Well, we're off. Not back for a week and already I'm in command of a high-stakes covert mission against a poorly understood enemy with nebulous backup.
Feels pretty good.
It also feels a bit weird that our first order of business is to damn near leave the known galaxy, but one of our destinations is on the Rim, and Kaidan assures me that the most efficient way of hitting all the points we need to hit is to go there first and then some mumbly astrogation thing to get the Kresge on the other side. Whatever he says. I forgot everything I knew about hyperspace navigation years ago.
The world we're heading to is called Nirn. It's on the WDF's non-contact watchlist; seems it has a very interesting pre-industrial civilization. Kind of an iron-age version of Barsaive. Sounds pretty nifty; I'll have to try and come back to check it out sometime later. For this trip, though, it'll be a quick in-and-out. I'll have to go covert, try not to attract attention or do anything obviously technological.
Fortunately, we won't get there for three days, so I'll have time to pick up enough of the language to at least pass for a foreigner. The beauty of hyperdrive: hurry up and wait.
We can only hope the Collectors don't step up the pace of their raids while we're out here getting our stuff together. Even if they do, though, there's nothing much we can do about it. If we jump straight into a fight with them before we're ready, we'll just end up like those poor bastards on that Earthforce battlewagon at Eden Prime.
And, on the upside, it's been amazing seeing so many old friends again today. I came back because I thought I could do more good here than in Valhalla, not to see Garrus and Adams and Liara again, but I'm not going to sit here and say that isn't a big, big plus.
The last time I saw her, I was going off to get killed and she was going off to stay alive. We've kept away from it so far—in her office we talked about the mission, and since then we've been keeping it light for company's sake—but that kind of thing leaves a mark. I know it left one on me. There's a lot we have to talk about. A lot to figure out. I only hope that...
Shepard looked up from the terminal built into the desk in her stateroom and said in response to the doorchime, "'Sopen." A moment later the door hissed open and in stepped the very person in question.
"Oh, hey, Liara," she said, pausing the recording. She got to her feet and gestured her guest into the small space between the foot of her bunk and the after bulkhead, which was about all there was for free floor space. "I was just... thinking about you."
Liara smiled, a little slyly. "Oh? Good to know..."
"Yeah. So... listen," said Shepard a trifle awkwardly. "We didn't really talk about this back in New Avalon, but..." She paused, gathering her thoughts, and then met Liara's eyes with her own and said frankly, "I want you to know, I'm not expecting that we'll just... pick up where we left off."
Liara stood regarding her with a faintly puzzled expression; after a second or so of that, the silence spurred Shepard to keep talking. "I mean, I'm a grown-up, right, I know the galaxy doesn't really work that way. It's been a long time and I'm sure you've gotten on with your life."
Seeing that she was still receiving the same patient, indulgent, but faintly bewildered look, she paced away in the narrow lane between her desk and her bunk, reached the far bulkhead (a matter of only a couple of yards), and turned back, blurting, "I mean don't get me wrong, I would love to! I've been thinking about you for 118 years. The worst part about being in Valhalla was knowing that you weren't likely to show up until sometime around 3200. It's just that I don't want to be presumptuous about..."
She trailed off, because now it was evident that Liara wasn't listening. She'd turned around and walked back over to the door, which opened automatically as she approached. For a second Shepard thought she'd blown it somehow, and the asari was leaving; until Liara stopped inside the threshold, keyed the door shut without stepping through it, and pressed another key to shut off the activator on the outside.
Shepard raised her eyebrows. "Did... you just lock the door?"
Liara turned to face her, smiling. "Yes I did," she replied. Taking a step toward her, she went on, "You're right, we have a lot of things we have to talk about. A great deal of time has passed, and in many ways we will need to... " She considered her next phrase. "... learn each other again." The room was small enough that she needed only another stride to be all but nose-to-nose with Shepard, placing a hand gently to the side of her face.
"Your first lesson," she said mock-didactically, "is that, my warning to my students earlier today notwithstanding, I have always preferred hands-on fieldwork to academic research."
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Future Imperfect
Act II: Shepard's Privateers
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Geoff Depew
©2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
"JACK" (Subject Zero); aka NOUGHT, Jacqueline; aka NILSDOTTIR, Jennifer; etc. First-generation human psion, power level K12+. Abducted shortly after birth as part of Cerberus experiment. (Purpose: elevation of human psychic potential through extremely hostile upbringing; see attached.) Escaped as adolescent. Subsequent extensive criminal history (incl. murder, theft, piracy, vandalism; see attached). Rescued by members of WDF Nazgûl Flight during Operation Herakles prep. Later transferred to Normandy SR-1 for protection/rehabilitation. Disappeared after destruction of SR-1; missing until 2293. Worked with Team PWEI until organization's 2334 breakup. Sporadic unconfirmed sightings on Outer Rim and in Terminus sector since then. Extremely dangerous.
Shepard beamed down to a remote northern area of the planet Nirn's largest continent, which her Babylon Foundation Factbook informed her was known by the natives as Tamriel, a bit past local noon. Going undercover on Nirn, she reflected, was a bit like visiting Planet Renfest, except with somewhat higher stakes for failing to be authentically "period". She'd been assured that her old Valkyrie ceremonial armor would do nicely.
Naturally this armor was metal, not advanced composites, and as such it was strangely heavy to her modern sensibilities, but she'd always liked it, the heft and substance of it. She felt slightly absurd wearing it in a non-Asgardian context, but also slightly badass. It gave her a flavor of what she figured it must be like to be a Klingon.
The first thing she had to do after arriving was fight a bear (with a sword, since obviously a thing like her trusty Carnifex handcannon would be a bit blatant). This, she thought as she walked into the minuscule village of Ivarstead, had rather set the tone.
Still, the lady who ran the sawmill seemed to be quite pleased to take the bearskin off her hands (well, it had seemed a shame to waste it), and to provide directions to the best (in fact, only) path up the mountain which towered over the town. This turned out to be a snowy, treacherous route involving haphazard staircases hewn into the flanks of the mountain, with occasional roaming packs of wolves and, at one point, a creature Shepard could only compare to a kind of wampa.
That was a hassle, but on the other hand, the views were stupendous and there was a kind of mytho-historical narrative carved incrementally into monolithic icons that were arranged at waypoints along the path, like ancient stone Burma Shave signs. Shepard discreetly photographed these; she could read only enough of the local language to get the vaguest idea of what they were on about, but she knew Liara would be interested.
There was a great stone building athwart the path near the top of the mountain. This appeared to be some sort of monastery. The monks took little notice of their unannounced visitor; Shepard could tell that they knew she was there, but they didn't seem to care, more or less ignoring her as they went silently about their business. Rather than pester them, she passed on through and kept going up. Clawing her way through the truly outstanding windstorm that was in full swing a bit further up wasn't much fun, but it beat fighting a wampa.
At last, she ran out of up to go, arriving in a wide, snowy clearing far above the treeline. The weather was clearer up here, with bright sunlight bathing the snowy rocks and the remaining small pyramid of rock that jutted up on one side to the mountain's proper peak. The only structure here appeared to be a kind of... well, Shepard wasn't really sure what it was. Its main feature was a curving stone wall about twenty feet across by ten high. This was standing on a low stone platform and surmounted by a huge, intricately carved figure of what Shepard supposed was the local idea of a dragon.
Seated on this platform under the looming head of the dragon, apparently indifferent to the chill alpine wind, was a human figure. Like Shepard, she wore old-timey metal armor, albeit of a different style, with less silver tracery and quite a lot more fur (which Shepard had to admit wouldn't go amiss after that squall by the monastery), though it left most of her arms bare. She sat seiza, hands on knees, her uncovered head bowed, and didn't seem to notice as Shepard approached, boots crunching through the snow.
As her visitor came within easy earshot, the woman on the platform smiled slightly and said, "Shepard." Then, raising her head to look the commander full in the face, she went on, "Heard you were back. How was Valhalla?"
Shepard smiled in return. "Hiya, Jack," she replied. "It was pretty good."
"Figured it probably would be," Jack said. She rose smoothly to her feet, the fittings of her armor jingling, and stepped down from the platform to shake Shepard's hand. "So what're you doin' back down here?"
"Oh, you know, this and that. Saving the galaxy whether it wants it or not."
Jack smirked. "The usual, then."
Shepard gave Jack an appraising look. She looked pretty much the same as she had when Shepard knew her before, albeit rather more heavily dressed. Slim and athletic in a wiry kind of way, she looked to be in her late twenties (though she had to be more than 140 by now). Her head was still more or less bald, mostly buzzed down to a light fuzz but with a neatly geometric pattern carefully shaved all the way down to her scalp, and where her armor revealed her skin she still showed signs of the intricate network of tattoos that had just about covered her body of old. At her belt she wore an elegantly wicked-looking single-bitted war axe.
"The people down in the village say you're some kind of great warrior," she said, angling a thumb back over her shoulder.
Jack laughed. "My old Jedi Master wouldn't like that," she observed. "He always used to say 'wars not make one great.' And then I'd say 'yeah? Two words: Gin Shepard.' And he'd say '... balls.'"
Shepard raised her eyebrows. "Are you telling me you're a Jedi Knight?"
"Me?" Jack made a dismissive gesture. "Pff. C'mon. No, I'm tellin' you I got thrown out of the Jedi Knights."
Shepard grinned. "OK, yeah, that sounds more like you."
Jack smiled and walked over to a rocky outcrop at the edge of the clearing, gesturing expansively to the jaw-dropping view of the province of Skyrim below. "Yeah," she said, "I've been from one end of the galaxy to the other and seen all kinds'a crazy things since you got offed, Shepard. Shaolin monasteries, Jedi temples, Althenian convents, the Sisterhood of Ishtar, the shotgun-totin' monks of St. Ignatius..." She turned a grin to the commander and finished, "... I've been asked to leave 'em all."
Shepard laughed. "Same old Jack."
"Kinda," Jack allowed. "I do a lot less random mayhem nowadays. That shit gets old. 'Specially after you showed me that you can do just as much wreckin' stuff and nobody hates you for it if you find the right reasons for it. Well, nobody important, anyway. I mean, I'm pretty sure Eclipse hates me, and I know the Cyrodiilic Empire does, but fuck 'em."
"Well, I'm glad I was able to teach you something," Shepard quipped.
"Seriously," said Jack, looking uncharacteristically solemn. "I'm probably only gonna say this once, but yeah. You did. I mean, I was fucked up when I met you. No two ways about that. If the Sterling twins hadn't come along, and then pointed me to you, I'd be dead now, sure as hell. The kind of dead where you don't get a second chance. It took me a while to really settle—especially after you died, I went kinda feral again for a little while after that happenedmdash;but eventually what you taught me stuck." Then her face cracked into her old smirk again and she added, "Don't get me wrong, I'm still fucked up, but now it's the good kind." She turned and started walking back toward the stone platform she'd been sitting on. "Oh, hey, lemme introduce you. Yo! Paar! Wake up!"
