No new chapter this week

Halloween preparations have sucked up a lot of my time not spent working or sleeping this past week and I anticipate the same this coming week.  So, I apologize for those of you who have been here each and every week reading my story.  I promise that chapter 13 is being worked on and that I will try to keep up with my weekly releases moving forward as best I can.  Just realize that there are a few holidays coming up in the next couple months that may cause some delays here or there 😉  Stick with me, though, because this story will come to a conclusion (not sure how many chapters it will end up being) . . . eventually lol.

Thanks for reading and for those of you that might be behind or just starting out, this will be a good chance to play a little catch up.

As always, feedback is appreciated.



Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 12

Chapter 12
     Shepard had moved on from his gang running memories to flashbacks from his early days in the N7 program and the brutal, all environment, survival training.  He remembered how much he hated the constant thick, wet conditions of the South American jungle air.  He shuddered, reliving the sweat dripping down the heavy armor that was purposely left without environmental protection systems intact and the constant barrage of stinging, biting, and sucking insects.  He had preferred the arctic training to the steamy forests and Sur’Kesh was reminding him why all over again.
     “At least the armor has the temp regulators this time,” he told himself as he wiped his exposed forehead, diverting another river of sweat away from its stinging path to his eyes.  “Should have brought the sealed helmet, though,” he told himself.
     The captain of the Normandy and his crew followed Major Kirrahe’s team through one of the dominant jungles of the salarian home world.  They were still kilometers from Talat, having landed out of sensor range, but the quick pace of the salarian STG squad would have them on the outskirts of the city soon.  To Shepard’s surprise, Allers had been true to her word, keeping up with the rest of the pack.  
     Jogging through trees and ducking branches that attempted sneak attacks at his face, even the thunderous Wrex kept pace at Shepard’s side.
     “Hanging in there pretty well, Wrex,” Shepard commented.
     “Krogan are built for the hunt, Shepard.  Strength, sight, smell, speed and endurance are not things we lack.  Personally, I’m impressed with Chakwas.  She’s old by human standards, isn’t she?”
     “I may be older for a human, Wrex, but I’m not hard of hearing at all,” the silver haired woman called over to the krogan.
     “Good job, buddy,” Shepard said, glancing over at his monstrous friend whose scarred face betrayed no clue to the extent of his embarrassment.
     “Sorry, Doc.  No disrespect was intended.”
     “I know, Wrex.  Think nothing of it.  I will take it as the compliment it was meant to be,” she told him.   
     They continued on, Shepard keeping the conversation with Wrex going.  “You ever wonder about the missions we’ve been on?  How quickly they change and how we have to adapt to that on the fly?”
     “Only on the missions with you, Shepard.  That’s what makes them so exciting.  You get assigned to the impossible and your instincts on the battlefield . . . you’re the eye of a hurricane, Shepard.  Everything goes to hell in every direction, but you maintain the calm demeanor of . . . well, I’ve seen no warlord or general to match it, among any species.  That’s why we follow you into that hell.  We trust you to lead us through to the other side of it safely.  Sovereign, the reports of your fight with the collectors, and then the Reapers themselves.  This galaxy has been spinning for billions of years and it finally created the perfect soldier, Shepard.  You.”
     “Jesus Christ, Wrex,” Jack exclaimed from behind,”never knew krogan were such ass kissers.  Need a towel to wipe all the shit off your face?” 
     Wrex turned his head and glared at Jack with a low growl.  The dangerous biotic only laughed in response.
     Shepard shook his head.  “I don’t know about all that, Wrex.  You ask me, I’ve been the luckiest son of a bitch that ever lived.  And died.  And lived again to almost die again.  That luck is going to run out sooner or later.”
     “Come on, Loco, with this squad?” Vega asked from Jack’s side.  “When was the last time you were leading a battalion this big?  It was always three here, four or five there.  Same for you before we met up.  Now you’ve got close to twenty crazy bastards at your command.  These yahg don’t stand a chance.”
     “Damn, what’s with the Shepard love-fest?” Jack asked, rolling her eyes.  “Can we just melt our asses off in silence for a while?”
     Shepard chuckled at Jack’s irritation more because he was as uncomfortable with his two friends’ belief in him as much as she was annoyed by it.  He didn’t say it out loud, but the last time he had been a part of a ground force as large as this one, it had become the legend of Akuze.  Those were not thoughts he wished to dwell on.  He concentrated on the salarian feet in front of him and began counting the steps to occupy his mind.
* * * * 
     Night darkened the already low light conditions of a densely wooded section of the jungle.  Shepard and his resistance team gathered around a central area and munched at rations that ranged from bland to putrid in both taste and smell. 
     Javik sat across the loose circle from Liara, flashing his upper eyes her direction every once in a while as he ate.  Vega sat to his right and leaned over, pointing at the Prothean’s weapon in way of misdirection.  “Just act like I’m talking about your gun.”
     Javik nodded, waiting.
     “So, uh, what’s the deal with you and Liara?  I mean if it’s none of my business just say so, but if you’re trying to keep whatever’s going on . . . on the down-low, well, you’re failing horribly, amigo.”
     Javik picked up his gun, playing along, and pointed at the barrel.  “Clearly.  And as you said, Vega, it is none of your business.  It is a matter that needs no further input from outside interests.”  Javik sat silent for a moment and then added,”But I . . . appreciate the concern.  There is no issue.  There is a choice that needs to be made.  Once I set foot down one path or the other, the rest will fall into place on that . . . battlefront.”
     “Okaaaay,” the marine drew out, trying to understand.  Failing that, he decided it was best to drop the line of questioning as Javik suggested.  “So you ready to face off against some more yahg?”
     Javik smiled, glad to be speaking of something more in his area of expertise and that he was far more comfortable discussing.  “Indeed.  They are a worthy foe.  I am only glad that the Reapers’ plan seemed to have involved leaving these primitives for post-war purposes.  I would not have wanted to face a synthetically enhanced version of this species.  One need look only to the creatures dubbed ‘brutes’ to see what would have paled in comparison to a twisted yahg.”
     “Yeah, that would have been real bad.”
     “The yahg are bad enough as they are,” Shepard said, joining the soldiers.  “Trust me.  Taking on the Shadow Broker was one of the hardest fights against a single individual I can remember.”  Shepard was waved over by Miranda near Liara and moved to join her.  “Duty calls,” he joked.
     “What’s up, boys?” Jack asked, coming to take Shepard’s vacated seat.
     Shepard sat down on a fallen tree next to Miranda and gave her a kiss on the forehead as he descended.  A strong gust of wind found its way through the trees and Shepard wrinkled his nose.
     “What is it?” Miranda asked.
     Shepard looked past her to Liara whose eyes were finding his with a look of alarm.  Before she could open her mouth, Wrex jumped to his feet, snatching up his shotgun.  The rest of the unit took notice, dropping food and drink, whipping out their own weapons. 
     The circle inverted and the guns pointed out into the pitch black of waving tree trunks and large leaves that frustrated the eyes searching for whatever might be lurking behind the cover of foliage.  Nervous faces sighted down gun shafts.  Breaths were trapped in lungs.  Ears strained for the slightest clue to unnatural sounds.  Fingers rubbed anxiously within millimeters of triggers.
     It began to rain.
     Shepard stared through the heavy drops crashing onto the top of his Mantis sniper rifle and splashing into his eyes.  He blinked the water away and peered through the gun’s scope, but saw no heat signatures registering as he panned across the tree line.
     “Does anyone see something?” Major Kirrahe asked.  The responses were quick.
     “No, Major.”
     “Nothing here.”
     More negative responses came in, but Shepard still felt uneasy.  “Something’s wrong,” he thought.  It took a second to register, but when it did, the captain knew the situation was bad.  “Does anyone see anything on their heat sensors?” he called out.  “Anything at all?” he stressed.
     Major Kirrahe came to the same conclusion as the one Shepard had not yet voiced.  “We’re being jammed!”
     “They are above you, Shepard,” a voice informed him.
     “You only come out when things are bad,” Shepard confirmed.
     “Incorrect.  I am here when the situation demands it.”
     The situation demanded it.  Shepard snapped his eyes upwards a moment too late.  Yahg soldiers dropped out of the trees, one of them landing behind the marine as he yelled,”Open fire!”  He spun to face his enemy and saw a large blade rushing towards his face.  He bent backwards and the blade just missed the tip of his nose.  He let himself continue falling back, hit the ground, and rolled to the side as a heavy foot smashed down on his previous location.  He hopped up and pulled his Carnifex handgun from his hip.  He jammed it into the yahg’s stomach and pulled the trigger in rapid succession.  The beast doubled over as its version of stomach and intestines exploded, bursting through the new opening Shepard had provided through the attacker’s back.  The yahg looked up to lock eyes with Shepard with a toothy growl and swiped at him with the razor claws from the hand not trying to retain its innards.  The captain’s free hand came up and his omni-tool formed a deadly blade in a fraction of a second.  He severed the arm and it dropped to the ground as the yahg roared in pain and followed it, crashing to the mud the falling rain was quickly forming.
     Shepard turned to see dozens of yahg fighting up close with his team as well as a few still in the trees taking shots at the combatants below.  He saw two of Kirrahe’s men already on the ground with blood falling from open wounds that looked fatal.  Javik and Wrex were back to back fighting different yahg hand to hand, Wrex’s broken gun smoking on the jungle floor nearby, Javik’s still on his back.  
     Jack was rolling away from a diving enemy with blue energy lighting her body.  She came to a crouching position, whirled to find her target, and then easily lifted it and launched it across the air, yelling,”Liara! Kirrahe!” as the body flew their way.  The two allies, locked in gun fights in close quarters, looked to the sound of their names and then dropped to the ground.  The yahg projectile slammed into two other yahg and brought them to the ground.  The three recovered and jumped back into the fray immediately.
     Miranda came to Shepard’s side.  “This is a hell of a mess, Shepard!”
     “Yeah, tell me about it!” he yelled over the sound of gunfire.  He shot at the crowd of yahg that Jack had just toppled again with a shock wave of biotic power as Wrex dove for another weapon.  “Wrex! Vega!  Shotguns on those three!” the captain yelled, pointing at Jack’s victims as they climbed to their feet once more.  “Liara!  Hold them still!”
     The asari created a mass effect field quickly, holding the three yahg immobilized.  “It won’t last long, Shepard!”
     “It won’t need to!” he told her.  Vega and Wrex unloaded blast after blast into the powerless yahg and then Miranda added her own biotic attack to warp a small portion of space in the middle of the yahg, crushing them with gravitational destruction to finish what the shotguns had started.
     Shepard turned from the coordinated attack to find Javik now teaming with the remaining salarians and Diana Allers, his Prothean particle weapon now being used and slicing into another wall of approaching enemy.  The embedded reporter was firing away with a Locust submachine gun with surprising efficiency.  
     “More are coming, Shepard,” Vendetta informed him.
     “How many?”
     “Too many for your forces to defeat.  I suggest falling back to another location.”
     Normandy’s leader looked at the chaos around him in a single breath.  He saw the dark movement of shadows of the other yahg closing in while everyone in the squad was already engaged in fighting the current throng of adversaries.  The snipers in the trees were still a threat to his grounded comrades as well.  “Agreed,” he thought to the Prothean VI.  
     The sniping yahg were focusing on the salarians who were being protected by a blue barrier from Wrex who was running over to help them.  It wasn’t enough.  The barrier fell under an onslaught of yahg fire and blasts began to rain down around the scattering salarians as they ran for other cover.  Major Kirrahe took a shot to the back as he sought protection.  It took him down and he writhed in pain.
     Shepard aimed for the yahg in the trees and started firing, calling out as he went,”Fall back!  We’ve got more coming in!  Regroup on me!”  Clip after clip fell from his gun as new ones took there place.  The yahg snipers began to fall.  The Spectre allowed himself a smile that promptly ended with a frantic cry from behind.
     “Loco, look out!”  The heavy body of Vega crashed into him from behind. A distant yahg pulled an angled knife out of a cluster of eyes that had enraged the beast who had responded to Vega’s attack with a vicious backhand.  It had sent the tattooed marine flying.  He hit Shepard squarely in the back, dropping him to the ground.  Shepard’s face smacked into a large stone, half buried underground, in the process.  His head racked with pain, and he once more thought about his enclosed helmet as opposed to the open face version he now wore.  He felt busted lips pour blood over the unmoving rock, and flashes of light played across his vision.  He glanced over and saw Vega no better off, lying unconscious with his head at the base of a tree trunk.  
     Powerful hands grasped his ankles and Shepard felt his body being dragged away from the fight.  He reached out with his hands, clawing at anything that might give him a grip to slow the capture, but a kick from an unseen foot ended his struggle.  His vision faded to darkness.  The last thing he saw was Allers fall down, her armor torn open and the white shirt beneath shredded and staining red, with yahg sized slash marks across her chest.
* * * * 
     “So, this Trojan horse idea . . . is it supposed to end with us like this?” Garrus asked calmly from a kneeling position.  His hands were tied behind his back and the muzzle of a gun rested on the back of his head.    
     Ashley looked over from her identical situation. “Not exactly,” she answered.  Ashley turned back and faced a row of mercenaries lining each side of a short rise in steps to a gaudy throne.  The occupant of the orante chair looked down at the prisoners with a concerned expression on her blue face.  
     “Shut the fuck up,” Aria T’Loak said with little emotion.  “And tell me where Shepard is hiding.  It’s not like him to send his people in to danger and not face it himself.”
     “Well, which do you want, Aria, ‘shut the fuck up’ or ‘tell me where Shepard is hiding’?” Zaeed asked from Ashley’s other side.
     Aria motioned to one of her guards who smashed the butt of his gun into Zaeed’s face.
     “You can go with the ‘shut the fuck up’ option, Massani,” Aria answered and then turned back to Ashley.  “Williams can tell me where Shepard is.”
     “He’s not here.”
     “Obviously.  I doubt he would have been dumb enough to drive a Mako right up to my front door.  Hell, he and I were on . . . agreeable terms last time I saw him at that shitty excuse for a club on the Citadel.  He could have just come through the front door.”  Aria looked down at Ashley’s crew in thought.  “But Shepard’s not here.  This isn’t his doing, is it?  No.  This is just Alliance military.  Explains the Mako, but-“
     “Whatever, bitch, we took the Mako from your people,” Ashley spat.  
     Aria stood up, biotic energy glowing at her rising fist.  Then she stopped and the energy dissipated.  “My people?  We don’t have any Makos.  At least not on Earth.”  She looked over to the closest guard.  “What the fuck is going on, Grizz?”  The turian looked as surprised as anyone.  “I don’t know, Aria.”
     “Drop the act, Aria,” Ashley said.  “The Alliance knows you’ve been stealing supplies meant for rebuilding Earth.  Your operation is over.  Kill us and the whole fleet will come down on you.  Give yourself up to me . . . you might just walk out of this alive.”
     Aria gave Ashley an approving look. “You’ve got a pair, Williams.  I should expect that from someone who had Shepard as a mentor.  The fact is, I won’t be turning myself in, because, for once in my life, I’m playing things straight.  At least here on Earth.  Every military in the galaxy is here and I have no intention of pissing that force off.  I don’t want them trailing me all the way back home after I get off this planet.”  The ousted queen of Omega Station pointed to her captives.  “Untie them,” she ordered her guards.
     The five Eden Prime members stood and rubbed at cramping muscles.  Ashley shot Aria an incredulous look.  “What are you playing at, T’Loak?”
     Aria shook her head.  “Like I said, I’ve been taking pains to not fuck with you and your coalition.  If someone’s framing me and mine, I’ll find the son of a bitch and serve him the boiled flesh from his own legs before I kill him and hang his body on display.”
     “So you’re claiming ignorance to repeated attacks and thefts?” Williams asked in disbelief.
     “You’re still alive.  That should be proof enough.” 
     “Then why worry about us coming to find you?  Why send anyone out to capture us?”
     “What are you talking about?  Until I got a call saying a Mako was heading straight for my club, I had been enjoying some of this green drink called . . . what the hell was it, Grizz?”
     “Absinthe, Aria.”
     “Absinthe, minding my own damn business.”
     “Tali, play the recordings,” Ashley requested.
     Tali pulled up the video taken from the dead sniper and the intercepted audio orders after that.  Aria sat down and quietly absorbed it all.  She looked to the turian, Grizz, once again.  “You see that?” she asked.
     “I see it,” he confirmed and walked over to a nearby security surveillance multi-screen setup.  He brought up the club footage and ran it.  “Check the time stamps and the clothes.”
     “Clothes?  All it shows is her face in what we have,” Tali said.
     “But it shows a collar.  Clearly our video shows, at the same time, Aria here and wearing what she’s wearing now.”
     “No collar,” Aria literally pointed out.
     Ashley looked at the two sets of evidence and thought about the situation.  Clearly the two didn’t add up, but which set to believe was up in the air.  She put the burden on Aria.  “Make me believe you,” she instructed the underworld power.
     Aria hesitated and looked at her guards.  “Leave us,” she ordered.
     “Aria, I don’t think-“
     “And you don’t speak, either, unless I require it.  Now go!”
     Grizz led the guards out of Aria’s private suite on the top floor of Omega Earth’s complex.  Once the guards were gone, Aria went to a computer at her desk and opened a holographic projection in the center of the room showing a device that Ashley did not recognize.
     “What is that supposed to be?” she asked.
     “This is what I think is being used to set me up.  You remember that Cerberus overran my station?”
     “Yeah,” Ashley said, rolling her eyes.
     “Such a shame, too,” Garrus added.  “A fine, upstanding business owner like yourself, being run off from that fine establishment by unruly thugs.”
     Aria scowled at Garrus.  “Watch your tone, turian, or I may release scans of you to the general mercenary public with a tidy sum over your head.”
     “Bring it on.  Wouldn’t be the firs-“
     “Garrus, is this really the time?” Tali asked.
     He looked to her and dropped his head.  “I suppose not.”
