Part 3, Chapter 25 of Valkyrie

“This isn’t how I hoped this rescue mission would end,” Miranda said, frowning at the bloodstained walls in disgust. Shepard’s face remained impassive as she turned to the bloody computer beside the corpse. The screen flickered on at her approach, bringing up the logged-in account of one of the Eclipse mercs that lay dead in the hallway outside.

“Is this the Cerberus agent we’re looking for?” Garrus asked, pointing to the dead man on the table.

“Yes, that’s Tyrone,” Miranda replied.

“EDI,” Shepard said, calling up the ship via the comm link via her omnitool, “What have we got here?” Before her on the computer screen, she saw several documents, all of which appeared to be in some sort of code.

“This computer contains the encrypted intelligence captured from the Cerberus agent,” EDI’s precise voice intoned. “The information could adversely affect Cerberus if it were ever circulated publicly.”

“What kind of information?” Miranda asked, just as Shepard remembered the Eclipse logs she had found in the other room.

“The rachni,” Shepard answered her. “It must be. He knew…” She gazed at the dead man, suddenly not sure if she felt sorry for him after all. If he had been one of the bastards who killed Admiral Kahoku, then he got what was coming to him.

“Rachni?” Miranda said, blinking. “They’re extinct.”

“Not the ones we ran into,” Garrus said, hiw wry voice twanging in the small room. “How many compounds did we find them in, Shepard?”

“Too many,” Shepard replied. “I can still remember the smell.”

“And the way they exploded when they died,” Garrus added. “What good times…”

“Rachni?” Miranda scoffed. “Cerberus would never do anything so reckless as to bring back the rachni.”

“Do you really believe that or are you just playing dumb?” Garrus snapped at her. Miranda scowled at him. Shepard held up a hand between her two squadmates.

“They did bring back rachni,” Shepard told Miranda, letting her hand drop. “And apparently, this guy had files about it – and they’re all in here.”

“Those files belong to Cerberus,” Miranda told her.

“Those files belong to the Allliance officers who had to cold case the investigation into Kahoku’s murder,” Shepard said, her voice turning hard as steel. “I found him dead in a cage full of rachni, with needle marks all up his arm.”

“Cerberus would never…” Miranda began again.

“Save it,” Sheprd snapped. She was regretting bringing the woman with her. At the time, it had seemed like a good idea to take one Cerberus operative to save another. Now, however, she decided that Miranda could best serve the mission by staying the hell out of her way.

Still, Shepard realized, Miranda couldn’t tell Shepard what to do. And Shepard saw an opportunity here. She couldn’t remember many email addresses off the top of her head, but the ones she did know would suffice. She typed a quick message into the computer, thanking heaven that the mercs had left their accounts open and logged in to the extranet. She suspected EDI could block Cerberus accounts, but not those of an outside client.

Shepard was just about to send them when she suddenly had an idea. She added Kaidan’s address to the list as a “blind carbon copy,” as they used to say, then sent the files.

“What did you just do?” Miranda demanded as Shepard’s omnitool flickered away.

“Data uploaded to Alliance command,” EDI said, her voice betraying no hint of judgment with that brief observation.

“What have you done?” Miranda demanded. Garrus stepped between the Cerberus officer and Shepard, his mandibles flaring.

“Back down,” he growled at her.

“It’s okay Garrus,” Shepard said. “I’ve tipped your hand to the Alliance,” she told Miranda, evenly. “If it turns out that Cerberus has done nothing, then you have nothing to worry about. But if, in fact, Cerberus was using the rachni for experiments and they *did * murder Kahoku…”

“They didn’t,” Miranda insisted.

“Then there’s nothing to worry about,” Shepard shrugged. “They’ll read your dead man’s final words and that will be all. But if Cerberus did experiment on the rachni,” Shepard’s eyes narrowed. “Then why the hell would you want to follow them?”

Miranda blinked at Shepard with her great blue eyes.

“Even if Cerberus had brought back the rachni,” Miranda said slowly, “No doubt it would have been for a good reason.”

“You keep telling yourself that,” Shepard replied. “But I saw the people they allowed to die – the people they killed to keep their experiments secret. Tell you what,” Shepard turned to the computer again, “I’ll send you a copy of this data, too, Lawson. You can take a look for yourself, if you can get the file decrypted.”

