Connect

Part 4, Chapter 4 of Valkyrie

invasion day, 0830 hours


Dr. Liara T’Soni frowned at the message on the computer screen:

Data transfer aborted.

Unable to establish a connection.

“Strange,” she murmured to herself. It seemed the static coming from the Archives was still causing problems for offworld communications. Odd how the static had increased steadily in the last few days. Usually, it only lasted for a few hours. Unfortunately, that meant her last message to Admiral Hackett hadn’t gone through.

Sitting at the desk in her room, Liara logged into her research terminal down at the Mars dig site. A few clicks gained her remote access to her data and she attempted to send the files to Hackett a second time.

Communications link not found.

Sol comm buoy offline.

Liara blinked. That couldn’t be right. Quickly configuring her message settings, Liara had the computer hail a different buoy than the one it usually used. There was no reply. Growing more worried now, Liara pinged the next buoy and the next, until she had worked her way through all six communications devices in the local cluster. None of them could connect to the communications network that piggybacked off of the mass relay system. From here, Liara couldn’t tell if the problem was related to the Mars static, or to the Sol comms themselves.

A terrible suspicion flickered at the back of her mind. The memory was no more than a faint whisper, like a landscape * * seen through a mirror and out a window - far off, reversed, confused. By connecting to Shepard’s mind, Liara had once seen visions of the Reapers, of death and fire and empty worlds. And in the visions, before the bloodbath began, there was always a brief but terrible silence.

It couldn’t be , Liara thought with a shiver. Not yet. Surely we have more time.

With a slight pursing of her lips, she tried to send her message again.

*Error. *

File system unreachable.

*Connection to MarsResearchNet has been lost. *

“Blast!” Liara exclaimed. Now her connection to the dig site computers had gone down as well. She had some of her files backed up here on her personal computer, but not the most recent ones - and not the most important ones. Dr. Harrison, curse him, had insisted upon keeping critical project data housed in dig site computers, where there was less chance of a security breach. Liara understood his concern about losing important information to an enemy - or an academic rival - but now his caution was going to cost her the morning. It would take at least an hour to get through the security checkpoints and tram systems that guarded the dig site.

And yet, Liara thought with a roll of her eyes, Cameron Harrison hadn’t been quite so cautious last night when Dr. Eva Coré left the Archives. The man had actually left his datapad out in plain sight in his haste to catch up with the woman on her way to dinner. Liara had to log him out and lock down the door after. But then, Dr. Coré had that effect on the male researchers - some of the women, too. Liara, however, found the impossibly proportioned doctor both cold and unoriginal. She was probably just here to try and steal a thesis out from under some unsuspecting scientist.

Well, Liara thought with a frown, if she couldn’t access the bulk of her files, there was only one thing to be done. She had to get down to the archives and back up her data to her omnitool directly. After that, she needed to get far enough away from the archives to get free of the static surrounding the facility and attempt to send her message to Hackett again. Perhaps, she could borrow a shuttle from the docking bay and fly up into orbit for a few hours. That ought to tell her if the connection problem was limited to Mars - or threatened all of the Local Cluster.

Liara pushed back her chair and walked to the door. She was reaching for the latch when she heard it: the distinct sound of a heatsink being popped into a gun. At once, she froze, her hand an inch from the door. The latch panel remained green for one moment, then suddenly turned orange.

The doors slid open upon the sight of a primed rifle and a suit of white armor. Liara reacted instantly: she swept her arm up to the ceiling and a wave of blue energy followed her hand. A stasis field froze the trooper in place, like a statue. Liara had just enough time to register the black-and-gold insignia on his armor before she heard footsteps clattering down the hall.

Two more troopers rounded the corner. One shouted and pointed at her, the other just lifted his gun. Liara flung a pulse of energy right into the stasis field she had created. The trapped soldier’s body exploded in a burst of blue electricity and red blood; the shockwave knocked the other two troopers back. Liara slammed her hand into the panel on the wall and the door slid shut. With a few flicks of her fingers, she locked the door.

Cerberus. Damn.

What they wanted here, Liara hadn’t a clue. But she wasn’t about to stick around and see if they wanted her dead or as a hostage. Spinning around, her eyes immediately went to the ventilation shaft in the corner of her room. Years of living on the run from the Shadow Broker and then several months being the Shadow Broker had taught her to always have an escape route.