     “Done?  Good.  This device,” Aria said, walking into the middle of the display cast in life-size detail,”is my edge.  It is how I keep my employees and enemies, often the same group, off balance and guessing.  What you’re looking at is the center piece of an expensive projection system that was set up on Omega.  I stand here,” she motioned to the circular pad with an outer ring of low lying electronics and scanning panels,”and I can be seen in perfect replication, real-time or prerecorded, in hundreds of locations of my choosing through out the station.  And since no one ever touches Aria, no one ever finds out that I’m safely sitting back in my secure quarters or relaxing at the club.  The few who have . . . are dead.
     “I used this scanner to record myself every day and then the software did the rest.  It would detect empty areas that would soon be high traffic, pop up my image, and then shut off the image when things cleared out.  Nothing like a boss that seems to be everywhere, all the time, to keep the dumbasses in line.”
     “And this connects to Cerberus how, exactly?” Ericson asked.
     Aria took note of the unknown member of Ashley’s team with a discerning look.  “Who’s your hot boy-toy, Williams?  He’s . . . got a familiar . . . aura about him?”
     Ericson barely contained a blush, not only from being associated to Williams in a loosely romantic way, but because the asari crime boss who had no doubt been all over the galaxy and seen more than he could ever hope to, seemed to find him attractive.  He looked Aria in the eyes and said,”Just a pilot who carries a gun and a lot of grudges.”
     “Cute,” Aria said.  “Well, Pilot, Cerberus overrunning my station would no doubt lead them to find all of my hidden toys.  My guess is that one of them made their way here before Shepard destroyed the mass relays, and brought that with them.  Most likely, whoever the soon to be dead son of a bitch is, they are manipulating the prerecorded images and voice to pose as me and issue commands to the hundreds of mercs roaming around Earth.”
     Aria walked back over to her computer and turned off the projection.
     “Seems a lot like the quantum entanglement communicator,” Tali commented.
     Aria nodded.  “Similar, but vastly less expensive.  Where the Alliance dropped huge sums of money on their quantum pairings, I needed only projectors on a space station and a perfect quality projection of me.  That level of realism is only a fraction of the cost.”
     Ashley looked at her crew.  There were nods that said without words,”It’s possible,” to shrugs that told her,”There’s no telling.”  She went with her gut, despite its sometimes shoddy record.  “Okay, Aria.  I’ll play along with this idea right now.  How would we find whatever Cerberus agent is using this?”
     The asari thought for a moment and then answered,”Whoever it is would have to be relatively close.  Not so much for range purposes- all they’d have to do is project to a video communication link- but they’d have to be watching me somehow.  Know when I’m not in certain places at certain times so that they could step in without being noticed.”
     “Or you have a traitor in your organization.”
     “No shit.  They’re mercenaries.  They’re all traitors for the right amount of money.  But they would still have to report to someone and that someone would be trapped in this system and probably not hiding out on another planet.  Supply ships to their hideout would be pretty telling.”
     “I’ll give you that.  So, how do we find them?”
     “That’s easy.  The device gives off a very specific form of radiation that is not easily detected and even harder to reproduce.  And it’s also deadly to anyone but me.  Amazing what those devious little salarians can come up with under the right motivation, so the joke is on whoever is using this.  They just may not know for a few months.  A year if they’re lucky or have good doctors.”
     “You can track that radiation?” Ericson asked, ignoring the rest of the asari’s statement.
     “I can transmit the radiation signature to your ship.  You’ll no doubt be equipped with the sensors to find it.”
     Ashley nodded and activated her omni-tool, connecting a link from the asari’s computer to the Eden Prime.  Aria pressed a touch point on her computer.  “Sent.”
     “How long till we have a target?” Garrus inquired.
     “Long enough for us to get back to your ship.”
     “‘Us’?” Ashley asked.
     “Don’t think I’m going to let you track that down by yourself,” Aria stated. “That’s my property and whoever is behind this is putting my life at risk by pitting me against everyone on- or off- Earth.  I plan to take back what belongs to me and personally end whoever that is.”
     Commander Williams looked at the blue alien.  “I’ll make some arrangements.”
     “And I’ll want my own people in on this.”
     “Don’t push it.  You’ll be the only one on my ship.”
     “How about when the fighting starts?  You want all your precious coalition allies to die at Cerberus hands?  It would be to your benefit and I’ll be able to see who’s left on Earth that I can still-“
     “Trust?” Ashley asked in disbelief.
     “Use,” the asari corrected her.
     “Done.  I’ll contact you when we’re ready to bring you on board.  You provide orders to your people from there.  None of them will be allowed on the Eden Prime.”
     “Fine.  Now get the hell out of my club.  I’ll have Grizz smuggle you out the back, in two separate groups and in different clothes.  We’ll stage a little execution and whoever is watching will never know you’re still alive . . . hopefully.”
     “Not a bad idea,” Ashley admitted.  “I’ll send word to the Alliance to play along.  So when a few garrisons of troops show up, tell you’re people not to freak out.”
     “No promises, but it makes sense.”
* * * * 
     “Aria was right . . . I guess,” Steve Cortez told Ashley as she came to the bridge.  “The Eden Prime’s sensors picked up that radiation signature easily and close to Chicago . . . relatively speaking,” he said, using air quotes with his hands around his last two words.  He pointed to a display showing a map.  “At least it’s still in the States.”
     “North Carolina?” the commander asked incredulously.  “Who the hell would go hideout there?”
     “Well, it wasn’t hit as hard as a lot of other places with major cities,” Cortez answered.
     “Probably because the Reapers looked at it and thought they already had,” Ashley cracked.
     “Aww, come on.  That’s not nice,” complained Ericson, joining Ashley and Cortez.  “It’s not that bad.”
     “You from there?” Cortez inquired.
     “Nah, I’m from Virginia, but my grandpa lived down there near the capital.  Used to go visit for a lot of holidays before he passed.  Glad he wasn’t around to see this.  And it’s not as bad an area as the news vids make it out to be.  Honest.”
     “Anyway,” Ashley steered the conversation,”we’ve tracked Aria’s device to a location west of the capital.  Ready to go run through some old stomping grounds, Ericson?”
     “Sure am, Commander,” he assured her with a salute and smile.     
     “Well, go gather your Locos squad and hit space.  If this person is Cerberus I want him- her, whatever.  If they run, I don’t want them getting far.  We need to find out where they’ve been diverting all the stolen supplies.”
     “Understood, Commander,” Ericson said and headed for the elevator to go down to the hangar.
     Ashley watched the pilot go, letting her eyes linger on him just a bit too long to escape Steve’s notice.
     “Following in Shepard’s footsteps, there, Ash?”
     “What are you talking about, Steve?”
     “Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe a penchant for a little . . . involvement with those under your command?”
     “Ha ha.  Jealous?” she joked with the pilot.
     “Of that?  If he wasn’t as obvious as you about his interest, I’d say yes, but it’s pretty clear what that pilot’s destination is,” he said with a smile at Ashely.
     Her face scrunched in confusion.  “What?”
     Cortez rolled his eyes and shook his head and gave the commander a blank stare.
     “Really?” Ashely asked.
     “Commander, I’m not going to say that you’d have to be blind to not see it . . . but I don’t know how to finish this sentence,” Cortez joked.
     “Uh, huh,” Ashely shot Steve a stern look.  “Nice talking with you, Steve.”
     “Anytime, Commander.”
     “I have to go,” she stated.
     She made her way to the room where she preferred to think Aria was being held, not so much staying as a guest.  The room was where the Normandy’s observation room was located, but the SR-1B had split that into two rooms.  The left door opened to a small weight room which had apparently been added after an anonymous email suggestion, that Ashley had no doubt was from Vega, had come to Alliance designers.  The room was currently taken over by Grunt who felt more at home in the middle of the cold steel weights and sparse furniture.  The door to the right, where the commander found Aria waiting at a desk with multiple displays open with various information on them, was supposed to be the XO’s room.  Since Ashley had yet to name that position, it was as good a spot to keep an eye on the criminal as any. 
     The second human Spectre had asked Grunt to keep an ear open for anything suspicious coming from his “neighbor’s” room.  She had also told Zaeed, Lanna, and Garrus to rotate watches from the mess hall a short distance away.
     “You’ve finally found it.”  Aria was not asking.
     Ashley nodded.  “Took longer than we expected, but yes, we have.  I’ve sent you the coordinates.  Get your people ready.  We’re hitting them as soon as we can.”
     “The sooner the better,” Aria said.  “Those Alliance idiots around my club are fucking up my revenue stream.”
     “I can’t tell you how sorry I am about that,” the brunette soldier flatly stated, underscoring the obvious lie.  “You’ve got until we get down there to have your mercs join the fight if you want to protect your little machine.  Otherwise . . . I can’t make any promises,” Ashley said with an icy smile.
* * * * 
     Garrus crouched on the roof of an abandoned warehouse, watching a handful of targets a floor lower in a building across the street.  Through his gun’s sight he could clearly see armored Cerberus agents, minus their helmets, standing around a table and discussing something.  Outside, the scene was different.  Guards patrolling around the building on foot wore armor depicting the marks of each of the major mercenary groups.  Eclipse, Blue Suns, and Blood Pack members all appeared to be working together to guard the same stronghold.  
     “What’ve you got, Garrus?” Ashley asked over his comm-link.  The turian touched his ear and replied.
     “Definitely got Cerberus inside.  Aria’s theory is holding up, so far.”
     “How many?” she called up from her position in a small grove of landscaped trees in what had been intended, at one time, as an oasis of nature in the desert of a warehouse and business district.
     “Inside I’ve got five visible.  Guessing more than that, though.  These are probably the shot callers.  Outside, counted fifteen making rounds.  With Aria’s people, we should be in good shape.”
     “Alright.  We’re a go, then.  Garrus, I figure you’ve got two shots before they clear out of sight.”
     “Give me some credit, Ash.  I’ll go with three shots.”
     “Whatever.  When the fun starts, you keep us up to date on the movements.  Ericson, your Locos ready?” Ashley asked the pilot who was also linked in.
     “Affirmative,” the lieutenant answered.
     “Good.  Garrus: on your shot.”
     “Acknowledged.”  Garrus aimed with his higher position taken into account.  He lined up his cross-hairs with two Cerberus agents standing across from each other, their bodies lining up nicely for the expert sharp-shooter.  He smiled and gently pulled the gun’s trigger.  
     Glass shattered imperceptibly before one man grabbed at his exploding throat and the one across from him clutched at his chest.
     “Everyone, go!” Ashley ordered.
     Zaeed looked over from his place at Ashley’s side.  “Allow me,” he said with a grin, lobbing a grenade into a group of the enemy coming out of a ground floor door to find their attacker.  The new forces came wearing Cerberus colors.  Ashley guessed that it meant they were either completely surprised or that they only had a limited number of mercenary suits to play out their charade.  She preferred to go with the former as she opened fire on the combatants with her assault rifle.   The first few went down quickly, the last one calling out something to others inside as he died.
     LOKI mechs were the next victims to march out of the door.  Ashley smiled and radioed to her quarian friend.  “Tali, if you please.”
     “Already on it, Commander,” the tech savvy woman answered from cover a little closer to the battle.  Her omni-tool came to life and she called up her hacking programs.  A few of the mechs froze for a second and then turned back, facing their own side and firing away.  
     More fighters came out of the building from other locations, converging on the unknown force decimating their number.  Grunt was waiting on one such unfortunate group.  He rushed from behind an overturned dumpster, a shotgun in each hand pouring death onto the panicking men.  The last of his thermal clips falling to the pavement as he ran, Grunt threw one gun to the side and launched himself into the air, swinging his remaining gun in a downward blow, crushing one foe with it while his body descended heavily on two more.  Ashley could hear his laughter as the enemy piled on top of him only to be tossed back easily.
     A cold and calculating Lazarus waited on the opposite side of the Cerberus base, using his superior hacking ability to take over other mech units still inside the facility.  He overrode their optics and took stock of the situation inside.  “Commander Williams, I have overridden units inside the Cerberus base.”
     “What can you tell me, Lazarus?”
     “Three more squads of LOKI mechs and a squad of FENRIS mechs are coming on-line.  Twenty-three more organics are arming themselves and preparing to come outside.  This unit is taking fire.  Overriding alternate.  Processing.”
     Ashely continued her assault and pointed to Aria without looking.  “Your turn, Omega station,” she said.
     Aria nodded and made the call.  “Alright you sorry bastards, go show these impostors what real mercs are capable of!  Bonuses to the top two kill counts!”
     Three waves of mercenaries crashed into the streets, taking on the Cerberus forces at point blank range.  Gunfire erupted, filling the air with ceaseless explosions.  Bodies began piling on the ground with the clatter of falling weapons and armored dead hitting the cold slabs of road.
     “New mech acquired, Commander Williams,” Lazarus came back.  “YMIR model now under control.”
     “Oh shit,” Garrus said, jumping down next to Ashley.  
     “Thought I told you to stay high and watch for us.”
     “Nothing to see.  Window’s been blocked.  Everything else is street level.”
     “Great.  Lazarus, how many of those YMIR’s do they have?”
     “Three.  Not counting this one.  Attempting to lessen their numbers.  Please wait.”
     Ashley leveled another two Cerberus soldiers and then heard the sound of detonating rockets from within the base accompanied by screams and then followed by the explosion of a section of the street-facing wall across from the Alliance commander.
     “Goddamn!” Zaeed exclaimed.  “That didn’t come from a YMIR mech.”
     “Correct, Zaeed Massani,” Lazarus said.  “We- I- the mech currently under my control is being attacked by an Atlas mech.  This unit will not last much-“
     Ashley looked through the new opening in the base, where the smoke of the destruction was just clearing, and saw the hulking form of the ATLAS smash a YMIR with a wave of one heavy arm, sending it careening into a collection of the small attack dog mechs.
     “-longer,” Lazarus finished.  “Rerouting.  Error.  Access has been jammed.  Engaging enemy manually.”
     “Great,” Garrus said.  “There goes one advantage,” he said, sniping at the enemy, standing next to Ashley. 
     “Good thing we have another.”
     “And we’re going to need it,” Aria added, pointing to the Atlas mech storming out of the building in a direct line for their location among the trees.
     “Damnit!  Alright, Locos, bring it!” Ashley ordered.  “Everyone else: clear out!  The big guns are coming!”
     “You heard the woman, mercs!” Aria added.  “Get your asses out of sight!”
     The roar of three ships deafened the urban battlefield and a maelstrom of mass accelerated fire hammered down on Cerberus, its remaining forces beginning to scatter.  The operator of the Atlas did not change course.  Nor did a sole individual chasing after the Atlas, screaming hysterically.
     “Please!  Don’t leave me!  I can still help you!  We’re all Cerberus!  Please, Mastoon!  Take me with you!”
     The top half of the Atlas spun while the legs churned ever forward.  The rocket launching arm lowered, pointing at the trailing figure.  The man never had a chance.  A point-blank attack scattered his body in a hundred directions, most of the bits descending as burned chunks.
     “Mastoon?” Aria asked, looking to Ashley and Garrus.
     “Heard that name on the Citadel,” Zaeed said.  “When that sorry bunch was trying to take over the place and smashed into it with the damned boarding darts.  And here he comes,” Zaeed warned uselessly.  He and the rest of the team dove aside as the mech thundered through their position and continued on, ignoring them completely as it headed for the warehouse Garrus had been positioned atop earlier.
     “Garrus, did you happen to check that building?” Ashley asked.
     “Didn’t see a need to . . . it’s abandoned?” he finished in a questioning tone, watching the mech go.
     Zaeed pulled another grenade as Ashley switched to her Blackstorm.  His grenade exploded on impact, but only manged to throw the mech off balance.  It quickly recovered.  
     Ashley aimed her weapon and pulled the trigger.  A small sphere projectile blasted out of the heavy gun and streaked towards the Atlas.  The weapon’s gravitational effect, which had earned it the nickname “black hole gun,” pulled Mastoon’s mech unit backwards for the briefest moment before the small singularity destabilized with a powerful detonation.  The force sent the mech flying through the air and crashing through a wall of it’s intended destination.  
     Confident in the result, Ashley calmly walked over to the downed combatant’s landing spot a hundred meters away.  It was only as she got closer that she saw Mastoon limping away from the shattered glass canopy of the mech unit.
     “Son of a bitch!” she swore, yanking up her pistol and shooting as the man made his way up the ramp to a ship hiding in the large warehouse.  Most of the shots bounced harmlessly off the hull of the craft.  One found the left leg of Mastoon and he yelled in pain.  Ashley climbed past the destroyed mech and raced towards the Cerberus agent.
     “You’re too late, Alliance!” he laughed through his pain.  The ramp lifted up with a hydraulic hiss and Ashley saw two figures come and drag Mastoon further into the ship as the hatch sealed close.  She heard large engines roar to life.
     “Aw crap,” she muttered in realization.  She turned and saw Garrus and Zaeed climbing in after her.  “Everybody back!” she warned, waving her arms desperately.
     The engines burst to life and the enclosed thrust lifted Ashely off the floor and slammed her into a nearby wall.  The ship lifted up through the retracting roof and blasted off, leaving a streaking trail cut through the night sky.  The commander took note of the ship’s design as it fled from sight.  She stood up, rubbing at sore ribs and called over the comm.  “Locos, take it down!”
     “Trying to, Commander!” came the quick voice of Wayne Murphy.
     Ashley heard the sound of the hybrid fighters and Hayes’ custom ship firing into the night followed by a long string of curses from the female pilot’s frustration.
     “It’s gone, Ash,” Ericson informed.  “And we won’t be catching that ship.”
     “Yeah, I don’t expect you would.  Cortez?”
     “They’re already out on FTL, Commander.  Sorry.”
     “The relay.”
     “Anyone want to guess whether they’ve managed to snag a mass amplifier?” Eden Prime’s commander asked, clenching her fist in anger at her failure.  There was no response.
     “Would have been nice for Cerberus to tell us they’d built another one of those,” Zaeed said.
     “Yeah,” Garrus agreed.
     “Alright, team.  Let’s mop up what’s left of these guys down here and salvage whatever data and equipment we can from these two buildings.  T’Loak, go find your . . . thing,” Ashley said, seeing the asari’s finger to her lips.  Aria gave a small bow of thanks and then turned to head for the main base.  She stopped after a few steps and then looked at Ashley in question.
     “What?” the commander asked.
     “What is a mass amplifier?”