For a second Shepard wondered who she was yelling at—until the dragon perched atop the stone wall, which she'd taken for a sculpture, stirred and opened its eyes.
"This is Commander Shepard, I've told you about her," Jack told the dragon. "Shepard, Paarthurnax."
Shepard blinked. "... hi."
Paarthurnax inclined his great, craggy head and spoke Asgardian Draconic in a deep, resonant voice: «Hail to thee, Stormrider.» Then, with what might have been an ironic smile, he went on, «If thou hast returned to Midgard to set it right, I fear thy task will be a long one.»
«Tell me about it,» Shepard replied wryly.
Jack laughed. «Should've figured you'd speak dragon,» she said, then switched back to Standard and asked, "So what's up? You're not just here to sightsee, are you?"
Shepard shook her head. "No. I'm going after a powerful and secretive alien race that's started abducting human colonies."
"Sounds like the Greys," said Jack. Then she paused, turning a thoughtful frown to Shepard. "Hang on, you said 'colonies', not 'colonists'."
Shepard nodded. "Their last haul was around 8500 people. All at once. Place called Eden Prime. It's—"
"In the Traverse, yeah, I've been there. The whole place, totally cleaned out?"
Another nod. "I was there. They got everybody except one soldier who got out with Kaidan and me. Then destroyed an Earthforce battleship on their way out of the system. Took them 20 seconds."
"And... what? You're goin' up against them like you did the geth back in '80? Elite commando team, little tiny ship, brass balls the size of my head?"
Jack snorted. "That's a suicide mission," she said.
"Pretty much," Shepard repeated agreeably. "Are you in?"
Jack eyed her skeptically for a second, then grinned. "Fuckin' right I am."
It took Jack only a few moments to gather her few possessions and say her goodbyes to the ancient dragon; then they walked back down the mountain to the monastery.
"You didn't just walk through this, did you?" Jack asked when they reached the windstorm.
"Well, what else was I supposed to do, pole vault over it?"
Jack shook her head with an indulgent smile. "Same old Shepard," she said. Then, with the bluish glow that had always marked her unusually strong psionic powers rippling the air around her, she took a couple of steps toward the storm, drew a deep breath, and cried in a voice that seemed like it should've been coming from a much larger person:
"Lok... vah koor!"
... and with a roll of thunder, the howling wind and blowing snow dissipated, leaving the mountain ridge as clear and sunny as the summit had been.
"Nice," Shepard remarked.
"It's the local party trick," Jack replied nonchalantly. "Basically it's just yelling in Old Draconic with a biotic boost behind it, but people in these parts have always assumed it was some kind of magic gift from the gods." She shrugged. "Who'm I to argue?"
They passed into the monastery courtyard, then into the building itself. Shepard noticed that Jack carried herself here, as she had on the mountain, with confidence—calmer, surer than the the half-faked badass bravado swagger she'd had when they'd first met. This—the monastery, the mountain, maybe Nirn itself—was a place in which she was comfortable. Where she felt she belonged.
The monks seemed to feel it too. They didn't speak to her either, but they acknowledged her presence with bows and deferential gestures, rather than largely ignoring her as they had Shepard on her way in. As they went down the steps into what Shepard had assumed was a kind of lobby, they met another of the monks there. Jack had nodded in cordial acknowledgement to the others' bows, but she spoke to this one:
"Arngeir. I'm takin' off for a while. Gotta help my pal Shepard here with some things. Try and keep the place from going completely to hell while I'm gone, huh?"
The monk bowed and replied, "Of course, Dovahkiin. Skyrim will remain as you leave it."
Jack smiled and thanked him. As they left the monastery, Shepard turned to her and asked, "... 'Dragonborn'?"
Jack shrugged. "It's what they call people who can do the Voice without being trained. Like I said, who'm I to argue?"
They beamed back to the Surprise as soon as they reached a spot where they were sure nobody would see them go. Shepard showed Jack to one of the ship's miniature staterooms, then went to get out of her armor and back into some regular clothes. When she arrived in the wardroom amidships, she found Jack—still in her own armor—sitting back in the corner of one of the couches and regaling Kaidan, Garrus, and Liara with a short rundown of some of her adventures since they'd last met.
"Ran with some asari commandos for a while, that was pretty sweet; spent six months learning spirit pathways on Dantrov, that was hella sweet. Lessee, what else've I done? Played bass in a punk band, that was pretty good. Couple years as a Psi-Judge on Zardon, figured I'd find out what it was like to wear the boots for a change." She shrugged. "Not as good as you might imagine, so I bailed. Kept the boots, though. Probably still wanted for desertion and theft of Justice Department property. Even did a tour as a sushi ninja on Tomodachi. You like maki rolls? I make great fuckin' maki rolls."
"You worked at Ninja World?" Garrus asked. "What was your sushi ninja handle?"
Jack grinned. "Noisy Cricket."
"Nice," said Kaidan.
"Me and this other girl in the sushi ninjas, Silent Emerald, we were both escaped human weapons. After Ninja World we went on the road for a while. She was a magician. We did this double act—Fang the Unconquerable and the Amazing Psylocke, Mistress of the Mind. Good times."
"You seem much less angry than the last time I saw you," Liara observed. "It's good to see."
"Yeah, me and Shepard were talkin' about that a little," Jack remarked, gesturing to the commander. "I was tellin' her how it took a while to really sink in, but in the end she screwed my head on right. Not literally, 'course. Kinda too bad. I don't usually go for chicks, but there's somethin' about Shepard," she added with a smirk. "Probably it's just that I never scored with anybody who's crazier'n me."
"All right, all right, enough," said Shepard with a dismissive wave as the others laughed. "Stations, if you please, people; time to get moving. We're on a deadline here."
"Guess I'll go get outta this armor," Jack said, rising with the others. "Hope I still remember how to put on my regular clothes. Been a while since I wore anything with a zipper."
On the bridge, Shepard noticed that the "you have mail" light was blinking on the little control podium next to her conn. She tabbed it and pulled up a holographic display. The message was a reply to one she'd sent before beaming down to Nirn.
From: "Urdnot Wrex" <wrex!urdnot.tuchanka>
Subject: Re: ping
To: "Virginia Shepard" <shepard!surprise.hv.euph>
Date: Sun Aug 6 2406 11:31:24 -0400 GST
From: "Urdnot Wrex" <wrex!urdnot.tuchanka>
Subject: Re: ping
To: "Virginia Shepard" <shepard!surprise.hv.euph>
Date: Sun Aug 6 2406 11:34:43 -0400 GST
Sorry. Couldn't resist.
> Wrex. Short version because we're both busy people:
>I'm back and I'm going up against the Collectors (you
>may have heard of them). Gryph asked me to stop them
>from taking human colonies, and you know how I like a
>challenge. I understand you're some kind of mucky-muck
>on Tuchanka these days. Any chance you've got some
>vacation time coming?
You have NO IDEA how much I wish I could take you up on this, but I just can't right now. Things are... complicated here. And you know how much I like complicated situations. But this is, well, you know what I wanted for Tuchanka. It's taken me a long time--I've been back more than 70 years now--but I'm finally starting to really turn this planet around. You should come and check it out. You won't recognize the place.
It's at a very delicate stage right now, though, so I have to stay where I am. Uneasy lies the head and all that crap. I do have a lead for you, though. There's a krogan warlord name of Okeer. Crazy asshole, frankly, but what he's up to may interest you. I had to throw him off Tuchanka because he was messing with my plans. Short version is, he's trying to do some nutty cloning experiment to sidestep the Genophage. I'm good with that, but not the crazy political agitating he was doing, so I got him out of the picture here without stopping his project.
Here's where you'll be interested: I heard from one of his former supporters that he did a deal with the Collectors for some of their bioaug tech. That's when a lot of them figured he'd gone too far and broke with him. Last I heard, he'd set up shop on 03F8, the scrapyard planet in the Outer Rim Territories. Don't know who's backing him, what stage his project is at, or even if the Collector thing is really true, but under the circumstances I figured you'd want to check it out.
Good luck out there, Shepard. Try not to get killed again before I get a chance to see you.
Shepard read the message twice, then sat back in her conn and thought for a few seconds.
"Kaidan," she said.
Kaidan half-swiveled so he could see her. "Yeah?"
"How much extra time would it take us to divert to 03F8?"
"The junk planet?" Shepard nodded. "Wait one." Kaidan swiveled back to his console, consulted the navigation panel, then turned back. "It's not too far off our route to Scandia," he said. "Probably add twelve flight hours overall, plus however long we spend there. What's on 03F8?"
"Not sure," Shepard said. "Wrex thinks there's a krogan warlord there who might know something about the Collectors. With travel times like that, I figure it's probably worth checking out."
Kaidan nodded and turned to the console again. "I'll lay it in. ETA... sometime Tuesday, I'll have a better estimate for you in a few minutes."
Shepard nodded. "Good deal."
"Well, here we are," Kaidan said, gesturing with mock gravity to the viewer. "Welcome to 03F8, Commander."
Shepard got up and walked toward the screen, taking in the unedifying spectacle of the planet's smudged atmosphere and battle-scarred surface. "Inviting," she said dryly. Then, pointing to what appeared to be an impact crater in the northern hemisphere, she asked, "What happened there?"
"There used to be a skyhook city suspended above there," Garrus explained.
"Ooh. What went wrong?"
"Two words: Lovely Angel."
"Hmm," said Liara. "This is interesting. It appears there's a firefight in progress in the sector we're here to investigate."
Shepard turned away from the view to look at her. "Do tell."
Liara peered into the sensor scope for a moment, adjusting the gain controls. "Blaster and conventional fire... small explosions. It's hard to estimate numbers from here, but there must be a fairly significant concentration for their activities to register on these sensors." She looked up from the scope to meet Shepard's eyes. "It appears we aren't the only ones interested in Okeer's project, whatever it may be."
"Terrific," Shepard grumbled. Then she turned to face the others and said brightly, "So! Who wants to beam into the toxic scrapheap battle zone with me?"
"Garrus does, I heard him say he was looking forward to it," Kaidan remarked.
Garrus spread his hands. "Not it!"
Leaning against the wall by the science station, Jack snorted, "Ah, ya pair of wimps. Fine, the girls will go." Turning to Arna, she jerked her head toward the door and said, "C'mon, kid, let's go so these two can paint each other's nails in private."
In keeping with the vessel's standing as a deniable-operations vessel, the armory adjoining the Surprise's main transporter room was stocked with "clean" equipment, discreetly sourced through military-surplus channels and then shorn of any identifying markings it might once have possessed. There was nothing in here that would give any concrete indication of its owner's affiliation if captured or recovered from a battlefield.