Swiftly, Liara grabbed her computer and smashed it on the floor. The circuits flickered for a moment before the haptic display winked out. Some vital data lost, she thought coldly, but nothing irreplaceable. Her important data was down in the Archives and her important Shadow Broker hardware was in storage in the cargo bay, all misleadingly labeled as ‘Volus Genealogies Vol I-CXIV.’ With any luck, Cerberus would walk right by them without thinking twice.

Striding to the bed, Liara yanked a box from underneath. She drew out a pistol and shoved in four heatsinks, one after the other. Behind her, she could hear an ominous, yet familiar, thumping at the door. It sounded like the troopers were putting adhesive explosives on the metal instead of attempting to hack the lock. That was sloppy, Liara thought with a raised eyebrow. By the time they realized her body wasn’t in here, she could be halfway to the archives. Provided they didn’t already have control of the tramway, of course. And provided she didn’t run into more of them.

Liara heard a telltale beeping sound on the other side of the door. Ah, yes. Contraband terminus explosives for the assassin on a budget. She had used that model herself once. And if memory served, the charges would take at least sixty more seconds to detonate. That was plenty of time for an escape.

Without a backward glance, Liara went to the corner vent, yanked the grate from the wall and slid inside.


invasion day, 0850 hours


Kaidan stood on the deck, arms resting on the railing as he waited for his shuttle. Apparently, things were running a little behind schedule over at HQ. He’d been out here long enough that his ears were freezing, even though he’d turned up the collar of his jacket against the wind.

Before him, the sun blinked wearily as it rose above the mountains to the east. It left a smattering of golden ripples on the water, a shimmering pathway that led toward Lion’s Gate Bridge and Burrard Inlet beyond. In the cool, clear morning, he could see all the way across the English Bay, could even make out the comm towers and the cluster of buildings that made up the Alliance Command complex. And yet…

“So close, and yet so far away,” Kaidan muttered.

Because even though Kaidan knew that Shepard was in a cell over there somewhere, he obviously couldn’t see her from this distance. And once the shuttle came for him, he’d be right in the thick of those buildings and he still wouldn’t be able to see her. She’d be under lock and key, and he’d be stuck in meetings all day.

There had to be some kind of metaphor in that, Kaidan thought wryly. Something about how recently, no matter if he was halfway across the galaxy or standing right in front of her on Horizon, the two of them just never seemed to connect. Yesterday certainly hadn’t brought about a reunion with Shepard. Nor, come to that, had it shed much light on why Anderson had originally called Kaidan here in the first place.

“Shepard?” Anderson had started when Kaidan had mentioned her name. “How did you find out she’s here?”

“I saw the Normandy when I disembarked,” Kaidan explained, deciding to leave out his conversation with Joker. “I figured she must be nearby.”

“She is,” Anderson said. “And she’s well enough, or so I understand. But no, this isn’t about her. I called you here because the brass needs answers, and you’re one of the few people who can tell them what’s really going on.”

“Really going on?” Kaidan said warily. “What do you mean?”

“Seems our deep space comms have been acting strangely. Can’t get a connection to anything near the Outer Rim.”

“No connection?” Kaidan asked, thinking at once of his past experience with the Collectors, “Have we lost another colony?”

Before Anderson could answer that question, an aide pulled him aside with an urgent message.

“Looks like the Defense Council is calling in all members for an emergency hearing,” Anderson said, turning back to Kaidan. “Seems they’re finally listening to the warnings Shepard has been giving them.”

Kaidan had felt a dark wave of dread creep over him at those words. If that was what this was about, then a few missing colonies were the least of the Alliance’s troubles. Still, the Reapers couldn’t get to Earth so quickly without running through a lot of darkspace first. Surely they still had time. Though, even as Kaidan told himself that, he wondered how much longer the Alliance could stall the Reapers before the invasion actually arrived.

“I’m going to recommend that you speak to the brass tomorrow morning, first thing,” Anderson said, breaking into Kaidan’s thoughts.

“To the Defense Committee?” Kaidan was taken aback. “About what?”

“About what we knew all along,” Anderson said darkly. “Gather all the intel you can about what might be causing total comm darkness and be back here at 9am sharp. I’ll send a shuttle for you. And don’t be late this time, major.”

