Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 10

 Chapter 10

 
     Shepard cooked the last fresh meat he would have for a while in the Normandy’s oven.  An array of seasonings and spices were scattered on the counter around the stove top and a line of different sauces waited on the prep area behind him.  He hadn’t decided on what flavors to add yet.
     “See, now that’s what I’m gonna miss most about being stationed on Earth,” Vega said, coming around the corner from the elevator.  
     The sweat drenching the gym rat’s shirt tipped off Shepard that Vega had just come up from finishing one of his famously intense workouts in the hangar below.  “You said it, James. Back to whatever we can scrounge up on the road as we go.”
     “Well, at least there will be more to go around, right?”
     Shepard looked down at the oven and pictured the meat on dozens of plates as only a small part of a meal instead of the main course.  Then he saw the number of plates cut in half and frowned.  “I suppose.  To be honest, I was just getting used to the chaos.”
     Vega bobbed his head.  “I know what you mean, Loco . . . it is kinda quiet now.  No Garrus to talk to shit to, and now I’ve got no krogan to spar with cuz Wrex refuses. And, damn if that-” The marine cut himself off, looking over both shoulders.  Seeing no one, he leaned in and whispered,”That Lieutenant Hayes was pretty hot.  What was she, some sort of Asian mix?  That’s still on the checklist, if you know what I mean?” he said with a wink.
     Shepard shook his head.  Maybe a friendly warning was in order.  “Her files said Thai and Irish if you want specifics.  But you keep those thoughts hanging around and you’ll be heading for an early grave, don’t you think?”
     “Why do you think I was whispering, Shepard?  I just said she was hot.  I wasn’t planning on doing anything other than admiring from a distance.  I’m not suicidal.  Besides,” he said, leaning back and returning to a normal volume,”Jack’s pretty damn hot herself.”
     “Good to know,” came Jack’s voice from around the corner in the hallway, her hands dripping with water.  She gave Vega a squinting-eyed look of suspicion, but then directed her attention to the captain.  “You know, for as advanced as this piece of crap is, you’d think they could keep the hand dryer working.  No offense EDI,” Jack said, looking up at no spot in particular.
     “None taken, Jack,” said the AI over one of the Normandy’s many speakers available to the synthetic.
     Shepard grabbed a towel hanging on the oven’s handle and tossed it past Vega, over to the tattooed biotic.  She smiled.  “How old fashioned of you.”
     “Sometimes the old ways are the most reliable.”
     Jack dried her hands and twirled the towel in to a tight spiral and snapped it at Vega’s backside.  It connected with a loud smack and the unsuspecting soldier jumped.  “Yah!” he cried out.  He turned around and snatched the cloth with battle tested reflexes that managed to somehow catch Jack off guard.  “You see how abusive she is to me, Shepard?” 
     “Shut the fuck up, meat head.”  She poked her finger at a few of his tattoos, giving Shepard a sideways glance.  “He likes it.  Shit, look at what he does to himself.  His pleasure is pain.  Isn’t it, baby?” Jack asked, sticking her face within inches of his with a smile.  Shepard could tell it was not a mean spirited expression, but an honest one.  He found himself mirroring her, the muscles in his cheeks pulling at his face.  Shepard saw Vega try to glare angrily at Jack, but his attempt at seriousness failed.  
     He joined the smiling comrades.  “Damn it, Tats,” he said, giving her a quick kiss.
     “That’s more like it,” Jack said, grabbing Vega by the hand and pulling him back towards the hallway.  “I’m going to need your marine for a while, Shepard,” she called.
     “Permission granted,” Shepard laughed as they disappeared from view.
     “Don’t I get a say in this?” Vega’s voice echoed down the hall.
     “No,” Jack answered.  
     EDI spoke to the retreating couple as they went.  “Jack, this time, do not forget the-“.
     “Got it covered, EDI, thanks,” the killer turned teacher cut her off.
     “Wait, Joker said you didn’t watch, EDI” Vega said.
     “No, I said she doesn’t record, dumbass.  Don’t forget that she’s the entire ship,” the pilot jumped in.  “She can sorta see and hear everything.  Believe me.”
     “Oh . . . right . . .”
     “Do not worry, James,” EDI said.  “I do not watch.”
     “Oh.  Okay.  Good,” Vega replied, relaxing.
     “Much.”
     “Wha-“
     There was the sound of a door opening, then closing, and Shepard was left in silence. 
     The building aroma of cooked meat was accompanied by the ding of a timer reaching its final stroke.  The Spectre grabbed his weapon of choice, a nearby oven mitt, and reached into sweltering heat.  He pulled out a broiling pan with chicken breasts lined up on it.  He set it down in the prep area and grabbed the salt, pepper, ranch dressing, and buffalo sauce.  His jaw tingled and his mouth watered in anticipation.  Shepard finished preparing the meal and covered it for transporting it up to his room, where he hoped to surprise Miranda with a little lunch.
     On the Normandy’s upper deck, Miranda sat in the chair at Shepard’s desk and turned to watch him enter.  Her eyes lit up and her hands went to her stomach.
     “Oh my god, your timing is perfect, Shepard.”
     “I take it you’re surprised?” he asked.
     “I’m sorry, I thought I made it painfully obvious.  Big smile, hands on the stomach, uplifted tone of voice.”
     “Surrounded by smartasses in this ship, I swear,” he laughed.  “It’s nothing fancy or special.  But it’s good!  Trust me.  Just like ol’ mom used to make.”
     Miranda shot her man an incredulous look.  “Shepard, you’re an orphan.”
     “Exactly.”
     Miranda laughed and took the offered plate.  “You were cutting it close, weren’t you?  We’ll be leaving for Sur’Kesh in short order.”
     “I was fairly confident I could not burn some chicken in time for lunch before we left.”
     “Think these mass amplifiers are going to work?” the dark haired beauty asked, biting into the sauce covered meat.
     “Either that or this is going to be our last meal.  I’ve got no regrets,” Shepard joked.
     
 
* * * *
 
 
     The SSV Normandy SR-2 sat in the black of space, floating next to the Charon Relay.  The massive piece of Reaper technology glowed with the blue energy of its element-zero core.  The repaired construct dwarfed the Alliance frigate as it waited. 
     Captain Shepard stood on the bridge behind Joker and EDI’s human body at the ship’s controls.  The salarian STG leader, Major Kirrahe, stood a little further back, going over his plans in his head for the fifth time in ten minutes. Off in the hall leading up to the bridge, a rachni soldier could have passed for a statue, standing on its multiple legs, saying nothing, merely observing.
     “Ready for your order, Captain,” Joker stated.
     Shepard turned on the communication link to Hackett’s ship.  “Admiral, we’re about to activate the mass amplifier.”
     “Go ahead, Shepard.  All the tests proved safe.  The Normandy will be fine.”
     “We’ll find out in a second,” Shepard said.
     “Send your report as soon as possible, Captain.  The fleets will be waiting.  Good luck on Sur’Kesh.”
     “Thanks, Admiral.  I’ll try not to keep you all waiting too long.”  He turned off the link and turned to Joker.  “Do it.”
     “Powering up the mass amplifier,” the pilot announced across the ship wide speaker system.  “Better clench tight, kiddies.”  Joker initiated the charging sequence and the ship’s engines went off-line.  Kirrahe looked to Shepard who, in turn, looked to EDI and Joker.  Joker noticed the looks. “Wait for it,” he advised.
     There was a low hum from the lower rear of the ship that Shepard felt before he heard.  In front of him, the captain saw blue particles swirling and crashing against each other and then sucking inwards, creating a growing tunnel of blue.  The hum of the mass amplifier rose rapidly, in time with a quickly enlarging tunnel in front of the Normandy that stretched out as far as Shepard could see.  The amplifier’s tone flashed to a high squeal.  Shepard felt an instant kick that reminded him of the simulators of old manual automobiles from a century before shifting gears as the power to the FTL engines joined that of the mass amp, flinging the frigate through the mass effect corridor with a resounding boom.
     “We are underway, Captain,” Joker was happy to report.
     “Good . . . but that seemed a little slow, honestly.”
     “Yeah, well, I guess there’s no pleasing some people,” Jeff shot back.
     “When we’re in the middle of a battle and suddenly need to retreat, you think about how fast you’d like that mass amp to work, Joker,” Shepard said.
     “Touché, Captain.”
     Shepard looked to EDI.  “See if there’s anything you can do about cutting that initialization time down or maybe it’s just a matter of breaking the new components in.  Either way, we need faster reaction from it.”
     “I will do so, Shepard,” she acknowledged.
     Kirrahe nodded to Shepard.  “We will arrive at my home world soon.  I will go prepare my men.  I suggest you pick your team and prep them as well.”
     “Agreed,” the Spectre said and walked off the bridge, the salarian commander following him.
     
 
* * * * 
 
 

        Liara T’Soni looked over her list of agents, searching for anyone left in the employ of the Shadow Broker.  The one-hundred and nine year old asari, young by her people’s standards, still wrestled with how best to use her incredible resources and power to influence galactic trends.  She had taken the reins over from the former owner of the title in the spur of the moment, after the monstrous yahg had died at Shepard’s hands.  The archaeologist turned Illium information broker had been conflicted ever since.  Having gained such power at only the beginning of her life was an enormous opportunity that could set her up for historical ability and achievement.  She worried about the temptation and potential abuse of that power.  Her predecessor’s own actions had made her question how she would turn out.

     Reviewing the yahg’s files had revealed horrible atrocities and contrasting kindness for reasons she had not been able to determine.  She had found two themes in the master manipulator’s repository.  One trend she had noticed was the diverting of funds, construction materials, and supplies of every variety to the yahg home world of Parnack.  Understandable, given the second pattern, or unhealthy obsession with the Illusive Man and Cerberus’ activities.

        “He was modeling himself after that indoctrinated fool who was similarly destroyed by Shepard’s determination and strength,” Javik had commented.

        Liara had noticed the combative Prothean had come by to help her more often and had left under friendlier circumstances than usual ever since the discovery of the two females of his people who had been brought out of stasis.  She knew she had missed some interaction between Javik and the younger revived scientist, Nahlyon, that had left him with a heavy heart, more so than the realization that his civilization had been eradicated by the Reapers.  She hadn’t pressed the issue.  Javik only revealed what he wanted and only when he wanted.

     He sat with Liara now, reading over more files left from the old Broker.  “We must unlock the genes to develop this cycle’s races’ sensory input ability.  Having to read to absorb so much information is highly inefficient,”  he complained.  “Were this knowledge contained in memory shards, we would have been done by now and not only scratching the surface.”
        “I prefer to deal with that which I have the ability to handle, not that which is out of my control,” Liara countered.
        “You are, as you have been since we first met only short months ago, much wiser and more patient than I.  It is to be expected of such long lived people such as the asari, I suppose.”
        “How long do Protheans live, Javik?  It is one thing I have always wondered.”
        “During my cycle, the answer for hundreds of years was ‘not long’ thanks to the Reapers,” he answered, staring out the window, watching the stars streak by through the mass-free path towards Sur’Kesh.  He breathed deeply.  “Now, I would say I do not honestly know.  I remember stories of great Protheans from before the Reapers that had lived as long as any asari, some even longer.  But having seen human stories claiming ancients that lived for many hundreds of years in their dubious superstitious texts, yet now their oldest are barely a century and a half . . . it makes one question myths of the past.”
        “How old are you?” 
        Again, Javik was momentarily silent in thought.  “Fifty-thousand and seventy-three in the human years that so many in this cycle use.”
        Liara laughed.  “You don’t get to claim time in stasis!”
        “I am Javik, Avatar of Vengeance . . . and I shall claim what I wish!” he shot back, eying her intensely, though not in anger, for the briefest of moments.  Just as the silence became awkward, Javik smiled and handed a data pad to Liara.  “I believe your salarian agent, Honwol, would be a good start.  His record shows a well developed talent of survival.  If any of your agents survived the Reapers I would . . . bet on him.”
     “So you gamble, now?” Liara asked, giving the Prothean a playfully accusing glare as she took the offered device.
     “I am . . . immersing myself in the cultures of this cycle.  One must be prepared for anyone to become an enemy and know the ways of their enemy in order to defeat them.”
     “Is that right?”
     “And I like the Poker Cards.”
     Liara laughed and looked down at the data pad.  “Honwol it is.  I’ll forward the data to Shepard and Major Kirrahe.  For all your rough exterior and warrior mindset, Javik, you could turn into a decent intelligence agent.”
     “I prefer a straight fight.  Sneaking in the shadows is for the weak or timid.  I am neither.”
     “Except when it comes to a certain Prothean lady, I think,” Liara teased.
     What had been a growing smile on the soldier’s battle hardened features stopped dead in its tracks.  “I-“
     “No, I’m sorry, Javik.  I- I didn’t know it was that hard on you.  For all my intelligence and information gathering prowess, I have a tendency for saying the dumbest things.  Forming relationships has never been my strong suit.  Probably why I chose archeology.  You can’t upset dead civilizations.”
     Javik’s hand rose haltingly, one of the first uncertain moves that Liara had ever seen from him.  His fingers came within inches of brushing her face but then closed into a fist and lowered back to his side.  “We will be in battle soon.  I must ready myself,” he said and then stood.  Liara reached out to him.  He gave her a slight bow and then turned and left, the asari’s blue hand still hanging in the air.  The door closed behind Javik.
     “I don’t understand . . .” Liara whispered to the emptiness.  
     A floating image of a ball rose from a nearby display.  “Would you like me to activate the monitors in the Prothean’s room, Dr. T’Soni?” asked her artificial assistant.
     “No, Glyph.  Thank you,” Liara answered in a somber tone.
 
 
* * * * 
 
 
     Captain Shepard saw Javik leaving Liara’s quarters with quickened steps and downcast eyes.  Shepard debated approaching the discouraged looking crew member when four yellow eyes snapped up to meet his stare.  “Hello, Captain.”
     “Javik.”
     “I will be ready for the fight shortly.”
     “Good to know, but why do you look like you just left one?”
     Javik looked back to Liara’s door and then back to Shepard.  “I have succumbed to emotions and do not trust myself with the conflicting feelings.”
     Shepard raised an eyebrow, looking over Javik’s shoulder to the door behind him.  “Liara’s a great person, Javik.  There’s no reason to doubt feelings for her.”
     Javik shook his head.  “I have not been in a relationship in a long time, Shepard.  I made a promise then.  I have not broken it.”
     “To Nahlyon?”
     “Yes.  I fear this affection for Liara may be a misplaced rekindled feeling for Nahlyon.  And like you said, Nahlyon may . . . change her stance towards me . . . eventually.  I am not the same arrogant young Prothean I was when we had our falling out.  In time, things could improve between us, possibly return to what they once were.  I would not want to give up that opportunity.”
     “Understandable.”
     “You must speak of this to no one.  I would not want Liara to feel uncomfortable around the crew.  This cycle’s luxury of forming countless relationships not possible in my Reaper-devastated era . . . is difficult to manage.”
     Shepard smiled.  “Tell me about it.”
     “Another time, perhaps.  We will face the enemy soon.  I go to prepare.”
     The captain held in his laugh at Javik’s misunderstanding and let him leave with a salute.  He had been going to find Liara to join the ground crew, along with Javik, but decided Jack might be the better biotic to choose now.  As he turned to find her, Liara’s door opened and their eyes connected.
     “Oh, Shepard!” she exclaimed, surprised at seeing him.  She saw Javik heading to the elevator to his room a floor below.
     “Liara.”
     “Um what were you two- did Javik mention-?”
     Shepard called on his inner actor to help him make it through the next few minutes of playing dumb.  “Did he mention what?” he asked.
     Liara looked to the vacated spot where the Prothean had just been and then back to Shepard.  “Well, uh, I guess it’s nothing.  I may have an agent available to us on Sur’Kesh.”
     “That’s good to know.  Send me the file and I’ll factor it in to our plans.”
     “I just did . . . I think I will be more helpful to the battle coordinating from the Normandy.  If that’s okay with you.”
     “Well, I was going to ask you to join the ground team, but I can see that it might be hard to maintain the secrecy of the Shadow Broker’s true identity if you were working side by side with your agent,” he said, thinking quickly.  “I’m sure Jack would be just as happy to get into the fray instead.”
     “Most likely,” Liara agreed.
     “Well, I’ll leave you to it, then.”
     “Thank you, Shepard.”
     Liara walked past the captain and headed for the Normandy’s women’s room.  Shepard made his way to the same hall but turned to the life support control room instead.  The door opened and he found Wrex cleaning his favorite shotgun at the desk once occupied by Thane.  Wrex looked up, about to speak, but was cut off by Joker coming on over the ship’s inter-comm system.  “Exiting FTL at Sur’Kesh.”
     Shepard held his hand up to his personal communicator in his ear and said,”Acknowledged, Joker, just find us a quiet spot behind-“
     “Captain, yahg ships!” the pilot cut him off.  “Taking evasive action!”
     The Normandy rocked from the first volley of fire that Joker was not able to avoid.  Shepard ran out of the life support area and took the elevator to the second floor.  He reached the bridge to find a view full of yahg frigates, cruisers, and a few capital ships.  
     “They were waiting for us, Shepard,” EDI stated flatly.
     “Looks like!” he said.  “Joker, get us out of this!  We can’t take them all on!” Shepard ordered as the Normandy’s guns managed to destroy one of the smaller frigates. 
     “No shit!” Joker concurred.  “Hold on!  Re-engaging FTL Drive.”
     “That is not advisable so soon, Jeff,” EDI warned.
     “Don’t I know it, but neither is being a sitting duck.  Just flash in and back out.  Split second.  Should clear us to the other side of Sur’Kesh.”
     “Should?” Shepard asked.
     Joker didn’t spare a glance back. “Most likely.”
     “Do it.”
     Joker engaged the FTL drive and the Normandy blinked out of the midst of a dozen ships closing in.  An instant later the ship reappeared on the far side of Sur’Kesh and activated its stealth systems.
        “What the hell was that all about?” Shepard demanded of the room.  
        “Damned if I know, Shepard,” Joker said.  “Did they know we were coming?”
        “I’d prefer to hope it was coincidence or they have fleets like this guarding every major relay.  Otherwise we’re looking at a traitor in some pretty high ranks in our coalition.”    
        “Indeed, Shepard.  Only the fleet admirals were informed outside of our team and Ashely’s.  Even they were not informed of the new time table,” EDI added. 
        “So we’ll operate on the assumption that this is what we should expect at each relay.”       “We also know our mission is now all that much harder,” stated Major Kirrahe who was just making it to the command level.
        “Agreed,” Shepard said.  “They know we’re here so whatever forces they have are probably about to get reinforced and increase their patrols, but they still won’t know where we’re going and what we will be doing.  That’s a small advantage that will have to be exploited.”
        “Then there’s no time to waste,” Kirrahe stressed.  “We should make landfall as soon as possible.  But not with the Normandy.  They will be looking for it now.  I suggest a shuttle.”
        “Let’s get moving, then.  EDI, give me ship wide,” Shepard ordered.
        “You may proceed, Shepard.”
        “Slight change of plans, people.  We’re going in now before the yahg reinforce and we’re taking a shuttle.  Tinman, you and your team need to launch and fly support for the Normandy and carry out your part in all this.  Everyone else: meet me at the Kodiak in five for orders.”
        Shepard quickly dragged a thumb across his throat to EDI and she turned off the comm.  He moved past the galaxy map and waved over Traynor as he went.  “Put Hackett through to the vid comm room, Samantha.”
        “Yes sir.”
        Hackett was waiting for Shepard by the time he reached the room.
        “Wasn’t expecting a call so soon, Captain.  I’m guessing that it’s not good news.”
        “Wish it was, sir.  The yahg were waiting on us.  Multiple large class ships.  We’re lucky to have gotten out of it.  Suggest any other ships heading for other relays be ready.  I’d guess they’re waiting at the important ones.”
        “Should have expected it.  They would have known we’d reverse engineer their tech eventually after losing ships to us.  Most likely a precautionary measure.  But we’ve tipped our hand, now.  You’re job just got harder, Shepard.”
        “That it did.  But we’ll improvise.”
        “That’s what you’re good at, Captain.  Carry on.”
        “Yes sir,” Shepard acknowledged with a salute.  The connection ended and Shepard headed for the Normandy’s hangar.
 
