“Shepard,” the Illusive Man said, taking a drag from his cigarette, “I think we have them.”
Something in the man’s voice – a hard, brittle edge, and the glint to his eeries blue eyes stopped Shepard in her tracks.
She had thought to come to the comm room to chew the guy out, not to be sent on yet another mission.
Shepard had returned from her trip to Korlus completely pissed off. She sent a message to the Illusive Man right away, the first time she’d actually made an effort to contact him. In her email, she demanded to know why he had neglected to tell her that Warlord Okeer had made a deal with the Collectors to gain the tech he needed to create his genetically perfect krogan – the same genetically perfect krogan that was still in a holding tank down in the cargo bay. If she had known that Okeer had been dealing with the Collectors, she would have contacted the warlord more quickly. As it was, she’d wasted time running other errands for Cerberus out in the Omega nebula and so Okeer had been killed in a merc turf war, and she had only just saved his final experiment.
And if that had made her angry, it was nothing compared to how she was feeling about what Cerberus had done to Jack. Though Shepard hadn’t gotten much out of the tattooed girl since picking her up on the Purgatory, she was sure that Jack’s rabid interest in Cerberus’s databases was more than just academic. “Academic,” after all, was a word Shepard didn’t readily associate with the convict.
And speaking of Jack, Shepard wanted to discuss this team of hers, to figure out why it was that the Illusive Man seemed intent on giving her dossiers for the craziest, most unstable squadmates in the galaxy to walk behind her into a suicide mission that was going to require finesse. Sure, they were powerful, but they were going to need a hell of a lot of training to come up to snuff as soldiers, much less to work together as a team to take out the Collectors.
Only Garrus was ready for a mission like that, and Shepard suspected that even *he * was off of his game. What Garrus needed, she wasn’t sure – maybe closure of some sort. But he hadn’t been talking to her after his initial confession about what happened to his team, and she hadn’t wanted to pry.
But mostly, Shepard was spoiling for a fight. The Illusive Man clearly had way more information about the Collectors and the Reapers than he was giving her, yet he kept sending her off on these missions without any clear picture of what she was in for.
It was like he was holding a light right in front of her on a darkened path. She could see well enough to take the next step, but no more. She had no idea where she was being led, only that she was being led, and that she couldn’t see clearly enough to find her own way. It was enough to make her want to use her biotics to rip out a bulkhead.
After sending her angry message to the Illusive Man, Shepard had stomped off to take a shower. She then dressed in a Cerberus casual uniform, hating the way that the tight shirt and loose cargo pants fit just like her old Alliance utilities. The clothes felt the same, but in black and white fabric and with a yellow Cerberus logo on the sleeves, they sure didn’t look it.
Just like me , she thought, rubbing a hand over the short, gold stubble on her head. I * feel the same inside, but I sure don’t look the same. I look like a Cerberus cultist.*
Shepard didn’t want to dwell too much on that, though. As she painted her eyes, she thought briefly of wearing something else, but she didn’t like the tight lab coat and her officer’s uniform was in the laundry. So she left on the t-shirt and pants and took the elevator downstairs. She had barely stepped through the doors to the CIC when chirpy Yeoman Chambers turned to her and said:
“The Illusive Man wants to meet with you in the debriefing room.”
“Really?” Shepard asked. That was surprising. She had figured the Illusive Man would blow her off and that she would have to send several angry messages before he would reply. She had gone to the comm room at once.
But when she arrived, it became immediately apparent that they were not going to be talking about Shepard’s reservations about the mission. Instead, it seemed that the Illusive Man had yet another assignment for her, yet another dark path for her to walk down.
“So what is it?” Shepard asked, suspiciously. “Another dossier? Who is it this time? Another murderer? Another thief?”
“It’s the Collectors,” he told her.
Shepard blinked and straightened.
“Where?” she asked at once.
“Horizon, one of our colonies in the Terminus Systems, just went silent.”
“Went silent?” Shepard asked, frowning. “How many colonies are you monitoring, exactly?”
“If the colony isn’t under attack it soon will be,” the Illusive Man said, ignoring her question. “Has Mordin delivered the counter measure for the Seeker swarms? Without that tech, you’ll be helpless against the Collectors’ paralyzing technology.”
“Not yet,” Shepard said.
“Let’s hope he works well under pressure,” the Illusive Man said.
“Go back,” Shepard said. “How did you get this intel on Horizon when even the Alliance hasn’t been able to…?”
“There’s something else you should know,” he said, his voice flat, cutting her off. He took a drag of his cigarette and looked at her in a way that gave Shepard pause. She guessed at once that he had bad news, and she found her stomach twisting into a knot even before he said:
“One of your former crew, Kaidan Alenko, is stationed on Horizon.”
Shepard felt as though the floor had fallen out from under her.
She felt her heart racing even as some rational part of her mind told her to body to calm down and hide what she felt. Emotions were dangerous, emotions could be used, emotions, at best, would distract her – and that could cost Kaidan his life.
He was supposed to be somewhere safe, she thought wildly. He was supposed to be where Cerberus couldn’t get him, where the Alliance – where Anderson – had a close eye on him. He was supposed to be in Council space, away from threats, away from her. As long as she stayed away from him, kept her feelings to herself and kept the eyes of her dangerous allies off of him, Kaidan was supposed to be safe.