Shepard glumly examined her wrecked N7 armor again, sighed, and opened one of the armory lockers. "I guess I'm gonna have to wear this ODST stuff," she said resignedly.
Standing in front of another locker, Arna locked down one of her vambraces, then flexed her gloved hand experimentally, testing the fit. She glanced at Shepard and said, "It's perfectly good armor. A generation or two out of date, true, but I shouldn't think that would bother you, given the relic you were wearing."
Shepard arched an eyebrow at her, then reached into the locker and started removing pieces of armor. "Watch your mouth," she said. "CVR-9 was the gold standard for special-ops armor for 150 years." Taking off her hoodie, she hung it on a hook in the locker, then started clambering into the chestpiece of the ODST suit, fumbling slightly with the unfamiliar fittings. "Anyway, it's not whether it's current that's the problem. I just don't like Salusian armor." She shrugged a couple of times to settle her breastplate and pauldrons, rotated her right shoulder partway up and down, and sighed again. "Too heavy. It's like they designed it assuming it would be powered and then decided not to. Ah, well. At least the boots are good," she went on, removing those articles from the locker.
Nothing more was said until, having finished with their armor, they started checking over their weapons. In Arna's case, this was a quick and simple process: the Auricon PP-AR4 assault rifle she found in one of the weapon racks was not, unlike the one she'd brought away from Eden Prime, instantly identifiable as the property of Earthforce, but it was the same model, and thus she was well-acquainted with it. The routine checks took her all of four seconds.
Shepard was no slower with her inspection and stowage procedures, but she had more gear to stow. While Arna watched, she checked over and secured about her person no fewer than four weapons, as well as what looked like enough ammunition capacitors to power a small aerospacecraft if you wired them together right.
"Are you anticipating a fight, or the need to supply a minor revolutionary movement?" she wondered.
Shepard grinned. "Everything here has a very specific niche and purpose, Lieutenant," she said. "This is for if they get too close," she said, touching the unfamiliar, blocky shape mounted at the small of her back. "This is for things that are far away," she went on, indicating George. "This is for stuff in the middle," she said, picking up her Mattock from the armory workbench in front of her, "and that's for if everything else gets broken," she added with a nod to the old Carnifex that still lay on that bench.
Arna looked more closely at the side of the rifle in Shepard's hands. In all the fuss on Eden Prime, she hadn't noticed that there was a nonstandard label on it, affixed to the flat plate just above the trigger assembly on the right side of the weapon.
"'This machine kills fascists'?" she read.
Shepard sighted in the rifle, then collapsed it and stashed it on her back next to George before looking questioningly at Arna. "Woody Guthrie?" she said, but got only a blank look and a shake of the head in reply. Shepard sighed. "Kids these days."
Jack breezed in, dressed exactly as she'd been on the bridge apart from having added a coat and a pair of gold-blade mirrorshades. "Whadya say, ladies?" she inquired.
"Is that what you're planning to wear?" Arna asked.
Jack looked faintly puzzled. "Uh... yeah?" she replied.
Arna eyed her. "You did hear that we're beaming into a combat zone, right?"
Shepard chuckled. Unlike Arna, she remembered Jack's fashion choices from the old days, and by those standards she was practically outfitted for arctic survival. Sure, her jeans might have been more hole than denim, but she was wearing an entire T-shirt (albeit one with the slogan FUCK THA POLICE printed on it in cheerful white block capitals), with a flappy black leather coat and, as previously advertised, a pair of lug-soled Zardon Judge's boots. At her belt she wore a heavy pistol on one side and the nasty-looking axe she'd sported on Nirn on the other.
"In a gunfight, armor just gets in my way, kid," Jack said breezily. "We gonna do this or what?"
They hit the surface in a carefully chosen location at the edge of what appeared to be the trouble spot, close enough that they wouldn't have to walk all day to get to the action, but far enough out that they wouldn't be beaming straight into a firefight. 03F8 had a galaxy-wide reputation for its vast scrapyards, but the area the three from the Surprise beamed into was something else again. Instead of the sprawling expanses of scrap metal and junked electronics that the planet's name conjured up in the public mind, the vista that confronted Shepard, Arna, and Jack upon arrival was one of huge, haphazardly scattered masses of metal.
It took Arna a few moments of puzzled contemplation to realize that they were starship hulls, stripped of anything that might have had more than scrap value and then dumped wherever gravity cared to drop them. Those that could rust, had; those that couldn't seemed like they might've given it a try anyway out of solidarity. Just looking at the expanse of leaning, rotting scrap before her made Arna feel a need to update her tetanus immunization.
"Oh, this is lovely," she remarked sourly, charging her PPG rifle. Off in the distance, somewhere in the maze of hulks, the three could hear bursts of small-arms fire and the dull thuds of far-off explosions.
Jack put her hands on her hips, took a deep breath through her nose, and let it out through her mouth, puffing her cheeks. "Yep," she said with evident satisfaction. "I'm definitely back in Shepard's posse now." Turning a wry grin to the young Earthforce trooper, she added, "Stick with us, kid, we'll take you to all the best places."
Arna gave her a dark look, but said nothing, instead moving out to take point. Jack glanced at Shepard and shrugged.
"I don't think she likes me," she said in a tone of voice that betrayed little concern about the fact.
"I think it's just that her worldview isn't built to contain you," Shepard replied dryly, readying her Mattock. "She'll adapt."
Jack nodded. "Or she'll have a psychotic episode," she said agreeably, then grinned. "Which could be fun." Before Shepard could reply, she perked up and pointed. "Heads up—incoming krogan."
Sure enough, across the slightly canted metal decking that made up the ground ahead of them came a battlesuited krogan, charging straight toward them with a sustained roar.
"Well, this must be the place, then," Shepard observed.
"Krogan charging!" Arna barked (a trifle belatedly, Jack thought); then, to Shepard and Jack's bemusement, she held her ground and opened fire, apparently not thinking to take cover. Only when the krogan was about a second from impact did it dawn on her that she wasn't going to bring him down before he hit her, and then she was flat on her back with rust-streaked bootprints all up the front of her. The krogan kept going, straight over her, but, though Arna's fire hadn't dropped him, it had wounded him seriously. Shepard was able to stop him with little difficulty; Jack didn't even have to get involved.
With a faint smirk, the latter trotted past the sprawled body of the krogan to help Arna up.
"You really haven't been off the farm long, have you, kid?" she remarked with a grin as she took hold of one of Arna's hands. "You don't just stand there and shoot at a charging krogan. Even if you kill him, he's still gonna run you over before he drops."
"So—ungh—noted," Arna grunted as she was hauled to her feet. "And for the record," she added as she checked herself and her gear for damage, "I'm from Kharkiv. We don't have farms there."
Shepard knelt by the fallen krogan and checked him over. "Hmm. This guy's gear is all brand new."
Jack walked over and stood looking down. "Sure is," she agreed. "Low-budget merc-grade junk, but new." She shrugged. "Wrex did say Okeer was doing cloning experiments."
Shepard straightened up. "Great," she said. "Another Virmire. That's just what we needed on top of everything else. I thought this place looked too orderly. It's been... configured." She pointed. "See the corridors? Choke points, lots of low walls, catwalks, weird angles... it's an infantry proving ground. Simulated urban warzone, like the one they used to use for Selection in the old WDF's Special Aether Service." She looked up at the sound of another distant burst of gunfire. "OK, let's go see what the hell's going on in there."
The mystery only deepened with their next encounter, which was hundred yards or so further into the maze: a guard post of sorts, hastily erected where a narrow angle between two sagging hull sections made for a natural choke point. This was manned not by krogan in brand-new cut-rate tactical gear, but rather a mix of humans and batarians in much higher-quality, distinctly liveried combat armor.
They opened fire all the same, driving Arna, Shepard, and Jack into cover behind various bits of jumbled scrap.
"Well! I see the Blue Suns are still assholes," Jack observed cheerfully, taking the axe from her belt.
Shepard raised herself briefly from behind the shelter of her upturned deck plate and flatlined one of the Suns' shields before ducking back down to avoid a spray of counterfire. Glancing over at Jack, she took note of the weapon and remarked with a grin,
"I bet some of these guys have never seen an axe before."
"Yeah, well, if they're wondering what it's for, they'll find out in a minute," Jack replied. The air around her rippled blue-silver with an audible rumbling sound as she raised her biotic barrier; then she vaulted the barricade she'd been crouched behind, landed on the other side, and uttered a single syllable in a voice like thunder:
The word seemed to propel her as though a bomb had gone off behind her, hurling her into the Suns' midst in an eyeblink. Shepard recognized the maneuver as a variation on something asari vanguards liked to do: a biotically-augmented charge, so explosively fast it almost seemed like teleportation. Shouting in consternation, the Suns fell back, opening fire, but they might as well have been trying to shoot an ocean wave or the wind. Fractured armor plates and broken weapons flew in all directions as Jack lit into them with the savagery of a storm. She didn't even bother drawing her pistol, letting her axe and a series of psychokinetic shockwaves do all the talking instead.
Within seconds she stood unopposed amid the wreckage of what had been a lookout point, surrounded by sprawled figures. Some were silent, others softly moaning, and none interested in defending the position any longer.
Shepard looked appraisingly around as she and a wide-eyed Arna moved up to join Jack. "Not bad," she said.
"Pff," Jack replied, tossing her axe in the air and then returning it to her belt. "I'm the best there is and you know it."
"You're not a very subtle weapon," Shepard observed.
"Look who's talking," said Jack.
"Christ's sake," a gravelly voice said from up ahead of them. "Who the hell taught you to do that? As if you weren't dangerous enough already."
The three looked to see a weatherbeaten, grey-haired man in well-traveled red and silver armor standing by an upturned slab of cast-off starship plating. He regarded them with a hard-to-read expression that might have been sardonic amusement, and though he held a Hyperion Sentinel combat rifle in his hands, it wasn't aimed at them, or anything else in particular. Shepard and Arna didn't recognize him, but Jack's face lit up in a slightly wry grin.
"Well, well, well," she said. "Who let you outta your cage, old man?"
The man stepped away from the wall, slinging his Sentinel. "Ah, you know how it is, Jack," he replied. "You're having a boring day in the office, and then the Chief calls up and asks if you'd like to shoot a few Blue Suns as a personal favor to him..."
Jack smirked. "Yeah, figures that'd get you off the couch. Small galaxy, huh? Shit, I haven't seen you since Pandora. You're lookin'... old."
He snorted. "It ain't the years, sweetheart, it's the mileage," he said. Then, stepping around her, he approached Shepard. "You Commander Shepard? Zaeed Massani. Chief reckons you could use another gun."
"He's probably right about that," Shepard replied, shaking his hand. "You know anything more than we do about the situation here?"
