League night at the Zocabowl, and the rafters resounded to the thunder of polycarbonate on polished wood and the shouts of Babylon 6's most enthusiastic bowlers. All the alley's twenty lanes were in use, most of them crewed by teams of cheerful men and women in matching loud shirts—apart from the one all the way at the end, No. 21 (there being, by long tradition, no Lane 13), which played host to three men in much more subdued casualwear. They seemed a little out of place amid the boisterous, brightly-colored throng, but nobody gave their presence much thought. The station's commander was often to be seen entertaining guests at 21, which was sort of by way of being his private lane.
Captain Derek Bacon often treated bowling as something of a diplomatic or cultural function, entertaining visiting dignitaries. Sometimes this worked out: Centauri Emperor Turhan, for instance, had enjoyed his visit to the Zocabowl very much. Sometimes the results were more mixed, as for instance when the Klingon and Romulan ambassadors had come to blows over a scoring dispute. Tonight there was little enough chance of that, because his guests were his own chief of security, Michael Garibaldi, and the Chief of the IPO himself, who was unlikely to accuse either one of cheating and/or offer to do pugilism with them.
Just at the moment, they were between games, totting up their scores and performing routine maintenance.
"So I say to Miranda, 'I hate it that you're good at bowling too,'" Garibaldi was saying. "And she just smirks at me and says, 'I'm good at everything, Michael. I thought you'd have noticed that by now.'"
Gryphon laughed. "Yeah, that sounds like Miranda," he said. He might have gone on, but just then they were joined by a slim, black-haired woman dressed in combat pants and a dark hoodie, and he had to pause in what he was doing to just stand there for a moment and stare at her.
This was not because she was particularly gorgeous; he did find her very attractive, but it was a quirky sort of attractiveness, the kind that grows with familiarity and doesn't arrest at first sight. Her mouth was a little too wide, her blue-violet eyes slightly too big, and her rather large, aquiline nose might have been described as a beak by someone unkindly disposed toward it, or called "hawklike" by someone attempting to be a bit more poetic. There was a liveliness about her expression, though, that made up for all that—made it all work, in fact, in a way that a more ordinary face wouldn't have.
None of that was why Gryphon had to stare at her, though. He had to stare at her because a) he knew her and b) the last he had been aware, she was officially dead.
She stood at the step leading down to the lane, regarding him with a knowing little smirk. The other two noticed his startled expression, turned, and looked at the woman, one in confusion, the other with growing delight.
"Chief? Something wrong?" Garibaldi asked.
The woman's smirk grew a little bit as she answered for him, "No problems. He's just seen a ghost, is all."
Gryphon blinked, shaking himself out of his reverie, but before he could speak, Derek had beaten him to it, throwing his arms wide and booming, "Gin!" in a voice that momentarily stopped the chatter all the way over to Lane 15.
The woman grinned broadly and spread her arms to match. "Derek!" she replied.
"John Boy!" said Derek.
"Chief?!" the woman in black replied, and then she, Derek, and Gryphon all pitched their voices in a faux-gravelly register and declared,
"... OK, I'm completely lost now," said Garibaldi, but he had to wait until she'd finished hugging both of the other men in turn before he got anything like an explanation.
With an arm still thrown over the Chief's shoulders, she turned her grin to him and said, "Hi. Sorry to barge into your game like this." She put out her free hand. "Virginia Shepard. I used to be with the WDF back in the day."
Still looking faintly bemused, Garibaldi shook the offered hand. "Michael Garibaldi," he said.
"Pleasure to meet you," she said, then unlooped her other arm from around Gryphon's neck and said, "So! You guys have room for a fourth?"
"Sure, why not?" Garibaldi said.
"You guys'll go easy on me, right?" said Shepard, picking up one of the Zocabowl's house balls from the return rack. "I haven't bowled tenpin in a long time. Valhalla's nice, but it's all that candlepin crap up there."
Ten frames and 600 credits later, Garibaldi returned his shoes to his bag with a rueful smile and a shake of the head. "'Go easy on the new kid,'" he said. "I can't believe I fell for that."
"I'll give you a chance to win it back someday, Mr. Garibaldi, have no fear," said Shepard cheerfully as she tied her all-black All-Stars. Then, turning to Gryphon, she went on, "Got a minute, Gryph? Let's go for a walk."
Gryphon nodded. "Sure," he said. "I'll see you guys later."
They said their farewells with another hug for Derek; then Shepard returned her rented shoes and they left the Zocalo. They headed down to B6's O'Neill-cylinder habitat area, familiarly known as the Garden, not saying much until they were out in the open, grassy space under the piped-in Bajoran sunshine.
"So," said Gryphon. "Been a few years... last I knew you were a Valkyrie."
"Still am, at least officially," Shepard replied. "I'm on... I forget what Hildy called it in the paperwork, an extended self-directed Midgard detachment, or some such nonsense." She smiled. "At large and looking for trouble, basically."
Gryphon chuckled. "Just like old times," he said. "So what can I do for you?"
"Well, actually, I came to see if there's anything I can do for you," Shepard told him. "I mean, this thing with the Earth Alliance... repercussions in the Federation... you must need all the operators you can get." She flicked a fingertip against the N7 badge screened on the front of her hoodie. "I don't like to brag, but they tell me I'm pretty good at some things," she added with a smile.
Nodding, he considered that for a few moments, his face thoughtful.
"Actually," he said at length, "there is something you might just be perfect for."
Shepard looked intrigued. "Lay it on me," she said.
"Are you by yourself?" he asked.
"Nah, Kaidan cashed his Return ticket and came back with me." She shrugged. "He's around somewhere. Said something about 'giving me room' for this part." Rolling her eyes slightly, she added, "You know how he gets sometimes."
"Well, I could use his help with this thing too, if he's up for it."
"'Swhat we came for," said Shepard easily. "We're supposed to meet back up at the Zocalo later. I'll bring him to your office?"
Gryphon shook his head. "Not the office," he said. "I want to try and keep it quiet. I doubt anyone knows you're back, or would understand the significance of it if they knew, but for now we need to avoid any official contact. We've still got Starfleet people on the station, and I suspect a few of them are reporting to Earth, knowingly or not."
"Ooh, cloak and dagger stuff," Shepard said with a grin. "Works for me, we don't get a lot of that in Valhalla. Where do you want to meet?"
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Future Imperfect
Act I: Collection Agency
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Geoff Depew
©2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Over a pepperoni pizza the size of a manhole cover, Gryphon explained his need.
"For the last ten months, the Babylon Foundation has been tracking a pattern of anomalies in the Earth Alliance," he said, then went on without further preamble, "We think the EA is losing its outermost colonies."
Kaidan Alenko raised an eyebrow. "Define 'losing'," he said.
"Hard to say for sure," Gryphon said. "Unfortunately, relations between us and the Dome haven't been the best for the last couple of years, so what we've been getting on the problem has been extremely sketchy—back channels, unauthorized contacts from sources within various EA agencies that were still at least vaguely friendly, long-range sensor data..." He shook his head. "It's a mess, and it's left us with a fragmented picture at best—but what we can make out in that picture isn't good.
"The pattern always seems to be the same: A first-stage EA colony out on the coreward fringe of the Federation, usually in the Attican Traverse, suddenly drops out of comm contact. Sometimes there are a few garbled transmissions that may or may not be distress signals, but after that, nothing. They go completely dark. Automatic systems keep working—navigational beacons, that kind of thing—but that's it."
"What's Earthdome doing about it?" Shepard wanted to know.
Gryphon shrugged. "Even before they cut off relations with us altogether last week, they'd been stonewalling us for months. The IPO's only EA office has been on Earth itself since 2404—we had no presence out in the Traverse before this business ever started. We did get one report, from a black source within Earthforce, that they found at least one of the affected colonies completely deserted. 'As if everyone just got up and left,' was the phrase she used."
"Sounds like the Greys," said Alenko.
"Abducting whole colonies?" said Shepard skeptically. "C'mon, Kaidan. The Greys had a hard time with the logistics of bagging everybody at a minor-league baseball game. And it was Free Bat Night." She smirked nostalgically. "They're never gonna make that mistake again."
"Whoever it is," Gryphon said, "all our intel indicates that Earthforce isn't making much progress identifying or stopping them, and now that the Dome's cut off all contact with Zeta Cygni, they're going it completely alone." He shook his head. "Not acceptable. Whatever my differences with the Earth Alliance's government, those people need help. Help they're not getting from the Dome. So, since the last time this happened, I've thought of a plan."
"Is it a cunning plan?" Shepard asked with a faint, knowing smile.
"Remains to be seen," Gryphon admitted wryly. "Now that Intel Division and the Babylon Foundation's infotrackers know what to look for, we should know where and when almost immediately the next time it happens. I need a quick response force ready to go immediately. Someone whose eyes and judgment I can trust, on the site as soon as possible after the incident to hopefully get a line on what the hell is going on over there.
"Obviously, though, the situation's very delicate. I can't send people who are officially identifiable as IPO or even IPO-allied personnel. If I did and they were ID'd, at this point, the shitstorm would probably dwarf even last week's excitement."
"Which is where we come in," Kaidan said.
"Exactly," Gryphon confirmed. "You're not and never have been part of the IPO. Hell, you're both officially dead, so even if someone gets an ID on you off a security scan or something, the report probably won't be believed."
"Well, I'm game," said Shepard, downing the last of her Pepsi. "How do we play it?"
"I'll get you quarters on B6—discreetly, down in the Red Sector civilian resblocks. Have your gear together and be ready to roll at very short notice. Your transportation'll be all lined up. When we get the signal from Intel or the Foundation that it's happened again, you'll jump on it. If we do it right, you can get in and out before the Dome's own response arrives."
"Might get a little dull in the meantime," Kaidan remarked.
"It might," Gryphon admitted, "but I don't think you'll have long to wait. We think the average downtime between incidents is around three weeks. It's been four."
Shepard was lying on her bunk watching TV when the signal came. With the well-ordered precision of a seasoned professional, she was up and shod within twenty seconds. Her gear was already packed and ready to go; she had only to switch off the holoset, swing her deceptively heavy duffel bag onto her shoulder, and hit the corridor.
As she locked the room behind her, she saw Kaidan emerging from Red 1442 next door, dressed in similarly plain street clothes and carrying a similar bag. A little smile played at her lips as they fell into step and headed for the elevator.
"Beat you by at least a second," she teased.
"No excuse, Commander," he replied mock-stolidly.
In the lift, Shepard stood lookout while Kaidan used a combat engineer's tech-tool to convince the control panel that they were emergency traffic requiring an express priority run to the Red Sector docking level. Precisely one minute and twenty-two seconds later, they emerged onto the concourse to find it deserted and Bay D24 cordoned off with CLOSED FOR MAINTENANCE holotape. The alarm didn't sound as they breezed through the tape and into the bay.
