“These colonists are acting strangely,” Shepard observed, glancing around the giant concrete room warily.
“We’ve lost almost everything,” Fai Dan, the colony’s leader, replied. “Don’t judge us too harshly.”
Shepard narrowed her eyes, but she nodded all the same. Kaidan noticed a flicker of biotic energy flare along the outline of her face for a moment. He felt his fingers itching to grab for his pistol. He knew what Shepard meant. There was something wrong here. He’d seen enough action to know to trust his gut when it came to bad feelings.
“I have to go,” Shepard told the man. “Kaidan, Tali, move out.”
As they walked away towards the tunnels, Kaidan stepped closer to Shepard. In a low voice, he asked, “What do you think is going on here?”
“I have no idea,” Shepard replied, looking back at the cluster of people gathered around the ruined freighter. “But I know what a colony attack does to people. It makes them jumpy, not blissed out. It makes them nervous of outsiders – not telling newcomers to “stay on” and find out how wonderful the colony is. This is just wrong.”
“Maybe different humans react differently,” Tali observed, her accent tripping along the words lightly.
“Some humans, sure,” Shepard nodded. “But not all. Besides, it’s like there’s a drug in the air here – it’s hot and sluggish – can’t you feel it?”
“Not through my suit,” Tali said, her voice indicating a wry smile behind her mask.
“I can,” Kaidan said. “I admit, I’m fighting to keep awake.”
“Stay alert,” Shepard said. “I have a feeling there’s more going on here than they’re telling us.”
“Well,” Shepard said wryly. “That was a LOT more than they were telling us.”
Kaidan looked over the the concrete ledge they stood on and watched the Thorian fall. The massive creature landed with a sort of splat, like a mud pie on the sidewalk. It was a rather silly end to such an incredible life form, he thought. The Thorian was plant-being that had lived for almost one hundred thousand years. It had been able to ensnare some asari in it – clone her, too. It had manipulated the minds of all the people in the colony, presumably feeding off of whatever being came anywhere near it. It had been a one-of-a-kind being in all the galaxy.
Kaidan only had one thing to say about it’s passing: “God, that thing smells bad.”
“I’m glad I have a mask on, then,” Tali said.
“Lucky you,” he replied.
Shepard wiped her forehead and holstered her pistol. The biotic barrier that she had kept up all afternoon still glowed all around her. She looked like an avenging angel, Kaidan thought. Or maybe a really pissed off biotic. One of the two.
“Damn it,” she snapped. “Why doesn’t anyone ever give us intel on this kind of stuff? Do you just realized we killed off one of the most unique forms of like in the galaxy?”
“It was turning humans into mindless husks,” Kaidan pointed out, nodding at the exploded corpse far below them.
“Good point,” Shepard said, blandly. “On second thought, bombs away.”
Kaidan smiled at her. Shepard returned the smile and shook her head. She didn’t want to go through life shooting everything that moved, truly, she didn’t. At least they had been able to neutralize the colonists – the ones that hadn’t turned into thralls yet – without killing them. But really, this shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later thing was becoming something of a habit. She didn’t like it. It reminded her too much of the Blitz.
With a frown, Shepard pushed that idea from her mind.
Suddenly, a movement caught Shepard’s eye. She reached for her pistol and fired up her biotic barriers one again. At this rate, she was going to have to eat five meals just to get her strength back up. She was burning through her energy like crazy today.
Kaidan saw Shepard’s reaction and did the same: pistol up, biotic shield on. Tali grabbed her pistol and readied her omnitool. The trio turned just in time to see a pustule on the wall split open. There was a sickening squelching sound as a woman dropped out of it.
It was an asari. The alien had skin of deep purple and wore a heavy leather jumpsuit. She was covered in what looked like mucus. She stank, too, Kaidan thought.
Shepard held her pistol steady for a second, then holstered it and helped the asari to her feet. Kaidan kept his pistol at the ready, just in case.
“You okay?” Shepard asked her. Kaidan had to chuckle at that one. Shepard hadn’t let her biotic barriers down – she wasn’t stupid – but her impulse to help anyone, even under the weirdest circumstances, was admirable.
“I’m fine,” the asari said, stumbling a little. Shepard held out a hand to steady her. “I suppose I should thank you,” the asari said.
Yeah , Kaidan thought. You probably should.
“What happened to you?” Shepard asked. “What were you doing in there? More importantly – are you the real asari, or are you another clone of…yourself.”
“What a weird question,” Tali remarked quietly to Kaidan.
“It’s been a weird afternoon,” he replied.
“Does this kind of thing happen to you humans a lot?” she asked.
“Only when Shepard’s around,” he murmured back.
