Because some of these details never got cleared up in game….
Beyond the glass, a star was dying.
The tiled floor of the observation room was polished to a high shine, reflecting the star’s light as if that heavenly body had thrown itself upon the station, begging for mercy. It found no salvation within. For in the center of that roiling halo, feet crushing the star’s reflection underfoot, stood a man.
The man considered the dying star for a moment, then took a drag off the cigarette in his hand. With one long, sighing breath, he let out a line of smoke. His glittering eyes shone in the darkness.
There was a pattern to it, the man thought. There was a pattern to the roiling red and blue plasma flares, a pattern to the cycles, turning in on themselves. There was a sequence to all things: observable, knowable, predictable. And knowing the pattern, one could predict, one could direct, one could control. All it took was time - time and patience.
And yet, he thought with a frown, time was running short. And not everyone had his focus, his drive. Even he had blind spots. He had failed to predict one outcome, at least. That one mistake frustrated him - that one thread, loose from the tapestry, that one flare, spiraling free from the star’s orbit.
But no longer, he thought, raising the cigarette to his lips again. The final act had begun. She would enter the stage and he would find her again. Even now, he could see the thread, ready to return to the loom. He would catch hold of her, use her frailties and loyalties against her. There were ways to clip her short. It was too easy, really, to cut off this loose end.
And if she lived, well, she would alter the weaving some, but the tapestry would go on. That may even play out better, the man realized. There was so much inside of her - inside her mind - that she did not understand. Either way, she would fall into place, and the vision he’d dreamed of for so long - the vision he’d chased for years - he would finally hold it in his hands. Patience and time, insight and foresight: his investments were about to pay off.
The man’s lips curled upward in a grin.
As he stood there, taking another drag from his cigarette, a figure emerged from the shadows.
“Well?” The voice from the shadows spoke. “Any word?”
“Not yet,” the man replied.
“Can she get through with the comms down?”
“Our mobile unit is equipped with a QEC. Static means nothing to her.”
“And will she get the intel in time?”
“Most certainly. She is nothing if not single-minded.” The man smiled as if this were a private joke. The one in the shadows did not find it so funny.
“You should have sent me, too.”
“And run the risk of someone recognizing you? No.” He took another drag from his cigarette. “Just be ready for the time in which you are needed.”
The figure in the shadows nodded in acknowledgement of the dismissal. As he did so, red light from the star reflected off of the saber at his hip.
“Understood,” he said as he turned and left the room.
The other man stayed where he was, feet planted upon the reflection of the star, gazing steadily into the light of the ruined sun. The patterns were there, he thought, buried in the data, buried in the coil of cause and effect, of stimulus and response. The tapestry was weaving itself, the wheel was turning yet again, the cycle was coming back once more. All these things would happen - must happen - and he would not stop them.
No, he would direct the inevitable ascension. He would clutch hold of the tangled threads and out of the seeming chaos, he would weave a new future - humanity’s future.
This , the Illusive Man thought to himself as he gazed into the belly of the star, this is true power.
Admiral Anderson marched through the wreckage with a handful of soldiers at his back, one tiny squadron amid the massive destruction all around them. In a strange way, Anderson thought, the Reapers’ size was allowing his team to slip by unnoticed. Shepard’s comparison of humans to mice came back to his mind.
His team was certainly on the mouse-like side, though they were responding to his command very well. The soldiers were young, all of them, ranging in rank from a munitions chief down to a newly-recruited private. Anderson had rallied them from the handful of survivors who had had not gone off with the evac shuttles.
Ironically, the fact that these soldiers had not fled the fight was the only reason they were still alive. Anderson still couldn’t shake the sight of those Reapers shooting down rescue transports along with the gunships. The Reapers obviously made no distinction between military and civilian, Anderson thought darkly. And he realized that in the fight to come, he might not have that luxury in his recruitment strategies, either. He was going to have to take whatever help he could, whatever the level of skill or the source.