Gryphon was waiting for them, looking faintly pleased at the spy-movie measures he'd had to use to make certain no one saw him seeing them off. The bay was one of the larger commercial ones, intended for a bulk freighter, and so it was rather comically underused at the moment. The only vessel parked in it, to which he led them, was a boxy craft that seemed to have been a Danube-class runabout in a previous life, until someone had stripped it of any unnecessary hull protrusions and thermocoated it black.
"The Psi Corps left it on Titan last week," Gryphon explained as he keyed the hatch. "My engineering team's been through it from one end to the other to make sure there are no dirty tricks aboard, and since there aren't, we might as well put it to use. It's got a unique stealth system." He glanced at Shepard and smiled darkly. "And by 'unique stealth system' I mean they seem to have dug up the old IES patents."
Shepard chuckled. "Just like old times... only smaller," she quipped, putting her bag on the deck next to the table in the oversized shuttle's tiny wardroom.
"I hope they've uprated the engines too," Kaidan remarked. He put his bag down next to Shepard's and then went forward to the cockpit.
"I'm afraid not, so you'll be getting a ride to the scene with a friend of mine," Gryphon said. Shepard took left seat, Kaidan right, and they started preflighting the runabout as the Chief stood behind the center console and went on briefing them.
"Once you're in the system, your ride will drop you off and then loiter in orbit in case you need backup. It's absolutely critical that they not be spotted, though, so if there's any change of disclosure, you're going to be on your own. Use your discretion, but try to stay out of trouble."
"Behind enemy lines in a ship with no guns, with backup who can't show themselves and an unknown alien threat," Shepard observed, then looked back over her shoulder at Gryphon with a grin. "Gimme a hard one next time."
"Remember, I'm not looking to confront whatever's doing this without knowing more about it," he told her. "Don't go Haywire on whatever you find there. What you learn is no good to me if you get killed again before you can report it," he added with a wry grin.
"Aye-aye, sir," Shepard replied with a sketchy salute.
His smile only a little grim from the tension of their situation, Gryphon leaned down, one hand on her shoulder, and handed her a datapad with the other. "All the comm protocols and whatnot you'll need are here," he said. "Good luck, Gin."
Rendezvousing with a cloaked starship while piloting a small craft outfitted for 99th-percentile passive stealth was a non-trivial task in itself, but both Shepard and Alenko were expert spacers, and so, evidently, were the people running the ship they were sent to meet. With a minimum of hassle, and without anyone in the busy B'hava'el system the wiser, they found themselves parked in a small but well-appointed shuttlebay.
Emerging from the runabout, they found themselves met by a brace of what appeared to be Romulan marines dressed in the uniforms of Gamilon Imperial Guardsmen, led by a short but well-built redheaded woman whose blue skin showed that she, at least, was wearing the right clothes.
"Commander Shepard. Colonel Alenko," she said, shaking their hands in turn. "I'm Centurion Kitarina Dragonaar, 2nd Gamilon Guards. Call me Rina. Welcome aboard the Lorica. If you'll come with me to the bridge—" She paused, looking up reflexively as the hum of the ship changed pitch slightly. "—we're already underway," she finished.
"Why is a Gamilon Guards ship getting involved in an IPO operation?" Kaidan asked as they made their way up the companionway from the shuttlebay to what Shepard assumed was a turbolift.
"Because this isn't an IPO operation," Rina replied with a little smile. "Chief Gryphon is a man who believes in using any asset that's available and suits the mission, and for this job, we happened to be both," she went on, less flippantly, as they boarded the lift.
"That doesn't really answer my question," Kaidan pointed out. The lift ride was a short one, and they were already emerging onto the bridge as he went on, "I mean, this is definitely an irregular operation, I can just about see why he would ask, but not why you would agree to do it."
"I agreed," said a cool voice from the seat whose tall back was to the lift doors as they emerged, "because a man whose integrity and ability I rate very highly asked me to." The voice's owner swiveled and rose from her seat, revealing herself to be a taller, slimmer Gamilon woman than their escort, black-haired and with a cybernetic cowl covering the socket of one eye.
"Besides," she went on, "I believe in the mission of the International Police and the Babylon Foundation. Honor, integrity, justice. The common people of the Earth Alliance deserve to be treated with those qualities, even if their government has eschewed them."
"You're speechifying," Rina pointed out.
The taller woman inclined her head with a private little smile. "Forgive me," she said. "An occupational hazard of the diplomatic service." She offered her hand to Shepard. "Amanda Dessler. I lately find myself serving as my father's ambassador to Babylon, and sometimes I forget myself," she added.
"The crown princess of the Gamilon Empire is a secret agent for the IPO?" asked Shepard, shaking her hand. "Wonders never cease."
"Says the woman who returned from the dead just for something to do," Amanda replied, smiling. As she led the ship's guests into a conference room abaft the bridge, she continued, "I've heard a great deal about you, Commander, from a mutual friend of ours—Corwin Ravenhair. But time enough for socializing later. What has Gryphon told you about your mission?"
"Not much," Shepard admitted as she, Kaidan, and the two Gamilons seated themselves at the conference table. "I know what we're trying to do, more or less, but this thing was laid on in such a hurry we don't even know where we're going."
"Well, that, at least, I can tell you," said Amanda. She touched a control, energizing the holojector built into the middle of the table; it projected the image of a planet surrounded by informative text. "Our destination is an EA colony world in the Exodus sector, near the Federation's coreward boundary, with the slightly fanciful name 'Eden Prime'."
Kaidan and Shepard glanced at each other.
"Déjà vu all over again," said Kaidan.
"Come again?" said Rina, arching an eyebrow.
"We've been there before," Shepard explained. "In 2280."
"Matter of fact, we met there," Alenko said. "Back then it was a United Earth colony, just starting out. I was part of the UEDF Corps of Engineers crew helping to set up the colony's defense systems when the planet was invaded. Shepard's Wedge Defense Force command, the Normandy, was the first friendly ship on the scene after we got part of a distress call out."
"I would've thought they'd be out of Stage One by now," Shepard added. "I mean, the place got pretty beat up in that fight, but that was... what... 126 years ago."
"According to the gazetteer file we have," said Amanda, "this version was founded four years ago. The original may have been abandoned after the supply lines were disrupted during Earth's 24th-century world war." She smiled a little wryly. "Before my time and after yours."
"True enough," Shepard conceded. "Anyway, probably not important right now. What do we know about the situation there?"
"Square root of fuckall, basically," Rina admitted. "Their subether links went dark about half an hour ago. That and what the infochasers at the Foundation call 'other indications'. They play that stuff pretty close to the vest."
"Regardless, we'll know soon enough," said Amanda. She pressed another key. "Commander Jethan, report."
"On course at best speed, Your Highness," replied the voice of the ship's captain. "ETA three hours, forty-six minutes... mark."
"Very well, carry on," said Amanda.
Shepard glanced at her antique Omega Speedmaster wristwatch. "That'll put us there about 1800 GST." She got to her feet. "Well, if we don't know what we're going to find there, we'd better be ready for anything." With a wry smile, she added, "In the interests of which, I'm going to grab a nap."
Kaidan put the runabout down in a likely spot a short way outside the settlement, evidently undetected; at the very least, they weren't challenged by anything or anyone. They left it parked behind a rocky outcropping that should shield it from prying eyes in town, assuming there were any, and then headed in on foot. The local time felt like late afternoon or early evening, to judge from the slant and length of the shadows.
"No signs of battle," Kaidan mused as they moved carefully through the thin woods that fringed the colony. "That's one difference from last time."
"I don't think we're in the same place, either. This terrain doesn't seem familiar." Shepard shrugged. "Lot can change in 125 years."
"I don't even hear any shooting from the town. Think we're too late?"
"Not sure. Stay sharp—"
And suddenly, as though out of nowhere, the two were engulfed by a swarm of enormous insects of some type, bugs as big as hummingbirds, swirling and buzzing and hitting their kinetic barriers with audible ripply thumps.
Shepard swatted reflexively at one that flew alarmingly close to her face, knocking it broken to the ground. Automatically she cried, "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"
In spite of the situation, Alenko snorted with amusement. "What the hell are you yelling about?" he asked, smacking one away from his head.
Then, as suddenly as they had come, the bugs dispersed, leaving their two or three slain comrades behind. Shepard looked suspiciously around at the woods, then knelt down and picked up the one she'd killed, turning it over in her hand.
"Never mind," she said. Rising, she stuffed the dead bug into a spare ammo compartment on her armor, then set out for town again, adding reflexively, "It's your turn to drive."
The bug swarm returned twice more in the four or five minutes it took them to reach the colony, always to be stymied by their shields and give up.
"Joking aside," Shepard mused after the third encounter, "what the hell are these things?"
Kaidan shrugged. "I dunno, but they seem to be stumped by Grade Four barriers. Which I suspect is a good thing."
"Mm." Shepard took stock of their surroundings. Typical colony-town outskirts—thermopacked dirt streets, rectangular prefab houses... and no sign of anyone.
"Maybe we're too late," Kaidan said.
"Lorica to Shepard," came the voice of one of Amanda Dessler's officers, Lt. Rokar.
Shepard keyed her com. "Go ahead, Lorica."
"Be advised, our sensors are showing a huge energy signature not far from your location, in the vicinity of the settlement spaceport. Keep an eye out to your southwest. I doubt you'll be able to miss whatever's generating it."
Shepard turned in the recommended direction and looked. "All I see over there is the worst-looking skyscraper I've ever seen in my lives," she said. "Man. Talk about a design student's nightmare. Who puts up a high-rise that ugly?"
Alenko stepped up next to her and looked. The structure she was indicating was indeed hideous, a weird combination of a curvilinear alloy center section with what looked like rocky encrustations, as though someone had partially converted an enormous boulder (or perhaps a fairly small asteroid) into an office building from within. He was about to agree when something occurred to him, his eyes going wide behind his combat helmet's visor.
"Shepard, this is still a Stage One colony," he reminded her. "There shouldn't be anything here yet but prefabs."
Shepard looked more closely. The ugly building loomed over the low skyline of the spaceport complex, dwarfing the warehouses, hangars, and even the ATC tower. It was that last, so small by comparison that it had eluded her notice the first time, that suddenly jumped everything into scale for her. Suddenly her impression of the object reoriented itself, and she realized it was not a hideously avant-garde skyscraper...
... it was a starship of some kind, a weirdly melded combination of metal and rock, standing on its end like a 1930s movie-serial rocketship. It was just so huge she had, at first, unconsciously dismissed the idea that it could be any such thing. If that ATC tower were the usual height, then the vessel had to be something like the size of a Colonial battlestar... standing on its tail amid the wreckage of what had been a spaceport, like an oversized model plunked roughly into the middle of a diorama.
"Oh. Shit," she said with feeling. "Brother, we are gonna need a bigger boat."