 
* * * * 
 
        The sauna-like conditions of the salarian home world greeted the Normandy’s crew with a hot stickiness.  It beckoned summer memories from Shepard’s youth, running with all the wrong crowds, some of them operating in the southeast of the United States.  Covering the shuttle they had come down in with a makeshift camouflage, the captain felt little nostalgia for the misspent hours of his childhood working through the oppressive humidity.  
     Javik had used his newly acquired skills from Ericson to fly the ship down to Sur’Kesh’s surface and land it under a mountain overhang.  After quick work with their omni-tools, the ground team was finishing up their cover for the Kodiak.  Powered off and out of sight, they hoped to keep it hidden from eyes and scanners for the duration of their activities.
     “Alright, Joker.  The shuttle has been dealt with.  Take the Normandy and hide out in the asteroid belt.  When we call, you better move.”
     “Understood, Captain.”
     “And don’t forget to-“
     “Yeah yeah, we got it, Captain.  Jeez, you don’t gotta harp on it.  It’ll be ready when the fleet comes through.”
     “Good.  Shepard out.”  He turned to the larger than planned for team, having taken on nearly everyone else on board the Normandy that could be spared.  If the yahg were expecting them, as he was sure they were now, Shepard knew he’d need the larger force.  The only ones left behind had been the rachni, Tinman and the geth, EDI, and Traynor.  
     Thinking of Traynor, Shepard eyed the stowaway who had managed to fit into a stolen spare suit of salarian armor only to be noticed halfway through the entry dive through the planet’s atmosphere.  The captain was not happy, walking up to the individual.  “You’re going to get yourself killed, Allers.”
     “Don’t worry about me, Shepard.  I’ve been embedded with units in the trenches before.  I’m a big girl.  I can handle myself.”
     “Can you handle a weapon?”
     “You bet your ass I can.  Colony kids don’t grow up without one.  Never know what’s lurking in the wild of an untamed planet.”
     “What about Samantha?  Does she know you’re down here?”
     Diana’s face took on a squeamish expression.  “She does by now, I would guess.”
     “What were you telling me about a Bekenstein wake?” Shepard asked.
     “Ha ha, Shepard.  She’ll be mad, but . . . well, hopefully it will stop at that.  She is a bit feisty, though.  I didn’t expect that, but I like it.”
     “And you weren’t worried about upsetting her?”
     “I was, but sitting around on a ship isn’t going to get me the footage I need for the next big story.  The yahg killed all the video feeds coming out of Sur’Kesh and you have no idea how hard my producers are breathing down my neck for something juicy for the viewers,” the reporter countered.
     “I hope it’s worth it.  Traynor’s a rare one.  You won’t find another like her if you screw that up.”
     The journalist looked away.  “I . . . I know.  I’ll make it up to her.  Somehow.”
     Shepard shook his head and went back over to his team to address them.  “Look, we knew this was going to be a hard mission when we first laid it out.  Well, the yahg caught us with our pants down and that just made things harder.  That’s why we crammed our late additions onto the shuttle.  Our goal is still the same.  Find out enemy and prisoner numbers and locations and get that intel back to the fleets.  We’re responsible for creating the foothold on the surface for the rest of the ground war that’s to come.  We want a major city with a good mix of supplies and that can be easily defended with minimal modification.  Talat would be a good start, but that’s where we can expect the heaviest resistance.  Kirrahe, think that we can take it?”
     The STG major paced in front of his squad, half thinking out loud and mumbling to himself, reminding Shepard very much of Mordin Solus.  “Would be ideal, yes . . . many yahg with many prisoners likely . . . potential soldiers . . . home world hit last by Reapers means more infrastructure and defensive measures in place . . . turn to our advantage . . .”  He stopped his pacing and turned to Shepard.  “Risky, but possible, yes.  Multiple teams will be needed.  Similar to Virmire, but more dangerous, likely.”     
     “Virmire: good times,” Wrex groaned.
     “Let’s hash out a plan, then, Major,” Shepard said, walking off with the salarian officer while the rest of the team checked their gear in preparation for the oncoming campaign.

 
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Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 9

Chapter 9
 
     Ashley took another container of supplies from Vega as they helped the bar employees unload Lanna Hayes’ ship.
     “So why don’t you elaborate on what just happened, Hayes,” Williams ordered the new recruit, while sweat trickled down her face in the warm afternoon sun.
     Lanna took the box from Ashley and handed it off to Jack, who in turn gave it to the next person in the human chain.  Lanna stepped out of the line and searched the ground for a moment.  She walked over to one of the larger pieces of the destroyed ship that had managed to bring itself down before the ace pilot had delivered the killing blow herself.  She picked up the scrap and turned it so that Ashley could see it.  The lieutenant commander narrowed her eyes in recognition of the insignia that was still partially visible.
     “Eclipse,” she said.
     “Fucking mercs,” Vega said, looking around Ashley’s shoulder.
     “They’ve been attacking anyone carrying supplies around Earth for the reconstruction efforts.  I’ve been freelancing while the fleets repair and my private sector reputation has had my message box filling up.  I’ve been picking up the biggest runs and taking down these thugs left and right.  Eclipse, Blue Suns, Blood Pack, you name it.  Even some ragtag group calling themselves Cranks or some such nonsense.  Anyway, I guess they don’t appreciate all my hard work.  This was an unlisted run since it was last minute and I just happened to be coming here to meet you all.  Mercenaries must have been scanning the comms, set up an ambush, all the good that did,” Lanna finished, smiling at the path of destruction she had made of her enemies.
     “Shepard will want to hear about this,” Jack said.  “He should have dealt with that blue bitch when he had the chance on Omega Station.”
     “Yeah, but then we wouldn’t have had Aria’s scum as cannon fodder for the Reapers,” Ashley said.  “You’re right, though.  I’ll report it to Shepard and I’m sure he’ll come up with a plan.  And now that we have our new pilot, we don’t have to waste anymore time waiting around.  Let’s get back to the Normandy.”
     “Need a lift?” Lanna asked, motioning to her ship that was almost finished being unloaded.
     “Why not,” Williams said,”Ericson and Murphy have been raving about that thing.  Wouldn’t mind seeing it up close.”
     “Ha ha, yeah, you’ll definitely make the boys jealous,” Lanna laughed.  “Those two have had a hard-on for my baby ever since I sent them the first scans of it.  After you, Lieutenant Commander,” she said, waving an open arm towards her ship.
     The last of the cargo was retrieved and the Normandy crew boarded the part fighter and part shipping vessel.  Ashley took a seat in the co-pilot’s seat while Vega plopped down on a cushioned bench seat in the aft section of the ship.  Jack rejected the offered spot on the seat next to Vega and stretched out across his lap instead.
     “Keep it decent back there, you two,” Lanna cracked.
     Jack stood up, walked to the doorway separating the two halves up the ship, and looked dead in Lanna’s eyes with a blank expression.  Lanna cast a sideways glance at Ashley and saw that the officer was equally questioning the biotic’s actions.  Suddenly, Jack flashed a playful smile and hit the button to close the solid door.
     Lanna Hayes rolled her eyes.  “Great,” she moaned.
 
 
 
* * * * 
 
     
     
     Shepard sat at the desk in his private quarters aboard the Normandy.  He rubbed at a scar on his bare chest.  He had opted out of anything but a pair of loose fitting black pants that were his go-to choice for the gym.  He was trying to relax in the longest stretch in years he could ever remember having gone without having to wear his armor.  Thanks to Ashely’s report, unwinding was far from his list of accomplished tasks for the day.
     “It just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
     “What doesn’t, love?” Miranda asked as she stepped out of the bathroom, fresh out of the shower, coming up behind him.
     Shepard turned and looked over his shoulder and saw Miranda in nothing but a towel, a towel wrapped only around her hair.  
     “That’s a good look,” he said with a roguish smile.  “You should dress like that more often.”
     Miranda shook her head with an incredulous look.  “You can ogle at me all you want up here, Captain, in private, but I’m not stepping a foot outside that door naked.”
     “That works for me,” Shepard answered, still grinning.
     “Mm hmm, I bet it does,” Miranda said with an amused smile.  “But back to my question: What doesn’t make sense?” the dripping brunette asked, sliding into the marine’s lap with an arm wrapped around his shoulders.
     “Really?” he asked, feeling the left over water on Miranda’s body dripping on him and soaking into his pants.
     “Really,” she answered, grinning merrily as she stole a quick kiss.
     Shepard rolled his eyes, smiling back and got back to the topic at hand.  “What doesn’t make sense is Aria T’Loak.  Sure, she’s a ruthless tyrant, controlling dangerous criminal organizations, but that’s why it’s wrong.  She loves her independence and her control.  Why provoke the largest concentration of military personnel in the galaxy and risk losing both?”
     “Desperation?  She has no way to leave and only military personnel know about the mass amplifier technology.  Fewer know which ships are in the first wave of upgrades for it.  She’s trapped and wants to carve out her niche before it’s too late.  Isn’t this what everyone thought was going to happen?”
     Shepard considered the thought.  “True, but not this soon.  It’s only been a couple months and the news vids have been pushing the mass relay repair story for a while.  No one should have reached this point of impatience yet.  Hell she’s an asari.  Two months is like an hour to them.  But, only one way to find out.”
     “Find her,” Miranda stated.
     “Yeah.  One more damned delay.”
     “I’ll get EDI on it . . . if you want, that is, Captain.”
     “Really, Ms. Lawson? Formality doesn’t suit you,” he replied, poking fun at the sexy woman pressed against him.
     “I know.  But practice makes perfect for in front of your Alliance crew,” she teased back, poking at his chest.
     “Right.  Go ahead and get EDI tracking communication signals and scanning any reports that seem connected to any of this.  Aria really shouldn’t be that hard to find.  She doesn’t tend to hide.”
     “No, I guess you’re right on that point.”
     “Just tell her to let me know as soon as she has a location.  And tell her the sooner the better.  The yahg aren’t wasting any time out there,” the Normandy’s commander added.
     “No pressure, huh,” Miranda said with a sarcastic tone as she stood up and made her way to the dresser.
     
 
* * * * 
 
 
     “Out of the question, Captain,” Hackett said firmly.
     “Admiral, this is something that needs to be taken care of.  I brought her into this.  I should be the one to take her down.”
     “Shepard, I understand where you’re coming from, and I agree that T’Loak needs to be taken care of, but I need you where you’re best.  That’s on the front lines, right out of the gates.  Find somebody else,  someone you trust to get the job done.  Someone who can lead a team after Aria.”
     “Listen to him, Shepard,” said Admiral Anderson.  “Leave this one to someone else.”
     The three men sat in the same room aboard Admiral Hackett’s flagship in which they had last met following the end of the Reapers.  Shepard looked over to his mentor and friend.  He knew he wasn’t going to win the argument against the two highest ranking commanders in the Alliance fleet.  He only had one choice, really, but as soon as it had come to mind, it had made him able to swallow the bitter pill a little easier.
     “Ashely,” he said.
     Hackett and Anderson looked at each other with poker faces.  Shepard looked from one to the other.  They both nodded.
     “She’ll need a team,” Shepard said.  “And a ship.”
     “We’ve been thinking the same thing,” Hackett admitted.
     “You have?” Shepard asked.
     “She’s a Spectre, Shepard, just like you.  I don’t know all your rules or if you even have any, but a human Spectre is not going to be playing co-pilot to another Spectre under my watch.  Each of you needs your own resources to do things your own way.  You proved how valuable that can be in the right hands.   We trust Williams to be that capable,” the older man said.
     “She is,” Shepard confirmed without hesitation.
     “She’ll get a ship, a crew, and someone other than you to report to,” Hackett added.  “Anderson, think you can add that to your busy schedule?”
     “Shouldn’t be too much trouble, Admiral. Now that Gelten and Tolchik have us up and running with the mass amps.  Plus, Kasumi Goto has come to help me and Kahlee on . . . the project.”
     “Good.  Shepard, you let her know.  Tell her to pick her team and report to Anderson for orders.  I’ll have a ship waiting for her when she’s ready.  Dismissed.”
     The men stood up and Shepard saluted and then walked out of the room.  Anderson was quick to follow him.
     “Shepard, hold on.”
     The Spectre turned and slowed his pace.  Anderson caught up.
     “Anderson,” Shepard acknowledged.
     “Shepard, things are about to get dicey all over again.  You up for it, Captain?”
     The marine looked at Anderson, ready to laugh at the joke, but the face he was looking at killed that thought.  “You’re serious?”
     “Completely.”
     “Am I missing something?  We just defeated the damn Reapers.  How could I not be ready for this?”
     “I’m not doubting you, Shepard.  I just have a bad feeling about the way things are playing out.  There are too many unknowns.  The yahg have technology more advanced than ours- or did- and have a fleet we had no clue about.  They have forces in numbers that have us questioning every intelligence agent we’ve ever had as to how they hid that.  And then there’s that mysterious flagship that has yet to engage in a single battle. I don’t like it.  Just stay on guard.  We’re definitely going to get thrown a wild card in the mix at some point.  I just hope it doesn’t cost us too many lives,” the veteran Alliance soldier said gravely.
     “I’ll stay alert, Anderson,” he assured his superior with a salute.
     “See that you do, Captain.”
     “Just make sure you give Ashley the same pep talk, Admiral.”
     “I intend to.  You go fill her in.  I’ll be in touch with her orders, shortly.  Good luck, Shepard,” he said, putting out his hand.
     Shepard took the hand and shook it with a firm grip. “You too, sir.”
     “Oh, and give her these,” he said, handing a couple of small metal objects to Shepard with a smile.  “A little overdue, but these days, everything is.”
     Normandy’s leader looked down into his hand and smiled.
     “Yes sir.”
 