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 11

Chapter 11
     “Sanders, bring those over here, on the double!” ordered a stern faced man used to those around him jumping to carry out his directives.  A blonde haired woman rolled her blue eyes, lazily rose from her seat and followed the command, though only because she would have done it anyway.  She dropped the requested items into a hot sink full of other, similar items, with a splash.
     “Great!  Now I’ve got water and soap dripping down the front of my clothes.  Thanks a lot,” David Anderson said with a sour look Kahlee’s direction as he stepped back from the breakfast dishes he had been washing.
     “That’s what you get, Anderson,” she said pointedly.  “You know I don’t take orders in my own house.”
     “In our house, Kahlee,” he corrected with a soft smile.  “You know I was only kidding.”
     “And you know I’m just showing you the result of that joke,” she replied in an innocently sweet voice.  “I’ve told you a hundred times to leave-“
     “Yeah, yeah, I know.  ‘Leave the Admiral at the door.’  I remember,” Anderson laughed, shaking his wet hands off and grabbing a nearby towel to hopelessly dab at the soapy solution that had already darkened his clothes at his midsection.  “Damn, they do say you lose control when you get old.”
     “Ha ha.  Let’s hope you haven’t reached that stage already.  Come on, old guy, we’ve got reports waiting back at the table,” Kahlee reminded him.
     Anderson looked past Kahlee to the old, handmade, wooden table he had dragged around with him since having it handed down to him from his grandparents, decades ago.  The morning sun was just beginning to spill onto the screens of a pair of data pads lying on the polished table top.  The light of the rising star crept through a pane of recently installed glass in the main window of a wall that was only halfway finished itself.  
     He and Kahlee had been making short work of building the home with a few hired hands and old war buddies of Anderson’s, all equipped with the infinitely helpful omni-tools.  It was a modest building on a hill that looked out across to the edge of nearby London, separated from the city by a healthy distance with nothing but rolling hills covered in tall grass that became an ocean of ripples with every gust of wind.
     Anderson enjoyed the view, but he remembered the sprawling cityscape that once stood in the area.  He marveled at how nature had easily retaken the ground that had been completely wiped clean of any structure by the Reapers.  It would be a very long time before that distance was ever filled in that fashion again.  David felt slightly guilty at thinking that he was taking pleasure in a result of the near total destruction of humanity.  He tried to believe those around him who kept telling him he deserved it for being the one man left on Earth that held everything together while Shepard had united a galaxy to save her.  
     The admiral finished the dishes and left them to dry while he joined Kahlee back at the table to sift through the endless messages and updates on the various secret projects Hackett had him overseeing.  Most of them had to do with adapting Reaper technology left by the hulking remains not vaporized by the Crucible’s deadly shock wave of energy.  
     The latest project added to his plate, however, left Anderson’s conscience pleasantly without conflict: the two Protheans’ work had been resumed from their own cycle.  If all went as planned, soon the Alliance and its allies would no longer need the mass relays or be tied to their long established routes using the mass amplifier technology acquired from the yahg.  The Protheans had unlocked the secrets to the relays, but were not content to stay subservient to Reaper technology that left their routes easily predicted by enemies.  
     In that aim, Sooltir and her younger assistant were developing completely new systems that would revolutionize space travel.  The caveat was that the power required would have to come from reverse engineering the Reaper’s Sovereign-class ship power sources if they wanted to use the new designs in their lifetime.  That was something Anderson could live with.

     He glanced over a report from Brynn Cole, working through a pregnancy to study just that, under Kahlee’s supervision.  The ex-Cerberus scientist had accompanied Jacob Taylor to join in the final battle against the Reapers despite his objections.  She had argued that either humanity would win and need help to rebuild, or they would lose and no where in the galaxy would be safe.  Taylor had given in, much to the benefit of the Alliance.

     Brynn and Kahlee had become fast friends in the brief time they already had spent teamed up for the research.  The duo had plenty to keep them busy.  Not only were there tons of dead Reapers that had crashed down to Earth, but the Alliance had also retrieved Cronos Station’s own adapted human Reaper power source.  The work was basically done for them already, but no Cerberus data on that conversion had been left intact.  The fleeing members of the terrorist organization had wiped their database as their final act of defiance in the battle in the Anadius System.  Brynn’s goal was to learn their methods so that it could be repeated across the fleet, Kahlee helping with her engineering expertise.  

     Anderson looked across the table.  Kahlee brushed her blonde hair away from in front of her blue eyes and looked up from the data pad in front her her.  Their eyes connected and they shared a tender smile, both thinking of the journey down the long winding road their relationship had taken. 
     The moment was interrupted by a hanging display screen coming to life on a nearby wall.  Sooltir Gelten’s face appeared on the monitor.
     “Admiral Anderson, I hope this is not an inconvenient time.”
     David tore his eyes away from Kahlee’s and turned to Sooltir’s image.  “Not at all, Master Gelten.  We were just starting to go over the latest reports.  Do you have something to add to yours?”
     “Not yet, but I have stumbled across a bit of information in my study of the Ilos database copy from Mars cross referenced from your Alliance records.”
     “Don’t you ever sleep?” Kahlee asked.  “That’s what you were doing when I left last night.”

     “Protheans are used to going without a lot of sleep.  We lived in a constant state of alertness, always waiting for the next unexpected Reaper attack.”

     “I know the feeling,” Anderson said.
     “So I’ve read.”
     “What did you find?” Kahlee asked.

     “There is an old report from a scan of the planet your cycle calls ‘Logan.’  Large objects reported in the gas giant that seemed to vanish as ships drew closer.  That account and the scanned emissions recorded from the planet at that time match a similar record from our time from a different planet we called Shanthow, also many years prior to the Reapers, that we similarly ignored.”
     “You think there’s something worth checking out?” Anderson asked.
     “Our scientists of the time did not.  We were too busy expanding our empire, apparently, to be bothered with such half-way interesting mysteries.  Then the Reapers came with war.  In addition, I have checked, and that planet has sense been utterly destroyed, by Reapers or natural events, I do not know.  I would doubt anything would be found in the asteroid belt left behind.”
     “I sense a ‘however’ coming,” Kahlee interjected.
     “Very perceptive, Ms. Sanders.  The ‘however’ is that Prothean records from a point even more distant in our past show that the Inusannon records that had been reconstructed had a similar story of a different planet from either Logan or Shanthow, named Bonevent, before their harvesting at the enemy’s hands.  They show an order sent to a nearby military vessel to check on the signal and then there is nothing.  And, again, that planet is now only so much space debris near the Terminus systems.”
     “What do you mean ‘nothing?’  Nothing came of their investigation?” Kahlee asked.
     “There are no subsequent reports on it at all.  Granted, we did not find nearly as many records left behind intact from the Inusannon as you did from us.  What we did find, what was clearly set aside and protected for future species to find and aid their fight against the Reapers, included that report.  They did not do that by accident, and yet it would appear any follow up to this was suspiciously left out.”
     “And why do you suppose that is?” Anderson asked, looking from Sooltir’s projection to Kahlee’s face with a knowing look.
     “Ilos?” Kahlee asked.
     “Exactly,” Anderson said.
     “I believe your insinuation is correct, Admiral.  Like our scientists, the Inusannon may have protected their most important discovery to keep it safe from the Reapers by erasing any evidence of it.”
     “Sounds like we need to get a ship out there and quick.  Especially if these planets end up destroyed.  I’ll go meet with Hackett and get somebody out there as soon as possible.”
     “I and Nahlyon would like to accompany whoever is sent, Admiral . . . if that’s not too much trouble.”
     “I’m sure it can be arranged,” Anderson said.  “I’ll keep you in the loop.  Anderson out.”
     The screen went off and Anderson looked to Kahlee whose eyes were alive with excitement.  David started to shake his head.  “Oh no.  I know that look.”
     “I’m going too.”
     The admiral looked at the woman he knew he would spend the rest of his life with and thought about it.  “Well, Shepard’s off at Sur’Kesh and Williams is hunting Aria T’Loak . . . and I’m tired of being stuck ground side,” he said, warming up to the idea.
     “I’m not sure where you’re going with this,” Kahlee said, her voice mired in sarcasm.
     “Possibly no where,” Anderson admitted.  “Truthfully, it’ll be Hackett’s call.  I’ll go talk to him,” he said, standing up from the table.
     Kahlee rose also and closed the small distance between them.  She slid a hand behind his neck and pulled him to her.  She kissed him gently, pulled away, and looked into his face. “Hurry back.  And let’s try not to make it ‘just like old times’ okay?”
     “Yeah, that’s not part of plan, that’s for sure.”
     Anderson turned, seeing images of Saren Arterius and his trail of destruction left decades ago.
* * * * 
     Hackett knew he should probably go see the ship’s doctor about the headaches, but there was too much going on to waste time on such a trivial problem.  
     “Besides,” he thought,”I’ve still got plenty of pills left.  Just need Shepard to make it through Sur’Kesh alive and that will ease the pressure.  Thing’s will domino from a victory there.  Williams will take care of the damned mercs and we’ll only have the rebuilding left to concentrate on . . . as long as nothing else comes up.”
     Anderson came through the fleet admiral’s door.  Hackett dropped his head and blindly reached for his pills.
     “Admiral,” Anderson said, saluting.
     “What can I do for you, David?”
     “Just received some intel from Gelten that I believe needs to be looked into.”
     “I’m listening.”
     “A cross-cycle pattern that has always appeared long before the Reapers arrive to harvest the galaxy.  We detected it on Logan twenty years ago.  The Protheans detected it on Shanthow, and even before them, the Inusannon saw it on Bonevent.”
     “Different names for the same planet?”
     “I wish.  Each of the other two are planets that have been obliterated.  Cause unknown.  Whatever was detected has either moved from planet to planet for over a hundred thousand years or more than one of whatever it is was left behind that long ago.  Either way-“
     “Either way it points at something advanced that survived three Reaper cycles in some way.  Tell your people good work, Anderson.  Who are you sending.”
     “This is where I ask for a small favor, sir,” David said, pausing to figure out how to word the request.  “I was fighting the ground war from day one of the Reaper invasion and now I’ve been on the ground helping to rebuild Earth.  I’m getting stir crazy.  I need to feel space- hear a ship’s engine again.”
     “You want to head up the team to investigate Logan?” Hackett asked, a little surprised.
     “Yes sir.”     
     “Kahlee’s going, isn’t she?” the superior asked with a smile.
     “Yes she is.”
     “Alright, Anderson.  I can spare you for a while.  I’ll even justify it and put it under the purview of your operations.  It may not be Reaper tech, hell, it could turn out that it is Reaper tech.  Either way, if it’s advanced tech of any kind, there’s bound to be benefits to the Alliance from finding it.   And if it’s some planet killer . . . we need to know sooner rather than later.  But be quick about it.  Knowing Shepard, coalition forces will be gathering for liberating Sur’Kesh in short order.”
     “Understood, Admiral,” Anderson said with a salute and then turned and left.
      Hackett, still sitting at his desk, poured a few doses of his pain medication onto the flat, touch sensitive display top.  He reached inside a refrigerated drawer and pulled out a chilled bottle of bourbon and a frosted glass.  He washed the pills down with a double shot of amber liquid and his eyes glazed over in a stupor with images of some new alien threat, washing across the galaxy, eradicating planets without end.
* * * * 
     Major Coats sat in a shuttle on its way to an Alliance cruiser that had recently been repaired and upgraded with the new mass amplifier technology.  The cruiser waited patiently for the passengers of the small ship, which included Anderson’s main team fresh out of their mission briefing.  Coats stared across at Jacob Taylor and Brynn Cole.  Next to them sat the two female Protheans he had heard were found on Mars.  On the expert sniper’s side of the ship sat Anderson, Sanders, and a hooded figure named Kasumi who he was told was an expert in her field of study.  What that was Coats had not been told and he figured that meant he didn’t need to know.
     The longtime ground commando had never been aboard any large Alliance vessel and seeing the cruiser loom into view was an impressive sight.  Having seen the Normandy up close, Coats was struck by how much larger the cruiser class ship was compared to a frigate.  The cruiser was nearly twice the length of the Normandy’s second incarnation.  A massive main gun was the most notable design feature, rising from in between the swept down halves of the ship’s hull that also formed the wings and ran the entire distance from bow to stern.
     “The SSV Kilkenny,” Anderson said.  “It’s a baby as far as its years in the fleet, but it’s a veteran in terms of service and distinction.  It was commissioned five years ago but saw its first real action against Sovereign in the Battle of the Citadel.  It played an instrumental role in keeping Earth hanging on through the Reaper invasion.  Multiple supply drops to those of us in the Resistance and dozens of hit and run attacks against Reaper forces just as they were getting too close to us.”
     “And they’re just letting us come in and take over?” Jacob asked.
     Anderson shook his head.  “In the final attack, Harbinger delivered a critical blow to the Kilkenny’s bridge.  The ship survived, but the command staff were killed instantly and a large portion of the rest of the ship was exposed to vacuum.  Ninety percent of the crew were spaced,” Anderson said with a heavy heart.  “Captain O’Neill was a good friend.”
     Kahlee put a soft hand on the admiral’s knee and gave a squeeze.  Anderson patted her hand with a weak smile as the shuttle approached the sizable hangar with a full compliment of fighters and interceptors.  “I’ll be taking over command for now.  A full crew has been assembled to keep her running.  Once we land, everyone stow whatever gear you brought and get comfortable.  We’ll leave for the Theseus system as soon as the Kilkenny’s systems checks are completed.”
     The crew nodded and Coats patted the titanium case that housed his personal collection of firearms, the only thing he needed.
* * * * 
     “Commander Williams, we have a fix on Aria T’Loak,” Cortez announced.
     “That didn’t take long,” Ashley thought.  “Thanks, Steve,” she replied looking out at the stars from her new room in the commanding officer’s cabin.  “What hell hole is she hiding in?”
     “Not so much hiding, but it is definitely a hell hole . . . now, anyway.  She’s in Chicago.”
     “Of course she is,” the commander said, looking down from the SSV Eden Prime in orbit around Earth.  She told herself she could almost pick out which devastated scorch mark the once major city of North America was.  “Figures she would try to rebuild a crime syndicate in a city synonymous with the word mafia.  But not hiding?”
     “Not in the least. She’s opened up a club already.  Think she’s trying to get into franchising.  It’s called Omega Earth.”
     “Seriously?  After the shit she’s been up to?”
     “Yeah, seems a little ballsy,” the pilot agreed.
     “Well, I don’t think we’re gonna be taking the Eden Prime into Chicago, so prep a shuttle and I’ll take a team in to bring her down.”
     “I’ll send the word out, Commander.  Need a pilot?”
     “Thanks, but Ericson will take the shuttle.  No sense wasting your skills on something that mundane.  You take care of my baby.”
     “Yes ma’am.”
     Down in the hangar, a few minutes later, Ashley picked up an assortment of guns and attached them to her armor.  She joined Garrus, Tali, Zaeed, and Ericson who was getting more and more comfortable outside of the cockpit.  Lanna, Wayne, Lazarus, and Grunt were staying behind but were on alert in case reinforcements were needed.  The Alliance’s newest commander liked having an ace up her sleeve.
     “Gotta be careful, Ash,” Garrus warned.  “I went up against these thugs on Omega.  It can get ugly fast.”
     “Are you worried, Vakarian?” Tali goaded the turian.
     “What?  Archangel?  Scared of the mercenaries that made his name?  Not hardly, Tali,” he answered.      
     “Who’s worried.  We learned under the best,” Ashley said.  “And now we’ve got his clone in training coming with us,” she added, indicating Ericson.
     “Oh, so now I’m a clone of the greatest hero in all of recorded, and probably unrecorded, history? . . . I think I can live with that,” Ericson said with a smile.
     “Alright, big shots, you all done thumping your chests?  I’m ready for action,” Zaeed said.
     “Ericson, take the controls and let’s get to Chicago,” Ashley ordered.  The crew found their seats aboard the shuttle and the door slid closed.  The engines roared to life, the hangar bay door opened, and the Kodiak coasted leisurely out into the cold black.  Seconds later, the craft was feeling toasty, cutting through the Earth’s atmosphere.
     The crew landed shortly, just outside of the scene of carnage left to be called Chicago.  A full moon played a theater of shadows in every direction.  
     “Well, isn’t that just great: I forgot my night-light,” Garrus joked.
     “Nice,” Ericson said, flipping on the light on the scope of his gun.
     “Turn that thing off, Ericson!” Ashley hissed.  “You want to announce our arrival to every merc scout in the mile between here and the club?”
     Ericson looked at the commander, at a loss for words.  “But . . . I . . . we need to see our way there, right?”
     “You’ve got a helmet, right?” she mocked.
     “Uh, yeah . . .”
     Ashley stared the pilot down until he made the connection.
     “Oh!  Night vision.  Sorry.  Just a clone in training, remember?”
     “Definitely not the clone yet.  Memories of experience are one thing, Ericson.  Actual experience is another.”
     “Apparently,” he said, donning his helmet and tapping the visor a few times to activate the night vision.  Instantly, the helmet’s sensors picked up the available light, processed the surrounding environment, and Ericson was looking at a simulated daylight view of the night shrouded area around him.
     He focused on a thin shaft of red light that was swiftly tracking towards the team from an elevated position, originating from a decimated skyscraper a short distance away.  “Sniper! Two o’clock high!” he warned.
     “Get to cover!” Ashley ordered, lurching forward to find a burned out crashed fighter as a spot in the cracked pavement next to her feet exploded into shrapnel.
     The team broke into action, scattering in a line and checking their positions for any other nearby enemies.  Two sniper lasers raced up from the ground, locking in on the gunman and two shots thundered through the chilly air of the windy night.  Two holes exploded in the attacker’s chest and he fell forward, dead long before his plummeting body shattered on the ground ten stories below.
     “Got him!” Ashley and Garrus called out simultaneously.
     “Any other contacts?” Tali asked, peaking around a fallen wall.
     “Negative,” Zaeed answered.
     “I’ve got nothing,” Ericson added.
     Ashley checked the sensor feed to her omni-tool.  No red dots showed on her display either.  “I think we’re clear,” she said, standing up.  She glanced around and then jogged over to the body, keeping her head on the swivel as she went.  
     The team gathered back around her as she examined the bloody armor of a crushed body.  “Blue Suns.  Turian . . . I think,” she said.  “Tali, see if you can pull anything from that omni-tool.”
     “On it,” she said, leaning down to hack into the device.  A minute later her cracking software pulled up several video communications.  She played the most recent.  A turian face popped up.  “Shuttle touched down a couple blocks away.”
     “Who is it?” asked a perturbed asari.
     “Well, look who we’ve got ‘ere,” Zaeed commented.  “The blue queen bitch herself.”
     The recording continued.  “Don’t know, Aria.  Human male, looks like a merc, but not one of ours.  A turian . . . in purple armor that looks awfully familiar. Quarian . . . and human male and female in Alliance colors, just like the shuttle.”
     “Keep them busy until I can send someone to round them up.  I don’t want them making it to the club.  Bad for business, but so is killing Alliance.”
     “Understood, boss.”
     The recording ended.
     “Well, it’s official: Aria knows we’re here, now,” Garrus said.  
     “Sneaking up on them just got a little bit trickier,” Tali said, voicing the sentiment everyone felt.
     “It would be rude to keep them waiting,” Ashley said raising her own Black Widow sniper rifle with a smirk.  “We’ll keep to the back streets and close to the buildings.  No need to make it easy by strolling out in the open down the main strip.”
     The Eden Prime’s crew nodded and followed Commander Williams.  Ashley waved Tali over as the team navigated through debris strewn alleys.  “Yes, Commander?”
     “Commander?  Really, Tali?  I’m still regular old Ash.  Besides, you’re an admiral.  If anyone should be addressing anyone by rank it should be me addressing you, not the other way around.”
     “Sorry, Ashley.  Just wanted to show proper respect for someone new to command.  I know I would have appreciated it.”
     “I do, Tali, thanks, but I’ve never been one for titles.  Right now, I need you to do something.”
     “What is it?”
     “You’re good with all the decryption and code cracking tech stuff.  Can you tap into the mercs’ comm-links, real-time?”
     “I’ll get on it,” the quarian complied, lifting her arm with her omni-tool springing to life.  “There’s a few different channels open, but this one is coming from nearby.  I’ll link us all in.”
     There was a brief blip of static on the audio channel before Tali’s program adjusted for the encrypted signal and voices came through.
     “. . . gone.  Whoever it was got him clean.  Two shots to the chest if that’s which part of him I’m even looking at,” said one voice.
     “Great.  They’re probably heading for Aria” said another.