And the fact that he needed skilled help was the very reason why Anderson marched into the shell of a building and headed down a blasted stairwell. The team carefully navigated the dark passage with flashlights and guns. At one point, two Husks came roaring up out of the shadows. The soldiers opened fire at once. The things fell dead and no one had a comment about it. After everything they had seen, the soldiers just continued on in silence until they reached the lowest basement.
At the bottom of the stairs, Anderson sent two soldiers to check the hallway before he entered it. He hated to put himself on the back lines, but he also knew he had to keep himself alive. Thankfully, the coast was clear. He and his company continued to the end of the hall, where a set of heavy metal doors were nearly lost to darkness, save for the red glowing latch.
Anderson quickly set his omnitool to the lock, punched in his authorization codes, and waited for the doors to slide open. When they parted, he found himself staring into a dark room; he could not see the far wall from here and the whole place was lit by flickering lights from the servers. Everything was silent except for the soft humming of the machines.
Anderson motioned two soldiers forward. They took position on either side of the doorway and Anderson readied his pistol, just in case any Reapers had managed to get inside.
“Mr. Dean?” Anderson called out as soon as the troops were in position.
“Yeah?” a voice called back. Anderson let out a short breath.
“Admiral Anderson,” he introduced himself into the darkness. “We need to get you out of here.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just a sec,’” came the reply.
Anderson frowned. “Mr. Dean,” he said, “We don’t have time to…”
“I know, I know,” the voice called back. “I just… Son of a biscuit. What the crap, man?” The grumbling was coming from the far corner. After a moment of peering into the darkness, Anderson synched his omnitool to the wall controls and turned on the lights.
“Ow! Shit!” Dean hissed. The other soldiers blinked as well. Anderson strode into the room and around the corner, then came to a stop in front of the man he had come to rescue. The contractor was tall and lanky, with a mop of dark hair that fell into his eyes. Anderson was willing to bet that the man hadn’t cut his hair since he’d last been in service. Though his skin was naturally dark olive in complexion, it appeared that Dean hadn’t seen the sun in some time, nor had he shaved recently. And aside from the fact that he appeared to be in decent shape, he looked far more at home among the computers than he would be up in the field. All that was to say, the man was exactly what Anderson had expected.
“We need to get you out of here,” Anderson told him.
“Whoa!” Dean jumped. “You just snuck up on me like… Wow, you’re Anderson? Huh. The way Alenko talked about you, I thought you’d be taller.”
“We don’t have time to waste. Come on.”
“Hang on,” Dean said, holding up his right hand. His left hand held a glowing omnitool, the screen of which was covered with text. Everything was scrolling by so quickly, Anderson could not read a word of it. “Just want to make some backups of this stuff.”
“How long will it take?” Anderson asked, his brows furrowing.
“Just a minute or two more,” Dean answered. “I figured if you came to bust me out of here, this could be the last chance I have to get some of this data. We might need some of this stuff if we try to repair communications.”
Then it was important information, Anderson thought, trying to tamp down his impatience. If only they’d had better communications, the initial attack might not have hit so hard. A few of those civilian transports might have had cover. They might have made a better counter attack…
He couldn’t dwell on that, Anderson told himself. He had to focus on moving forward, not replaying the past. Unfortunately, moving forward required communications, and that was why he was down here in this basement.
“Can you use any of that intel to get us back online?” Anderson asked the contractor.
“Uh…” Dean made a face. “Define ‘online.’” he hedged.
“Can you get us to the point where we’re communicating with our troops,” Anderson clarified.
“Which troops?” Dean asked.
Anderson scowled. “Troops. All of them. Any of them.”
“Well, see, that’s the thing,” Dean said. “On Earth, we have the point-to-point links, then there’s the broadcasts…”
Anderson was in no mood for a specialist’s long-winded answer. This man might know his job, but he clearly hadn’t seen the battle outside and how bad things were up there. Anderson drew in a breath and strove for patience.
“Give me the short version,” he ordered.