Even as she thought that, she couldn’t believe she’d been so stupid. Of course that wouldn’t keep him out of harm’s way, but then, she really hadn’t been thinking clearly so far as he was concerned. She couldn’t believe she was so blind as to forget that Kaidan’s work had always been dangerous, that between the two of them, it was always a gamble if they would return to the ship alive at the end of the day.
But before, her specialized missions had been the source of the danger to them both. And so she had, without realizing it, assumed if she stayed away, he would be fine. Kaidan was an amazing soldier. He’d saved her life dozens of times with his well-timed, increasingly powerful biotics, his cleverly deployed tech attacks, his uncanny knowledge of field medicine. She couldn’t imagine any routine Alliance mission getting the better of him.
Since when does Kaidan take routine missions? She asked herself.
Her heart beat even faster.
He never did. He never had.
And now he was in the Collectors’ path.
The Collectors were an enemy far greater than Kaidan could take on alone, she realized. And if he was out on a remote colony far from Citadel space, no doubt he was alone.
“Last I knew, Kaidan was Alliance,” Shepard said, trying to control the tremor in her voice. “What’s he doing out in the Terminus Systems?”
“Officially, it’s an outreach program to improve Alliance relations with the colonies.”
“So he’s with a team,” Shepard said, relaxing a little.
“No, he’s alone as far as we can tell.”
Damn it . She sucked in a breath and tried again to steady herself.
“So he’s alone and officially his mission is some sort of PR thing. And unofficially…?”
“I don’t know,” the Illusive Man replied. “But they’re up to something. And if they sent Commander Alenko, it must be big.”
No shit , she thought. The Alliance never sent Kaidan unless they needed the heavy lifting of half-a-dozen ordinary Marines. Damn it , Shepard thought, gritting her teeth. Why hadn’t she thought of this? Why hadn’t she contacted him earlier? Why hadn’t she warned him?
*Warned him of what, Shepard? Of a danger you didn’t know was coming for him? You were too busy trying to keep him safe by * not contacting him.
For all the good that did , she thought, ruefully.
“I suggest you take it up with him,” the Illusive Man added, darkly.
“We need to send a message to the Citadel,” she said, “The Alliance can give us reinforcements.”
And, she thought, Anderson and the Council would finally get the proof they need to see that the Collectors were behind these colony attacks. She hadn’t been able to fully explain her mission with Cerberus the last time she’d spoken to them. Their concern over her Cerberus connection had sort of hijacked that conversation. But now, maybe, they would see the importance of what she was trying to accomplish – and join with her.
“Not until you investigate,” the Illusive Man said with a shake of his head. “I don’t want the Alliance getting in our way.”
“Not until I…?” Shepard felt her biotics flare all along her arms as she bit out the words. If the man had been in the room with her, she would have been tempted to throw him into the picture window behind him.
“This is my…friend were talking about down there,” she snapped. “This is a colony under attack. We need reinforcements. I’m not about to take chances with Kaidan…with Alenko’s life.”
“You don’t have time,” the Illusive Man said. “Besides, EDI has an order to keep this mission quiet. No messages will be sent to the Alliance until you’re ground side.”
“You bastard,” Shepard ground out.
“Your call, Shepard,” the Illusive Man said, his eyes narrowing. “You can do this with Cerberus or you can leave Alenko to the Collectors.”
Shepard swallowed, lifted her chin and looked down her nose at him. Something in his tone gave her pause. She knew what she had to do. And she knew that he had guessed the choice she would make before he even called her in here. Why did he keep forcing her into choices like this? Why did he seem to enjoy it so much? Was he just a prick who liked to manipulate the situation or did he like to see her squirm? Maybe both, she thought, ruefully. It was extremely unnerving.
“So the Collectors just happen to pick a colony where a member of my former crew is stationed,” she said, her voice going icy cold. “I don’t buy it, Illusive. How did they know?”
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Collectors are interested in you, especially if they’re working for the Reapers.” His eyes glittered as he added, “They might be going after him to get toyou.”
Might? She wanted to laugh. More like they must . There was no other explanation that she could think of. And they had picked a hell of a soft spot. There was no way she could leave Kaidan behind. She couldn’t on Virmire. She couldn’t now.
This could be a trap; it likely *was * a trap. Even as she thought that, she tried to tell herself to be calm, steady. There were other lives at stake here than Kaidan’s. There were the lives of her team members, the lives of her crew, of the colonists, too. Much as she would gladly sacrifice all of them for Kaidan, she knew that if she got emotional, she’d just get sloppy. Charging in without a plan was the best way to cause a massacre and lose Kaidan in the process. She had to remain calm.
Still, everything in her heart was screaming at her to get to Horizon immediately and place herself and all the resources at her command between Kaidan and the coming attack.
Her head, however, took over.
“I’ll need Mordin to deliver the counter measure,” she said. “Send us the coordinates. We’ll head right there. How far are we from the planet?”
“Only two hours,” the Illusive Man said. “That should be enough time for you to get the counter measure working and suit up.”
“That’s…convenient that we’re so close,” Shepard noted, frowning.
“Once you’re in place,” the Illusive Man said, ignoring her unspoken question, “Then I’ll send a message to the Alliance, personally, asking for back up.”
“Right,” Shepard said. She wanted to believe him, but she didn’t. They were going to do this alone, it seemed. But if Kaidan was in danger, she didn’t have time to waste arguing with the boss about reinforcements. As it was, they might already be too late.
“This is the most warning we’ve ever had, Shepard,” the Illisive Man reminded her as his glowing image flickered away. “Good luck.”