Mass Effect 4: New Masters – Chapter 15

Chapter 15

     “This . . . is not good,” Garrus said, glancing over the same reports Ashley had received from her fellow Spectres.  “They all left?”
     “All but some of the geth,” she answered.  “And the rachni.  They’ve kept their new home world hidden so the yahg can’t attack them directly.  Leave it to the bugs and flashlights to be the dependable allies,” Ashley added.  Seeing Lazarus standing silently near the rachni on board the Eden Prime, she quickly amended,”No offense, guys.”
      The rachni stood still, only blinking its eyes in response.  Lazarus rotated his single visual sensor Ashley’s direction.  “No offense was taken, Commander Williams.  We understand it is hard for organics to let go of old designations after circumstances have required altered thought processes.”

     “Uh, thanks, Lazarus,” Ashley said, shifting in her seat, uncomfortable with the geth soldier’s stare.
     “But why are they leaving now?” Lanna asked, from a seat across the table in the prototype frigate’s conference room.  “They’ve had the mass amplifiers installed for weeks, some of them.  They could have left at anytime.”
     “Doubt,” Grunt said plainly.  “Without Anderson or Shepard- who trusts the Alliance’s plan?  Shepard’s been the only one holding all the races together.  Without him, they have no faith in anyone but themselves to take care of business.”
     “I’m with Grunt,” Zaeed said.  “No one gives a damn about alliances when their homes are burning.  And like he said: without Shepard, no one believes the war strategy can work.”
     “It’s not like he’s dead!” Cortez nearly shouted from his seat at the table.  “Right?” he asked, looking around the room.  “We don’t believe that . . . do we?” he inquired further, doubt growing in his eyes and his voice faltering.
     “Of course not, Steve,” Tali answered confidently.  “It’s Shepard.  He took on Sovereign, ran us through the suicide mission against the collectors, and he defeated the Reapers.  He wouldn’t allow himself to be killed by a random attack by yahg.  And look at Vega’s report.  It says MIA.  Missing.  Not killed.  They dragged him off.  So he’s still alive.”
     “Yeah, you can’t interrogate my- his dead body,” Ericson said.  Despite having more time since the memory transference from Javik, his thoughts still blurred every so often.  It was happening less, but right now it felt like the group was talking about him and Shepard at the same time, neither of whom he felt were dead.
     “And what about the Admiral?” Wayne asked, silent until now.  He eyed Ashley who turned her gaze downward.
     “I . . . it doesn’t look good.  I’m not even sure what the hell Anderson was doing in the Theseus system.  Still waiting to hear back on that.  Lazarus, has the rachni gotten a report from Hackett on that yet?” Ashley asked the synthetic.
     Lazarus faced the insect alien and emitted an odd series of short, high pitched chirps mixed with cat-like hisses.  After the brief exchange, the rebuilt geth turned back and shook his head, imitating the organic gesture.  “No.”
     “Then we’ll make a detour-“
     “The fuck you will!” Aria barked.  Six pair of ice cold eyes turned to stare her down.  Lazarus and the rachni looked her way with what might have been neutral expressions.  Grunt leaped from his seat and was already halfway across the room with a knife drawn before the chair finished falling to the ground.  The krogan was impossibly fast, even for the mercenary queen’s battle honed reflexes. The knife was at her throat and biting a perfectly controlled depth of millimeters into her blue flesh before she could erect a protective biotic barrier.
     “I’m feeling pretty generous today, so I’ll give you a choice, asari: Do you want your death to be painless or quick?” he growled.
     Ashley jumped up and pulled her gun on Grunt.  “Stand down, Grunt!”
     Garrus lurched to his feet and threw out his hands.   “Whoa!  Easy people!”
     Grunt calmly looked past the turian and addressed the commander.  “Williams, this . . . thing thinks she’s in charge.  Thinks she’s going to tell us what we’re going to do or not do.  Who we’re going to save or not.  I won’t stand for it.”
     Part of Ashley wanted to lower the gun and look the other way.  The small, desperately crying for attention, logical side of her forced the weapon to stay up.  “I can’t argue with you, Grunt.  But as much as I hate to admit it, we’re going to need her to retake Omega.”
     “And why should we do that at all?” the young experimental krogan asked.  “Why give her that power back?  We can keep it in our hands.  With someone the Alliance- or what’s left of the major races- can trust.  She’ll only turn it against us as soon as we take care of Cerberus and the yahg.”
     “And who’s going to run it, krogan?” Aria asked.  “You?”
     “Hadn’t thought that far ahead . . . but I like it.  Thanks for the suggestion, asari.  You may have just earned yourself a third death option.”
     Ashley shook her head. “We need Omega station to fight the yahg in that region of space, Grunt.  You know that.  It’s a key location.  It has resources.  And we sure as hell don’t want to leave that with Cerberus to keep or the yahg to take.  Better to have even a despicable ally holding it than an actual enemy.  And unfortunately, she’s our best chance of getting in past the Cerberus defenses.”
     “Damn straight,” Aria said, albeit a little hesitantly, the knife still breaking skin and Grunt’s breath pulsing on to her face.  “I’ve got a vested interest to help you fight.  That’s my station.  The systems around it bring me the customers that make me money.  The yahg are killing my customers.  Plus, my mercs keep more pirates out of Citadel space than you realize.  It’s a balancing act of raiding them enough to keep them down and not draw the Council’s attention to my station but not over doing it to provoke a full coordinated attack from the pirates on Omega.  Without my leverage and the knowledge of how to use it, Omega falls and the yahg and Cerberus gain new allies to ravage your planets.”
     “But,” Ashley took back control of the conversation,”you are right Grunt.  She’s not in charge and, bitch as she might, I’ll make the decisions on my damn ship,” she said, lowering her weapon.  “We’ll detour to Theseus and scout out Logan.”
     “And Shepard?” he asked, slightly lessening the pressure of the blade on Aria.
     “What about him?” the commander asked with a smile.  “It’s not the first time he’s been declared dead or missing.  The way he keeps doing it, I think it’s some N7 strategy.”
     Grunt chuckled slowly and sheathed his knife, tipping Aria’s already leaning chair past its balancing point.  The crime boss crashed to the floor with an ungraceful flailing of arms and legs.  “You’re right, Williams.  But crazy strategy theory or not, Shepard disappearing is bad.  The fleets leaving . . . splitting up.  It’s bad tactics.  We’ll be fighting ground warfare for years on every planet, now.  And that’s only if we gain some sort of advantage.  Otherwise . . .”
     “Otherwise we’re looking up at yahg masters for a generation, potentially,” Ericson finished the thought.
     “You’re probably right, Grunt,” Ashley agreed.  “And as shitty as it sounds, Ericson, that’s not our problem right now.  Our problem is checking on the wreckage of the Kilkenny and then securing Omega.  The rest will be up to Hackett to figure out.”  She looked at her team around the table and saw the determination in their eyes she had seen so many times under Shepard’s command.  “Maybe I have the knack for this leadership thing after all,” she thought.  Then she addressed her friends again,”We have our plan.  Cortez, make the adjustment to the flight plan and Lazarus, you and the rachni . . . comm specialist send a message back to the fleet to let Hackett know.  Dismissed.”
     The crew left and headed for their own various tasks aboard the Eden Prime.  Ericson offered Aria a hand up which was angrily slapped away by the blue woman as she pulled herself up off the ground.  She stormed out of the room without a look back.  Ashley saw Grunt waiting outside.  As Aria passed by, he waited a few seconds and then moved to shadow her, a task he seemed to enjoy despite its lack of violence.  
     Ericson remained in the room.  
     “Something on your mind, Lieutenant?” Ashley asked the pilot.
     Ericson stared into Ashley’s brown eyes longer than he had meant to.  “I, uh, well, I guess not, Commander.”
     “Call me, Ashley, Ericson.  One thing I picked up from Shepard- in times like the Reaper war and now with the yahg seeming to pick up where they left off, the best units are the ones that are comfortable with each other.  Formalities don’t get us there.”
     “I suppose you’re right . . . Ashley,” Ericson agreed.  His face did little to hide the desire to say more, but he held back, unsure of what exactly to say next.
     “So what is it?” Ashley asked, feeling her heart beat pick up, hoping for a few words that would solidify her hunch.  She wanted to hear confirmation of what she hoped all his sideways glances her way, when he thought she was preoccupied with other matters, hinted at.      
     “It’s going to be a while before we reach Theseus and I heard from Vega you’re a fan of deep conversations with bottles of a certain drink I may have in my possession.”
     Ashley put a hand over her reddening face.  “Oh god.  Did he really tell you about that?”
     Ericson smiled.  “It might have come up.  I promise not to leave you on the floor like that, though,” he joked.
     Ashley moved closer to her second in command and put a light hand on his shoulder with a smile.  “So if not that way, how were you planning to leave me on the floor?”
     Now Ericson’s cheeks reddened and he looked away.  “What I meant was, if you have time and were looking for just a friendly-“
     “Ericson, you bring the bottle and I’ll bring the glasses.”
     “Really?” he asked in surprise.
     “My cabin.  If my ass is getting laid out again it’s going to be on a comfortable bed.  I won’t be getting picked up off a cold floor again.  Thirty minutes, sound good?”
     The flying ace stood a little straighter.  His mood brightened and a sense of confidence returned.  “It sounds perfect, Ashley.”
* * * * 
     Captain Shepard stood at the feet of the out stretched forms of Major Kirrahe, Dianna Allers, and a few more salarians.  
        “These are the ones that will pull through,” Doctor Chakwas assured him.  Shepard nodded.
     Kirrahe’s entire torso was encased in a medical wrap that also included a right shoulder that now extended only to a stump halfway down what was left of the officer’s bicep.  The salarian rested fitfully.  Allers was similarly wrapped, but had managed to keep all of her limbs and was drifting in and out of consciousness.  The other salarians each had their own injuries that were not life threatening, but equally incapacitating.  Had they been in a proper medical facility, they would have been ready and preparing for the coming battle.  In the present circumstances, however, they would be consigned to handling logistics and communications between the teams being assembled to retake Sur’Kesh as they healed at a slower pace. 
     “These won’t be so lucky,” Chakwas whispered, motioning to a handful of Kirrahe’s other men in a separate section of the deserted salarian home the Normandy’s crew was presently camped out in.
     Shepard frowned seeing the toll of the washed out battle from days ago.  “It could’ve been worse,” he said, finding the silver lining.  “We still have a viable command force and, with the freed prisoners from that large concentration camp in Talat, a small army to command,” he thought out loud.  All he needed to do now was contact Joker and see if he, EDI, and Tinman’s team were ready.  Then it would take one quick call to the coalition fleet and the battle for Sur’Kesh would begin.

