Shepard took gasping breaths, blinking furiously against the dust in her eyes. Her throat felt like it was seizing up, choked with smog and grit. Her hair whipped about her face as she sagged against the railing before her. The stench in the air was incredible.
“A maw!” Grunt cried behind her. “We took down a thresher maw!” He pounded his fists together in triumph.
“On foot,” Garrus added, coughing. He stumbled to Shepard’s side, leaning on the railing for support. “ That was nothing like old times, Shepard. We should have brought a Mako if we were going to take on a maw.”
“Mako?” Grunt snorted. “Where’s the honor in that? Hiding in a shell of steel. No, this is what it means to be truly krogan!” He pounded his chest with his fist.
“Given terrain, utility vehicle would have hampered mobility,” Mordin pointed out. His face was covered in soot from an indendiary blast that had gone up in his face when he had targeted a charging varren. “Running around more effective. Feeling winded, though.”
“Makes you feel alive, eh salarian?” Grunt grinned.
“You okay, Shepard?” Garrus asked, frowning at the commander’s silence.
“Yeah, fine,” she said. “Barriers,” she waved a hand when her throat suddenly went dry. “I’m getting used to the biotics,” she managed after a moment. “So yeah, I’m fine.”
Garrus looked at her doubtfully, then turned his attention to Mordin and Grunt. Shepard just continued to stare out across the scarred landscape of Tuchanka.
“Damn it, Kaidan,” she muttered to herself when she was sure no one was listening. “Wish you could have seen that one.”
Kaidan blinked and looked up.
“Sir?” he asked.
“I said is that all the information you have on the Reapers?” Anderson held out the datapad and tapped it with his forefinger. Kaidan struggled to bring himself back to the present. His mind had been wandering a lot lately – not to anything in particular, Kaidan thought. Just..wandering.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “That’s all I have for now.”
“That’s not much,” Anderson said, frowning. “I need to take more to the Council to get their help on this one. Between human colonies disappearing…”
“Have there been more disappearances?” Kaidan wanted to know.
“No,” Anderson said. “No, they’ve stopped for now. But still, it’s worrisome. I can’t ask for ships to guard our Terminus colonies and ask for ships to search for the Reapers at the same time. I’m torn between funding the Alliance well enough for us to adequately guard the Citadel and the outcry over the taxes needed to maintain our fleet.” Anderson sighed. “Planning for a war that no one sees coming is a damned hard business.”
Kaidan nodded. He didn’t know what to say to that. He supposed that was why Anderson was the politician and he was simply a soldier. “Anything else, sir?” he asked.
“No,” Anderson said. “Will you be taking this information to the board tonight?”
“Not tonight,” Kaidan said. “Tuesday morning.”
“Ah,” Anderson said. “That’s right – it’s Armistice Day weekend. You have plans, no doubt.”
“I do,” Kaidan said, still amazed that he did. He had spent so many Armistice Days alone – all except for one that had been spent on the Normandy. That night had been a party complete with beers and arm-wrestling with Shepard. It had been Ashley’s last night alive, come to think of it. Somehow, that was fitting, if depressing. Kaidan pushed that thought aside.
“I have a friend who’s getting married,” he told Anderson. “Tonight’s his engagement party.”
“Good luck to him,” Anderson said. “We’ll meet again after the weekend, commander.”
“Yes, sir,” Kaidan said, rising.
“And commander,” Anderson said. “I wanted to say that I’m impressed with your reports. You have a gift for words. That’s rare in our line of work.”
Kaidan shook his head. “Maybe written words, sir,” he said. “Not spoken ones.” Then he thought of the idiotic email that he had sent to Shepard, the email that was still unanswered.
“Maybe not even that,” he said added with a wry smile. “But I’m glad these reports have been of use to you.”
“They have been,” Anderson replied. “I’ve been able to gain some ground on this Reaper problem thanks to your research. We’ll keep pressing and hopefully, we’ll gain some clout with the Council.”
Kaidan nodded, but secretly, he was beginning to doubt that the Council would ever do anything. Maybe, he thought, the right answer really was to just take a ship from whomever offered it and ride off to face the problem head on.
As quickly as that thought occurred to him, Kaidan banished it. Surely the Alliance would still find a way.
“Anything else sir?” he asked.
“No. Have a good weekend, commander.”
“Sir,” Kaidan said, giving the councilor a salute.
“Dismissed,” Anderson told him.
