Mass Effect 4 : New Masters Epilogue





     Two days later, he still felt numb.  Captain Shepard, the first human Spectre, survivor of the massacre on Akuze, a dozen other battles that should have claimed his life, and one that did, still felt numb.  Two days since Earth had fallen a second time in less than a year to a hostile alien force and Shepard still felt cold, mixed with sickening rage.  It didn’t matter that the yahg had been less destructive than the Reapers, opting to enslave Earth’s population instead of harvesting it.  It didn’t matter that the yahg on Sur’Kesh and in that entire system had been eradicated after Anderson had kept the Alliance fleet in the system and denied an immediate and unplanned attempt to retake Earth.  And it didn’t matter to Shepard that plans were already in the making to reclaim his home world.  

     What mattered was the feeling of failure to protect it once more, to have seen it burn a second time while he could do nothing but watch from a system away.  Shepard wanted something to do, a way to make things right- or at least try to.  

     Instead he sat in a logistical meeting that was only one step in slowly building up to the goal of liberating Earth and keeping her this time.  Anderson stood at the podium of the salarian conference room, laying out the basic plan to his Alliance officers.  The admiral had been picked up by Ashley when Anderson had ordered the mission to Omega put on hiatus to bring the Eden Prime and her crew to Sur’Kesh to regroup what forces he could. Grunt had enjoyed physically restraining the enraged mercenary queen, Aria T’Loak, for the trip to Logan and then Sur’kesh.

     “The salarians have graciously allowed us to set up a base of operations in Talat for the time being,” the now highest ranking Alliance military commander said.

     “It’s the least we could do,” a recovered Major Kirrahe added, waving off the comment with a new tank grown arm from his seat in the room.  The salarian was, himself, now one of the more senior ranking military leaders in what was left of the salarian forces and acting as representative and advisor to Anderson’s own limited command staff.

     Anderson nodded in thanks and continued.  “I know the situation looks grim.  Hell, it looks as bad as, if not worse than, our war with the Reapers, as far as our numbers go.  But we’re not out of the fight.  There is still hope.”

     “How do you figure that?” Zaeed asked, not concerned with any protocol in a chain of command he was not party to.

     “The yahg are playing at something different than those damned machines.  Forced labor and terrible conditions aside, we have enslaved populations.  They’re not being systematically killed off.  That gives us time to plan and rebuild our strength.  The one kindness Hackett did for us in his insanity was to force the geth to come to Sur’Kesh.  They’ll be instrumental in helping to build up a new fleet . . . if they are willing,” the admiral finished, turning to face Tinman.

     “Of course, Admiral Anderson.”

     “Thank you, Tinman.  The next thing we need to do is something that our salarian friends are renowned for: gather intelligence.  The yahg came out of no where and seem like they still could for one obvious reason: we have no information on them at all.  We need to change that and fast.  I’ll be assigning a team-“

     “Count me in,” Shepard said quickly.  “I’ve had enough sitting around already.  I’m ready to move and so is my crew, Admiral.”

     Anderson looked at Shepard with an appreciative smile.  “I know you are, Captain, but you won’t be doing this alone and gathering intel is not the only thing we need to win this war.  What we need is a decisive advantage.  Right now we do not have that.”

     “That may be something we can help provide,” Master Sooltir Gelten offered.  “What we found at Logan . . . there is no telling what could come of it.”

     “Indeed,” David agreed with the Prothean scientist.  “There are also many other locations I can think of that hold hidden assets the enemy- hopefully- is unaware of.  Unfortunately, those are in in the Sol system, some on Earth, some not.  I mean to reclaim those.  Shepard, you and the Normandy will be spearheading that goal.”

     “Gladly, Admiral.”

     Anderson nodded and went on. “I’ll speak with each team’s leader individually about your assignment specifics.  Needless to say, we have a lot of obstacles in front of us and it won’t be easy.  So everyone get rested, get your ships refueled and restocked, and tell your crews to be ready. Dismissed.”

The crew stood up and headed for the exits. Ashley came up beside Shepard on the way. “And to think, we were worried about our allies all swooping in and taking Earth away from us. Now we need them all to come back, swoop down on Earth, and take her away from the alien bastards that did just that.”

“Funny how things play out, isn’t it?” Shepard asked rhetorically.

“Hmph,” Ashley responded. “So: lather, rinse, repeat, huh?”

“Yeah. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” the captain said as he headed to the Normandy to prepare for whatever Admiral Anderson, his long time friend and mentor, assigned as Shepard’s next mission.