     “And now for you, Captain,” Chakwas said.

     “What?  I’m fine, doc.”
     “You always say so, don’t you, Shepard?  You were imprisoned for two days, most of which you say you were unconscious, and then tortured with an unknown device.  Given the differing levels of medical expertise in this conversation, I’m going to lean toward advice from the actual medical expert,” the doctor said.
     “And that would be . . .?” Shepard joked.
     The senior doctor shook her head and rolled her eyes as she raised her omni-tool arm and ran the diagnostic program.
     “The doctor’s concern is warranted, Shepard, but you may assure her that I have detected no ill effects to your body’s systems,” said a Prothean voice.
     “Good to know, Vendetta,” Shepard replied in thought before looking at the doctor and tapping at his head.  “My Prothean hitchhiker says I’m fine, too, doc.”

     “Does he now?  Is he the medical expert suddenly?” she questioned.

     “You may tell your Doctor Chakwas that I have stored the readings from when she last gave you a clean bill of health, as you say, and have compared that to what your current biological readings are and have found all to be within tolerance levels.”
     “Not that THAT isn’t good to know, but I don’t know if she’s going to take my word that I’m taking your word for that.  It’d be more helpful if you could tell her yourself.”
     “Which is not possible at this time.  However, that is a separate issue I would like to address with you, Captain,” the VI said.
     “It will have to wait for a minute, Vendetta.  Let Chakwas do her thing first.  It’ll be quicker than convincing her of your . . . qualifications,” the captain said, absently wondering about the program’s choice of wording in using ‘like.’
     “Understood.”
     Done with the voice in his head for the moment, Shepard opened his arms to the doctor.  “So, how am I, Doc?”
      “One moment, Captain,” she answered.  A short while and a healthy report later, Shepard headed for the hastily constructed communications room that Miranda, Liara, and Honwol were putting together.
     “Shepard,” Vendetta said.
     “Go ahead, Vendetta.”
     “The collector that questioned you . . . he was altered.”
     “To put it mildly.”
     “I believe he may hold a clue to technology sufficiently advanced enough to extract this consciousness from you’re body.”
     Shepard stopped in his tracks.  “I’m listening.”
     “For a collector to have survived the Crucible’s effects, every piece of Reaper technology would have been required to be removed.”
     “And something would have needed to take its place.”
     “Precisely.”
     “So some other tech as advanced as what the Reapers used?”
     “At least as advanced.  Or possibly live organs were reintroduced through an advanced science along another path.”
     “Okay, so this collector stumbled onto an advanced . . . what?  Some advanced science lab and then un-Reaperized himself?”
     “Data is not sufficient for a conclusive answer, but the indoctrinated would not make that decision on their own.”
     “So someone or something did this to him.”
     “I believe so.”
     “Any competent doctor can clone body parts or even an entire body.  That doesn’t really seem that impressive and doesn’t explain how to get you out of me.”
     “No on the surface, no, but consider this collector’s actions and words.  He is no longer indoctrinated.  He has his own mind again.  A mind he, in all likely hood, never actually had in the first place.”
     “An implanted consciousness?” Shepard questioned the Prothean intelligence.
     “It appears so.  One that was transferred from some other location, technical or biological would just be a matter of adapting a process for one type of electrical input versus another.”
     “So the point of all this theory is . . . that we have to track this guy down and get those answers.”
     “Yes.  You are surprisingly adept at forming conclusions, Shepard.”
     “Thanks,” Shepard said dryly.
     “For a human,” Vendetta added.
     Shepard ignored the comment and resumed his path to the communications setup where he found Miranda, Liara and Honwol, as expected, working to put the finishing touches on a radio that would allow a secure link to the Normandy, among other communications.  The Alliance ship’s systems would act as a signal relay, from that point, for the ground teams.
     “How’s it coming?” he asked.

     Miranda looked up with a smile, moving a fallen strand of hair from in front of her face.  Liara turned to him as well with a smile, though it did not hold the soft warmth as Miranda’s did.  The salarian agent of the Shadow Broker did not look up, continuing to work, unknowingly, next to his boss.