Several hours later, Shepard sat in the mess. She was now showered, dressed and fed, and yet she couldn’t quite shake the stench of the thresher maw from her nostrils.
She looked down at her omnitool, her right hand hovering above the keypad. She’d had it open for almost twenty minutes now, but had composed only a few lines. Out of curiosity, Shepard flipped back through several half-finished letters, all archived in her private folder. As she did so, she wondered how, exactly, she had ever become the sort of person who wrote so much drivel.
I missed you so much today. Well, I miss you every day, but –
That message had cut off abruptly, as Shepard had suddenly been unable to complete that thought. Her omnitool might be encrypted, but that didn’t mean she wanted written evidence of her feelings on it. The other emails were a little less sentimental:
Remember when I used to terrorize Garrus with my driving in the Mako? You should have seen him today in the Hammerhead. I thought he was going to puke when I jumped us over a lava flow. But we lived – barely.
And then there were the angry emails:
I nearly died from a rocket today. Garrus is a lousy field medic and Mordin says I’m going to have a permanent scar on my side.
You should have been there. Asshole.
Then there was the email from today:
Saw Wrex today. His excuse for not joining us made a hell of a lot more sense than yours did. He asked after you and wished us good hunting.
That was rather oversimplifying what had happened on Tunchanka, she realized. When they returned from Grunt’s rite of passage to the Urdnot camp, they’d found Wrex waiting for them, grinning happily from his garbage heap like some post-apocalyptic king. Shepard had been about to speak to him when EDI’s polite voice came over the comm link. Given the rust and rot of their surroundings, EDI’s voice seemed almost antiseptic by comparison.
“Killing the thresher maw has produced several breeding requests for Grunt,” the AI informed the ground team. “And one for Shepard.”
“What?” Shepard gaped, just as Grunt laughed a singular, “Hah!”
From his makeshift throne, Wrex grinned and shook his head.
“Do they think you’re a krogan?” Garrus asked, frowning at Shepard.
“They must,” Shepard said, trying to hold back laughter. “Or maybe they think human women are like asari and can mate with anything.” Garrus appeared a little ill at the thought. Wrex just laughed.
“Should I turn that request down for you?” he asked her, humor glinting in his large, red eyes.
“God yes,” Shepard replied.
“Heh,” Wrex chuckled, “I imagine Alenko wouldn’t approve of your breeding with anyone but him.”
And just like that, the stifling air of Tuchanka had felt a little chilly. Shepard blinked at the krogan, stunned. She had entirely forgotten about that incident where Wrex had caught Kaidan about to kiss her down in the cargo bay. She stared into empty space, derailed by that memory.
“Don’t tell me the two of you haven’t had a child yet,” Wrex went on, oblivious to her distress.
“I’ve been in a coma for the last two years, Wrex,” Shepard told him, dragging herself back to the present. “Or had you forgotten?”
“You were out for two years?” the krogan asked. “Your secondary nervous system must have taken a beating.”
“Uh, Wrex,” Shepard said, shifting uncomfortably, “Humans don’t have organ redundancy.”
“Huh,” Wrex said, considering that. “Then how did you manage to live?”
Shepard sighed. “Short version? Major re-constructive surgery.”
“Impressive,” Wrex said. “So – can you still breed?”
“I don’t know,” Shepard had said, eager to end that line of questioning. “Haven’t tested it out, exactly.”
“Now why’s that?” Wrex pressed, frowning at her. “Alenko’s not still stuck on those Alliance-clan regulations, is he? I would have figured by now he would have gotten as horny as a varren in a…”
Garrus make a sort of choking sound and Shepard cut Wrex off before he could finish whatever simile he’d been cooking up.
“Again, short version,” she interrupted, “is that he’s not with us. He took issue with the fact that Cerberus is funding our mission and stuck by the Alliance.”
“He left you?” Wrex frowned at her.
“Failed to come with us, yes,” Shepard said, lifting her chin. She was still angry at Kaidan, but she found herself defending him all the same. It was one thing for her to think he was a jerk for not being here, another thing entirely for Wrex to say so before others.
“He left his battlemaster?” Wrex asked, his voice incredulous. “His female? Then he’s stupider than I took him for.”
“Wrex,” Shepard snapped. “The Alliance is his clan.”
“Why didn’t you offer to have his child?” Wrex asked her. “That ought to have kept him with you.”
