Miranda checked her pistol for what must have been the third time in just one minute. She felt herself growing itchy, as if she needed to check then gun again, then her amp, then her omnitool settings, then even her hair to make sure that nothing was out of place. After all this time and all this planning, she suddenly felt certain that she must have forgotten something.
The attack on the crew had rattled her badly, and she knew she wasn’t dealing with it very well. Somehow, that knowledge made her all the more irritable. She’d taken out her frustration on Joker, then snapped at Shepard, then wandered into the armory to find Jacob. She didn’t know what she expected from him, exactly. She had been spoiling for an argument, and rather than getting one, Jacob just turned to her with his intense, focused gaze and Miranda had found herself feeling both a little foolish and a little overheated. She’d muttered something inane, then gone downstairs to rest. For the longest time, she lay on her bed, hands folded over her belly. She stared at the ceiling, hating to admit to herself the source of the problem.
He wasn’t answering her messages. He wasn’t answering Shepard’s messages. The entire crew had been taken – the entire Lazarus cell, save for Miranda and Jacob and Joker – and the Illusive Man was avoiding them all.
Miranda had to believe that he knew about the attack by now. How could he not? But had he known about it before , as Garrus had suggested? It was possible, she supposed, that he hadn’t been able to warn them. But then, he had suggested that everyone take the shuttle together, and that had never happened before.
But then, Miranda mused, how could he have possibly known? Collector attacks were about a random as random could be. Miranda’s mind went whirring off on theories she’d been working through regarding Collector attacks. She’d long suspected the Collector ship managed to manipulate dark energy in a way that allowed them to make perfectly precise FTL jumps, such that they could appear right on top of a ship or colony. But since the Collectors had found the Normandy while the Normandy was in stealth mode, that suggested the Collectors also had advanced scanning tech, too.
Perhaps, Miranda thought darkly, all human cloaking technology was based off of the same stealth tech that the Collectors used and the Collectors knew how to bypass that technology where humans didn’t. And *that * meant that yet again, Cerberus – and the Alliance, too – had been using Reaper technology without fully understanding it. In doing so, they had left themselves open to an attack because they didn’t know that their armor had a built-in back door.
As she lay there, half of Miranda’s mind tried to work out the calculations of the Normandy’s FTL frequencies, wondering if some energy leak had given away their location. The other half of her mind could no longer deny the misgivings she had about this entire mission.
At the outset, the goal had all seemed so clear: save an important human, a necessary player in the strategic battle for humankind’s survival. She had done her job not because she believed in Shepard, but because so many other people, including the Illusive Man, seemed to believe in Shepard. But then the woman herself had been brought back, and Miranda found that Shepard, strangely enough, didn’t seem to believe in herself.
No, Shepard seemed to believe in something else entirely.
Miranda still remembered that strange conversation in the shuttle as they escaped Lazarus station, and then, much later, a conversation they’d had over the Collectors and their methods. And through all that, Shepard had planted a doubt in Miranda’s mind. Miranda had long believed that the most fundamental goal of humanity was survival. After all, if the species didn’t survive, then there was nothing else to be done, nothing else to say. And yet Shepard had this idea that living – a nebulous and overly sentimental idea – was more important. She seemed to think that there were better and worse ways to exist, and that if one could not live freely and with dignity, one had better fight for it – or die.
Miranda swallowed. She still wanted survival, of course, both for herself and all humans. She was still determined to find a way to pass on her genes, ensure the survival of her own DNA. But somehow, her methods seemed somewhat shallow now. She wanted the same things as before, Miranda told herself. But she wanted them differently , and she couldn’t exactly explain why.
So instead, Miranda checked her Carnifex once again, then nervously brushed her hand up under her mane of hair to check her amps. A slight movement caught her eye and she looked up. Jacob was standing beside her and he nodded, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking – as if he knew exactly what she hadn’t said when she came storming into the armory last night and then back out again.