     “Just about ready, Shepard,” Liara confirmed.  “As soon as our new friend, Honwol here, finishes tying the power into the array, we can contact Joker.”
     “We would not have been delayed by this task if your shuttle had not been captured by the enemy, Captain Shepard,” Honwol said in a disapproving tone.
     “We couldn’t have known the yahg would be so . . . thorough in their retracing of our path after the battle,” Liara countered.                            
     “Indeed, they DO seem to be much more intelligent than anyone assumed,” Honwol conceded.  He then leaned in, whispering conspiratorially,”I have sometimes wondered if my employer was such a creature.  I’ve done research, read reports, a few history lessons, and the bits and pieces of information I’ve put together . . . just between you and me, I think the Shadow Broker is a yahg.  And even he may be a mere puppet under someone else’s direction.  A smart puppet in his own right, but still a puppet of a master with a much larger plan.”
     Liara’s expression masked the inner terror she felt at the agent’s resourcefulness.  She made a mental note to keep better tabs on his activities while she played the conversation out.  “Aren’t you taking a bit of a risk sharing that with us?” she asked.  “How do you know we aren’t agents of the Shadow Broker ourselves, willing to report you?  And what master would the Shadow Broker have?”
     Honwol studied her, Miranda, and Shepard with a serious face that held only a few seconds before he broke into laughter.  “Ha ha ha!  You have quite the wit, Doctor T’Soni.  While I have no doubt the Broker may contact you for information or to try to recruit you when refilling his ranks now that the Reapers are gone, I don’t believe you would join him.  As for Miss Lawson and Captain Shepard . . . the Shadow Broker would not want former Cerberus agents nor someone as high profile as the first human Spectre, as useful as he could be.”
     Liara feigned indignation.  “Why would I turn down someone has powerful as the Shadow Broker if he were to recruit me?”
     Honwol shook his head.  “Doctor T’Soni, while you no doubt have the intelligence he seeks, you are too kind a person to carry out the Broker’s . . . less reputable dealings.  I believe your conscience would be tangled with eternal conflict.”
     “Hmmm . . . I see your point, Honwol.  Thank you for the advice.”
     “Not a problem, Doctor,” he said, closing an electrical panel.  “As to who is directing the Broker’s actions . . . that is something I have run into a wall on.  Only reports of a strange ship in conjunction with very coincidentally timed actions of the Broker are all I have.  They have trailed off lately, but that would make sense with the Reapers, and now the yahg, bringing war,” the salarian said.  He flipped a switch on the rigged up communications equipment and it hummed to life.  “That should do it.  Now if you all will excuse me, I will test this out by checking in with said employer as I am overdue after helping with the escape of my fellow salarian prisoners.”
     “Of course,” Miranda said.  “Shepard, whenever you’re ready.”
     Shepard nodded as Honwol slid past him through the doorway to go place his call in private.  Once he was out of earshot, the marine waved Liara over to him.  “And how exactly does that work out?” he asked, throwing his head in Honwol’s direction.
     “Glyph takes my calls when I am not around.  He has very good improvisational programming if needed, but many of the contacts the agents make are handled through automation already.  Though I probably should send a command to Glyph for the next time Honwol contacts the Broker when I am around to give the illusion that he is speaking live to the Broker when I am within his sight.  He is dangerously intelligent, but arrogantly confident.  He could cause trouble in more ways than one with those traits.”
     “Just don’t get yourself in trouble, Liara,” the captain said.
     “Thanks for caring, Shepard.”
     “Would I ever not?” he asked.
     Liara smiled up at him.  “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.”
     Shepard smiled back and then held up a finger to his communicator.  “Joker.  It’s Shepard.  You there?”
     “Goddamn it’s good to hear your voice, sir!  We were getting a little worried when we tracked the shuttle’s signal to the center of Talat.  Tried to reach you on the secure channel relayed through it, but that went dead pretty quick.  We couldn’t get through the yahg jamming after that.  I take it things didn’t go as planned?”
     “You know me too well, Joker.”
     “That I do, Captain.  What’s the situation down there?”
     “After a few surprises and delays, the mission is still a go.  We lost a few people, but we can manage with who we have.”
     There was a moment of silence and then Shepard heard a bit of commotion of the link.  “. . . said I’ll ask him.  Hey!  Don’t make me sick EDI on you!”
     “Traynor?” Shepard asked.
     “No, it was Tinman,” Joker shot back sarcastically.  “He’s asking why you let his best friend get captured.  He’s really tight with that Kodiak.”
     “Ha ha,” Shepard deadpanned.
     “Yeah.  Traynor.  She’s been foaming at the mouth ever since she found out Allers was gone . . . she’s not, um-“
     “No.  She’s alive, but not for lack of trying.  It’s a damned good thing I brought Chakwas down with us, otherwise the news wouldn’t have been good.  Yahg opened her up across the chest.  Broken ribs, punctured lung.  Good thing she’s got two.  Missed the heart by millimeters.  And Traynor doesn’t need to know that right now.  Only that Allers is fine.”
     “Shit!  I mean: understood. . . no, she’s fine, Traynor.  Bumps and bruises.  Salarians took the worst of it,” Joker told the communication specialist, not even checking to verify that.  “Is that about it, Captain?” he asked, coming back to the conversation.
     “Yeah, and good guess.  Kirrahe lost an arm but is alive, a handful of his men dead or soon will be and a couple others injured but able to do light work.  You guys ready on your end?”
     “You bet.  Just give us the targets and when the fleet jumps in, these bastards won’t know what hit them.”
     “Copy that.  Wait for my word.  It should be within the day.  We need to organize our new army down here and then we’ll be ready for our three prong attack.”
     “Roger, Captain.  Normandy out.”
     Shepard ended the link and found Miranda watching him and waiting.  “Well?” she asked.  “Everything still good up there?”
     He nodded.  “Sounds like it.”
     “So they’re just waiting for us to do our part down here, huh?”
     “Same as always,” Shepard said with a smile.  “So let’s go get it done, Miss Lawson.”
     “Right behind you, Captain Shepard.”
* * * * 
     “. . . and so this collector is in control of the yahg?” Anderson asked Caretaker.
     “That is correct, Admiral.  This unit . . . I was deceived even though I had my suspicions.  Given my programming, my mission, and the damage dealt to me by the Rialusan herald, there was little I could do.”
     “Understood.  Now that we’ve repaired your communications array, where do we go from here?”
     “I thank you for that assistance, Admiral.  In return, as promised, you will be given those communication designs.  This technology, once implemented, will allow you to contact your allies and arrange for pick up.”
     “Any other help you can provide?” Jacob asked Caretaker, staring down the yellow hologram still bearing Shepard’s likeness.
     The hologram shook its head.  “You are asking about further technological advances.  At the present, I cannot, but-“
     “But?” Nahlyon interjected.
     “-but I am still uploading my logs to my counter-parts in the other galaxies and receiving theirs.  I wish to confirm the Rialusans’ defeat in all known locations before moving forward.”
     “Other galaxies?” Sooltir questioned.  “We never considered that the Reapers were in other galaxies . . . I guess we didn’t have the time to worry about that.”
     “Indeed,” Caretaker said.  “The Prothean empire, as widespread as it was, only dominated this galaxy, one of many.  The current cycle’s rules for leaving deactivated mass relays alone, similarly, has left you isolated from many other species who have suffered at the hands of the Rialusans as you have.  What’s more, had you merely defeated the threat on this front with conventional means in this galaxy, it would have bought you little reprieve.  As the other species in the other galaxies fell, those dormant relays would have been activated and the Rialusan forces in those galaxies would have been diverted here.  Maintaining control of the structure you call the Citadel was a key advantage and prevented an even larger immediate force from invading as this galaxy was deemed the highest of threats.”
     “And rightfully so, it would seem,” Kahlee Sanders mused.
     “Yes, so it would appear . . . communication complete.  All galaxies accounted for.”
     The team held a collective breath.
     “No Rialusans- no Reapers- remain alive.  In every galaxy they have been destroyed, though the losses in many of those galaxies were much higher than in this one.  While the death count was extremely high, the species that survived will all return to sustainable population growth, largely due to the actions of one human.”
     “Shepard,” Anderson stated without question.
     Caretaker nodded.  “The other galaxies had no such force to rally them and no help from previous cycle species as this galaxy has received from the Protheans, the Inusannon, and others.”  Caretaker paused, its countenance hardening in sorrow.  “There are far fewer species in existence in the other galaxies, now.”