     “That is not going to happen.  Am I understood.  I don’t want whoever they are bothering her.  Comb the streets until you find them.  Then bring them to me.”
     “That’s just great,” Garrus said.  “At least we’ll be able to stay ahead of them as long as they keep talking.”

     “And maintain radio silence from here on,” said the second voice.

     “Just had to say it, didn’t you?” Tali asked.
     “Let’s keep going,” Ashley said, not looking back.  “Keep your eyes open, though.  I don’t want to get caught-“
     The crashing sound of a speeding vehicle rushed up from behind Ashley and her comrades, its lights locked in on them.  They turned and watched a Mako roll into view.  “-with our pants down,” she finished the sentence.

        The doors to the tank opened and a handful of mercenaries filed out, heavy weapons drawn.  They closed in on their prey, stepping to within inches, confident in their numbers and superior fire power from the Mako.  It was confidence not based in reality.

     “You three: lower your weapons.  Now!” the lead thug commanded.
     “Three?” Ashley wondered, almost asking it out loud before she caught herself.  The commander looked to her left and right as she lowered her weapon to the ground.  No one was to her left.  Garrus and Tali were dropping their weapons to her right.  “Where the hell-?”
     Shots rang out from behind the mercenaries.  Two of them were flash frozen by cryo rounds from Ericson’s Mattock rifle before they could even turn around.  A third was caught in mid spin by another freezing shot.  At the same time, a concussive shot from Zaeed’s Viper smashed into the unfortunate soul, shattering his frozen body with explosive force.  The last two men managed to complete their turn only to leave them exposed to a lightning strike from behind by a knife wielding Garrus.  The mercenaries were dead without having fired a shot.
     Ericson and Zaeed rejoined the team, stepping over the dead as they came.  Zaeed walked over to the two frozen mercenaries and casually knocked them over, the members of the Blue Suns powerless to stop the fall that broke their bodies on the ground.  Zaeed looked up at the Mako.  “Looks like everything just got a bit easier,” he said with a twisted smile.
     “Where in the hell did you guys disappear to?” Ashley asked, confused.
     “Knew they’d be close real quick after hitting that scout at the L-Z.  Heard ’em coming while you all were chit chattin’ away.  Decided to surprise them while they surprised you,” Zaeed answered.
     “And you?” Williams questioned Ericson.
     He simply shrugged and pointed at Zaeed.  “I just followed him.”
     “At least someone was payin’ attention,” the rough soldier said.  “But I’ve got a question: where’d the knife come from, Vakarian?”
     Garrus looked at the infamous mercenary in shock.  “What?  Doesn’t everybody carry one in a concealed boot pocket at all times?” he asked innocently.
     “Okay okay, before more of this ‘chit chatting’ gets us caught a second time, let’s take Zaeed’s suggestion,” Ashley said.  “Everyone in the Mako.  A little Trojan Horse action might just be what we need.”
     “Trojan horse?” Garrus asked.
     “I’ll explain it later,” Ashley promised.
* * * * 
     “So, this Trojan horse idea . . . is it supposed to end with us like this?” Garrus asked calmly from a kneeling position.  His hands were tied behind his back and the muzzle of a gun rested on the back of his head.    
     Ashley looked over from her identical situation. “Not exactly,” she answered.

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 10

 Chapter 10

     Shepard cooked the last fresh meat he would have for a while in the Normandy’s oven.  An array of seasonings and spices were scattered on the counter around the stove top and a line of different sauces waited on the prep area behind him.  He hadn’t decided on what flavors to add yet.
     “See, now that’s what I’m gonna miss most about being stationed on Earth,” Vega said, coming around the corner from the elevator.  
     The sweat drenching the gym rat’s shirt tipped off Shepard that Vega had just come up from finishing one of his famously intense workouts in the hangar below.  “You said it, James. Back to whatever we can scrounge up on the road as we go.”
     “Well, at least there will be more to go around, right?”
     Shepard looked down at the oven and pictured the meat on dozens of plates as only a small part of a meal instead of the main course.  Then he saw the number of plates cut in half and frowned.  “I suppose.  To be honest, I was just getting used to the chaos.”
     Vega bobbed his head.  “I know what you mean, Loco . . . it is kinda quiet now.  No Garrus to talk to shit to, and now I’ve got no krogan to spar with cuz Wrex refuses. And, damn if that-” The marine cut himself off, looking over both shoulders.  Seeing no one, he leaned in and whispered,”That Lieutenant Hayes was pretty hot.  What was she, some sort of Asian mix?  That’s still on the checklist, if you know what I mean?” he said with a wink.
     Shepard shook his head.  Maybe a friendly warning was in order.  “Her files said Thai and Irish if you want specifics.  But you keep those thoughts hanging around and you’ll be heading for an early grave, don’t you think?”
     “Why do you think I was whispering, Shepard?  I just said she was hot.  I wasn’t planning on doing anything other than admiring from a distance.  I’m not suicidal.  Besides,” he said, leaning back and returning to a normal volume,”Jack’s pretty damn hot herself.”
     “Good to know,” came Jack’s voice from around the corner in the hallway, her hands dripping with water.  She gave Vega a squinting-eyed look of suspicion, but then directed her attention to the captain.  “You know, for as advanced as this piece of crap is, you’d think they could keep the hand dryer working.  No offense EDI,” Jack said, looking up at no spot in particular.
     “None taken, Jack,” said the AI over one of the Normandy’s many speakers available to the synthetic.
     Shepard grabbed a towel hanging on the oven’s handle and tossed it past Vega, over to the tattooed biotic.  She smiled.  “How old fashioned of you.”
     “Sometimes the old ways are the most reliable.”
     Jack dried her hands and twirled the towel in to a tight spiral and snapped it at Vega’s backside.  It connected with a loud smack and the unsuspecting soldier jumped.  “Yah!” he cried out.  He turned around and snatched the cloth with battle tested reflexes that managed to somehow catch Jack off guard.  “You see how abusive she is to me, Shepard?” 
     “Shut the fuck up, meat head.”  She poked her finger at a few of his tattoos, giving Shepard a sideways glance.  “He likes it.  Shit, look at what he does to himself.  His pleasure is pain.  Isn’t it, baby?” Jack asked, sticking her face within inches of his with a smile.  Shepard could tell it was not a mean spirited expression, but an honest one.  He found himself mirroring her, the muscles in his cheeks pulling at his face.  Shepard saw Vega try to glare angrily at Jack, but his attempt at seriousness failed.  
     He joined the smiling comrades.  “Damn it, Tats,” he said, giving her a quick kiss.
     “That’s more like it,” Jack said, grabbing Vega by the hand and pulling him back towards the hallway.  “I’m going to need your marine for a while, Shepard,” she called.
     “Permission granted,” Shepard laughed as they disappeared from view.
     “Don’t I get a say in this?” Vega’s voice echoed down the hall.
     “No,” Jack answered.  
     EDI spoke to the retreating couple as they went.  “Jack, this time, do not forget the-“.
     “Got it covered, EDI, thanks,” the killer turned teacher cut her off.
     “Wait, Joker said you didn’t watch, EDI” Vega said.
     “No, I said she doesn’t record, dumbass.  Don’t forget that she’s the entire ship,” the pilot jumped in.  “She can sorta see and hear everything.  Believe me.”
     “Oh . . . right . . .”
     “Do not worry, James,” EDI said.  “I do not watch.”
     “Oh.  Okay.  Good,” Vega replied, relaxing.
     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.
     “Touché, Captain.”
     Shepard looked to EDI.  “See if there’s anything you can do about cutting that initialization time down or maybe it’s just a matter of breaking the new components in.  Either way, we need faster reaction from it.”
     “I will do so, Shepard,” she acknowledged.
     Kirrahe nodded to Shepard.  “We will arrive at my home world soon.  I will go prepare my men.  I suggest you pick your team and prep them as well.”
     “Agreed,” the Spectre said and walked off the bridge, the salarian commander following him.
* * * * 