With that, Anderson had hurried away and Kaidan had been left to wander the grounds, his stomach churning at the thought that the invasion was actually coming at last. In a daze, he stopped by the detention wing and was, not surprisingly, turned away without seeing Shepard. Kaidan asked to leave a message for her, but that request was denied. In fact, the guard on duty wouldn’t even confirm that Shepard was in custody. Kaidan knew stonewalling when he saw it. He briefly considered contacting Anderson to ask for clearance to see Shepard, but decided to put that off until after tomorrow’s meeting. Clearly, everything was in an uproar at present, what with admirals and technicians all roaming the halls wearing worried expressions. Without anything or anyone else to keep him at HQ, Kaidan went to the transport hub and called a taxi, then flew over to stay the night at his parents’ house in West Bay.

After about a half hour of catching up with his folks, Kaidan had excused himself to put together his report for the admirals. His stepmother had been a little disapproving of his plan to hide out in the guest room, typing away on his omnitool, but his father understood how things worked in the Alliance. So his folks went out for the evening and Kaidan got to work. The pale November light faded around him until, at last, Kaidan found himself sitting alone in a cold guest room in near darkness.

He could have gone out, he supposed, but there wasn’t anyone in town he planned on seeing. So instead Kaidan had gone to bed early and then woke early as well. He had gone on a run this morning, even though it was bitterly cold out and each breath felt like inhaling a cryo round. He then returned home and took a shower, then grabbed a coffee and a bagel from the kitchen and came out to wait for the shuttle.

And now he was still waiting for said shuttle, nearly twenty minutes later. Kaidan hoped Anderson didn’t take him to task for being late today, since the shuttle was clearly to blame here. Not that Kaidan was in any hurry, really. Likely, he would get stuck waiting on the other end, too: waiting for the meeting, waiting for orders, waiting for Shepard… The entire day would be a waiting game in the endless corridors of Alliance HQ.

“Beautiful, eh?”

Kaidan’s father pushed open the sliding door, then shut it behind him. He walked out to the railing with a cup of coffee in his hand, still wearing his pyjamas under a thick bathrobe.

“Yeah,” Kaidan said, turning back to the view. “Gorgeous.”

“Yeap,” his father said, leaning onto the railing. He took a sip of his coffee and let out a satisfied breath. “Nice day for autumn.”

“Almost winter,” Kaidan corrected.

“Hey, if the sun’s still shining…” his father shrugged. “You gotta take what you can get this far north. Not like your endless sun down in Rio. Oh, hey, before I forget, when you get back from your meeting today, I was wondering if you’d help me with the wiring in the bathroom. Your stepmother wants to install this new vanity VI interface and I have to admit, that kind of tech is a little beyond me.”

“Uh, dad,” Kaidan said warily. “This isn’t going to be like last time, right? I mean, I’m happy to help with one short project and all, but I don’t really want to spend the whole time working on renovations.”

“It’s just the one thing. Well, maybe, two. But you didn’t have plans, did you?”

“Ah, no, not exactly,” Kaidan said. “But still…”

“And if you do nothing, you’ll just get the headaches, right? And you know how your stepmother feels about you doing biotic stuff in the house.”

Kaidan frowned. “I remember. I’ll train somewhere else while I’m visiting.”

“Great,” his father said with a satisfied nod. “Then I’ll pick up what I need at the hardware store today.”

Kaidan made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a disbelieving snort. “Wait. How did we go from ‘I won’t use biotics in the house’ to ‘I’ll be your handyman while I’m here?’”

“Your stepmother just had a few things she wanted me to do,” his father said quickly. He patted Kaidan on the shoulder. “Shouldn’t take us more than a few days.”

“That’s what you said last time,” Kaidan said. He was about to protest further, but just then an Alliance shuttle came hurtling over the water toward the house. Given its trajectory, Kaidan guessed that it had come for him.

“That your ride?” his father asked.

“Looks like it.”

“I coulda flown you over in the car, but I guess you get your own transport these days, eh major?” He seemed very pleased by that thought. He then held out his hand and Kaidan shook it.

“Thanks for putting me up, dad,” Kaidan said.

“Of course,” his father replied, “You better get going.”