“Cerberus protects humans,” Miranda said automatically, her eyes not quite meeting Shepard’s. “They would never endanger human lives like that.”

“The Blue Suns back on Omega also claimed to protect humans – for a fee,” Shepard said, earning a wry look from Garrus. “They had quite the protection racket going there. But a mob boss and a guardian are two very different things, even if they both say that they have the same job.”

“That still wasn’t your information to give,” Miranda said angrily.

“It wasn’t yours to withhold,” Shepard replied, raising an eyebrow. “Just like it isn’t your place to question my decisions. Back to the ship, Lawson. Garrus. We have a convict to recruit and this mission wasted more than enough of our time.”

“Right behind you Shepard,” Garrus said.

Miranda cast them both a disgusted look, then fell into line behind them.

“Any mail?” Lilith asked Kaidan. She walked into the kitchen to find the marine sitting at the table over a cup of coffee, tapping on his omnitool.

“Mail?” Kaidan looked up. “No. Well, I don’t know.” He took another sip from his mug. “Your colony link is just too slow to check my Alliance mail. Soon enough I’ll get the new system online - if I can ever calibrate the GARDIAN’s comm system properly.”

“The defense towers are going up quickly,” Lilith noted. “I had no idea the Alliance could work so fast.”

“Well, that’s the easy part,” Kaidan told her. “That crew has done this a dozen times or more.”

“You know them?”

“A little,” he shrugged. “They come and go so quickly that we don’t talk much. And they keep to themselves. They’re contractors, so they don’t spend much time with me aside from saying ‘Here’s the on button’ and ‘Have at it.’”

“I see,” Lilith said. “Well, I wish you luck. We’ll be busy all day – harvest is nearly here. Mark’s seeing to the combines and I’m meeting a crew to get the trucks and the grain elevator ready to go. When we’re done tonight, we’re going to have an old fashioned potluck down at the grange. You’re welcome to…” She broke off, and Kaidan picked up on her unspoken hesitation at once.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I have a lot of work to do.”

“It’s not that they don’t like you…” Lilith said quickly.

“It’s just that they don’t like me,” Kaidan chuckled. “I get it.”

“They just…”

“They don’t like the Alliance or marines or biotics,” Kaidan looked up and gave her the best reassuring smile he could manage. “It’s alright, Lilith, really. You and Mark have more than made up for them.”

“Right,” she murmured. “There’s leftovers in the fridge.”

“I’ll polish them off,” he said with a smile. “Thanks.”

“Anytime,” she replied.

With a frown, Lilith left to prepare for the harvest.

“I don’t agree with everything they do here,” Garrus said, looking from the cell block on one side of the hallway to the other cell block, “but these guards are keeping maniacs away from innocent people. They’re acting in the galaxy’s best interest.”

“I suppose,” Shepard said, frowning. “Only you said it yourself: this is more of an extortion racket than a prison. Besides, there’s something wrong here. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I don’t like it.”

“It’s a prison, Shepard,” Garrus told her. “They’re all like this.”

“I guess,” she said, doubtfully. She sifled a shudder, doing her best to keep her unease from showing in her face. She hadn’t been in many prisons, but Purgatory station just felt…horrible. She’d been totally on edge since they arrived. The guards had wanted to confiscate her weapons at the dock, and in a completely uncharacteristic move, Shepard had refused. Every instinct within her told her that she needed to keep her guns and wits about here here. She was glad once again that she had Garrus at her back.

“Keep your guard up,” Shepard told him. “I have a bad feeling about all this.”

“So why did you choose the bounty hunter to come with us?” Garrus muttered, jerking his head at Zaeed, who followed a ways behind them.

“He knows criminals,” she replied. “Plus, he’s been paid well. I don’t think the cons in here could buy him off. Stay close, though. You’re the only person I trust here, Garrus.”

“Same here, Shepard,” he told her, smiling a little with what looked like pride.

They walked on down the hall, then turned a corner. Shepard froze, then swallowed hard. The scene reminded her suddenly of a memory from her past:

Before her, a guard in a cell was beating a prisoner until blood ran down his face. Outside of the cell, another guard looked on impassively.

“Is that really necessary?” she asked the watching guard. Just seeing this made her feel sick.