Shepard sputtered something. She couldn’t remember what it was now, but the words, “Shut up,” and “Doesn’t work like that “had been in there somewhere.
“Hmm…” Wrex had said, watching her face. “You can head-butt a warrior like Uvenk and take down a threser maw on foot, but mention of Alenko makes you as jumpy as a pyjack at the sight of garbage. Must be the human in you, Shepard.”
“Drop it, Wrex,” she snapped. Wrex grinned as though she had just proven his point.
“I should go,” she told him. “We have other things to do.”
“Sure thing,” Wrex had said, shrugging his massive shoulders. “But Shepard, think about breeding before too long. You’re getting old.”
“You sure do know how to charm the ladies, Wrex,” she said, giving him a mock salute. “Must’ve been why they made you the battlemaster.”
Wrex just snorted in reply.
Grunt declined to come with them, instead requesting to spend the evening in the female camp. Shepard had managed to hide her reaction to the idea of a month-old krogan getting free access to the entire Urdnot harem and wished him luck. She had to admit it was highly amusing when Mordin gave the young krogan advice on how to enjoy himself. Grunt listened to Mordin rather eagerly: apparently the fact that the professor was a salarian and a-hormonal did not overshadow the fact that he was quite knowledgeable about krogan reproduction. Garrus had rather loudly ignored the conversation by talking with Wrex about old times. Shepard had listened in with half an ear on each conversation.
After that, she, Garrus and Mordin had gone on to another part of Tuchanka and taken care of Mordin’s little problem. That hadn’t gone as she’d expected, to say the least. The end result made her jumpy, made her wonder once again if she’d made the right choice or just the sentimental one. Yet, at least they had gotten through that incident with a minimum of bloodshed.
She and Garrus and Mordin had then returned to the ship, leaving Grunt in the Urdnot camp for the night. Garrus and Mordin went their separate ways and Shepard had taken a great deal of pleasure in going up to her quarters and getting clean again. Tuchanka made her feel grimy in a way that even Omega had failed to accomplish. She had then come down to the mess and eaten dinner with some of the squad. Thane and Samara had talked at length about philosophy and Tali had chatted with a few of the techs about the upgrades to the engines. It never failed to amuse Shepard the attention that Tali got from human men – especially the more tech-than-soldier types. Shepard had thought it was simply Tali’s intelligence that was the attraction, until she overheard one of the techs sighing, “Those hips .” Shepard had simply shaken her head and decided that she just didn’t get men.
It was a pleasant evening, all in all. On the old Normandy, Shepard had always matched her meal schedule to Kaidan’s and the two of them sometimes ate alone, but often had been joined by a small crowd of other crew. Before today, however, Shepard had always eaten separately from the new Normandy crew. She wasn’t sure if that was because the Cerberus folks generally avoided her, or she had chosen a strange schedule. She hadn’t really noticed until recently, when she realized she needed to get to know these people better.
This evening, Shepard had also found that her distance from the crew had only built her up as a legend in everyone’s eyes. At first, the people sitting near her had almost been too nervous to talk to her, but then Tali had shown up. The quarian’s cheerful chatter had finally drawn the crew into conversation with the commander. Then a few of the former Alliance folks had come out and asked Shepard about her hunt for Saren. She’d answered their questions, then swiftly turned the conversation away from herself and asked the crew about their histories. The result was that her systems crew had opened up on just about everything and Shepard now felt pretty well up-to-date on what was going on below decks. All she needed now was to check in with Kasumi and she figured she’d be up to speed on all the ship’s gossip.
The crew had then dispersed for the night, leaving Shepard at the table alone. She had poured herself a coffee and pulled out her omnitool. Sadly, the quiet hum of the engines and the solitude had failed to give her any insight as to how to get any of these messages to Kaidan - not that she would have had any idea which one to send, even if she had some way to do so.
Yet another dead end today. After tracking those scientists all over the traverse, we found their bodies. I only wish we could have gotten there sooner.
I am working with the most diabolical organization ever, I swear to God. The Illusive Prick had the gall to question the way I dealt with our last mission – but he keeps questioning me in emails, since he can’t be bothered to explain himself to my face. And I thought the Council was bad.
The problem with these emails, unfortunately, was that Shepard knew her ramblings had gotten into more and more classified data each day. There was also a lot of love-lorn garbage packed into the files as well. She had realized she would never actually send most of these careless, intimate letters. Instead, they had become more like a journal of her travels, a pathetic picture of a lonely, rather unstable woman hiding behind a mask of strength.
