“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
Shepard left the bridge.