Mass Effect 4: New Masters – Chapter 16

Chapter 16 
    “How in the hell-?”  No, I’m not complaining, but- Okay, I’ll ask later,” Joker said, turning to EDI at his right with disbelieving eyes.  “It’s Admiral Anderson!”
     “Jeff, I am detecting extremely advanced communication processes within the admiral’s signal.”
     “I know EDI, I know.  I see it too.  But, oh, this is bad.  Really, really bad.   He’s getting the same jamming we are.”
     “I detect that the Admiral is in the Theseus system near the planet Logan, Shepard,” EDI informed the captain.  He listened over his secured comm link on the salarian home world, where a raging battle for dominance was underway against the occupying yahg military.
     “I hear you,  EDI.  Patch me through to Anderson.”
     “Right away.”
     “Shepard, what’s the situation on your end?”  Anderson asked.
     “Well, it was good up until about fifteen seconds ago.  Now I’m probably about to get a pissed off yahg fleet dropped into my lap.  Not exactly looking forward to that.  What about you? Heard you were out near Ferros.   What’s that all about?”
     “Looking into old myths and strange signals to fight the good fight.”
     “The more things change . . .” Shepard began the cliché.
     “Don’t I know it.  Joker tells me your communications to Earth are blocked like ours are.  Did you get the call in to the fleet before that started?”
     “Negative.  We were maintaining radio silence until the attack.”
     “Didn’t want to tip them off,” the admiral said in understanding.  “Good move.  But now-“
     “Now we’re screwed,” Shepard finished, locking eyes with a yahg.  A dozen meters away, it was emerging from the smoke of an explosion that shredded its armor and one horn.  Shepard checked his current gun.  The thermal clip was empty.  He reached for a replacement and the yahg charged.
     “Shepard?” Anderson asked.
     “Be with you in just a minute, Admiral.”
     The yahg met Shepard quickly, launching at its human opponent with a frenzied roar and an outstretched fist.  Shepard rolled to the side.  The move avoided the full brunt of the attack, but it still struck a heavy blow to his right shoulder, spinning the marine around.  Shepard lashed out with his omni-tool, the glowing orange blade finding an opening in the yahg’s broken armor and slicing into its exposed torso.  Both combatants fell to the ground but quickly sprang back up.  The yahg grabbed Shepard with one hand and jerked the soldier towards its other hand which was about to meet Shepard’s face with an upward swing.  The first human Spectre didn’t fight it, deciding to instead meet the yahg’s attack with his own fist, still adorned with the flash-manufactured blade shining bright.  The two warriors’ fists slammed together and Shepard heard the crunch of breaking bone before he felt it.  He cried out in pain as the yahg dropped him, doing likewise.
     “Shepard!” he heard David call in his ear.  “Shepard, what’s happening?”  Shepard hit the ground again and shook his head, willing the rush of pain to the back of his consciousness.  He took the seconds the yahg spent roaring and staring at the blood pouring from its mangled hand to awkwardly load a fresh thermal clip into his gun with his broken one.  He quickly fired multiple shots into the beast, knocking it to its back on the crumpled grass on the edge of the salarian airfield.  Shepard walked a good distance away from the fallen enemy and crouched to one knee, sucking in huge gulps of air.
     “Shepard: report.  That’s an order, soldier!” Anderson’s voice called, a frantic note creeping into it.
     Shepard raised a finger to his ear.  “Sorry, sir.  Had to deal with a little distraction.  Damn thing almo-”  
     His words stopped short, shock cutting them off from seeing the yahg climb to its feet once more.
     “What the hell does it take?” the N7 marine asked out loud.  “Admiral, I’ll have to get back to you.”
     The yahg rashly charged at Shepard again, snatching a broken rifle up with its good hand and flailing it wildly as it closed in on him.  Shepard fired at the yahg with every step it took, the damaged chunks of flesh flying this way or that, only serving to enrage it all the more.  The captain back peddled, tossing his twice emptied handgun to the side and reaching for the shotgun waiting on his back.  He fired an incinerating discharge from his omni-tool as a delay, but the blast barely slowed the yahg down. The yahg recovered from the searing pain and brought down its bludgeon in a hammering blow just as Shepard brought his heavy weapon up to meet the creature.  The yahg’s attack hit the gun and staggered Shepard with a blow downward that crushed the gun down with it on top of the same shoulder as his broken hand.  Shepard clenched his teeth and went down.  The yahg stood over him and raised the makeshift club again.  
     Shepard suddenly found himself focusing intently and time seemed to slow down.  He saw, again, the crumbling armor of his enemy and the exposed ride side of the yahg’s body.  He smiled and time resumed its normal pace.  The rifle came down, but Shepard was already rolling to the side and rising quickly.  He jammed the tip of his shotgun into the bleeding side of the yahg and their eyes locked one last time.  The largest pair of the alien’s eyes went wide.  Shepard pulled the trigger.  The rounds of ammunition ripped through the enemy’s body, punching a hole through and once whole internal organs exited in a exploding shower of chunks and fluids from the opposite side.  
The yahg swung towards Shepard.  The movement not only caught Shepard off guard, but also carried the weight of the dying yahg with it, flopping its large body on top of a very surprised Spectre.  They both went down.  Shepard’s head hit the ground and he was buried under hundreds of pounds of now dead weight.  The crushing force made breathing a struggle.  The marine concentrated on alleviating the burning in his lungs, but his gasps for air became more and more labored.  His eyelids became heavy and then the last rays of salarian light faded to black.
     The light returned with a rush of humid air that his body lurched with spasms to control as Shepard’s vision focused on blurry figures rolling a giant lump off from on top of him.  His sight cleared, his breathing became regular, and the familiar figures of Javik and James solidified with helping hands reaching down to pull him up.
     “Captain, are you injured?” Javik inquired, handing his human comrade the shotgun that had fallen to his side.
     The Spectre took stock of his injuries while reloading his weapon. “Nothing serious.”
     “Good, then let’s get back into the fray, Loco,” Vega suggested.
     Shepard nodded and his two squad members ran back to the airfield to support the rest of the Normandy crew and salarian strike force.
     “Shepard!” called a voice from his ear.
     “Anderson? Still with me?”
     “That’s what I should be asking you, Captain.  Doesn’t sound like things are going according to plan anymore.  You need to fall back before what’s left of the yahg fleet gets to you!”
     “There’s got to be some other way!” Shepard replied.  “We’ve done our damage and there’s no where left to hide if we run now.”