 
* * * * *
 
 
     “I’m getting a ship and crew?” Ashley asked in shock.
     “Something wrong with your hearing, Williams?” Shepard asked in a mock stern tone.
     “No sir!  But why?  And why did you want to tell me this in here?”
     Shepard stood facing Ashley in the ship’s vid comm room.  “Maybe because what I have to tell you doesn’t need an audience.  This is one of the few private areas on the ship and I’m sure as hell not inviting you up to my cabin for a one on one meeting,” he answered with a smirk.  
     Ashley blushed and chuckled in understanding.  “Alright, skipper.  What’s going on?”
     “Skipper? I haven’t heard that one in years.”
     “Probably because I haven’t said it.”
     “Smartass.”
     “Yeah, so I’ve been told.”
     “Ash, here’s the situation: these mercenary raids are a major concern, not only because they’re interrupting the reconstruction, but because it keeps the public guessing, fearful, unwilling to come out in the open and get life moving again.  They need reassurance and they need safety.  That’s why Hackett and Anderson have decided that this situation needs to be handled now.  It can’t wait until after we save the galaxy.”
     “Again,” Ashley stressed, rolling her eyes.
     “Again,” Shepard agreed.  “I have to lead that assault.  And I can’t be in two places at once.”
     “What?” Ashley acted shocked.  “The great Captain Shepard is only human?”
     “Ha ha.  Refer to my ‘smartass’ comment previously.”
     “I’ll make a note.”
     “Point is, Hackett wanted someone trustworthy to go after Aria T’Loak and her scum.  I nominated you.”
     “You did this to me?”  Ashley’s eyes were wide with disbelief.
     “For you, Ash.  This is your chance to lead.  Take control and do things your way.  Like a Spectre.  Like the leader you are,” Shepard said, placing a hand on her shoulder.  He lowered his hand to take one of hers and turn it palm up, and open.  He placed the items Anderson had given him into her hand.  He gave her hand a little squeeze with a sincere look in his blue eyes locked with her brown ones. 
     Ashley looked down to her hand and saw two metal pins.  She gasped and shot her eyes back up to Shepard’s face.  He was smiling.  “We couldn’t send you off with a ship and crew without that, now could we?”
     “Shepard . . . I . . .”  Words failed her.
     “Congratulations, Commander Williams,” Shepard said, coming to attention with a salute.  Ashley stood tall and returned the gesture.
     “Thank you, sir!”
     “Thank Anderson when you report to him.  He got that pushed through for you.”
     “Will do, Captain.  Now, about my new crew.”
     “I’m listening,” Shepard said.
     “If you don’t mind, I’d like to pick . . . from our crew,” Ashley said, hesitantly.
     Shepard nodded.  “I’d be wonder about you if you didn’t.  And don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you, Ash.  I was going to have to start assigning bunk beds pretty soon, the way we keep picking up new members.”
     The new commander laughed.  “I’m sure a few of them would volunteer for it.”
     “Garrus and Tali or Jack and Vega?” Shepard asked with his own laugh.
     “Well them, but I was thinking more about Specialist Traynor and-“
     “No,” the captain cut her off in disbelief, anticipating the answer.
     “Allers?” Ashley finished the sentence on the rising tone of a question.  “Is that a problem?”
     Shepard shook his head.  “Not at all.  I just didn’t really think it had done any good.”
     “Didn’t think what had done any good, sir?”
     “Ah, well- just between you and me- Traynor asked for my assistance . . . with that.”
     “Really?  That was nice.  I’ve never seen that girl so happy since she came on board.  Good work, Shepard.”
     “That part remains to be seen.  As long as it doesn’t affect Traynor’s work or have her leaking sensitive information . . . she’s a good kid.  It’ll be fine,” he finished in more an attempt to convince himself than anything else.
     “Of course it will.  Now, about my selection . . . honestly, I don’t want to feel like I’m robbing you.  I’m not sure how to go about picking from them.  Maybe take volunteers?”
     “Sounds like a place to start,” Shepard agreed and then pressed a button on a panel on the wall.  “Traynor?”
     “Yes, Captain?” came the specialist’s voice.
     “Tell the crew to gather in the CIC.  There’s a few new developments to brief them on.”
     “Yes sir.”
     “Thanks, Samantha.”
     There was a slight pause followed by,”No, thank you, Shepard.”
     “See?” Ashley asked, leaning in close to whisper to Shepard.
     “Uh, sure thing, Traynor,” Shepard replied shakily. 
 
 
* * * * 
 
     
     “. . . so things have changed and our new Commander Williams will be going after Aria T’Loak to stop the mercenaries.”
     Ashley stepped up to the platform of the galaxy map, facing away from it and towards friends and crew mates, both new and old.  The hologram of the Normandy, floating above the combat stations behind her, cast an orange hued light onto the Alliance officer’s dark hair and shoulders, spilling just down the top of Ashley’s white casual shirt.  “And I’m going to need a decent crew.  I know you all love the Normandy as much as I do.  That’s why I’m going to ask for volunteers to join me.  I want to start my command with people I know and trust to have my back.  At least within the core of my crew.  So . . . any takers?”
     Ashley’s eyes scanned the small crowd and found a pair of piercing eyes locked in on her.  She was not surprised to find Lieutenant Ericson staring at her with a look of a man struggling with an internal conflict.  Ashley smiled at the short haired pilot who she had caught a few times looking her direction when he had thought she wasn’t paying attention.  The smile seemed to break him.
     “With the Captain’s permission,” Ericson started,”I would like to volunteer.  Any commander going up against an enemy with the ships that the mercenaries have will need a a few good pilots to watch her back.”  Ericson broke the hold of Ashley’s smile and turned to look at Shepard.
     Shepard crossed his arms and put one hand to his chin in thought.  “That’s a good point, Lieutenant.”  Shepard wrestled with the idea of how to replace Ericson and then realized that Wayne and the Normandy’s newest squad mate, Lanna, were both looking his direction as well.  If he let one of them go, he knew he’d have to let all of them go.  He didn’t want to split up that team.  
     A flashing circle caught the captain’s attention and he suddenly had his answer.  “Tinman, would the geth fleet be able to lend us a few fighters for you and the other two geth to take our Locos’ place flying support?”
     “Easily, Captain Shepard,” came the synthetic’s answer. 
     “Then Ericson, you and your team- yeah, I saw you two looking- are free to go with Ash.”     
     “Thank you, sir,” both Ashley and Ericson said at once.
     Shepard nodded to them.  “So.  Who else?” he asked.
     The next voice heard was Zaeed’s.  “Takes a merc to fight a merc.  Gotta remind these little shits who the real players are.  You’ve got me, Williams.”
     Grunt shouldered up to the front of the gathering.  “If I sign up, are we going to make it back in time to help out on Tuchanka?” asked Grunt.
     “There’s no telling, Grunt,” Ashley answered.  “It will all depend on how quickly we find Aria and how much of a fight she’ll put up.  We could be there easily, or we could miss it completely.”
     Grunt cracked the knuckles of his destructive hands, thinking.  He looked to Wrex who could offer only the advice of an indifferent shrug.  The tank-bred krogan faced Ashley again.  “I like that you have Shepard’s honesty, Commander.  I’ll do it.  There shouldn’t be any team running around without a krogan, anyway.”
     “Glad to have you,” Ashley said with a smile.  Her crew was shaping up nicely.
     Tali and Garrus were conferring in hushed tones near the back of the crowd.            
     “We’re in, Ash,” Garrus said.  Seeing a surprised Shepard, he quickly added,”With me and Tali working with Ashley like we always have, you know we’ll be back before you can miss us, old friend.”
     “See that you do, Garrus.  Those guns don’t calibrate themselves.”
     “No, but I’ve got them in decent shape for now and whatever Alliance piece crap they find for Ashley is going to need a turian’s touch,” he only half joked.
     “Well, Ash, that leaves you with needing a rachni for your ship and a pilot. And I’m drawing the line at Joker.  You can’t have him.  Hell, you’ve taken half my crew already.  I have to stop the bleeding somewhere,” Shepard joked.
     “Steve, would you mind?” Ashley asked.
     Cortez stood up straight and saluted.  “A chance to fly something other than the Kodiak?  I wouldn’t miss it, Commander.”
     “Well then I think we’re done here, skipper,” Ashley said, stepping down from the platform and giving it back to the captain.
     “Commander Williams, you will need a translator for the rachni crew member,” Tinman reminded her.
     Ashley looked back at the geth prime and swallowed the disdain and flashlight comment that had popped into her head.  She had never forgotten what they had done to her on Eden Prime all those years ago, but she knew the machine was right.  “True,” she said,”but I don’t know how big the ship will be yet . . . Tinman.  I doubt you would fit in anything other than a hangar if they give me anything smaller than the Normandy and that is very likely.  Besides, you three are staying to fly support.”
     “Logical conclusions, given your information.  However, there is new data to process.”
     “And that is?”
     “There are again four geth platforms operational on Normandy.  Captain Shepard only requested three.”
     Shepard narrowed his eyes in slight concern.  “When did this new geth get on board?  Not that I have problem with a replacement for your fallen member, but I need to be notified of this sort of thing, Tinman.”
     “There is no new geth platform on the Normandy, Shepard.  The geth that was damaged in the Mars battle has been repaired and his programs have nearly finished being restored.”
     “You were able to save all of those even though he was . . . killed in a an unexpected attack?”
     “In the geth’s previous iteration, before Legion brought us individual consciousness, it would not have been possible as all programs would have been required.  In our current evolution, we each hold unique core programs that differentiate us from each other, they are vital, but they are also far fewer in number.  I was able to transfer those and store them in my platform until the destroyed platform was repaired.  It has taken sometime, but the core programs have been restored to the platform and the remaining programs will be finished shortly.  The geth platform will be tested and available for duty, as you say, when one-hundred percent functionality has been confirmed.  He can provide the translation service for Commander Williams.”
     Shepard realized that as much as he knew the geth were inherently different lifeforms, he couldn’t help but think of them in organic terms more often than not.  “Being synthetic has its advantages,” he admitted.
     “It does,” Tinman agreed.
     “Well, how ’bout it, Ash?” the senior Spectre asked.
     “Works for me, I guess,” she answered.
     Shepard looked around at his crew.  He looked at the faces of the ones that were leaving and felt a sense of loss.  Each one of those faces, excluding Hayes, had saved his life at some point or another, some at many points.  Yet, when he looked at each of those staying on with him, he knew he wouldn’t want to lose any of them either.  He was glad to keep those that remained and was equally glad that Ashley would have the high caliber team that had quickly assembled for her.  “It will all work out, in the end,” he told himself.
     “Well, who’s gonna name this geth?” Vega asked.  “Cuz apparently my nickname magic has run out,” he finished, giving Jack a serious look with an overly raised arching eyebrow.  
     “Aw come on, wittle buddy.  Turn that frown upside down,” she mocked the marine.  There was a small outbreak of laughter that was cut short when Vega’s glaring eyes searched for the offenders.
     “I had anticipated such a question,” Tinman said and everyone turned to look at him, thankful for the distraction.  The geth took a slight step back.  Shepard wasn’t sure if the geth was mimicking the organic reaction of surprise or had actually developed the trait.  “I thought the name Lazarus was fitting given the human fable of a man dying and then being brought back to life.”
     Everyone turned back to Vega, for the master namer’s approval.  He opened his hands to them, asking,”What?”  The eyes stayed trained on the soldier.  “Fine.  It’s good.”  
     Jack patted him on the head.  “See, was that so hard?”
     The crew smiled, nodded, or laughed lowly in amusement, then looked back to Shepard.
     “We’ve got some work ahead of us people.  Let’s make sure we do it right and we’ll all make it through this no worse for wear.”
     “And drinks are on you, right Shepard?” Zaeed asked.
     He laughed.  “Ha, that depends on who’s asking.  There’s more than a few people in this room who promised me drinks and haven’t followed through yet.”
     The unnamed individuals were easily spotted having suddenly found far more interesting subjects of study on the ceiling, floor, or their fingernails.  They took great effort to avoid eye contact with Shepard.  He waved off his comment after a few well earned moments of awkwardness for the accused.  “Yes, Zaeed, drinks will be on me.”
     “I’ll hold you to that, Captain.”
 
 
* * * * 
 
     
     Admiral Anderson walked, Ashley at his side, down a hall under repairs on the Citadel, the station still in orbit over Earth.  Every species was represented in the rebuilding effort of the one time center of galactic politics, the vast majority of them being the faster and more efficient geth.  However, each geth team had been paired with two organics.  Those either directed the the living machines, design plans in hand, or were learning from and assisting the synthetic engineers.  Anderson noticed that even a few krogan could be seen grudgingly lending their hands.  They had accepted Wrex’s “advice” to grow the krogan race’s basic skills and knowledge to include building and repairing and not just killing and destroying.  
     “Man, the last time I saw this many geth crawling on the Citadel . . . it was not a good day,” Ashley said as they moved past a work crew outside the elevator on what used to be the embassy level.  The Reapers’ ability to rearrange the Citadel had not yet been understood, never mind reversed, so many crews were adapting the new layouts to conform to the old functions with varying degrees of success. The enigmatic keepers seemed to also be aiding the process, though what issued their orders was still unknown as was the source of their creation.  Each was bracketed by C-Sec guards per Commander Bailey’s orders to shoot to kill if the keepers showed signs of subversion.  
     Anderson pressed the button for the elevator.  “I thought Shepard was crazy to trust them, but once again, he turns out to be right.  They may be the one bright spot to come out of that damned war.  If we can keep the peace with them, they may help to cut the rebuilding of galactic civilization from hundreds of years to just decades.”
     “Or sooner seeing as how there aren’t nearly as many people to rebuild for,” Ashley remarked.
     “Sad but true, Commander.  And even fewer if we don’t take care of the yahg. Eventually they’ll have rebuilt worlds with their slave populations to a point where they won’t need them anymore.  We need to stop them before they reach that point.”
     “How long?”
     “About as long as waiting on this damn elevator,” Anderson joked.  Ashley laughed, a small smile spreading across her cheeks.  “Our experts say five to ten years,” the admiral added, returning to a more serious tone.
     “The same experts that didn’t even know the yahg were everywhere and had spaceships?” Ashley asked.
     “Yeah . . . I know how you feel.  I’m giving it less than two years.  It could turn out that we advance that to an immediate time frame once we begin our offensive.  Maybe they hold the prisoners as hostages, maybe they slaughter them in spite.  We have no idea how the yahg think.  And there are a hell of a lot of planets under their rule, from the looks of it.  We’ll lose as many as we save.  And that’s if we’re lucky,” the admiral said as they stepped on to the elevator.
     “Welcome Admiral Anderson and Commander Williams.  What is your destination?” asked an unseen feminine voice.
     Ashley looked over at the admiral with an inquisitive expression.  He shrugged.  “One of the engineers thought adding a more personalized experience to the Citadel would be a reassuring touch.  They want people to come back to the station and want it feeling inviting to shake off the feeling of death and despair left by the Reapers.  They’ve more or less embedded those overly friendly and oh so helpful VIs into the various systems.”
     “Great,” Ashely said, shaking her head.
     “Destination: Docking Bay,” Anderson said.
     “Please identify the specific docking bay you desire, Admiral Anderson.”
     “Blasted machine, there’s only one up and running right now.  Destination: Docking Bay 5.”
     “Proceeding to Docking Bay 5,” announced the cheerful female voice.
     “So I take it you asked me to come up here to see the ship I’m getting?” Ashley asked.
     “That’s right.  The Citadel is the only facility left in orbit where any sort of ship repairs can be done in a zero-gravity environment.  Sure the ones left on Earth are back up and running and doing the majority of the work, but the larger ships can’t land on planets so they’re all on a waiting list for the Citadel.”
     “That doesn’t explain why I’m up here.  I’m not naive enough to think I’m getting a capital ship.  Is their some wrecked craft that crashed into station and I’m getting that?  Some small hand-me-down beater?” the new commander asked.  Anderson shot a look her way and and she quickly added,”Not that I wouldn’t take it.  Whatever the Alliance thinks will do the job, I’ll take.”
     “Arriving at Docking Bay 5,” the VI informed the passengers.  “Please enjoy your time on the Citadel, Admiral Anderson and Commander Williams.”  The door opened and the two officers exited the elevator.  Anderson led the way down a walkway straddled on either side by shields holding back the deadly vacuum of space.  Ashley followed him, her head swiveling from left to right and back again, looking at all the carriers and dreadnoughts tethered to the Citadel either being repaired or awaiting repairs.  
     “Well that’s good to know, Commander.  No, it’s not a hand-me-down beater.  Hackett has had me assigned to various projects, most of which I can’t talk about yet.  The one I can talk about, now, is your ship.  You’re a Spectre, Williams, and we expect to keep the human Spectres on the bleeding edge, not just for the galaxy’s sake, but for humanity’s as well.  We did that for Shepard.  The Reapers delayed us doing that for you.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time for an effort to give you a duplicate of the current Normandy, but,” the admiral said, rounding a corner and pointing to the nose of a ship just coasting into view from around the nearly retrofitted Destiny Ascension.
     Ashley’s breath escaped in a gasp.  “Is that . . . the SR-1?”
     Anderson gave an appreciative smile, but shook his head.  “Why would you want that old tripe?” he asked with a laugh.  “This is our best take at a compromise between the SR-1 and the SR-2, with a few new features you’re sure to like.  What you’re looking at, Commander, is the SR-1B.  It’s everything you remember from the original Normandy with the upgrades to weapons, shields, sensors, communications, and some cues from the layout of Shepard’s bird.  The only thing you won’t have in it is a Mako, or shuttle.  We wanted room for a pair of interceptors.”
     “What about Lieutenant Hayes’ ship?”
     “That gun with wings wouldn’t have fit in the hangar by itself.  It’s already having one of our new mass amplifiers installed.  She’ll lose half her cargo hold, but she’ll be your permanent escort, in and out of FTL.  So . . . what do you think?”  Anderson asked.
     The SR-1B came fully into view, directly in front of Ashley and came to a stop.  A little ball of emotion rose in the commander’s throat as she looked at the spitting image of the ship that had rescued her from death at the hands of Saren, Sovereign, and the geth so many years ago.  “She’s beautiful,” she said.  “What’s her name?”
     “She doesn’t have one yet.  We’re leaving that to you, Commander,” Anderson told her with a smile.
     Without missing a beat, Ashley answered,”The Eden Prime.”
     Anderson pulled a small data pad from a pocket on the thigh of his pants.  He tapped it on and Ashley could see him type in the name “SSV Eden Prime SR-1B” and sign off on it.  “Done, Commander.  The Eden Prime is all yours, now.  Treat her well.”
     Ashley saluted, holding back a grin threatening to shatter her desire to remain serious and not give into the Christmas morning child ready to burst forth from inside her.  “Yes, sir!”
     Anderson returned the salute.  “Congratulations, Ashley.”
     “I wouldn’t be here if you had never picked me up from Eden Prime, sir.  I owe this to you.”
     “No, you owe it to yourself.  You’re a damned fine soldier, Williams.  I saw it back then.  Shepard has had nothing but the best to say about you and your development into an able commander, titled or not.  Your father and grandfather would be proud.”
     Ashley felt her lip quiver and bit down on it.  She forced a smile so as to not breakdown in tears.  She looked upwards, silently saying,”I hope you are.  All I’ve ever wanted to do is make you proud, dad, and restore our family’s name grandpa.”
     Anderson gave her a moment and then said,”There’s no time to lose, Commander.  You’ve already assembled your crew, now put them on your ship and get after Aria T’Loak.  We’ll need you in the fight against the yahg.  The sooner the better.”
     “Yes sir, Admiral,” Ashley answered with another salute.
     Anderson did likewise.  “Good luck, Williams.  Dismissed.”
     