"Yup," Kaidan agreed.
Then, still gazing at the gigantic ship, she held up a hand as though for quiet. "Hear that?" she asked.
"No," Kaidan replied.
Shepard half-closed her eyes, listening hard. "There it is again," she said. "Gunfire." With a slight smile, she added, "I guess somebody's fighting back out there after all. Come on!"
They ran through the deserted streets, taking shortcuts down alleys and across plazas, homing in on the sounds of battle. As she hurdled a low wall, Shepard took her rifle from its magmount on her back, readying it for action. Kaidan was right behind her, powering up the cybernetic amplifiers that gave him access to his psionic potential, his sidearm in hand. They rounded a corner into what looked like it might've been the town's central square to find a lone humanoid figure, dressed in Earthforce's standard combat armor, fighting a pitched battle against at least a dozen of... something. Vaguely man-shaped but chitinous, with four glowing yellow eyes in a single horizontal row, they belonged to no species Shepard had ever seen before.
"I don't recognize them," she said as she piled into cover behind a stack of storage containers.
Kaidan peeked up above their makeshift barrier, then ducked down again with a curse.
"Neither do I."
"Well, we can worry about that later," Shepard said, taking another quick glance. She switched her rifle to incendiary mode. "Right now, work to do."
Kaidan nodded. "Just give the word."
"Just like last time," said Shepard nostalgically. "OK. Go!"
On her order, Alenko sprang from cover, wound up, and launched a bolt of psychokinetic force across the plaza, sending one of the aliens flying. The others, evidently startled by this attack from a new direction, turned and opened fire with rifle-like weapons. Alenko dove behind a metal-fab bench, alien bullets sparking from his barriers. While the aliens were distracted, Shepard vaulted the packing cases and opened up on them. The deep bark of her rifle made a sharp contrast to the high-pitched whittering of the aliens' weapons or the fizzing pop of the Earthforce trooper's phased plasma gun.
The Morgan Arms M-98E Mattock was not, technically speaking, an assault rifle. It had no fully automatic fire mode, instead relying on the close teaming of its raw ballistic power and its wielder's precision skill. The 23rd-century Wedge Defense Force had classified it as a "marksman rifle". A miniature mass accelerator, it used energy from an expendable capacitor to hurl aerodynamic pellets of extremely dense alloy at quite preposterous velocities, one at a time, only as fast as the operator could pull the trigger. In Virginia Shepard's case, though, that was pretty damn fast; faster, in fact, than some fully automatic weapons would cycle if left to their own devices.
Shepard pumped a full charge of 16 rounds, each further enhanced by an incendiary jacket of superheated plasma, into the alien formation in more or less the time it took them to realize they had a third attacker. Four went down, their exoskeletons smashed by the Mattock's comparatively massive (by modern standards) projectiles; others, standing too near their least-fortunate comrades, were set afire by the splashing plasma and recoiled in dismay, flailing at themselves. By the time she slung herself back into cover alongside the Earthforce trooper, she'd already swapped the spent capacitor for a fresh one.
"You look like you could use a hand," she quipped, raising herself up to blast another of the aliens.
"Where the hell did you guys come from?!" the trooper—a woman, Shepard realized from her voice—blurted.
"Oh, you know, just happened to be in the neighborhood," Shepard replied offhandedly. "Kaidan! Still alive?"
"So far," Kaidan replied from behind the bench. His cover was at right angles to theirs, so they had that corner of the plaza pretty well boxed, but with more insectoid aliens arriving from somewhere to the south, the situation was far from secure.
"Good, good." Shepard turned to her newly acquired colleague. "What's your name, soldier?"
To her great surprise, the reply she received was, "Alenko."
"What's your name, soldier?" Shepard asked as geth plasma fire raked the other side of the rock behind which she and her newly acquired colleague had taken shelter.
"Alenko," he replied, still slightly out of breath from his hell-for-leather sprint across the clearing. "Kaidan Alenko. "Lieutenant, 189th UEDF Engineers."
"Nice to meet you, Lt. Alenko. Commander Virginia Shepard, WDF Normandy. What's with the hostile robots?"
This new Lieutenant Alenko went on to say that her first name was Arna and that she was with the 12th Earthforce Lancers, not an engineering battalion. By the time she'd finished with that, Shepard had recovered from the surprise enough to quip,
"Nice to meet you, Lt. Alenko. Name's Shepard. What's with the angry bug guys?"
"I have no idea," Arna replied. "They came out of nowhere. At first we thought it might be the Zetans, but then these creatures disembarked and started killing anyone who could still move."
Shepard gave her a quizzical look. "Why would Zeta Cygni attack this place?" A round from one of the aliens' weapons sparked off the top of the wall by her head; not flinching so much as giving the impact site a faintly annoyed glance, she added, "Actually, you know what, hold that thought for right now," then raised herself up and returned fire.
The younger Alenko shook off her surprise in short order and got back with the program. The three humans, coordinating their fire and darting from cover to cover, started methodically clearing the aliens from their vicinity, consolidating their hold on the square.
"The only bodies I see are combat troops," Shepard said as they regrouped near the center of the square, having momentarily run out of opposition. "Where's everyone else?"
"Did you see the swarms of flying-bug-like things on your way here?" Arna asked in reply. "They're cybernetic seeker drones of some kind. They have a paralytic sting. Anyone who wasn't wearing shielded armor went down in the first wave. Some of the aliens dragged them off while the rest came after those of us who could still fight." She shook her head, fighting to maintain self-control. "We started over by the spaceport, near where their ship landed. I think I'm the only one left." Shepard nodded. "Rough day at the office," she said, her tone more sympathetic than her words suggested.
Kaidan looked to the south side of the square. "And I think it's about to get even rougher," he said, pointing. "What the hell are those?"
Shepard racked her Mattock and drew another, much larger weapon from the magmount alongside it. Already impressively large, this proceeded to unfold and telescope until it reached what struck Arna as a flatly unfeasible size for any armament not intended to be crew-served and/or mounted on a light vehicle. It was plainly an anti-matériel weapon of some kind, but Shepard handled it as though it were nothing bigger or more elaborate than a sniper's rifle.
"All right, George, let's see what we've got," she murmured, shouldering the weapon and peering into the telesight on top. After a second or two's consideration, her eye narrowed behind the eyepiece of her scope, her face taking on a vaguely puzzled, vaguely disgusted expression. "Zombies?" she mused. "Robots? Robot zombies." She shook her head. "We have got to get a new travel agent."
Arna did the same with the much less powerful optic sight on her Auricon PP-AR4, and what she saw did not please her. There were alien reinforcements entering the far side of the square, but they weren't just the brown insectoids she'd been fighting so far. They were accompanied by other creatures which were superficially much more human-shaped, but... wrong. Greyish-tinted and covered in what looked like glowing blue circuitry, they moved with strange, jerky motions. There was nothing wrong with their ground speed, though. Moving at a clumsy-looking but headlong run, they'd reach the defenders long before the more deliberately advancing insectoids.
Or at least they would have if one of those defenders hadn't been psychokinetic and another armed with a phased-plasma assault rifle.
As the two Alenkos mowed down the charging zombie... robot... things on either side of her, Shepard focused intently on the alien leading the group that was moving up behind them. There was something strange about it; it had just paused, as if struck by something, and dropped its rifle. For a moment it tottered, its shoulders hunching forward...
... and then it levitated into the air, limbs flung wide, and seemed to burn from within, its chitinous hide cracking and blackening as its four eyes and all the cracks spreading across its body blazed with yellow-orange light. When it settled back onto its feet, it moved differently from the others—more upright, somehow, with a kind of casual arrogance.
"OK, that's new," Kaidan remarked—and then, to compound his (and his colleagues') surprise further, the burning alien spoke. Where the others had only made chittering sounds that were unintelligible to the humans, this one addressed them in Standard with a deep, uncannily resonant voice, as though a much larger being were speaking through it from some imponderable distance.
"Humans," it said, its voice dripping with contempt. "Your resistance is meaningless."
"Says you, pal," Arna snapped. She rose to one knee and fired a perfectly aimed burst; the plasma pulses popped and sizzled all across the creature's chest, blasting out chunks of blackened chitin.
"Pathetic," the burning alien said. With a gesture of one clawed hand, it sent a bolt of some semi-visible energy hurtling toward her, blasting her clean out from behind cover. The armored trooper went down with a clash of plating on concrete, sliding halfway to the wall of the building behind them.
"You will all" the creature went on, but before it could finish its taunt, its head had exploded with a thunderous sound. Half-stunned on the ground, Arna Alenko thought for a second that this had somehow happened spontaneously. A moment later, as her eyes came fully back into focus, she realized that the cooling fins on Virginia Shepard's preposterously long rifle—"George", apparently—were glowing cherry-red and that Shepard herself was grinning nastily.
"Oh I'm sorry, were you talking?" she asked the dead alien as its still-burning body sloughed away into a heap of smoldering embers.
"Now we'll never know what we're all supposed to do," complained Kaidan.
"Probably just as well," Shepard replied. She pumped the spent cap out of the weapon, then collapsed it back to its storage mode and swapped it for her Mattock again. While Kaidan laid down covering fire, she fell back toward Arna, firing from the hip to keep the aliens' left flank's heads down as she went.
"You OK, kid?" she asked.
"Think so," Arna replied. "Didn't know they could do that."
"Yeah, well, I think we all missed that memo," said Shepard wryly. She fired another short volley into the aliens' flank, then held out her free hand. "C'mon, on your feet. This is getting too hot for the likes of us, we have to get out of here."
Arna grabbed the offered hand and used it to haul herself to her feet. "What about the colonists? We can't just—"
"You think the three of us are going to get them out of a starship the size of the Chrysler Building alone?" Shepard asked her. "I hate it too, but we're not going to help anybody by getting killed down here this afternoon. Now let's get the hell out of here. We need a plan."
Arna looked like she might object further, but then her face took on a look of horror and she shouted past Shepard, "Look out!"
Shepard turned and saw Kaidan facing off against... something. It looked like one of those robot zombie things, except bigger and weirdly misshapen, with a hideously distended, glowing blue hunchback so big it had actually forced the creature's head over past what ought to have been its right shoulder. From its left shoulder sprouted an enormous cannon-like appendage. Kaidan backpedaled away from it, emptying his sidearm into its center mass to no evident effect.
"Son of a—" Shepard snarled, then launched herself toward it, gun blazing. Her Mattock's heavier, faster slugs tore whole slabs out of its structure, spraying the ground around it with some greenish fluid. It turned its glowing dead eyes to her, hissing. The Mattock's cap ran dry and she didn't have time to replace it, so she reversed the weapon instead and drove the shoulder stock into the monstrous creature's face.
A half-second later she was on the other side of the square, hitting the wall of one of the outbuildings hard enough to smash the cinderblocks. She punched partly through and disappeared in a cloud of dust as the wall partly collapsed, burying her.