     “I don’t see any good options, son. Do you?”
     Shepard paused, resolving the disparity of the victory he was seeing on the ground and the defeat he knew was impending with a reorganized yahg fleet.  They were no doubt pulling together in the skies at one of the lesser shipyards they had captured on Sur’Kesh, preparing to strike back.  
     “Not yet.”
* * * * 
     Aboard a massive capital ship, hiding in a system thought lost to conventional travel many cycles ago and unknown to the current one, the former Reaper herald sat in his private quarters watching the reports come in from the planet he had fled a short time ago.  
     “You humans are very resourceful,” he commented to no one in particular.  “But you will not win Sur’Kesh without your fleet.”  The Collector looked at the array of controls on the display in front of him and tapped a single button with a malicious smile.  “Now, leap into the fire that will consume you,” he whispered.
* * * * 
     Joker piloted the Normandy towards Sur’Kesh, leaving the decimated yahg fleet floating dead around the Annos Basin mass relay.   Traynor stood to the side of his controls.  She had come up to work furiously with EDI to counter the signal that was jamming communication with the Alliance fleet.  They waited for the Normandy’s all clear call to join the fight to free the salarian home world.
     “We’ve got to hack their comm subroutines.  No one’s programming is perfect,” Traynor said.
     “An intelligent idea, Specialist Traynor,” EDI agreed.  “Doing so- wait.”
     “What is it?” Admiral Anderson asked, still in communication with the Normandy and Shepard.
     “We have an open window to the fleet!” Traynor announced, looking at the data over EDI’s shoulder.  “But-“
     “Sending the signal,” Joker said, hitting the comm display.
     “NO!” EDI and Traynor cried in unison.
     Joker looked up, shock and growing terror in his eyes.  A green message blinked from the terminal that read,”Transmission complete.”
     “What’s going on? What’s wrong?” Anderson demanded.
     “I sent the signal to the fleet?” Joker said in a questioning tone and expression turned his synthetic lover’s way.
     EDI exchanged a sorrowful look with Traynor before facing Joker with a sympathetic pout.  “Joker…”
     “What?” he asked.
* * * * 
     “We don’t know how it happened, sir!” a yahg soldier told the general on his display screen.  The angry visage hissed back.
     “Well fix it!  I don’t want another message to get through!  Do you understand me, you pitiful wretch?”
     “I understand.”
     “What did they send?  Who did they communicate with?”
     “The signal seems to have gone through to the Charon Relay, to the human fleet.”
     “This will be the death of us! If that fleet comes through to Sur’Kesh, our depleted forces will stand no chance of holding this planet, never mind the system!”
     “That is . . . an accurate representation,” the yahg agreed.
* * * *
     From his control panel, half a galaxy away, the collector listened to the yahg exchange and subtly tapped the same communication control he had moments before. 
* * * * 
     “What?” Joker asked again.  “That was the plan, wasn’t it?”
     “We didn’t break through the jamming, Jeff,” EDI told him.
     “You said we had an open window!”
     “But we didn’t open it!” Traynor countered.
     A light flashed at EDI’s console.  She didn’t need to look at it.  “And now the jamming is back.”
     “What?” Joker asked once more.
     “Goddamnit!” Anderson swore from from the Normandy’s speakers. “It’s a trap!”
     “How?” Joker questioned.  “Once the fleet gets here, these yahg will be toast.”
     “Not for your team, Joker.  For Earth!  She’ll be defenseless!”
     “Only if they send something like the whole fleet.  That wasn’t part of the plan.  Besides, it would take a crazy person to do that . . . right?”
     “Jeff, Admiral Hackett has not been himself, lately,” EDI informed the pilot.  “That much is clear from the reports Spectre S’Fara sent.”
     “But the yahg are tied down in every other system already!  They couldn’t possibly have a big enough fleet to send any more to Earth!”
     “Joker, barely two months ago we didn’t even think the yahg were capable of space flight.  We have no idea what their numbers are.  You have to take the Normandy and jump back to the Sol system.  You have have to stop the fleets from coming through!”
     “Are you crazy? Uh- with all due respect, Admiral!  Shepard and the rest are sitting ducks on Sur’Kesh.  We need the fleets or we’ll lose Sur’Kesh and everyone down there!”
     “And if we lose Earth, Joker?” came Shepard’s voice, now.  
     Jeff stared blankly through the translucent control screen in front of him in silence except for the grinding of his teeth.  “But, Captain-“
     “Damn it, Joker, go!  We’ve been in worse situations before.  We’ll survive long enough for you to go stop a worse loss than Sur’Kesh.  The major races go as Earth goes.  Let’s see to it that that doesn’t happen on our watch.”
     “You mean ‘again’?” Joker answered sarcastically.  “Fine.  Going.  Let’s just hope we’re not too late.  I don’t want to miss them in relay travel.”
     “Dear god!” Anderson exclaimed.  “I hadn’t thought of that!  The Fifth Fleet was already waiting at the Charon relay!  They’ll already be coming and the other fleets wouldn’t be lagging too far behind.”  There was a moment of silence from the admiral.  “Joker . . . keep going to Sur’Kesh.  Help Tinman and the geth keep the yahg off Shepard until help arrives.  We’re already too late if Hackett sent them all.  Keep open communication and whoever shows up first will tell us our fate.”
     Joker looked over at EDI again and found her already nodding in confirmation of Anderson’s words.  He raised the palm of his hand to his forehead, slowly dragging it down his face and then clenching it into a fist when it reached the end.
     “Aye aye, Admiral,” he whispered.
* * * *
     Admiral Hackett slumped in the chair at his desk, spinning an empty bottle on the table top.  A voice came alive from the desk’s built in display.
     “Sir!  Looks like the Normandy broke through that jamming for a only a second, but it was long enough.  Message just came in.  They say the mission is a go!”
     “Bout damn time,” Hackett growled.  “Send the fleet.”
     “Which one sir?  Fifth, Third, and Sixth Fleets standing by, as are the rachni and geth contingents.
     “Send them all.”
     “The Fourth fleet will stay behind for defense.  The yahg are too busy everywhere else to bother sending any sizable force against Earth.  We’ll be fine.  We need Sur’Kesh to win this war.  Without our coalition fleet, we’ll have to use our own ships to fill in the gaps.  Send the fleets.”
     “Yes sir.  Order sent and acknowledged.”  There was a pause before the Alliance officer spoke again.  “The geth are questioning the logic of your orders, Admiral Hackett.  They say it is not advisable to leave Earth so unprotected.”
     “Tell the flashlights to mind there own damn business!”