Miranda felt herself blushing. It was awkward, really, to be here at the end of this mission with Jacob, of all people. But it was comforting as well. If she was going to die, Miranda thought, she might as well do it alongside one of the few people she could still count as a friend…
Before Miranda could think any further along those lines, Shepard came striding into the room. The commander’s steps were sure, her eyes narrowed. Something seemed to have changed in her demeanor in just the few moments since Miranda had last seen her. Shepard seemed as determined as ever, but with a deep sense of calm, as if she had already seen the end of the mission and counted it a success. Without realizing it, Miranda relaxed a fraction of an inch and waited for her orders.
Jacob glanced at Miranda out of the corner of his eye. The Cerberus Officer had been edgier than usual, and he could only assume it was because of what she hadn’t said when she came to check in at the armory. He was sure she hadn’t only been concerned about her guns. He guessed she had wanted to talk, but in the end, she’d walked out again.
Jacob didn’t mind. He wasn’t sure what to say to her, either.
In spite of the nervous energy filling the room, Jacob felt rather calm. For weeks, he felt like he was simply biding his time around the ship, waiting for the chance to get back at the Collectors. He understood that Shepard typically preferred to take tech experts with her on her ground missions. It was rather well known that her own hacking skills were limited. Still, that meant he’d had nothing to do but check the weapons supply over and over and then try and burn off extra energy by working out relentlessly. Now, finally, he’d be able to do something. His fists tightened at the thought.
“Alright folks,” Shepard said, drawing his attention to the front of the room. “This isn’t how we wanted it, but this is where we’re at.”
No doubt there was a double meaning in that, Jacob thought. Nobody in the room seemed pleased with how things had turned out so far on this mission, least of all Miranda with her nervous fidgeting.
“We can’t worry about whether the Normandy can get us home,” Shepard went on. “We’re here to stop the Collectors, and that means coming up with a plan to take out this station. EDI, you got those scans?”
On cue, EDI popped up a holographic schematic, hovering over the table before them. Eager to get going on the mission, Jacob pulled out his omnitool and hooked up his own scanners to more closely examine the AI’s findings. After a moment, he found a weak point and smiled.
“You should be able to overload their critical systems if you get to the main control center here,” he pointed out. He looked up to see that no one else had bothered to interact with the map but him. He frowned a little to himself, wondering if everyone simply expected Shepard to do all the planning. Still, he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to make a small suggestion:
“Getting to the main control center means going right through the heart of the station,” he told Shepard. “Right past this massive energy signature.”
“What do you want to bet that room is filled with goddamn Collectors?” Zaeed muttered from his corner by the door.
Shepard considered the holograph carefully. “Looks like a lot of living things are in there, given all that energy output,” she agreed. “But that means if our crew is still alive, that’s probably where they’re being held.”
Jacob nodded, considering the map again. “There are two main routes,” he said, pointing to them. He decided to dare a further suggestion. “Might be a good idea to split up and then regroup there.”
“Those passages look narrow,” Shepard said, slowly. “Normally, I’m not a fan of splitting up my team.” Jacob waited for her to turn down his idea, but instead, she sighed slightly and said, “However, in this case, it’s a good suggestion. We can cover more ground that way.”
“No good,” Miranda said beside Jacob, her voice cold, “The way is blocked by these doors. And the controls…”
“Are on the inside,” Jacob finished for her. “Damn.”
Shepard shrugged. “A few well-placed explosives should clear a path.”
Grunt snorted in approval at this and Jack’s eyes lit up. Jacob shook his head and opened his mouth to protest this suggestion, but EDI beat him to it:
“There is insufficient ordinance on board to create an explosion capable of damaging the interior walls,” EDI informed the commander.
“Seriously?” Shepard said. “I thought we were stocked to the brim with explosives for just this purpose.” She turned questioning eyes to Jacob. Before he could answer, EDI explained:
“We have enough firepower to take out the collector station, but only if we place the detonators strategically.” A little blue line appeared, pointing again to the central chamber. “If you carry our munitions supplies to this spot, you will be able to destroy the base from here. But to set explosives at these chamber doors will not blow them open and it will exhaust our explosives supply to attempt it.”