"Shepard!" Kaidan cried.
"I'll cover you, fall back!" Arna called to him, blasting the nearest of the brown aliens. Rifle fire slashed around them as the two sought fresh cover, a task complicated by the still-standing robozombie's giant concussion cannon.
Half-buried in broken concrete blocks, Shepard stirred, then reached slowly up and grasped the top of the lowermost intact block with one hand. After a moment's pause to gather her wits, she hauled herself upright, shedding rubble from the plates of her smashed and scraped armor.
Yeah, OK, ow, she thought. Memo to self: You're not wearing your Valkyrie armor; you weren't allowed to bring it to Midgard. Ow.
Her eyes flicked from one side of the battlefield to the other, assessing what had changed in the five or six seconds she'd been out. Half a dozen insectoids closing on Kaidan and Arna's position: not an immediate problem.
That giant zombie robot thing that had blasted her halfway to next week: problem. It had just about backed the two humans into the corner of the plaza, in an angle of two heavier walls, and the cannon on its shoulder was starting to glow ominously again as Kaidan narrowed his eyes, building up for the kind of psychokinetic desperation play that would either solve the problem or give him a small cerebral hemorrhage, or possibly both.
Scowling, Shepard reached to her back and drew her enormous sniper rifle again. Dropping its crosshair onto the creature's back, she yelled,
Slightly to her surprise, it reacted, turning to face her. Its dead, blank face still held no expression, but the increasing glow of the cannon indicated that it had indeed noticed her.
Before it could fire, George's voice roared out a second time, and the creature's misplaced head simply ceased to be.
"Did you just see a real bright light?" she asked it.
She wondered momentarily whether the head actually did anything on these creatures, but then it keeled over backward and lay still, the circuit traces covering its misshapen body going dark.
The insectoids seemed to take that as a cue; without evident consultation, they began to withdraw. Shepard stowed George, retrieved her Mattock from where it had fetched up when she got blasted—still in good working order, the old WDF Armory made stuff to last—and joined the Alenkos in laying down some suppressive fire as the aliens beat their retreat.
Moments later, the skyscraper-sized starship started to shift ominously, the subliminal beat of its idling engines suddenly picking up to a much more insistent tempo and volume. The space underneath its massive central thruster filled with orange light and a palpable wave of heat washed over the deserted settlement.
"Oh, that's not good," Kaidan said.
Shepard pointed to a decorative pond thirty or so yards away. "Go! Move! Move!" she shouted, and the three humans sprinted toward it. Almost as one, they dove the last few yards in an all-out effort to reach the water before, with a sky-rending roar, the alien vessel lunged skyward atop a column of fire. Much of the pond either boiled or blew away in the hot, shrieking wind that followed, but the water did its job. Shepard and Kaidan emerged from the soup-warm shallows that remained, their armor dripping and steaming, parboiled but not seriously harmed. Arna, on the other hand, was unconscious, slumped limply in Kaidan's arms as he made certain her helmet was out of the water.
"She'll be OK," he said after a cursory tricorder scan. "Just knocked out by the shockwave. She was a second or so behind us."
Nodding, Shepard switched her com to subvocal mode—there was no need for Arna to know about their backup vessel in orbit, if she happened to wake up in the next few seconds—and called, "Lorica, this is Shepard. Look sharp, there's a very large alien spacecraft heading your way from this location. Capabilities unknown, recommend you do not engage. They have most of this colony's population on board. Try to get all the scans you can without giving yourselves away."
"Copy, Commander Shepard," Rokar replied. "We see them—by the gods!"
The Earth Alliance warship Menelaus had responded with all speed to the sudden silence of the colony at Eden Prime. They might not have been sharing information about the matter with outsiders even before the shutdown of relations with the IPO, but the Earth Alliance government was taking the situation in the Traverse very seriously, and had been monitoring matters in that region closely for months, waiting for just such an opportunity. In previous raids, the response forces had arrived too late to do anything but wander baffled through the ghost towns. Since receiving the assignment to patrol the outer reaches of the sector and remain alert for any anomalies, Captain Karin Holberg had been determined that next time would be different.
Her determination was about to cost her. The Menelaus emerged from hyperspace as close to Eden Prime as her navigator dared, and her navigator was very good at his job—so good they emerged a mere 200,000 miles from the planet's surface. They caught the alien ship before it had even cleared the upper atmosphere, and after issuing the requisite (completely ignored) challenge, opened fire.
The Menelaus was a Nova-class battleship, one of the mightiest ships in the Earthforce Navy, designed to bring such legendarily capable vessels as the WDF's Iowa class and the Salusian Andromedas to heel if necessary. The alien ship was slightly bigger, but not by enough to imply that it would have any huge advantage. Aboard the Lorica, cloaked and secure nearby, Princess Dessler and her crew expected to see a prolonged slugfest.
What they got instead was a few moments of shockingly sudden slaughter as, four or five seconds into the Earthforce vessel's barrage, the alien ship suddenly unleashed an enormous beam of coruscating yellow light from the giant round opening in its prow. To those watching from the Lorica, it resembled a hugely magnified Federation phaser beam in its sustained coherence and the way it issued from the emitter at an angle—an apparently steerable angle, as the beam proceeded to slash straight across the Menelaus's bow.
The Earthforce ship's shields splintered, visible light bleed streaking the space where they had been, and—while the Lorica's crew watched in horror—the alien's beam weapon carved through the battleship's armor plating like butter, transfixing its hull lengthways like a kebab skewer through a sausage. Hideous and irresistible, the yellow beam raved through the superstructure of the Menelaus, vaporizing everything in its path: armor plating, internal decks and bulkheads, crewmen, engines.
Seconds later, what remained of the ship cooked off in a titanic fusion fireball, and apart from a billion sparkling droplets of fast-cooling molten alloy, there was nothing to prove that she had ever been there at all.
Amanda and her faithful centurion exchanged a look. Nothing needed to be said. Both knew that the Lorica, doughty though she was, stood no chance at all against such a monster. They held their position, navigation systems primed in case the cloaking device somehow failed to hide them—who knew what a ship like that could do?—and an emergency withdrawal became necessary; but if the aliens noticed them, they didn't seem to care about them. Having disposed of the obvious opposition, the enormous vessel simply cruised away from the debris field, turned its prow toward distant stars, and vanished into hyperspace.
After a few seconds' shocked silence, Amanda said quietly, "Rokar, report. Were you able to scan anything?"
"A... affirmative, Your Highness," Rokar reported. "Hyperspace vectors, energy profiles... possibly some gross structural information. It'll... take me a while to collate it all."
"Commander, this is Ambassador Dessler," Amanda's voice said from Shepard's mastoid implant. "The alien vessel is away; it destroyed an Earthforce battleship while making its escape. My sensor officer's scans will be transmitted to the IPO at Babylon 6 as soon as he has made them presentable." She paused. "What we just saw was... sobering."
"Destroyed a battleship? In that amount of time? Can you render any assistance to the Earthforce crew without giving yourselves away?" Shepard asked.
"There's no one to assist," Amanda replied, sounding faintly shaken. "The ship was completely obliterated. It took them... seconds. Having seen what I've just seen, I have to concur with the Chief's assessment. These creatures could threaten far more than just the Earth Alliance." Then, seeming to pull herself together, she went on more briskly, "Will you be returning soon? My crew and I are eager to be gone from this place."
"You'd better go without us," Shepard told her. "We've got an Earthforce survivor. We'll have to figure out a way to handle her, but our cover's more flexible than yours. We'll just have to walk back."
"Understood. Good luck, Commander Shepard. I hope we'll have the chance to work together again some day."
"Thank you, Your Highness. The feeling is mutual. Shepard out."
Switching off the com, she turned to Kaidan, who stood looking expectantly at her.
"Well," she said, looking down at her wrecked armor. "That didn't go according to plan." Then, regarding Kaidan and the unconscious Earthforce trooper, she sighed. "I suppose we can't just leave her here..."
They were about an hour out of the Utopia system at the runabout's rather poky maximum warp, with the lights dialed down to "relaxingly dim" and some pleasant strings on the overhead, winding down from the afternoon's excitement. Kaidan was up front keeping an eye on the autopilot while Shepard sat at the wardroom table to see what she could do about her armor.
The answer, she'd glumly concluded after some fooling around with a roll of hundred-mile-an-hour tape and an old WDF-issue polycarbon patch kit, was not much. The suit was, to use a technical term, trashed. There wasn't a single plate on it that wasn't at least badly scratched, with most of the bigger ones fractured and the plastron all but caved in outright. The right side of the main plate was still in fairly good shape, but the only thing holding the left half together was the webbing understructure, which was about as protective as the novelty physics-nerd T-shirt ("entropy isn't what it used to be") she'd had on underneath it.
"This is hopeless," she remarked.
"I'm sure there are other suits of armor available," Kaidan replied dryly.
"Yeah, but I'm used to this model, and they never started making it again when the WDF restarted," Shepard complained. "I mean, I don't think I'd be so pissed about it if I could get another. While you were getting your Return paperwork done, I had to go rob my own grave to get this one."
Kaidan held up a hand in a "one moment please" gesture, set the autopilot's signaler to "pilot away from controls" mode, then swiveled his seat to face her.
"... seriously," he said.
Shepard nodded. "Well, not really a grave, per se, I mean, I was vaporized. But, you know... empty tomb with my name on it, anyway." She taped part of the shattered chestplate, flexed it a few times, and sighed. "I think it was my spare back in the day. Last time I saw it, Liara was in it, so I'm guessing it was her who buried it in lieu of, well, me."
Kaidan looked thoughtful. "It took us months to regroup after the Normandy went down... she must've done it then. She never talked about what she'd done in between. Where was it, just out of curiosity?"
With a nod, Kaidan said, "Of course. You don't have a homeworld, so it makes sense she'd go back to where you met." He gave his old shipmate a speculative look for a moment. "Are you going to look her up now that you're back?"
Shepard met his gaze for a long moment, then looked away and sighed. "I don't know," she admitted. "It's been 118 years... I didn't really think any of that through when I decided to come back."
"Nobody move," said another voice, and both Shepard and Kaidan looked to see that their "guest", who they'd stretched out on the shelf bunk at the back of the crew cabin, was up and covering them with her sidearm.
Shepard didn't seem particularly impressed by that, even though she wasn't even wearing her hopelessly compromised armor. She looked calmly back past the PPG pistol's muzzle, locking her eyes on the young Earthforce trooper's. When she spoke, her voice was low, mild, and yet laced with a thread of undeniable menace:
"Kid... bad things happen to people who point guns at me."
Arna held the pose for a second or so more, then relented, powering down the weapon and putting it away.
"Sorry," she said, letting herself back down onto the bunk. "I just..." She shook her head. "Who are you people? What did you mean about your own grave? What's going on?"