     Hackett collected his wandering thoughts sluggishly and then responded,”Captain, tell our geth allies that they are either part of our solution or part of our problem.  If they don’t want to help us, they can find their own way home . . . like all the other races did.”
     “Yes, Admiral.”
     “Will you be leading the charge, Admiral?”
     “No.  Someone in authority needs to stay here on Earth.  Call up Mikhailovich and tell him he’s in charge on my ship, now.”
     “Yes sir.”
     A short while later, Hackett watched the ship movements with a slight smile as they all disappeared at the coordinates for the Sol system relay, even the geth.  “Well done, Hackett, you old dog.  Still got some moves left, huh?” he asked in rhetorical self congratulation.  He was pleased with his improvisational strategy and poured a celebratory drink from a new bottle of liquor that he pulled from his growing reserves, out of sight, under his desk.  
* * * * 
     “The Alliance fleet has left the Sol system, Reaper herald,” the yahg general informed.  “The geth and rachni forces have gone as well.”
     “Ah, Hackett, I must thank your predictive arrogance.  Though, the geth and rachni are surprising.  Leave it to a primitive . . .” the collector commented.  “General, take your fleet to Earth.  Once the attack begins, unblock communications so that they know it has fallen to us.  Make sure the path is clear for when I arrive.”
     “It will be done.”
* * * * 
     “Admiral Mikhailovich, we are about to exit the mass effect corridor, sir.”
     The grizzled Alliance officer rose from his chair, setting down the book he had been reading, and headed for the door of his room.  “Very good, Commander.  I’m coming to the bridge.  As soon as we enter the Annos Basin, we’ll clean up any yahg forces left at the relay and then head for Sur’Kesh to support Shepard and the ground team.”
     “Yes, sir.”
     Mikhailovich walked down the hall from his room to the command center aboard the SSV Gettysburg, a carrier dreadnought and the flagship of the Fifth Fleet.  It wasn’t as close as Hackett’s empty quarters, but Mikhailovich had grown to like the extra distance since coming on board after his own ship had been lost in the Reaper War.  It gave him a few extra seconds of time to think before entering the mayhem of the command deck.
     “Exiting relay transit now,” the commander announced as the admiral passed through the doorway on to the bridge.
     “Commander Griffin, what’ve we got?”
     “No contacts at the relay, Admiral, just debris so far.”
     “Looks like our boys did their job.  Take us to Sur-“
     “Sir!  We’re getting an urgent message from . . . from Admiral Anderson?”
     “How the hell?” Mikhailovich wondered out loud.  “Put it on screen!”
     “Boris, that you leading the Fifth Fleet now?” Anderson asked from the main bridge display.  “Where’s Hackett?”
     “He stayed behind on Earth.  David, what are you doing out here?  Thought you were heading up some project at Logan.”
     “One of many and still classified.  We’ll talk about that later, if we can, but that’s where I am.  The Normandy is relaying for me.”
     “How are-“
     “Mikhailovich, I need to know who Hackett sent to Sur’Kesh!”
     The admiral of the Gettysburg shot a concerned look to his commander that he saw reflected back.  “Third, Fifth, and Sixth Fleets, Anderson.  Without the turians, asari, or quarians, he had to do something to make this mission a success.”
     “Thank god.  That leaves what’s left of the Fourth, along with the geth and rachni protecting Earth.”  Anderson audibly sighed in relief.  “Thought the old man had-“
     “Um, Admiral, the rachni and geth are coming as well,” Mikhailovich stated.
     “What?!  That damned fool!  That leaves Earth too vulnerable!  She’s a sitting duck!”
     “The yahg couldn’t-“
     “Couldn’t what, Boris?  Couldn’t have space flight?  Couldn’t have a massive fleet we knew nothing about?  Couldn’t simultaneously attack every major system?  Couldn’t hold one more fleet back for when our allies have abandoned us and then send it straight for Earth when we leave her wide open to attack?”
     Boris felt his stomach tie itself in knots.  “Jesus, David!  I never- Commander, turn us around!  Head straight back for Earth!”
     “On it, Admiral!”
     “Let’s hope I’m just paranoid,” Anderson said.  “I just have a bad-“
     Static cut the admiral’s communication off and his face was replaced by eight steely eyes and the sharp teeth of a triangular mouth.
* * * * 
     Shepard watched as Anderson’s signal sputtered and was overtaken from a terminal at the now allied controlled airfield on Sur’Kesh.  Miranda, James, Liara and Wrex stood around him.  The yahg spoke.
     “Human warriors, we are the mighty yahg.  You, who united this galaxy to defeat the Reapers, who were the one thing standing in defiance of annihilation across many systems, shall now come to know us by another name: Master.”
     The yahg’s face was replaced by a video feed from space.  The picture showed the pale blue dot, clouds floating above green and brown continents, that was humanity’s home.  As Shepard watched, hundreds of yahg ships closed in on that blue orb.  A myriad of explosions marked the end of what had been the Fourth Fleet.
* * * * 
     Admiral Steven Hackett stood gripping the edge of his desk so tightly that he felt his fingernails starting to tear from his fingers.  The image of Earth hovered above a half empty bottle on the desk and was being surrounded by red dots as the green ones disappeared from existence.  The ship readouts confirmed the invading fleet as the yahg.  
     “But where did they come from?” he cried at the holographic display.  “We had eyes on the relay! Nothing came through there!”  
     The representation of Earth, and the space immediately surrounding it, gave no reply.  As the last of the Fourth Fleet perished, the red dots slowly gathered, forming a coasting wall of red aimed at the Alliance headquarters in London.  They came to a stop directly over the city and waited.  The fire from ground based weapons was already echoing into Hackett’s quarters while his clouded mind wrestled with the reality facing it.  “What . . . what’re they waiting for?” he slurred.
     A new red dot entered on the fringe of the admiral’s display, much larger than any other ship represented.  Hackett glanced over at the profile that popped up, scrolling the design and power readings from the new ship to the right of Earth’s image.  Hackett’s jaw dropped open and he collapsed into his chair.  “The planet-killer,” he whispered as the doors to his office opened with Natalie Taggart running in, gasping for breath.
     “Admiral!  The yahg have wiped out the Fourth Fleet!  They’re preparing to strike London!  What do we do?” she demanded.
     The admiral reached into his desk drawer, fumbling past the glass bottles, until he found something else hard and cold.  He raised the object to the side of his head and pressed the soothing frigid tip against his pounding temple.
     “We burn,” he said quietly, a tear falling from his eye.  “We burn . . .”
     As a horrified Taggart stood frozen in shock, Steven Hackett pulled the trigger of an old revolver handed down in his family through seven generations and a new shade of red joined the war map on the admiral’s desk.