 

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 8

Chapter 8
     “How are we doing, Admiral?” Shepard asked upon arriving in the glass walled conference room aboard the Normandy, Javik a step behind.
     “Same as always, it would appear, Captain.”
     “That bad, huh?”
     Admiral Hackett rubbed at the side of his head while motioning to the data pads on the table at the seat Shepard was taking.  The ship’s commander picked up one of the slim devices and read only the first few lines.  “Damn.”  Javik said nothing as he scanned the data in turn.
     “My sentiments exactly, Shepard.  We may have saved Earth only to sacrifice the rest of the galaxy.  We don’t hold a single stronghold among any home world other than ours.  At best we have stalemates on Palaven with the combined turian and krogan there, Thessia since the Reapers hit them last, and Tuchanka just because that planet isn’t worth taking in force to the yahg, apparently.  Rannoch is holding its own as well, but the yahg seem leery of taking on quarians and geth with a full attack there for some reason.  As for the rest of the races . . . there’s not a fucking thing we can do for them,” a weary Hackett told Shepard and the others invited to the council.
     “Guess there’s one positive to bombing ourselves to the stone age, huh?” Wrex asked sarcastically from a seat to Shepard’s left.  “Nothing valuable to take and what there is to take, you’d have to fight through us to get it.  And Kalros.”
     Garrus and Primarch Adrien Victus filled the seats past Wrex.  They were followed by the quarian admirals Gerrel and Xen, then Hackett, and an asari general Shepard only recognized by the rank insignia on her shoulder.  Major Kirrahe filled in for the salarians since they had never committed their full fleet to Earth or any of its ranking commanders after the rift over curing the krogan genophage.  Finally there were Tinman and Javik bringing the line back to a close to Shepard’s right side.
     “Salarian forces are in retreat all across Sur’Kesh,” Kirrahe stated.  “We have never been a brute force military.  Now we face the consequences again, fresh off the destruction at the Reapers’ hands.  We will not last long without help.”
     “And help is something no one can offer, Major,” Hackett apologized.  “With no mass relays to get us anywhere . . . the yahg have total control of the situation.”
     “For now,” Shepard said, everyone not from his crew turning to look at him.
     “Shepard, that sounds dangerously like a hint of good news,” the admiral said.  “What was on Mars?  I’ve been too busy reading the yahg reports to check anything else.”
     “Prothean scientists.”  The room, already quiet in somber thought, collectively held its breath in silent anticipation.  Shepard continued.  “We made our way to a secondary lab in a lower level.  We found three hibernation pods like the one Javik was found in.”
     “And there were living Protheans in them?” Hackett asked.
     “In two of them, at least.  The third scientist hasn’t been found.  We expect he’s long dead.”
     “Fascinating,” whispered the asari general.
     “Yes it is, but how can they help us, Shepard?” Primarch Victus asked.
     Javik spoke up.  “The scientists Shepard has revived are two of the leading scientists of my cycle.  Sooltir Gelten is a Master technologist and not an Avatar of the sciences only by choice.  You could not have asked to find a more prominent Prothean.  Her second is Nahlyon Tolchik.”
     Shepard shot a sideways glance at Javik, wondering what his Prothean comrade was going to say on that point.  One set of Javik’s eyes saw the look and responded with an acknowledging extended blink.  Shepard relaxed, thankful that Javik was learning to control his anger more and more.
     “She is the Master’s replacement in training.  I believe you called such individuals an apprentice in your human past.  Given time, she is sure to surpass her mentor.”
     “I’m waiting for the point, gentlemen,” Hackett said, growing restless.
     “The point, Admiral, is they were top researchers.  They have access to the data from the Ilos team that created the Conduit.  They can rebuild the mass relays.  Their personal project was a relay based engine that would end reliance on relays all together.  Similar to what the yahg seem to be employing, but better since they still seem tied to the relays,” Javik answered in a systematic tone.
     The military leaders sat in thought, taking in all the revelations just dropped into their laps.
     “How soon?” Victus asked.
     “As soon as you give her your encrypted comm channels,” Shepard told the room.  “She notified me that she had found the blueprints for the Conduit just before I walked in.”  Shepard accessed his omni-tool and sent the coalition leaders the signal link to Sooltir’s lab on Mars.  They brought up there own omni-tools as one and the information was sent.
     Tinman was the first to absorb the relay designs used for the Conduit.  “These schematics can be easily adapted to larger scale applications, admirals.  However, it will still require many days to rebuild the Charon Relay.”
     “And I’m assuming you’re calculating in a mostly geth repair crew with that time frame?” Admiral Xen asked.  “How many geth are on the other home worlds?”
     Tinman’s eye pulsed in thought.  “Very few.  Repairs will be problematic.”
     “And we have the bonus of not being under attack.  The other worlds don’t have that luxury.”  He faced Shepard.  “Good work, Captain.  We’ll take these blueprints and see what sort of plan we can come up with to deal with the other relays.  One relay doesn’t help since they all need the one at the next stop to complete the path.  We’ll let you know when we have something. Until then, we’ll bring our recovered yahg engine to Master Gelten and see what she and her assistant can learn.”
     The military leaders stood and exited the room.  Garrus, Wrex, Tinman and Javik stayed behind.
     “Hackett has a point,” Garrus said.  “It would take a well planned attack, followed by a protracted defense of even a single relay near one of the other major home worlds to make the repairs.  The idea is fine.  The execution will be as hard as anything accomplished during the Reaper War.”
     “Agreed, Garrus.  Let’s hope our new Prothean friends can figure out how the yahg are doing it.  Maybe we can outfit a part of the fleet with that tech.  Even a handful might be able to distract the yahg from one system long enough to get it done.  And we just snowball it from there.”
     “But where do we start, Shepard?” Wrex asked.
     Shepard shook his head.  “I’ll be happy to leave that argument to you and the admirals, Wrex.  My suggestion would be wherever we can find the most resources to support the new war effort.”
     Javik looked up from the data pad he had intently studied when not speaking during the meeting.  “It will be a different war, this time, Captain,” Javik stated.
     “How so?”
     “The Reapers sought to wipe us out and leave nothing behind.  We retreated and defended.  They came and destroyed everything, leaving nothing to retake and defend at a later point.  We could cut losses and not worry.  In some ways, the machines made things harder for themselves.  These yahg have another goal, it seems.”
     Shepard took the offered data pad from Javik.  He read the battle reports the Prothean had highlighted.  Prisoners were being taken and put to work as slaves.  Manufacturing centers and resources were being captured and used to build more military weapons and ships.
     “Occupation,” the Captain said out loud as the realization struck.
     “Yes, but more.  They are building an empire, Shepard.  And they are well underway.”
     “Son of a bitch,” Garrus muttered and walked off.
     “There is another thing, Shepard,” Javik said.  “This ship that Hackett has marked as a possible capital ship . . . its design seems familiar somehow.  I will look into it and report back what I find.  Possibly more Reaper tech that has not been seen in this cycle until now.”
     “But I thought the Crucible destroyed all Reaper based technology.”
     Javik nodded.  “It does appear that way, but who’s to say one of their slave races did not have their own copy of Reaper schematics?  Or some individual or group like the Illusive Man and his Cerberus organization?  A competent engineer with the right design plans and salvaged dead Reapers . . . it would be possible to recreate many things.”
     “Check it out, Javik and let me know,” Shepard said.  Javik nodded and the Normandy crew members dispersed, heading off to their own purposes.  Shepard headed for the elevator to get some much needed rest in his cabin.  On the way, Samantha Traynor flagged him over.
     “Traynor, what’ve you got for me?”
     “Your favorite person in the world, Shepard.”
     “Mira-“
     “Ms. Allers is requesting that interview.”
     Shepard slapped a palm to his forehead and then clenched the hand into a fist that he mockingly shook at the sky.  “Whyyyyy?” he exclaimed in exasperation.  Samantha laughed.  Shepard looked back over at her.  “Send her up in an hour.  And, if you could, track down Miranda and have her up there before that.”
     “Well, aren’t you feeling lucky,” Traynor said with a exaggerated wink.
     Shepard smiled.  “Not at all.  I’m feeling like not dying by a genetically perfected slice to my throat in my sleep,” he joked.
     Traynor nodded.  “Ah.  I understand, Captain.”
     “Thanks, Traynor.  Anything else?  Need me to requisition anything for you?  Savior of the galaxy and all.  I could probably get you that pricey toothbrush.”
     Traynor hesitated, rubbing the back of her neck with a hand as she glanced around nervously.  “Well, um, I don’t know.  It’s silly…”
     “Samantha, spit it out,” Shepard said with a reassuring smile.
     “See, it’s been a while since I . . . had a night out with anyone.  Sometimes I’m just too shy . . . and you know my preferences . . .”
     “You’re not talking about chess, are you?” Shepard asked in a knowing tone.
     The communications specialist blushed with a smile she fought to contain.  “Not exactly.”
     “I’ll put in a good word for you with Diana,” Shepard promised.
     “Thanks!” Traynor said, quickly hugging Shepard and letting go just as fast. “Sorry, Captain.”
     Shepard held up his hands, waving the comment off.  “No need to apologize, Traynor.  But keep a level head.  I said I’d put a good word in for you.  I can’t promise it will do any good.  Reporters are hard to read.  I’m not sure how she’ll respond.”
     “No.  I understand, Shepard.  Still.  Thank you.”
     “No problem.  Now just make sure Miranda’s up there first so my ass is safe, otherwise the deal’s off,” Shepard laughed as he finally made his way to the elevator.
     “Yes sir!” Traynor called after him.
* * * *
     It was three days after the geth reported completion of the Charon Relay repairs, three days after the subdued event that was meaningless without another operational relay to link to, when Nahlyon woke up after a long night of research.  A data pad stuck to her face as she lifted her head off the desk where she had fallen asleep.  Fading dream images fled from her mind’s eye, despite Nahlyon’s best efforts to clutch and hold them tight.  There had been a warm breeze on a starry night, an unexpected home cooked meal surrounded by candle light reflected by glittering stones that had been hand carved into smooth, low lying domes of whirling colors.  There had also been a young Prothean warrior’s promise.  “I will stay true to you Nahlyon Tolchik.  You and you alone.”
     Nahlyon’s eyes, weighted down by sticky slumber and the first drops of surprising tears she quickly wiped away, focused on the same figures and designs she had been studying hours ago.  They still confused her.  The energy output was extremely high, but not unheard of.  Still, it didn’t correlate to the destroyed yahg ship’s detected speed, fire power, or shielding.  The power core, at full strength, only released two-thirds of its capacity to the weapons, defense, and propulsion systems combined.
     “What is it holding back for?” she wondered.  “And how does it all add up to a mass effect identical to a linked pair of relays?”
     “I saw it, too,” came Liara’s voice from behind.
     Nahlyon spun around in her chair, not having realized she had spoken aloud, and not aware that the asari was in the room.  “What?” she asked.
     “Oh, sorry, I thought you were referring to the power discrepancy,” Liara answered as she took a sip from a mug of steaming liquid.
     Nahlyon blinked her eyes a few times, still shaking off sleep. “Forgive me, Doctor T’Soni.  I am still half asleep.”
     Liara smiled.  “Call me Liara, please.  And try some of this,” she said, tilting a pitcher to pour more of the steaming liquid into a new cup.  The dark color and powerful aroma intrigued Nahlyon as she took the offered drinking container.  “It’s a human drink.  Coffee.  It’s full of caffeine.  EDI said her scans of Prothean biology mark it as safe for you.”
     Nahlyon tentatively raised the cup to her lips and took a sip.  Her eyes widened.  The drink was hotter than expected, but the real surprise was the taste.  It was like nothing she had ever experienced before.  “Prothean diet had been reduced to rationed necessities by the time I was born.  Our war with the Reapers afforded us no such luxury as this!”
     Liara laughed lightly, glad that she had been able to bring such enjoyment to the Prothean with so simple a gesture.  “It’s a ubiquitous drug and drink of choice in human culture.  Be careful around James if he’s had too many, though.  I don’t know which is worse: his bursting at the seams energy after drinking it, or his overly enthusiastic claims of its effects on him.  He paces around restlessly, starts hopping up and down in place and saying things like ‘I’m feelin’ it!  Bring on those Reaper pandejos’ or ‘I’m so freaking amped!’  He’s really quite-“
     Liara stopped, watching the mug fall from a frozen Nahlyon’s hands.  She cringed, waiting for the inevitable shatter of ceramic on the cold metal floor, but it never came.  At the last second, Nahlyon snapped out of her trance and snatched the handle of the mostly level cup, managing to only lose a few drops over the lip of the container from the sudden stop.
     Liara exhaled and quickly began to apologize.  “Nahlyon, I’m so sorry!  I thought it would be okay!  EDI said-“
     Nahlyon held up her hand and Liara went silent.  The Prothean woman smiled and laughed.  “Don’t blame yourself, Liara.  I’m fine.  It’s just- you figured it out!”
     “What?  Figured what out?” the asari asked, bewildered.  Nahlyon was already diving back to her data pad and pulling up another section of the engine designs.
     “The missing power, what it’s doing. How they’re still using mass relays!”  Nahlyon put the coffee down on the desk and jumped up, data pad in hand.  “Where is Master Gelten?  Sooltir!  We have the answer!”
     “We do?” Liara was still confused as to how handing a cup of coffee to the young Prothean had unlocked the yahg’s secrets, but she was feeling the overflowing excitement from Nahlyon begin to take her over as well.
     Sooltir rushed into the room from an adjoining section of the lab.  “What is it, my dear girl?”
     “They’re using the power to amplify the mass effect!”
     Sooltir studied the selected engine component her apprentice pointed to for a moment, taking in the implications of the statements and drawing the conclusions.  “We’ve been thinking about this all wrong,” she stated.  “We were assuming they were following our blueprints to abandon relay use completely, but they weren’t at all.  At least, not with this design.  They aren’t creating a new mass-free link!”
     Liara was beginning to realize what the two scientists, in their proper field of study, had suddenly figured out.  She activated her omni-tool and brought up a scan around the Charon Relay prior to its reactivation that had puzzled her.  “The strange energy readings!  It’s residual mass effect energy?”
     “No doubt built up over the millions upon millions of years of use among the thousands of races between all the cycles.  And this engine- the power core’s extra output- it must power this device we couldn’t identify.  It amplifies that energy to reopen the path between the relays!” Nahlyon added.
     Sooltir turned to look at her long time student and the newest one she had quickly dismissed thinking of as a primitive.  “We’ll train you into a technologist yet, Liara T’Soni,” the long time scientist said with a teacher’s joy in her eye.  “And then you can stop digging up our bones for a living,” she added with a smile.
     Liara laughed and felt a satisfying approval she had not enjoyed in many decades.  She then went to the nearest console and accessed the secure channel to the Alliance fleet.  “Get me Admiral Hackett!” she told the receiving communication specialist.
     “Right away, Doctor T’Soni,” the young man said.
     A minute later, the old admiral’s weary face appeared on screen, a hand to his temple.  “Tell me you have good news, Liara,” he more or less ordered.
     Liara could barely hold in the words.  “We figured it out, Admiral.  We know how the yahg are using the relays!”
     Hackett’s hand came down from his head.  “Can we duplicate it?”
     Liara looked back to Sooltir and Nahlyon.  They nodded in unison.  “Yes, Admiral, we can.”
     “That’s good news, doctor.  I want you all on a shuttle to Earth within the hour, with your research and that yahg engine.  We’ll move the next phase of this to a more secure location.”
     Liara hesitated.  She had no intention of leaving the Normandy, but after thinking about it for only a second, she knew Shepard would work that out, so she went ahead, answering,”Right away!”  Relief and near-giddiness flooded her system.  There was finally a single beacon of hope, all alone in the gloom of yahg destruction, to light the coalition’s way.
* * * *
     A restless body shifted in the bed and woke Tali vas Normandy from dreams of building a beach house on Rannoch.  She decided two commissioned sculptures of Legion standing alert on either side of the path up to the front door would be a fitting tribute to the synthetic that had made it all possible.  He would both watch over the house and welcome those who came to it, at least in spirit.
     A turian face rolled into view and bumped into Tali’s visor.
     “Garrus,” she said in a faked chastising tone.
     The turian sniper’s eyes opened slowly.  “Wha . . .?”  He gained his bearings and smiled.  “Sorry, Tali.  Bad dream I guess.”  He sat up on the edge of the bed he had cobbled together next to the Normandy’s main gun.  It was one of the few things he had been able to procure once the Normandy had landed in London.   Hackett had ordered Shepard to deliver the new Protheans and the yahg engine to a newly finished Alliance research lab staffed with the top techs and scientists every present species had to offer.
     “I thought this was your safe haven?” Tali asked.  “This is where you come for peace and quiet, to relax.”
     “Normally,” he said.  He stood up and began to pull on his armor that had hastily been torn off and cast aside the night before, after the tranquil dinner for two in the AI core room beyond the medical bay.  That room, vacant other than the memories of Legion’s short occupancy during the collector conflict, had been the perfect spot to get away from the rest of the crew.  Tali smiled, thinking of the preparation and planning that Garrus had put into the evening and hoped it was just the first of many.  She was still impressed by his ability to find edible food for the two of them on Earth.  He had noted that so many of their own people were currently stranded on the planet that it had been easier than expected.