     There was another moment of silence as everyone thought of those they knew that had been taken by the Reapers.
     “So what does this confirmation mean?” Brynn Cole asked. 
     “It means that my primary mission has been completed.  Secondary missions have been activated.”
     “Secondary missions?” Anderson asked.  “What secondary missions?”
     “Your original human ship that detected my signal twenty years ago noted many large objects that then retreated.  This was due to the sabotage of the Rialusan herald.”
     “Yes, I was wondering what those were, where they went,” Kasumi said, her interest evident in her voice.
     “Station Slenthix is part of a group of stations with one defensive ship capable of escorting the stations through what you might call . . . extreme FTL.  It was merely the outlier of the stations that you reached.  One of many duplicate facilities that house what the Rialusans believed they had themselves sought to save in a less than ideal fashion.”
     “All of the lost civilizations that the Reapers destroyed?” Nahlyon asked.  “You have them?”
     “We do not have them all.  But we have a great many.  Every species is unique, worth preserving.”
     “And your plan for them is what, exactly?” Anderson wanted to know.
     Caretaker was silent a moment.  “That is under debate.  My fellow caretaker programs are unsure, as am I, as to the answer of that question. We will consult our creators, if possible.  They have been slow to react for a very long time.  We caretaker units have even wondered if we are merely communicating with an even more advanced AI left behind to answer us.  Whatever the case, what we have decided on, until the creators answer our message, is that they cannot be returned to their original home worlds in their original systems.”
     “Why not?” Kasumi asked.
     “If for no other reason than many of their planets are no longer capable of supporting life.  Some have been destroyed.  Others are now home worlds or colonies to this cycle’s species.  Displacing them in exchange for the species that once owned those worlds would be no different than what the Rialusans have done to these species.  We have decided that we shall take them to a safe location that cannot be found until such time as we or the creators have found an appropriate solution.”
     “And what of your stations themselves or the ships docked here?” Kahlee asked.
     Caretaker turned to her and said,”The stations are ours and cannot be left to be exploited by any species.  The ships do not belong to us so it has been deemed within guidelines to leave them to you, but without our aid in understanding.”
     “So that other ship out there isn’t your defensive ship?” Anderson asked.
     “No, it is far too inferior to be of any use in that regard,” Caretaker answered.
     “That’s all well and good,” Jacob started,”but your station, your technology has already been exploited by this collector controlling the yahg.  What are we supposed to do about that?”
     “You are already doing something about that Jacob Taylor, however, the distinct advantages the Rialusan herald gained have been noted and concessions have been deemed within post-Rialusan guidelines.”
     “What concessions?”
     “We cannot give you technology which you are unable to fully comprehend or safely use, but given your current research areas, our predictive algorithms prove you will reach certain conclusions inevitably. Those conclusions we can help you reach on a much shorter timetable if only to offset what the herald has gained access to.  We have already traded our rudimentary communications designs in exchange for your help in repairing our communication link.  We have, in fact, used that to activate our other physical units which are modifying your shuttle’s communication systems with this upgrade as we speak.  There are only two other areas we can provide aid in.”
     “What areas of research are we talking about?” Sooltir asked, the scientist in her demanding the question be asked.
     “Master Sooltir Gelten, you will be most pleased.  Your particular research, that which the Inusannon also wished to gain aid in but were denied during their failing cycle, is one.”
     “Your civilizations often reference it, primitively, as singularity transit.”
     “Say what?” Jacob asked.
     “I believe the simplistic notion your people use is-“
     “Wormholes,” Brynn spouted excitedly.
     Sooltir nodded.
     Caretaker continued.  “You will find that the Inusannon vessel has much information to aid you with that, so the remaining locks we retained on that craft, as well as on the other, have been lifted.  In addition, you will find a single equation now solved that had been left unfinished in their files.  You will have to connect the two sets of data, yours and theirs, but it should take you little time to do that, where as the equation itself would have taken you a few decades.  Given the advantages of the herald, the one you know of as a collector, this will prove to be a military advantage once solved.”
     “And the other,” Anderson asked, feeling the time dragging, imaging the battle with the yahg on Sur’Kesh wearing on without them.
     “Your phenomenon, Captain Shepard, holds a second consciousness within his mind.”
     “He does,” Sooltir confirmed.  “The VI created by Master Paskek Vran.”
     “You already know that it is not a simple VI, Master Gelten,” Caretaker said.
     “I had my suspicions that it was a full AI.”
     “It is even more than that.  It is a hybrid artificial intelligence and actual consciousness.  Your Master Vran merged his own mind with his adaptive artificial intelligence.  We will provide the means of extracting that hybrid consciousness from the captain and your allied geth will doubtlessly be able to provide an artificial body to which it can be transferred until such time as resources can be pooled to grow a new physical body for him, should he desire it.  It will also help the ones you call the virtual aliens, as my records indicate an impasse in those developments.”
     “Something like that . . . if they’re still safe,” the admiral tacked on.
     “My indications are that their ship is still functional.  It was well hidden by your Council.  They are a very clever species we were unable to act to preserve, ourselves, as they were a species whose end was one of this cycle’s that was not brought about by Rialusan activity.”
     “The what?” Jacob asked.
     “Long story,” Anderson said.  “Classified by the Council.”
     “Amazing,” an astonished Sooltir whispered.
     “Yes, and with that, I must say goodbye.”
     “Goodbye?” Kahlee asked.
     “Yes.  I can offer nothing else, and my newly restored communication capability has brought reports showing your team is needed elsewhere.  Things have not gone as your coalition planned and your attention must turn to that.  For my part, I must now fully activate Station Slenthix and the rest of my facilities to carry out the secondary missions I am charged with.”
     Caretaker turned once more to Admiral Anderson and his yellow image changed into a much taller form, an alien that he and his team marveled at.  It’s body and face imparted the sense of a species both dominate and compassionate, at ease under any circumstance, be it the pursuit of knowledge or engaged in war.  “I leave you with a warning, Admiral David Anderson: there are many species that claim to be the first and are powerful in their own right, but any claim to being the best among all is as arrogant, deceitful, and blind as they are impressive.  Those that seek to instill a belief that they are to be treated as your gods, are less than you.  Those that seek to rule through might shall fall to it.  Even my creators, old as they are, mighty as they might be, do not know all, do not claim first-born, do not strike unless stricken, and know that many layers of the universe are yet unexplored by our kind.  Do not search for us.  We do not wish to be found.  We may come to you some day, when you are ready, should you survive until that day.”
     “What do your predictive algorithms say about that?”
     “They . . . are inconclusive.  I . . . am hopeful.”
     Caretaker vanished in a flash and the team found themselves back aboard their shuttle.
     Anderson took in the situation with an instant,”How in the hell?”
     “Incredible,” Brynn said in a muted voice.
     “Status?” David requested.
     Kahlee sat down at the controls and accessed the ship’s sensors.  “The shuttle is at one hundred percent, but. . . David . . .,” she whispered.
     He came closer to her.  “What is it, Kahlee?”
     “The signal is gone,” she answered and then ran another scan as a thought occurred to her.  “Check that: the entire station is gone.”
     “Just like that,” he stated, less than shocked.
     “Looks like.”
     “And the Inusannon and other alien ship?”
     “Still there.  Just sitting.”
     “Okay, we’ll get to those as soon as we can.  First, let’s see if Caretaker’s comm system works.  Cole, get a hold of Admiral Hackett.”
     “On it,” Brynn said from the co-pilot seat.  Her face contorted in frustration after only a few seconds.  “I think- I think we’re being jammed,” she finally said.
     “What?” Anderson asked.  “Damn it!  Pull up long range sensors!  Is that ship back?”
     “Negative, Admiral.  It looks like inbound messages to Earth are being blocked.  Not sure how this system works, but I can see ships, stations, and even ground bases in nearly every other system . . . I guess where we still have them.  Nothing out of the Sol system, though.”
     “‘Not according to plan’ barely covers it,” Anderson commented on Caretaker’s previous remark.  “Tell me, can you see the Normandy?”
     “Checking.  Yes, sir.”
     “Hail them.”
     “Connecting.”
     