“Short version?” Dean asked. The way he asked it made Anderson wonder if the man even knew what that meant. The contractor thought for a second, then said. “Basically, there’s a handful of ways we can hack together some local connections. I’ll need to go find a working comm tower or something like that to get them up and running. But if you want some way to talk to our troops planet-wide? Gonna be tough. Something sustained and planet-wide? Ugh.” He shook his head. “And then there’s the problem that the Sol comms are out. From what I can see down here, looks like they’re sending a jamming signal to the relay itself. Communications off-world are pretty much hosed.”
“So we have no way to talk to the fleets?” One of the soldiers next to Anderson spoke up, his eyes wide with worry.
“Well,” Dean said, “if our ships had QEC units, then we could, but far as I know, they don’t.”
“QEC?” the soldier asked.
“Quantum entanglement communicator,” Dean explained. “If you have two quantum entangled particles and mess with the value of one of them, the other will instantly change to have the opposite value. Doesn’t matter how far apart they are, either. It allows you can send a binary transmission…” He broke off at the soldier’s confused expression. “Basically,” he clarified, “it’s instant point-to-point communication and the best part about it is, you can’t wiretap it.”
“So why aren’t we using it?” the corporal standing by the door wanted to know.
“‘Cause we don’t have one. They’re hella expensive,” Dean said at the same time that Anderson said, “Because it was hit in the initial attack.”
Dean’s eyes grew wide. “We have a QEC here ?” he gaped.
“We did,” Anderson replied. “It was in a room off of central dispatch.”
“Which got hit,” Dean said. Anderson nodded grimly.
“Damn,” Dean said. “Well, I don’t suppose we had many ships with a QEC unit anyhow.”
Anderson paused for a moment, then decided the time for secrecy on the subject had passed. “Not true,” he said. “Our eight fleet flagships each have one, and they were building one for the Normandy as well. We also have QEC units at every major Alliance station on Earth and in space.”
“You had how many QEC units?” Dean gaped at him. “And they could all talk to each other?”
“They were all point-to-point networked, yes,” Anderson replied. “All fifteen of them. Though I’m not sure how many are still online. And the Normandy didn’t yet have connection to all the other units.”
Dean stared at him, his mouth hanging slightly open. “Holy frack ,” he said, astounded. “How did the Alliance afford that ?”
“It’s not important right now,” Anderson said stiffly. “The important thing is getting us to a QEC unit that’s still live.”
“Huh,” Dean said. “Well, if you hid the QEC units in plain sight off of central dispatch stations, then it should be pretty easy to see which Alliance stations got hit. Hang on…” He turned at once to his omnitool and began typing at the keyboard. “Sydney,” he murmured. “Gone. Mumbai…nope. Rio… Geez, looks like everything’s down. Though it’s hard to tell if that’s on our end or…”
“London,” Anderson said.
“London?” Dean repeated. “You sure? UK got hit hard.”
“There’s a second command bunker in Greenwich,” Anderson told him. “Station Nine. It’s deep underground and off the record as well. They would have gone into lockdown the moment the Sol comms went out. Also, that’s the one Earth QEC that I’m certain has a counterpart on board the Normandy.”
“What’s the address for it?” Dean asked. Anderson told him the network address and Dean looked it up.
“It just looks like a server room station,” he said.
“That’s the idea,” Anderson told him.
“But it also looks like it’s online,” Dean said. “Well, if that’s the only place we’re sure of that has a QEC…”
“Then that’s where we’re going,” Anderson said. “Do you have what you need?”
“Well,” Dean said, looking at his omnitool, “I could use some more…”
“Do you really need it?” Anderson asked sternly.
“Guess not,” Dean said. “So, um, London?”
“London,” Anderson agreed. He turned to the other soldiers and they straightened at once. “We need to find a shuttle or a ship and get to London at once. When we get up to the field, the priority is on protecting Mr. Dean here. He may be our last chance at getting global communications up and running.”
The soldiers looked at the lanky technician doubtfully, but said nothing.
“Alright,” Anderson said. “Move out.”
“Never been to London,” Dean mused as he headed to the door.
“I doubt there’s much left of it to see,” Anderson replied.
“Oh, yeah,” Dean said, slightly chagrined. As he rounded the corner, he stopped suddenly, then grabbed something up from the bench by the door.