“This is a massage compared with what his victims went through,” the guard standing watch said.

“Stop this,” Shepard said. “For your own sake.” She looked up at the guard and held his gaze. The turian blinked at what he saw in her face.

“Right,” he said. “Knock it off,” he told the other guard. “We’re done with him.” The other guard stopped as if dazed, then kicked the prisoner one last time. They both cast strange glances at Shepard as they walked stiffly away. Shepard frowned at them both, then walked on down the hall.

“What the hell was that all about, Shepard?” Garrus hissed at her, catching up to her elbow.

“She’s sparing those two their decency,” Zaeed said. “What little they have left. No one comes out of torture unchanged.”

“I know it’s not much to combat the…injustice of this place,” Shepard told Garrus. “But it’s something.”

“Have you never seen torture before?” Garrus asked her. His tone was…gentle, which surprised her. He sounded almost like he was talking to a civilian – a very young one. It suddenly occurred to Shepard that for having had her back during most of their missions against Saren, the turian knew very little about her personally.

“I once beat a batarian to unconsciousness after the battle of Elysium,” Shepard told him, flatly. As she anticipated, Garrus’ face seemed to falfell, his expression changing from kindly interest to pure astonishment. “So yeah, I know a little about anger and what it can do to a person.”

“Did Kaidan know that?” Garrus asked, blinking.

“Yeah,” Shepard said, smiling a little in spite of herself, in spite of the situation, and even in spite of her growing sense of dread. “He knew.”

“And he didn’t…disapprove?”

“Astonishingly, no,” Shepard said. “Of course, he was impressed that I ended up having a change of heart in the end.” She explained the whole bizarre story. “So, yeah, since I stopped short of killing that slaver, turned away from that path, Kaidan seemed to think I was alright,” she shrugged. “He absolved my guilt over it, so to speak.”

Garrus’ mandibles flared and he looked at her for a moment before turning his head away.

“You’re a lot more merciful than you let on, Shepard,” he said, quietly.

“Yeah, I know,” she snorted. She glanced back at Zaeed. The bounty hunter stood a ways back, staring down at the prison floor below. “Don’t spread it around, though,” she told Garrus. “I don’t think our allies in Cerberus would be quite as impressed with the truth as Kaidan was.”

Garrus nodded. Together, they continued down the walkway over the prison yard. Shepard hoped this recruitment mission would be over as quickly as possible.

“Nice haircut, bitch.”

The convict known as Jack lifted her chin and narrowed her eyes on Shepard’s head. Shepard gave the woman a wry smile and lowered her gun.

“Likewise,” Shepard said.

“What the hell do you want?” Jack asked.

“I just saved your ass,” Shepard told her. “You realize that, right?”

“He was already dead,” Jack said, nodding at the guard at her feet, the guard whose head had just been blown off by a precise bullet from Shepard’s gun. “He just didn’t know it. So I’ll ask you again: what the hell do you want?”

Shepard fought the urge to roll her eyes. Why couldn’t every recruitment mission be as easy as Zaeed’s and Kasumi’s? Those two had just waltzed onto the ship. Recruiting Jack, however, had been a complete ordeal.

Their mission to “purchase” this woman – labeled on the dossier as the galaxy’s most powerful human biotic – had gone south shortly after Shepard and her team had reached outprocessing. The warden had decided that selling convicts was so profitable – in addition to his other scheme of blackmailing planets to keep their convicts in prison here – that he had decided to try and ransom Shepard. It just went to show, Shepard thought, that rebuilt or not, she could still trust her instincts.

Shepard hadn’t wanted to stick around and find out what price she’d go for. Considering how many people she’d pissed off in the past, she figured the bidding war among the batarians alone would more than pay back what the Illusive Man had spent on her.

In their wild escape from the station, Shepard had ended up opening up every door in Purgatory. She and Zaeed and Garrus had fought through hordes of prisoners and guards alike, then killed the warden. They had raced back to the ship, only to find the convict they were looking for standing right outside of the Normandy’s docking bay. She had been pacing up and down, ranting to herself. She probably would have been tearing out her hair if she had any. It seemed that Jack had… issues with Cerberus.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Jack said wish a sneer. “You’re Cerberus.”

“I’m working with Cerberus for now because they can help me save a lot of lives,” Shepard replied, hating that she had to say she was working with Cerberus at all.