Shepard smiled a touch ruefully. "Oh, man, would you ever not believe me if I told you," she said.
"I just saw an unknown alien starship the size of an arcology completely clean out a stage-one colony," Arna replied. "You'll have to work pretty hard to top that."
Shepard's smile became a faint smirk. "OK, you asked for it," she said. "I'm Commander Virginia Shepard, Wedge Defense Force, deceased. I was killed in action against GENOM in 2288. Now I'm one of the Valkyrie—warrior women of Valhalla, Norse mythology, look it up in your own time—and I've come back to the mortal world to help my old pal the Chief of the International Police deal with all the craziness that's going down in the galaxy lately." Angling a thumb over her shoulder at her colleague, she added, "This is Kaidan. Been my right-hand man since forever, except for the 50 or so years when I was dead and he wasn't. Speaking of which, did I hear you right back on Eden Prime? Did you say your name's Alenko?"
"What?" said Kaidan.
Arna blinked, still trying to process what she'd been told before the unexpected question, then said, "Yes..." It seemed to occur to her then what Shepard had said in the middle of her speech, the part about working for the Chief of the IPO, and the young soldier stiffened perceptibly. "Alenko, Arna V., lieutenant, Earthforce Marine Corps, 68C-598824."
Shepard laughed casually. "Relax, Lieutenant, we're not actually at war at the moment," she said. "You've been rescued, not taken prisoner. Anyway, I ask because this charming young man I have with me here is also called Alenko, and I'm trying to figure out if you're related. Given your first name, I'm guessing yes. There can't be that many Ukrainian families with a tradition of giving girls a quarian name."
Kaidan got up from the pilot's seat and walked slowly around Shepard's chair, regarding Arna thoughtfully. With her helmet off, he could see the resemblance; she had the same thick dark hair—not quite raven-black like Shepard's, but a very dark brown—and what had more than once been jokingly called the classic Alenko chin. He could quite easily believe that she was related to him. She, in turn, got (a bit unsteadily) to her feet and approached him, looking intently at his face.
"It... it can't be," she said. "You look like my great-grandfather. I've seen the family holos. But he's dead. He died long, long before I was born. During the First Corporate War."
Kaidan nodded. "Horizon. Your grandfather must have been Jeffrey. You have his eyes."
Arna drew back, startled. "I—yes. I'm named after his sisters. My father's aunts—"
"Arna and Virginia," Kaidan finished for her.
She sat back down again, putting her left hand to her temple. "This is insane."
"I told you you wouldn't believe me," Shepard replied matter-of-factly.
The younger Alenko shook her head, pulling herself together with a visible effort. She looked up, meeting Shepard's gaze again, and said, "And you say you're working for the IPO?"
"Well, 'working for' is kind of a stretch," Shepard told her. "It's all very informal at the moment. More like I'm doing Gryph a favor. We go way back, and this colony disappearance thing needed looking into..."
"But the EA has rejected the International Police Accord," Arna interrupted.
"Yeah, but the Chief hasn't rejected the people of the EA," Kaidan told her. "This isn't about governments, it's about people who need help."
Arna's brow furrowed. "The galaxy's changed a lot while you've been... gone. Why would you stick your necks out like that?"
Shepard shrugged, smirking. "Why not? I'm not quittin'. Think I'm-a change up my style just to fit in?"
Arna tried for a few seconds to take that on board, then sat back and rubbed her temples with both hands for a second before asking, "OK... so now what?"
"Now, we report to the man and between us we'll try to figure out what to do next." Gesturing to her shattered armor, Shepard went on, "I mean, clearly this problem calls for more than just me, Kaidan, and this little tiny ship... but I'll tell you this, we're sure not going to just leave it alone."
"Which brings us to our first problem," Kaidan added. "I mean... we're not kidnappers, but if we send you back to the EA when we reach civilization again, we have to know you're not going to bring Earthforce down on top of us while we're trying to work."
Arna thought about that for a second, then looked her ancestor in the face and said, "Then bring me with you."
"... Beg pardon?" he said.
"Let me help you. You've seen me fight. You know I can hold my own. As far as my superiors know, I was lost with everyone else on Eden Prime. Let them keep thinking so. Eventually we'll either resolve the situation, and I can deal with the fallout then... or it won't matter."
Shepard thought for a moment, then asked, "You sure you want to do that? I'm not going to lie to you, this thing shows every sign of developing into a pan-galactic clusterfuck."
"Oh, sure, but you're fine with taking me into it," Kaidan mock-grumbled.
"More to the point, if we get caught and you're part of our team, you're going to have even harder questions to answer than we are," Shepard went on.
"That's a risk I'm willing to take," Arna replied. "If you're going to keep after those things, then you're the best chance I've got to get something back for my unit. You saw how well Earthforce did against them."
Shepard regarded her gravely for a few seconds, then nodded. "OK, you're in." Then, with a wry smile, she added, "Don't come crying to me if we all end up going back to Valhalla in a giant fireball."
Reached by holocom, Gryphon took the news that they'd acquired an Earthforce recruit with what Arna read as faintly surprised equanimity, then told them that, based on their own reports and other information he'd received, they'd better skip the return to Babylon 6 and head straight for New Avalon.
"I'll meet you at Mathews Memorial," he said. "Hopefully we'll still be able to keep your mission on the QT, but regardless, we're obviously in much deeper pudu than we originally thought, and the resources you need aren't at B6."
Kaidan punched a few keys on the navicomputer. "OK... course recomputed. New ETA... about 1400 hours Wednesday."
"I'll see you there. Gryphon out."
After the Chief's image disappeared, Kaidan, Arna, and Shepard stood looking at each other for a few moments, slightly at a loss.
Then Arna said wryly, "Wednesday? Wish I'd had time to pack a bag. I don't suppose this ship has laundry machines."
"Nope, sorry," Shepard replied. "But I'll tell you a little trick I picked up when I used to be with Exploration Command. If you've got to spend a few days without a change of clothes, just don't get undressed before you get into the sonic shower."
Arna raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Seriously."
"Oh yeah," Kaidan agreed. "Old spacer's trick. Surprised you haven't heard it before."
"I'm a gropo," she told him. "The only time I'm ever in space for more than a few hours is on a troopship, and they have, you know, facilities."
"Well, it works," Shepard said, stepping past the young trooper and clapping her on the shoulder as she passed, "as you'll see presently." She paused in the doorway to the runabout's tiny fresher, leaned back to catch Arna's eye, and added, "Oh, yeah, protip: Make sure you're not wearing anything that heats up when exposed to ultrasound." She rolled her eyes and, just before the door closed behind her, said, "Learned THAT lesson the hard way... "
Arna looked from the door to her ancestor, who spread his hands in a don't-ask-me gesture.
"Outside my field of expertise," he said, and returned to the cockpit.
The Eden Prime team, such as it was, landed at Mathews Memorial discreetly, out at the far corner of the field where their unusual craft would attract no notice. From the secluded spot where they stashed the stealth runabout, it was a short hike to reach Hangar 19 and slip in through a side door.
Inside, Shepard paused for a moment to admire the gleaming alloy disc of a Corellian light freighter that was parked inside. Then the door of the small office that was set up, building-within-building fashion, in the corner opened, and Gryphon emerged to meet them.
"Chief," said Shepard with a smiling nod.
"Gin," he said, then nodded to the man with her. "Kaidan. Glad you both made it back in one piece." He turned to the slightly bewildered-looking young woman with them. "This must be our Earthforce survivor."
"Yup. Lieutenant Arna Alenko, meet President Clark's favorite guy." When Arna just stood there looking at Gryphon, Shepard nudged her with an elbow and prompted, "Well, go on, he doesn't bite." Then, with a smirk, she added, "Uninvited."
"Hey, now," Gryphon protested mildly, shooting her a look. Then he turned to Arna and said, "Welcome to New Avalon, Lieutenant. I'm sorry to hear about what happened to your outfit on Eden Prime. Your government and I may not see eye-to-eye at the moment, but whatever you may have been told, I don't like to think of myself as an enemy of Earth. I mean, if nothing else, I was born there. That's never going to change."
Arna considered that for a moment, then nodded warily. "Uh... thanks," she said.
"Come on in, you three," Gryphon said, gesturing them into the office. It was a nondescript space, the kind of slightly ramshackle office a person would expect to find in any ordinary civilian spaceport hangar. Arna found herself faintly disappointed by that as he led them through the main room and down a short corridor. "We've got a lot to take care of.
"To get you started," Gryphon went on, "I've taken the liberty of lining up a pointman for you. Someone I think you can trust." He punched a code into the door at the end of the hall, then bowed her through ahead of him.
The room beyond that door was much more the sort of thing Arna had been expecting, a sleek, high-tech briefing room that wouldn't have seemed out of place in a spy vid. There was a man waiting for them in that room. Tall, slim, and turian, he wore the distinctive blue-and-black armor of an International Police Tactical Division special operative. At the sight of Shepard, he smiled, as much as a turian could smile, and said casually,
"Shepard. Long time."
Shepard pulled up short and blinked at him, an expression of straight-up delight coming onto her face.
"Garrus!" she cried, then took one bounding stride and hugged him, heedless of the plating of his armor. "You old bastard, I've been waiting for you in Valhalla for years!" she went on, joking to cover up some of the emotion. "How have you managed to make it this long?"
Garrus Vakarian hadn't gone into this meeting cold; Gryphon had told him his old commander was back in circulation. He'd been psyching himself up for hours, and still he found himself nearly choking up at the sight and sound of her. They'd never gotten around to taking that oft-joked-about expedition to the Wallace line, but there had been a time when this woman, human or not, was the most important sapient being in his life, and right now it felt as though that time was the previous afternoon.
"Clean living," he replied. "And weird science."
Shepard leaned back a bit to study his face, of which she had once known every angle and plane. Eyes wide, she reached up to run her fingertips gently along the right side of his jaw, which was criscrossed with old, thoroughly healed but plainly evident scars. "What happened here?" she asked, less flippantly.
Garrus shrugged slightly. "Zigged when I should've zagged, you should've seen the other guy, et cetera, et cetera. Ages ago. How are you not dead? Not that I'm complaining."
"Long story," Shepard said, finally turning him loose. "Short version is, I punched a god."
Garrus would've raised an eyebrow if he'd had any. "You know what, I have zero trouble believing that," he said. Looking past her, he saw Kaidan and grinned a turian grin, stepping forward to have his hand pumped and exchange some manly back slaps. "Kaidan. You're looking well for a dead man," he remarked.
"Shepard pulled some strings," said Kaidan. "You know how it is."
"I seem to recall," Garrus replied, nodding. "Who's your friend?"
"Oh, heh, you're gonna love this," Shepard put in. "This is Arna. She's Kaidan's great-granddaughter, and at the moment she's officially dead too! We're a regular Ghost Brigade on this job so far."