“My coffee,” he explained when Anderson looked back at him. The other soldiers just looked at him like he was crazy. He took a sip, then made a face. “Cold,” he said. “Well,” he shrugged, then took another sip. “What the hell, right? Might be the last coffee I get. I don’t intend to waste it.”
Anderson looked at the contractor consideringly. The man was useful, but clearly, he was going to be a handful to work with. Still, beggars couldn’t be choosers, Anderson thought. Out loud, he simply said: “This will go much more smoothly if you’re an Alliance soldier, you know.”
“You mean so you can give me full access to the systems?” Dean asked hopefully.
“So I can order you to get the hell out of the server room the first time I tell you to,” Anderson replied. One of the other soldiers snorted at that.
“Oh, right,” Dean said sheepishly. “Um, yeah, okay. Cool.”
“You are hereby reinstated, Technicians Chief Dean,” Anderson announced as he strode down the hallway. That made Dean the second soldier that Anderson had reinstated into the Alliance in as many hours. And like Shepard before him, Dean didn’t seem too thrilled with the prospect. Anderson could hardly blame him - or Shepard. It was a tough time to be joining the Alliance, but humanity needed all the help it could get.
“Okay,” Dean said slowly. “That’s, um, great.” He took another swig of his cold coffee, then shrugged his shoulders. “Well,” he said, “My pen-and-paper roleplay buddies probably cancelled tonight’s meeting. What else have I got to do but duct-tape together Earth’s comm systems?”
Anderson actually broke a smile at that. These younger soldiers were nothing if not quick to rally their spirits. They would all need such optimism in the battle to come.
Aloud, Anderson said: “Indeed. Welcome back to the Alliance, Dean.”
The hatch slid shut with a hiss and the sound echoed throughout the hold. Kaidan stood there, staring back at the closed door, trying not to think of all the things he had just left behind.
Just then, the ship pitched in a familiar way, as if gravity was jumping about three feet to the left and to the right at the same time. Kaidan recognized it as the Normandy kicking in the artificial gravity and taking off from the planet below. His gaze shifted from the hatch and settled on Shepard, who was just standing there in the center of the hold. Her face was turned away; her hair gleamed a sickly shade of yellow under the dim lights. She looked as broken as he felt, Kaidan thought, as though she was preparing to fight a long defeat and didn’t want to get started.
Shaking himself to action, Kaidan looked around the hold and his eyes went to the armory workbench. Mechanically, he walked over to the crates nearby and looked inside. They had guns, it seemed, but they were basic models and they appeared to have come straight from the factory.
Kaidan took out one of the assault rifles and set it on the workbench to get it in order. He doubted they would need guns on the Citadel, might even be asked to leave them behind. But, then, Kaidan thought, it never hurt to have weapons in order in a time like this.
Shepard stood frozen to the spot, still trying to draw her mind back from the destruction she’d just witnessed down below on Earth. She tried telling herself that there was hope, that if she could just get to Liara, she could get the blueprints for that device that might very well give them the edge against the Reapers.
But a single weapon might not be enough, Shepard thought. To defeat the Reapers they’d need lots of guns and lots of ships and resources and tactics and time…
Time, damn it, Shepard thought, running her fingers through her hair. Time was what they didn’t have. Time was what they had wasted in the first place.
“Message coming in from Admiral Hackett,” Joker’s voice sounded over the comm. Shepard perked up at once. Hackett? That was good. She had almost given up the 5th fleet for lost.
“I thought we lost Sol comms,” Shepard replied.
“We did,” Joker told her. “But EDI did a quick patch to try and get the QEC transmitting right. It’s a little rough, but it works. Do you want to take it in the War Room?”
“Send it down here,” Shepard ordered, not wanted to bother with the elevator right now.
“Got it,” Joker replied. Kaidan set down the rifle he’d been cleaning and came to stand beside her at the display screen. He stood close enough for her to feel the heat of him, which was strangely comforting and distracting all at once.
“Shepard,” Hackett’s voice came over the screen, quite pixelated and almost lost to static. “We’ve sustained heavy losses… Earth…?”