“Right,” Kaidan nodded. Since everything he had to show to the committee was on his omnitool, Kaidan stuffed his hands into his pockets to warm them against the cold. The shuttle landed on the lawn and Kaidan hurried down the steps to meet it. A dreadnought sailed overhead, making a keening sound as it caused the pines in the backyard to tremble. Higher up, two cruisers and several frigates shot over the water as well. A flock of shuttles followed in their wake. All the ships appeared to be heading toward HQ. Kaidan felt a slight knot tighten in his gut.

“What’s going on?” Kaidan asked the shuttle pilot, nodding toward the growing armada over the bay.

“Dunno for sure,” the guy replied. “Hackett’s mobilized the fleet, but no one is saying why.”

The knot in his gut grew. Kaidan turned back to the house, but his father had already gone inside. For a moment, Kaidan considered running back inside and saying something, but then he figured he could just call his dad via omnitool once he learned more from Alliance command. Not that he could say anything official. But he could suggest to his dad that now might be a good time to make sure the guns in the basement were clean and fitted with heat sinks. Just in case.

“Let’s go then,” Kaidan said, to the shuttle pilot, strapping himself in. “Don’t want to keep the brass waiting.”


invasion day, 0915 hours


Inside her cell, Shepard sat on the floor in the center of her room, legs crossed, forearms resting on her knees. A biotic barrier rippled over her body and a ball of blue-white energy hovered before her chest. It gave off a slight hum, churning like a basketball-sized star. Other than the hoodie and the decided lack of asari tentacles, she might have been mistaken for a Siari meditation statue.

According to the surveillance cameras in her room, Shepard didn’t move a muscle. She was the perfect picture of Justicaar-like calm. In truth, she was listening rather anxiously to the footsteps that echoed down the hall.

Thank God , Shepard thought distantly. Took him long enough.

She had begun to feel alarmed, given how late James was running. He should have been her an hour ago. Between his tardiness and all the other weird stuff that had happened yesterday, her mind was racing over all sorts of nightmarish scenarios. Shepard breathed in and out, trying to slow down each breath, trying to calm her mind, trying to become one with the energy, trying to…

Trying to listen as the footsteps continued on down the hall without stopping. What the hell ? Shepard scowled with her eyes still shut tight. Where was James?

In her frustration, Shepard lost her concentration on the biotic ball in the air before her. The dark energy mass swiftly grew in size as its core destabilized. Then, with a spark and a flash, it collapsed and detonated in an explosion of blue, white and black.

“Shit!” Shepard hissed, throwing her hands up in front of her face. her barrier took the brunt of the flashback, bursting in a nova around her. An acrid smell filled the room and Shepard quickly patted her hair to make sure she hadn’t set herself on fire. She had not, but now there were scorch marks on the metal floor. Shepard brushed them with her hand and scowled at her blackened palms. The warden wasn’t going to be happy about that.

“Amateur,” she grumbled.

Shepard shoved herself to her feet and picked up a datapad from her desk, but she didn’t even look down at it. It only had access to the detention center’s library anyhow, and she’d read everything there worth looking at. Instead, Shepard crossed to the window and gazed out at the view. An narrow road separated the detention block from a handful of apartment buildings beyond. She strained to catch a glimpse of Stanley Park from here, but she couldn’t quite see it. It was killing her to be stuck in here when she could be out there, running off her nervous energy.

With a sigh, Shepard grabbed the upper sill of the window and rested her head on the back of her hand. Yesterday had been a waste of time, as usual. The difference was, she had learned Kaidan was in town. Far from being comforting, that just meant she spent the whole day wondering if he would stop by, and if so, when. Her life seemed infinitely more stagnant when Kaidan was out there, free to come and go as he pleased, while she was stuck in here, just waiting for him - or anyone, really - to take notice of her and her warnings.

And it was because she was so bad at sitting still indefinitely that Shepard had decided to try her luck with a little recon yesterday. It was a stupid idea, really. It could have tipped her hand regarding EDI and the hacked chapel connection, but she hadn’t been able to resist. When she had gone to petition the Defense Committee office for a hearing, Shepard waited around just long enough for the cute red-headed aide’s shift to start. As expected, the girl hung up her coat and then instantly began chatting with James. Shepard waited until the two of them were flirting outrageously, then dared to return to the main desk and press the secretary for one extra bit of information.

“Hey,” she had said, “I don’t suppose you have record of a Staff Commander Alenko arriving, do you? He was supposed to get clearance to come and see me. Admiral Anderson’s orders, you know. I just hope that didn’t get fouled up in paperwork.”