Zaeed shook his head. "Not a lot. Only that yet another Blue Suns district manager's gone wannabe warlord," he said. "Crazy bitch name of Jedore. She's bankrolling some krogan scientist, if you can believe that such a thing exists, in hopes of raising an army. So far it looks like all she's got for her trouble is a lot of attrition. Which makes her Vido's goddam employee of the year in my book."
"Personal beef?" Shepard wondered.
"Very," Zaeed and Jack replied in unison, then glanced at each other.
Shepard stifled a laugh. "Well, let's see about breaching their perimeter," she said. "I want to have a frank exchange of views with this krogan scientist..."
"... or not," Jack mused, looking down at the sprawled body of Warlord Okeer.
On the video screen above the body, the image of a slightly less dead Okeer addressed Shepard as though he'd known she was approaching, and indeed what she wanted. Most of his remarks were a semicoherent manifesto about "ignoring the genophage", whatever that meant. There was a lot about Okeer's "perfect legacy" and his wish for Shepard to see to it that this was preserved and allowed to achieve its destined purpose. Possibly rendered delirious by the poison gas his former employer had been pumping into the laboratory by that point, the warlord wandered off into impenetrably philosophical territory toward the end, then collapsed into the position where the Surprise team found him a few minutes later.
Shepard played the message twice, failed to make head or tail out of most of it, then turned and regarded the object standing next to the console where Okeer had made his last recording.
"Well," she observed dryly, "no bonus points for guessing what his perfect legacy is."
"Nnnnno," Arna agreed slowly.
"Can we keep him?" Jack asked.
Shepard didn't reply for a moment, lost in contemplation of the biotank and the young krogan evidently sleeping within it. Then she smiled slightly and said, "I dunno, Jack. A krogan is a big responsibility..."
"What, exactly, are you planning to do with this?" Kaidan wondered as he and Adams made certain the biotank was secure in the Surprise's cargo hold.
Shepard, back in her street clothes, shrugged. "Not sure. I figured I'd ask our next recruit and see what he thinks." She double-checked one of the readouts on the tank's control module. "According to this, he ought to keep for at least a year, so it'll wait until we get to Scandia." When the three finished the job, they split up, Adams returning to the engine room while Shepard and Kaidan headed for the bridge. Upon arrival, Shepard inquired, "Liara, any luck?"
Liara turned in her seat and smiled. "It took a bit of wrangling with WDF HQ's comm staff, but I was eventually able to reach General Anderson. He didn't believe me at first when I told him you were alive, but I was able to convince him. He's dispatching one of their disaster response teams to collect the survivors from Okeer's rejects."
Shepard sat down in her conn. "Outstanding," she said. "If anybody can help those poor jerks, it's Anderson. What do you say, Kaidan? Let's move out."
Kaidan resumed his station. "Roger that," he said. "Course plotted and locked. Next stop, Scandia-CN38."
SOLUS, Mordin. Ph.D. biology, University of Sur'Kesh; MD, Harvard Medical School. Salarian Union Special Tasks Group, 2282-2310. Most activities with STG remain classified. Believed to have been team lead on STG project to acquire Omega-2 retrovirus covertly from WDF LSD, ca. 2285, and reverse-engineering salarian equivalent. Obvious life extension. Suspected of involvement in secret genophage maintenance project on Tuchanka, assassination of human supremacist terrorist leader codenamed "Illusive Man", rather a lot else; nothing proven. Key publications: too numerous to list. Resident of Quarian Union since that nation's founding in 2357. Semi-official medico-scientific advisor to quarian government.
The Surprise barely fit in the largest revetment the Test Settlement One Science Center had, its upraised wings looming over the walls. Shepard, Liara, and Garrus disembarked and headed into the bunker-like building, receiving visitors' passes at the entrance hall. The quarian guard on duty directed them to the elevator and told them that Dr. Solus was waiting for them in the main laboratory.
They arrived at the back of the upper level to find the sprawling main lab looking as if it had been ransacked by burglars. Equipment lay strewn upon the floor or tilted haphazardly on benches, datapads and notepaper lay in random places, and at least two significant liquid spills puddled on the tile floor. Just as they entered, they were treated to the startling spectacle of an elderly and distinguished salarian scientist hurling himself full-length across a laboratory bench, scattering glassware in a tinkling cascade, as though desperately attempting to catch an outfield fly ball.
"Blast!" Mordin Solus cried. "Missed again! Tali'Zorah, look out!"
"I have it—" a young-sounding quarian woman replied from the other side of the lab, her stance tense and ready, like a goaltender's. A small, flying something zipped past her; she lunged for it, overturning a metal gas cylinder that clanged gaily to the floor and rolled into a corner, but missed. "Bosh'tet!" she snarled.
The flying object swerved to avoid the far wall and headed for the open door. Shepard, recognizing it as one of the "seeker bugs" she and Kaidan had encountered on Eden Prime, automatically drew the only weapon she was carrying, though she was reasonably sure firing a Carnifex in an enclosed space at a target the size of a hummingbird wasn't a good idea.
"Heads up—bug!" she declared.
"Close that door!" the quarian shouted to them.
Shepard sprang aside to the left, thinking she might be able to bat it down with her pistol. Next to her, Garrus was too bemused by what he'd just seen Mordin do to take any action other than stepping to the right. That left Liara standing dead-center in the doorway, looking faintly puzzled about the whole affair. The seeker darted either toward her or the open door beyond her—no one was really sure which—but without missing a beat, she casually reached out and plucked it from the air.
"Got you," she said.
"Be careful, Liara, they—" Shepard began, but before she could finish the sentence, the seeker had stung Liara's hand.
"Oh, bother," said Liara, and then she froze in place, standing in the doorway like a mannequin.
"Ah!" said Mordin, sounding delighted, as he climbed down from the bench he'd thrown himself onto. "Excellent work, Professor T'Soni. Thank you!" He rummaged in the mess near another of the benches, came up with a clear acrylic storage canister and a pair of tongs, crossed to Liara's side, gently prised the struggling seeker out of her paralyzed hand with the tongs, put it in the canister, and secured the lid. "There. Seeker contained."
That job done, he leaned closer to Liara, studying her intently; her eyes, apparently the only parts of her that could move, swiveled to regard him in turn. "Perfect opportunity to test stasis antidote! One moment." He took a spray hypo from the sleeve pocket of his lab coat, then turned to Shepard and nodded to her in greeting. "Shepard. Delighted to see you again. Professor T'Soni likely to lose motor function temporarily when released from stasis. Recommend you position yourself so she won't fall. Reduce probability of injury."
"... uh, right," said Shepard. She put away the Carnifex and placed herself accordingly, standing behind Liara with her arms to either side. Over Liara's shoulder, she could see Garrus standing off to one side, arms folded, looking smug and totally not like he was using his combat visor to record everything. She rolled her eyes at him, but that only made him smirk.
"Ready?" Mordin asked; when she nodded, he raised the hypo and injected its contents into the side of Liara's neck. For a second nothing happened; then the asari went completely limp, sagging backward. Shepard caught her, hooking her arms under Liara's and more or less hugging her from behind to keep her from falling.
It took only a few seconds for control of Liara's body to return to her; she got her footing back, stepped a little unsteadily out of Shepard's arms, then shook her head and said, "Thanks," either to her, Mordin, or both.
"Nasty creature," Mordin observed, regarding the canister, within which the seeker was buzzing furiously around. "Not technically a bug, though. Biomechanical robot; only looks like insect. Wrong number of legs anyway." He put the canister inside a larger specimen isolation container, an aquarium-like transparent tank with a big, jagged hole broken out of one side of it. "Underestimated acceleration of which it's capable in flight," he remarked, indicating the hole. "Won't make that mistake again." He turned and regarded the shambles of his lab. "A minor setback."
"Is that the one I caught on Eden Prime?" Shepard asked. "I was pretty sure I'd killed it."
Mordin shook his head. "Not dead; not actually alive. Robot. Systems relatively easy to repair. Hoped to acquire insight into potential countermeasures."
"Any luck?" Garrus asked.
"Some," Mordin replied. "You've seen antidote to stasis effect. Close to completing system for preventing detection in first place."
"Mordin," said the quarian, coming up beside him. "Is this them?"
"Yes," said Mordin. "Sorry. Should have introduced you. Virginia Shepard, Garrus Vakarian, Liara T'Soni: my niece, non-biologically speaking of course, Tali'Zorah nar Rayya."
Shepard offered a hand. "Hiya. Any relation to Kevirin'Zorah vas Archangel?"
Tali nodded as she shook the hand. "He was my... great-great-grandfather? He died long before I was born."
"We were shipmates, long ago," said Shepard.
"I know," Tali told her. "My grandfather's told me many of his grandfather's war stories. It's an honor to finally meet you." She hesitated as if unsure how to say the next part, then went on, "And a bit of a surprise, since I was given to understand that you were killed in 2288."
Shepard grinned. "I got better."
If she had been able to see Tali's eyebrows, Shepard would've bet one of them was raised as the young quarian replied, "Uh... huh."
"It's complicated," Shepard said, shrugging; then she asked, "How soon can you be ready to go, Mordin? We need to get on this thing as quick as we can."
"Already preparing to move out when specimen breached containment," Mordin replied. "Should be ready to go by the time you finish your other errands in system."
Shepard looked intrigued. "Other errands?"
"Yes. Here." Mordin took a datapad from an inside pocket of his lab coat and handed it to her. "Supplementary information from the Chief; arrived with specimen, other data. Can't trust hyperwave. Someone else in Scandia you need to see." He gestured to Tali. "Tali'Zorah will go with you."
"I'm technically supposed to be where you're going anyway," Tali explained, "and you'll need someone with fleet clearance along to get you into the Patrol Zone."
WILLIAMS, Ashley M. (1st Baroness Virmire). Retired from Royal Salusian Marine Corps after Battle of Horizon, 2334 (as Sgt. Major RSMC); Member of Parliament for Salu II, 2338-2372; Minister for War in the Katennra government, 2345-2358; Prime Minister, 2358-2372; three terms Federation Senator for Salusia (2372-2384). Censured for punching Corporate Sector Senator Roneker Krovis during the 2378 debate over repeal of UG General Decree 2288-1257. Joined Wedge Defense Force, 2384. Current grade O-5 (Captain). Commanding officer, WDF Shanxi (Ikazuchi class, CVS-219). Current assignment: combined fleet exercise with Quarian Navy, Quarian Union, Kresge sector.
Captain Ashley Williams was known to her crew as a classic space officer in the grand Salusian tradition; such well-worn but accurate phrases as "tough but fair" and "uncompromising" cropped up frequently in discussions involving her. Most would probably have been shocked to see their well-traveled, seen-it-all captain getting misty-eyed at the sight of two visitors on an irregular mission that didn't even technically involve the Wedge Defense Force.