The asari, Shiala, hesitated a moment, then told Shepard her whole bizarre tale: how the Thorian had once enslaved and eaten Protheans when the Proteans lived on this world fifty thousand years ago, how it had memories of the Protheans hidden inside of it and so held the link to deciphering the visions from the Prothean beacon of Eden Prime. Saren had needed that cipher to understand the visions, so he used the asari to meld with the Thorian, then forced her to meld minds with him. In this way, Saren had gotten the knowledge he needed from the Thorian in order to find this Conduit thing he was looking for. Then he’d tried to kill the Thorian.
Shepard said nothing, but gave the asari a look that clearly said, Are you serious?
“Can I have the cipher?” Shepard asked. “I need to know what these visions – what it all means. I need to find that Conduit so that Saren doesn’t use it to attack more colonies like he did on Eden Prime.”
And I need to know if my vision of the Reapers are mere delirium or more than that , Shepard thought. She had said little about the other side of her vision, because she knew that it sounded completely crazy. The Council had thought it was crazy – Udina had thought it was crazy. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that the Reapers were the real threat, that Saren was just a distraction. But until she had more proof, how was she to convince anyone of her suspicions? Hell, she didn’t even trust herself on her Reapers-are-the-real-bad-guys hunch most days.
“I would be honored to help you stop Saren,” the asari told her, “I will gladly give you the cipher. This may…hurt a little…”
Shepard nodded and braced herself for whatever the asari planned to do to her.
*Hurt? * Kaidan frowned and took a step forward. But before he could do anything, the asari laid her forehead gently against the commander’s. All he could see was that the both of them flinched. Their breathing grew shallow, as if both were carrying a heavy load between them. The effect was – unsettling. Was it wrong that he found it vaguely…arousing? Kaidan scowled at himself.
Then the asari stepped back and frowned. Shepard blinked and looked up at the sky above the ruins. A single tear glistened along her lower eyelashes. Kaidan blinked. He had never – ever – seen the commander come close to crying.
“Are you alright?” he asked, only barely restraining himself from touching her. “What just happened?”
“I’m okay,” she said, her voice sounding thin. “The visions – they make sense now – a little bit. They’re, jumbled, but…I see the colors now and…ugh.” She clutched her forehead and winced.
“I’m sorry,” the asari was saying, but Kaidan stepped in and cut her off.
“Let’s get you back to the ship,” he said. “You look pale. You need rest.”
“We need to check in on the colonists first,” Shepard said, brushing him aside. The authority in her voice reminded him that she was the one giving orders and not he. Kaidan gritted his teeth. He knew she was right, but if he had been her CO, he would have had sent her back to the med bay immediately.
Checking in on the colonists took the rest of the afternoon. Shepard would simply not leave until she was certain that everything that could be done for them had been done for them. Doctor Chakwas brought medical supplies from the ship and treated wounds. The requisitions officer brought out half of his stock and burned it down into omnigel to help repair the broken machinery. Kaidan heard Shepard promise him that she would pay the bill herself. Half of the Normandy’s food rations went to the colony and Shepard personally went around talking to everyone and checking in on them. As darkness fell on the planet, Kaidan finally went to her and caught her by the arm.
“Commander,” he said. “You have got to get some rest.”
“In a minute, lieutenant.”
“Commander, it’s nighttime.”
She looked up at him in surprise, then out at the starlit sky beyond the broken windows. “You’re right. We need to get back to the mission. We’ll need to stop and re-supply the Normandy. Terra Nova, maybe. Take care, Ms. Baynum, and…Ms. Baynum.” She waved goodbye to the mother and daughter before her – the family that she had helped re-unite. “I hope your colony grows strong.”
“Thank you,” the elder Ms. Baynum said. “I can’t believe the war hero who saved a colony as big as Elysium would some day save a colony as small as this.”
Shepard froze, her warm expression of a few moments ago growing chilly.
“The size of the colony doesn’t matter,” she replied. “It’s home to you, and that’s what matters.” She gave them a curt nod of farewell, then walked away. Kaidan fell into step behind her.
“That was a little cold,” he murmured.
“You have a problem, lieutenant?” she bit out.
Damn, she was prickly sometimes, Kaidan thought. Shepard would be all warm and friendly for a while, and then something would just stick in her craw and…
Not something, he realized suddenly. Some where . One particular place and time in her past. He wondered that he had never made the connection before.
“Why do you hate to talk about the Blitz?” he asked, curiosity making the question tumble out before he could think better of it.
She looked at him in surprise. “I don’t…” She snapped her jaw shut and turned her gaze straight ahead. “We need to round up the crew and get them back to the ship. I’ll radio Joker…” She reached her hand up to speak into the comm built into her suit.
“They’re all on board,” Kaidan said, reaching out a hand to stop her, but not actually touching her. “They’ve been ready to go for the past hour.”
Shepard glanced over at him. “You told them to get back to the ship?”
“I, ah, took the liberty of getting everything ready to go – ma’am,” he said, waiting to see her reaction.
“Ah,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “Do you often take the liberty of giving orders to the rest of the crew, lieutenant?” she asked. Kaidan couldn’t tell if she was joking or angry.