She almost winced to hear the story come out of her mouth in that overly-cheerful tone. Shepard hated lying, especially since she was never sure if she was even remotely convincing. But the secretary had apparently believed her. Or if he didn’t, he glanced up with a bored expression and typed into his computer all the same.

“Nope,” he said. “No commanders by the name of Alenko.” His tone made it pretty clear that he considered his research at an end.

“Are you sure?” Shepard had pressed.

“Look, ma’am,” the guy had said, turning his screen around, “Query for commanders plus query for ‘Alenko.’ Nothing there.”

Shepard had been about to open her mouth and suggest that there must be some mistake when she remembered that Joker hadn’t specified if Kaidan was on HQ grounds or just in Vancouver. Likely, Kaidan just simply hadn’t checked in yet. And just then, James had returned to her side, red-headed aide’s omnitool address in his hand and a big grin on his face. So instead of making a bigger nuisance of herself or drawing James’ attention, Shepard let the matter drop.

By the end of the day, Shepard had been in a truly foul mood. Kaidan hadn’t visited, Joker hadn’t called, and she’d been so upset she hadn’t eaten much at dinner and her body punished her for the oversight. Biotics had to eat often and a lot or they got cranky, and Shepard was already on edge from listening to the chapel broadcast channel all day long, waiting for more messages from Joker.

And then, as she lay in her bed last night, staring at the ceiling, stomach growling loudly enough to wake every inmate on the ward, Shepard felt it again.

It had been months - eight months and two weeks, to be exact - since she’d last felt that buzzing at the back of her skull. She knew what it meant then . She just wasn’t sure if it meant the same thing now.

*

“Removal would require cutting into healthy brain tissue,” Mordin had informed her after he’d spent two weeks examining the problem. “One wrong move, one vital neuron clipped, would result in permanent brain damage. Cannot advise.”

“So what do you advise?” Shepard had frowned.

“Difficult to say. Illusive Man appears to have engineered optical surveillance system to be irremovable,” Mordin told her, bringing up a holographic display of her body. The glowing golden limbs and head were filled with natural synapses and unnatural wires in various displays of colors. It looked, Shepard thought, like a human Christmas tree, all strung up with lights and ornamentation.

“Cerberus clever,” Mordin said, nodding. “Allowed you to believe you had removed all monitoring devices from ship. Overconfidence kept you from digging deeper, discovering Cerberus had eyes everywhere, so to speak. An ignorant mole is most the effective.”

“Geez Mordin,” Shepard said. “This is making me feel so much better about having a vid-camera stuffed inside my brain.”

“Not just camera,” Mordin corrected. “Auditory feeds, too. Also graybox. Graybox recording device the vital piece. EDI has dropped connections to Cerberus, but data remains. Device still recording everything you do, all you see.”

“Like I said, Mordin. Feeling so much better, here.”

“Imagine you are feeling better,” Mordin replied, either not noticing her sarcasm or choosing to ignore it. “Headaches have stopped now that EDI has blocked data transfer from graybox to Normandy computers, correct?”

“Well, yes,” Shepard said, “But just because my skull doesn’t buzz every time I get on board the ship doesn’t exactly make me feel better about the fact that there’s still a damn vid recording of everything I’ve seen and done since Project Lazarus got its hands on me. If that data fell into the wrong hands…” Shepard shuddered. “What am I saying? It has fallen into the wrong hands. The Illusive Man has all of it, right up until we stopped the Collectors.”

“Indeed,” Mordin agreed.

“What if we routinely scrub the data from here on out?” Shepard suggested. “The graybox records, but EDI just deletes it every evening. Kind of like, I dunno, the mental equivalent of cleaning out the garage.”

“Scrub data in what way?” Mordin countered. “Graybox has firewalls. EDI struggling with brute-force hack. Also, unclear if hack would disturb vital brain functions. Less elegant methods, such as smashing hardware or exposing graybox to radiation or electric shock, may have…unpleasant consequences.” He trailed off, his eyes narrowing in disapproval.

“Right,” Shepard said, not really wanting to hear the details. Given Mordin’s worried expression, she could imagine them well enough. “Okay, so we’re back to the first plan. We take it out.”

“Are not listening, Shepard. Cannot take system out.”

