Shepard frowned as the man in the holograph blew out another line of smoke. She was really going to have to come up with nickname for him, especially if he kept using hers. Calling him by the title ‘Illusive Man’ was going to irritate her. And she was already annoyed.
“Miranda briefed you on the mission,” she replied. “You want me to repeat what she said?”
“No, I want to know if you’ll fight with us,” he told her.
Shepard let out a frustrated breath. She knew her answer, but she didn’t like it.
When she had arrived at the colony of Freedom’s Progress, the scene that had greeted her was even more haunting than the two empty colonies she had visited two years ago. Those colonies had been looted and burned. This one, however, was untouched. One pre-fab building still smelled like the curry that had been sitting on the table, half finished. There was a doll lying on the floor in the bedroom. Holgraphs hung on the walls, showing smiling families, half-typed letters to relatives on Earth still flickered on abandoned computer screens. The whole place was like a still-life painting, minus the life part.
And then when she’d learned what had really happened there, it chilled her to the bone. The Collectors, horrible bug-like aliens, had frozen the colonists and taken them away. The humans had still been alive, conscious even, when they had been carted off, but they had been unable to move. Shepard had felt sick to her stomach at the thought: she remembered too well the sensation of lying in her own blood, unable to move, paralyzed for those few horrible moments before she passed out from the pain. On Mindoir, she had watched batarian slavers shoving her friends into cages, saw one of her teachers be melted down by a flame-thrower. That attack had been blood and fire and confusion; this one had been cold precision. She wasn’t sure which was worse.
These were innocent people and innocent children who had been taken. And the Alliance hadn’t done a goddamn thing to stop it. So far as she could tell, there had been no other ships sent out to investigate these attacks after her own ship had gone down. Part of her wanted to insist that the Alliance wouldn’t just abandon these people, but the evidence seemed to the contrary. It was looking like Cerberus was the only group that would stop these attacks from happening.
“I’ll work with you,” she told the Illusive Man at last, “At the moment. But not for you. Never *for * you.”
“That’s good enough,” the Illusive Man said. Even through the fuzzy comm link, she could see him smiling. “With you on our side, we’re sure to stop these attacks. You did a good job gathering intel. I am impressed.”
“Tali deserves credit for that,” Shepard told him. “Without the help of her and the quarian, Veetor, we would have just found another ghost town.”
“Yeeess,” he said, slowly. “It would have been good to bring Veetor in for questioning, all the same.”
“Tali gave us the data we needed,” Shepard told him. “We didn’t need to traumatize Veetor more.”
“I’m not sure I approve of your methods, but they did get results.”
“If you don’t like my methods, you can find someone else,” she said archly.
“There is no one else,” he replied. “You can see now why we need you: the Collectors are working for the Reapers. I’m sure of it. And that means we need you to stand in the gap between them and humanity. We need to take this fight to the Collectors.”
“I’ll investigate,” she told him. “And then I’ll make up my mind if this so-called suicide mission is one I want to take on. I’m not sure I like the idea that you brought me back just to send me off into certain death.”
“Come now,” the man replied. “I have faith in your abilities - don’t you?”
“I know what I can do,” she nodded, “But I died, recently, so I know even the best soldier is vulnerable. And before that, I stayed alive through so many battles by being careful about my vantage point. This is just crazy - going to attack the Collectors on their own turf.” She shook her head. “Besides, I don’t work alone. The press liked to paint me as some lone-wolf hero, but I’ve always worked with a team.”
“You led teams,” he corrected her. “You led them well. That’s why I brought *you * back - I need someone who can lead a mission the likes of which have never been attempted before.”
“As I said,” she replied, raising an eyebrow, “I don’t work alone. I never have. When we took down Sovereign, it was with the best team I’ve ever served with. We also had the whole Alliance fleet behind us – the council races, too. If we go to attack the Collectors – assuming we can get through the Omega 4 relay – then you’ll need a small army to pull off what you’re talking about.”
“I’m already working on that,” he told her. “I plan to give you a top-of-the-line ship and all the help you need to build an excellent team.”
“I had a good team,” she told him. “I trusted that team. I’ll work with them, thanks, so keep your list.”
“Your old team is…indisposed,” the Illusive Man told her.
Shepard gritted her teeth. She was afraid of that. As much as she hated to ask for information from this man, knowing full well he probably wouldn’t tell her the whole story, she felt she had to ask all the same. Jacob hadn’t known anything beyond the fact that her team had survived the attack on the Normandy, but maybe his boss knew what everyone was up to.
“Alright,” she said. “I’ll bite. Where are they?”
“Not sure,” he shrugged. “You’ve been gone a long time. They moved on.”
Shepard fought to hide a scowl. She hoped the pixelated holograph obscured the momentary flash of frustration across her features.
“Where’s Kaidan - Alenko?” she asked before she could think better of it. She only barely managed to tack on his last name, lest the Illusive Man think that she was on a first name basis with her former lieutenant.
“He’s with the Alliance,” came the reply. The Illusive Man sounded a little…questioning, as though he was considering her question and wondering about it. Shepard mentally kicked herself. She didn’t need to hand this prick any more information about herself and her crew than she needed to. He already knew too much. She just hoped he didn’t know about Kaidan.