But misty-eyed she was as Virginia Shepard and Kaidan Alenko materialized in the Shanxi's main transporter room. No one from her crew was there to see it, though; only a dark-haired, goateed man in civilian business clothes, who beamed slightly at the sight and earned himself a sardonic glance before Williams stepped forward to greet her guests.
"Commander Shepard," she said, fighting hard to keep the emotion out of her voice as she came to attention and saluted.
"Captain Williams," Shepard replied, returning the salute. "Permission to come aboard?"
"Granted, ma'am," said Ash.
Shepard held the salute for a half-second longer, snapped it off with the sort of brisk precision she'd almost never indulged in as an active-duty WDF officer herself, and then came down off the transporter platform to embrace her old shipmate.
"You're really back," Ash murmured. "When Mordin sent up the flashgram from Gryphon, I almost didn't believe it."
"I'm gettin' that a lot lately," Shepard said sheepishly.
Williams turned her loose, turned to Kaidan, and said his name, hugging him even more fiercely.
"Ash," Kaidan replied. "Good to see you."
She released him and stepped back a little, giving him a mock-angry look. "That's it? 'Good to see you'?" she said.
"Don't assume this is any less weird from my end," Kaidan told her, grinning. "But if you insist, I'll upgrade it to damn good."
"That's better," said Ash.
"So, what, you're an officer now?" Shepard asked. "I thought you worked for a living."
Ash smirked. "That was a long time ago, Skipper. This is like retirement." She turned and gestured to the man in the suit, who'd stood with a patient smile while they had their reunion. "Meanwhile, you guys are so important you've got people coming from all over the galaxy to meet you."
"Tony Stark," said the man, extending the hand that wasn't holding his gleaming red metal briefcase to shake Shepard's. "I've heard a lot about you, Commander, and I have to say I'm a big, big fan."
Shepard eyed him. "I haven't done anything yet," she said.
"Well, not this time," Stark allowed, "but in your other life? Some outstanding work there. Gryph's filled me in," he explained. "I do some special contracting work for him. Covert stuff, very high-end—like you," he added with a twinkle in his eye.
Shepard looked puzzled. "How'd you get out here ahead of us? We had to go through four layers of quarian naval security to reach this area."
"Mr. Stark apparently has access to some very advanced transporter technology," said Ash dryly.
"Which I only use to visit my very favorite people, Captain Williams," Stark protested with a winning smile.
"Uh-huh," Ash replied. "I'm sure Mrs. Stark finds that comforting."
Stark shook his head resignedly. "Tough, tough room," he said. "Anyway, Commander Shepard, I brought you some toys from my workshop in New Avalon. If you'll meet me in the captain's conference room on A-deck when you've finished your other business aboard, I'll show you what I've got for you."
Intrigued, Shepard smiled and said, "I'll do that."
"Ladies," said Stark; then, with a nod for Kaidan as well, he turned and left the transporter room.
"Interesting guy," Kaidan observed when he'd gone.
Ash sighed. "Tony Stark is a chaotic, grabasstic pain in the neck," she said, then allowed, "but he does damn good work. Wait'll you see what he's got for you, Skipper; I was tempted to knock him out and keep it for myself," she added with a grin.
"You don't have to call me that any more, Ash," Shepard pointed out. "Not only am I not in the WDF any more, you'd outrank me if I was."
Ash's grin became more of a wry smile. "I think you'll always be Skipper to me," she said. "Anyway, tell me more about this mission you're on. All Gryph was able to put into the flashgram was that it's important and top-secret."
Shepard explained, with occasional interjections from Kaidan, about the Eden Prime mission and where its revelations had led them. When they'd finished, Ash whistled thoughtfully.
"Heavy stuff," she said. "Especially with the Earthdome situation being what it is now. That's going to be a bitch to keep on the downlow, especially if it turns into a real shooting war."
Shepard rolled her eyes. "Tell me about it," she said.
Williams thought about it for a few seconds, then said, "Well... look. Obviously I can't come with you. The Shanxi is way too obvious for the kind of work you guys are going to be doing—but I'll tell you what. I've got a few things on board that I can spare for a while... things that may help you out. For starters," she added with an enigmatic smile, "I'm going to lend you my exec. He's a pain in the ass too, but he also does good work, and I think you'll find him very helpful." Raising her voice slightly, she addressed the room in general and said, "Edie, where's the XO?"
"Jeff is on the Recreation Deck, Captain," a faintly synthetic woman's voice replied from nowhere in particular.
Ash nodded. "Great. OK. You know where that is on an Ikazuchi?"
"I used to," Shepard replied.
"Well, we haven't moved it," Ash told her. "Head down there and round him up. You'll... know him when you see him."
Back on the Surprise, Greg Adams—having learned that the ship's quarian guest was a budding starship engineer herself, currently detached from the academy ship she attended for a three-month practicum in the engine room of the Shanxi—was showing her around his own domain. Though very young, she impressed him immediately with her technical knowledge, particularly when she looked at the wildly nonstandard contraption wedged into where later-model Predators like the Surprise normally had a warp drive core and said,
"... Is that a wave motion engine?!"
Adams grinned. "It sure is."
"Keelah," Tali mused. "I can't believe you got something like that into a ship this size."
"Wasn't easy!" Adams agreed, indicating the places where he and his crew had had to cut back bulkheads and even, in a couple of places, integrate parts of the engine into the structural supports of the compartment. "We had to pull the warp core," he went on, "but these ships were designed before warp drive anyway, so I think that actually improved performance." They ducked under one of the main energy conduits running athwartships and crouch-walked forward alongside the gently thrumming engine core. At the front end, Adams indicated the massive shaft that went straight out of the engine and through the forward bulkhead.
"And because we needed a direct run from the engine core to what used to be the torpedo bay, we had to lose the active cloak," he explained. "Luckily, when we took out the secondary warp equipment up on decks 1 and 2, that left a space we were able to get an IES bank into, and Shepard's more familiar with operations using that system anyway." He led the way aft again, patted the transverse conduit with satisfaction and continued, "Used the rest of the mass allowance to bulk up the turbolaser feeds and uprate the original hyperdrive, and here we are."
"Amazing," said Tali. "I know the IPO's Space Force is doing some pretty incredible things with their Next Generation Warships program—my grandmother is part of the design team—but this is at least a step beyond even what they're doing."
Adams smiled and said modestly, "Well, we're working on a much smaller scale than the NGW project. All my team had to do was take a huge budget and cram some of the best tech available into one spaceframe. The Defiant class, for instance, that had to be producible. The Surprise... she's one of a kind. I doubt we could even do this same conversion on another Pred without having to do most of the engineering over again from scratch."
She looked around the engine room some more in silence, then said again, "Amazing. I should be spending the summer with you. The Shanxi is a good ship, but I could learn more in a month in this engine room that I could in a year aboard any normal ship."
Adams chuckled. "Be glad to have you," he said, "but given what we're going to be up to—which I'm pretty sure you're not cleared for, by the way—I doubt your tutors OR your parents would thank us for taking you along."
Shepard arrived on the Shanxi's rec deck to find what appeared to be a self-defense instruction session—or perhaps just a showoff sparring match, or something akin to Exec-Pummelling Day on the old Wayward Son—in progress in the main dojo.
The combatants, watched by a cheering crowd of junior officers and enlisted ratings, were a big, brawny-looking man with an elaborate neck tattoo and, Shepard thought at first glance, a synthetic of some kind. The second fighter was humanoid, and no bigger than his beefy opponent. His body wasn't overtly mechanical, like the robocyborgs of Shepard's youth, but his limbs were obviously some kind of myomer or fiberform biosteel, like the bigger Boomer models. His whole body was covered in some kind of plasticized composite that was probably a form of flex-armor, apart from his head, which was plated in a dull-silver metal instead. Instead of a humanoid face, he sported a cluster of four small, glowing green optics grouped around a large central... well, she wasn't really sure what it was. Speaker grille, maybe? Air intake? ... with a pair of "rabbit ear" sensor extenders mounted on articulated universal joints at the back of his head.
Easing her way to the front of the crowd, she asked a young woman with senior chief's stripes, "'Scuse me. Where's the XO?"
The senior chief pointed with her chin. "Right there, sparring with Lt. Vega," she said, not looking away from the fight.
"Which one's Vega?" Shepard wondered.
"With the tattoos," the chief said.
Hm, thought Shepard. Guess I might as well watch the show, then.
It was quite a show to watch. Shepard didn't know how long they'd been going at it when she arrived, but they kept going hammer-and-tongs for nearly five minutes after she got there. The beefcake with the neck tattoo obviously knew what he was doing and had power to spare, but his cyborg opponent was quicker, his body—though substantial—built more for finesse than brute strength. Both of them had excellent technique, and their strengths pretty well balanced their weaknesses. Ultimately, though, the cyborg's greater agility and sheer sturdiness won out. The bout ended with Vega sprawled on his back and the cyborg's fist having stopped a millimeter or so from mashing his nose. Then he opened his hand, clasped Vega's, and hauled him back to his feet without apparent effort.
"You're getting better, ese," Vega remarked.
"Yeah, right," the cyborg replied, and Shepard felt the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand on end at the sound of his voice. It couldn't be—
Then he caught sight of her out of the corner of one of his optics, turned—his sensor ears straightening upward in an unmistakable gesture of surprise—and blurted, "Commander!"
Shepard stared at him for a second longer, only finding her voice when he crossed the space to her in two great bounds and grabbed her up in a bear hug that lifted her clean off the floor:
Jack sloped into the Surprise's cargo hold, shut the bulkhead behind her, and stood, hands in her pockets, regarding the cryotube from 03F8 with a thoughtful air.
She was no exoanatomist, but she'd seen a lot of krogan in her time, and she believed what the crazy old warlord had said on the recording about his creation being perfect. The krogan in the tank looked to be in their equivalent of his late teens; he was heavily muscled even by krogan standards, but not to an extent where he'd have a hard time getting out of his own way, like some of the 'roided-up dipshit he-men she'd encountered in her travels. His scales were small and regular, an even yellowish-pink, and the grey bone plates on his head hadn't fully fused into a mature krogan's single glacis. Even in the tank he was wearing heavy armor, fully prepped and ready to go, and she couldn't help but notice that Okeer had popped for considerably higher-quality equipment than his rejects had received before being turned loose on the Blue Suns.
"Well, big guy," she said casually to the tank, "I don't see any reason to leave your superkrogan ass on ice while the commander does her shopping, do you? Either you're gonna help us, in which case, awesome—or you're a problem, in which case I might's well deal with you right now."