I’m going to have to step it up and be the commander. It’s hard because Miranda is not exactly the XO that you were. Or that Presley was, since technically, he was the XO, wasn’t he? Anyhow. I miss your competence. Among other things.
After today, I feel like my brain has gone to pieces. Well, it sort of did, thanks to this crazy Cerberus project thing. I wish you were here to remind me that I’m still myself…
Do you have a thing for asari? I mean, you said you didn’t, but all guys do, right? Well, today I met this asari and I think I kind of get it now…
Shepard shivered as she re-read that last one. She didn’t want to re-live the memory of Morinth again and hastily moved on to the last message, the one she’d started a few days ago. She might actually send this one – if she could ever find a private extranet terminal and a non-Cerberus account to use:
We’re on our way to the Citadel now. I am going to talk to Anderson, to see if I can convince the Alliance to help us after all.
Kaidan, I’m worried that I may not be coming back from this last trip - though I’m not about to tell the crew that. I’m also torn between asking you to come with me and wanting you to stay where things are safe.
Is there any way I can convince you to forgive me before I go?
“How’s it going, commander?”
The drawl of Mess Sergent Gardiner surprised Shepard out of her reverie. She shut down her omnitool and looked up at him with a rather weak smile.
“Well enough,” she replied. “You?”
“I’m fine,” he said. He nodded at her arm. “You spend an awful lot of time on that omnitool of yours. Mission reports are a bitch, huh?”
“Ah, yeah,” Shepard said, her smile becoming brittle.
“Well then,” he said, hauling himself into a chair and setting down his dinner, “Allow me to interrupt you if I may.” Shepard nodded, then looked at the man’s meal in curiosity. It appeared to be leftovers from the past week, all mixed together. Maybe that was the smell she’d mistaken for a thresher maw, she thought.
“Saw you eating with the crew,” Gardiner observed.
“Yeah,” Shepard replied.
“You know,” the mess sergeant went on, “I’m glad you’re eating with people. As the commander of a ship, you’ve got to keep your distance and all. I understand that. But I’m glad you’ve come down and gotten to know this crew. They’re good folks. And it’s good to see you’re not alone anymore.”
There was a world of difference between being alone and eating with people, Shepard thought, but she decided not to point that out.
“Me,” Gardiner went on, “I thought you would have found someone to talk to a long time ago. You know, someone like Jacob or Kenneth. Or maybe you prefer asari.”
Shepard nearly choked on her coffee. “Are you trying to set me up with someone, Gardiner?”
“Shit no,” he said. “Though if I thought you were up for it, I might try my luck and make a play for you myself.” He winked at her and Shepard just laughed. Gardiner reminded her very much of the men who used to hang out around the shipping depot on Mindoir, flirtatious humor and all.
“I thought you were interested in Doctor Chakwas,” Shepard replied, watching carefully for his reaction. As she suspected, Gardiner blushed a deep red from his throat to the top of his bald head.
“Naw,” he said, averting his eyes. “That woman’s too smart and straight-laced for the likes of me.”
“She is smart,” Shepard agreed. “But she might surprise you about the rest of it. I’ve seen you watching her through that window all evening,” she added, nodding at the med bay.
“Damn,” Gardiner shook his head. “I should know better than to think you hadn’t noticed. You see everything on this ship, don’t you?”
Shepard shook her head. “Not everything. Not by a long shot. But I did notice you looking at Chakwas.”
“Enough about me, commander,” Gardiner coughed. “What about you? Who are you keeping an eye out for?”
“Me?” Shepard shook her head. “No one.”
Gardiner didn’t look like he was buying it. “Is that because there is no one, or he’s just not here? Or she’s not here?”
“He,” she said, chuckling a little. “It was a he, Gardiner. And he’s elsewhere.”
“What’s he like?” Gardiner asked, taking a bite of his messy leftovers. “A muscles-and-guns marine? Or the quiet type?”
“A marine,” Shepard replied. “Not so much the muscles type. I mean, he had them. Muscles that is. He just didn’t call much attention to the fact.”
“Ah,” Gardiner said, “The strong-but-silent type then.”
“Not exactly,” Shepard said. “He talked – to me, anyway. He was just…cautious.”
“Hmmm…” the mess sergeant said. “Well, with how full of fire you are, commander, I can see why that didn’t work out.”
“Didn’t work…?” Shepard broke off, looking at him in surprise. She felt suddenly hurt, though she suddenly felt silly for that.