Mass Effect 4: New Masters – Chapter 15

Chapter 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 14

Chapter 14

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 13

This chapter brought to you by the Master of Evil himself . . .
Chapter 13

     The Kilkenny dropped out of the mass effect field established by the mass amplifier and standard FTL took over, pushing the cruiser through the Hercules system of Attican Beta at a quick pace.
     Admiral Anderson looked at the time on the display in front of him.  They would be entering the Theseus system in a little while. He double checked the ship status reports and then headed off the bridge.  The door to the elevator opened and Anderson stepped in.
     “Main hangar,” he told the transport VI.
     “Acknowledged, Admiral Anderson,” the VI droned.  David laughed on the inside, finding it funny that he was much more comfortable with the cold, indifference of a military interface compared to the overly nice and helpful software now in use on the Citadel.  
     The elevator descended swiftly a few levels before lurching sideways to whisk the admiral halfway across the length of the ship to the central flight deck. It slowed to a stop and Anderson exited onto a busy floor.  Pilots and engineers inspected and worked on the fighters, interceptors, and shuttles that lined the bay.  Some crew members ran parts around the deck while others made minor repairs to bad systems or broken tools.  One of the pilots, hustling across the floor, noticed Anderson and snapped to attention with a salute.  “Admiral on deck!” she hollered.
     Those in earshot turned to make sure it wasn’t another attempted prank by the more senior jokers in the various fighter squads, but then jumped up from the middle of their activities to mirror the pilot.  Anderson waved them off.
     “Cut that bullshit out, crewmen,” he told them in a relaxed tone.  “I’ll let you know when it’s time to salute and be all official.  This is not that time.  As you were.”
     “Sir, yes sir!” the first pilot said and then resumed her dash to a far bay of the hangar.  The rest of the men and women returned to their tasks as well and Anderson continued on to the shuttle area.  He walked up behind an older man who was busy with a data pad showing system scans of the shuttle in front of him on one half and a checklist on the other.  The longtime mechanic rubbed a gray beard with his free hand and let out an impressed puff of air.  Hearing Anderson’s footsteps, he casually turned around and nodded to the familiar face.
     “David Anderson.  It has been a long time, my friend.”
     “Henry Korlov, you old dog.  Pounding away at ships, just like the last time I saw you.”
     “How have you been, Admiral?”
     The admiral smiled and shook the man’s offered hand.  “Good on some days, worse on others.  What about you, Hank?”
     “Ha ha, I know the feeling,” the Russian native said with a heavy accent.  “About the same, more or less.  Glad you pulled me on board, buddy.  Haven’t had the chance to talk with you since I got dragged into this super secret project.  Thanks for that, by the way.  I know you had a hand in that decision.”
     “Might have something to do with being the one in charge of said project,” David chuckled.  “So . . . is that stuff going to work?”
     Hank stepped up to the shuttle and wrapped the hull with his knuckles.  It barely made a sound.  “I don’t see why not.  Great time to test it,” he cracked with a roll of his eyes.  “You know, on an actual mission with only computer models to assure us that it’s good.  It is amazing stuff, though.  I’ll give them that.  I see what they did and I get how it works, but I just can’t imagine how long it would have taken them to develop it, nevermind us.”
     “They didn’t survive through the ages and wipe out who knows how many thousands of races by not having proven armor.  As for how long- who knows?  Who’s to say the Reapers even came up with it in the first place?  Might have stolen it from some species a billion years ago, for all we know.  I just want to be prepared for whatever we face on Logan and I figure that gas giant will be a good real world test.”
     “Still, I’d feel a lot better if you’d sit this one out, my friend.  Not many admirals left and even fewer good ones.  I’d hate to be responsible for losing the man that kept Earth alive.”
     “Quit worrying, Korlov.  Just prep that bird and we’ll take her for a nice easy flight to . . . whatever we find on that planet.”
     With a mock salute, Hank Korlov returned to his checklist.  “Sure thing, Admiral.  You’re the boss.”
     “And don’t you forget it, Chief,” the old soldier said, slapping his friend on the back with a laugh before leaving.