Garrus turned and regarded the young soldier with a thoughtful look. "You don't say. Jeff's granddaughter?"
"Uh-huh," Kaidan confirmed.
Garrus looked more closely. "Is that an Earthforce uniform?" He glanced at the Chief. "Has this already gotten complicated?" he asked wryly.
Arna looked from Garrus to Gryphon, then began, "I, uh... " She hesitated, then blurted, "Look, I'm a soldier, not a diplomat. The whole situation with you and the Dome... that's way above me. But these aliens... " She shook her head. "All I'm trying to say is, as long as your people are straight with me, we're not going to have a problem. OK?"
Off to the side, Garrus leaned toward Kaidan and murmured, "(Ooh, I like her. She's feisty.)" Kaidan just rolled his eyes.
Gryphon nodded. "OK."
Arna had apparently expected the negotiations to be harder than that; she opened her mouth as if to launch a second salvo, closed it again, thought for a second, and then said, "That's it?"
"That's it," Gryphon replied. "Besides," he added with a slightly dark smile, "if you DO have a problem on this mission, it's going to be with Commander Shepard, not me. In which case, Grodd help you."
Then, without giving her time to think that over, he crossed to the briefing table and fired up the holojector. "Now. Here's what we know about what you're up against. Vision and Dr. Burke have cross-referenced the footage from your combat optics with every database they could get into, which is basically all of them, and we have an ID on the aliens you encountered on Eden Prime."
An image of one of the insectoid creatures, pulled from the visual buffer of Shepard's Kuwashii targeting visor, filled half of the holofield; the other was taken up with a somewhat grainier image of a very similar creature, the colors slightly desaturated. There was a date stamp in the lower right corner of the second image: 2342.01.05.
"This is one of the few verified images of an alien species the Federation Office of Galactic Affairs lists as 'Uncontacted Species 2214'. Apart from that, the only name we have for them is Collectors," Gryphon told them. "You might have heard of them."
Shepard's brow furrowed. "The Collectors? I thought they were a myth. Something parents on the Frontier use to scare their kids into line. 'Eat your vegetables or the Collectors will come and take you away.'"
"They're real enough," Gryphon said. "They lurk out beyond the Frontier and only occasionally come into Known Space. Usually it's to trade tech with merc bands or crime syndicates. They do a nice line in biocybernetic augmentations. We think those vat-grown Big Fire ninja shock troops have Collector tech in them."
"Trade tech for what?" Kaidan asked.
"It varies. Never the same thing twice in any of the relatively few documented exchanges we could find records for. The people who usually deal with them don't make a habit of writing this stuff down, you understand." Gryphon paged through several screens depicting various fragmentary records ferreted out of computers around the galaxy. "They're called the Collectors because they seem to, well, collect stuff. Artifacts from ancient civilizations. Records of scientific research. Occasionally lifeforms..." He looked around at the little group, his face grave. "... sometimes sentient."
"They're collecting whole towns now," Shepard pointed out. "Oh yeah, that reminds me." She unslung her duffel bag from her shoulder, put it on the conference table, unzipped it, and dug around inside it, taking out pieces of her broken armor and setting them aside as she hunted. "C'mon, where'd I put it..."
Gryphon picked up one of the broken plates of her armor. "This's seen better days," he remarked.
Shepard looked up from the bag, then returned to delving. "Yeah, uh... had a little argument with some kind of concussion weapon," she said. "And a wall. And the ground. Aha! Here we are." She straightened up with the broken remains of the bug-like thing she'd "killed" on Eden Prime in her hand.
"See what your science guys make of this," she said, giving it to Gryphon. "There were whole swarms of these things all over the place when we got there."
"The, uh, Collectors use them to seek out and paralyze people," Arna explained. "Which explains why the previous colonies they've hit seem to have gone down without a fight. I think my unit was the first real military outfit they've encountered. Local militias probably don't have barriers strong enough to keep those things at bay."
Gryphon frowned. "This just keeps getting weirder," he said. "As far as we can determine, they've never operated on anything like this kind of scale before. Certainly no one has ever reported encountering anything like these..." He looked down at the bug. "... things, or the ship you saw, OR the phenomenon you reported with the Collector who spoke to you. These are all factors that are going to require careful handling—the ship in particular."
Shaking his head, he went on, "I don't know what's made them step up their game like this, but whatever the reason, they have to be stopped." He gestured to the 2342 image. "Digging deeper in this latest infosweep, James and Vision came up with the first reasonable estimate of the EA's losses so far. Counting the 8,524 people on Eden Prime, it looks like the Collectors may have taken upward of 50,000 people since launching this... what else would you call it, really, this offensive. This thing is starting to shape up into a war."
Shepard folded her arms across her chest. "If it is a war, I'm gonna need an army. Or a few really, really good people."
Gryphon nodded. "I know. I've got you a few leads." He handed Shepard a datapad, then went on, "Rather than broadcast that you're back, I figured it'd be better to let you handle the notifications yourself."
Shepard took the datapad and thumbed through the first couple of pages. As she read, a faint smile came to her face. "I think I can do that," she said.
"As for the rest of the resources you'll need," said Gryphon, "I've got people working on that, but we'll need a few more hours." Handing Shepard a ring with an old-fashioned metal key on it, he went on, "Head into town and get started. Meet me back here after dinner; I should have everything ready to go by then."
Shepard looked down at the keyring he'd given her, then back at his face, a smirk stealing onto her own.
"Skuld sent it over," the Chief explained. "Figured you might need some wheels."
Grinning, Shepard tossed the key in the air and caught it again. "Thanks, boss," she said. "C'mon, you guys. Road trip!"
Arna hesitated for a moment, then followed the others out. Shepard led the way out of the hangar and around to the back, and there, parked by the chain-link fence, was... well. It was an automobile, Arna knew that much, but it was unlike any she'd ever seen before: huge, blocky-fronted but with a waistline that swooped to a sharply raked rear screen, it was trimmed with chrome in a way that the cars she was familiar with were not, and it seemed to exude a faint air of menace. Part of that was because it was painted the deepest, glossiest black she'd ever seen, apart from a wide white-trimmed red stripe that ran, to the right of the centerline, from the front of the hood, up over the roof, and to the end of the decklid.
"All aboard," Shepard said. Opening the enormous driver's door, she reached in and tilted the driver's seat, which resembled nothing so much as a massively overstuffed office chair (or possibly a small settee) covered in heavily quilted black leather, forward to provide access to the back seat. Arna walked around the back of the car, taking it in from every possible angle. Between the taillights, below a chrome-rimmed logo that reminded her of a targeting reticle, the word "Marauder" was picked out in archaic chrome script.
"Shotgun!" Garrus declared a half-second before Kaidan, who conceded his defeat graciously and climbed into the cavernous back seat with his descendent. There would easily have been room for a third person back there; it was like sitting at opposite ends of a sofa. Arna looked questioningly at Kaidan. He shrugged in reply.
Shepard slid behind the wheel, closed her door with a satisfying, heavy metal CLUNK, slotted the key, and started the engine, which gave out a deep internal-combustion burble. A green indicator lamp glowed to life on the instrument panel, between the wide horizontal speedometer and the analog clock. From her place in the back, which felt like it was about a quarter-mile from the dash, Arna could just make out that it said PASSIVE LASER RESTRAINT SYSTEM.
With a very satisfied smile, Shepard settled into her plushly padded seat, put the gearshift into Drive, and they were off—sedately enough at first, as they cleared the spaceport, but then faster and faster on the approach to Highway 29.
"Where are we headed?" Garrus asked over the slipstream as the Marauder lunged up the highway entrance ramp, its engine hammering joyously.
"First stop on the recruiting drive," Shepard replied, tossing him the datapad Gryphon had given her. Putting her left forearm up on the top of the door, she leaned back with her right hand gripping the wheel at 12 o'clock and casually ran the Marauder up to its natural highway cruise: 120 mph.
Garrus looked at the first page of the document on the datapad and smiled. "Perfect," he said.
"Uh, Shepard," Kaidan spoke up from the back, "do you even know where we're going? Neither one of us has ever seen this town before."
"Not to worry, Kaidan," Shepard replied. Glancing back at him over her shoulder, she went on, "It so happens that this car has a very special navigation feature. One that was only fitted on the 1969 Mercury Marauder X100, in fact! Not a lot of people know that."
Kaidan smiled indulgently. "Oh, I can't wait for this, now."
"Watch and learn, Mr. Alenko," Shepard said; then she reached to what looked like the radio and turned a knob. This revealed that it was, in fact... the radio, as antique rock music immediately poured from speakers throughout the car.
Then she turned to her front-seat passenger and said, "So! Garrus! Where's the university from here?"
T'SONI, Liara. Ph.D. Xenoarchaeology, Thessia University; postdoc, paleoarchaeology, Vulcan Science Academy. Key publications: "New Perspectives on the Prothean Extinction", Journal of Archaeology and Pre-Epochal Studies, 2279; "Notes on the Development of Pre-Contact Tuchanka", Annalen der Xenobiologie, 2315; "The Halo Riddle" (with T.'Shukra vas Archangel), J.Arch.PES, 2359; "Forerunners of the Protheans: Fallen Civilizations in Deep History", Science, 2360; "Consideration of Newly Discovered Evidence Regarding the Rachni War" (with M. Solus), Nature, 2372. Chair, Department of Pre-Epochal Studies, New Avalon University, Zeta Cygni. Current research concentration: pre-Prothean civilizations.
Sunlight streamed into one of Brody Hall's five big lecture halls on this, the last regular day of the 2406 summer term. Shepard slipped quietly into the room through the side door down front, just off the apron of the little stage on which the lecturer stood, then took up a position by the wall. She was within the professor's line of sight, but just barely, and said professor was in the midst of summing up the class for her students and didn't really register that someone else had entered.
High up at the back of the room, a thin scattering of the 40 or so students present fidgeted restlessly, anxious for this last double-length lecture to be over so they could get out into that sunshine and commence not quite studying for Friday's final exams just yet. Most, though, were clustered into a tighter group down front, paying close attention. A few took note of the stranger entering, but they, too, paid her little mind. She wasn't particularly arresting to look at, just a human woman in nondescript street clothes, and they were all intent on Professor T'Soni's summation.
"... have kept up with the reading, you should have no trouble with Friday's final examination," the asari professor said, then smiled slightly and added, "I am not one of those instructors who believe in throwing last-minute change-ups."
A light laugh rippled around the room at Liara's wry remark. Shepard folded her arms, leaned back against the wall, and just took stock for a moment. Liara looked just the same as she had when Shepard had last seen her—last seen her in a quiet moment, that is, not with the Normandy dying around them and all sense leaving the galaxy in a storm of blasterfire and betrayal.
Surrounded by flames, chaos, and the spine-chilling howl of the abandon-ship alarm, Liara ran full-tilt through the wreckage of the messhall, up the after companionway, and found the Normandy's commander just sealing her tactical armor's breather helmet in front of the auxiliary systems control array.
