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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”