* * * * 

     “Don’t rush us in, Mills,” Admiral Anderson told the slightly nervous looking young pilot of the shuttle.  “Just ease us into orbit to start with.”
     “Aye aye, Admiral.”
     “What are we looking at, Kahlee?” Anderson asked from the blonde scientist sitting in the co-pilot seat at the front of the shuttle.
     “Odd readings, that’s for damn sure.  Those signals are definitely there, just very very weak.  If we weren’t looking for them specifically, or knew what to look for thanks to the Inusannon data that Sooltir dug up for us, we’d never see it.  The signal strength must have been magnitudes higher when it was detected by chance all those years ago.”
     “Can we pinpoint it?”
     “I’m already working on it,” Brynn answered from a seat behind Kahlee.  She made some adjustments to the scanning parameters and a red data stream changed to dark orange.  “Barely,” she finally answered.  “We’ll have to go in closer.”
     “Can the shuttle handle that?” asked Major Coats.
     “These things are rated at a thousand standard atmospheres, so yes.  It will handle the planet.  It’s what we find behind those clouds down there that I’m more worried about,” Anderson said.
     Kasumi spoke up,”That surprises me, Admiral, what with that Reaper tech covering this flying box.”
     “Sir?” Coats questioned, looking to Anderson.
     David turned from looking over Kahlee’s shoulder to face his trusted resistance leader.  “It’s true.  This shuttle is a test platform for one of the various pieces of their tech that’s being looked at for wider implementation across the fleet.”
     “Do we really want to start blending Reaper technology with ours?  Look at what Cerberus did to their own people!  No offense Taylor,” he tacked on, looking Jacob’s direction. 
     Jacob shrugged.  “Hey I’m not Cerberus anymore.  I corrected that mistake.”
     “Easy, Major.  We’re not doing any organic-synthetic blending.  Weapons, armor, the militarily prudent.  Hell, it wouldn’t be the first time.  Don’t forget where Thanix Cannons came from.”
     The soldier looked down, conceding the point.
     Next to him, Nahlyon looked up.  “Where did your weapons come from?” she asked.
     “It came from a Reaper named Sovereign that attacked the Citadel a little more than three years ago.  He had indoctrinated the Council’s top Spectre, a snake of a turian named Saren.  That Spectre tried to open the Citadel relay after the Reaper’s signal to the keepers failed, thanks to your scientists from Ilos.  Sovereign brought an armada of geth to destroy the Citadel fleet while Saren worked to transfer control of the station to that damned Reaper.  We took him out and lost a lot of ships in the process.  
     “Every species allowed on the station snatched up whatever bits and pieces of scrap from that ship that they could.  Now is no different.  If humanity stays out of the game for some altruistic notion, we’ll be at the point of a very advanced gun in the not too distant future.  The Alliance isn’t willing to risk that.  That’s half the reason we’re out here now.  Whatever Logan is hiding . . . we think it’s very old and most likely very advanced.  Let’s just hope it’s still intact.  Helmsman, keep her going in.  Slowly.”
     The conversation ended, each of the crew lost in thoughts of the Reaper war, this cycle and the last.  The shuttle moved closer and closer, the swirling clouds of the planet becoming more defined on the ship’s multiple video displays.  The mix of red and brown obscured the view of anything behind the thick puffy formations.  Anderson squinted at the main display that overlaid the signal strength with the actual video of the planet.  He tried willing it to turn green.  Instead, after a long couple of minutes of waiting, it turned bright orange.
     “Closer,” the admiral stated.  “Looks like we’re on the right track.  Take us in a little more and a little faster, Lieutenant Mills.  I don’t feel like sitting in this clown car all day.”
     “Yes sir,” the pilot complied.
     “Clown car?” Sooltir asked.
     “Human expression,” Kahlee said.  “Small area packed absurdly full.”
     The shuttle rocked lightly.  “Just a little turbulence.  Not even a drop in the bucket of what we can take,” informed the pilot.  Anderson saw the orange turn yellow and exchanged a questioning glance with Kahlee.
     “Hold this spot and drop down some more,” Anderson said, acting on a hunch.
     The shuttle’s elevation indicator steadily lowered.  The so called turbulence increased.  Flashes of blue energy began to punch through the impenetrable clouds around the ship.
     “That is not a natural phenomenon,” Sooltir observed.  
     “Is that . . . an eezo field?” Major Coats asked.
     “Starting too look like one, isn’t it?” Kasumi agreed.
     The signal strength started flashing between yellow and green rapidly.  An alarm went off.  “Sensors say we’ve got . . . something.  High velocity!  Heading right for us!” the pilot yelled.  “Hold on!”
     There was a hard impact and Anderson was thrown off his feet, falling back across Coats and the Protheans.  They caught him and he slid into a seat and grabbed the safety harness for stability.  The shuttle took more hits.  “These things are good!  Adjusting for every move I make!”  Mills shouted.
     “How are we holding up?” the admiral called.
     “Lots of contact.  Shields dipping, but even with all that, hull integrity is still good.”
     “Nice test run, eh Admiral?” Coats asked.
     “That’s one way to put it,” he replied with half a smile.  “Keep going, Mills.”
     The pilot pushed the shuttle deeper into the clouds with the attacks coming even faster and harder.  “Shields can’t recharge at this rate of fire, Admiral.  We’re going to start taking more damage.  This armor should hold . . . as long as they don’t focus on any one spot, I guess.”
      “Understood.  Max out our speed.  I have a feeling . . .”
      The signal went solid green as another round of hits exploded on the front corner of the ship, closest to the pilot.  A section of the console burst open.  Fire and electricity shot directly into Mills’ face.  The pilot screamed in pain and then slumped forward on top of the ruined controls.  
      “Mills!” Kahlee cried, jumping out of her seat.  She checked his pulse while she pulled him from the seat.  “He’s gone, David!”  She pulled his body to the side and went back to her seat to use the co-pilot controls.  “Do we keep going or turn back while we still can?” she asked.
      The admiral looked at his crew.
      “Admiral, perhaps we should consider turning back,” Sooltir suggested.
      “I would stick to the path, Anderson,” Kasumi offered.  “The strongest defenses protect the most important treasures.”
      Anderson glanced to Kahlee and then from the master scientist to the master thief quickly making his decision.  
      “Take us in, Kahlee,” he ordered.  The ship shuddered and warning alarms continued to blare in the small confines of the modified Kodiak.  “I’m willing to bet we’re almost-“
      The shuttle broke through the wall of clouds and into a clear section of the gas giant’s skies.  The attacks ceased and the only sounds were those of the signal trace with a positive lock on its target and the alarms warning about significant damage to the ship.
     “-through,” Anderson finished.  He looked at the video feed.  “Look at that,” he told the others who were getting up from their seats to inspect the strange calm.  “No wind.  No clouds.”
     “And one huge ass asteroid floating in the middle of it all,” Jacob observed.
     The crew studied the images coming in over the video display.  A blue field of energy shimmered every few seconds around the asteroid that easily matched the size of a modest space station.
     “And another unnatural phenomenon,” Brynn added.  “Looks like it’s the source of our signal, too.”
     Anderson leaned towards Kahlee and put a hand on her shoulder.  “Let’s look for an opening,” he whispered.
     The synthetics expert nodded and moved the shuttle in towards the levitating rock.
     “I don’t like it,” Coats said.  “Why did the attacks stop?  Why attack in the first place?”
     “I don’t know,” Anderson answered.  “When we find the source, we might get some answers.  Make a pass around it, Kahlee.  Let’s give it a look.”
     The Kodiak drifted in a lazy loop, scanning the large object from what Sanders hoped was a healthy distance.  Two thirds of the way around, Kahlee swore.  “Holy shit!”  The shuttle coasted to a stop.
     “Jackpot!” Kasumi exclaimed with a smile.
     Tethered to the asteroid by short metal looking tubes were two distinctly different alien crafts.  One was close to the size of the Kilkenny in orbit and it had a second covered walkway extending from its side to the other, much larger, ship.  It was easily twice the size of the largest Reaper.
     “Master!” Nahlyon gasped.  “That ship . . . the smaller one . . . is it . . .?” she trailed off in disbelief.  All eyes turned to the younger Prothean woman.  Sooltir looked at her assistant closed her eyes and nodded with a slow confirmation.
     “Inusannon,” Sooltir said.
     “And the other ship?” Anderson asked.
     Sooltir studied the huge ship for a moment and shook her head.  “I do not know.  I can tell you it is not of Inusannon design.  It does not resemble any style of vessel or architecture they ever described or left notes on that I can recall being found.  I believe we may be looking at something very very old, Admiral.  We must get aboard both of these ships.  Hidden for ages and defended well.  There must be good reason.”
     “And don’t forget that space station,” Jacob said.  Anderson looked over to the former Alliance soldier turned consultant with a questioning expression.  “What?  That’s gotta be what that rock is.  The tunnels to each ship.  That’s no  mining operation, either.  Those ships are docked for something other than some crates of palladium.  I’d look for another docking port and check out that too.”
     “Good points, Taylor,” Anderson agreed.  “We might want to split into a few teams.  We’ll look for a place to dock or land, check things out and then a separate group will search each point of interest here.  Kahlee, take us to the far side of that unidentified ship. I don’t see a dock on this side of the asteroid.  Maybe we’ll find one there.  But let’s send a message to the Kilkenny and let them know our situation.”
     Kahlee shook her head.  “Already tried.  We’re being blocked.  I’m guessing by whatever energy is forming their protective bubble,” she said, indicating the display where both ships and the asteroid could be seen more clearly as the shuttle coasted by them to the far side of the docking area.
     “Great,” David said.  He tapped the display screen to take note of the new object coming into view.  “Looks like we’ve got some luck finally.  Put us in there.”
     A single docking port extended to the emptiness in Logan’s high atmosphere next to the massive unidentified capital ship.  Another lay crushed into the rock surface of what Anderson was beginning to believe really was a space station or research facility of some kind.  How it came to be suspended under the cover of the planet’s shroud he had not guessed yet.  As the ship approached the port, it came alive with a bright yellow light.
     “That looks promising,” Jacob said.  
     “I don’t know,” Coats countered.  “Yellow doesn’t scream safe to me.  Plus, one minute it’s about to turn us to scrap, the next it’s welcoming us?  Why?”
     “I say we go find out,” Kasumi answered, the thief’s eyes wide with anticipation of new and exotic items to procure.
     “We’ll find out when we get in there,” Anderson told them.  “But we’ll go in armed and ready.  Suit up and stay alert.”
     The shuttle came within a few meters of the port’s end and the yellow light extended outwards, surrounding the ship.
     “What is that?” Brynn asked.
     “I think some sort of shield,” Kahlee thought out loud.  “And I’m getting readings of breathable atmosphere from inside it.”
     “Alright.  Open the door and let’s get moving.  But keep your helmets on, people.  Friendly or not, this stuff is old. I don’t want to get spaced if the power suddenly burns out.”
     “Roger that, Admiral,” Coats responded, pulling down his helmet and picking up a weapon.  