“It’s bad, sir,” Shepard told him. “We’re on our way to the Citadel.” She she explained how Anderson had stayed behind, trying to ignore the way Kaidan was standing right at her shoulder.
“First…another mission,” Hackett said. “…need you…go to Mars.”
“Mars?” Kaidan blinked. “Why Mars?”
“Liara got ahold of you?” Shepard asked brightening at once.
Even over the comm, she could tell she’d surprised him. “Yes… how did you…?”
“Uh, Liara’s intel came up in the Defense Committee hearing,” Shepard said.
It was true, strictly speaking, but Shepard still felt uncomfortable not telling Hackett everything. However, there was little time to talk and no time at all to raise questions about how she’d come by her information. Hackett didn’t appear to notice her fib through the static, and she could only hope Kaidan didn’t catch on either.
“Liara said…” Hackett went on, his voice nearly lost in the interference. “…way to stop… Reapers…. only way to stop….”
“God, I hope there are other ways,” Shepard muttered darkly. “‘Cause I don’t think she found much.”
“Do you know what he’s talking about?” Kaidan asked her.
“I know a bit,” Shepard hedged. “To Mars then,” she said to the computer screen, saluting Hackett. “Stay safe, sir.” Then she switched on her comm link and gave Joker the order.
“Mars?” Joker replied. “Roger that.”
“Shepard, what’s this all about?” Kaidan asked at once. He sounded decidedly suspicious.
“Liara has some intel,” Shepard replied, not meeting his eyes.
“I got that part,” Kaidan said impatiently. “But why didn’t Anderson mention it?”
“I guess he didn’t think it would add up to much,” Shepard shrugged. “But we have to get to Mars before the Reapers take the Sol system.”
“Sure,” Kaidan agreed, “but how come the Defense Council didn’t mention it when I…” But he didn’t get much further than that. For just then, the elevator opened and James came stalking out.
“What the hell, Blue?” James called out, his voice echoing into the hold. “Why aren’t we dropping back into orbit?”
Shepard had no idea why James would call her ‘blue,’ but she let that go for the moment.
“We’re leaving,” Shepard told him flatly.
“Leaving?” James said, his gaze swinging to her. “What the hell? We can’t just turn tail and run.”
The fact that Shepard had been thinking something very similar just moments ago did not improve her mood.
“We can and we will,” she replied cooly.
“Well screw that,” James said. “I’m not leaving our guys to die down there. I’m a ground-team fighter, through and through. So you can just drop me off…”
“Shut it, James,” Shepard snapped. “You don’t like this? We get that. But this isn’t up for a vote.” She turned her back on him and headed for the armory.
James looked from Shepard to Kaidan and the lieutenant’s eyes narrowed just a fraction. Then he turned to Kaidan instead.
Oh boy , Kaidan thought at once. Here it comes.
Sure enough, James snapped off a salute and addressed the major.
“Sir,” he said, his eyes riveted to a place just above Kaidan’s head. “Request that we stay to fight.”
At James words, Shepard whirled around, her eyes alight with fury.
“Don’t you dare ,” she snarled. “Denied,” Kaidan said at the same time, but James apparently didn’t hear him.
“Then request permission to stay behind, sir .” James practically spat the honorific.
“Denied,” Kaidan said again, more sharply this time. Shepard stalked up to Vega, her fists flaring with biotic energy.
“Did I miss something, Vega?” she said, her voice low and cold. “Because I think I just heard you question a direct order from your superior officer.”
” He’s the major,” Vega said defiantly, nodding to Kaidan. “You think I take orders from just anybody?”
“You’ll take them from me,” Shepard said firmly. But James was clearly spoiling for a fight and Shepard looked ready to oblige him.
“I fought with the major just now,” James said, stabbing a finger in Kaidan’s direction. “He knows what the hell he’s doing. So why should I follow you when he’s the only sane one here?”
Kaidan would have appreciated the backhanded compliment if it weren’t for the fact that it was just the kind of thing to set Shepard on edge. “That’s enough, James…” he began, but Shepard spoke over him.