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

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

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

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

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


Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 9

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

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 8

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

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 7

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

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 6

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

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 5

Chapter 5
     Shepard watched Tinman immediately organize his fellow geth in yet another major repair of the Normandy SR-2 a day after the attack over Mars.  Shepard had ordered Joker to set down nearby the Archives since certain repairs would require all systems to be off-line.  The Mars facilities would house the crew during those times, but right now every able hand was on board helping out.  Javik and Liara were the exceptions, the Normandy’s “odd couple,” another Vega-coined nickname, searching the Prothean data archives for anything that could help repair the relays instead.
     Watching the geth work in a unified and helpful way, instead of unified attacks against him, was refreshing and impressive to Shepard.  The frigate would be up and back to fighting shape in about two days instead of three weeks.  Not that the Alliance officer wanted to get back to any battle so soon, but with the yahg seemingly able to make massive light year jumps without the mass relays, there was no telling when trouble might show up again.
     “Speaking of yahg,” the captain thought, “I better go see what’s going on with that end of things.”  He turned from the repairs on the systems surrounding the galaxy map in the CIC and looked to Specialist Traynor. “Samantha, please contact Admiral Hackett.  I need to speak with him about the yahg.  I’ll take it in the vid comm room.”
     “Aye aye, Captain,” Traynor complied.  “And when you get a chance, Shepard, both Lieutenant Commander Williams and Miss Lawson want to speak with you . . . about, um-“
     Shepard held up a hand for her to stop. “Thanks, Traynor.  You don’t need to say anything else.  I could’ve guessed what it was about if I hadn’t already heard.  I’ll take care of that after they’ve had a while to cool off.”
     “Good idea, Captain,” Traynor agreed.  “And I’ll have Hackett on the line by the time you get to the war room.”
     “Thanks,” the captain said, a light damaged in the recent battle swinging loosely above his clean shaved head, throwing lights and shadows in a lazy repetition.  Shepard reached up with a flash of anger, stilled the annoyance, and then left.  “Two days,” he reminded himself walking off, leaving Traynor behind to wonder why the out of place light had bothered the normally coolheaded, N7-trained marine.
     Shepard made his way through the war room, noticing Wrex and Grunt both hunched over, looking at something on the central holo-display.  The mischievous glint in their eyes told the Normandy’s leader that they were anticipating a fight.  He made a mental note to check in with the fierce warriors after he was done with Hackett.
     In the vid comm room, Hackett’s blue hued image materialized.  The older man had never looked happy in any meeting Shepard could ever recall having with the admiral.  Now was no different.
     “Shepard,” he greeted the captain.
     “Admiral.  What have the intel boys learned?”
     “Nothing good, I’m afraid.  And it was almost nothing helpful. If we’d had one more itching trigger finger, we might not have salvaged the tech from the yahg dreadnought ships that we did.”
     “And that was . . .?”
     “A new engine design.  Very advanced.”
     “New?  From the yahg?  Last I heard, they were still months away from their first launch into space, period.  Before the Reapers.  How did they jump to a “very advanced” stage all of sudden?”
     “We’re guessing they had some help.”
     “But from who?”
     “We’re not one hundred percent, but they definitely didn’t come up with this on their own.  Some of the designs are similar to what you saw on the collector ship . . . but different.”
     “Reaper tech,” Shepard said with disgust, the uneasy feeling of the last few days beginning to find a source.
     “But with changes.  Adaptations- improvements– that a less advanced race like the yahg could not have come up with on their own.  Our scientists are reverse engineering it now, trying to figure out how it allows them to make the mass relay jumps without working mass relays.  I’ll send a copy of the data we have to T’Soni if it might help in some way with her mass relay research down on Mars.  There’s still a lot we don’t know about the relays.  They appear dead, and for the rest of the galaxy’s purposes, they are, but the yahg may have stumbled on to some hidden side to the relay technology, some new form of energy that is still being channeled by the relays even now.”
     “That’d be nice.  Return travel and communications back to normal.  It would be handy to still be able to utilize the relay network without having to figure out how to repair the damn things,” Shepard said.
     “It could be a handy new tool or it could be a new deadly weapon.  If the yahg can jump to the Sol relay, why not any other system’s relay? Even if we learn how they’re doing it, they have the advantage right now.  We’re playing catch up.  If the yahg are out there, able to reach even half of the populated systems, while the galaxy’s fleets are all still here . . .”
     “Then we’re perfectly safe, while everyone else- have the Rachni reported anything?” Shepard suddenly asked.
     “I had the same thoughts, Captain,” Hackett said.  “But no, they have not. I’ve asked them to move their . . . people.  Do a little scouting for us.  Hopefully we hear nothing.”
     “I doubt we’ll be that lucky,” Shepard admitted with a frown.
     “You and me both.  All the more reason to get the relays working or this engine figured out and adapted to our ships.  So get back to the Archives.  Find some answers.  In the meantime, I’ll speak with the geth and make a priority schedule for ship repairs.”
     “Civilian ships won’t be at the top, will they, Admiral?”
     “No, they won’t.  I guess a week with no war after finishing the Reapers was too much to ask, huh?”
     “Work to do,” Hackett stated, drawing the briefing to an end.
     “We’ll figure it out, sir.  Shepard out.”
     Shepard ended the meeting with a tap on the console and left the room.  He glanced around the war room. Wrex and Grunt were gone.
* * * * *
     “Traynor, where are our new crew members right now?” Shepard asked through his communicator as he rode the Normanday’s elevator downward.
     “With their ships, trying to squeeze whatever modifications they can out of the geth helping them do repairs.”
     “They’re real pilots, all right.  Thanks.”
     Shepard changed his floor selection from the crew deck to the combination armory and hangar deck.  Lunch would wait.  He needed to meet his two pilots now that their was time.  His stomach growled in protest, but he ignored it as he had many times before.
     The elevator stopped and the doors opened.  Shepard stepped out on to the wide open floor of the hangar.  He saw Cortez working with a couple geth on the Kodiak’s repairs, Vega curling dumbbells across the room, and in the center, the two prototype fighters from Cerberus, two new faces, and a handful of other geth.  The two pilots’ backs were turned to Shepard, focused on their work.  The captain walked to within a few paces when he decided to have a little fun.
     “Lieutenants Ericson and Murphy!” he bellowed.
     Wayne Murphy jolted in shock.  Ericson did not even blink an eye, but casually looked up from a data pad displaying what Shepard made out to be the shield generator unit’s designs.  Ericson saw the serious look on Shepard’s face and quickly put the pad down and lined up next to Wayne, at attention and saluting.
     “Sir, yes sir!” they both responded.
     Shepard stepped in close, staring the men down.  Murphy held a small bit of worry, not quite graduating to fear, in his eyes while Ericson returned the stare with an even calm.
     “I came down here,” Shepard continued in a harsh tone, pacing back and forth in front of the men,”to find out just who the hell is responsible . . . for saving me and my team,” he finished in a normal voice and with a smile.  “At ease, gentlemen.”
     The two men relaxed as Shepard held out his hand in greeting to them both.  “Welcome to the Normandy . . . officially.  I’m Captain Shepard and this is about as formal as you’re likely to ever see me.”
     Wayne and Ericson shook their commanding officer’s hand, his firm handshake not just a formality or kindness, but a sign of respect to two men who had earned it the day before.
     “Our pleasure, Captain.  Nothing we like more than being the first to tangle with a new deadly enemy,” Ericson said with a slight grin.
     “I hear you,” Shepard said.  “How are the ships?”
     Ericson turned back to face the space craft, pulling up his data pad again.  “Our geth friends have almost completed all the work to bring them back up to spec, but I’ve managed to work a few tweaks out of their quick little synthetic minds.”
     “Such as?” Shepard prompted.
     “Nothing major.  Increased cooling on the engine and guns, another missile mount on each wing, and about a ten percent reduction in shield recharge time.”
     “Not bad.  We can use every edge we can get out there.  Good work, marine.”
     “Thank you, sir.”
     “Call me Shepard, Ericson.  Same goes for you, Murphy.  Unless you screw up.  Then you better start with the ‘sir, yes sir’ again.”
     “Or just call him Loco,” Vega said, putting the weights down and coming over.  “Fuck, you already took that name for yourselves.  It should come naturally, no?”
     Shepard arched an eyebrow.  “Took the name?”
     Ericson laughed.  “Yeah, Joker wanted us to have a name for our little two man squad, and Vega had mentioned his nickname for you.  I figured since we were flying under your command now, and were about to jump into the middle of an insane shit storm over Mars, Locos was as good as anything else I could have come up with.”
     “Uh huh,” Shepard said, crossing his arms in simulated anger.  “Don’t you two go ruining my good name- um, nickname?  Reputation- whatever.”
     The group of men laughed lightly.  “Yeah, as well as your two man group did, I was thinking of adding a third if we can squeeze it in here somehow.  So if there’s anyone you two know that you’ve worked with before, I’ll take your suggestions under advisement.”
     Ericson and Wayne looked at each other and both nodded.  “We might have just the person you’re  looking for, Captain.  I’ll send you the info when I’m done here,” the pilot said.
     Shepard waved them off.  “I’ll let you get back to spoiling your babies, but don’t be strangers on the Normandy.  If you’re like anyone else that’s served on my crew, you’re liable to become a permanent resident.”
     “Will do, Shepard,” Ericson said.  He and Wayne saluted and went back to work.
     James didn’t move, waiting for Shepard.  “Hey Loco, you got a minute?”
     “Sure, James.  What’s up?”
     “I had a question.  It’s a little personal, though.”
     “And you are going to let that stop you?” Shepard asked, wondering where the conversation was about to lead.
     “Ha, I guess you’re right.  Look, I know you and Jack were sort of close back during the collector thing.  I mean, I know it never got to where you and Lawson are, but I know Jack wanted it to.”
     Shepard saw where Vega was going and wondered how he, an N7 marine, by all reports an expert- if not cold-blooded- killer, had become matchmaker on an Alliance frigate.  “Joker and Edi, Donnelly and Gabby, and now Vega and . . . Jack?” Shepard checked off. “At least Garrus and Tali had done things on their own,” he admitted, feeling an honest happiness for his longtime turian and quarian friends.
     James went on,”What I wanted to know, if you don’t mind answering, anyway, is why didn’t you end up with Jack?  Something warn you off of her or she do something that turned you off or something?”
     “Vega, why do I sense fear in your questions?  You’re not worried about Jack’s attention, are you?” he teased his fellow marine.
     “No way, Loco . . . just worried about her wrath if I don’t play things straight . . . or even if I do.  She’s even more loco than you, right?”
     “Look, Jack was a ticking time bomb when she first came on board.  She was angry, she was scared, she was confused, and ready to lash out at anyone and everyone for anything or nothing at all.”
     “So . . . keep my distance?”
     Shepard shook his head.  “No.  I’m just detailing how things used to be.  Jack’s come a long way.  She’s beaten some of her biggest demons, she’s matured, learned how to be part of a team and trust others.  Hell, she’s even become a leader in her own right with her biotic students.”
     “So . . . don’t keep my distance.  But why didn’t you go after her.  I mean, she’s a hot chica and pretty fun if you don’t have to worry about biotic destruction.  What gives with you two?”
     “What gives is that things between Miranda and I had begun developing first and faster.  Jack was too closed off and distrustful of everyone, not just me, and that made any level of relationship difficult to follow through on.  But, if Miranda had not been on board, I’m sure things would have turned out differently.  So feel free to pursue Jack, if you’re serious.  Don’t toy with her emotions just to get laid, marine, or you’ll be dealing with the most powerful biotic the universe has ever produced.  And you’ll be dealing with me,” Shepard said, pointing his thumb back at his chest.  “Understood?”
     “Understood, Loco.  Jeez, man, you don’t gotta get all serious on me.  I’m not the player type.  When I care about a girl, I care about them.  It generally ends with me more hurt than them, but that’s only because I try so hard to make it work.  Just wanted to know if I was about to jump in over my head and end up as a splash of red goo dripping down a wall.”
     “Vega, I think you’re just what Jack needs.  You’re obviously who she wants.”
     “Yeah, she’s not shy about hiding it, that’s for sure.”  Shepard turned to go and caught a look from Vega.  “Something else, James?”
     “Nah . . . just- thanks, Shepard.”
     Shepard smiled and left the hangar.  “Time for some food,” he reassured his angry stomach.
* * * *
     The captain finished off a medium-rare t-bone steak, dripping in a tangy barbecue sauce.  “There are some advantages to being savior of the universe,” he told Miranda who was reading over reports from the terminal next to the bed in Shepard’s cabin.
     “And you have no idea how much that cost,” Miranda said, looking up with a smile.
     Shepard stood up and made his way over to sit down next to Miranda.  She looked over at him.
     “What?” she asked.
     “This,” he answered, leaning in and kissing her.  He savored the kiss more than he had the steak.
     “Mmmm, barbecue,” Miranda said after Shepard leaned back.  Shepard looked at his beautiful woman and they both laughed.
     “I can’t remember the last time I just took a spare second for myself to enjoy the simple pleasures,” the captain contemplated out loud.
     “What, you don’t remember last night?” his lover asked with feigned shock.
     “Ha!  There was nothing simple about those pleasures, those positions, last night, Ms. Lawson,” he replied with his attempt at a seductive look meant to ask for more of the previous evening’s activities.
     “Shepard, put that face away before you embarrass yourself . . . again,” she laughed, smacking his shoulder playfully.  “Besides,” she continued, moving over to climb on top of him, while beginning to unzip her top,”it’s not like you need it.”
     “Is that right?”
     “Mm hmm,” she reassured him as her shirt fell to the floor, soon after by the rest of her clothes.  Shepard’s own garments quickly joined hers and he pulled Miranda down with him, lying down on his large bed.  He felt the warmth of her naked body on his and wrapped his arms around her.  He slid his fingers through the strands of her hair, pulled her face to his and kissed her again.  She responded by running a hand down Shepard’s side, across his lower stomach, and then below.
     “Well, aren’t we a little excited?” she said with a knowing smile.
     “More excited than last night, and the term little didn’t come up then,” he said.
     Miranda shook her head, smiling, and then shifted their bodies to let Shepard inside her.  She moaned lightly with the pure sensation taking hold of her.  She closed her eyes and whispered,”I love you, Shepard.”
     “I love you, Miranda,” Shepard confirmed with a steady look into his lover’s eyes.
     “I know,” she said, enjoying the truth behind both of their words.  She pushed herself down on Shepard quickly, forcing an uncontrolled sharp breath from him and then said,”I expect to be sore tomorrow, Captain.”
     “Yes, ma’am, Ms. Lawson,” Shepard obeyed, meeting her force with an equal and opposing one.
* * * *
     Hours later, Tinman stopped Shepard in the CIC.  “Shepard, the Normandy’s repairs require more materials to continue.  We can process the wreckage of the yahg ships to fill this need.  We ask for your help in procuring the metals since many of our available ships in this system are not designed to carry large amounts of supplies.”
     A well rested and very relaxed Captain Shepard nodded.  “Not a problem, Tinman.  I’ll just have one of our Alliance transports scout out the crash sites for useful materials.  Feel free to help with that or you can continue on the repairs here . . . unless there is something you’d rather be working on altogether.”
     “Thank you, Shepard.  I will work on the repairs.  As for our- my preference, this is still an organic trait I have not fully developed.  The geth collective nature, prior to Legion’s freeing us, is still a key component of our decision processes.  I am aware of so-called preferences only arising around that which benefits all geth and our allies.  Personal preferences . . . may develop after more time in my new, more isolated, existence.”
     “Fair enough.  Just let me know when repairs are complete.  And take whatever breaks you and your people need.  You’ve been kicking ass for days all across the fleets.  We don’t expect you to slave away for us.  If you need anything, you let me know.”
     “Acknowledged, Shepard,” the prime said.  The geth member of the Normandy turned, crouched, and shuffled into the elevator, taking it back down to do repairs in engineering.  That suggestion had been made from a quick contact with Javik, earlier, via Garrus.  “The message,” the turian had informed Shepard,”was: ‘turian, tell the Captain the machines are to make repairs of none of my quarters and only on that level when I am not present.  I am not present, now.”
     Shepard left the CIC and met Ashley at the Normandy’s exit off the side of the bridge.
     “Ready to go read some Prothean lit?” he asked.
     “Eh, whatever,” she replied coldly.
     Shepard clenched his jaw.  He could already tell the talk they were going to have was not going to be as quick and painless as the one with Miranda.  That had consisted of Shepard coming in to his quarters, finding Miranda patiently waiting for him, followed by her preemptive apology.  It had been completely unexpected.
     “Look, Shepard,” she had said,”I . . . I’m sorry.”
     “For?” he asked, though he’d already heard.
     “For being the Cerberus cheerleader bitch that Jack always made me out to be.”
     “What do you mean, Miranda?”
     “I mean your Lieutenant Commander Williams was right.  This is an Alliance ship, now.  It follows Alliance rules.  I interfered and over stepped my boundaries.  It won’t happen again.”
     Shepard eyed Miranda suspiciously.  “Okay, how about you tell me how you really feel, now,” he had prodded her.
     She let out a deep breath.  “God damn it, I hate that bitch!”
     “A little harsh, but more what I expected to hear,” he confided.
     “I just- I admit, I still think of the ship as a Cerberus ship.  I see Joker and Garrus, Tali and Grunt, even Jack, and think of our crew.  How I was running things if I wasn’t in on whatever mission you were off trying to re-kill yourself on.  But then I see Liara, instead of Samara, Vega instead of Zaeed or Jacob.  No Thane, no Samara, not even Legion.  It’s hard to let go of command or even being part of the chain.  I’m out of my element, Shepard.”
     “I know, Miranda, but so is everyone else.  This rebuilding effort is going to be tough on everyone, and if the yahg are getting thrown into the mix, a lot more will be asked of everyone, too.”
     “You’re right.  And I’ll work it out, but it doesn’t help knowing your past with her.”
     “And now we come to the heart of it,” Shepard thought, before continuing.  “Miranda, you know things between Ash and I are through.  You’re the only woman I need . . . or want. You don’t have anything to worry about.”