“His file is surprisingly well classified,” the Illusive Man went on. “He was promoted to a Staff Commander. That is all we know.”
“Promoted?” Shepard repeated. Well good for Kaidan. He deserved it. Though, she thought, that did mean he now officially out-ranked her. If they ever met again, the rules of engagement between them as officers would change. Officially, as a Spectre, she was outside of the chain of command. And it wasn’t like they had acted much like CO and subordinate in the end, anyhow. So what that would mean for who was giving orders to whom, Shepard couldn’t say. She knew how bossy she could be. She had gotten used to doing as she pleased as a Spectre. Taking orders from anyone, even Kaidan, would be a challenge at this point. Though the idea was curiously…arousing, actually.
“He has been out of all contact for a while now,” the Illusive Man went on, eying her curiously. “Though I doubt he would join Cerberus…”
“He probably wouldn’t,” Shepard said quickly, wanting to change the subject. “Alright, what about Garrus?”
Once again, the Illusive Man seemed to be studying her expression. “The turian disappeared after you died,” he said. “He was quite distraught, apparently. Left the Citadel and hasn’t been heard from since.”
Shepard frowned at that. She was worried about Kaidan, about how he had reacted to her death. But at least he was still with the Alliance, and the Alliance, for all their faults, took care of their own. If Garrus had dropped right off of the map, however, there was no telling what had happened to him. Garrus had always been hot-headed. Kaidan, she figured, would keep himself safe, but Garrus – well, there was no telling what trouble he could get himself into if he wasn’t thinking clearly.
“Alright,” she said, not bothering to hide her concern now, “What about Liara? Tali? Wrex, even?”
The Illusive Man gave details on them one by one. Shepard nodded at the news that Wrex was with the clans, frowned at the news that Liara was working for the Shadow Broker – that seemed unlikely. Tali had dropped off the radar again, so it looked like Shepard was on her own.
“I’m still a Spectre,” she told him. “And I’m still Alliance.”
“You were declared missing in action,” he replied.
“So I’ll get reinstated. Surely they won’t ignore this problem.” I hope , she added silently, though she was seriously suspecting that they would.
“Go ahead,” the Illusive Man shrugged. “You can always try to get their help. They haven’t shown much interest in this problem before now, though.”
She sighed. This didn’t sound promising.
“Alright,” she said. “So my only allies are Cerberus, it seems. Give me the list and the ship and I’ll get to work. The sooner I figure this mess out, the sooner I can go home, right?”
His grin was eerie, even through the holograph.
“I knew I didn’t make a mistake with you, Valkyrie,” he said. “You make a fine einherjar.”
“Surely you know the old tales: how the Valkyrie selected fallen heroes from the battlefields and brought them back to life to fight for the gods at the the end of the world.”
“I know the story,” she said. “I’d forgotten the name.” She frowned, “Somehow, that isn’t very comforting. The Valkyrie did the choosing of the dead. They weren’t the dead that got chosen.”
“Close enough,” he shrugged.
“So you think of yourself as some god who has heroes fighting at his beck and call, do you?”
“I prefer to think of myself as amassing an army of heroes to fight for humanity at the possible end of our species – with you as the Valkyrie general, of course.”
“How flattering,” she said, eyes narrowing. “Though, as I recall, the king of the gods stripped his Valkyrie general of her immortality for defying him. You planning on taking me out if I don’t do exactly as you wish?”
“You know your Norse mythology,” the Illusive Man said approvingly.
“Well, when you get the nickname, it’s good to read up on it.” She gazed at him levelly. “For now, I’m helping. But don’t push me.”
“I believe I can convince you to work for us without…coercion,” he told her. “After all, as I recall, the king of the gods took his Valkyrie general’s immortality away because she put her own personal feeling above the battle plan. But that shouldn’t be a problem for you, should it?”
Shepard forced her face to become impassive. That wasn’t the real story. The real story went that the Valkyrie general had defied the king of the gods to save the life of a mortal man – her lover, in fact. Shepard wasn’t sure if the Illusive Man knew that or not. She suspected he did. Or maybe he didn’t and was just fishing for information.
But the danger was clear. Until she knew what he knew about her – and about her feelings for Kaidan – she would have to tread lightly. Weaknesses could be used, friends could be exploited. She didn’t want to put her former crew in danger. Shepard shrugged her shoulders and retreated behind the most aloof expression she could manage.
“Why would that be a problem?” she asked, loftily. “I’m a cold-hearted bitch. Or didn’t they tell you that?”
The Illusive Man grinned.
“They did tell me that,” he said. “I’m glad to see it’s true. In that case, I think it’s time to introduce you to your new crew. Though I think you already know your pilot.”
“Hey, commander,” a voice said. Shepard turned and stared.
“Joker?” she asked, incredulously.
Joker was standing behind her in the comm room, looking both sheepish and – for him anyways – delighted.
“Just like old times, huh?” he asked.
Shepard blinked. Then, for the first time since she had woken up, she genuinely smiled.