* * * * 
     “Joker.”
     “Go ahead, Captain.”
     “We’re in position down here.  What about you?”
     “Targets are locked.  Waiting on your signal.”
     “Then go.  Now.  And as soon as the relay is clear, send the signal to the fleet.  Can’t afford to tip our hand, so hopefully the fleet has been holding through all our delays.”
     “No shit, Captain.  Tinman and crew are on their way.  You’ve got three minutes and counting.”
     “Copy that.”
     “You guys are clear, right?  I don’t want any of those clouds kicking up in a few minutes to be one of your teams.”
     “We’re good, Joker.  Moving out in ninety seconds.”
     “Roger that.”
* * * * 
     
     “Shepard out.”
     Shepard silenced his radio contact with the Normandy and looked at the virtual watch on his omni-tool.  The seconds ticked by at a painfully slow pace and the Spectre found himself holding his breath.  A minute and half later, he signaled his team to move forward.  They swept out in a spread formation from their hidden position at the edge of a tree line only a short sprint away from the perimeter of a minor shipyard.  The area was dominated by small cruisers, frigates and fighter craft from the yahg fleet, but the base’s contingent of salarian ships still sat off to one side.
     “James: Rocket launcher on those fueling tanks!” Shepard ordered, pointing out a central station surrounded by a contingent of the larger ships.  “Javik: Grenade on that squad!  The rest of you, pick your targets and let’s take this air field!  And remember: keep the salarian ships safe!”  Jack, Vega, Liara, Wrex, and Miranda followed Shepard as he initiated the attack.  An incinerating blast, launched from his omni-tool, seared into the face of a yahg battalion leader just turning to see what had tripped the proximity alarms.  The alien warrior fell to his knees with an anguished wail, clawing at the flames melting the flesh off his face.  His soldiers scattered, some diving for cover, some running headlong into a hail of gunfire.  The others returned fire in an uncoordinated attack.
     “Just like the files say: pack mentality,” Shepard realized.  “And every pack needs an alpha wolf,” he thought.  He switched on the secured link to his team.  “Take out their commanders first!”  The Normandy crew acknowledged the directive and the yahg forces were soon a sad, chaotic mess of unchecked defenders.  
     Shepard ducked behind a power generator and connected to the other team leaders who were conducting simultaneous attacks on other such facilities across Sur’Kesh.  “Get ready for it,” he broadcast.  They replied in the affirmative and Shepard switched to Joker’s channel.  “Status?”
     