     Miranda had come over to him and leaned into his chest, her cheek resting against his black armor with its red highlights.  “You’re sweet to say it, Shepard, and I know it.  But she doesn’t.  Not really.  I can see it in her eyes every time you two are in the same room together.  It’s like Jack was, but it’s more because you and Williams . . . were more.”
     “‘Were’ being the key word.  Ashley knows how I feel.  When she couldn’t trust me on Horizon, that was the beginning of our end.  She didn’t trust me after that, and lasting relationships are built on trust.  You and I have that, Miranda.  Ash trusted me barely then, and even after I came back to the Alliance, she was questioning me.  Reapers were destroying Earth and she was questioning me on Mars about ties to Cerberus.  Then on the Citadel, she let a bastard like Udina play on that again to the point I almost had to pull the trigger on a good friend.  It’s safe to say there’s no repairing that bridge.  We’re still friends, and she trusts me again now . . . I think, but there’s no going back to what she and I were.  Even if I had never lost her trust, she’s no Miranda Lawson,” Shepard had finished.
     “Oh, you’re pathetic,” Miranda had joked, looking up to his face.  “If you think sad attempts at ass kissing are going to win me over . . . well then you are absolutely right.”
     “A good night,” Shepard reminded himself, facing the present once more.  Looking at the cold expression on Ashley’s face, he could feel the ensuing battle.  The inner door opened to the Normandy’s airlock and the two officers stepped in to have it close behind them and activate the decontamination scan automatically with every exit and entrance.  The scan completed in a single bright flash of light.  Shepard guessed the much quicker speed was no doubt a result of a geth upgrade, one for which he was very grateful.  “Note to self: ask about elevators,” he thought, for the hundredth time.
     The outer door of the airlock opened.  Shepard and his lieutenant commander stepped out on to the landing zone and made their way across the short distance between the Normandy and the entrance into the main archive center on Mars.  After another decontamination scan, they entered the controlled environment inside and took off their helmets.
     Shepard turned to Ashley,”We need to talk, Ash.”
     “About what, Shepard?” she practically spat.
     “I’ll be blunt.  Your and Miranda’s fight.  I won’t sugarcoat it- you were both out of line.  I don’t need two of my best and most respected crew members having a pissing contest in front of the crew.  I don’t need a situation that’s going to divide my team into picking sides between you two.”
     “Maybe you should have thought about that before sleeping with the enemy, hot shot.”
     Shepard grabbed Ashley’s arm and stopped her in her tracks, turning her to face him.  “You do not want to go down that path with me, Ashley.”
     “But how can you trust her, Shepard?” Ashley demanded.  “She’s never been Alliance, like us.  She’s never served in a military unit . . . she was part of a terrorist organization.  She was in the highest levels of Cerberus! . . . and she murdered her dad.  I would kill to have my father here, alive today.  She went out of her way to kill her’s.  How can you trust someone who kills their own family?”
     “You know the situation wasn’t that cut and dry, Ash.  You were on Sanctuary.  You saw what her father was doing, how twisted a man he was.  She had known that her whole life.  Father or not,  Miranda knew that the galaxy was a better place without him in it.”
     Ashely took a deep breath and let it out, contemplating in silence for a moment.  “Since we’re being honest and blunt and all that . . . I just don’t know if I can be on the same ship as her, Shepard.  Seeing you every day is hard enough.  I fucked that up, I know.  I can live with that.  But seeing you with her every day . . . I don’t know if I can keep doing that.”
     “Look, Ashley.  I can understand where you’re coming from, and I may not want my team picking sides, but I have no problem doing exactly that.  I picked you over Kaidan all those years ago and that was with the certain knowledge that the one of you I didn’t help would die.  This isn’t even close to being that serious, so don’t think I can’t make that decision.”
     Ashley looked away.  “That’s not fair, Shepard.”
     “And what you two are doing to me is?  Come on, Ash.  We both know this isn’t about Alliance versus ex-Cerberus.  This is you versus Miranda . . . for me.  And that decision has been made.  I can assure you of that.”
     An unbidden hint of moisture threatened to spill over Ashley’s eyelids.  “I . . . I know.  I just . . . I’ll pull it together, sir,” she finished, straightening what had become a defeated slouching stance.  She saluted, staring Shepard in the eyes, the tears still held barely in check.
     Shepard saluted back.  “Glad to hear it.  I can’t have my second in command be distracted right now.”
     “Second in command?  But I thought . . .”
     “What?  That I was going to demote you?  You’re still the second highest ranking Alliance officer on the Normandy.”
     “But Miranda-“
     “Is a freelance consultant . . . who grudgingly admitted that she was wrong and will stay out of your way when it comes to the chain of command on board.  But if a mission comes up and I feel success would come best from you two working together, I expect both of you to get the job done.”
     “Yes sir.”
     “Without killing each other,” he added with a smile.
     Ashley smiled and a relieved laugh escaped.  “I’ll do my best, sir.”
     “That’s all I’m asking, Ash.  I need you on the Normandy.  Both of you.  We’ve all had our asses saved one time or another by the two of you.  We won’t be as strong a team if one of you decides to leave.  That’s not what we need . . . and that’s not what I want,” the captain finished.
     “Yes sir.  Now can we go do a mission or something?”
     “I know, I know: awkward situations.”
     Shepard motioned down the hallway to the main research data center.  “Lead the way, Lieutenant Commander.”
     “Thank you, sir,” Ashley said, heading down the corridor.
     Shepard waited a few steps, letting Ashley get out of earshot, and then exhaled in relieved happiness.  “How the hell did I get out of that one with all my parts intact?” he asked himself before following his brunette comrade.
     Their steps echoed on the metal flooring, the once bustling hub for researchers of every stripe now hauntingly empty and quiet, saturated in the feelings of loss.  Shepard felt a small chill run down his back, similar to when he had been in the ruins of Ilos or when he had experienced Javik’s memories of the ancient Prothean cities being destroyed on Eden Prime.
     From around a corner and through the open lab door, Shepard heard Liara and Javik arguing yet again.
     “You have mistranslated, T’Soni.  It is not possible.  Any and every advantage was researched and exploited in our war with the Reapers.  Our scientists would not have abandoned that.”
     “I may not be a native Prothean speaker, but I can read this easily, Javik.  And it wasn’t your scientists that abandoned it.  The military leaders forced them to stop.”
     Shepard came through the door as Javik walked over to read over Liara’s shoulder.  Ashley already had positioned herself at one of the free computer consoles and was manipulating the screens, watching Alliance feeds on one and Spectre feeds on the other.  “You should see the list of suggested Spectres going around, Captain,” she said, her tone betraying no clue of the conversation they had just finished.
     “Who’s jumping out at you, Ash?”
     “Garrus, for one.”
     “Makes sense to me.”
     “Yeah, but this one might surprise you.”
     “Anything to do with surviving a hundred Rachni single-handedly?”
     “Something like that.  Wish I’d been on that mission.”
     “No you don’t,” Shepard assured her with a smile.  “Anyone else in particular?”
     “Not that I know, but there’s talk about allowing a geth to apply . . . eventually.  Oh, and a Prothean.”
     Javik looked up from verifying what Liara had been telling him.  “That is absurd.  They will not find another Prothean.  I am the only . . . oh.  Still, it is based on their emotions alone.  They do not know me, my full capabilities, or my motivations.  Primitives,” he said, shaking his head and looking back over Liara’s findings.  “This- this cannot be,” the warrior said.  “They gave up.  They conceded the war to the Reapers!”      Shepard looked up from a Spectre message on Ashley’s screen detailing a new recruitment and approval process now that the Council was dead.  “What?” he asked, as shocked as Javik.
     “They had the answer.  If they had just finished building it . . . we could have won!  At the very least we could have escaped the Reapers perpetually.”
     “You’re not talking about the Crucible, are you?” Shepard asked, feeling he knew the answer already.
     “No, Captain.  It seems our scientists were researching many projects, but near the end they focused on two.  The Crucible and one other project: a new engine for our ships.  This report speaks in generalities, but it would have had the same power and ability as the mass relays!  But they ended that research.  Not because of Reaper attacks, but because they were worried about the technology falling into Reaper hands!  They killed the project leaders before the prototype was completed because they refused to give up on it.”
     “Makes sense to end the project, but not kill the scientists.  If the Reapers no longer needed to depend on the relays, they’d be able to jump into any system at any time.  Destroying relays wouldn’t even be able to slow them down,” Shepard said.
     “Well it looks like the yahg must have stumbled on to that prototype engine and finished it,” Ashley added.  “How else could they be jumping in to our system?”
     “But they jumped in at the mass relay, human,” Javik said.  “This design would have allowed them to jump straight to Earth.”
     “So they came up with it on their own?” Ashley asked the Prothean.
     “I do not see how.  They are the most primitive species worth mentioning in this cycle.  They have had help, but I do not know from whom.”
     Liara met Shepard’s sudden look her direction and knew they had both come to the same conclusion.  “The Shadow Broker,” the asari whispered.
     “Your predecessor?” Javik asked.
     “Hold on,” Liara said, attacking the nearest console.  She accessed root programming files quickly, searching for a sub-routine she hoped would not be there.
     “Process located,” a computer voice confirmed.  Liara looked down.
     “I . . . I never thought to look here,” she said in an apologetic tone.
     “The Shadow Broker had an agent here, didn’t he?” Shepard inquired.
     “At one point, yes, but not for some years.  I remember a report of very little of value being found in the archives beyond what was widely known.  Clearly that was misinformation planted in the Shadow Broker’s files by his own hand.  And whoever was here left access to the archives at his disposal.  And it has been accessed recently.”
     Shepard stood up.  “How much?  How recently?”
     “Constantly, right up until the mass relays were destroyed by the Crucible.”
     “But the Shadow Broker’s dead.  Who was doing that?”
     “Clearly this Shadow Broker left a subordinate on his home planet to continue whatever plans he had set in motion,” Javik suggested.
     “The question is what those plans are,” Liara stated.
     “And if the yahg have had access to the archives for all this time, then why are they so intent on getting back here?  What are we missing?” Ashley wondered.
     Shepard looked around the room.  It was a good point.  “It must be something that data can’t provide.  Something physical.  I’m guessing the actual prototype engine.  They may have found ealry plans that were incomplete and now they want the real thing.  And we need to find it first.”  Shepard opened communications to the Normandy.  “Joker, get EDI to run a scan of the Prothean ruins on Mars.  Those yahg are after something down here and we need to know what.”
     “Well, if you give them enough time, they might just tell you, Captain,” Joker radioed back.
     Shepard’s eyes widened.  “Joker?”
     “We’ve got inbound.  Just came out of FTL.  They must have taken out the small group we had flying patrol around the relay before they got a warning message off.  Luckily we’ve got a few dozen ships still in the area, but the yahg look like they’ve brought half their fleet.  Of course, that’s just me pulling statistics out of my ass, but it’s a lot of damn ships.  And they’re landing troop transports!”
     “Same as before,” Shepard said, looking at the crew members in front of him.  “And they already know our strength here.  That confirms it. Mars holds something of extremely high importance and we need to find and protect it from the yahg.  Joker, is the Normandy ready for battle?”
     “No sir, we’re going to have to leave and let the fleet handle this one.  But don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of time to get back.”
     “I’m not coming back,” Shepard informed his pilot.  “I need you to get out of here, and tell anyone who can, to stay behind with us and defend this position.  The bigger the force the better.  And tell them to grab whatever supplies, weapons, or armor they can.  We’re gonna need it.”
     “Understood, Captain,” came the reply.  “Good luck.”
     “You too.  Now get moving.”
     “Aye, aye, Captain.”
     Shepard moved quickly to the communications station in the lab and punched up his direct channel to the admiral’s ship.
     “This is Captain Shepard of the Normandy to Admiral Hackett.  Please respond.  Hostile’s approaching Mars in force.”
     “I read you, Captain, and I see it,” came Hackett’s voice.  “What the hell are the yahg after, Shepard?”
     “We’re not sure, Admiral, but they’ve had access to the Mars Archives for a long time, it appears.  So they must be after something that is located here.  Something very valuable.”  He spared the admiral the details for now.
     “Or the data you uncover may be so valuable that it’s worth throwing their lives away if it prevents us from learning it,” Hackett considered.
     “If that were the case, I would have bombed this facility from orbit in the first attack,” Javik countered.
     “Very observant, Javik,” Hackett said.  “What’s the plan until we get there, Shepard?”
     “I’m pulling everyone I can from the Normandy to hold and defend this position.  Either the enemy’s objective is here or the information that will lead us to it is here.  We’ll take care of the ground troops if you all take care of their fleet.”
     “That’s a deal, Captain.  Just hold the line until we get there,” Hackett ordered.
     “Yes sir,” Shepard acknowledged.
     “Hackett out.”
     Shepard turned away from the station and pulled his favored geth shotgun out.  “Time to do what we do best, people.”
     The others nodded, arming themselves as well.
     A stampede of footsteps rushed down the hall.  Shepard and crew turned in surprise, weapons raised.  Grunt and Wrex came through the door way, paying their friends no mind as they dropped a heavy container of ordinance.
     “Calm down, Shepard,” Wrex said with a quick laugh.  “We’ve still got a few minutes before the enemy gets here.”
     “The yahg,” Grunt said, eagerness lighting up his face.  “This battle will be a story for the ages!”
     “Any other crew coming?” Shepard asked, lowering his gun.
     “Yeah, most of the usuals and a few extras,” Wrex answered.
     “Is that right?” Shepard asked.
     It was not long before Jack, James, Miranda, Tali, Garrus, Zaeed, EDI, and Tinman all filed in, carrying what looked like the entire armory with them.  Three other geth followed Tinman, these of the smaller, sniper variety that looked to Shepard to be what Legion was modeled after.  Those were followed by the true surprises of the force: Ericson, Murphy, and Dr. Chakwas.
     Shepard looked at them with concern.  “Shouldn’t you two be taking your fighters to the skies right about now? And Doc?  Why the field trip?”
     “Well, Captain, I figured with all those beasts coming, you would need my services sooner rather than later.”
     “Let’s hope not, but thanks.  Ericson?”
     Ericson put down the crate he was carrying and popped it open, pulling out a Revenant clumsily.  “Remember how I said the ships were almost up to spec?”
     Shepard inclined his head, crossing his arms. “Yeah?”
     “Well, that almost was about seventy-five percent.”
     “And what ‘almost’ are they at now?” the captain wanted to know.
     “Eh, ninety- ninety-five percent,” Wayne answered, pulling out a heavily modified Vindicator from what he had toted along.  He seemed much more comfortable with his weapon.  The highly customized look intrigued Shepard.  “Wayne, you didn’t start out as a pilot, did you?”
     “I’d expect you to pick up on that, Shepard.  Not at all.  Infantry, or ‘assault specialists’ as we used to joke.  Just a typical grunt.”
     “What?” Grunt asked, looking up for the one addressing him.
     Wayne looked over at the monster of a krogan. “Huh?”
     Shepard laughed as did some of the other Normandy crew.  “Lieutenants Ericson and Murphy, meet our genetically perfected krogan: Grunt.”
     “Ooohh,” Wayne said.
     Grunt quickly caught on and rolled his eyes, strapping a dozen grenades on to his chest.  Wrex took notice and leaned over, pointing his shotgun at the younger krogan’s chest.  “Careful kid, one little trip and that fall onto your face is going to be nasty.  Or one well placed shot to the chest. Boom.  No more Urdnot Grunt,” Wrex said with a chuckle.
     “Don’t worry, old-timer, I don’t trip.”
     “And you don’t get shot, either, right?”
     “Whatever,” the young warrior said, walking off to deal with more crates of ammunition and grumbling about certain krogan thinking they were other krogan’s parents.  When Wrex turned back to his own battle preparations, Grunt quietly rotated his bandoleer to position the majority of the explosives to his back.
     Shepard focused back on Ericson.  “What about you, Ericson? How much experience have you had on the ground?”
     Ericson looked around at the rest of the team.  “Not enough, sir.  But I’ll try not to shoot anyone in the back.”
     Grunt let out an exasperated groan and took off the bandoleer.
     Shepard thought about the options for the expert pilot who, despite all his military service, was a threat to be a liability in a sudden onslaught of an enemy never even trained for by the most hardened soldier.
     In the middle of his thoughts, Javik walked up.  “I believe I may be of assistance in this matter, Captain.”
     Shepard nodded and the Prothean grabbed the captain’s arms.  Shepard felt the disorienting sensation of the memory exchange accompanied by flashes of Javik’s combat training and experiences in the Reaper war tens of thousands of years ago.  It mixed with periods from the brutal training regimen of the Special Forces elite N program.  Shepard relived a Prothean’s horrors as well as his own experience making it from N1 all the way to N7 training and missions before the most pivotal moment in the captain’s career and life: Akuze.  The memory rattled Javik enough to cause him to release his grip. He shook his head, trying to clear the memory from his head without success.  “Commander- Captain . . . Shepard,” the Prothean rambled.
     Shepard held Javik’s gaze, the two sharing a greater understanding of the other.  “You can probably stop before that, Javik.”  The alien, misplaced in time, nodded.
     Ericson watched the entire process transpire in an instant.  “Uh . . . what was that?”
     Javik walked over to the young pilot.  “That is how communication is supposed to work, human. Written into your DNA are the experiences of your life.  Your training, your victories, your failures,” Javik glanced over to Shepard,”your pain.  It is a two way street, as you say, and it is how we will turn you into a feared warrior on the ground.  I will, in turn, gain something I have never learned, which is how to be a feared warrior in the skies.  It will be . . . an odd experience for you.”
     Ericson looked from Javik to Shepard.  “Let’s not waste anymore time talking about it.  Do it.”
     Javik grabbed Ericson’s arms and seconds later the pilot weakly crouched to his knees.  “The dizziness will pass, Ericson,” Javik assured him.
     “Yeah, that’s pretty intense,” Ericson admitted.
     Javik nodded and found a chair nearby.  “It has been quite a while since I have been an intermediary for two other warriors with such . . . exciting lives.  I will need a moment to recover.”
     Vega checked the computer display over Ashley’s shoulder.  “Well, it better be only a moment, cuz these yahg things are almost here.”
     Shepard looked at his team.  It was nice to have so many of them in one place, but he knew he was going to need every one of them.
     Ericson stood back up and grabbed the Revenant again, this time with confidence and loading a thermal clip into it expertly.  “Nice,” he said, impressing himself.  Let’s go.”
     Shepard smiled.  “It’s almost sad what’s about to come down on the yahg forces,” he thought.  “Almost.”