     Tali watched Garrus don his armor and check it all out with the care and precision she had come to expect and had always admired.  “And luckily those traits carry over into his . . . passionate side as well,” she thought, her hand tracing a path down her body that Garrus had followed during the night.
     Garrus finished getting ready and turned to look down at Tali’s lithe form stretched out on the almost too small mattress he had traded a backup rifle for a week ago.  A serenity spread across his hard turian features and he shook his head.  “Well, back to the grind,” he stated.
     Tali sat up, hopeful expectation almost showing through the artificial quarian atmosphere trapped behind her suit’s faceplate.  “Really, Garrus?  After all the trouble you just went through to put all that back on?” she questioned.
     “Huh? Oh!” Garrus stuttered and then laughed.  “No, no.  I mean: yes.  That would be nice, but it’s a human expression.  It just means going back to work.”
     Tali’s shoulder’s slumped.  “Oh,” she managed with a pout.
     Garrus leaned across the bed, lifted her chin, and kissed the glass pane lightly with a smile.  “Don’t worry, Tali, I’m not done letting you use me for my body yet,” he said.
     “And you won’t be until I say so, Vakarian,” Tali informed him in mock disdain for his presence.  “Now go find Shepard and find out when we’ll get the chance to take the fight to the yahg.”
     Garrus stood at attention and saluted.  “Right away, Admiral.”
     “Garrus: never call me that again . . . please.”
     “Your wish is my command,” he replied and then turned to leave the main battery room.
     Tali rubbed at her slightly smudged visor and decided to go see Tinman and the other geth later to do another round of “inoculations” as she had dubbed the immunization process.  The sooner she could stop wearing her environmental suit every waking second, the better.  The brief moments of exposure during the night had been amazing, but her stomach was already roiling and a mild sweat was forming across her brow.
     “Totally worth it,” she told the empty room with a triumphant smile.
* * * *
     Jack sat cross-legged on the corner of the table in the mess hall while the other crew members used chairs or stood to listen to Shepard’s briefing.  It made her think of her students from Grissom Academy and she wondered how much trouble they were getting into around Earth without her.  She had fought to keep them under her watchful eye, but after proving their abilities time and again on the battlefield against the Reapers, the Alliance brass had snatched them away in the aftermath of the Reapers’ destruction and sent them to become members of different detachments, if they had desired to stay on as military.  The rest were either helping with rebuilding the war torn planet or starting a biotic school on Earth they were calling Grissom Zero, in honor of Jack.  They knew full well that she was not fond of the Cerberus tag she was branded with in her youth, but apparently a hint of their teacher’s twisted humor had rubbed off on them.
     She turned her attention back to Shepard, looking up at his face and wondering why she couldn’t have run into him now, after sorting out her anger, for the most part, and learning to trust and believe in her fellow human beings.  She had known he was interested in her, but she had never trusted anyone in the military and he had shown up under the colors of the hated Cerberus, two strikes against him from the start.  The rest of the wall she had built up herself, out of fear of actually becoming attached to someone again. He had moved on easily, in the decisive manner that made him the great leader he was.
     “But so have I,” Jack confirmed to herself with a side glance over at James and absently stroking his hand laying on the table next to hers.  He didn’t look at her, focusing on Shepard’s words, but he lifted his hand from under hers and laid it back down on top of it, his massive paw enveloping Jack’s slender hand and giving it a squeeze.
     “So our first assignment is to scout out the yahg forces, report strength and positions and prisoner locations to the main fleet,” Jack heard Shepard saying.  “Then we set up the trap.  Once it’s ready, we’ll signal the coalition, they jump in, we spring our trap, and then strike from behind with the Normandy and our fighters, to keep the enemy off balance.  Speaking of fighters, Ericson, have you tracked down our third pilot?”
     All eyes turned to their newer members, Ericson and Murphy.  Wayne handed a data pad to his fellow lieutenant who brought up the service record of their old squad mate.  “First Lieutenant Lanna Hayes.  Decorated fighter pilot for the Alliance during Sovereign’s attack on the Citadel and one of the few to survive early encounters with the collectors.”
     Wayne’s eyes bugged out and he quickly elbowed Ericson in the side.  Ericson looked at his friend in disbelief and then saw Wayne motioning with his eyes towards Shepard.  Ericson understood.  “Oh, no offense, Captain,” he blurted quickly.
     Grunt and Zaeed both burst out laughing, the ruthless soldiers having little thought for the weak sensitivities of emotion belonging to others.  Wrex, next to them, looked at Grunt and then to Shepard and shrugged with half a smile lifting the corner of his mouth in mild amusement.  The rest of the group looked to Shepard for their cue.
     The captain tried to look annoyed, crossing his arms and glaring at his new team member, but his body betrayed the act, shaking with held in laughter.  He waved off the comment, saying,”Keep it going, Lieutenant.”
     “Aye, Captain,” Ericson said, letting out an audible sigh.  “Shortly after the collectors showed up, she left the service and became a pilot for hire in the private sector.  She had her reasons for it, and I supported her.”
     “I thought the name sounded familiar,” Zaeed said.  “Heard about her a few times.  Never ended well for her targets, Shepard,” the mercenary said in professional respect.
     “Noted,” Shepard said.
     Ericson continued.  “When the Reapers showed up, she re-enlisted and preceded to tear the bastards a new one like she always has.  She brought her own ship to the fight.  Custom built beauty.  It’s somewhere between interceptor and frigate if you ask me.”
     “The ship is a pure beast!” Wayne added.  “Wait till you see it.”
     “Will it fit in the hangar?” Shepard asked.
     Ericson shook his head.  “Not the way it’s set up right now, but I’ve got some ideas about that which EDI seems to think will work.”
     “Then make it happen,” Shepard said.
     Ashley had been quickly reading over Hayes’ record.  “She sounds like a good prospect.  Where do we find her?” Ashley asked, off to Shepard’s side.
     Ericson turned to the brunette who he had little time to admire while fighting for his life on Mars.  Now that things had slowed down, while the scientists had worked on duplicating the yahg engine, the lieutenant was rapidly finding her to be a stunning beauty.  He tempered his thoughts with the image of hers being the next rejecting slap across his face.  He smiled at her and said,”She’s based out of London right now, helping with the rebuilding effort, using her ship to make supply runs to other parts of the globe.  When we’re ready for her, she’ll come when we call.”
     “Sounds good, Ericson,” Shepard commented.  “Ash, when that time comes, you’ll go to find our next recruit and see what you make of her.”
     “You want me to make the call?” she asked, a little shocked.
     “Sure.  And take Vega.  You two want to polish up those resumes, right?  Don’t want me telling you what to do the rest of your careers, do you?” Shepard teased.
     James stood up with a swift salute.  “Hell no!  Sir!” he barked with a smile.  Sitting next to him, Jack rolled her eyes.  Vega saw the action and his face melted into a hurt expression.  “What?” he asked, opening his hands, palms up, to her.
     “You’re an idiot,” she chuckled.
     The marine’s shoulders slumped as he relaxed.  “Oh. Well, that’s nothing new,” he cracked back with a grin.  The arms master then turned to Ashley.  “I’ll be ready, Lieutenant Commander.”
     Ashley looked at Vega and then back to Shepard.  “Anything else?”
     “A few more points.  One is that we need to make room for two more permanent bodies.”
     “Who?” asked Javik, tensely,
     “Our new pilot, for one.  And a rachni.”
     “The bugs?” Joker’s voice came over the loud speaker.
     “Yes, Jeff, the bugs,” EDI answered.  “However, I would not recommend using that description in front of them.  I do not want to be picking up your pieces quite yet,” the AI spoke through the full metal-gray lips of her synthetic face.
     “Yes, mother.  But what do we need a rachni for, anyway?  Is it gonna sing the yahg into suicide or something, Captain?”
     “Not exactly, Joker,” Shepard answered.  “Until we get the other relays repaired, interstellar communication is still down since the network relied on the relays for real-time contact.  The rachni soldier will be our link back to the fleet with its quantum entanglement comm-link.”
     “Oh, right.  That thing,” Joker said.
     “EDI, you’ll be our translator since the rachni will mainly be on the bridge for the communications.”
     “And since we don’t have any dead bodies handy,” Joker said.
     “Of course, Captain,” EDI replied, ignoring the helmsman’s comment.
     “The next point is our first target system.”
     Tension seeped into the room.  Liara, silent until now, stood up. Garrus, and Grunt turned with her to watch Shepard intently.  Wrex watched them, having been included in the deciding meeting earlier.
     “There are yahg in every system we have contact with, which is every major one and more than half of the rest.  The brass are working under the assumption that the yahg are, in fact, in every single system.  That means we’ll have to build a line of support out to each system we liberate to maintain defense after we retake it.  That also means we can’t hop around and risk leaving a back door open as we go.  The major races are our targets.  The closest system under that category is the Annos Basin cluster.”
     “What?” Liara exclaimed.  “But Shepard!  Thessia needs us!”
     “While Palaven still burns?” Garrus shot back, equally distressed.
     “Tuchanka will survive, Shepard.  Don’t worry about the krogan,” Wrex said, standing as the calm amidst the storm of emotions threatening the camaraderie of the Normandy’s oldest crew members.  Tali put a hand on Garrus’s shoulder.
     “It makes sense, Garrus,” she said.  “You like to deal in facts and truth.  It is a fact that Sur’Kesh is closer.  It is a fact that the salarians are being overrun.  And is it not true that your fellow turian are resilient, excellent warriors, and teamed with the krogan detachments still aiding Palaven, will continue to fight the yahg to a stand still?”
     Garrus faced Tali, his eyes unblinking, his expression frozen.  Several moments passed before he bowed his head and whispered,”You’re right, Tali vas Normandy.”  He looked to Shepard.  “Shepard,” he said with a salute.
     Shepard nodded.  No words were necessary between the inseparable friends.  Garrus lowered his hand and left the room quietly.
     Liara was still livid.  “And what of the asari?  My people are the furthest away of the major races.  Is this some sort of revenge for being the last to help in the war effort?”
     Shepard moved to Liara’s position and looked into her eyes with a pained compassion on his face.  “Liara, Thessia fell to the Reapers under my watch.  That’s not something I’ve forgotten and it is something I plan to correct.  Trust me when I say that I damn sure do not intend to lose Thessia twice.  If we bypass every system between here and the Athena Nebula to retake your home world, we’d be cornering ourselves and the yahg would easily cut off our supply chain.  They’d reclaim Thessia easily.  Is that what you want?”
     Tears slipped down Liara’s blue cheeks and she shook her head.  “Damn it, Shepard,” she muttered.
     “I know,” he said quietly, as he encircled her in a comforting embrace.  She leaned into him for a minute, sniffing back more tears while she fought to regain her composure.  She pulled back from the captain with a weak smile.
     “I know you’ll do what’s best, Shepard.  You always do,” she said before taking her own turn to leave the room.  The remaining crew members watched her go, their hearts heavy for their friend.
     One of the smaller geth looked up to Tinman and a brief distorted sound of geth dialogue was exchanged.  Tinman stepped forward.  “Captain Shepard, what is the other point?”
     “Major Kirrahe and a squad of his hand picked salarians will be joining us to help retake Sur’Kesh.  Other than that, we’ll be prepping and leaving as soon as Hackett receives word that all present fleets have been retrofitted with the mass amplifiers reverse engineered from the yahg, are back to full strength, and ready to go back to war.  Installation of our own mass amplifier starts today.  Until Hackett gives the order to go, let’s make sure the Normandy is up, running, and stocked to full capacity.  After that, we’re in London, the hardest hit location on Earth. Find a way to help rebuild her.  Dismissed,” Shepard finished.
     The crew dispersed, leaving Shepard and Miranda in the mess hall alone.  Shepard slumped into a chair at the central table and leaned forward, resting his forehead on the palms of his hands.  Miranda came up from behind him and began to tenderly massage his neck and shoulders.  “Hmm.  You handled that without any bloodshed.  I’d say it went rather well,” she reassured her lover.
     Shepard smiled, took one of Miranda’s hands, pulled it to his lips, and kissed it.
* * * *
     James sat in a half rebuilt pub in the remnants of London.  Ashley sat in the seat to his right and Jack inconspicuously watched protectively from the bar behind them.  She had insisted on coming along.  Ashley had not had a problem with it.  The two women had formed somewhat of a bond over their mutual hate of Cerberus.  Dislike of Miranda for other, non-Cerberus based reasons, had not hurt.  The team hoped to be in and out of the establishment as quickly as possible.  Not that there was anything wrong with the bar’s patrons or service, but all of them were itching to get back into the fight after weeks of waiting on repairs and mass amp engine mods to the coalition fleet.  Spending all their other time restoring London and its outlying areas to a livable state was not coming naturally to the soldiers.
     Many buildings had been cannibalized for the sake of others.  There were many that would not be needed again, most of them homes.  Estimates coming in reported nearly eighty percent of the human population had been wiped from existence, or worse: processed, by the Reapers.  Many survivors were leery of returning to the major cities, those having been the main targets of the enemy many feared not to be truly dead and gone.
     Vega couldn’t blame them for the fear.  Having survived the near extinction of your entire species was undoubtedly going to have lasting effects on everyone. One effect it had not produced for the new N7 recruit was a change to his lack of patience.  “Where is this lady?” he demanded.
     “Chill out, Vega,” Ashley said.  “We’ve been here less than ten minutes.  And we’re early.  Just drink your beer and relax.”
     James looked down at his glass.  “Ugh.  Is that what this was supposed to be?” he half joked, sipping at the drink with a bitter face.
     The lieutenant commander would have responded, but her attention was drawn to a point through the wall sized pane of glass that was the bar’s window looking out on to the street.  A smoke plume rose in the distance from the middle of one of a dozen rubble covered wastelands in the vicinity.  Three dark objects streaked through the air.  It took Williams a second to see the blasts of multiple Thanix cannons chasing two of the objects coming from the trailing third.
     “What the hell?” Ashley asked, standing up and walking outside for a better view.  James followed.  Jack stayed at the bar until more of the pub’s customers followed the Alliance soldiers outside to see what was going on and then followed the crowd.
     Two small fighters flashed through low lying clouds that intermixed with smoke pouring out of damaged engines.  The trailing craft was a little larger than the two target ships combined and bared down on them with twice as many guns.   Another spurt of fire to the tail of one front runner flung it into a downward trajectory.  It whirled horizontally as it crashed into what had once been a popular history museum a safe distance away from the pub audience.
     The remaining ship closed in on the the location of the Normandy’s crew and other spectators, weaving in and around the wrecked towers that used to be the skyscrapers of importance, trying to avoid another damaging attack.  It was an ill-advised move.  As the pilot twisted around a corner, they came face to face with a fallen top half of one building that had crashed into a neighboring structure, forming an unexpected wall.  The ship slammed into the glass and metal framework.  The resulting explosion sent fiery debris careening towards the on-lookers.
     Jack saw the metal wreckage shooting in and jumped forward.  “Get back!” she yelled, ripping her way through the crowd to get to the front.  She threw up a kinetic barrier just as the leading edge of deadly fragments rained down.  The men and women ducked as a group, fearful cries rising from most.  Jack gritted her teeth and concentrated on maintaining the biotic shield, the hail of scrap hitting and bouncing back harmlessly.  When she saw no more projectiles for several seconds, Jack lowered the field and went down on one knee to catch her breath.  Words of gratitude and pats on the back and shoulders came from all directions.
     The roaring engine of the final ship announced its arrival as it landed just outside of the pub.  The pilot powered down and the kicked up dust settled as the sound faded.  A side hatch opened and the pilot stepped out.  Blond hair fell loosely as the pilot’s helmet was removed to reveal an attractive face blending features of both asian and caucasian descent.  The woman came up to a man wearing a cook’s apron.
     “Go tell your boss his delivery is here,” she said, pointing  to the opening rear cargo bay door of her ship.  She then scanned the crowd and stopped on Ashley and James standing with their Alliance colored armor.  She walked over to them and saluted.  “First Lieutenant Lanna Hayes.  I’m guessing you’re from the Normandy?”
     “That’s right.  Lieutenant-Commander Ashley Williams and my friend here is Lieutenant James Vega.  The master biotic over there is Jack.”
     “I understand Captain Shepard wanted you to vet me and make the final call on whether I make the cut.”
     Ashley looked to James who nodded.  “I think we’ve seen everything we needed to see,” Williams said.  Lanna looked at her with a raised eyebrow over one of her brown eyes.  Ashley extended her hand.  “Welcome aboard, Lieutenant,” the lieutenant commander said.  Hayes shook Williams’ hand and then Vega’s.
     “You won’t regret it,” she assured the two officers.