“I guess maybe it it didn’t work out,” she said quietly.
“Shit,” Gardiner said, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No,” Shepard said, waving a hand. “It’s okay. I just ought to get back to work. I have a lot to do.”
“Mission reports?” Gardiner asked.
“Among other things,” she replied. “I should go.”
“Who will talk to me while I eat my dinner then?” Gardiner wanted to know.
“Go talk to Chakwas,” Shepard suggested with a smile. Gardiner glanced at the medbay window, where Chakwas was sitting at her computer, her back ramrod straight.
“Naw,” he said. “She’s busy.”
“I don’t think any Brit is ever too busy for a cup of tea,” Shepard told him. Gardiner didn’t say anything, but seemed to consider her words.
“You know,” Shepard said. “I really shouldn’t encourage fraternization. But I don’t think it would hurt to take the doctor a cup of tea. She works awfully hard and I know she’d appreciate it.”
“The tea, maybe,” the mess sergeant said. “But not some crusty old coot like me.”
“Hey,” she said with a shrug. “Crusty old coots are better than being alone. Especially ones that can cook. Look Gardiner, if I can branch out and talk to the crew, maybe you should, too.”
She gave him a wink, and left him to ponder her suggestion.
The Illusive Man stared at the holographic display before him, his expression blank.
“I can’t figure it out,” the voice from the holograph was saying. “He uses encrypted tech and we can’t break the pass codes. But the one time we stole a look at his datapad, it was nothing but that new Ascension novel. He’s in an average apartment next to the elcor ambassador, but it has security locks on the door like you wouldn’t believe. He’s in the middle of the goddamn Presidium every day, but so far, we can’t find anything on him. Either he really is just an assistant, writing speeches for Anderson, or…”
“Or he’s better at keeping secrets than we thought,” the Illusive Man finished.
“Should I deal with him, sir?”
“In what way?” the Illusive Man said, raising an eyebrow. “In the way you dealt with Kahoku? That was a mess and you know it. We don’t need any more dead officers that could be traced back to us.”
The Illusive Man took a drag from his cigarette and blew out a line of smoke. “Commander Alenko is low on my list of concerns right now. Besides, I want to keep him around. He’s something of a backup plan, as it were. He’s earnest, he’s skilled, and he’s human.” The Illusive Man considered the cigarette in his hand and added in an undertone, “He also has ties to Shepard than run deeper than I suspected at first.”
The Illusive Man lifted his head and spoke up. “Commander Alenko might – under the right circumstances – be persuaded to join us. Shepard might convince him, but we’ll have to convince her, first. That would be quite the coup, would it not? The both of them on our side? So for now, I want him alive.”
“Yes, sir,” came the reply. “Your orders?”
“Our primary mission will soon be entering a delicate phase. As much as I value him as a potential recruit, Commander Alenko could become a distraction at this point. I need you to be ready to keep him busy when I give the word.”
“Busy? Busy how?”
“Tied up in meetings,” the Illusive Man said, flicking ash into his ashtray. “Forced to submit reports on his findings about the Collectors. I’m sure you can think of something. Keep him on the Presidium and out of the Wards – and away from Anderson’s office.”
“It’s Armistice Day weekend,” the voice replied. “That’s going to make it difficult…”
“Just do it.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to keep him quiet in another way? Not…killing him maybe. But we could have him transferred – demoted even.”
“No,” the Illusive Man said, sharply. “At best, he’ll alert the Council to the Reaper threat. If he does that, then he’ll pull off what none of the rest of us have been able to accomplish. For that alone, I want him where he is and I want his reputation intact. At the worst, he’s curious about us and Shepard, but that’s not going to get him anywhere – not right now. Just be ready to keep him out of the Wards. I have a certain person coming to the Citadel that I don’t want him to run into.”
“And who is that?”
“I think you know her,” the Illusive Man said, a smile curling on his lips. “A certain Commander Shepard is on her way back to Council space. Block her access to the Presidum when she arrives on the Citadel, admiral. I’m sure you can manage some sort of military oversight regarding her paperwork. Just make sure she stays in the Wards and Alenko stays on the Presidium. That ought to keep everything running as it should. As Shepard picks up speed, I need to keep her path clear from any…stumbling blocks.”
“Understood, sir,” came the reply.
The Illusive Man blew out a cloud of smoke and grinned as the holograph flickered away.