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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.
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About harbinger50

I'm a guy with a job that if I wasn't paid to do it . . . I sure as hell would not be doing it. I imagine that covers probably more people than does not. I have a son who is almost 12 who I see every other weekend. I find that most of my passions are creative, which we all know doesn't exactly pay without a single minded focus and near-exclusion of everything and everyone else. I've never been able to be that self-centered, as easy as you might think that should be... I enjoy writing, playing guitar, shooting films, lifting weights (HATE cardio, but do it anyway) and have various other interests and hobbies that I can never decide to do that focusing on. This site is my attempt at that...

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