* * * * 
     “Got ’em just where we want ’em, Captain,” Joker replied, a delighted grin on his face.  His hand flew rapidly from control to control, panel to panel, at the Normandy’s helm, piloting the warship around yahg ships and firing bursts of energy that exploded at calculated distances to overwhelm the enemies’ sensors.  “Tinman.  Confirm.”
     “Confirmed, Joker.  Ordinance has remained undetected.  Impact in three seconds.  Targets cannot counter.  Suggest pulling back to safe distance,” the geth prime responded.
     “Acknowledged.  You get that, Shepard?”
     “Copy that, Joker.”
     The Normandy broke off the attack and as the blinding barrage cleared, it was instantly replaced by a massive field of asteroids guided by a sphere shaped eezo field formed by three rocket propelled generators.  Guarding this collection of devices was Tinman.  His geth compatriots directed separate swarms towards the larger targets on Sur’Kesh.  
     Tinman joined the Normandy in retreating to a safe distance as the generators switched off, unleashing a hurtling wall of rock that smashed into an unprepared yahg fleet of capital ships.  The salvo, extracted by the geth’s quick work in the Pranas system’s asteroid belt, bombarded the yahg armada, ripping the dangerous ships apart in a multi-explosion display that lit up the star speckled blackness of space around the system’s mass relay.  
     “And now just to make sure,” Joker commented, firing a wave of Javelin missiles into the fray.  The Normandy’s last battering of munitions finished the job.  The final asteroids were reduced to nothing more than dust upon impact with the enemy.  Dying yahg ships became nothing more than jagged and twisted fragments of metal, twirling and colliding in the silent vacuum of the universe.  Joker radioed to Shepard back on Sur’Kesh.  “Target’s destroyed, Captain.  The relay is clear of the enemy!”
     “Nice work.  It did a hell of a lot down here, too.  I can see those clouds of destruction you were mentioning for miles.  Send the signal to the fleet, Joker.  And make it quick!  We need to nail what’s left of their fleet before they can get the remaining heavies off the ground to come after us.”
     “On it,” the pilot assured his commanding officer.  He turned and nodded to EDI who did the same before engaging the QEC comm system.
     “Normandy to Coalition fleet, this is Joker-“
     “Jeff!” EDI cut him off abruptly.
     “EDI, we need to contact-“
     “We can’t.”
     “What?” Joker cried.
     “The signal to the Sol system is being blocked!”
   
* * * * 
     Shepard listened to the exchange between Joker and EDI play out, still linked in over his direct channel to the Normandy.  A sick feeling grew heavy in the pit of his stomach and his head dropped to his chest.
     “Son of bitch!”

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 14

Chapter 14

     Captain Mark Mastoon sat in his desk chair, gritting his teeth against the pain in his shattered leg.  “Damn Alliance bitch,” he cursed as he looked down at the makeshift splint that the Cerberus leader had whipped together.  “Need to find a doctor on my next trip back to Omega,” he told himself.
     “Mastoon, the ship is destroyed?” asked a dark face with yellow eyes.  The inquiry came from the captain’s private terminal in his quarters aboard the Retribution, an exact duplicate of the Normandy SR-2 frigate.  Mastoon had spent a considerable amount of the funds he had stolen from Cerberus, after escaping during his failed coup, to build it.  Now the Retribution was the flagship for the terrorist organization he had assumed control of after the death of the Illusive Man at Shepard’s hands.  The group had been devastated by the Alliance attack months ago, and with its leader gone, it had been an easy void to fill for the opportunistic Mastoon.  However, with Cerberus funds and resources wrecked, he knew he would have to use the alien races.  He would play one off of the other to weaken them all while humanity, and Cerberus, rebuilt.

     One such alien stared up at him from his terminal’s screen, questioning the captain from an unknown location, hiding in safety while it directed a wide spread military campaign.  
     “Yes, the Kilkenny is no more.  But I still don’t understand what was so important about one random ship orbiting a gas giant.”
     “I do not need to explain my reasons to you, human.  You attack the targets I desire and I provide you with the advanced technology you desire.”
     “I know the deal, collector.  Now tell me where to pick up the next package.”
     “Also, there has been a setback in the Arghos Rho sector that needs your attention.  I will send you the details.”
     “I’ll check it out as soon as I get the location for the next package,” Mastoon said, irritated with the creature.
     “Transmitting data location and the Arghos Rho information now.”
     “These are the medical advances I asked for?”
     “It is.  Do you suddenly doubt me, Mastoon?” the guiding hand of the yahg asked.
     “Nothing sudden about it.  I don’t trust any alien.”
     “So you keep saying, but here you and I are.”
     “Mastoon out,” the Retribution’s captain stated, mashing the communicator’s off button to cut short the conversation.
     Mastoon stood carefully and limped to the elevator, taking it down to the command level where he was approached by his subordinate, Shanklin.  The younger man handed a report to the captain.  Mastoon read over it and a small smile cracked through the pained grimace of his face.
     “Shouldn’t we report that to the collector?” Shanklin asked.
     “Why in the hell would we do that?  He gave us specific orders and we followed them.  This . . . this we’ll keep an eye on and see what comes of it.”
     “Understood, sir,” the man said.
     Mastoon entered new information into the data pad and handed it back.  “We’ll go pick this up and then head to Arghos Rho.  Let’s get moving.”
* * * * 
     