“Well, if they put the damn thing in …” Shepard began.

“Cerberus put system in under optimal circumstances,” Mordin reminded her.

“Right, I was in a coma - or…whatever,” Shepard shook that thought off. “But what goes in can come back out, right?”

“Wrong,” Mordin replied. “Here,” he added, pointing at the holograph, “Biotic implant wires travel up medulla into brain. Also through amplifier jack. Is where I originally thought to go in, using skull saw.”

Shepard cringed a little and lightly touched the back of her head.

“Cannot operate, however,” Mordin went on, “Biotic wiring runs close to surveillance system. All connections are tangled with graybox in curious anchoring system.”

“Anchoring system?”

“Foreign DNA used to grow neural tissue to anchor graybox in place. Has grown into native tissue, connected to brain itself. Aggressive growth pattern. Synthetic polymers, unprecedented structure, root-like cell structure. Bears some similarities to samples in Cerberus databases, but entirely reworked. Not human, not mammalian, might be…”

“Synthetic?” Shepard asked aloud, cutting off Mordin’s ramblings. She frowned at that thought. She really didn’t want even more cybernetics in her system.

“Difficult to say,” Mordin replied. “Unclear if DNA is modified organic material or new construct. Neuron-like, has melded with brain tissue, but fails to transmit electrical charge. Dormant. No further growth. Now merely holding system into place.”

“But,” Shepard said, feeling ever more desperate, “Isn’t there some way to just, I dunno, take out that neural web thingy? Just kill off that foreign tissue and then pluck the graybox out. The rest of the wires can stay. I just want that part out of my head so it stops recording.”

Mordin frowned and pointed again to the holographic display. A knot of tissue held the graybox into place; a second web had spread beyond the graybox and wrapped around a more central part of her brain. Together, the clusters looked like two clenched fists, one refusing to let go of the graybox, the other refusing to let go of her mind.

“Foreign tissue growth surrounds basal ganglia,” Mordin told her. “Decision-making center of human brain. Determines reasoning, choice, formation of habit. Difficult, difficult place to operate. Even for an expert, like myself.”

“So what you’re saying is…”

Mordin shut down his omnitool so that he could fix her with his great, dark, amphibious eyes. Without the glowing holograph hovering there, the science lab felt suddenly stark and cold.

“Sorry, Shepard,” was the verdict.

*

A few weeks later, they dropped Mordin off on the Salarian homeworld and Shepard’s best chance at getting the surveillance system out of her head literally up and walked off of the ship.

At the time, Shepard had felt rage, but also a very cold calm creeping over her. The damn thing was staying in, apparently. She was - and remained - a walking security leak of the highest magnitude. Even now, looking out at the Vancouver skyline, her brain was actively recording everything she saw.

Of course, she hadn’t told anyone about the graybox beyond EDI, Mordin, and Miranda - and Tali and Garrus, of course. But even Joker didn’t know about it. The reason was, first, Shepard kept hoping somehow she’d figure out a way to get the thing out of her - no matter what Mordin had said about it having been practically grown in. And, if she were honest, the deeper reason was because she didn’t want anyone knowing how powerless she’d been in Cerberus’ hands. The Alliance already thought her judgement had been compromised. Even if Miranda had told Shepard there wasn’t a control chip in her brain, Shepard doubted the Alliance would take the word of a Cerberus operative. They’d think the surveillance system in Shepard’s head was evidence that she was a sleeper agent for Cerberus. They would assume the worst, and frankly, Shepard could hardly blame them. But she also had to stay here , if only to try and prepare the Alliance for the coming of the Reapers. So each day, Shepard pretended the thing in her head wasn’t there, knowing that if her little secret were ever found out, there would be hell to pay.

And it looked like today just might be the day that hell called in its chips. Because even as Shepard stood there at the window, she felt it again - that awful buzzing, like some little insect made out of needles and static was trying to claw its way up the back of her neck and burrow itself into her head.

Shepard glanced around, half expecting to see Cerberus bogies dropping down on jet-powered boots. Yet, all she saw was a single shuttle, flying over the detention block toward the committee chamber’s landing pad.

