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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.