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 4


Chapter 4
     Shepard stared at the point of a gun.
     “Now, ah suggest ya jist turn yerselves around here, and go back the way ya came,” said a scraggly bearded older man with curly red hair.  His manners were those of a colonial on a fringe world.  Shepard could only guess that the man had given up the fight on the edge of the universe, tried to come back home, only to find the Reapers invading.  The Alliance Captain pictured a rust bucket of a transport buckling under the mere thought of a Reaper weapon pointing in its direction and crashing on to Mars, well short of its intended destination.
     “Hey, didn’t you hear the man?” asked an equally rough looking woman behind the old man.  At least Shepard thought it was a woman.  The tangle of hair mixed with scars on the person’s face, combined with the grease covered jumpsuit, left a lot of gender distinction to be desired.
     Shepard tried to put on a reassuring smile.  It did not have the intended effect on the roughly twenty strong mob in front of him and his team.  They only raised their weapons with even more concentration.  Shepard held up his hands.  “Look, everyone just take a deep breath and let’s work this out.  We came here to help you out,” he said, hoping the story would work.  “We were sent to look for survivors and . . . well, here you are.  We can provide aid and support in whatever form you might require.  But in order to get that support,” the captain said, looking past the crowd of disgruntled refugees that seemed more and more like a poor man’s mercenary crew the more he studied them, to the doorway beyond them,”we need to get to a communications array and repair it.”
     “Don’t trust him, Dale,” the might-be woman said.  The old man shot her a dirty look.
     “Damn it woman! Don’t use my name in front of these Alliance fucks!  You know I’ve never trusted them and I ain’t starting now . . . Judy.”
     “Don’t you curse at me, you old bastard.  Leader or not, I am a woman and you will not speak like that to me!” Judy yelled.
     “Well that confirms it,” Shepard thought.  “Mercs . . . and Judy apparently is a woman after all.  This is about to get even uglier.  All there is to do now is get through it as quickly as possible.”
     Dale turned back to Shepard poked the gun into his chest. “Now I’m gunna give ya ta the count of 3 to turn your ass around and leave, boy.  If not, me and the gang, here . . . well, we been itching for a fight since the Reapers vanished on us.  So- one . . . two . . .” the crusty old timer began.
     Shepard’s face went stone solid.  Javik sensed the impending fight easily.  Liara and Tinman watched Shepard carefully for a clue as to which way this was about to go.  
     “Three!” Shepard said, snatching the gun and man in a lightning fast preemptive strike.  “Diplomacy can’t win them all, I guess,” he said.
     “Damn it, take them out, Cranks!” yelled Judy, firing her gun directly at Shepard, regardless of the unintended human shield between the two adversaries.  Shepard and the other Normandy crew members dove for cover, Dale’s carnage torn body crumpling to the floor as Shepard released him with Judy’s first shot.  He jumped around a nearby corner away from the onslaught of the weapons fire.
     “This type of discussion I like,” Javik called from his own wall of cover, the half wall of a small lab off the main hall through the Mars complex.  Broken remains of glass that had once spanned the remaining distance to the ceiling crashed down around the Prothean as the mercenaries turned their focus, and guns, to the sound of his voice.
     “Javik, I can never tell when you’re joking and when you’re not when mentioning violence,” Liara called over to him, crouching next to Tinman, down the other side of the hall Shepard had ducked down.  
     “Asari, I do not joke when in battle,” he replied raising his old energy weapon over his head and blindly shooting into the enemy’s ranks.  A handful of disheveled humanity were cut in half and fell silently into piles of death around their comrades.  
     Tinman sprinted across the hall, firing a geth spitfire with chilling machine efficiency.  The magnetically fired clustered rounds hit the enemy, shattering on impact, inducing the plasma conversion that seared the targets in a chain of superheated damage.  The geth was down and crouching beside Shepard before the last round hit.  He turned to Shepard, his artificial voice confirming,”Six targets terminated, Shepard-Captain.  Eleven remain.”
     Shepard looked at the new member of the Normandy family with a humorous smile.  “What, no rockets?” he asked with a laugh.  He leaned around the corner of protection he had chosen and lobbed a grenade after an instant’s survey of the mercenaries’ locations.  The explosive landed behind a huddled mass of the Cranks, a name Shepard was not familiar with, but would be researching once he got back to his cabin aboard the Normandy.  The detonation  flung nine of the thugs into the air, Judy among them.  Their bodies slammed into nearby walls and the ceiling, blood stains marking the end of lives lived in violence and ended in kind.
     “Larger explosives are ill-advised in such close quarters, Shepard-Captain.  Though, my understanding of human expressions and analysis- I believe you were joking, Shepard,” Tinman finished in more organic like terminology.  
     Shepard smiled with a nod.  “You’re getting the hang of it, Tinman,” he said, and then, leaning out with a hand cupped to his mouth, called,”Liara, if you would be so kind . . .”
     “My pleasure,” her reply came.  A biotic shimmer lighted the hallway and gripped the last two mercenaries in a freezing field of dark energy.  She calmly rose and walked towards Shepard and Tinman, Javik crossing behind her, taking a different route.  Liara looked to her friend and captain.  “What should we do with them?” she asked.
     Shepard looked up to Tinman, debating whether to stop what was transpiring or not.  He decided he did not want to worry about being stabbed in the back later, so said nothing.  The geth looked past Liara and then down to her, apparently deciding similarly.  “Do with who, T’Soni-asari?”
     Her keen intelligence catching the implication, the powerful Shadow Broker turned and watched helplessly as a calm and cold Prothean raised his weapon to the chests of each of his enemies in turn, stared into their eyes, and pulled the trigger.  A spray of blood misted onto his face.  Javik blinked as if bothered by an annoying breeze, and watched life drain from his victims, the biotic energy having not warn away, holding them in a standing position.
     Liara let down the arm she had not realized had been raised in a sad attempt to restrain her comrade who had held such great potential in her mind at one point.  She let out a disgusted huff and walked down the hall, intent on the original destination of the communications satellite dish.  “Avatar of vengeance or cold blooded murder?” she asked, brushing past Javik on her way.
     Tinman and Shepard followed.  The captain stopped and inclined his head towards Javik.  “Are you trying to destroy her belief in Protheans?” he asked.
     “What should be believed?  Her fairytale vision of how great and noble and enlightened the Prothean Empire was or the truth of what she sees?  A real, live Prothean, trained to perfection in war’s killing arts?”
     “The watching them die was a little over the top, don’t you think?”
     Javik looked down at the now fallen bodies, down the hall to the diminishing figure of Liara, and then back to Shepard.  “Perhaps,” he said.
     Shepard looked into the warrior’s face and saw what had not been seen before, but he had always suspected was present: the pain of insurmountable loss.  “Look, Javik, if you need to talk . . . “
     “Talking is not what I do, Shepard.  I will help you until you stop asking me.  As the destroyer of the Reapers, that is what you have earned.  But know this: when we have finished repairing the mass relays, rebuilding to a sustainable point that which the Reapers have destroyed, I will go to join my people.  I have not forgotten our conversation before the last battle against the evil that brought extinction to my race.”
     Shepard nodded and Javik turned to leave.  Tinman watched Javik and then turned to Shepard.
     “The Prothean’s actions and words are confusing, Shepard-Captain.  Does he not wish to continue living?”
     “People deal with pain and loss in different ways.  Some in extreme ways.  And that’s from the sadly typical loss of life and loved ones.  Now multiply that by the extinction of your entire race, Tinman.  It’s not hard to see where that can lead individuals to very dark decisions.”
     Tinman processed the new information.  “Emotions seem to play a large role in organic decision making, Shepard.  Geth have not- I do not have enough information to decide if this is a positive or negative aspect of your form of life in general, but in the instance of Javik-Prothean, it seems to be an impractical trait.  An individual’s life should not be thrown away based on the feeling of sorrow.  Like all emotions we have studied, it is a transitory moment and experience that comes and goes, easily followed by joy, or humor, fear, or jealousy.”
     “That’s the thing about emotions, Tinman.  We don’t get to look at it from a practical standpoint.  Emotions can override reason and that does not always end well.”
     “This is interesting, Shepard-Capta- Shepard,” the geth amended his speaking.  “I will require further information at a later period.”
     The geth marched off in silence.  “At least from a speaking standpoint,” Shepard thought, hearing and feeling the prime’s thunderous steps as he moved to catch up with his other team members.  
     Shepard watched the other three and wondered at the trio’s ability to function as a cohesive fighting unit despite drastically different backgrounds, philosophies, and practices.  He wondered more at his own ability to relate to each one of them, the empathy and thirst for knowledge of Liara, the warrior spirit and need to destroy threats of Javik, and Tinman’s pure objectivity, Shepard’s most important trait as a leader.  “Is that something the geth will maintain, now that they’re individually aware and free to do as they wish?” Shepard asked himself, jogging to catch up with his friends.
* * * * 
     The Normandy and its two escort fighters closed in on the Sol system’s mass relay.
     “Almost there,” Joker announced over the ship wide comm system, to no one in particular.  “Let’s see what we got, EDI.”
     Of course, Jeff,” the AI female said from a one time infiltration synthetic body.  She went through the motions of tapping at controls in a desire to mimic human interaction.  In actuality, EDI had no need to manipulate anything to bring up the ship’s sensors, the AI being not just an attractive synthetic, but the computing system that ran the ship, as well.  The distinction was not lost on Joker.
     “EDI . . . I love watching you play with yourself,” he cracked.
     “If this turns you on, wait until you see the full ability of this unit to manipulate its makeup and structure,” she said, looking to Joker and winking with a seductive smile.
     “You two are ridiculous,” came the comment coupled with a laugh from another seductive voice, with an Australian accent.  Miranda Lawson walked up to stand behind Joker and EDI, wearing her signature skin tight uniform.  “What do you see, EDI?” she asked, leaning on the back of EDI’s chair, supporting herself with her forearm.
     “Scanning. One moment.”
     Multiple blips began popping up on the targeting display at the consoles in front of EDI and Joker.  
     “Son of a bitch,” Joker said.  
     “Ericson, to Normandy.  You all got the long range sensors.  What’ve we got out there?”
     Joker glanced over to EDI.  Her eyes widened slightly.  “Lieutenant, there are twenty three ships of various sizes and designs.  Four are the same design as those we have already engaged.  Some of the larger ships, I believe, may be carrier class, judging from their size, and may contain more such units within.”
     “Yeah, I’d guess they were just this group’s advanced scouts,” Miranda added.
     “That explains why it was so easy to take them out.  Nasty guns, but no shields.  Scouts slash mobile gun batteries.  Willing to bet they’ve got heavy shield, light gun defenders in their mix somewhere,” the ace pilot said.
     “So what’s the plan?” asked the other expert flyer, Wayne.
     “For now, I think-” Miranda began.
     “Yes, let’s here what you think, Miss Cerberus,” interrupted Lieutenant-Commander Williams.  “I’d be happy to take your opinion under advisement.”
     Miranda turned to face the newcomer to the bridge, her eyes narrowing to slits of displeasure.  “Ex-Cerberus, thank you.  And what the hell do you mean, ‘advisement’?” 
     Ashley stepped in uncomfortably close, invading Miranda’s concept of what constituted her personal space.  Williams folded her arms across her chest and glared back at Miranda.  “If you need a dictionary, I’d be happy to dig one up for you.  And if I need to, I can also remind you that this is an Alliance vessel, now.”
     “Commanded by Shepard, who trusts my judgment,” Miranda retorted.
     “Well good for you, but Shepard is not on board right now, which means command transfers to the next highest ranking Alliance officer.  That’s me.  Not you, a Cerberus parent-killer,” Ashley spat viciously.
     “Mrow!” Joker mocked the two ladies, putting up his hands, mimicking cat claws swinging in the air.  EDI sat in her seat, looking at Joker and then putting a hand over her down turned face.
     The two faces of Ashley and Miranda whipped around to face Joker with a simultaneous,”Shut up, Joker!” from both women.  Joker froze in mid swing, grimaced uneasily and slowly turned back to the Normandy’s control console.  Miranda and Ashley looked back at each other. They held each other’s stare for a long, uncomfortably long, silence.  Miranda smirked with a dismissive roll of her eyes.
     “You know what, you’re a big girl.  You can have your Alliance ship, for now.  When the fires start, I’ll come bail your ass out,” Miranda said, walking off, restraining the desire to biotic-slap the Alliance bitch in front of her back past Specialist Traynor.  She made a mental side note that it would, sadly, only send Williams through one set of doors before flying over the galaxy map and past Traynor, before she slammed into the wall next to the elevator.
     Ashley watched Lawson saunter off, fighting the surge of disgust rising in her throat. Once Miranda was out of sight, the second human Spectre to the call the Normandy home turned to Joker and said,”Keep an eye on those ships.  I’ll be in my quarters.  There’s a ton of Spectre communications coming through the Normandy and Shepard wanted me to keep up to date on all the back and forth.”
     The lieutenant-commander left the bridge, passing Vega who was uncomfortably making his way to the bridge.  He looked around as if expecting an unseen attacker to ambush him in the blink of an eye.  
     “What’s up, Vega?” Joker asked.     
     “Uh, you two the only ones up here?” he questioned, shifting balance back and forth from foot to foot.
     Joker looked at EDI who shrugged to the unasked question in the pilot’s eyes.
     “Sure, big guy.  You okay?”
     Vega relaxed a little.  “Yeah, yeah.  I’m good.  Just hoping I don’t have a psycho biotic stalking me.”
     “Have you angered Jack in someway?” EDI asked.
     “I dunno.  Maybe.  I’m not exactly playing the drunken prom date for her, if you catch my drift,” the war veteran said.  “She’s cool, but . . . I don’t know.  Crazy and dangerous.  Normally I’d say she’s my type, but the regular ‘crazy and dangerous’ girls are usually just drama queens.  Jack is for real.  Not sure if that’s good or . . . well I don’t know if she’s someone I can handle.”
     “Man, I do not envy you,” Joker said.  “I heard about her performance when you all were saving Shepard’s ass on the Citadel.  Sounds like she just keeps getting stronger.”
     “Yeah, I was there.  I’ve seen a lot of sick shit on the battlefield.  That was right up near the top,” Vega added, a distant look in his eyes.  He came back to reality quickly, though, looking back the way Williams had gone and then back to EDI and Joker.  “So what did I miss?  Ash looks pissed.”
     “Oh, only the first of what I’m sure is going to be many amazing cat fights between Ash and Miranda.”
     “Oh, damn.  That is not going to be pretty.  I’ve heard enough scuttlebutt about Shepard’s past with both of them.  Williams has gotta be burning inside.  And Miranda doesn’t seem like the type to put up with any old flame’s bullshit.”
     “That is an accurate analysis, James,” EDI agreed.
     “So what are we looking at out there?” Vega questioned, switching gears once more.
     “That would be more of the bad guys,” said Normandy’s resident comedian.
     “What are they doing?”  
     “Yeah, there’s a few other people who would like to know the same thing,” came Ericson’s voice.  “Thanks for leaving that channel open, by the way, Joker.”
     “Oh, did I?” he asked, faking innocence.  “But to answer the question, I’m betting they’re just sitting there, waiting for your practice targets to come back with whatever report they were supposed to bring with them.”
     “Good bet,” said Murphy from his ship.  “But what happens when they don’t show up?”
     “Probably jump in a bunch more heavy hitters and FTL to Mars to find out what happened,” Vega said.
     “Why do you say that?” Ericson radioed.
     James pointed to the displays that his crew mates had turned away from.  “Because that’s what’s happening.”
     “The fuck!” came Wayne’s response.  “They- they just jumped in?”
     “Looks like,” Vega answered.
     “How? The mass relay is-“
     “Dead.  I know.  No clue.  But it just happened.  At the relay.  And Shepard is gonna be toast if we don’t get back to help him out.”  Vega looked over at EDI.  “Get a message to Hackett.  Send him the data that we’ve got on those ships and their trajectory.  I love the Normandy, but it’s gonna take more than one frigate and two prototype fighters to take this on.  Ask Hackett to move whatever forces he can to Mars.”
     “Should we clear this with ‘high command’ first?” Joker asked, hands making quotation marks.
     “With Ash?  I’ll take care of that.”
     “You sure?”
     Vega jogged off, looking over his shoulder with a smile.  “Don’t worry.  I feel my N7 coming on.”
     Joker looked over at his synthetic lover once more, shrugging.  EDI did the same and then accessed the communications system.  “Lieutenants Ericson and Murphy, please dock your fighters in the hangar.  We will initiate FTL flight as soon as you are secured.”
     “Copy that, EDI,” Ericson said.  “You heard the lady, Wayne.  Don’t get left behind this time.”
     “Dude, you said you wouldn’t bring that up again!”
     “Eh, I lied.   Let’s go.”
* * * * 
     Liara patched down the last few wires connecting the make shift power source, salvaged from a wrecked shuttle that had been found expertly placed into the side of one section of the Mars facility.  How the power cells had remained undamaged was beyond anyone’s guess.  Liara pulled back her omni-tool, looked at her handiwork, and then stood up.  She walked to the edge of the rooftop and looked down to Shepard who stood on the rocky Martian surface, waiting just outside the doorway back inside.  Liara could almost see his eyes through his protective helmet as she gave him the human gesture she had learned was simply named “the thumbs up.”  Where it had originated and why teased the archaeologist in her, tempting her to begin something she had never done before- extensively research a living civilization.  Humanity was rich with history, wars, governments, religions, arts, science, and a hundred other things that she could look into.  The Protheans had had those, at some point, but the Reaper war had distilled them down to only one focus, the one embodied in Javik: war.  The Protheans had excelled at it prior to their cycle’s invasion, but it had only been one side of their story, albeit the dominant side even then.  After the invasion, there was nothing else, and whatever beauty and greatness Liara had sought from them had been wiped out along with the Protheans themselves.  
