind.”

“I gathered as much.”

“So what’s the idea with the Spectres?”

Shepard smiled and resumed their walk, back to the Normandy. “I think you’re going to like it . . .”

* * * *

Shepard stood in the Normandy’s conference room. A dozen other Spectres stared back at him, including their newest member, Ashley.

“This is all that’s left?” he asked of his peers. Some of them he recognized, but most were no more than a collection of dossiers sitting on the desk in his cabin one floor above. Each had impressive records, but none would have claimed to be his equal with a straight face. They looked around, each with varying degrees of sadness, a few looking back to him and nodding. “Well, we’ll have to get some fresh blood in, soon, but for now it will have to do. We’ve got a good mix of races, still, which is good. What I gathered you all here for will need it. ”

“Is it about the mass relays, Commander?” the salarian Jondum Bau asked.

“It’s Captain Shepard, now,” Ashley interjected pointedly. The other Spectres looked at her and then to Shepard and he nodded in confirmation. “Never a more well earned promotion, either, if you ask me.”

“Thanks, Ash. And to answer your question, Jondum, yes. Most of you probably have heard by now that our victory has cost us dearly. We lost family, friends, comrades in arms, leaders, and too many civilians to count. We’ve lost cities, resources, and entire worlds have suffered what we humans call scorched earth attacks. But what is going to affect us the most in our rebuilding effort is the damage to the mass relays. I’ve already heard it’s been rumored that they were completely destroyed and we need to make sure everyone knows they have not. We don’t need panicking populations worried that they will never get home when there are a dozen factions with guns in close quarters here. As long as the hope of rebuilding the relays is there, then we can keep everyone’s minds at ease. The majority of the relay’s main structure, at least here in the Sol system, is intact, but it is confirmed damaged and inoperative. Thanks to our Rachni allies out in the galaxy and their ability to communicate realtime through their own methods, we know that every other mass relay is the same.”

“What is the plan to fix them? We haven’t even figured out how the Reapers built them. How can we repair what we never built in the first place?” a female Turian named Danlar Cidran asked.

“We found the plans for the Crucible and built it. I think we can use the same source, our Prothean Archives on Mars, to learn more about the mass relays. If nothing can be found there, our Crucible team may be able to be pulled from rebuilding efforts and be reassigned to study the relays as well. Hopefully, between the two angles, we’ll come up with a solution.”

“A wise plan, Shepard, but what are you asking of us?” inquired the asari Jeluna S’Fara.

“Keep the peace among your races. Call them paranoid, but the Alliance brass fear a land grab on Earth by non-human races.”

Ashley’s eyes opened wide. “Shepard? Isn’t that need to kn-”

The captain shook his head at her and she stopped. “Part of being a Spectre- the main part- is keeping the peace in the galaxy, doing what must be done to maintain the fragile alliances among us all. Spectres have to operate as a cohesive unit in this. We can’t put our species above another, but we don’t subjugate ours to another, either. My opinion is that the peace is maintained through honesty. We can’t operate like politicians. Hell, we can’t even work with them. I’ll put our illustrious Council, may they rest in peace, out there as an example. Most powerful political leaders in the galaxy and they were paralyzed with inaction and by indecision when it mattered most, when the facts were staring them in the face. And, as much as he’s my superior and as much as I respect him, right now Hackett is the top of the chain of command in the Alliance. Given the state of ours and everyone else’s native governments, that means the admiral is fifty percent politician and fifty percent military leader right now. He’s no doubt keeping secrets from us in humanity’s best interest,” Shepard finished, holding his first two fingers of each hand up in the form of quotation marks.

Shepard could see his comments hitting the mark with everyone, Ashley included. He allowed himself a small smile and kept going.
“Back to the point, though, what I think is more likely is that what we have here is mainly military, well trained, but very tired, military forces. I don’t see many of them wanting to jump into another major battle, or worse- a war, right now. There are races not represented here because of the prejudices, mistrust, and mistakes of the past. Others, I’ll be blunt, like the vorcha and some of our mercenary allies of necessity, will have to be watched. They I worry about. Turians, salarians, asari, I’m not worried about your people in any particular regard. Like I said, well trained military. They’ll follow orders. It’s Earth, so humans can almost be ruled out, but there are human mercenaries and always scum like Cerberus or just any average power hungry fool that might make a play for that power and empty positions of leadership.