“No, ma’am,” he said. “But you seemed…busy elsewhere.”
“You mean distracted by making sure this colony was going to survive,” Shepard replied. To Kaidan’s surprise, her shoulders relaxed suddenly and she sighed. “Alright, you’ve got me there. I don’t like seeing colonists suffer.”
“Because of Mindoir or Elysium?” The words were out before Kaidan could stop them.
“Both,” Shepard replied immediately. Then she frowned, as if she had not planned on speaking at all. She fell silent and walked on. Kaidan decided not to press his luck by asking her more questions when she was so obviously in a touchy mood. They folowed the winding hallways and stairways back towards the place where the Normandy was docked.
“This place is a real maze,” Kaidan asked after a while, breaking the silence. “I keep feeling like we’ve been at this part before.”
“Typical of a Prothean industrial complex,” Shepard said absentmindedly.
“And is this concrete?” Kaidan went on. “This whole place looks like a parking garage back on earth.”
Shepard shook her head. “It’s similar to concrete, but the actual molecular structure is more akin to glue. It’s an epoxy-resin, but with a silicone base. Finding out where the Protheans first started using this stuff is sort of the Holy Grail of Prothean studies, because if they could find that out, researchers would be able to pinpoint which of the many Prothean-settled worlds was their homeworld.”
Kaidan’s eyes widened as he turned to stare at Shepard.
“What?” she asked.
“You just…knew that? Off the top of your head?”
“We had a school on Mindoir,” she replied with a shrug. “I know the rumors about border colony education…”
“Yeah, but…epoxy… Seriously, Shepard?”
“I was into architecture,” she replied. “I thought about taking it up as a career before… Well, when I was a kid.”
“You wanted to be an architect?” Kaidan stared at her incredulously.
“I like fortresses,” she shrugged. “Medieval earth castles, asari walled cities of the Matriarch Era, World War II earth bunkers, Krogan warrens. I find them fascinating.”
“An architect,” Kaidan repeated.
“You have to admit,” she said. “I have a very tactical mind. I find cover and I use it. It keeps me alive. It helped me stay alive on…in the past.”
“Yeah, but a career in architecture?”
“That just seems a little boring, for you – commander.”
“I also thought I’d get married and have kids,” she said, smiling a little now. “That’s even more unbelievable, yeah?”
“Now that I can see,” Kaidan murmured, adding quietly, “ Lucky bastard .”
“What was that?”
“I can see the married with kids part,” Kaidan said aloud.
Shepard snorted inelegantly. “Yeah, right.”
“No, really, I can. There are lots of spacer families who…you know. They figure something out.”
“I suppose,” she said,. It had been a long time since she had allowed herself to think about a life like that and she wasn’t sure she wanted to start now. A life like that required stability, and she’d given up on that dream long ago.
Aloud she said: “I’m not sure I’m fit for something that…normal. Too many scars, you know.”
“Why not?” Kaidan asked. “You certainly have become the father – er, mother figure to everyone on the ship. You’re always watching out for them, keeping them in line.”
“Yeah,” she said wryly. “Keeping everyone in line except my smart-mouthed lieutenant. He’s the one always breaking protocol to tell me how to do things – telling me to get back to my own ship and take a nap.”
“It is past your bedtime, ma’am,” Kaidan said with a straight face.
Shepard actually laughed at that one – laughed and snorted at the same time. “You keep that up, lieutenant, and you’re going to find yourself reprimanded,” she said.
“Keel-hauled,” she told him. “I’ll strap you to the Normandy’s hull in Ashley’s pink armor.”
“Always with the threats, commander.”
Shepard snorted again and shook her head. “Most people would be quaking in their boots at this point, lieutenant.”
“I follow your orders because I respect them, ma’am,” he said seriously. “Not because you scare me.”
Shepard clamped her mouth shut. Was it just her, or had the air suddenly gotten warmer around them? It must be the barrier she’d been using all day. She had probably given herself a fever.
“Watch it, lieutenant,” she mumbled, feeling unaccountably awkward all of a sudden.
“Just trying to help, ma’am,” Kaidan said, easily. “I want to make sure you don’t burn yourself out.”
“Burn out,” Shepard sobered instantly. “Man, I feel burned out.”
“Eat something,” Kaidan urged her. “When we get back, you need to eat and sleep.”
“Can’t,” she told him. “I gave all my rations away to Ms. Martinez.”
“What?” Kaidan rubbed his forehead. “Commander…”
“The woman hadn’t eaten in three days, Kay - lieutenant. I can eat tomorrow.”
“Yeah, but they way you were using biotics…”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You can eat my rations.”
“You’ll need those yourself, lieutenant.”
“I’ll share, commander.”
She eyed him askance.
“Watch it, Alenko. It sounds like you’re trying to give me orders.”
“Just watching out for my commanding officer,” he replied. “Just watching out for you , ma’am.”
Shepard didn’t know what to say to that, so she nodded. They walked back to the ship in silence.