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 7

Chapter 7
     Yellow eyes adjusted to light not seen in a long time.  A dark shape hovered over Nahlyon, surrounded in a cool blue light as whatever she had been inside of opened with a hiss of changing pressure.  There was a dull pain at the back of her head.  Where she was and why presently eluded her mind.  Her eyes slowly began to separate the blurs of color and gave definition to the shapes.  A familiar face looked down on her with a sad smile.
     “Sooltir? I- I mean Master Gelten?” Nahlyon asked, as the master Prothean scientist reached in, offering the assistant her help in climbing out of whatever she had managed to fall into.  “What happened, Master?”
     “Come now, child, you know I never cared for that title.  Sooltir will do fine.”
     “But the recordings-?
     “No longer matter, young one,” the older researcher informed the younger.
     “I am confused,” Nahlyon admitted, managing to get a leg over the side of the capsule she was being pulled out of.
     “I will explain everything, shortly, Nahlyon,” her long time mentor assured.
     “Nahlyon?” asked an excited voice.  The young female Prothean recognized the male’s voice, but her foggy mind was still putting things together and couldn’t place it.  She and Sooltir had been standing before the generals, pleading their case to continue their research, but the generals had forbidden it and then everything had gone black.
     A flash of movement later and she was staring across at the familiar face that she instantly connected to the questioning voice of a moment ago.  Her right hand reacted before her mind could stop it, had she even wanted it to.  It lashed out and struck the male Prothean.  While she knew the force of the contact was not nearly enough to do so, it threw him back, nonetheless, from shock and surprise.
     “You know this person, Javik?” came an unknown male’s voice that had an overall odd sound to it.  Her vision no longer focusing on Sooltir or Javik watching from beyond the master, Nahlyon looked around the room she was still waking up in.  She found, to her extreme surprise, the new voice had come from what she was sure was a primitive from the next planet over.  He wore black armor with red highlights.  It bore not just the wear and tear of many battles, but what she found more interesting were the markings that seemed to be a sort of written language.  A cold feeling settled into the pit of the young Prothean woman’s stomach.  She slid off the edge of the capsule and turned around to look at it.
     “Sooltir . . . is that a stasis pod?”
     “Yes, Nahlyon.  We have been asleep for quite a long time.”
     Nahlyon looked up at the primitive again and saw another one next to it.  She absorbed the distinction of male and female . . . and something else: names.
     “. . . Shepard . . . and Jack?  . . . Humans?”
     They turned to look at her instead of Javik, now, surprised to hear their names from the newly awakened Prothean.
     “Sooltir?” she questioned, worry creasing her features.
     “Calm yourself, child.  I transferred basics to you when helping you out of the pod.  I have given you the speech, written languages, and a few other things of each of the current cycle’s major races.  We can flesh out more details momentarily.”
     “Current cycle?  Maste- Sooltir, how long were we trapped in those pods?”
     “You were hibernating for fifty thousand years, Nahlyon,” Javik answered her.  “The shock wears off, trust me.”
     “I did not ask you, Avatar of Vengeance,” she said venomously.  “And the last thing I will do is trust you.”
     The older female Prothean looked from Nahlyan to Javik and back again.  “I did not give you Javik’s title,” she said in a questioning tone.
     “I would rather not know that . . . or his name,” Nahlyon said, spitefully turning her gaze back to Javik.
     Javik looked her in the eyes, and then turned his own away.  “I do not blame you, Nahlyon.  I . . . should have handled our parting with more . . . understanding.”
     “Silence your words, oh valiant warrior!  They fall on deaf ears.”
     Javik looked back up at Nahlyon and held in the words that too readily had come to his mind.  Instead he turned to Shepard.  “Captain, I think it best if I wait out in the hall with the rest of the crew.  With these two extremely capable scientists, you will no longer need my aid in translating the data here.”
     “But- but we were working so well together,” came a soft new female voice.
     Nahlyon turned as the one the transference let her know to be the asari Liara T’Soni entered from the outer corridor.  Nahlyon was struck by the primitive’s look of beautiful innocence that belied the keen intellect and vast experience showing through in her eyes.
     Javik paused in his path past Liara on his way out the door to look at her.  He glanced to Nahlyon briefly and then answered the asari with a small squeeze on her forearm.  It was a friendly gesture that seemed to come as a surprise to the primitives that Nahlyon understood to have been through much with Javik in a very short and recent time period.  “I would only get in the way, slow you down, T’Soni.  Besides, these scientists will be more the Prothean type you wished to find before I destroyed your vision of our people with my . . . relentless ways.”
     “But-” Liara tried, but Javik was already moving again and not looking back.
     “Well, that was interesting,” Shepard said.
     “Quite,” Sooltir said, staring at her protege.  “You and the Avatar have history.” It was not a question.
     “And that is what it shall stay,” the Prothean female insisted.
     “Speaking of history,” Shepard said, giving Sooltir a look.  The lead scientist of the Prothean Mars lab nodded.
     “I will take care of it, Captain.  If you could give us a little while, we will be ready to share our knowledge with you and give whatever aid we can in your plight.  And I very much would like to ask you more about the one you call the Catalyst Child and the VI in your head named Vendetta.  If it is modeled after Pashak Vrenn . . . your passenger may be more than you know . . . maybe more than it knows”
     “You knew the lead scientist on the Crucible?” Shepard asked.
     “Lead?” Nahlyon was incredulous.  Shepard noticed it and looked from her to Sooltir.  Sooltir closed her eyes in acceptance of a fact.
     “Yes, that would make sense, after they took us out of the picture.”
     “You were the lead scientist before Vrenn?” Shepard asked.
     “Yes.  He was a capable scientist, though rigid in process and thinking sometimes unless it came to his programming.  We will talk further about him if you wish at a later point.  Nahlyon, I feel, is about to burst with questions and I have no love of cleaning up Prothean DNA off of walls,” the female Prothean joked.  Shepard smiled.
     “Thank you, Sooltir,” Nahlyon watched the human captain say with a polite bow before leaving the room.  Jack and Liara followed him out automatically and the Prothean researcher felt the leadership and respect that the primitive species male commanded.  The strange thing to her was that she felt it as well.
     “This . . . cycle is odd,” Nahlyon stated to Sooltir.
     Sooltir nodded with a smile.  “And you have only been awake for a few minutes.  I have been awake for an hour while we tried to make sure your pod was stable.”
     “Stable?” she asked, looking over to the third pod that was lifeless.  “Is that . . .?
     Sooltir shook her head.  “Klaxtan?  No, we thought it had been, though.  The status monitor shows that power was cut to his pod a long time ago. We assumed there was a problem and had to find out what it was and if your pod was affected.  Klaxtan is not in there and has not been for a long time.”
     “How long?”
     “A little more than two thousand years is the last entry on his health upon exiting the pod.”
     “Is there anything left of him to bury?”
     “Unless he is hidden in this facility somewhere else, it is doubtful.  His body would have been taken by the elements, here or on Earth, by now.”
     “On Earth?”
     “Yes, the records we have found so far show that he made many trips there.  It seems their was no malfunction with his pod.  His program was written differently.  He was to come in and out of hibernation every so often, to make repairs to the facility to keep things going as long as possible.  He was already older when we went into stasis.  He started spending a lot of time out of his pod and I suspect old age claimed him.”
     “But why did he leave his pod that much?  Our technology is extremely reliable and lasts, obviously, for thousands of years.  What happened that had him leaving so much for repairs?  An attack?”
     “Klaxtan was a cultivator, Nahlyon.”
     “What?” the scientist exclaimed.
     Sooltir nodded.  “I always suspected it.  Now the records prove it. His mission, handed down from the generals, was to guide the humans.  To design a civilization that was constantly at war with itself.  They were attempting to accelerate the cosmic imperative.”
     “More like subvert it.  Who’s to say the humans would have become such an aggressive species?”
     Nahlyon’s mentor shrugged.  “It was to prepare this cycle for the Reapers.  They knew we were not going to end their threat, that the Reapers would come again.
     “Who knew?”
     “The same generals that appear to have subdued us and forced us into hibernation.”
     “What?!” Nahlyon exclaimed again.  She felt the dull ache at the back of her neck and knew it to be true.  “But why?”
     “Because we refused to end our work.  They wanted us to succeed, but not until the threat of the Reapers was gone.”
     Nahlyon rubbed at her forehead.  “This foggy feeling will pass, right?”
     “Yes.”
     “I remember . . . now.  They worried like paranoid fools that it would fall to Reaper hands.”
     “Paranoid or not, we never knew who was indoctrinated or not.  Still, I am with you.  We should have been allowed to try.”
     “What about Klaxtan?”
     The elder Prothean looked over Nahlyon’s shoulder to make sure no one was within hearing range.  “His brief reports say that he took many names and used many different strategies to accomplish his goal.  His favorite tactic was exploiting their vast capacity to believe in the superstitious.”
     “Military . . . those brutes are all the same,” Nahlyon huffed, glancing back to the doorway Javik had walked out so recently.
     Sooltir followed the glance and understood.  “I knew of your distrust of the military leaders.  In retrospect you were quite justified.  I didn’t know why the distrust until today, though.   You and this Avatar were important to each other?”
     “Only the Reapers and his future empire were important to him.  I was never first to his mind,” Nahlyon said with bitterness.
     “The Reapers were on everyone’s mind, Nahlyon.  And rebuilding our people’s civilization was a noble goal had the Reapers not vanquished us.  Not a task to take lightly at all.  This Avatar has done much to stop the Reapers, in our cycle and in the present one.  I see that you have both hurt each other, but let the old wounds die with the creators of their origin.”
     Nahlyon was confused by Sooltir’s words while she processed the meaning.  Her eyes searched the floor for answers before rising to the elder Prothean.  “The Reapers . . . are dead?”
     “Yes.”  Tears came to Sooltir’s eyes, though they were accompanied by a bow of the head and a smile.  “It would appear Klaxtan did is job.  The humans- this Captain Shepard was a singular force in uniting a galaxy to bring about their end.  Using the weapon we helped to develop like so many cycles before us, what they called the Crucible.”
     Nahlyon’s mind was numb.  The enemy that had destroyed her planet, that had killed everyone she had known or turned them into their perverted creatures of war, were no more.  “But what of our people?” she asked.
     “Let me fill you in on the rest, young one,” she said, holding her hands out in the gentle and kind manner that had made Nahlyon readily accept the position of Sooltir’s assistant many years earlier.
     “Well, many years before the last fifty thousand, anyway,” she thought as she reached her hands out to join Sooltir’s for the experience exchange.
* * * *
     Out in the hallway, Shepard was making his way over too Javik, who he had only seen so shaken a few times before.  He was headed off by Vega running up to him from a crowd around Tinman.
     “Loco, we finally got some good damn news!”
     “Give it to me, James.”
     “Turns out Hackett got here with the fleet and has been fighting it out with the yahg.  Communications were being jammed, but they must’ve just taken out whatever ship was doing that, because our boy Tinman, over there, just started getting a flood of signals from other geth that are up in the fight.”
     “Why aren’t we getting anything?”
     “Uh, I asked the same thing.  Tinman said something about after effects of the singularity bomb, space-time, warping stuff, science-y stuff like that. And that geth communications were more sophisticated and able to make it through.  Sparks said it made sense, and I trust her.”
     “And?”
     “And what, Loco?”
     “A-D-D much, Vega?  What’s the news?”
     “Heh, haven’t been accused of that one in a while.  Anyway, it looks like it will be over soon, Captain.  Only a few enemy ships left at this point.  Plus the Normandy was able to stay clear of the whole thing, so no added repairs to what’s still left.”
     “Sounds good, marine.”
     “Yeah the fuck it does . . . sir!” the boisterous soldier agreed with a laugh before jogging back over to the crew.
     Shepard resumed his path to Javik who sat on a random storage container, looking for all the world like a rejected schoolboy pouting over harsh words from a crush.
     “Javik,” he said as he approached.
     “I do not wish to speak about it, Captain.”
     “And that’s why I came over.  Friends help each other out, even when they can’t admit that they need it.”
     “I do not need it and we are not friends, Captain.”
     Shepard stepped back and looked at Javik with a slightly questioning expression.  “Is that right?”
     “Yes.  I am Javik, Avatar of Vengeance.  I am the warrior of the warriors of my empire.  I was to them what you are to your cycle.  The greatest, most able leader on the field of battle.  Leaders do not have friends.  Prothean warriors do not have friends.  Friends were the next enemy in the Reaper armies.  Within our military, there were no friends at any level.  There were only more warriors at differing ranks.  Another set of hands holding another weapon to destroy the Reaper soldier next to the one you targeted.  Friends are emotional attachments.  Emotional attachments,” he said looking past Shepard and back to the lab’s entrance,”bring only pain in the end.”  Shepard followed Javik’s look and then faced him again.  Javik shook his head.  “You are crafty, human.  I have been tricked into revealing things after all.”
     “Yeah, but only a little.”
     “But why ask me?  It is my burden!  My pain alone!” Javik stated, standing up and looking at Shepard intently.
     Shepard met the gaze without blinking.  “You’ve carried enough burdens alone, Javik.  And up until now everyone, including me and you, thought you would have to carry them alone.  But things have changed,” Shepard said hiking a thumb over his shoulder towards the lab.  “Now you don’t have to.”
     “You presume too much, Shepard.  I am nothing to her now.  Whatever used to be between us . . . is as dead as the Empire.”
     “Your empire may be dead, Javik, but now you know that she’s not.  Are you going to sit here and let old arguments pain you fifty thousand years later?”
     “You humans have a saying reserved for harsh disagreements that translates easily to Prothean.  I believe one of your women would say: not if you were the last man on Earth.  That is where things stand between Nahlyon and me, Captain.  I have no spirit of optimism left to me as you do.”
     Shepard patted Javik on the shoulder with a hopeful smile.  “Hey.  Ilos, Eden Prime, now Mars.  Prothean stasis pods seem to be a dime a dozen.  Who says your the last?”
     Javik’s eyes flickered with a hint of a smile.  “I had not considered . . . but why dangle such hope before me, human?  Hope is for the weak willed.  Those who seek to hide from reality.”
     “More so than those who seek to hide from living entirely?” Shepard asked, staring Javik down with knowing, unflinching eyes.
     The Prothean could not meet Shepard’s challenge and looked away in shame.  “I . . . I will consider your words, Shepard.  Thank you.”
     “Whether you admit it or not, Javik, you’re part of the Normandy’s crew.  We all watch each other’s back and not because I ordered it.  Not because Anderson or Hackett passed the order down from higher up.  It’s because we are friends.  To me, the Normandy is more.  It’s family.  And family is everything.”
     Javik nodded in understanding and Shepard left him to his thoughts.
* * * *
     Sooltir exited the lab, followed by her master scientist in training, Nahlyon.  Captain Shepard introduced them to his crew and then quickly came to the point.
     “Sooltir, Nahlyon, you’ve been informed of our situation.”
     Sooltir stepped into the middle of the circle the warriors from the Normandy had naturally formed in response to Shepard’s calling them over.  “Yes.  These yahg beasts have attacked you many times recently, are intent on something on Mars, and have the ability to still make mass relay jumps when no mass relays are functional.  Does that sum it up, properly, Captain Shepard?”
     “Pretty much,” he confirmed.
     “And your Alliance scientists have one of their ships?”
     “Partially.  They were able to salvage an intact engine and are reverse engineering it as we speak.
     “I see.  I will need to see this engine, Captain.  If these yahg have stolen data from the archives here, and have what I think they have, then it very well may be my research that is providing their advantage.”
     “How’s that?” Javik asked, standing up from his spot leaning against the wall outside of the circle.
     “The reports we read,” Liara said looking across to him.  “They must have been true.  The Protheans,” she turned to Sooltir and Nahlyon,”were researching a new engine.”  She turned back to Javik.  “We just didn’t get the time to find that data ourselves.”
     “Most likely,” Nahlyon agreed.  “But they wouldn’t be able to use our data if they are as primitive as Captain Shepard’s memories lead us to believe.”
     “Why not?” asked Ericson.  “If you created a new engine and the data was there for the taking, what would stop them?”
     “The fact that we never finished it,” Nahlyon said angrily.
     Sooltir turned her head to the side to look at Nahlyon.  The assistant looked down.  “I am sorry, Ericson.  I am not mad at you.  It is just-“
     “I know.  Shepard filled us in on the whole forced stasis pod deal.  I understand.  I didn’t take it personally.”
     “Thank you.  But the point was that we didn’t complete our research.  We were never allowed to.  Never mind building any sort of initial design and testing it.  We had theory and only a rough design of the basic systems the engine would need.  Nothing detailed.”
     “But it would have been enough for a more advanced species,” Sooltir added.  “Perhaps these yahg have recruited an unscrupulous individual from one of your cycle’s top races.”
     “Bet it was the goddamn Illusive Man, again,” Vega said.  “Gave away the Citadel to the Reapers.  Why not finish a super engine and hand it to the yahg?”
     “Fuckin’ Cerberus,” Jack spat next to him.
     Tinman weighed in.  “Sooltir Gelten, I have processed a small amount of the data here related to this engine.  You yourselves were basing your research on that gained from a species from the previous cycle,” he stated.
     Sooltir eyed the geth warily and cast a questioning look to Javik.  The male Prothean merely shrugged and shook his head.  “Yes . . . synthetic.  We had many cities built on those we found left by the Inusannon and we made full use of any knowledge they left behind, protected from Reaper destruction during their cycle. They passed on the designs of the Crucible as well as their own research on a vessel they discovered that was millions of years old.  It had a . . . unique technology.”
     “And that was?” Shepard asked.
     “We were going to call in the Prothean drive . . . had we finished it,” Nahlyon answered.  “It would effectively have been a ship-based mass relay, capable of the same speed and distance as a mass relay, without a destination point relay to connect to.  At least the equal to the secondary relays.”
     “Yes, in time we would have surely perfected it to match the primary relay ability, but we were not given the chance,” Sooltir added.
     “Shepard, would it not be advisable to allow the Prothean scientists to study the engine the Alliance has recovered?” EDI asked.
     The captain nodded.  “That’s the idea, EDI.  But first, Sooltir, do you know about the work on Ilos?  Your scientists there were able to create your own mass relay they called the Conduit.”
     “Yes and I see where you are going with this, Captain.  Being a . . . Master among Prothean scientists, I had access to all research going on among our various groups.  At least what wasn’t cut off by Reapers.  Ilos and Mars were the last to lose contact and we fed each other copies of all data so that if one fell the other would carry on.  You believe that our ability to build our own relay will allow us to help repair the damage to the relay network now.”
     “That’s the hope,” he confirmed.
     The rest of the Normandy crew tightened the circle a little, closing in to hear the answer from the Prothean scientist.  She looked to them with a blank face and paused.  She waited a moment longer and then cracked a smile.  “We can help you,” she assured.
     The team let out their individual sounds of relief, joy, and victory.  Shepard held a reserved smile.
     “Then let’s get in contact with Admiral Hackett and let him in on the good news.  He’ll be able to transmit the repair process to the other systems through our Rachni contacts.”
     “Rachni?” Nahlyon questioned in disbelief.  “But . . . they are . . . an enemy?” she finished in an unsure tone, looking at Shepard and avoiding Javik’s eyes.
     “Not anymore.  Whatever happened in your cycle is long gone.  They attacked in this cycle thousands of years ago and were hunted nearly to extinction.  They were brought back by bio-warfare scientists a few years ago who found a queen egg.  The scientists were killed and the Rachni queen was freed to return home, to start their civilization fresh.  They were enslaved by the Reapers and we freed them again.  Now they fight with us, not against us,” Shepard told her.
     Nahlyon shrugged and rolled her eyes.  “This is the cycle of opposites,” she muttered to no one in particular as she walked back towards the lab.  Sooltir moved to go with her.  “We will find repair specifics you need, Captain, and transmit it when you give us the channel for your Alliance,” the lead researcher called over her shoulder.
     Shepard turned to his crew.  He made his way over to EDI who was conferring with Tinman.  “EDI.”
     “Shepard.”
     “What’s our communications situation?”
     “Contact with our allies has been restored to optimal functionality, but you may wish it was not.”
     “Why do you say that, EDI?” Shepard asked, the familiar cold uneasiness creeping out of the recesses of his subconscious.
     “I do not know, but Admiral Hackett wishes to tell you himself.  He is in a shuttle on his way to the Normandy and is requesting you meet him there.  That is not how good news is normally delivered.”
     “Great,” Shepard drawled sarcastically.  He turned once more, looking for Williams only to find the lieutenant commander already heading his way, her hand up to the radio in her hear.
     “Sir, we’ve got word coming in from Jondum about yahg attacks underway in every major system!”
     “Damn it!  Must be what Hackett wants to talk to me about.”
     “Captain?” Ashley asked.
     “He’s on his way via shuttle to the Normandy.  I’m supposed to meet him there.  I was coming to find you to tell you take command here.”
     Ashley saluted.  “Yes sir.”
     “Try to keep Javik level headed around this Nahlyon.”
     “And vice versa, it seems.”
     “Picked up on that, huh?”
     “Yeah, some of the looks she was throwing his way, or not throwing his way . . . there’s some bad blood there, Shepard.”
     “A bit.  On second thought, I’ll take him back to the Normandy with me and some of the other crew.  Who do you want staying behind?”
     “Think more yahg will come?” Ashley asked.
     “Not now.  They’ll know we’re too well defended and will probably assume we’ve found what they were looking for if there’s a brain among them.  And it sounds like they’re busy everywhere else.”
     “Have we found what they’re looking for?”
     “It almost has to be our new Protheans and their knowledge.”
     “Let’s hope so.  I don’t want to fight another force like that.”
     Shepard smirked.  “What, that?  Hell, Ash, I’m just feeling nice and loosened up.”
     “All right, all right,” Ashley said waving the captain’s comment off.  “Let me keep Jack, Tali, Grunt, Zaeed, and Liara. You couldn’t pry her off a Prothean right now, anyway.”
     “True, but which one?” Shepard asked, remembering the oddly tender moment he witnessed between Liara and Javik earlier.
     “What?” Ashley asked, confused.
     “Ask Jack, she was there.  But good call.  Wrex is gonna want to be in on the meeting with Hackett.  Garrus too.  EDI and the geth can finish helping repair the Normandy and fighters, though Tinman might be our geth representative for the meeting, I suppose.  Not sure what their hierarchy is . . . if they have one.”
     “Sounds good.  We’ll hold the fort down, Shepard.”
     “Lieutenant Commander,” Shepard said with a salute and then turned to inform the others of the plans.