"Shepard!" she cried.
"Log buoy's ready for launch," Shepard said matter-of-factly, as if her immediate environment wasn't full of smoke and fire and wailing alarms. She pressed the holokey that fired said buoy, the last will and testament of a dying starship, into space. Then she turned to face Liara and added with a dark wryness audible even through the speaker in her helmet, "For all anybody'll care."
As Shepard spoke, Liara wrestled on her own helmet. The suit she was wearing was actually Shepard's backup—she hadn't been able to find her own in the sudden confusion of the attack, but they were near enough the same size that it would do in an emergency. And this, she reflected as the ship's Tannoy system failed and the alarm stopped, was definitely an emergency.
"What happened to Command?" she asked when she had it on and sealed. "Where's the SDF-17?"
Shepard stepped toward her, briskly and efficiently checking over her seals; automatically, as she'd been trained when she came aboard this very ship, Liara returned the favor. While she worked, Shepard replied,
"I don't know. All the channels have gone dead. GENOM's not even bothering to jam them, there's just... nobody there." She finished her check—all seals green—and stepped back to meet Liara's eyes through their visors. "I think this may be a lot bigger than just us," she said. Then she turned, pulled a fire extinguisher from its rack on the wall, and tossed it to Liara before setting to work at the auxiliary controls again.
"Joker's still on the bridge," Liara reported as she applied the extinguisher—to no discernible effect—to the nearest fire. "He won't evacuate." She glanced aft at Shepard, whose back was to her as she worked at the controls, trying to restore emergency power. "I'm not leaving either," she added flatly.
Against all odds, Shepard got some response out of the panel despite the condition of the ship; panels and emergency lights flickered back to life. Then she turned and caught Liara by the shoulder, leaning over to make eye contact with her again.
"I need you to make sure everybody else gets to the lifeboats," said Shepard intently. "I'll take care of Joker."
Liara looked into her lover's blue-violet eyes and knew what she was leaving unspoken: GENOM wouldn't be looking to take prisoners today. They'd almost certainly target the lifeboats. Someone would have to stay behind, marshal whatever remained of the ravaged Normandy's fighting strength, and try to cover those craft until they could escape to hyperspace. Whoever did that was almost certainly not coming back.
And that was the kind of job Virginia Shepard would never leave to anyone else.
She held Liara's gaze for a moment, making certain she understood, then turned and started making her way forward.
"Shepard!" Liara called after her, and then, in a quieter voice, almost swallowed up by the background noise, "Gin..."
The commander hesitated at the top of the companionway steps. For reasons she didn't really understand, Liara virtually always called her "Shepard", even in intimate moments. She looked back over her shoulder—at this distance, her eyes were hidden by the reflections of the fires in her visor—and said flatly,
"Liara, go. Now."
Liara stood rooted for a second, searching for something, anything, she could say; and then she said the only thing she could in such a moment:
"Aye aye, Commander."
Shepard nodded to her, turned, and disappeared into the smoke.
Returning from her reverie, Shepard decided she preferred the sight of Liara in the present to the image of her from the past. She was dressed now not in ill-fitting space armor, but a neatly tailored semiformal suit, the kind with a snug-fitting skirt that reached to just below the knee. Discreetly glamorous, flattering but not titillating, it fitted the academic environment as well as it did the woman wearing it. Her face hadn't visibly changed apart from some very slight, very professional makeup work. At 232 she was still quite young for an asari, and she still had the rounded cheeks and smooth complexion of youth. And, Shepard noticed with a private little smile, the same scattershot of pigmentation spots that exactly resembled, but which she insisted were not, freckles.
"Some of you," she was saying to her students now, "have taken this course to fulfill the University's general science requirement, and I hope you have found it to be worth your time. Others of you will be going on to more advanced studies in the field. It's likely I'll be seeing those students again," she said, smiling.
"For now," she went on, "as we prepare to go our separate ways, there's one thing I hope you will all keep in mind. It's a piece of wisdom I learned from a mentor of my own, early in my career, and which I like to pass on to all of my freshman classes, and it is this."
While she spoke, she'd been walking slowly from one side of the lecture stage to the other. Now she stopped in the middle, placed her hands on the lectern which stood there, and swept her eyes over her raptly attentive front rows before continuing.
"Archaeology is the search for fact," she said plainly, then shook her head and added, "Not truth. If truth is what you're looking for, the Philosophy department is located in Tyree Hall."
That got a small laugh. Liara waited for it to finish, then went on, "So forget any idea you have about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the galaxy. We do not follow maps to buried treasure and X never, ever, marks the spot.
"Seventy percent of archaeology is done in the archives," she continued, resuming her slow pace, this time toward the left side of the stage. "Researching. Reading." As she approached to within a few feet, she seemed to notice the newcomer standing near the door for the first time; she gave the figure a cursory glance, then turned back toward the lectern and went on, "We cannot afford to take mythology at..."
As if she'd suddenly realized what she'd just looked at, Liara froze, turned back, and looked again.
"... at face..." she said, her mouth doing its best to go on automatically while the rest of her brain was more and more occupied processing this sudden, unexpected, completely improbable new input:
The woman leaning against the wall by the door, with her ankles crossed and her hands in the pockets of her black hoodie, giving her that heart-stabbingly familiar knowing little smile, could not possibly be—but could not possibly be anyone other than—Virginia Eve Shepard.
"... by the goddess," Liara whispered, feeling her face go cold; had she been a fair-skinned human, she knew her color would've been draining away.
Shepard held her there with that little smile for a moment, then pushed herself away from the wall, took her hands out of her pockets, and held them open to either side as if to say, "Ta-da."
Liara stared at her for a moment longer, oblivious to the fact that all her students were, in turn, staring at her reaction. Then, giving herself entirely up to the moment, she darted down from the stage and into Shepard's arms.
It was as if she'd never left them.
She was in no position to say anything for a few very intense seconds, but then, unable to contain the words any longer, she broke away all of a quarter-inch to murmur fervently, "Shepard, Shepard, by the goddess, you're alive, how can you possibly be alive?"
"I guess you're happy to see me, then, huh," Shepard replied quietly.
Liara made a sound that was half a laugh and half a snuffling sob, then kissed her again. The fingers of one hand raked through Shepard's thick black hair; the other's spread across her lower back, feeling the muscles there, smooth and hard under her jacket and shirt. Hard and soft, tough and tender, uncompromising and sentimental, methodical and brilliantly improvisational—Virginia Shepard was not so much a woman as a walking collection of contrasts, all of which, over their eight years together, Liara T'Soni had come to love as her own.
And, she now remembered, she was an amazing kisser.
That thought seemed to recall her to some awareness of where she was; breaking away again, she took a half-step back, her hands sliding around to take Shepard's own, and she stood and just looked at her for a moment, her beaming face a darker blue than usual with the asari equivalent of a furious blush.
Which only deepened as her students gave her performance a round of applause—in some cases a standing ovation.
Shepard tilted her head toward the stage and quipped, "Maybe you'd better finish your lecture."
"Uh... yes," Liara replied. "I'll, uh, just be a moment."
"I'm not goin' anywhere," Shepard told her.
Smiling, Liara released her, returned to her lectern, and thanked her class wryly for their support, then concluded her lecture with a few further remarks about the true academic nature of archaeology (somewhat belied, in Shepard's experience, by the number of firefights they'd had at dig sites in their time), how that only made it a more rewarding field of study for those truly inclined toward it, and how she hoped that she would see a number of them again in future semesters.
When dismissed, the students near the front exited through the lower door, filing past Shepard to do so. More than a few of them gave her a thumbs-up, an ironic salute, and in a couple of cases a high five as they did so. One of them, a blonde human girl with an instantly likeable conspiratorial smile, even stuck a gold star to the front of her hoodie, next to the N7 logo, on her way past.
As they walked together down the hall toward Liara's office, Shepard remarked, "So... you're givin' Indy's lectures now?"
Liara smiled. "A great human mathematician once said: plagiarize, but always remember to call it research."
Nodding, Shepard gave her a gentle elbow and replied, "Well, I think your students may have gotten more than their tuition's worth out of your class today."
Blushing again, Liara agreed, "Yes. I fear it may have broken a few of their hearts."
She waited to ask anything else that might be on her mind until they were in her office with the door shut; then she seated herself behind her desk, gestured Shepard to the chair usually occupied by students needing advice, and said, "Now. Tell me everything."
Out in the faculty parking lot, Arna Alenko stood with her ancestor and his turian friend by Shepard's black car and wondered how long they were supposed to wait.
"I wonder how it's going," Kaidan mused.
"Could go either way," said Garrus with a shrug. "You remember how hard she took it. For us it's ancient history, but for Liara..." He trailed off. "Have to admit, it hit me harder than I was expecting, and I already knew she was back. I mean, I only found out yesterday, but still, I had a while to prepare myself. And anyway, I wasn't..." He searched for the words. "... what Liara was to Shepard," he finished.
Kaidan nodded. "I still remember what it was like when I got to Valhalla and she was there to greet me. It was like, 'OK, so there is an afterlife, and there's a special one for soldiers... of course she was going to be here.'" He chuckled. "Along with everybody else we lost that day. Press, Kelly... even the Normandy herself. But that first day I only remember Shepard. Giving me that little smirk and saying, 'For Christ's sake, Alenko, didn't I tell you to keep your sprocking head down?'"
Garrus laughed. "Not dead five minutes and she's already busting your ass. Nice."
"It was, actually. Comforting. I figure that's why she did it." He turned to Arna. "This isn't freaking you out, is it?"
"Which part?" Arna replied sarcastically. "Hanging around in the middle of New Avalon wearing an Earthforce jumpsuit, or listening to my late great-grandfather discuss the afterlife?"
"Hmm, good point," said Garrus. "We're gonna have to get you something else to wear."
"I guess that's our next stop," Kaidan agreed. "Assuming—ah, here she comes now." As Shepard emerged from the building, he saw that Liara was with her and smiled. "Looks like it went OK."
"... sure it's OK for you to just leave like this," Shepard was saying as they came within earshot.
"It'll be fine," Liara assured her. "I am the department chair, and I often have to leave abruptly for... Dean Michaels calls it 'emergency field work'. Sydak can easily proctor Friday's final exam without me. If we're not finished by September, he or Professor Song can cover for me."
Shepard nodded. "OK," she said. "I just don't want to risk damaging your career if—"
"Most asari my age are still either mercenaries or strippers," Liara interrupted her, smiling. "If I had to start my academic career entirely over right now, it would not be a significant hardship. I might even welcome the challenge." Looking toward the car, she noticed the people waiting near it and brightened further. "Garrus," she said. "It's good to see you again. And—" She blinked, realizing who the dark-haired man next to Garrus was, and sprang to hug him, though not as fiercely as she'd done with Shepard. "Kaidan!"