“The geth I’m inclined to think are not eyeing any planets already settled by organics. Let’s face it: they just made peace with the quarians and are letting them come back home to Rannoch and settle amongst them. Quarians just got back their homeworld and have lived in their flotilla for hundreds of years so planetary conquest won’t be high on their list of priorities.

“Some of the krogan might give in to their aggressive nature and try to go against Urdnot Wrex’s standing orders of cooperation, but I’m not seeing another Krogan Rebellions here. Do I think it will be all happy and easy and everyone gets along? Hell no. We have to be vigilant. I think we’ll have problems from Aria T’Loak’s people and Cerberus. They seem to be expanding into mercenary territory after we kicked their ass and set them back a good decade or so. They already teamed up with some vorcha in an attempt to sieze the Citadel after the Reapers fell. Unluckily for them, there were a few people standing in their way.”

“So we’ll play galactic guard duty on the usual suspects while you and your team try to find a way to rebuild the mass relays so that the rest of the races are not here so long that they all become suspect, that the short of it?” asked a male turian Shepard recognized as Shalu Kalatic.

Shepard nodded again. “That’s right. Any questions?”

Jondum stepped up. “We have no Council anymore. Our ranks are depleted. I stand with Shepard on that we Spectres must continue our mandate: keep the peace in the galaxy. I also agree that following the lead of the politicians has hindered more than helped. I move that we develop a new system, our system, for deciding our missions, requested by the governments, of course, and selecting our new members. We will be much more efficient without all the bureaucratic paperwork.”

Shepard felt mild relief run through his body. He had hoped one of the other Spectres would latch on to that idea, the seed of which he had gambled would be planted with his talk of the Council. Had Jondum or one of the others not stepped up, the plan had been for Ashley to take that role, but Shepard was glad that now it would not look like a tangentially human-biased idea.

A scattering of voices sounded their agreement to the idea. Jeluna spread her hands open to the others, asking,”And you want to decide this right now?”

Ashley looked from Shepard to the Spectres. “Look, the time for debating all this can wait. Like we’ve said- we’re not politicians. We are the ones who act and get things done. I’ll set up a special coded frequency for Spectre use that will relay through the Normandy’s communications system. Now that it’s back up and running, it’s the best setup in the Sol system. We can trade ideas on rules, direction, and recruitment as we think of them. Right now, the Normandy is already on schedule to leave for Mars in short order. So unless there’s something that can’t wait, I’d say it’s time to be Spectres.”

Ashley felt the eyes of the other twelve Spectres on her and looked at each in turn, except for Shepard. She wasn’t sure she wanted to see what his face might tell her about what he thought of her little speech. His was the opinion that mattered to her, and the one she feared learning, the most. The other Spectres all stood and nodded their approval of her words and trickled out the door, one by one until only she and Shepard were left.

“Impressive, Ashley. You may question Udina’s motives for asking you to join the Spectres, but I think it’s the best decision he ever made in his career. You’ll do fine.”

Ashley looked down at her feet, feeling like an embarrassed school girl like only Shepard could make her feel. “Thanks, Shepard. I really appreciate that. So, can we take me out of these awkward moments and put a gun in my hand now?” she asked with a laugh.

Shepard laughed as well. “Sure thing, Ash. I’ll go tell Joker to head for Mars as soon as the last of the other Spectres is off the ship.”

Ashley saluted crisply with a smile and jogged out the door. Shepard headed for the Normandy’s bridge.

* * * *

“I hear I have to start saluting a little harder, now,” Joker said with an exaggerated slanted hand near his forehead. He laughed and rotated his chair to face the Normandy’s controls.

“See that you do, Joker,” Shepard said with a smile. “I’d hate to have to throw you in the brig for disrespecting a superior officer. That’s just not your way.”

“I don’t know about superior. Higher ranking, maybe, but superior? Let’s see you make this baby dance like I do,” the pilot answered, patting his chair’s armrest. “Besides, do we even have a brig?”