     “Sir?”
     A hand gently nudged his shoulder.  A thick hazy fog blurred his vision as he blinked heavy eye lids.  The old officer lifted his head up from his desk, the interactive surface still displaying positions of yahg forces across the static image of the ubiquitous galaxy map that was standard on every space faring ship.
     “What . . . what is it, Serviceman?”
     There was a pause as Taggart looked down at the report in her hands.  The hesitation in the reliably confident young woman was worrisome to the Alliance leader as his eyes focused on her.  “It’s the Kilkenny . . . Admiral, she’s gone.”
     Hackett sat up, a pounding headache throbbing in his skull.  “What?”
     “Report from one of the Rachni.  The last communication from their . . . person on the cruiser says ‘our brother sang his last song.  The choir of the Kilkenny has been silenced.  It cries silent in our ears, warning of unexpected betrayal’. The transmission ends there.”
     “What about the Kilkenny’s TRB?  What did that data tell us?”
     Taggart eyed the admiral with a concerned expression.  “Sir, without the mass relays, we have no real-time feedback on any ship not equipped with a QEC.  The Termination Report Burst would have no way of reaching us in our lifetime.”
     Hackett shook his head.  “Of course.  You’re right, Natalie.  Just shaking off the sleep.”  He took in his desk with a sweep of his arm.  “Up too late burning the midnight oil, again.”
     “Of course, Admiral,” the young woman said, unconvinced.
     “Dismissed, Taggart.”
     The communication specialist did not leave.
     “Oh for love of . . . there’s more bad news, isn’t there?”
     “Page two, Admiral.”
     Hackett scanned the report from Sur’Kesh that Lieutenant Vega had sent back.  “Fucking hell.  Shepard MIA . . . Kirrahe critically wounded . . .  Allers . . . three more salarians.  Jesus.  Anything else?” he asked looking up pleadingly.
     “No, Admiral Hackett,” Taggart answered quietly, as disheartened by the news as her superior was.
     “Then return to your post, officer . . . and let me know the second you hear anything else out of Sur’Kesh.  Our campaign hinges on taking that planet.”
     “Sir,” Natalie said, then turned and left quietly.
     Hackett looked down to his right and saw the broken shards of glass from the bottle he had dropped after finishing it before passing out at some point in the early morning hours.  He grimaced at the hangover still racking his brain and pulled out his pills as he looked once more to the somber report.  He slammed his fist on the desk.
     “Damn it, David!”
* * * * 
     Jeluna S’Fara sat in a sparse room aboard the Destiny Ascension monitoring communications throughout the coalition fleet gathered around Earth.  The reports were beginning to trickle in and the news those reports brought was sowing doubt and unrest among the fleet captains and too many of the admirals for the Spectre’s comfort.  Shepard had been captured on Sur’Kesh, Admiral Anderson’s cruiser destroyed by an unknown attacker and Jeluna’s own sources told her of Admiral Hackett’s increasing seclusion.  The asari had followed a paper trail of receipts through aliases and third parties moving shipments of addictive pain killers and strong alcoholic beverages that all ended up aboard the admiral’s flagship.
     “Not good,” S’Fara thought to herself.
     Blue lights came alive along the walls of the Destiny Ascension, the typical signal that the dreadnought was about to go through a mass relay.  With only one relay known to be working, it was now assumed as the sign that the mass amplifier was about to be engaged to serve the same function.
     “That is definitely not good,” Jeluna said aloud.  She could already guess what was happening as her fleet tracking software showed all modified asari warships going blue as well.  The Spectre quickly forwarded the report with a brief message to Admiral Hackett, the Normandy AI, EDI, and the only human Spectre she knew was still alive, on board the Eden Prime. 
     “Goddess, I hope Ashley gets this.  Everything may come to rest on her shoulders the way things stand now.”
     The Destiny Ascension headed at full speed towards the Charon relay.
* * * * 
     James waved back the salarian coming up behind him. 
     “Are you sure this plan will work, Lieutenant Vega?” Honwol asked.
     “Keep quiet,” James whispered.  “Yahg,” he added, pointing around the corner of the building.  The salarian nodded in understanding and lowered his gun to one side and pulled a glowing knife from a hidden pocket of his armor.  He tapped a button on his wrist and suddenly vanished.
     “Just give me a moment, Lieutenant,” the salarian requested in a hushed voice.
     The marine held his assault rifle at the ready, his body leaning up against the outer wall of a building on the edge of the salarian capital city of Talat.  A pair of yahg walked down an alley between that building and the next one over, on an apparent patrol.  Their path was about to bring them right past Vega and the surviving members of the team sent to spearhead Sur’Kesh’s retaking who had not been left behind with Chakwas tending to their wounds.  Behind the cloaked Honwol waited Jack, Miranda, Wrex, Javik and Liara, followed by another Sur’Kesh native.
     Vega held up an empty hand, signaling the Shadow Broker’s cloaked operative to wait.  The yahg came closer with the harsh, choppy inflections of their native language echoing between the buildings.  Suddenly, they both stopped in mid-sentence, their heads swiveling, their noses in the air.
     “Shit!” Vega hissed.  He dropped his arm forward and felt a breeze on his face as the invisible salarian rushed around the corner.  Vega watched for a sign, some way of tracking his comrade, but the cloak was complete.  The first yahg was caught only somewhat by surprise, lifting an arm up to try and block the incoming attack.  He was too slow.  The tip of the salarian’s blade was just long enough to reach past the defending arm and reach the monster’s throat.  Dark colored blood leaked downwards and the yahg grabbed at the open wound.     
     The other yahg, recovered from the surprise of the assault, grabbed Honwol without hesitation and flung the small alien through the air.
     “Damn!” Vega yelled, rushing into the alley.  “They can see us cloaked!”  He managed to barely make it, throwing his body in the path of where he thought the salarian was flailing helplessly towards a deadly crash with the sharp end of an exposed and broken piece of conduit from a demolished building nearby. “Liara!  Stop these bastards!” Vega shouted a breath before an unseen body slammed into him.
     “On it!” she replied.  A biotic glow sprang into place, encompassing the two yahg in an inescapable stasis field.  Wrex walked up to them, picked up the salarian’s dropped knife and plunged it deep into their throats and then dragged it downwards until he was sure he had hit something vital.
     “Really?” Vega asked, climbing to his feet and helping the now uncloaked salarian up as well.
     “Hey, do you know where their heart is?  I don’t.  Didn’t take the time to study them during the fighting on Mars.” 
     “Alright, alright,” he conceded.  “Let’s keep moving.  We need to find out where Shepard is being held and break him out.  No telling what they’ve done with him for the last couple days.”
     “The way they broke off the attack after they . . . after they took him,” Miranda said, choking up,”he was clearly their true target.  There must be a reason.”
     Liara put a hand on Miranda’s back.  “He’ll be okay, Miranda.  They probably intended to question him for our battle plans.  But you know the Captain.  He won’t give in.”
     “That’s what worries me.  If you’re useless, they don’t need to keep you around.”
     “We shall rescue Shepard, Miranda Lawson,” Javik assured her.
     “Damn straight,” Vega said.
     “And my enslaved people,” the recovering Honwol reminded the lieutenant, the now ranking Alliance soldier leading the team in Shepard’s absence.
     “Yeah yeah, I know the plan.  I came up with it, remember?”
     “Of course, Lieutenant.  I will lead you to the concentration camp that I scouted out yesterday.  These yahg were part of the garrison at that location.  This chance encounter will improve our odds of success.”
     “Yeah, since it just taught us we don’t have cloaking on our side anymore.”
     “Those eight eyes had to be good for seeing something,” Jack said, joining the conversation.
     “These yahg are most impressive predators,” Javik added.”
     “Impressive or not, that would have been bad to find out at the camp,” James replied.  He patted the salarian on his shoulder.  “Lead the way, Frisbee.”
     Honwol gave Vega an inquisitive look and said,”Frisbee?” 
          
* * * * 
     Ashley stood on the CIC deck of the SSV Eden Prime, waiting to reach the next shut down relay to continue their path to Omega Station to dislodge Cerberus from their new headquarters.  The light on the terminal near the galaxy map began to blink, indicating a new message.  She walked over and pulled up her messages.  There was one from the Spectre Jeluna S’Fara.  Ashley began to read the short comment accompanying the asari fleet movement report.  Before she could get a sick feeling in her stomach over what conclusion her brain was fighting to show to, another message came in from the Turian Spectre Danlar Cidran.  Then there was a third message from Jondum.  Then another.  And another.
     “All the Spectres . . . ” she said.  They were all reporting the same thing from each of the non-human fleets.  “Son of a . . .”
* * * * 
     “. . . bitch!” Hackett finished his thought after reading the Spectre reports coming in from Ashley.  From his ship’s position, orbiting above Earth, Admiral Hackett could see from his window the tiny reflections of light disappear one by one.  “And I thought losing a Spectre and an Admiral was a bad day . . .”
     
* * * *

     Kahlee steered the Kodiak through the silent wreckage of the Kilkenny.  The shuttle sensors scanned for signs of life, but every passing second brought all on board closer to accepting reality.
     “Anything?” Anderson asked earnestly. 
     Kahlee shook her head.
     “God damn it!  Where the hell did they come from?  How did they know we were even here?”
     “I’d like to know when Cerberus built a second Normandy,” Kasumi said.  “Would have been helpful against the collectors and Reapers.”
     “You ever hear about it while you were with them?” Coats asked Jacob.
     Jacob shook his head.  “No.”
     “What about this guy, Mastoon?  Ever run into him when you were part of that group?” Brynn asked.
     “Heard of him?  Yeah.  Never met him, though.  He was gone before I joined up.  They said he was just the latest in a line of overly ambitious fools.  Thought he had outsmarted the Illusive Man and attempted a coup.  He managed to survive the resulting battle, but ended up retreating into the Terminus System and was never heard from again.  Guess we assumed he’d learned his lesson.”
     “Well I’d guess that he maintained some sort of contact within the organization,” Anderson said.  “Someone must have fed him the designs for the SR-2.”
     “Agreed,” Jacob said.
     “This is all interesting,” Nahlyon began,”but it does not help our situation.  We now have only this shuttle which does not have the mass amplifier we need to return to your Earth.”
     “That’s another thing,” Coats said.  “How did this second Normandy get out here at all?  The only ships that have one of those were either retrofitted by our coalition . . . or created by the yahg.”
     “Think this Mastoon might have made a deal with them?” Anderson asked.
     Coats shrugged.  “How else can you explain it?”
     “True,” Anderson said.  “But Nahlyon is right.  We’re stranded unless we figure something out.  Without our Rachni ally on the Kilkenny, we’ve got no way to send out a distress call that will be heard in a thousand years.”