“With them, for them,” Jack shrugged, “I don’t care. You show up in a Cerberus frigate to take me away somewhere. Do you think I’m stupid?”

“This ship is going down in flames,” Shepard said, “We can get you out of here and we’re asking for your help – not dragging you out.”

Jack gazed at Shepard, clearly sizing her up.

“The haircut was from Cerberus, by the way,” Shepard added. “It’s a long story.”

“Huh,” Jack said, considering. She looked at Shepard a moment more, then said boldly:

“Biotically, I could kick your ass.”

“Is that a challenge?” Garrus asked, aiming his assault rifle at her.

“Try me, turian,” Jack said, thumping her chest with her delicate hands. “I just took down three heavy mechs back there, or did you miss that?”

“I bet that was just adrenaline.” Garrus spoke to Shepard, but looked at Jack. “She couldn’t do that again.”

“Garrus…” Shepard warned.

“Wanna bet?” Jack snarled.

“While I doubt she has the discipline to pull that off a second time,” Shepard said, “we came here to rescue her from this hell-hole. Let’s give her the chance to walk out.”

“Rescue?” Jack snorted. “Walk? What kind of sand you on, lady? I’m not going anywhere with you. I don’t even know your name.”

“The name’s Shepard,” Shepard told her.

“Never heard of you.”

“She’s Commander Shepard of the Normandy,” Garrus said. “Savior of the Citadel? War hero? Missing in action? Ring a gong?”

“A bell, Garrus,” Shepard said, torn between a laugh and a weary sigh. “It’s ‘ring a bell’.”

“Why a bell?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. Shepard looked up to see that Jack was regarding them both with interest.

“You’re the one that tore up all those batarians during the Blitz,” the convict said. “Used mostly biotics, too.”

“That’s me,” Shepard replied.

“I saw those vids,” Jack said. “You left a pile of corpses as high as the barricade.”

The girl is impressed by power , Shepard thought. That would be good to keep in mind. Instead of protesting her fame, for once, Shepard just shrugged.

“Cerberus brought me back for a suicide mission,” she said. “I plan to get the job done, then tell them to leave me the hell alone. You’re welcome to do the same, or you can stay here. It’s your choice.”

“Why don’t you just help me escape and we’ll call it even for me not killing you?” Jack said, raising an eyebrow.

Shepard shook her head. “You can come with me, but if you do, you follow my orders. I’m not about to unleash you on the galaxy, given your record.”

“Screw you,” Jack told her. A flare of blue shivered over her bare, inked shoulders. “I’m not taking Cerberus’s orders. You can just go right back to them and tell them all to go fuck themselves.”

“Fair enough,” Shepard replied, holstering her gun. “Leave her. Let’s go.” Shepard turned to walk away. In the reflection of the window, she saw Jack hesitate. The girl’s ruby lips twisted into a worried frown.

Shepard took the opportunity to study the convict. The girl was not at all what Shepard had been led to expect. Jack was viciously bitter and very pretty. Shepard wasn’t sure if the latter was the reason for the former, but considering Jack’s current digs, Shepard suspected it might be part of it. She also wondered how much the biotics added to the apparent crazy. Sometimes implants caused strong biotics to go haywire.

And Jack was a strong biotic. The energy was rolling off of her in waves, flaring unpredictably and crackling uncontrollably. Shepard was having a hard time shutting down her sensitivity to it. The woman was like a live wire – high-voltage and highly unstable. Shepard knew Garrus and Zaeed couldn’t sense Jack’s energy, being non-biotics. They couldn’t sense Shepard’s energy, either. And Jack seemed completely unaware of Shepard’s energy as well. Though given how undisciplined Jack was, Shepard was not surprised. Only the most controlled biotics could sense the biotic energy of people other than themselves. Shepard had been able to sense Kaidan’s energy, for example, but not as easily as he had been able to sense hers.

Shepard suspected that between herself and Jack, Jack was the stronger biotic. But Shepard also suspected that she would still come out on top in a head-to-head fight. In Shepard’s experience, raw power was nothing without focus. Jack may have the edge on power, but Shepard knew both biotics and guns, both instinct and tactics. When she was as an L3, Shepard had taught herself many useful tricks that made up in precision what she had lacked in power. Now, as an L5, she was retraining herself to have both power and precision. She would probably never match Jack’s level of kick, but Shepard could out-maneuver her.