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 6

Chapter 6
 
     
     “My name is Javik, Avatar of Vengeance.  I am a Prothean and the last of my kind.  The final member of a great empire that ruled the galaxy.  My name is Shepard.  I’m an N7 marine in the Alliance Navy.   
     “My easiest missions are the ones lesser soldiers never stood a chance in.  I know how to use hundreds of different weapons, from the last cycle and this one, both as intended and unintended, to kill my enemies.  I kill efficiently.  I am the calm in the storm of the fiercest battle.  I have survived more missions that by all rights should have killed me more times than I can count or care to remember.  I lead with confidence.  I command respect merely by walking into a room.  I don’t need it.  I don’t even want it.  It just is.  My name is Javik.  My name is Shepard.  No.  My name is Ericson.”
     The pilot shook his head.  The thoughts were still blurring together.  The life experiences of the captain were daunting to process.  He had heard of Shepard for years.  He had seen all the vids, read all the reports.  But to see life through his eyes was . . . was honestly terrifying.  On top of that was the extremely alien life of a Prothean from fifty thousand years ago, who saw a Reaper war that lasted centuries instead of months.
     Ericson now held those memories- that training- within him.  The only thing he lacked was the muscle memory and conditioning that he had witnessed in the transfer of two disparate sets of experiences and lives.  The fact that he was contemplating all this while taking down yet another yahg soldier with a perfectly placed round of fire, from the assault rifle he had never held before ten minutes ago, bordered on scaring him.  He noticed, also, that both Shepard and Javik were piling up massive bodies as they defended the Mars Archives’ main data repository.  Liara lent her biotic attacks and barriers as a perfect complement to the undisputed masters of the battlefield.
     Not that the pilot flash-trained to marine capability thought any one of the other team members were slouching.  
     Wrex and Grunt, seemingly just for fun, had decided to test the physical strength of the yahg race and were engaging them in hand to hand combat.  Shepard had mentioned the insanity of the idea in passing, but the krogans had laughed and patted the guns and knifes hanging to their backs and sides.  “Just in case my arms get tired of tearing them limb from limb,” Grunt had reassured the captain before the battle had commenced.
     Ericson saw that Vega and Jack turned out to be a good combination on the battlefield whatever their romantic fate ended up being.  The former Cerberus biotic test victim was tossing the dense alien warriors through the air or holding them in place with her eezo-born powers while James finished them off with whichever gun was closest and loaded with a fresh thermal clip.  
     Garrus had positioned himself in a well protected sniper’s nest of his own making and was quickly picking off targets who never had the chance to imagine they were targets of an expert turian marksman.  Cracks about the heavens calling on their Archangel’s services once more and opening a cleaning franchise were inserted in between clean holes placed in skulls and heavily armored chests.  
     Vakarian’s shots weaved in between the crisscrossing blinks of perception that were the team of geth.  The initial attack of the new yahg wave had caught one of the smaller geth while reloading a weapon.  The geth body lay bleeding white fluid on the floor, it’s flashlight eye already dark.  The loss had seemed to energize the remaining geth platforms, led by the deafening barrage of munitions from Tinman’s dual spitfire action.
     “And I thought one spitfire was unnerving,” Ericson thought.
     Williams and Tali had formed a duo of their own, the second human Spectre laying down enough fire to make even Vega take notice, sparing a few glances her way in professional admiration, forcing her prey to back into traps laid by the quarian admiral extracting every ounce of her engineering expertise to inflict the most damage.  
     Miranda and EDI had teamed up in similar fashion.  Lawson’s biotics combined with skilled weapons use, coupled with EDI’s speed, efficiency and decoy producing ability was keeping another group of yahg off balance and bringing more of the enemy to the floor.
     Wayne was at Ericson’s back, as always.  Thermal clips were hitting the ground depleted followed by the click of a fresh reload on an almost rhythmical timing. 
     Zaeed, still more comfortable acting on his own, was showing why he was still regarded as one of the most dangerous mercenaries in Citadel space.  He rotated through his collection of firearms, mixing in some well thrown knives and grenades to bring down his self-determined quota of yahg.
     Ericson noticed that despite the massive body count, the enemy continued to come at the Normandy’s crew in waves, undaunted by the pools of blood swirling around bodies relieved of appendages, and skulls devoid of a majority of their eight eyes.  Ericson met Javik’s line of sight and knew that he was coming to the same conclusion.
     “Captain, I believe a new tactic is in order!” the Prothean called from across the fight.  Shepard looked over to Javik as he finished off yet another yahg with the well placed tip of his omni-tool blade finding the soft spot in the roof of the creature’s mouth, slicing upwards, severing too many neural pathways to count.  The yahg went limp, blood pouring out of its mouth and down Shepard’s arm, falling forward with the Spectre reclaiming his arm and jumping out of the way just in time to avoid being buried beneath his heavy opponent.
     Javik helped Shepard up, quickly scanning his surroundings and seeing that they had reached yet another lull in the waves of enemies.  He saw the human Chakwas emerge from her safe haven to begin working on the team’s various wounds.  None were serious outside of the loss of the one machine, but Javik knew that it was only a matter of time before their luck ran out and the yahg would wear them down and wipe them out.  “The yahg are a formidable species in this cycle, Shepard,” he said.  “And we will exhaust our weapons shortly while their numbers are unknown.  We must find their entrance point and seal it before the next transport ship lands more troops.”
     “If we even have time,” Miranda said.
     “Agreed, on both counts” Shepard said.  “But will that be enough of a delay until Hackett gets back here with the coalition?”
     Javik looked at Shepard and then to the archaically designed omni-tool interface he was forced to put up with in this less advanced galactic civilization.  He pulled up the timer he had started when Hackett had first been contacted and apprised of the situation.  Javik saw too much time left before help would arrive, so every delay would count.  “Unknown.”
     “It won’t hurt,” Wrex called over from the far side of the hall, keeping an eye down the main path to their position.  
     “Indeed, krogan, but it will not change our outcome if it is not enough.  We need to come up with a new plan.”
     “I’m all ears,” Shepard said.  “What are you thinking, Javik?”
     “The archives hold the key to this yahg attack.  We need to keep them from getting to them and we need time to search them for the answer.  Their is another section to this facility that your scientists have previously discovered but have not accessed yet.”
     Liara came up, applying medi-gel to a slash on her left forearm.  “You mean the secondary lab that . . . that JT mentioned in that one message?”
     “JT?” Shepard asked, turning to Liara.
     Liara looked down for a moment with closed eyes.  “I didn’t know JT very long.  They were one of the first to die at Cerberus’ hands.  Such joy for the work, such an infectious happy nature . .  . such a waste . . .”
     Tali came up to Liara and put a hand on her shoulder.  The asari turned and looked back at Tali with a smile, patting her friend’s hand with her own.
     Javik, unexpectedly to Shepard, gave Liara a sincere look and bowed his head with a moment of silence before continuing.
     “Yes.  Your research associate Tasmen would have become a name known throughout your galaxy, I would guess.  I was not a scientist, but I was forced to defend many of them.  While the warriors held off Reaper attacks in my cycle, the spinele- the scientists,” the Prothean caught himself,”would destroy all locally stored research data of compromised sites so as to keep any copy of the information out of enemy hands.  
     “These secondary labs, while often smaller areas, were sites of highly specialized research units, focusing on one project.  They also usually maintained hidden ways in and out that were reinforced so that the labs could serve as safe houses.  I suggest transferring the archive data access to that station, wipe the local copy of information we have gone through here, and we fall back there, leaving this location . . .”  He trailed off, smiling.
     Ericson found himself saying,”Tactically modified.”
     Javik and Shepard both looked at him in only mild surprise, but both nodded.
     Liara came back into the conversation,”So you know the hidden entrance location?”
     Javik shook his head.  “No.  They were hidden from easy detection.  However, the right individual will have the door revealed to them.”
     “I take it you mean a Prothean?” Shepard asked.
     “Yes.  It is like the beacons you found: designed to detect and interact with us.  Though, given your ability to access beacons that detect Protheans, you may serve to cut our search time in half.  The advantage is that we already know the location and one of the hidden doors would not be far away from it.  We should move.”
     Shepard looked to the rest of his small army.  A lesser force would be dead already.  His still had a chance to escape mostly intact.  “You heard Javik.  We’re moving.”
 
 
* * * * 
 
 
     Above Mars, Admiral Hackett’s flagship exited faster than light travel, slamming to an abrupt slowness in the midst of yet another dogfight with a yahg fleet.  The report had been accurate.
     “That’s a hell of lot more ships,” Hackett thought.  “Admiral Gerrel, we need a clear path for our ground troops to get to Mars.”
     “We’ll take care of it, Admiral,” the quarian admiral responded.
     “Much appreciated.  Krogan First Division, Blackwatch, give the quarians thirty seconds and then your teams are go for Mars’ surface. Go backup Shepard and his team.  Show the yahg how a combined krogan and turian force will come to be the embodiment of their nightmares.”
     “On the way, Hackett,” a gruff krogan voice answered for both squads.
      “All other ships, pick your targets and clean up my skies!” he ordered over his fleet wide signal.
     The acknowledgments came in from across the coalition armada.  Yahg and allied ship explosions became a fireworks display of destruction.  Hackett turned to the comm officer.
     “Get Shepard on the line.”
     “I’ve already tried, Admiral Hackett.  Signals to the planet are being blocked.”
     “Damn.  Well, let’s hope we got here in time,” he muttered turning away to follow the battle.  He spent only a few minutes watching the real-time sensor data feed back what he knew he would see: expected allied losses to the powerful energy weapons the yahg were employing, but many more enemy losses from superior numbers and hardened war veteran experience so recently earned.  “Shepard, I better not have come all this way for nothing,” he muttered to himself before leaving the war room.
     He made his way to his cabin to check in with Anderson back on Earth.  He sat down at his desk, poured a glass of water, and opened the channel to the admiral.
     “David, how’s the project coming?”
     “As well as can be expected.  Progress is steady and the boys in the lab say we’ll be able to roll this out to our ships soon.  I still can’t believe we’re doing it, though.  Feels wrong.”
     “Spoils of war, Anderson.  If we don’t do it, we’ll be the only ones who don’t.”
     “I know, I know.  Just . . .”
     “And if we don’t . . . these yahg worry me.  Shepard’s right: something important is on Mars. But if they can still use mass relays and have the firepower they have, it must be something incredibly dangerous down there.  To commit the size of fleet they have to this- assuming this is even a sizable chunk of what fleet they have.”
     “Yeah, I was wondering about that.  We didn’t know they had a fleet at all, and now they’re popping up multiple times and doubling the number of ships they have each time.”
     A knock came from Hackett’s door.  He had disabled the electronic bell tone long ago.
     “Come in,” he said.
     The door opened and Serviceman Taggart entered.  The young member of the Alliance handed the admiral a data pad.  Hackett noticed the lack of nervousness he had grown used to seeing from the young enlisted men and women on board his ship when they were around him.  He made a mental note to keep an eye on this kid, sensing a promising future.  He glanced down at the information on the wafer thin tablet and then raised two fingers to the side of his head, massaging the temple that had suddenly started its tired shooting pain routine that always accompanied bad news.  He looked back up at Serviceman Taggart and nodded.  “Thank you Taggart.  Dismissed.”  Taggart saluted, turned, and promptly exited the room.
     From the small video display on Hackett’s desk, Anderson watched the whole scene play out.
     “I know that sign, Hackett.  What’s on the data pad?  I know it’s not good.”
     “Word from the Rachni.  Yahg are entering the other systems.”
     “Shit,” was all Anderson could manage.
     “Your work just got a lot more important, Anderson.”
     “Yes sir.  I’ll pull in some more resources.”
     “Bring Goto back from wherever she went hiding and team her with Professor Olausen.  They worked well together on the Crucible.  And as much as I still don’t trust them, let’s send word to the geth.”
     “Goto and the geth . . . they’ll be a big help.  The professor is already on this.  I’ll see who else I can get.”
     “Report back when we have working prototypes, Anderson.  We thought we’d have all the time we’d need.  Now we don’t.  We need this working and we need it now.  Hackett out.”
     Anderson’s image faded and Hackett looked back down at the numbers and classifications of ships attacking the other species’ home worlds.
     “It’s not the Reapers all over again,” he thought.  “But their numbers against only the reserve military forces . . . we won’t need another Crucible.  Earth is safe this time, but this spells one thing for the rest: occupation.”
     Hackett foresaw the ground wars to liberate every world from entrenched yahg forces . . . if there were survivors to free.
     A personal tag had been added to the information in the fleet admiral’s hands.  Serviceman Taggart’s name blinked as the flagger.  Hackett tapped the highlight and a single ship’s data pulled up.  It was larger than any other yahg ship and the design resembled nothing else in their known fleet.  The weapons and armor data was blank, the massive ship not having been engaged in battle or even bothering to attack unprovoked.  Its appearance had been noted prior to each of the ongoing attacks at Sur’Kesh, Palaven, Thessia, and Tuchanka, but it was not directly involved in any battle.     
     “A flagship?” Hackett wondered as he searched his desk drawers for the pain killers he had become quite familiar with during the Reapers’ invasion.   
     “But what’s it doing?”
 