     Anderson turned from the pilot’s area and headed for the opening shuttle door, his own helmet clicking into place.  “Let’s leave her running, Kahlee.  I don’t want to be waiting on a systems power up if we have to make a quick exit.”

* * * * 

     Commander Jack Miller stood next to the Kilkenny’s communications officer, Chuck Little, who sat working to try and find a way to make the cruiser’s signal punch through the interference coming out of the Logan atmosphere to reach Admiral Anderson and his team.
     “So, Chuck, how’s the family doing?”
     Little didn’t look up.  “Doing good, Jack.  I’m so damn lucky to have them all make it through that Reaper hell.  Running from broken building to hole in the ground, day in and day out, living under the Resistance’s watch when they were stretched so thin.  My boy Ronnie . . . he’s found himself a sweet little girlfriend.  Cutest thing and she makes him smile all the time.”
     “It’s nice to see one bright mark come out of the blackness.”
     “I know.  Who’d have thought it?  And my baby girl just turned six and Lynn and I are just hoping that schools get moving again so she gets the education we always wanted for her.  There will be a lot of home schooling, though, I’m sure.  A lot of schools were too close to all the big targets for the Reapers.”
     “Too many teachers are gone, that’s a fact,” Jack said, providing Chuck’s unsaid thought.
     “What about you, buddy?  Monica . . .?”
     “She had a section of a wall fall across her legs during an attack.  Lost one leg completely and the other from the knee down.”
     “Oh, shit.  I’m sorry.”
     “No, it’s okay.  She’s strong.  Nothing but positive thoughts and looking to the future for my beauty.  And the doctors are amazing.  You know that rumor about Commander Shepard having died and getting brought back to life?”
     “Yeah . . . isn’t he Captain now?”
     “Something like that, but it’s besides the point.  Turns out, it’s true.  He was torn to pieces and spaced.  Helmet had sealed, protecting his brain from what I hear.  Point is, he was nothing but chunks and they put him back together.”
     “Didn’t Cerberus do that?” Chuck asked.
     “True, but the project lead on that task turned from Cerberus after helping Shepard defeat the collectors and all their medical breakthroughs came to the Alliance.  They’re growing Monica real legs, from her own DNA.”
     “Thought that was old hat, Jack?”
     “But it will be done in weeks instead of years, and it’s not even a tenth of what it used to cost!”
     “She’ll be as good as new,” Chuck understood, looking up to share an approving smile with his friend.
     “Damn right!” Jack said, beaming.  “Now how’s that communication coming?”
     “Not too good.  I’m getting something back, and it’s from our shuttle, but nothing useful.”
     “Well, at least that means they’re probably still mov-“
     “Commander Miller!” a frantic crewman shouted.
     The commander yanked his head around, feeling his stomach sink.  “What is it, Saj?”
     “I- I-“
     “Spit it out, man!”
     “The Normandy just came out of FTL at our rear!”
     “What?  The Normandy? That can’t be.  They’re at Sur’Kesh.”  
     “Something isn’t right, Jack,” Chuck said.
     “Give me a visual, Saj.”
     The unmistakable outline of the galaxy renowned frigate streaked towards the Kilkenny, a black shadow coming out of the Theseus system’s sun.
     “Sir, I’m reading massive energy spikes!”
     “WHAT?” Chuck yelled.
     “Evasive action!”

* * * * 

     Anderson stood behind the crouching Kasumi Goto as she worked at the outer door of the asteroid’s airlock, the rest of his eight person crew waiting less and less patiently behind him.
     “I seem to remember you being an expert at this, Kasumi,” Jacob said.  Brynn gave the soldier a disapproving push.  Kasumi didn’t turn from her task.
     “I seem to remember you being an idiot,” the thief shot back with a smile.  “But if you’ve suddenly become an expert at never before seen, ancient alien technology, by all means, lend me a hand.  Other wise, please refrain from distracting banter.  This may take a while.”
     The large door flashed yellow and there was a heavy thunk from the seal between the door and floor.  The entire team instinctively stepped back.  When the expected explosion did not materialize, Kasumi looked from the door to Anderson.
     “Or . . . not?”
     The door opened slowly but with little of the noise the admiral expected.  He estimated it was on the order of hundreds of thousands of years old, if the city-ship dwarfing the Inusannon ship was from a cycle prior to that race, as Sooltir conjectured, was any indication.  It was a technical marvel that anything that ancient still worked at all, never mind operated so flawlessly.  As the door receded into the ceiling, the interior passageway was illuminated with more yellow light, the source of which could not be readily determined.
     “Let’s go,” Anderson ordered.
      They made their way down a smooth tunnel that was easily five meters high at the apex, but only two across its widest point.  It extended in front of them with many connecting branches meeting the apparent main hall on both sides.  Kasumi tentatively reached out a hand and touched the nearest section of wall.  Her fingers depressed the material slightly. “Creepy. Feels like flesh.”
      “Fascinating,” Master Gelten said, poking the wall herself.  “This is not Inusannon construction.  At least, not like any we ever recovered or read about.”
     “We should look for a command center and see what we can find out about this place and who left it behind,” Kahlee said.
     “Station Slenthix is a multipurpose facility with no command center and it has not been left behind.  Not exactly.  I am here,” said a voice that caused the Alliance team to raise their weapons, sweeping the immediate area for the owner’s face while continuing to head down the main path into the station.  The voice continued. “You will find your weapons quite useless.  Security measures were enacted upon your unauthorized access to this facility.  Further hostile actions will provoke automated defenses and you will most likely perish.”
     David waved his hand down and everyone lowered their weapons.  “We’re not here for a fight.  We came looking for information.”
     “I know why you are here, Admiral David Anderson.  Though, to speak plainly, you did yourselves no favors arriving in a vessel integrated with the technology of the Rialusans.  The station’s automated defenses nearly destroyed you before my data hacking processes absorbed your Alliance information and determined you not to be an indoctrinated enemy.  I apologize for the death of the one you called Mills.  It is an unfortunate side effect of adapting the enemy’s tools.”
     David bit his tongue, wanting nothing more than to give the speaker a piece of his mind for the killing, but he told himself to let it go for the sake of the mission. “Rialusans?  You mean the Reapers?” 
     “That is what they have come to be known as, yes.”
     “Where are you?  Who and what are you?” he asked.
     “I am accessible from anywhere on this station, my creators’ vessel, and the Inusannon vessel docked here.  That required modification, but I was able to convert an enemy agent and it made the necessary changes.  As for who- I am the caretaker of Slenthix.”
     “Some sort of advanced VI?  Like the one Shepard found on Ilos?” Brynn asked.
     “Not one of ours, that’s for sure,” Nahlyon answered.
     “That is the ‘what’.  I am what your cultures call an artificial intelligence,” the voice answered.  “My creators identified me simply as Caretaker.  You may do the same if you like.”
     “What is this place?” Major Coats asked.
     “This is Station Slenthix.  A multipurpose facility, as I stated before.  However, there are no active parties currently utilizing the station.  You are presently making your way down the main hall of the docking area.  It leads from the many sections of the docking area to a transit system that accesses the rest of the station.  The transit vessel can be found straight ahead.”
     “You mentioned using an enemy agent for modifications.  Are you only a program with a voice for communication?” Kahlee asked.
     “You wish to know if I have a physical form, Kahlee Sanders?”
     “Yeah, I guess I do.”

