Mass Effect 4 : New Masters Epilogue

 

  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.

 

Advertisements

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.
     “Shit.”
     “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.”
     “Sir?”
     “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!”
     “Sir?”
     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.”
     “Good.”
     “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.’
     “Understood.”
     Done with the voice in his head for the moment, Shepard opened his arms to the doctor.  “So, how am I, Doc?”
      “One moment, Captain,” she answered.  A short while and a healthy report later, Shepard headed for the hastily constructed communications room that Miranda, Liara, and Honwol were putting together.
     “Shepard,” Vendetta said.
     “Go ahead, Vendetta.”
     “The collector that questioned you . . . he was altered.”
     “To put it mildly.”
     “I believe he may hold a clue to technology sufficiently advanced enough to extract this consciousness from you’re body.”
     Shepard stopped in his tracks.  “I’m listening.”
     “For a collector to have survived the Crucible’s effects, every piece of Reaper technology would have been required to be removed.”
     “And something would have needed to take its place.”
     “Precisely.”
     “So some other tech as advanced as what the Reapers used?”
     “At least as advanced.  Or possibly live organs were reintroduced through an advanced science along another path.”
     “Okay, so this collector stumbled onto an advanced . . . what?  Some advanced science lab and then un-Reaperized himself?”
     “Data is not sufficient for a conclusive answer, but the indoctrinated would not make that decision on their own.”
     “So someone or something did this to him.”
     “I believe so.”
     “Any competent doctor can clone body parts or even an entire body.  That doesn’t really seem that impressive and doesn’t explain how to get you out of me.”
     “No on the surface, no, but consider this collector’s actions and words.  He is no longer indoctrinated.  He has his own mind again.  A mind he, in all likely hood, never actually had in the first place.”
     “An implanted consciousness?” Shepard questioned the Prothean intelligence.
     “It appears so.  One that was transferred from some other location, technical or biological would just be a matter of adapting a process for one type of electrical input versus another.”
     “So the point of all this theory is . . . that we have to track this guy down and get those answers.”
     “Yes.  You are surprisingly adept at forming conclusions, Shepard.”
     “Thanks,” Shepard said dryly.
     “For a human,” Vendetta added.
     Shepard ignored the comment and resumed his path to the communications setup where he found Miranda, Liara and Honwol, as expected, working to put the finishing touches on a radio that would allow a secure link to the Normandy, among other communications.  The Alliance ship’s systems would act as a signal relay, from that point, for the ground teams.
     “How’s it coming?” he asked.

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

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

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 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.
     Vendetta.  
     “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.”
     “Trajectory?”
     “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.”
     “Good.”
     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.

     “Probably.”

     “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 8

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

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 7

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

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 6

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

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 5

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