Still, even without discipline and wearing nothing but that belt as a bra, Jack would be one hell of a fighter. Too bad she wanted to stay and burn…

“Alright,” Jack said at last, “You want me to come with you, make it worth my while.”

“What do you want?” Shepard asked, turning to face her.

“I bet your ship has lots of Cerberus databases,” Jack said. “I wanna look through those files, see what Cerberus has got on me. You want me on your team, let me go through those databases.”

What Ceberus has got on her? Shepard thought. Hell, if Cerberus was keeping tabs on a biotic convict and that convict clearly had some history with Cerberus, then Shepard wanted to see those databases, too. Either she would learn something interesting about her new teammate or Cerberus or both.

“I’ll give you full access,” she said. “Let me know what you find.”

“You better be straight up with me,” Jack said, pointing a finger at her.

Shepard nodded.

“So why the hell are we standing here?” Jack asked.

“Move out,” Shepard said.

As the commander walked towards the docking bay door, Jack turned to gaze tentatively out of the window at the Normanday, it’s great Cerberus logo blazoned along the hull like a brand. Then she turned and followed Shepard onto the ship.

”…that accounts for our progress so far. The convict has been recruited. She is…volatile at best, and she’s demanded access to Cerberus’s files. Shepard granted that request.”

“Jack is useful.” The Illusive Man’s pixilated image blew out a pixilated cloud of smoke. “Like a lost sheep returned to Cerberus’ fold – under Shepard’s watchful eye.”

“Lost sheep?” Miranda frowned.

“In a manner of speaking, of course.”

“Jack had claimed that Cerberus had something to do with…”

“Is that everything, Miranda?” the Illusive Man cut off her question, his glowing eyes seeming to pierce right through her, even across the holographic comm link.

“That’s everything,” Mirand said. The Illusive Man said nothing, just stared. Miranda shifted from one foot to the other, feeling suddenly uneasy. She had relayed her mission reports – all except one. Yet, it was no surprise to her when the Illusive Man took another drag from his cigarette and said:

“You didn’t mention the data that Shepard uploaded to Alliance command…”

“She uploaded it before I could stop her,” Miranda said, realizing belatedly how defensive she sounded. “It was an outside account - EDI couldn’t block it. Besides, she’s the commanding officer. I couldn’t question her authority, not in front of that turian.”

The Illusive Man just stared at her impassively and the Cerberus officer scowled. “If you had just implanted her with a control chip as I’d suggested…”

“Human physiology is…delicate,” the Illusive Man said, cutting her off. “Sticking metal in Shepard’s brain isn’t the way to control her. The way to create order is to suggest change from within, not impose it from without.”

“What do you mean?” Miranda asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Take, for example, torture,” the Illusive Man said. “Who is really changed by that encounter? The one in pain, or the one inflicting the pain?” The Illusive Man smiled a little as he answered his own question: “In the end, Miranda, the real change is done to the torturer, not his prisoner.”

He lifted up his shot glass and considering it with glowing eyes.

“There is an inner…part…to humans,” he said. “It twists and turns this way and that. You can try and turn it from the outside, like a weathervane in the wind, but when a stronger wind comes along, the arrow points the other way. It is better – and far more lasting – to persuade that inner part of a man or woman to move of its own accord, to coax the subject to step in the direction you want them to go. Then, even when the strongest wind blows, that human will walk the path you intend out of habit – even if that course leads straight into the heart of a storm.”

“Are you talking about indoctrination?” Miranda asked, frowning.

“That simple word does not cover all shades of persuasion,” the Illusive Man said, taking a sip of his drink. “There are other ways of convincing a person to shift that inner part of herself – to fall into a pattern she did not intend, to go down a road she would not have taken if had she seen where it led.”

He set down his glass and looked up at Miranda. When he smiled again, Miranda surpressed a shudder.

“There will be repercussions for Shepard’s actions, Miranda, have no doubt about that. For now, just make sure that you give me a full mission report the next time you check in.”

“Yes, sir.” Miranda murmured.

“Good,” the Illusive Man said, his smile widening. “Dismissed, Miranda.”