It was with genuine delight that Kaidan returned her embrace. He'd once viewed her as something of a rival, but that had been a long, long time and many battles ago. They'd lost the Normandy and Shepard together, and that alone would have fixed an insoluble bond between them, albeit Not In That Way. All the adventures they'd shared before and after that loss had only reinforced it further.
They introduced Arna, who seemed entirely at a loss; then, as Shepard opened her car door, the others all looked at each other for a moment wondering what to do about seat priority.
Garrus pre-empted himself by declaring cheerfully, "Back seat in the middle on the hump! I called it!", which got a laugh and conceded shotgun to Liara, as seemed only right and proper. He wedged himself into the middle of the back seat (which, despite the hump in the floor necessitated by the car's rear-wheel drive shaft, was not much of a squeeze, given the Marauder's vastness), the Alenkos climbed in on either side of him, Shepard and Liara got into the front, and they were off.
Next on the agenda was a swing by Liara's downtown apartment to collect a few things she thought she would need. This was the work of only a few minutes, since she always kept a bag packed for just such eventualities—albeit these were usually sparked by some urgent new archaeological lead, not... this. Then to a shopping center to get Arna some less conspicuous clothes; then, as it was about that time, dinner at a teppanyaki joint near the edge of Turiantown that could meet everyone's protein-chirality needs.
By the time they got back to Mathews Memorial it was coming on for dusk, and Arna seemed to have warmed to her new situation considerably. She'd been put much more at ease by the obvious camaraderie of Shepard and her old shipmates, the jokes, the war stories, and the way in which they generally made her feel welcome without seeming to have made a special effort to do so.
"The thing that amazes me about New Avalon," she was saying as they re-entered Hangar 19, "is that it's so... normal. I mean, it's huge and dynamic, and more diverse than anyplace on Earth except New York and maybe Kolkata, but... " She shook her head. "People are just... living their lives."
"You were expecting martial law?" said Gryphon's voice mildly from the doorway to the office-that-was-not-an-office. Arna jumped slightly, looked a little embarrassed, and didn't reply. He didn't seem to have been expecting one anyway; he just shrugged and said, "Well, now you have something new to think about; carry on." Then, smiling, he bowed slightly at the shoulders and added, "Professor T'Soni. I'm glad you decided to sign up."
"I wouldn't miss it," she told him.
"Excellent." Then, becoming briskly businesslike, he said, "Now! While you were out I finished pulling together the rest of the equipment you're going to need—starting with a ship you can count on."
"Is this it?" Shepard asked, looking up at the shiny Corellian freighter. "Daggerdisc," she read from its markings. "Looks like a pretty sweet ship. I've never seen a YT-1300 with all her hull plating intact before." She looked from the ship to Gryphon and conceded, "Might be a bit small, though."
"No, not this one," Gryphon said, then added with a smile, "She's got more tricks than are immediately apparent, but she doesn't have the space you'll need. Gets a bit cramped with anything more than five or six people aboard. No, your ride's this way." He led them through the faux office and into the high-tech conference room from before, then still further on, to a turbolift that went down to what appeared to be an underground monorail station.
"Hey," said Shepard as the monorail pulled away from the platform, "what about my car?"
"Don't worry, it'll be aboard before you are," Gryphon told her. They rode for perhaps five minutes at a speed Arna didn't care to try and compute before arriving at another, almost identical station. At this end, the line seemed to connect to a bustling underground complex. People in blue jumpsuits and ballcaps moved purposefully through the gleaming steel corridors, nodding to the Chief as he and his group passed. He led them down two or three of these halls, past rooms whose functions Arna could only guess at, before keying them through one large double door.
The room beyond that door was colossal, maybe 300 yards on a side and with a ceiling that would've been soaringly high if it hadn't been absent altogether, revealing a black square of night sky. Massive hexlight panels bathed the area in light from high up on the walls. More blue-suited figures were at work here, handling supply containers and fueling hoses as they prepared the starship parked in the middle of the room for departure.
This had the unmistakable lines of a Predator-class corvette, a venerable starship class that had long been a common sight throughout Known Space. Hundreds, maybe thousands, had been built, and most were still in service. The Worlds Welfare Work Association had used them as TroCon transports for generations; dozens served in the Wedge Defense Force's fleets, dozens more in Starfleet and the Royal Salusian Navy. Even Earthforce's navy had a handful. Outside various Federation members' armed services, quite a number were in private hands, and of course the Klingon Defense Force practically teemed with B'rel-class birds-of-prey. The B'rel was an originally-unlicensed knockoff, nearly indistinguishable from the outside, apart from the build quality (and occasionally the scale).
This one was unlike any Arna had ever seen before, though. It wasn't thermocoated in the distinctive scarlet of the 3WA, nor WDF blue. It wasn't IPO white, Starfleet silver, Salusian grey, or even that bilious matte green the Klingons preferred. It was black, the sleek high-gloss ultrablack known since time immemorial (for reasons Arna did not know) as "261 Black", with a few discreet red-and-white go-faster stripes, and a name picked out in white microgramma capitals on the side of the snoutlike nose module: SURPRISE.
Shepard stood with arms folded and looked the ship over, nodding. "Nice," she said. Then, turning a wry look to Gryphon, she added, "Still a little small, though."
"Trust me, she's all you'll need," he told her. "You'll find complete technical specifications aboard, and I've recruited you an engineer who knows exactly what she can do." Leading her (and the others) around the back of the vessel, he indicated the markings above and below the impulse engine exhaust port, which declared that the ship's type and name were H/V SURPRISE and her home port of record was someplace called HARRISBURG.
"You're registered as a freelance hunter-investigator out of the independent Euphrates colony, out in the Kresge sector. All perfectly legitimate," he explained. As they walked past one of the ship's landing legs, he went on, "I'm giving you a completely free hand on this, Gin. Do whatever you have to do—spend whatever you have to spend—make whatever deals you feel are necessary—to handle this threat. Find out where the Collectors are coming from. Figure out what they want if possible, but regardless, stop them."
Shepard stopped at the foot of the ramp, looked up into the ship, then turned to Gryphon. "How much can I tell people about what we're trying to do?" she asked.
"Recruit whoever you feel you need, tell them as much or as little as you think is necessary," Gryphon replied at once. "If that ends up meaning you have to be less than completely discreet and there's blowback to the IPO, I'll handle it."
Shepard nodded. "Noted," she said. "I'll try not to get you into too much trouble," she added with a smile.
"I'd appreciate that," he said with a wry grin, then went on seriously, "But always remember: If there's a conflict between minimizing my tsuris or getting the job done, the job always wins."
"Wouldn't have it any other way," Shepard said, shaking his hand. "On my honor as an officer of the Wedge Defense Force (deceased), I solemnly swear..."
The grin came back to Gryphon's face as he replied, without letting go of her hand, "I will not panic."
"I will get the girl," Shepard said, with a sly glance at Liara, before adding, "Or boy, or robot, or whatever."
"I will kill the baddies," said Gryphon.
"I will save the en-tire planet," Shepard continued.
"And above all," Gryphon said.
"Whenever possible," Shepard put in, and then they raised their voices and shouted in unison,
"I will kick out the jams, motherfuckers! Eight-Balls never quit!"
So saying, they converted their conventional handshake into an armwrestler's grip, then a fingertip-to-fingertip hook, pulled that apart, bumped elbows, and high-fived before finishing together in a stage-hushed disclaimer voice, "Void where prohibited."
Gryphon gave her a hug, said, "Clear skies, Commander Shepard. Keep me posted," and then gave the rest of them a salute before clearing the docking bay.
"Oh, man," Kaidan observed as they walked up the central corridor toward the bridge. "This is nice. I don't think I've ever seen a Pred so... polished before."
"Everything's so shiny," Shepard agreed.
"Well, you know me, Commander, I like to keep a tidy ship," said a voice from the bridge entrance.
Shepard looked up, grinned, and stepped toward the speaker with her hand outstretched.
"Well, I will be God-damned, it's Greg Adams," she said, pumping the engineer's hand firmly and clapping him on the shoulder with her free hand. "You're looking good."
"So are you, which under the circumstances is somewhat more unexpected," Adams replied dryly. "I see you've already started putting the band back together."
"That's the general plan, yeah." She stepped aside so Adams's other old shipmates could greet him in turn, then introduced him to Arna: "This is—or was, I imagine he's been promoted—Senior Lieutenant Gregory Adams. He was the Normandy's chief engineer. Best damn exotic-hardware man in the fleet. Greg, this is Arna Alenko—Kaidan's great-granddaughter. She's going to be helping us out with the mission. I take it you've been briefed?"
"I have, yes. Sounds just like old times—high stakes and a real possibility that it'll all go horribly wrong," said Adams with a grin. "How could I say no?" As they all entered the bridge, he continued, "And there's no rank these days—I joined up again in '85 when the Chief was putting the old outfit back together, but I retired after the '88 war, went into development. I've been a civilian consultant on a few special engineering projects for him and/or the IPO over the years—including this one," he said, gesturing around to the bridge's perfectly fitted consoles. Like the rest of the ship they'd seen so far, everything in here was customized, sleek and shiny. "Once we're under way I'll give you the nickel tour. For right now, though, we're ready to go whenever you give the word."
Shepard looked around the bridge, nodding appreciatively. Things were laid out differently here than she was used to, more like the traditional style employed by the WDF and Starfleet. The Normandy, both in mortal life and Valhalla, had been configured in something more akin to the turian style, with the commander's station some distance abaft the actual business end. This was a lot more compact, but then she supposed it would have to be. If this ship had something like the Normandy's Combat Information Center, it would have to be back at the after end of the "neck", and directing the flight operations crew would have been like yelling up a storm drain.
Still, it wasn't so bad. At least in this layout she had somewhere to sit.
She lowered herself into the center seat as the members of her crew so far fanned out to take various positions around her. For the time being, Kaidan took the helm, with Garrus beside him at navigation; Arna, unsure quite what else to do, went to what a quick glance over the surprisingly intuitive holopanel controls showed her was the communications station, while Liara stationed herself at the sensor controls and started settling in with ease.
"I better get back to tending the kettle," said Adams with a grin. "And if I didn't say it before, Commander, it's damn good to have you back."
"Thank you kindly, Mr. Adams," said Shepard. "Good to be back," she added with a wink at Liara, who snickered and busied herself customizing her holopanels.
Once she'd given Adams time to get below, she settled back in her seat—yeah, she thought, a girl could get used to this after all those hours standing around the CIC—and said, "Well, ladies and gentlemen, what do you say? Let's go save the galaxy."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Future Imperfect
Act I: Collection Agency
in order of appearance
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Arna V. Alenko
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
with the gracious assistance of
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from the Mass Effect trilogy
To be continued in Act II:
E P U (colour) 2013remastered in HD