     “What about Feros?  It’s close by,” Jacob suggested.
     “But they would have the same problems.  No real-time communications with the fleet and no mass amps,” Kahlee countered.
     “We could search the ships at Slenthix,” Brynn offered.  “They might have advanced communication systems that could reach back to Admiral Hackett.”
        “Good thinking, Cole,” Anderson acknowledged.  He took a long last look at the wreckage.  “May they rest in peace . . . take us back to the station, Kahlee.  Let’s see if we can send for help.”
        Back on the station, Caretaker greeted the crew at the entrance to the docks.  “You have my condolences, Admiral David Anderson.  The loss of one’s crew and ship is never easy on those left behind, especially on their leader.  It is something I have been witness to on many occasions.  Only the truly worthless are unaffected.  What’s more, my assessment of your situation is very dire. You are stranded on an alien station, hidden to any passing ship and with no sustenance or communications.  The nearby planet of Feros could provide food, but little else.”
     “I don’t suppose there’s any help you can offer us with any of that, is there?” David asked.
     The yellow human-shaped interface paused.  “Considering possibilities,” Caretaker said. “Options exist given available physical presence and materials.”
     “What possibilities are those?” Sooltir asked.
     “Communication, for one.  My systems require repair to components damaged when the last visitor to Station Slenthix attacked upon being locked out of our systems.  While destroying many large structures nearby that were redundant, the truly detrimental loss was to  components of my main communication relay.  Repair to these components would be mutually beneficial.”
     “In what way?” Kahlee asked.
     “I have been out of contact with . . . others for twenty years.  Since your arrival, having accessed data available through your ships, I have learned new information that significantly affects my original purpose.”
     Jacob walked over, crossing his arms.  “Which is?”
     “Monitoring Rialusan activity and providing assistance to their enemies, when possible, without allowing the technology of our station or our ship to be discovered.  Had they captured our stations, our ships, our scientific knowledge, the balance of power in this universe would have been drastically altered in their favor.”
     “In their favor?” Nahlyon exclaimed.  “They’ve destroyed countless species and dominated for millions and millions of years!  How is the ‘balance of power’ not already in the Reapers’ favor?”
     “And who is this ‘we’ you keep referring to?” Brynn asked.
     “I refer to those my people left behind.  I was not the only caretaker left to watch after the evolution of this tiny section of the universe, though I am one of the few left.  The Rialusan were relentless in pursuit of my people, but they are not nearly as advanced as they like to believe.  However, they did adapt to our safety measures, causing us to enact our failsafe policies, a few of which you have seen the results.”
     “The destroyed planets?” Sooltir asked.
     Caretaker nodded.  “Yes.  My fellow AIs were close to being captured and that is unacceptable.  Keeping our people out of danger is our prime concern.  Self destruction is preferable to giving the Rialusan any further advantages or information of our species.”
     “What species created you?” Anderson asked.  “What happened to them?”
     “Further questions of my creators may not be answered at this time.  Please consider repairing my long range communications array as destruction of the Rialusans may result in more available information.”
     Anderson was getting tired of running in what he knew was going to be a circular conversation at this point.  The AI was not going to answer anything useful until its requested repairs were made.  “So what do we need to fix, where is it, and what materials will we need?”
     “I will transfer the information to your omni-tool devices.  You will find the components, locations, and needed parts in the data.  I will know when you have completed the task.  I thank you in advance for your help in this matter, Admiral.  You will find that this action will further your goals as well.  To repair this technology it has been deemed appropriate and safe to transfer knowledge of our communications systems.”
     “I guess that’s something.  What about repairing your physical body?”
     “Further action on that will depend on information gathered after restoration of full communications.”
     Anderson motioned to his crew as he walked away from the yellow Shepard.  “I think I prefer the ones I can shoot,” he thought.  His human and Prothean team gathered around him, awaiting instructions.  “Alright, people, check your omni-tools.
     Anderson brought up his omni-tool display and looked at the needed items.  “Okay, some of this we can pull from the shuttle, but the rest we’ll need to pull from what’s on hand here.  We’ll split into three teams.  Team 1 will go to that mother ship out there.  Team 2 will take the Inusannon ship.  Team 3 will search the station itself.  Keep your eyes open for what we need and anything else we can easily scan or maybe take with us.  We don’t have time to spare covering every square inch while the yahg are tearing us to pieces.  Once we get back to the fleet, we’ll send a research team out to do things properly and we’ll gain untold advances, from the looks of it.  But those will only come if we can make it back to Earth, so that’s the priority.  Let’s go.”
* * * * 
     “Captain Shepard.”
     Shepard’s eyes opened to the sound of his voice.  He felt his bare body lying on a cold metal table.
     “Well this is familiar,” he thought, remembering waking up similarly aboard a Cerberus station with a beautiful brunette looking down on him in brief moments of consciousness after two years of lifeless dark.  He remembered a cold table, but a warm smile, a smile he desperately wished he was seeing right now.  He tried to sit up, but biting metal clamps at his neck, wrists, and ankles stopped him.
     “Prepare yourself, Shepard.  He is coming back.”
     “Who’s coming back, Vendetta?” the captured Spectre asked.
     “The true enemy.  Further study to determine the exact nature of the individual is required.”
     The captain picked up on the implication.  “It’s not the yahg?”
     He was answered only with,”He comes,” and then Vendetta was silent.
     Shepard used his peripheral vision as best he could to take in his surroundings.  The room was small, dark, and had a single small window high in the wall, almost near the ceiling.  A rising sun’s light was just starting to slip over the bottom edge of the window frame.  He could not see the door into the room which stood in the wall at the head of his tabletop prison.
     The door hissed open and Shepard strained to see the newcomer.
     “The great Commander Shepard,” said a voice with an alien tone that Shepard recognized immediately.
     “It’s Captain, now, actually.  I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of making your acquaintance.”
     A small cold object touched Shepard’s head and sharp jolts of electricity blasted through his body.  “There is no pleasure to be had, Captain,” his attacker stated flatly.
     Shepard clenched his fists and his jaw, holding in the cry begging to come out.  The surge stopped and his heart pounded furiously.  He fought to bring his body under control through the torture techniques he had to dust off from the recesses of his mind.  “Thought I knew all of your kind in this cycle,” he said, spitting the words out between heavy breaths.
     “My kind, Shepard?  What kind is that?”
     “You think just because you’re out of my sight I can’t tell you’re Prothean?”
     The unseen collector laughed.  “You presume and honor me, Shepard.  If only I were one of that pinnacle of the cosmic imperative, that greatness.”  
     The collector walked around the table, into Shepard’s view.  The marine’s brow furrowed in question.  “You’re . . . a collector?  I thought all of the Reaper ground forces were destroyed by the Crucible.”
     “Only those infused with Reaper technology were killed off.”
     “But collectors were exactly that.  Mordin proved it.”
     “Yes, a very intelligent salarian.  But what if, somehow, the Reaper parts were to be removed?  What would happen then?”
     Shepard looked at the collector harder after that comment.  He did notice slight differences from the other collectors he had wiped out by destroying their base beyond the Omega 4 Relay.  He had initially chalked it up to never spending too much time studying the enemy while gunning them down, but now he saw more similarities with Javik than his former Terminus System foes.  “I’m no medical expert, but my understanding is that most organics die without internal organs.”
     “Your sarcasm is noted, but you’re words are true enough.  I, luckily, was given an alternative to death when I came across a hidden treasure of the galaxy. It is because of that discovery that I stand here before you, now, not quite Prothean, but not exactly the mindless collector, either.”
     “You gonna bore me with your autobiography or are you going to tell me what it is you want from me?” Shepard demanded.  
     “From you?  I have what I want from you, Spectre.”
     “Really, because I don’t remember you questioning me or doing much more than tickling me with your little noisemaker, there.”
     The collector’s reply was another shock from his hand held device.  Shepard’s body arched upwards and shook at a blurring speed, but no outburst made it’s way to his lips.
     “What I want, human, is to see you and your allies crushed under my army.  Then you will be allowed to survive, in small numbers, long enough to witness the rebirth of an empire.  Then you will die.”
     “A yahg empire?  With you in charge?”
     “The yahg are a necessary evil.  A mere tool to be used.  I will usher in the return of the Prothean Empire, but I will not rule it.  I need to simply reignite the embers that were left behind by my former masters.  Advanced, powerful, dominating: all words that describe the Reapers.  Do you want to know what word does not describe them, Captain?”
     “I get the sneaking suspicion you’re going to tell me.”
     “The word is ‘perfect’.  They missed things, intentionally or not, I do not care, and at this point, it no longer matters.  Their failures were my opening.  And my chance finding will be the path to this cycle’s subjugation to a power not seen in fifty thousand years.”
     Shepard made it a point to let the torturer see his eyes rolling.  “Typical. A maniacal enemy with a twist of insanity and an impossible goal not based in reality.  Why do they always have to find me?” he wondered aloud.  
     He almost smiled as another searing flood of pain wracked his body.
     “You do not disappoint, Shepard.  But you also do not comprehend.  You see your limited piece of the puzzle, as you humans say, but I see it all.  You do not see the plan I set in motion and have worked tirelessly on for centuries.  It is now coming to fruition in perfect order.”
     “Infest every planet with yahg.  Good plan.  And then bring back a dead empire with what? Three Protheans, two of which would rather tear each others’ throats out than make up?  You’ve got it all figured out.  It’s genius.  Don’t know why I didn’t see it before.”
     “Your attempts at provoking me with mockery grow tiresome, Shepard.”
     “And you’re putting me to sleep with the master plan, here, jackass.  Why don’t you just keep spilling all of your brilliance on the floor to I can pick up the grand design and how we all play into it, exactly.”
     “You take me for a common fool?  You believe I am revealing too much by accident?  Shepard, what I am giving you are the final words you will ever hear.  I figured you deserved to die knowing that you have been a key component of my victory.”
     “So you had the yahg attack my team, drag me off, and bring me here- instead of just killing me- so that you could tell me that and then kill me?  Really?  You could use a class or two in time management or handling priorities.”
     The collector ignored him.  “By defeating the Reapers, you eliminated the single most difficult obstacle in my way.  You will be written about in the history records of the Protheans to come and you will be remembered as a great figure, despite being on the opposing side.”
     “I’m flattered.  Really, but could you just get this over with?  I haven’t had to put up with this much talking since my second high school girlfriend.”
     The collector raised the device in front of his face and studied it for a moment in thought.  He then looked down at Shepard with an almost sad look on his face.  He lowered the device next to the captain’s head.  
     “As you wi-“
     The wall near Shepard’s feet exploded with a concussive blast that threw debris everywhere and knocked the collector to the ground.  He quickly rolled over, pushed himself up, and ran out of the room, back through the door he had entered from.  It closed behind him and Shepard was left with light pouring through the shattered wall, the rays of the sun creating a myriad of shafts streaking through the settling dust.  
     A figure stepped into the light with a gun shoved forward, scanning for enemies.  Dark, medium length hair whipped over shoulders as the clearly human female searched the area quickly.  Convinced, for the moment, that the premises was safe, she lowered her gun and stepped into a clear line of sight.  The warm smile Shepard had yearned for greeted his eyes.
     “Again, Shepard?  What is it with you and me and you on a table?  Project Lazarus, after the victory on the Citadel, and now this.”
     “I thought women liked a little reliability in their men,” Shepard joked.
     “Uh huh,” Miranda said, shaking her head.  “Let me get you out of those restraints.”
     “You sure?” her incapacitated lover asked with a wink.
     “Really?  How can you think of that at a time like this?” the biotic asked as she found the release button and freed the Normandy’s leader.
     Shepard sat up, ignoring his pain, and pulled Miranda into a kiss.  “I think about it every time I see your beautiful face, Miranda.”
     She smiled and touched his face with her free hand.
     “Damn, Loco, put some clothes on man!  What were they doing to you in here?” Vega said loudly as he suddenly stepped into view.  He held up his hands, an assault rifle smoking in one of them, and said,”Nevermind.  I don’t think I want to know.  Let’s get him out of here, Ice,” he told Miranda.  “Or it’ll be hell to get back out of here.  Even with the yahg chasing after Liara and Javik leading that prisoner uprising.”
     “Ice?” Shepard asked, accepting Miranda’s help getting up from the table.      
     “Yeah, man,” James confirmed. “That woman, under pressure and in the middle of battle- nerves of steel.  Nothing gets to her . . . and she’s always wearing white.”
     “Of course,” Shepard said.  He looked around the room and saw his equipment shoved into a corner, piled haphazardly.  He walked over to his belongings, bent over to pick it up, and heard another friendly voice.
     “I can die a happy girl, now,” Jack said.  “That ass is just as nice as I thought,” she added with a laugh.  
     Shepard stood and turned around with the upper body armor in his hands.  “Ever heard of a little privacy, Jack?” he asked.
     “Sure I have, Shepard.  Never respected it, but I’ve heard of it,” she replied with a wink.
     Vega shot Jack a dirty look, as did Miranda.  Jack ignored Miranda and just waved off James.  “What?  Don’t get all high and mighty with me now.  Just admiring the view.  You think I haven’t noticed you admiring asses other mine, Meat head?”  Jack glanced over at Miranda and then back to Vega and both crew members turned away with red cheeks.  “Exactly.  As long as I’m the one you come to see at night . . . I won’t have to kill you.”
     Shepard laughed weakly and shook his head, still drained from the effects of the torture device.  After a few shaky minutes, with a little help from Miranda, he was back in his black and red armor and checking his guns. 
     “How did you all get here so quickly?  And where exactly is here, anyway?”
     Vega looked from Jack to Miranda and then to Shepard.
     “What?” the captain asked.
     “They brought you straight to Talat, but Loco, how long do you think it’s been since you were captured?”
     The marine got the impression his answer was about to be wrong.  “A day, maybe?  They knocked me out in the fight and I woke up here maybe an hour ago.  It can’t have been that long.”   
     “Try two days, Shepard,” Miranda said.
     “What?”
     “It’s true,” Jack said.  “Took us a while to regroup and then it took more time while Meat head worked this crazy rescue idea into the original plan.”
     Shepard turned to Vega.  “You got me out of this, James?”
     “Ah, it was nothing, Captain.  Plus we gained that extra help along the way.”
     “Really?”
     “Yeah.  But we can talk about it later.  Our resistance forces taking on the yahg need a leader.  You.  So we need to move.”
     “Resistance forces?  The prisoners?”
     Miranda nodded.  “Yes.  One raided barracks later and prisoners become quite a well trained fighting force against a surprised enemy.”
     “I can imagine,” Shepard said.
     “Just glad they didn’t torture the plans out of you sir,” Vega said, half joking.
     “Pretty hard to do that when they never even asked me any questions.”
     “What?” It was Miranda’s turn to question.  “They had you for two days and never asked you anything?”
     Shepard shook his head.  “I just woke up, remember?  Some collector came in and decided to give away his whole plan because he was about to kill me.  Luckily you all showed up just in time.”
     “Collector?” Jack asked.  “Thought they were wiped out with the Reapers.”
     “Yeah, well, this one is different, and I gather that he’s the only one like him, but we can talk about it when there’s a better time.”
     “True, Loco,” Vega said.  “We need to get back to the operations base we set up before the path we cleared closes back up.”
     “Lead the way, Lieutenant,” Shepard told Vega.
     “You got it, Captain.”