And, without further ado, she triggered the tank's thaw/release cycle. Like everything else to do with this part of Okeer's project, it was the very latest, highest-quality model, and it took mere seconds to defrost and revive its cargo. With a puff of cool vapor and—weirdly—a faint scent of cotton candy, the front panel swung open and the steaming, dripping krogan toppled out to land on hands and knees in front of her. For a few seconds he coughed and retched, clearing his four lungs of residual suspension fluid; then he looked up at her, blinking blearily and trying to focus. He was the only krogan Jack had ever seen who had blue eyes.
"Happy birthday, big fella," she said.
The krogan blinked a couple more times, and then—with a suddenness that took even Jack by surprise—he lunged up from the floor and bullrushed her clean off her feet.
"Hooph!" Jack grunted, more startled than hurt, as the krogan rammed her against the bulkhead with all his considerable mass, pressing one of his armored forearms across her upper chest.
"Before you die," he growled, thrusting his face into hers, "give me a name."
Jack's response was to narrow her eyes at him and utter three short, percussive words that were definitely not a name:
"Fus... ro dah!"
The krogan roared in consternation as nothing he could see or quantify plowed into him like a speeding truck, sending him hurtling back through his tube and smashing it to pieces. He carried on flying with enough remaining force to dent the far bulkhead, then rebounded and fell onto his face again, knocked momentarily senseless.
Jack walked calmly around the wreckage of the tube, biotic power rippling the air around her, and stood waiting for him to regain consciousness. This took only a second or two, but the blow seemed to have taken the fight out of him, at least for the moment. He dragged himself to hands and knees, then upright, regarding her for a few seconds with a faintly impressed expression.
Then, to her mild surprise, he cracked a small smile and said, "Hnh. I don't like it. Too many syllables."
"Well, you'll probably like my actual name better, then. I'm Jack."
The krogan shook his head. "Not your name," he said. "Mine."
Jack blinked. "Oh. Uh... I dunno. Kinda figured the tank woulda taken care of that."
"No. The tank... there was input, there was... instruction. And a lot of Okeer's political ranting. But it didn't connect any of it. I don't... I don't care about any of it. And no name." He looked thoughtful. "Just Okeer's words. Victory. Legacy. 'Footsoldier of Tomorrow'. Grunt. ... Grunt. That's not bad. It's short. Has no meaning." He shrugged. "It'll do."
Jack raised an eyebrow. "Uh... well, OK, it's a free galaxy. That's what you wanna be called, that's what we'll call you."
"Who's we? And what makes you think I care what you call me?"
She smirked slightly. "You, my krogan friend, are in luck. You just happen to have been awakened on the ship of the one and only Commander Virginia Shepard, who, if Okeer had any clue at all about anything that didn't happen on Tuchanka, you've probably heard of."
Grunt's face did the krogan equivalent of a thoughtful frown. "Shepard. Human female. Old-time WDF special forces." He looked puzzled. "Dead since 2288."
Jack nodded. "And not dead since sometime last week." She put a hand on Grunt's shoulder and started steering him toward the door. "Now, it's up to you, big guy," she went on casually, "but would you rather waste your time pushing some old psycho's agenda that you don't even buy into yourself, or fight for a woman so badass she got bored in friggin' warrior heaven and came back to the mortal world to headbutt some more bad guys?"
Grunt chuckled. "Works for me. Of course," he added with perfect earnestness, "if it turns out your battlemaster's chosen weak enemies, I'll have to kill you all."
Jack laughed and keyed the door open. "No worries on that score, trust me," she said. "You're gonna love being part of this posse."
"I don't know that word."
"Like a krantt, only with taco night."
MOREAU, Jeffrey ("Joker"). Honors graduate, WDF Academy (Zeta Cygni II); Ph.D. cosmonautics, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Founder, WDF Institute for Advanced Flight Dynamics. Key publications: "Integration of line-of-sight and subspace navigational information in the manual and semi-manual FTL flight regime" (with K.'Zorah nar Irvola), Spaceflight Journal, 2286; "Exploitation of spacetime curvature effects in relativistic drive modes to enhance starship maneuver capabilities", Journal of the Royal Salusian Astronautical Society, 2394. Fully-balanced cyborg conversion subject. WDF commission reactivated 2382. Current grade O-4 (Commander). Executive officer, WDF Shanxi (Ikazuchi class, CVS-219). Current assignment: combined fleet exercise with Quarian Navy, Quarian Union, Kresge sector.
Sitting at a corner table in the Shanxi's officers' lounge, Shepard sipped her coffee (and how long, she wondered, had it been since she'd had proper WDF coffee?) and shook her head with fond disbelief.
"I can't believe it's you, Joker," she said.
"Look who's talking," Joker replied. "I saw you get spaced."
"Yeah, that sucked," Shepard agreed. "No pun intended. How about you? How'd this happen?"
"Oh, it's the usual story. Thirty-foot fall, hundred 'n sixty-three broken bones, crazy-ass experimental cyborg process." He took a drink of his own coffee—apparently there was still enough meat inside there to deal with that—and went on, "I've thought about going back to a regular body via biosculpt, 'specially after they finally cured Vrolik's in '72, but are you kidding me?" He held up both hands, palms up, in a look-at-me gesture. "This is awesome! They tell me only one patient in a thousand fully adapts to the Hecatonchires conversion, which is why there's only like three of us." He shook his head. "I guess the other 999 weren't as done with their original bodies as I was."
Shepard leaned forward, elbows on the table, and regarded him closely. "So tell me about this cyborg system. For starters, why does it say 'GYGES H' on your head?"
"That's this body's chip name," Joker said. "I know, crazy, right? There are so few of them they have their own names instead of serial numbers."
"Gyges Hecatonchires," Shepard mused. "One of the hundred-handed giants. Somebody had a fondness for Greek myth..."
"It's metaphorical," Joker said. "The H-class body's party trick is a cybernetic command bus that can control up to a hundred external systems at once."
"Ahh," said Shepard, nodding. "That explains all the eyes."
Joker nodded. "Yep. I can see in all directions at once." He tilted one of his sensor booms down; its endcap flipped open, exposing still another green optic. "And around corners. It's pretty sweet."
"And also why so few people can adapt to the system, I expect," Shepard said.
"Right. Most people just can't make it work. I don't mean to brag, but like I said, one in a thousand. That they've tried it on. System's been around more than 80 years and there've only been a handful of successful implementations." Somehow, Shepard wasn't sure how, she got the impression that he was giving her something like the old Joker smirk. "'Course, none of the others can make it look as good as I do," he added.
"I dunno," Shepard teased. "I kinda miss the beard."
"Yeah, well, me too, but you can't have everything." Joker shrugged. "So what's so important it's got you back from the dead?"
She told him.
"... oh," he said. "Well. That sounds serious. The boss must think so too, if she's willing to loan me out. Without me around to run stuff for her, she might actually have to work a little while I'm gone. Is your ship fast?"
"Pretty fast. I bet you could make her faster."
"Then sign me up. I've been driving a desk for the last 10 years, and before that I was slingin' this whale around," he said, gesturing vaguely to the ship around them.
Shepard finished her coffee and got up. "I hope that doesn't mean you've lost your touch," she said.
"Oh, you just wait," Joker replied.
They went up to the captain's office, where Williams and Kaidan were waiting.
"I had a com from the Surprise while you were below," Kaidan reported. "Seems Jack took it upon herself to wake up our krogan."
Shepard raised her eyebrows. "Any casualties?"
"Just the cargo bay wall," Ash quipped. "Adams is ticked, but Tali's trying to convince him it'll buff out."
Kaidan shook his head. "Apparently they're bestest pals now, and he's going to join our fight," he said. "Which is the kind of stunt you'd get away with. You've definitely rubbed off on that one."
Shepard shrugged. "Some girls got it," she said. "Speaking of which, I'd better go see what Mr. Stark has for me." Ash coughed. "Thank you, Captain Williams, that'll be all," Shepard added dryly as she breezed into the conference room.
Tony Stark was standing at the conference table when she entered. Before she arrived, he'd hung his suit jacket on one of the chairs, rolled up his shirtsleeves, loosened his tie, and placed a large black hardshell case on the table. Now he looked up from adjusting something inside it, smiled, and lowered the lid.
"I heard about the Eden Prime mission," he said. "Chief said your armor got pretty well scrapped."
"Yeah, and nearly me with it," Shepard admitted ruefully.
Stark nodded. "Well, I'm here to see if we can prevent that from happening again. You haven't been back long, so you probably haven't heard of me or my company." Shepard shook her head. "Stark Industries makes... well, we make almost everything, but one of the things we're best known for is our line of personal protective equipment. We make industrial and tactical PPE for the International Police. Everything from radsuits and HAZMAT gear to the light powered armor used by Tactical Division's Special Mission Forces. I'm also the chief designer for the Iron Man and War Machine special action units, which is where you come in." He beckoned her around to his side of the table and opened the case.
Within it, nestled in the obligatory custom-trimmed shock foam, was a suit of battle armor that looked not too different from her old CVR-9, apart from certain details of its articulation. It appeared to be made from intricately interlocked metal plates rather than the composite-reinforced carbon fiber she was used to. The precise material was hard to call, because the whole thing was coated a deep and lustrous black, apart from the red-and-white N7 sigil on the right side of the breastplate and its accompanying white-edged red stripe, which ran from shoulder to hand down the outside of the right arm.
"Until a couple of days ago," Stark explained, "this was the stage-one prototype for the Cybernetic Combat Vehicle Mark X—specifically the CCV-10B, the next-generation War Machine suit. When the Chief called me up and told me about your mission and what you needed to make it happen, I repurposed it on the fly. Just about the rushiest rush job I ever had to do, but I'm happy with the result. Anyway, I love a challenge, Gryph knows that."
Shepard reached out and ran her fingertips along the ridges of the segmented abdominal plating. "Is it powered?" she asked.
"Not to the extent that it would've been if I'd finished building it as War Machine," Stark replied. "This is the first-phase exoskeleton; it's basically capable of getting out of your way, but not much more than that. If you needed to be able to throw a car, I'd have had to get a little more time," he added with a wry grin.
Shepard nodded. "That's fine. I'm not looking to leap tall buildings," she assured him.
"There are a few other things it doesn't have that a fully realized CCV system would have," Stark went on. "For example, I didn't include any weapons in it because A, I don't officially make weapons, B, I didn't have time, and C, it sounded like you had that pretty well covered anyway. Similarly, you don't have time to learn to fly, so I didn't bother completing and installing the boot jets and flight dynamics systems. It would just have been extra weight you didn't need to be carrying."
Shepard glanced at him. "You make flying powered battlesuits?"
"On occasion," Stark replied. "This suit hasn't got a lot of the bells and whistles that the War Machine has, but what it has got is every conceivable life support and safety system. It's got inertial compensators for sudden impacts, non-invasive automatic blood chemistry monitoring, full temperature and breathing gas regulation, hypospray pharmaceutical injectors, automatic medi-gel applicators, full omni-tool integration, Grade Six kinetic barriers—"
"Grade Six!" Shepard exclaimed.