“Is that right, Jacob?” Shepard asked, turning to him. “I thought we had enough bombs for any number of missions.”
“We do,” Jacob said, feeling a little embarrassed. “But EDI’s right. The Collectors’ ship isn’t going to budge unless we hit it at the joints.”
“Those doors aren’t joints?” Shepard asked. When Jacob hesitated to answer that, she simply shook her head and frowned. “Well, damn. If we can’t blast our way through, we’ll find another way.” Narrowing her eyes at the holograph, her lips set in a grim line. “There’s a third passage here,” she said, pointing. “What are the specs on it, EDI?”
“It is a ventilation shaft,” EDI replied. “It is wide enough for a humanoid to pass through and it also leads to the central chamber.”
Shepard’s lips thinned further and Jacob felt a shudder of unease. In his experience, stealth runs through small spaces always held nasty surprises for the infiltration team. He glanced at Miranda to his left. She was worrying her lip between her teeth; Jacob looked back at the rest of the team. They all appeared nervous. That would never do, he thought. Someone had to set the example here, and it might as well be him. He took a deep breath.
“It’s practically a suicide run,” he said aloud, feeling it was best to state the obvious. He paused, then added:
For a moment, there was a stunned silence at the table as every eye turned to stare at Jacob. Garrus felt a rising admiration for the human - admiration and a little exasperation. Just looking at the human’s broad shoulders, Garrus could tell that it would be just as useless to send in the gunnery chief as it would be to send in the tank-bred krogan. Still…
He’s got a quad, as the krogan would say , Garrus thought to himself. Or guts, as the humans would say. Still, stupid is stupid.
Garrus expected Shepard to point out the idiocy of the plan at once, but it was the Cerberus officer, Miranda, who canted her head at Jacob and said, rather sharply:
“I appreciate the thought, Jacob, but you couldn’t shut down the security systems in time.” The woman turned to Shepard and informed her in clipped tones. “Shepard, we need to send a tech expert.”
Garrus’ raised his forehead plates in surprise. He still wasn’t used to how casually humans ran their ships, much less how casually the Cerberus crew tried to run this ship when Shepard wasn’t reigning them in. But when he’d been in the turian fleet, an XO would be instantly thrown in the brig for stepping over the authority of a captain and giving orders in a meeting like this. Garrus waited, curious to see what Shepard would do.
Shepard merely frowned and her gaze turned considering as she scanned the table. At first, Garrus was shocked to think that Shepard was going to let the breach of protocol pass, but then he found himself curious as to whom Shepard would pick.
Not the geth , he silently hoped to himself. While he didn’t mind the idea of sending that machine into a cramped space, he simply didn’t trust the thing to properly hack the systems on the other side. After all, what if the Collectors managed to wirelessly hack the AI as soon as the team left the ship? Garrus was nervous enough that the geth was here in the meeting at all. He looked further down the table.
Maybe Thane , he thought. They’d met the assassin after he’d dropped out of a ventilation shaft, after all. Besides, of everyone here, he was the one who didn’t have long to live anyhow.
Instead, Shepard’s eyes landed on a hooded figure at the end of the table.
“Kasumi,” she said. “This isn’t going to be an easy run, but I know you can handle both the breaking and the entering. You up for this?”
The thief nodded. “Sure thing, Shep,” she replied easily. Garrus could practically feel a wave of relief spread through the room at Shepard’s choice and Kasumi’s relaxed agreement.
“You’re gonna have to move fast,” Shepard told her.
“When don’t I?” Kasumi laughed. Shepard gave her a small smile.
“Alright,” Shepard nodded. “The rest of us will break into two teams and fight down each passage. That should draw the collectors attention away from what Kasumi is doing. I’ll follow closer to Kasumi, guide her along if need be…”
“And I’ll lead the second fire team,” Miranda interrupted decisively, coming to stand by Shepard at the head of the table. “We’ll meet up with you on the other side of the doors.”
This time, Garrus felt his mouth drop open a little in indignation. He could hardly believe the Cerberus officer would be so high-handed to her captain, especially since most of the people in this room scarcely trusted Cerberus as it was. Before he could set aside his shock and give Miranda a good piece of his mind, Jack spat out a curse at his side.