Calm down , Shepard told herself. After all, the graybox had been set to upload via the Normandy’s computers. EDI would never allow a hack through her systems, so the chances that any old operative would be able to bypass the firewalls was unlikely. In order to get into her head, someone would probably have to hack into EDI and then remotely into Shepard’s head. And Shepard knew little about tech, but she at least knew that wasn’t too easy to do. Plus, it wasn’t like she’d been doing anything very interesting lately. If the Illusive Man wanted to get the scoop on her, all he had to do was hack into the detention block security cams and he’d have his fill of her doing boring stuff, day after day after day.

Clearly, Shepard thought, being incarcerated for so long was making her more paranoid than usual. And James being so late was just adding to the equation.

As Shepard stared out of the window, a flash of movement caught her eye. She looked down to the building below and caught sight of a kid playing in some rooftop garden. He was running around in circles and laughing, a replica of an Alliance cruiser in his hand.

Shepard smirked. He was a cute kid - though why were his parents just letting him run around alone on a roof, of all things? She had to scowl at that. After all, kids tended to find whatever trouble was handy and it wasn’t like there was a railing up there to keep him from falling. The kid actually reminded her a little of her younger brother - or rather, how her little brother had been just a few years before the attack on Mindoir. Matt had been so into ships back then - he could spout off every bit of trivia about any class of ship in any fleet. Shepard had always figured he’d become a pilot someday. The thought made her feel suddenly sad.

With a shake of her head, Shepard sighed. It was a rather depressing thought, but that kid out there was the first happy person that she had seen in months. The Alliance detention wing tended to be a rather somber place, and she included herself in that drab company.

Just then, the door chime sounded. Shepard spun around at once. Thank God , she thought. As much as her routine drove her crazy in some ways, at least she had a checklist to accomplish every day. She just had to ignore the fact that the items on said list never changed.

“Commander,” James walked through the door and saluted her.

Well , she thought wryly. There’s item number one off of the list for the day. The guy was nothing if not persistent.

“James, come on,” she said, turning from the window. “We’ve been through this. I have no rank anymore.” She went to grab her water bottle, which she’d filled from the nearby sink. But James shook his head and held out a hand to stop her.

“The Defense Committee wants to see you,” he said.

“Really?” she asked, both her eyebrows shooting up when James nodded. “Wow. Anderson works fast. Good man. Now only if he’d shown up a few months ago. Hey, do you mind leaving while I change?”

“Change?” James blinked.

“Into my dress blues,” she explained.

“No time for that,” James shook his head. “They need you now. Come on.”

Shepard frowned, as much from the worry in his tone as from the fact that she was currently wearing a sweatsuit. Of all the times she’d changed in and out of her dress uniform just to impress the brass enough to get a hearing, and now when they finally were willing to see her, she just had to look like some new recruit at basic, out for her morning drills.

Well , she thought, *at least the hoodie has an N7 insignia on it. Maybe * that’ll impress them .

Then again , she thought, dropping her datapad on the bed and falling in line behind James, *maybe they’ll just think we’re a couple of dumb grunts. * James, after all, was wearing a skin-tight t-shirt and sported a new tattoo creeping up his neck.

As James ushered her through the detention wing checkpoints and out into the skybridge that connected her building to the central cluster of Alliance command, Shepard grew even more worried. The place was crawling with soldiers of all ranks, and all of them looked nervous.

The nervousness was catching; Shepard now felt it, too. Still, she tried to keep her voice calm as she asked:

“Okay, come on James, what’s going on?”

“Dunno,” James replied. “All I got was that Anderson’s waiting for you and the Defense Council wants, and I quote, ‘all the intel you’ve got’.”

“I’ve been trying to give them intel for months. *Now * they want to see me?” She shook her head as they rounded the corner.

All the intel I’ve got?” Shepard muttered. “That’ll take some time.”


invasion day, 0930 hours


“That’s all the intel you’ve got?”

The bald admiral stared down at Kaidan with a displeased expression. Kaidan tried to remember the guy’s name, but couldn’t. Admiral Baldy was sitting too far away for Kaidan to be able to read the name tag pinned over all those medals on his chest.

“That’s it,” Kaidan said as evenly as he could manage.

Kaidan stood stiffly, his arms behind his back, uncomfortably aware that his palms were sweating. He hoped that his datapad didn’t slip right out of his fingers and clatter onto the floor. Kaidan tried to keep his eyes straight ahead, ignoring the dizzying sensation that every eye in the room was watching him. Most of the people here were, in fact, watching him, but several were whispering amongst themselves. He wasn’t sure which unnerved him more.