 
* * * * 
 
     
     Garrus marched along next to Shepard down the hallways of the Mars Archives.  Javik led in front of them as the team from the Normandy neared the still buried secondary research lab.  The former C-Sec officer was leery of the plan.  He had never been fond of barricading himself in a small area and waiting for the enemy to come at him.  He rubbed at the right side of his face, remembering a similar situation on a certain criminal hot spot of a space station.
     “Do you think EDI will handle it?” he asked Shepard.
     “She is specifically suited to the task, Vakarian,” Javik intercepted the question.
     “It’s gonna be close, though,” Shepard said.
     Javik was silent for a few steps before finally quietly saying,”She . . . is a machine.”
     “Joker will never forgive either of you, you realize that, if she doesn’t make it.”
     “She’ll be fine, Garrus,” Jack said, trudging along with a bored expression next to Vega.
     “I suppose you’re right, Jack,” the turian agreed.
     
 
* * * *
 
     Accessing the data streams with processing power far surpassing the Mars’ facility’s computers, EDI was learning the human traits of annoyance and impatience in a most efficient manner.
     “This should be completed by now,” she said aloud, the console in front of her the target of her vocal jab.  She kept her vision trained across the room, staring out through the wall of glass that marked the only thing standing between her and the next wave of yahg her auditory sensors heard banging on the far off door that had recently been omni-tool welded shut.  Her predictive algorithms let her know they would break through in short order.  
     “Slightly sooner than the estimated file access transfer and local data wipe completion,” the synthetic knew.
     A green progress bar indicated access from the terminal had been transferred and the data wipe was close to finishing.  Down the hall, the doorway exploded.  Yahg ground troops poured in sooner than expected.
     “Shit!” EDI exclaimed.  Nevertheless she remained calm, watching the progress bar at ninety-nine percent as the enemy closed in on her position.
 
 
* * * * 
 
     
     Ashley brought up the rear of the team’s line, following Tinman and his surviving geth who carried the body of their fallen comrade.  She looked back every dozen steps or so.  Tinman noticed.
     “Williams, do you watch for our ally EDI or the enemy yahg?”
     Ash looked up to him, biting at her lower lip.  “A little of both, I guess.  More for EDI.  Just hope she makes it.”
     Tinman looked back the way they had come as well.  “The Prothean’s plan has a high probability of success.”
     “You think so?  Javik’s not exactly synthetic friendly.  I wouldn’t put it past him to put EDI in harm’s way on purpose.  He tried to get the captain to ‘toss her out the airlock,’ I believe were his exact words.”
     The red geth placed a large metal hand unexpectedly lightly on Ashley’s shoulder as they walked, mirroring the interaction he had witnessed earlier between Liara and Tali.  “Despite the Prothean’s distrust for non-organics, his personal intentions are beside the point in this matter. He is an intelligent strategist and I can find little to discount in his plan.”  Tinman looked down for a moment and Ashley saw his eye almost imperceptibly flashing, a process she had begun to interpret as geth ‘thinking.’  Tinman looked up after the brief pause.  “EDI will be fine,” he said.  “Javik is correct: her unique ability is the primary factor determining mission success.”
     “I guess you’re right, Tinman.  Still, it just doesn’t-“
     A loud explosion echoed from the distance, cutting the sentence short.  Everyone in the procession stopped and turned back to look the direction of the sound’s origin.
     Halfway up the line, Ashley heard the quiet voice of Miranda barely get out a worried,”EDI . . .”
 
 
* * * * 
 
 
     EDI stood staring at the progress bar.  Two dozen angry yahg towered around her in a circle, chomping at the bit to be the first to tear her limb from limb.  They waited on something that EDI’s limited knowledge of the species could only allow her to guess at.  A path soon opened in their ranks, rippling them apart from the back moving towards the front as the enemy soldiers separated into two lines, allowing the biggest yahg of the bunch to march right up to her.  From the looks the other yahg directed this one’s way, EDI decided he was the detachment’s commander.
     “You, machine, what is your purpose here?” it demanded.  The yahg drew a gun and pointed it at her face.  The other yahg did likewise.
     “Great.  The Protheans had children, who knew,” EDI amused herself.  She saw the progress bar hit one hundred percent and smiled.  “My purpose?  My purpose is to do as I see fit.  I see fit to delay you, which helps my friends, to stop you from obtaining whatever it is you are trying to find on this planet, and ultimately, to destroy you,” she stated as a matter of fact and without hesitation.
     The yahg laughed.  EDI recorded a deep mix of a rumble and animal growl that vibrated through nearby equipment. The leader looked around at his soldiers.  “Normally I would say it is hard to read a machine, but this one- this one has either limited programming lacking fear, or has had courage made a priority in its software.  It thinks it speaks honestly.”  The yahg trained all eyes back on EDI.  “You are mistaken, though.”
     “On which count?” EDI asked.
     “On every count, construct,” it sneered.
     “Really?” she asked, in mock surprise.
     The yahg waved his gun at her in dismissal.  “Delaying us does not matter.  We will get what we came for.  Your allies will die, as shall all who oppose our rule.  You cannot destroy us.  We have the power of ancients at our disposal and we have strength that your fleets, decimated by the Reapers, can no longer match.  And lastly, machines have no friends, only masters.  If your programming has any trace of logic, you will reject your former master and embrace me as the new one.  To do otherwise will lead to the end of your simulated existence.”
     EDI stared at the yahg with an expression new to her face: intense hatred.  “The only existence about to end is that belonging to every organic in this room,” she hissed.
     The yahg had tired of playing with the machine.  He pulled the trigger, the barrel of his gun only centimeters from EDI’s face.  The weapon exploded in violence.  There was an anguished cry and a heavy body hit the ground.
     Neither sound or body belonged to EDI.
     A yahg lay dead on the ground behind her.  The commanding yahg’s head tilted in confusion and before he had a chance for his thoughts to reach a conclusion, two of his subordinates raised their weapons and fired at EDI.  Two more yahg died on the other end of those weapons.  The yahg commander held up his hands, roaring,”Cease fire, you fools!  It’s a projection!”  He waved his gun hand at EDI’s face and it passed right through, distorting the hologram as it went.  It was then that his upper eyes saw a quick movement in the distance.  
     EDI poked her head out from around the corner of her hiding spot and fired a few shots into the crowd of yahg from a safe distance.  Then as they all rushed to exit the single door towards her, she held up her other hand, revealing a black object with a flashing red button.  An evil smile spread across her metal gray face.  The hologram stared at the commanding yahg in duplication and then vanished.
     The lead yahg’s host of eyes widened and he roared to his troops,”Scat-!”
     His words died with him as EDI hit the button, ducking back into the side hall for cover.  An eezo-induced mini-singularity materialized from a small device, sitting on the floor where EDI’s decoy had stood hiding it in plain sight.  It ripped time and space in the midst of the yahg, sucking the now frantic creatures towards the tiny black hole.  As the first of them reached its destructive range and were being torn apart on a molecular level, the extreme gravitational force ceased and returned time and space to its normal state in an explosive reversal.  Yahg bodies were flung in every direction and the detonation demolished the entire structure of that area in the building.  The falling sections of wall and ceiling crushed what enemies had not died already.
     EDI’s hologram reappeared and stood in the middle of the rubble looking around, feeding the data back to the actual EDI still keeping to her cover.  She processed the information rapidly and read no life signs.  She casually stepped out of the hall and into the field of debris, ending the decoy program.  A lowering sun cast the last rays of daylight onto the scene and Martian winds rushed through a path long obstructed, dropping a fine layer of rust colored dirt on everything it passed over as it went.  EDI went from yahg to yahg and shot each one three times, twice in the head and once in the chest, ensuring that none was left alive. She paused at the last one, realizing she had no accurate data on yahg anatomy which meant the Alliance and its allies did not either.  She pulled the last body to an undamaged biological lab area down the hall.  She tied it to a table and then sealed the room shut for good measure.  She paused outside the room, sent a coded message back to the Normandy on where Alliance scientists would be able to find their new research project, and then sprinted off to catch up with Shepard and the rest of the team.
 
 
* * * *
     
 
     “Shepard.”
     Captain Shepard looked back for the teammate that had called him.  He turned to see the rest of his squad beginning to surround the returning figure of EDI.  Smiles and cheerful voices greeted the living AI as she described the success of the trap Javik had designed.  Shepard watched as the Prothean even came up to the machine he claimed to distrust.
     “Machine . . . I am glad to see you were able to carry out my plan victoriously.  That you are undamaged is . . . beneficial.  You are a useful tool against our enemies.”
     Tali poked Javik in the shoulder.  “See?  See?  I knew you cared about us.  Even for EDI.”
     “I care for the machine as I care for my other available weapons.  The ones that are effective should be maintained for further use.  Those that are damaged beyond repair or prove useless should be discarded . . . it is nothing more than that,” he insisted flatly.  Many eyes in the happy crowd rolled in conjunction with amused smiles and shaking heads.
     “Shepard,” came the voice again.  He turned once more, the voice clearly not coming from in front of him.  He stared into an empty passage in a lower section of the Mars Archives.  All he saw was the dark tunnel of a half excavated section of a buried hallway, sections of metal wall uncovered here and there from beneath the rocky covering that had piled up over the millenniums.  Shepard had thought it odd at first that an underground section had not been inherently protected from the elements.  He then realized that the upper floor they had come from was just that: an upper floor, possibly of a large tower section of a much larger facility that had come to be devoured by the planet’s endless dust storms.  Discussing it with Javik had led to further explanation that there should, in fact, be such underground levels in a construction as large as the Mars campus was turning out to be, but clearly no hint of those had yet been discovered.  They were currently on what had once been the first floor.
     “Shepard.”  There was something familiar about the voice.  “We are here,” it said.
     “Vendetta?” he asked in his mind.
     “Yes.”
     “Thought you were, I don’t know, used up after the fight with the Catalyst Child.”
     “System recovery was prolonged, but I have been functional for the last thirty-nine of your hours.  Also, I cannot be used up.  I am now a part of your neural and physiological systems until extraction is possible.”
     “Extraction?  When will that be possible?” Shepard wondered.
     “Unknown.  No available technology is currently capable.”
     “Fantastic,” the captain mocked.  “So you’ve been up and running for more than a day and a half and you’ve said nothing?”
     “I have had nothing to say.  I have merely observed.”
     “Observed what?”
     “All that you have.”
     “All?” Shepard asked, glancing back to Miranda who caught his questioning expression and matched it from across the distance.
     “All,” Vendetta confirmed.  “I do not pass judgment.  I merely process and record data.”
     Shepard shook his head.  “Anything governing privacy in your programming?”
     “There is.  Would you like to indicate that which I should keep private for you in the event that extraction becomes possible, Captain?”
     “Not right now, Vendetta.  You said you have had nothing to say for thirty-nine hours.  I’m guessing that means you have something to say now?”
     “Indeed, Shepard.  We are here.”
     “We are where?  At the entrance to the lab?”
     “Correct.  I have detected the concealed entrance.  I can open it.  Do you want me to do so?”
     “Is there any danger in it?  This thing hasn’t been used in a very long time.  It won’t break or blow up in our faces, will it?”
     “Doubtful.  Prothean technology is extremely durable, as you have witnessed.  In addition, labs of this nature rarely had defense systems installed.”
     “Rarely?”
     “Rarely.”
     Shepard sighed.  He looked over at Javik and waved the Prothean over.  “Guess who’s back?” the captain asked, tapping at his own head.
     “The Vendetta program?” Javik asked.
     “Got it on the first try.”
     “And it has found the entrance,” the warrior stated in understanding.  “And you are waiting for what, Shepard?”
     “Are you familiar with any traps, any defenses we need to worry about if we open this thing?”
     “I am familiar with them, should they exist.  It was rare.”
     “Yeah, so I’m told.  And you can deal with them?”
     “I have helped to install many such systems, though there were many different designs as well.”
     “So. . .?”
     “We shall have to hope that if one is there, that I can deal with it.”
     “So we just open the door and hope for the best?”
     “As I have heard you humans say: looks like,” Javik confirmed.
     “Uh huh,” Shepard said.  He quickly ordered the crew to get behind a barrier erected with the combined powers of Liara and Jack and then had Tali, Tinman and the other two geth on standby to assist Javik with any safeguards. He then switched to his inner dialog with Vendetta.  “Do it.”
     “Complying,” Vendetta replied.
     A faint glow pulsed green from a section of wall still covered in rock.  Shepard stepped in front of the area, waiting.
     “So what sort of defenses are we talking about?” he asked Javik as the green pulses picked up speed.
     “The most reliable and common would be a form of anti-personnel attack.  Taking out small targets quickly and effectively,” Javik answered, coming over to join the captain in front of the soon to be revealed doorway.
     “Like a land mine or something?”
     The light flashes quickened to an almost steady rate.  Javik eyed the light suspiciously.
     “That would be a primitive way to do it.  If I had set up something . . .” he began, still staring at the light.  The green light went solid and then changed to red and a high pitched squealing sound mixed with crackling static filled the hall. Javik’s eyes went wide at the same time Shepard’s did.
     “Move!” each yelled while shoving the other.  Both soldiers fell to the side as a massive red beam of energy vaporized the rock covering the doorway and continued in a constant blast across the hall, boring through the other wall and continuing on.
     Shepard looked through the transparent beam from his position lying on the ground.  He saw Javik looking back at him and chuckling.  “Quite effective, no, Captain?”
     “Hilarious, Javik. How long does it-?”
     The beam shut off.
     “Last.”
     “About that long,” the Prothean said, still laughing. “I have not see that one in . . . well, years before my stasis.  The old ones are good ones, sometimes.”
     “Funny,” Shepard said, pulling himself to his feet and dusting off.
     Liara and Jack let down their biotic shield and Shepard’s friends came to join him.
     “Anybody want to check what’s behind door number one?” Vega asked.
     “After you,” Jack said.
     “Ha ha, I’m not loco. I’ll let, um, Loco lead the way.”
     Jack smacked Vega on the back of the head.  “Oh grow a pair,” she chastised before marching past him and joining Javik and Shepard at the front of the group.
     Shepard looked over at Jack and nodded with a smile.  “Jack.”
     She smiled back.  “Shepard.  We waiting for something?”
     “Nope.”
     Javik, Jack, and Shepard moved forward through the open doorway, a blue-white hue coming to the walls to light the way in.  Down a short ramp and around a right turn, they came to another door.  This one greeted them audibly, in Prothean.
     “Hello Avatar Javik and guests.  Welcome to lab 327.  Please enter.”
     Jack leaned over to Shepard.  “Did it just say his name?” she asked, pointing to Javik.
     Shepard realized he had once again understood Prothean language so clearly he had not noticed it had not been spoken in English.  “Yeah.  It seems to recognize him somehow.  It basically told us hello and come in.”
     “Oh.”
     Shepard and Jack tried to follow Javik in, but he blocked the way, frozen in place by what he saw.  The captain tapped him on the shoulder.  “Problem?”
     The Prothean did not look back, but whispered simply,”Shepard . . .”
     He stepped out of the way and Shepard and Jack moved past him to find out what had stunned the fearless warrior.
     In the middle of what appeared to be no more than an enlarged entry way to the main section of the hidden lab, there were three Prothean stasis pods.  Two of them were alive with power.  The computer voice came again.  “Avatar, to activate pods, please submit for DNA match scan and state name for records.”
     Javik looked around and a pedestal rose from the floor with a Prothean shaped hand mold cut into the center.  Javik walked up to it and hesitantly put his hand in place.  The device began to scan his hand.  The scan completed with a blue flash and a less kind, more militant voice came alive.  “Prothean Empire subject: state name and position or suffer penalty of death as dictated under directive 81-19.”
 
     “My name is Javik, Avatar of Vengeance.”