"—mm-hmm, with cyclonic oscillation reinforcement, it's capable of full NBC isolation without any modifications, and it's fully rated for zero to 400 atmospheres external pressure." He tapped the chestplate. "It's armored with a proprietary alloy called Silaris, I won't bore you with what's in it, but it's very tough and, to a limited extent, self-repairing."
He stepped back, gesturing to the suit with one hand, and concluded, "What you have here, then, is (he said modestly) simply the most robust self-contained protective system the galaxy has ever seen. Nothing less, and, just as importantly, nothing more. I call it the Extreme Environment Integrated Survival System—'Extremis' for short." He looked her in the eye then, becoming fully serious for the first time in their short acquaintance, and said, "It'll keep you alive. The rest is up to you."
Shepard regarded him for a second, then turned back to look at the suit. "Thanks," she said.
"Any questions?" Stark asked.
"What's 'omni-tool integration'?" she wondered.
"That just means the suit's designed to be operated with an omni-tool." Stark powered up a holographic minicomputer, its UI surrounding his left hand in sculpted orange light. "Computer, sensor package, data recorder, comm system, minifabricator, cybernetic intrusion device... these things can do almost anything. I wish I'd thought of it," he added with a wry grin. Then, pointing to a separate small item tucked away in another pocket of the case's internal foam, he went on, "There's one in here for you; it's got a program loaded on it with all the information you'll need to maintain and repair the Extremis suit, and of course all the software to operate the suit itself. They're easy to use, you'll get the hang of it in no time."
Shepard regarded the suit for a few moments more, then reached down and picked up one of its gauntlets. It was slightly heavy, and with the suit powered down, the joints in the assembled arm resisted a little, but not as much as she'd have expected. She turned the gauntlet over in her hand, noting the full range of motion in the wrist and elbow joints, and spied a circular port in the palm of the glove.
"What's this?" She gave him a sly smile. "It looks suspiciously weapon-like to me."
"That's a repulsor. Directed force beam projector. It's not a weapon, it's a flight stabilizer," Stark added piously.
"This suit can't fly," Shepard pointed out.
"Late-night design oversight," said Stark with a wink.
They emerged to find that several more people had arrived in Ash's office: the lieutenant Joker had been sparring with before, another (slimmer, darker) man Shepard didn't recognize, and Tali. Stark told Shepard not to hesitate to call if she had any questions or difficulties with the system, thanked Captain Williams for her hospitality, and then, with the kind of grin that said he really enjoyed moments like this, disappeared in a wash of light that was similar but not identical to a transporter beam.
"Showoff," Ash grumbled.
"The man thinks big, I have to give him that," Shepard said, glancing down at the case (much lighter than it looked like it ought to be) she'd carried out of the conference room. "If this suit does even half the things he says it will, today is officially the best Christmas ever. Even though it's August."
"Oh, it'll do everything he said," Williams assured her. "Like I said before, he's a pain, but he knows what he's doing."
Shepard nodded, but before she could reply verbally, the office door opened and another person entered: a human woman, silver-haired but of that peculiarly ageless sort of middle age some women seem to arrive at without really trying. She was dressed not in a WDF uniform, but rather the field togs of the Republic of Zeta Cygni Medical Service, the organization that operated Zeta Cygni's public hospitals, and she carried a slab-sided white doctor's kit marked with the international Blue Star of Life.
Just inside the door, this person started to say, "You called for me, Captain?" in a voice with the calm, cultured sound of the Vega sector about it, but she only got as far as "called" before she caught sight of Shepard and stopped short, both verbally and physically.
Shepard grinned, recognizing her immediately. "Doctor Chakwas, I presume," she failed to resist saying.
A less sturdy medical type might have dropped her kit bag at the sight of such an apparition, but Karin Chakwas, MD, was not that kind of doctor. She took only a second to process what she was seeing, then smiled calmly and remarked,
"Commander Shepard. How spectacularly good to see you again. I look forward to hearing how you managed this, at some point when we've more time." Her smile became slightly wryer as she added, "However, based on prior history, one expects life is now about to become rather hectic."
Shepard looked faintly rueful. "That's probably a pretty safe bet," she admitted.
"I'm sending Joker to help the Commander out with her current mission," Williams explained.
"And you know I'd never sign up for a suicide mission without you!" Joker added cheerfully. Indicating his more obvious bionics, he added, "You're the only one who knows how any of this stuff actually works."
Chakwas chuckled indulgently. "I wouldn't miss it." Looking past him to the two men Shepard hadn't met, the doctor added dryly, "And I see you're bringing along the rest of your support staff as well... "
"Well, yeah, I mean, man of my importance's got to have his entourage," Joker agreed. "Commander, these are mis vatos, James y Steve," he added expansively, gesturing first to Lt. Vega, then the other man. "They're here to make sure the extremely expensive hardware doesn't get broken, something that Cap'n Williams is acutely aware tends to happen a lot around you."
Shepard laughed and shook first one man's hand, then the other. "Gin Shepard. Nice to meet you. Did you ask for this job, or did you get volutold?"
"James Vega," said the beefy man with the tattoos. "Voluntold, but I don't mind. Hell, it's an honor to work with somebody I used to read about in school."
"Ouch," said Shepard. "You know how to make a girl feel her age, Mr. Vega. And you are?" she asked the second man.
"Lt. Steve Cortéz, ma'am," he replied. "It's a pleasure."
"And this," Joker went on, holding up one of his hands, "is Edie." A holojector in his palm rezzed up the 3-D image of a tiny, perfectly formed woman who seemed to be made of light and scrolling text; Shepard recognized the effect as the trademarked icon style of a Salusian HalOS starship machine intelligence construct.
"Greetings, Commander," said the MI in a calm, faintly flanged voice. "I am the Enhanced Defense Intelligence currently assigned to the Shanxi, Senior Lieutenant EDI-219. My Turing name is Edie Moreau. I will be assisting Jeff in your mission. He's quite helpless without me." She paused for a half-beat, then continued in exactly the same deadpan tone, "That was a joke."
Shepard chuckled. "Been a long time since I worked with a Turing-rated MI. Glad to have you aboard. I hope my ship is equipped to make use of your capabilities."
"Have no fear on that account, Commander," Edie replied. "The Surprise has been optimized for both of us; Mr. Adams has seen to that."
"Oh has he," said Shepard with an arch smile, filing that factoid away to be dealt with later.
"Speaking of computer stuff, is your gear squared away, Tali?" Ash asked the young quarian.
Tali nodded. "Already set up aboard the Surprise. It didn't take long—the equipment's all modular."
"Equipment?" Shepard wondered.
"Yes. Something I think you'll find helpful for your mission. I'll show you how it works while you run me back to Halo."
"Which you should probably be doing any time now," Ash put in. "Mordin must be just about done packing, and I know you, you'll be wanting to get on to the next phase as fast as you can." She came around her desk and saluted Shepard again. "Clear skies, Commander."
"Thank you, Captain," Shepard replied, returning the salute. Another hug for her, one for Kaidan, and the party filed out, bound for the transporter room. Shepard was the last to leave, and as she approached the door, Ash called her back.
"Before you go, there's one more thing," she said. "If you get into real trouble out there—the kind of trouble you need a really, really big gun to get out of—you holler. We've got fold drive. We'll be there."
"Are you sure?" Shepard asked. "I appreciate the thought, Ash, I really do, but you could be stepping in a whole pile of shit if you jump into the middle of this thing."
Ash smiled her sarcastic little smile. "Did you forget? Stepping in piles of shit's the Williams way," she said. Then, becoming serious again, she repeated, "We'll be there."
Shepard looked into her eyes for a second, then nodded. "I'll remember that," she said. "Thanks, Ash."
"You take care of yourself out there, Skipper," Williams told her. "When this thing is over, we've got a lot of drinking to do."
With the Surprise back on course for the inner Scandia system and the Quarian Navy's aerospace traffic controllers happy with their flight plan, Shepard left the bridge and went with Tali'Zorah to one of the tiny ancillary workshops off the engine room. In the space of the 90 minutes or so she'd spent on the Shanxi, this had been converted into what looked like a computer center, crammed with several racks of technical equipment and a large central holoconsole.
Tali powered this up—using, Shepard noticed, an omni-tool—and explained, "Earlier this year, I started hearing from some of my contacts out in the wider galaxy about the strange things going on coreward of Earth. Mordin hasn't told me, but I assume that's what your ultra-secret important mission with the mysterious, paralyzing robot bugs is about," she added wryly.
"That'd be a reasonably safe bet," Shepard allowed, impressed.
"Well, as it happens, I already had this system in place by the time any of that came up," Tali said. "Basically, it's an experiment in distributed subspace-radio interferometry. I have a network of fifty-two stations scattered around Known Space—mostly in the Federation, but a few in Klingon space and out on the Far Rim. We call ourselves the International Techno Union. Started out as an online lark—shared interests, tech-nerd stuff, you know how it goes—but this thing piqued our interest, so we got seriously to work on it in April."
She gestured to the display windows, all of which showed waveforms or subspace curvature plots of one kind or another. Shepard was rusty on her FTL radiometry, and couldn't read any specific graph off the top of her head, but it all looked familiar. She nodded to show that she understood at least that much.
"We're using homebuilt subspace radiotelescopes to monitor and track unexplained signals," Tali explained. "Over the last few months we've compiled a pretty detailed signature of the Anomaly—that's what we call it. Its appearances all correlate reasonably closely with the rumored EA colony depopulations in the Traverse."
"How reasonably?" Shepard wondered.
Tali opened a few data windows in the holodisplay, then turned and made ghostly eye contact with Shepard through her visor before replying, "I assume that the specimen Mordin and I have been working with came from the most recent colony attack?"
Shepard nodded. "You've pieced enough of it together that I don't mind telling you the rest," she said. "The EA's colonies are being abducted en masse by an alien race called the Collectors. Those bug things are how they immobilize their victims for, well, collection. I recovered that one during their attack on Eden Prime last week."
"Can you tell me the exact date and time?"
Shepard took out her datapad and consulted the mission report, then read off the figures she'd put down for the approximate start and exact end of the incident. Tali plugged this data into one of the programs running on her console, then nodded, turned to her, and reported with grim satisfaction,
"Our last hit coincides with your report of the attack on Eden Prime exactly. Start time, duration, everything. My current hypothesis is that whatever the Collectors are using to black out the comms when they hit these colonies causes a subspace disturbance. It's not much, but I've effectively got 52 antennae pointed at the Traverse, and after a lot of trial and error, we know exactly what to look for." She shook her head. "Correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation, but in this case I'd say the probabilities are pretty damn good."