Kaidan swallowed, hoping that the dryness in his throat wouldn’t give him away. He really hated public speaking - always had. He could do it, sure, but he hated it. The only thing that made it even remotely possible for him to stand up here in front of all these people was the fact that he knew his nervousness didn’t show. Over the years, he’d learned to hide it well enough.

Even as he thought that, Kaidan realized how ludicrous it was that he should be nervous from talking in front of all these people. The subject of his briefing was the truly terrifying thing: the Collectors, the Geth, the capabilities of Cerberus, and worst of all, the Reapers. It seemed that the Defense Committee couldn’t figure out what, exactly, had knocked out the comm buoys from the Local Cluster all the way to the Outer Rim. So Kaidan had presented the intel he had on the four groups he’d studied in the past few years. His gut instinct was that the Reapers were involved somehow, but he could tell the committee was hoping it was Cerberus.

That would be the easiest one to deal with, that was for damn sure.

“Thank you, Major Alenko,” one of the admirals said at last, her regal tones sounding more like she was a queen accepting tribute rather than an officer taking the possible end of the world under advisement. “That will be all.”

“Ah, yes ma’am,” Kaidan said. He saluted the lot of them, then turned to go.

“Why was he brought in again?” Kaidan overheard one communications technician whispering to another as he passed. “He’s just a biotics guy, right?”

“I think he knows an admiral or something,” the other one whispered back.

Kaidan gritted his teeth, more disgusted with their ignorance than their low assessment of his competence. If these people weren’t listening to him, with all the intel he’d gathered over the years, then it was little wonder they wouldn’t listen to Shepard, with all her first-hand experience. Hell, Kaidan thought, they probably wouldn’t believe the Reapers were real until they saw one tear apart a building with a single laser blast.

And speaking of Shepard…

Kaidan slipped from the hearing room into the antechamber beyond - and then he stopped short. For standing on the other end of the room, just standing right there , waiting for her turn before the Defense Council, was none other than Commander Shepard herself.

No , Kaidan thought at once, his palms sweating again, but for an entirely different reason. *Not now. There isn’t time for a proper reunion * now .

*

Just let it go , Shepard told herself as she turned away from Kaidan. So that reunion was awkward as hell. At least it wasn’t Horizon. Get over it. We have the Reapers to deal with.

Yet even as she walked past Kaidan, she couldn’t help but think of those emails , those goddamn emails that she had almost completely forgotten about. Her friendly smile suddenly turned queasy.

He probably thinks I’m insane.

There’s no time for that , Shepard told herself firmly as she left him behind and marched into the hearing chambers. If the Reapers are here, there might not be time for anything.

Forcing herself back to the present, Shepard took note of her surroundings. The walls of the committee chambers were filled with vid screens and computers, around which a dozen technicians were standing. At the far end of the room, a giant, two-story window looked out on the spires of downtown Vancouver. A massive desk ran before the length of the window, and seated behind it were the grim-faced admirals who had ignored her warnings for months. She had tried so long to connect with these people - the leaders of Earth. And only now were they willing to listen to her - when the end was nearly in sight.

Once again, Shepard wondered at the madness of Fate that had caused her of all people, to be the one that touched the Prothean beacon. She had been pestering the brass for ages now, but they hadn’t paid any attention to her.

If she had been different somehow, Shepard wondered, would they have listened? If she had been an admiral, if she had played by the rules just a little more often and hadn’t pissed off so many superior officers, would that have swayed them? Hell, if she hadn’t died for a while there, might she have finally gotten their attention? And if the Alliance *had * listened, might they have been more prepared now?

Coming to a stop in the center of the room, Shepard looked from one worried face to another. Even though she knew it was entirely against protocol to speak before spoken to, even though that bald admiral was glaring at her, Shepard couldn’t help herself. She just had to know:

“What’s the situation?” she asked in as clear a voice as she could manage. She tried to project an aura of calm that she most certainly did not feel. The admirals exchanged nervous glances before they turned back to face her. That alone told Shepard all she needed to know. The restless worry she had felt all morning now expanded into full blown fear. It wasn’t unlike the way that biotic meditation ball had exploded on her earlier. Just one slip of calm, and the whole thing burst.

I’m too late , Shepard thought desperately. * There’s no time left at all.*