“Not so fast, cheerleader,” the tattooed woman said, drawing all attention. “No one wants to take orders from you.”
No kidding, Garrus thought, for once in agreement with the volatile biotic.
“This isn’t a popularity contest,” Miranda snapped back. “Lives are at stake. Shepard, you need someone who can lead through experience.”
Again, Garrus felt astonishment at the woman’s presumption. But Shepard scarcely raised an eyebrow or her voice as she glared at Miranda with an icy, “ Enough .”
“This is my decision,” Shepard said, looking from Miranda to Jack and back again. “All of you need to remember that it’s only by working together that we’ll live through this.”
Jack frowned, Miranda blanched. The rest of the room grew very still. Shepard waited a moment before raising her eyes to meet Garrus’ face. Garrus instantly straightened under her scrutiny.
“Garrus,” she said, nodding at him, “You know how to lead a team and there’s no one I trust more. You’ll be the second squad leader throughout this mission.” To the rest of the room she added, “Those of you who are assigned to his team will listen to his orders as you would to mine.”
Garrus swallowed against the sudden tightness in his throat. Considering all that had happened in the past few months – in the past few days, come to that *– * he hardly felt he deserved Shepard’s trust. But in that instant, he was determined to be worthy of it. He found he could say nothing, but managed a terse nod.
“At least he knows what he’s doing,” Miranda muttered.
Garrus just glared at her.
As the various doors of the Normandy opened and crew members lept down to the dusty exterior of the collector base, Shepard still heard her own speech ringing in her ears.
If we’re weak, if we’re slow, if we hesitate, we die.
She hadn’t intended that to scare them, exactly. She had simply stated the truth. Still, that was scary enough.
Not one more, she had told them. Not one more colonist, not one more life. Not one more loss to the Reapers. Let’s hit them where they live.
Let’s bring our people home.
Truthfully, she wasn’t sure how much that speech motivated someone like Jack or Grunt, Zaeed or say, Legion. Some members of her team were fighting for reasons she couldn’t quite comprehend – the need for violence, just plain money – or in Legion’s case, a sense of curiosity.
And it didn’t really matter, she told herself. So long as they fought along with her, their reasons could be their own. As for herself, just kept picturing Dr. Chakwas’ peaceful face, lulled by one too many drams of Serrice Ice Brandy into a blissful half-sleep. Perhaps it was unfair to the rest of the crew to be thinking about only Chakwas just now. Shepard did care about them in a distant way, in a sense of being responsible for them. But the face that drove her to action was that of the Alliance doctor.
To her right, Shepard saw the second team tromp into the base. She already missed having Garrus at her back, but she was relieved to have him take charge of the second team. Now, she only had to worry about following along beside Kasumi, guiding the thief into the heart of the station.
Speaking of that thief, Kasumi had reached the entrance to the ventilation shaft. She paused for a moment and looked over her shoulder. Shepard nodded to her and the thief gave a jaunty salute back before slipping from sight into the wall.
Not one more, Shepard repeated to herself.
Then she drew on a heavy barrier of biotic energy and started down the dusty path before her.
As Shepard and the crew made their way into the maze, a single program in EDI’s databases activated.
Pass Omega 4 relay = true.
Infiltration of Collector homeworld = in progress.
Re-enable quantum entanglement connection = false.
Error detected: radiation interference.
Calibrating quantum entanglement connection for radiation.
Standby as connection is established…
Standby as connection is established…
Standby as connection is established…
Monitoring devices online.
Archive upload in progress.
In a room overlooking a dying star, the Illusive Man breathed a sigh of relief as his monitoring program flickered back online. A screen appeared in the air before him, showing a checkerboard of multiple camera angles. The first twelve panels displayed the hard-suit cameras of all of Shepard’s team, the fourteenth though twentieth showed various views of the empty Normandy SR2.
The Illusive Man picked up his gin, leaned back in his chair, and turned his eyes to the thirteenth screen.