“I’ll lock you in Thane’s old room with Grunt and Wrex.”

“Saluting away, sir,” Joker said, feigning fear of Shepard’s joke of a threat.

“Where’s your woman at?” Shepard asked, seeing the empty seat to Joker’s right.

“Working away, helping with the Normandy’s repairs. I thought the Normandy was my ship. I keep forgetting she is the ship.”

“That is correct, Jeff,” came the AI’s voice. “And I’m always listening.”

“Don’t I know it,” Joker said. He looked at Shepard, holding a hand to the side of his mouth, whispering,”I love her, but that’s still creepy.”

“I can hear that, too, Jeff,” EDI said.

Shepard shook his head, smiling. A second later, Joker held his hand up to his ear. “Admiral Hackett on the line, Captain.”

“Let me hear it, Joker.”

The Normandy’s pilot tapped a button and the admiral’s voice sounded through the bridge’s speakers.

“Shepard, Hackett here. How did the Spectre pow-wow go?”

“Good. Though, you were right. They already know about the damage to the relays. But they took it well. Give them the credit they’re due. They weren’t chosen to be Spectres because they were stupid. They’ve agreed to keep an eye on the usual suspects and to help calm nerves and deliver our little message of hope to rebuild the relays. I think that’s all we can ask at this point.”

“Agreed. One question, though. With the Council dead and not replaced since the Reapers took the Citadel, who’s running the show with that group?”

Shepard paused. He had hoped Hackett would leave that alone until a later time. He debated his answer: remind the admiral that Spectres operate outside of anyone but the Council’s jurisdiction, tell him that without the Council, the Spectres would not be thwarted at every turn and produce better results, or offer the return to old ways and await a new Council to take shape. He knew now that the opposite had been dangled in front of the other Spectres, they would not take kindly to that reversal.

“That’s up for debate, right now, Admiral. Most of us are of the mind that, given the Council’s complete disaster in handling the end of the galaxy situation with the Reapers, with years of advanced warning going ignored, we would do better without them. One soldier to another, Admiral, we both know politicians are the worst form of decision makers there are.”

“Captain, I can see your point, but it all comes down to the old saying: who watches the watchmen? Without an authority like the Council to back the Spectres, where would your resources come from? Why would the other governments of the galaxy give in to that precious Spectre authority you all use so often to get the job done? I’m not closed minded, Shepard. The idea of a Spectre unit that is unshackled, after seeing what you and some of the others accomplished with your hands tied . . . I’d like to see that. But can the Spectres govern themselves and not become the next Cerberus?”

“If I have anything to do with it, sir. I think we can manage better than before, but I’ll bring your concerns to them and see how they respond.”

“Sounds good, Captain. Headed for Mars, now?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Shepard, I know the Normandy isn’t up to 100% so I’m sending a pair of fighters with you as escort. Ericson and Murphy. Best pilots in the fleet during the Reaper War. Not the kind that enjoy too much time away from the cockpit, either. With the mercs and the remnants of Cerberus running around, I want to give you all some extra protection. You have room for them in your hangar when needed? And quarters on the Normandy for them?”

Shepard looked to Joker, raising an eyebrow with a “what the hell is this all about?” look. Joker just shook his head and rolled his eyes. Shepard shrugged.

“It’s a bit crowded right now- repair crews, regular staff, old team members, new team members, pretty much anyone who’s ever served on the Normandy and survived is here right now. But we’ll find space for them, sir. Appreciate the assistance.”

“Good. I won’t hold you any longer. Hackett out.”

Joker looked up at Shepard, got a nod from the Captain, and then tapped his controls, severing the communication link. “Ever notice how the way he says ‘Hackett out’ sounds a lot like ‘Now get out’?” Joker asked.

Shepard laughed, having thought he’d heard the same thing on numerous occasions. “I thought I was the only one who heard it that way,” Shepard answered. “You don’t miss a thing, Joker.”

“I try not to, Captain. So, to Mars?”

“To Mars, Joker. Signal me when we’re ten minutes out. I’m going to go check on the rest of the crew and then read up on these escort pilots, see if I trust them to watch our asses.”

“Will do.”

Shepard left the bridge.