     “Let it go, Liara,” she ordered herself.  “Soon you’ll have your hands back on what’s left of Prothean science.  Leave the Javik side of them with Javik.  They weren’t all that way.  Their work on Ilos and in passing along the Crucible designs proves it.  Perhaps their long dead genius can help us again with the mass relays.”
     Shepard nodded to her thumbs up and walked back inside and the asari marveled at the speed of thought not for the first time.  She climbed down as she heard the satellite hum to life.  She entered the Martian building and found Shepard, his helmet now off, tapping at the communication controls.  He looked up at her and smiled.  Liara felt warmth followed by the ever present hint of lost moments, moments she once thought might lead to something more than the great friends she and the captain now were.  But the wisdom of her one hundred and nine years in the universe eased the sadness with the knowledge that it was better to be friends with Shepard than never to have met him in the first place.  “And definitely better than being his enemy,” she thought.
     “Looks like we’re up and running, here.  Good work, Liara.  Now let’s- hold on.  Looks like the Normandy’s been trying to get in touch with us.”  Shepard accessed his omni-tool, linking it to the Mars comm system.  “Joker?  Shepard.  What’ve you got for me?”
     Shepard’s face slowly took on a scowling expression as Jeff gave him the details of the situation.  “And what did Hackett say?” he asked.  “And the enemy fleet will get here when?”
     An explosion sounded from a distant building of the Mars Archives.
     “Nevermind.  Sounds like orbital bombing.  Just trying to soften us up from a distance,” Shepard said.  “Do what you can and tell our new fly boys to earn their pay today.”
     Liara saw Javik and Tinman coming up to join her and Shepard at the control desk.
     “The enemy has returned?” Javik asked.
     Shepard nodded.  “And with bigger guns this time.  A fleet of over twenty ships.”
     “What is the enemy’s target?” Tinman inquired.
     “Judging from their actions up to this point, I’d say us.”
     “To what end?” Javik wondered.
     “Good question,” Shepard said, pulling his M-97 Viper sniper rifle off its place on his back, checking the thermal clip, and starting to move.  “Let’s go find out.”
     “But it’s an entire, fleet, Shepard!” Liara warned.
     “Only until Hackett arrives.  Then it’s a decimated fleet.”
     Liara conceded the point and took out the Scorpion heavy pistol she had come to rely on since rescuing the krogan female, Eve, on Sur’Kesh.
     “Shepard to Cullers.  Amanda, are you there?” the captain asked over his communicator.
     “What the hell is going on, Shepard?  One second communications are restored, the next, we’re being bombed . . . by who?”
     “Unknown.  My ship will be here shortly to help distract the enemy until the fleet arrives to take care of them.”
     “And until then?” Amanda asked.
     “Until then, we stay alive.  Your area is pretty well defended and far enough underground that you should be okay.”
     “As long as they don’t land a ton of troops,” she added.
     “True.  But you’ve been handling mercs and Reaper forces for months.  I have confidence in your abilities, but don’t worry.  We’re on our way back to you, so you won’t be alone.”
     “Thanks, Shepard.  That means a lot to us.”
     “Copy that.  Shepard out.”  He tapped his communicator, switching channels as he moved down the hallway, keeping the scope of the his gun near eye level to have as much early warning of enemy forces as he could.  “Cortez, tell me you’re still not sitting on the landing pad.”
     “No sir.  Saw these guys show up on the targeting system while you were talking to Joker.  Had that ‘I got a bad feeling about this’ moment and decided to move out.  I’ll stay low and keep the buildings between me and them when they get here, but you give me a pickup spot and I’ll be there in under a minute.”
     “Negative.  You get back on board the Normandy, if you can.  I don’t need you risking your life or our one shuttle when I don’t plan on going anywhere until our original mission is complete. We’re far enough under the surface that their ships won’t be a threat.  And any ground forces they send, well, we’ll deal with them if they show up.”
     “Roger, Captain.  I’ll see what I can do, but with that many ships, I’ll be better off sticking to cover down here, so let me know if you need support.  And you be careful down there, Shepard,” Cortez tacked on.
     “Always, Steve.  Now get going.”
     “Yes sir.”
     “You did mean to say when the enemy shows up, didn’t you Shepard?” Javik asked.
     Shepard looked at the gun in his hand and those in the hands of his team.  “Yeah, I guess I did.”
* * * * 
     Ericson stood on the Normandy’s hangar deck while the automated systems reloaded his depleted ordinance.  The elevator doors opened and Wayne Murphy came out.
     “Damn I needed that!” the pilot exclaimed with a laugh.
     “Which, the drink, the food, or the thirty minutes in the bathroom?” Ericson asked, laughing back.
     “Ha ha.  It wasn’t that long, but yes.”
     “All of it.”
     “Gotcha.  The ships are almost ready,” Ericson reported to his friend.
     “Good.  Sounds like we’ll be getting back to Mars in short order.  Got a tougher fight ahead of us this time, buddy.”
     “Yeah.  At least till Hackett shows up with the fleet.”
     “Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long.  I don’t like the odds or the look of those new ships.”
     “You and me both.  The scout things from earlier were cake.  They’re not all going to be like that.”
     “Learned that the hard way, didn’t we?” Wayne asked.
     “Fucking pirates,” Wayne said in way of confirmation.
     “Haven’t thought of that shit storm since the Reapers invaded.  Thanks for bringing back the fantastic memories, asshole.”
     “Hey, you know it’s worse for me, Ericson.  I don’t get the luxury of forgetting it,” Murphy said, looking down at the ring on his left hand.
     “Fuck, Wayne.  Man, I’m sorry.  I know that.  I don’t forget about it, or who we lost, but, you’re right- it’s worse for you.”
     “Damn right.  You don’t get reminded every morning you wake up in an empty bed, or when you cook dinner for two only to remember there’s only me now,” Wayne said bitterly, looking back up with moistened eyes.
     “I know.  My sorry ass always wakes up alone,” he said with a laugh meant to ease the sudden tension.  
     Wayne held his stare for a second, but then a small crack of a smile broke through.  “You’re a disgrace to us pilots, Ericson. You’re the only one I know that walks into a bar, let’s the women know you actually are a pilot, and some how end up getting smacked across the face instead of leaving with two or three star struck bimbos.”
     “What can I say?  Women have a sixth sense for bad situations.  And obviously I have that written all over my quite slappable face.”
     Wayne Murphy laughed and patted his partner in crime on the back as they made their way over to their ships.  “Is that even a word? Slappable?” he asked.
     “If it isn’t, it should be,” Ericson said, climbing the ladder up to his familiar cockpit.  He dropped inside, strapped in and pressed the button to signal Joker.  “Let us know when we get there, Joker.  We’re ready to light these boys up again.”
     “Will do, Lieutenant.  Just fair warning.  When you launch, we’ll be right on top of them, coming out of FTL.”
     “Nice.  That should throw them off balance and get their attention for a few minutes. Shepard’s suggestion?”
     “No,” came Vega’s voice.  “Mine.  But I did ask myself: what would Loco do?”
     “Yeah, my nickname for Shepard.  I do that, give people nicknames.”
     “Right.  Of course you do,” Ericson said.
     “Anyway, I thought up a crazy tactic, ran it by Ash and she agreed.  Hackett thinks it’s insane, but he didn’t suggest anything else.  Guess he figures we picked up some of Shepard’s luck.  Or that he’ll be there soon enough to cleanup any mess we make.”
     “Let’s hope so,” Joker said. “Have you seen the readout on those capital ships?  Those things are like turian dreadnoughts on steroids!  They’re no Harbinger or Sovereign, but damn!”
     “Fantastic,” Wayne tossed in.  “So, mini-reapers or mega-turians.  I love the plethora of options here.”
     “Plethora?” Ericson asked.  “You stumble onto a thesaurus in your cockpit, Murph?”
     “Ha ha, Ericson.  Why don’t you-“
     “Exiting FTL!” Joker interrupted.
     The friendly banter ceased immediately and the pilots became dead serious in an instant.  
     “Game time, men,” Vega said.  “Good luck out there.  We’ll have your back.”
     “Launching,” was Ericson’s response.
     The bay door opened and the pilot punched his afterburners and armed weapons in a flash.  Cold space greeted his vision as he left the Normandy behind.  He saw Wayne’s ship out of the corner of his eye as his proximity alarms nearly deafened and blinded him immediately.  Ships were everywhere.  Energy blasts streaked the sky.  Ericson and Murphy broke into evasive maneuvers.
     “Normandy to, uh, what are we calling you guys, anyway?” Joker asked.
     Ericson thought about the question and came up with an answer in a single breath.
     “Loco Squadron,” he answered.
     “Fitting,” said EDI’s voice.
     “Alright, well, Locos, you guys clean up the small fighters and leave the beasts to us.  Let’s clear out some dots,” Joker suggested.
     “Copy that, Normandy.  Locos out,” Ericson said.  He targeted one of the scout class ships and pulled the trigger.  The ship, more intent on the swiftly maneuvering Alliance frigate, was caught off guard and erupted into just another field of space scrap.
     “One down,” Ericson reported.
     “And a dozen or so to go, buddy,” Wayne said.
     “Should be fun,” Ericson said, gritting his teeth against G-forces as he pulled his fighter through a few corkscrew rolls and then slid sideways to come up behind two more small fighters that were new in design.  “Let’s see what you got,” he thought to himself.  He fired his guns.  The storm of energy battered the rear of the target ships and Ericson saw the damage register on his sensors.  It was definitely a stronger craft than the scouts  from the fact that they were still there and not shedding debris, but it wasn’t so little that the pilots of the ships had not noticed.  Both turned to find their attacker.
     “Aw hell,” Ericson said, continuing to pour on the destructive power of his guns, which he believed the tech heads had mentioned were Thanix-based, following the growing trend of the last few years.  The pilot watched his attack deal more damage to the new ships which, he noted, were actually elegant in design.  The symmetrical layout and wide wingspan marked these as atmospheric capable fighters, the swept back design seeming to be an extension of the scout ship’s crescent front into a more logical flow that continued past the cockpit and wrapped around the back with only a split for the rear thrusters centered at the back.  The guns were mounted on the top of the wings, and what resembled torpedoes hung from beneath.       The enemies’ guns opened up.  Ericson barely had time to roll the ship out of the way to avoid the brunt of the attack.  His fighter rocked with the impact of a handful of solid hits.  His shield dropped to half strength.
     “Holy shit!  Murph, we got a problem here.”
     “No kidding.  It’s called being out numbered eight to one.”
     “No, I just took a hit from two of these guys.  Not the scouts types.  A few hits just took my shields down fifty percent.”
     “Oh damn.”
     “That is highly effective,” came EDI’s voice.
     “Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Ericson said, as he dodged another volley, returned fire and let loose a set of linked torpedoes.  He reversed thrust hard and dove slightly to watch the missiles engage and slam home.  One of the ships took a single hit directly to the cockpit and the ship was split in two.  The second ship banked hard and lost a wing to one of the other missile’s destructive gravitational effects, sending it tumbling out of control and slamming into a larger enemy too slow to evade the collision.  
     The larger ship took damage, but nothing that seemed to inhibit its ability to continue firing at the Normandy, which Joker had kept clean up to this point, his flight skills beyond anything Ericson had seen.  Sure, he’d heard about the brittle boned pilot coming up through the academy, but it had just been a name tied to records and training vids.  Seeing him in action was an altogether different, if not humbling, experience for Ericson.
     Ericson swiveled his head and his ship, attempting to track the path of the other two missiles he had fired into the mayhem playing out above Mars.  He saw the two projectiles and saw Wayne’s ship on an intersecting flight path as he evaded a swarm of scout ships.
     “Wayne,” Ericson radioed.
     “Kinda busy, Ericson,” his wingman called back.
     “Yeah, well, heads up, you’ve got incoming Callies.”
     “Ha ha.  I know it.”
     “Then you might want to just, I don’t know, get the hell out of the way!”
     Ericson’s brow furrowed in concern.  Wayne had previously taken on multiple solo missions, post-Volkov, that many in their squad at the time had deemed suicide missions.  It had been a dark time for Murphy and it had taken a hard talk and not less than one round in the ring for Ericson to very literally beat some sense into his buddy.  He worried that the earlier exchange on the Normandy had drudged up an old desire.
     “Murph, this isn’t looking good buddy!”
     “Relax, Ericson.  You forget who you’re talking to?”
     “No, that’s why it looks bad.”
     “Ye of little faith,” Wayne responded.
     Ericson held his breath.  The missiles were continuing on, random gun fire between the Normandy and enemy ships crisscrossing around them but not hitting.  Wayne’s fighter streaked in front of the Callies and zipped past unharmed.  His pursuers were not so lucky.  The timing had been perfect.  Wayne cleared the damaging path of the torpedoes but the enemy did not.  The pack of ugly scouts were shredded into oblivion and Ericson saw a handful of red blips disappear from his radar.
     “Ha ha!” he exclaimed.  “Wayne, you crazy son of bitch!”
     “You know me!” he answered, laughter in his voice.
     Ericson relaxed, despite the dogfight going on around him, because he knew Wayne was going to be okay.  “Mentally, anyway.  Not so sure how much more we can rely on luck here, though,” the pilot told himself.
     He found another group of targets and gave chase.
     “Hey Locos, heads up.”  It was Lieutenant-Commander Williams’ voice this time.
     “Go head,” Ericson said.
     “They’re doing it again: sending some ships down to Mars.  These are bigger though.  Thinking they’re sending troops down.  I’ve warned Shepard, but you two make sure they don’t reach the ground alive.  They’ve already entered Mars atmo, so you’re playing catch up.”
     “Understood, Williams.  Ericson out.”
     “Damn it,” Wayne swore.  “These things are intent on something down there.”
     “Seems like it.  Let’s make sure they don’t get it.”
     “Ten-four, good buddy,” Wayne said in an exaggerated drawl.  “I reckon we best git after ’em, then.”
     Ericson rolled his eyes and locked on to the shuttle class enemy ships.  He punched the afterburners once more, wondering how long before they would overheat, and checked his radar.  He and Wayne were pretty far behind, but their ships were much faster.  “Still, we’ll be a few minutes catching up,” he concluded.  The other thing he noticed on his targeting display was that the Normandy had garnered the bulk of the enemy’s attention and was slowly being surrounded.  As good as he was, Ericson knew Moreau was running out of room.
     “Joker . . .” he began.
     “I know, I know.  It’s getting tight.  You go after those transports and we’ll . . . find a way out of this mess.  How those new calibrations to the guns coming, Garrus?”
     Ericson knew the pilot was bluffing.  The ships were closing in too quickly and the Normandy was taking damage.  “Joker, we can-“
     “No, you can’t, Ericson.  Just go!  Shepard and the team on Mars are what matter now. Save them.  Forget about us.”
     Ericson heard commotion in the background over the comm channel.  Excited voices, orders to evacuate one of the Normandy’s area that had been exposed to radiation after a hit, something about a system about to fail that Ericson could not make out as some sort of interference began to disrupt communications.  It was a pattern of interference Ericson had diagnosed long ago: the sign of a large ship, or ships, about to exit FTL flight in the vicinity.  He glanced around, expecting to see the ships himself, before the sensors registered them.
     Over his left shoulder, he saw a dozen more ships appear, matching the enemy ships they were already fighting.
     “Shit!” Wayne cried.  “Ericson, they just dropped another bunch of s-“
     Another disruption in the comm channels.  Ericson looked at his gauges for damage.  This disruption was different, but somehow familiar. “What the . . .” the pilot whispered.
     A massive shadow blanketed him in the blink of an eye.  Ericson glanced up and saw the underneath of a massive capital ship only meters away, too close to make out what it was.  
     “Hackett here.  Ericson, Murphy, you two get to Mars and save Shepard’s ass.  We’ll handle the action up here,” ordered the head of the Alliance fleet.
     Relief flooded Ericson’s body.  “Yes sir!” he heard himself say and continued on his path without another worry for the Normandy and her crew.  As he pulled away from the near collision with the fleet, Ericson checked his readouts and saw representatives of every race contributing ships to the battle.  “That’s why it looked familiar,” he realized, recalling the jump into Earth’s vicinity for the final showdown with the Reapers.  “The combination of all the various ship types and designs must warp space in an odd way, causing the difference in the communication disruption,” he guessed.
     He focused back in front of him, the nose of his ship pointing at the tail of the slowly growing target of the rearmost shuttle.  It was already entering Mars’ atmosphere, the red planet now the only thing in Ericson’s view.  “Don’t worry, pal, you won’t be landing that piece of shit intact,” he mentally warned his enemy.  Ericson gripped his flight stick tighter, willing more speed out of the ship’s drive core.
* * * * 
     “The fleet just arrived!” Shepard heard shouted into his ear from Joker’s giddy voice.  The captain smiled and let out a deep breath.  Things had not been looking good above Mars.       
     “Not that they look good down here, now,” he reminded himself.  His omni-tool fed him the data stream from the Mars satellite, showing two of the transport ships landing nearby, with Ericson and Murphy already firing on three others from a second wave.
    Shepard, Liara, Javik, and Tinman stood watching from a large window that overlooked the landing strip the unknown enemy had chosen.  The captain had secured Cullers and her crew while Javik had gone off on his own to,”Create tactical modifications to the environment,” as the Prothean had put it.  Shepard wasn’t sure what that had meant and was slightly worried about finding out.  
     The shuttles settled with small clouds of rust colored dust puffing up around them.  The rear hatches of the ships opened downward and armor covered troops marched out.
     Liara gasped.  “They’re huge! And- wait-“
     Shepard saw it, too.  “Are those-?”
     Explosions ripped through the landing area.  The shuttles went flying.  The troops were strewn high into the sky, not all of them in whole.  A few body parts came flying towards the Normandy team’s location.  Shepard watched in fascination as one particular part careened towards the glass.  He glanced Javik’s direction as what seemed to be half of a helmet covered head smacked into the top edge of the sloping window.  “Tactical modifications, huh?”
     Javik folded his arms across his chest.  “Crude, but effective given the primitive technology available in this cycle,” the Prothean confirmed.
     Shepard turned back to the sliding head as the helmet separated from the mangled flesh with a grating squeak across the glass.  His eyes narrowed as what he and Liara had thought they had seen was confirmed.
     “Yahg,” Shepard said.
     Three explosions dotted the sky, far above the surface.  Shepard knew that three more transports full of the incredibly powerful and dangerous species would not be making it to the ground.