Shepard gave her an admiring look. "This is good work," she said. "How old are you?"
"Fourteen," Tali replied.
Before Shepard could respond to that, if she'd been planning to, the compartment suddenly filled with an unfamiliar but unmistakable alert sound, and red light from a flashing notification icon in the holoconsole's display field. Startled, Tali turned—then nearly lunged for the console, flinging open new windows and then pulling up an entire ranked grid of vox-only comm icons.
"Anomaly detected!" she declared. "All stations, check in!"
"Station Two, online," a voice replied.
"Station 17, online," said another, and so on until all but two had checked in.
"Forty-nine's in class," the voice that had identified itself as Ten reported. "It's 0930 where he lives."
"Right, and it's the middle of the night for 32," Tali acknowledged. "Good enough. Let's start narrowing it down." She worked the console for a few moments, flicking through windows too fast for Shepard, being unfamiliar with the system, to tell what was happening. There was a constant background murmur now, as comms between the other stations relayed through Tali's console at half volume. She worked for another few moments, then tabbed one of the comm icons and said, "Station 44, this is Control. I'm getting a contact return in grid gamma seven. Can you confirm?"
"Roger, Control, confirmed," 44 reported. "Station 12, can you triangulate?"
After a moment's pause and a few more fluttering windows, 12 answered, "It's an intermittent trace, but... OK, got them. Looks like they're somewhere in the Argos Rho cluster, I can't resolve it any better than that without at least one more beam."
"Understood," Tali replied crisply. "Station 20, you're in Argos Rho, can you narrow that down?"
"Yes I can," 20's voice replied matter-of-factly. "They're here."
The background chatter and the flow of windows abruptly halted as everyone on the circuit took that on board.
"... Say again?" Tali asked.
"They're here," 20 repeated, her—Shepard thought it sounded like a young woman, anyway—voice almost preternaturally calm. "On Paragon. Right now. I have to go, it's only a matter of time before they detect my HW emissions—"
The calm voice cut off in a squeal of subspace static, and the icon for Station 20 went dark.
Tali stabbed at it anyway, getting no response, and said, "Twenty, are you still online? Do you copy? Jen!"
"Control, this is 28," came another voice. "Confirmed. Paragon just dropped off the 'Net. All channels black, just like usual."
"Damn," Tali spat. "All stations, keep monitoring. Fourteen, you have control. I'm going to be on the move on this end."
If Station 14 were dismayed at being handed the reins of the operation, his(?) voice gave no sign of it as he replied calmly, "Roger, Station One, 14 has the token."
"Page me if anything changes," Tali told them. "Station One, out."
Then, after shutting down the comm board, she turned to Shepard and said, "You heard. They're hitting Paragon right now. We have to get moving."
Shepard was already leaving the workshop. "If by 'we' you mean 'you guys'," she allowed. "I'm not charging into combat with a minor on board. We'll have to drop you—"
"The hell with that!" Tali barked, grabbing Shepard's shoulder and all but spinning her around. "All the people in the ITU are my friends, but 20 is... special. We've known each other since long before this began. She's the one who suggested the Anomaly Tracking Network experiment in the first place. I'm not leaving her to face these, these 'Collectors' alone."
Shepard scowled at her. "Kid, I just told you," she said. "You're smart and I have no doubt that your heart's in this, but you're 14. Your government and your parents would have my head if I took you into the EA, much less into combat there, and rightly so!"
"My mother is dead and my father doesn't give a damn what happens to me," Tali said bluntly. "I'm qualified in small arms, my biosuit is fully equipped for hazardous environments, and I am going. And you are just wasting time trying to stop me," she added, folding her arms pugnaciously.
Shepard regarded her for a couple of seconds, then sighed, turned, and resumed her course. "You're right about one thing, I don't have time for this." At the top of the forward engine room stairs, she punched the call key on the nearest intercom panel and said, "Joker. You up for a little crazy time?"
"I'm on that like blue on milk," Joker replied.
"Then plot me a spacefold from Halo to the Paragon system and get me to the jump point the fastest way you know how. If you're feeling really ambitious, figure out a way to pick up Mordin along the way without stopping."
"Any doubts I might possibly have entertained about you being the real Virginia Shepard are now gone," Joker replied with enormous audible satisfaction. "It shall be done."
"Good. I'll be there in a minute. Someone com Mordin and let him know this is no longer a research project. Shepard out." She clicked off, then turned to Tali and drew breath to tell her once more that under absolutely no conceivable circumstances was she to even consider the possibility that she might be allowed to ride into battle with Shepard's privateers.
Tali wasn't in a position to listen, however, as she had her omni-tool powered up and her other hand against the side of her helmet in the universal unconscious "on the com" gesture. Before Shepard could ask her what she was doing, Tali did something with her omni-tool that activated Shepard's, and a small holographic representation of a quarian man's head and shoulders appeared above the back of her hand.
"Commander Shepard, this is Colonel Vedik'Zorah vas Archangel speaking," he said. "I believe you were acquainted with my grandfather Kevirin."
Shepard blinked. "That's... that's correct, Colonel," she said.
"Then you'll have no trouble interpreting my words when I say that my granddaughter Tali is very much cut from the same bolt of cloth," said Vedik. "For various legal reasons, I can't explicitly give you permission to take her into harm's way; she isn't qualified to begin her pilgrimage yet. What I can do is tell you that, as a member of the Quarian Naval Reserve and a fellow of the Advanced Astronautics Program of the academy ship Hekademos, she's already on detached duty completing an engineering practicum aboard a Wedge Defense Force warship, and they, in turn, are perfectly within their rights to assign her to your vessel for a period of time. Should some unforeseen combat situation happen to arise during that time, well..." He shrugged eloquently. "That's the spacer's life."
"Thank you, Grandfather," said Tali.
The hologram of Vedik on Shepard's wrist turned to face Tali. "Look out for yourself, Tali'Zorah," he told her. "Do what you must. Keelah se'lai."
"Keelah se'lai," Tali responded.
Vedik's image turned and addressed Shepard again. "Good hunting, Commander. Zorah out."
Shepard regarded her hand with bemusement for a moment, then looked at Tali. "That's some grandfather you've got there," she remarked.
"He's the best," Tali agreed. "Are we good?"
"I have a choice now?" Shepard replied with a sardonic grin. She resumed her course for the bridge. "It's going to be hard for Ash to explain if this really turns out to be a suicide mission."
"Then don't get me killed," said Tali.
Shepard paused at the entrance to the "neck" corridor, glanced back, and grinned. "You're a firecracker, kid." Then, shaking her head resignedly, she started walking once more and added, "This has got to be contributing to the delinquency of a minor or child endangerment or something."
"Technically I think it's kidnapping, but only if we get caught."
Shepard took the center seat and saw that Joker was fully engaged at the helm—working some of the holocontrols with his hands even though he had himself connected to the console with a couple of heavy-gauge cybernetic interface cables. She remembered what Edie had said about the ship's optimization and assumed the console had been outfitted with the option for such high-octane cybernetic control specifically in anticipation of him sitting there.
"How many of you guys knew about this and didn't say anything?" she asked Liara in a low voice.
Liara smiled slightly. "He asked us not to spoil the surprise, as it were."
"For the record, I was just as much in the dark as you," Kaidan told her.
Liara nodded, a shadow crossing her face. "It happened at Horizon," she said quietly. "After... you."
Kaidan nodded. "Ah."
"You guys don't have to whisper, you know," said Joker. "I can hear you anyway. In fact, plugged in like this, I could hear you pretty much anywhere in the ship."
"And whatever he missed," Edie added, "I would catch."
Jack looked up from the comic book she was reading at the comms station and observed, "That's not at all creepy."
"OK, got my vectors computed and locked," said Joker briskly. "Edie, you ready on the transporter?"
"Affirmative," Edie replied. "Scott equations loaded and calculated. Systems are pre-energized and locked on. Professor Solus is standing by."
Joker nodded. "Then it's showtime," he said. With a click, his voice emerged from the PA speakers on the bridge and throughout the hull (without, Shepard noticed, issuing from his body this time):
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your first officer speaking. The captain has illuminated the No Smoking sign." (As he said this, the ship's internal lighting switched from normal white to caution amber.) "Please fasten your seat belts and return your seat backs and tray tables to the upright and locked position."
Complicated hyperspace vector calculations scrolled across the main viewer too fast for anyone on the bridge to get more than the vaguest impression of them, and then—to Shepard's shock and faint dismay—the Surprise went to lightspeed.
She stifled the impulse to ask Joker what the hell he was doing. He was, after all, Joker. This was what he did. It had been what he did before he was fitted with the most sophisticated cybernetic command-and-control interface in the galaxy. She had to trust that he'd only gotten better at it with such tools at his command; and so, to show that trust, she made herself sit back in her conn, glance grinning at Liara like she didn't have a care in the world, and let him get on with it.
The Surprise boomed out of hyperspace again mere seconds later, having jumped most of the way across the Scandia system on a precisely calculated hyperbolic arc that avoided the mass shadows of the Flotilla like a race car darting through the backmarkers—a maneuver very few helmsmen would have attempted and even fewer could have pulled off. Joker and Edie had calculated it so finely, in fact, that they were still surfing the small spacewarp created by exiting hyperspace—still doing a significant fraction of lightspeed, in other words—when the ship belted straight through the middle of the ring of Halo.
Jack glanced to her left, where the communications panel was alight with Scandia ATC's fury about what they'd just done; with a shrug, she switched the panel off and went back to her comic book. At the back of the bridge, Arna glanced wide-eyed at James Vega, who just grinned at her.
"Transport complete," Edie reported, her voice as calm as always. Then she added blandly, "Try not to hit the gas giant."
"Yeah, yeah," Joker replied distractedly, his bionic hands flying over the helm holocontrols while others appeared to operate themselves. The Surprise half-barrel-rolled once clear of the ring, skating through the very uppermost layer of Substance's atmosphere—just enough to cause the FRICTION WARNING light to flick on and then off again on the bridge engineer's panel where Tali sat—and then a different set of engines spooled up audibly within the spaceframe. The amber interior lighting flicked to red as Edie reported,
"Gravitic hazard zone cleared. Wave motion spacefold in five. Four. Three. Two."
The Surprise's exhausts flared blue-hot, spacetime itself bent, and they were gone.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Future Imperfect
Act II: Shepard's Privateers
in order of appearance
Arna V. Alenko
Okeer Experiment 240
Tali'Zorah nar Rayya
Ashley M. Williams
Blue Suns Local No. 397
The International Techno Union
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
with the gracious assistance of
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from the Mass Effect trilogy
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
by Bethesda Softworks
To be continued in Act III:
Renegades of Paragon
E P U (colour) 2013
remastered in HD