     “I do, but it has been in disrepair for quite some time.  Repairs to that require external resources.  I have no access to such resources.”
     “Couldn’t you have used the same agent to retrieve supplies for you?” Sooltir asked.
     “Master Gelten.  I would like to state, first, that I am glad to see living Protheans come to this station.  I feared your species lost to the Rialusans completely, until recently.  We had had high hopes for your people.  Had you found Slenthix in your cycle, things would have been very different.  As to the converted agent, it was released with a wiped memory of this location after I used it for the Inusannon modifications.  To have it coming and going with supplies would have needlessly endangered this location.  It would have drawn the attention of the Rialusans, the agent’s original masters.”
     A portion of the yellow light concentrated into a human form resembling Anderson.  “For now, I can assume a visual form to facilitate a more natural interaction.
     “How about something different,” the admiral suggested.  “Maybe something representing what your race looked like?”
     “That is not advisable.  I do not wish to reveal information that I was sworn to withhold.”
     “What difference does it make to some long gone race?” Jacob asked.
     “Jacob Taylor, your question is . . . flawed.  And it does not change my answer.  But I will change to another form that is familiar to you since I see you would all be uneasy with your own semblances mirrored.  Your species are not as vain as- or maybe more sensitive than- those I have met in the past.  I do not know which, yet.”
     The yellow figure flashed again and stared back at the crew with a well known face.
     “Shepard?” Nahlyon asked.  “Why choose him?”
     “He is familiar to all in this room.  Your biological readings tell me he is also a welcome presence.  Personally, my analysis of the limited data I have gathered from your shuttle and nearby ships shows that he is a monumental figure in the galaxy.  And please understand that I am saying this from the perspective of one who has witnessed . . . many more of the Rialusans’ harvesting cycles than you can begin to imagine.  This Shepard human is improbably unique.”
     “That he is,” Anderson agreed with a proud smile.  It was a smile that suddenly morphed into a clenched jaw and tense eyes.  “What did you mean by “shuttle and nearby ships”?  Were you counting the fighters in the hangars?”
     “I was counting only active ships in close proximity to this planet.  I detect your modified Kodiak class shuttle, the Alliance cruiser class SSV Kilkenny, and the Normandy SR-2 class frigate just entering the system, designation unknown.”
     “What?  An SR-2 . . . unknown?” Anderson questioned.  “Caretaker, can you take us to a console for a visual?”
     “There is no need for alternate locations,” the yellow Shepard said.  Another formation of yellow light coalesced to the AI’s side and displayed the scene from multiple angles in different windows as it played out.  “Audio is available as well.”
     “Let me hear it,” the admiral said.
     Both video displays of the ships were soon joined with simultaneous, but separate, audio feeds picked up through means even the technical expert Kahlee could not quite understand at first.  It was difficult to tell which sounds were coming from which ship.
     “. . . sure that’s the ship?”
     “. . . Normandy? That can’t be.  They’re at Sur’Kesh.”  
     “I do not make mistakes, Mastoon.”
     Caretaker turned to Anderson.  “Admiral Anderson, your crewman are mistaken. This is not the actual Normandy commanded by Captain Shepard.”
     The admiral looked from screen to screen.  “Can you zoom in and enhance the image of the fake Normandy?  All I see is a shadow because of that damned sun.”  
     “Yes.  Doing so now,” the AI complied.
     The image closed in and a clear visual sharpened in front of Anderson.  Yellow, white, and black markings covered the SR-2 clone.
     “Oh god,” David uttered.
     “Something isn’t right, Jack,” the audio continued.
     Caretaker pointed at the oncoming frigate.  “The incoming signal to this ship is of unknown origin, however, the voice pattern is in our records.  We believe your ship is in danger.”     
     “Sure you don’t.  Guess that fucked up attack on Mars was all part of the master plan then,” came Mastoon’s sarcastic voice from the frigate.
     Brynn looked up to Caretaker.  “We have to warn them!”
     “My outbound communications are presently in disrepair, Brynn Cole.”
     Anderson broke into a dead run back to the shuttle.  “We have to get a message out!”
     A second copy of Caretaker and the displays appeared and floated along next to David as he ran.  “I do not believe you have time, Admiral,” it stated flatly.
     “I’ve got to try!” he countered, cursing as he suddenly realized how much distance he and his team had covered while walking and talking to the AI.
     “Give me a visual, Saj.”
     “Just destroy it and then return to me if you do not want your injuries to be the death of you, human.”
     “Fine.  Fine.  Shanklin, you heard the . . . thing.  Scrap it.”
     “Sir, I’m reading massive energy spikes!”
     David closed in on the docking tunnel back to the Kodiak.
     “With pleasure, Captain.”
     “Evasive action!”
     Anderson’s eyes went wide.  “NO!”  

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.