“Kaidan and I are trying to do the same thing,” she told James. “Anderson is sending us to the Citadel to get the Council to help Earth. And maybe you missed it, but Hackett just ordered us to Mars. That’s two goddamn admirals telling us to leave Earth, in case you lost count.”
“And you’re going to convince the Council to just, what? Give up their fleets? I don’t think so. I watched you for the past six months, Shepard. You couldn’t even get a hearing with the brass until today. You needed me to keep the Batarians off of you…”
Wrong move , Kaidan thought distantly. Before he could stop her, Shepard flared from the top of her head all the way down to her shoes and took a step toward James. Kaidan grabbed her arm to stop her. Amazingly, James did little more than flinch.
“Drop it, Shepard,” Kaidan said sharply, but she wasn’t listening. When she spoke, it was in a voice that was low and cold with deadly intent.
“You think you’re still my guard?” Shepard demanded, biotic fire flickering all along her shoulders. “You think you’re keeping me in line? Well I’ve got news for you, Vega. You don’t know shit about me. You have no idea what I’m capable of. The stories they tell about me? They’re true. When it comes to getting the job done, I don’t let anything stand in my way. So listen up, lieutenant. You’re on my ship now, and we do things my way from here on out.”
“That’s mutiny!” James exclaimed, his eyes going wide. “Blue’s the ranking officer here, and he…”
“Enough!” Kaidan shouted.
“I’m a Spectre,” Shepard spat, yanking her arm out of Kaidan’s grip, “And I intend to carry out my mission if its the last thing I do. If you do not get in line behind me, Vega, I will tear you apart, if only to make an example of you. So stand. Fucking. Down .”
Honestly, Kaidan thought, this was getting them nowhere. Shepard looked ready to throw a punch and James looked ready to meet it, With a disgusted frown at them both, Kaidan brought up the comm link on his omnitool.
“This is Major Kaidan Alenko,” he announced to the entire ship.
Shepard and James both turned at once to gape at him. Kaidan ignored them both and went on, his voice low and measured:
“Admiral Anderson has chosen to stay behind on Earth. That leaves me as the ranking officer on the Normandy. I am therefore in command of both the vessel and the crew. However,” he added, seeing Shepard’s eyes widen and her mouth drop open in outrage, “We have a Council Spectre aboard: the newly re-instated Lieutenant Commander Shepard. And that changes things.”
Shepard’s eyebrows raised and the fury in her face was replaced by a wary expression. For her benefit - and the benefit of James and the few crew still aboard - Kaidan explained:
“Spectre agent Shepard is requisitioning this vessel in order to carry out the final orders of the Defense Council. For the duration of her mission, I will be acting as Alliance liaison to the Spectre agent. As soldiers under my command, you will defer to Shepard as I do. If you have any questions about the jurisdiction of Spectre agents or how Spectre teams work, please review Alliance protocols for such missions as outlined in the Systems Navy Handbook, under the heading ‘Nihilus Protocols.’”
Kaidan thought for a moment, then decided that about summed things up. “Alenko out,” he said, and let the link drop. Then he calmly went back to adding an upgrade to his assault rifle.
There was a long pause, in which the only sound was the humming of the ship’s engines.
“Can you do that?” James exploded suddenly, his jaw dropping open.
“I just did,” Kaidan replied.
“You can’t just give up command like that,” James shook his head.
“He didn’t give up command,” Shepard said quietly. She was watching Kaidan closely, her expression now unreadable. “The protocols he’s referring to were drafted when Anderson picked up Spectre agent Nihilus for the Eden Prime mission. Anderson commanded the crew, but Nihilus was the one we were taking orders from.”
“I’ve heard about that,” James said. “But didn’t the Spectre get himself killed straight off?”
“I’m hoping Shepard has a little more sense than Nihilus did,” Kaidan said, glancing up at her briefly before returning to his rifle.
“Me too,” Shepard said wryly. “But Nihilus didn’t do much more than use the Normandy as his base of operations. Whereas I intend to lead this crew, Kaidan.” The challenge in her voice was unmistakable.
“And *I * intend to follow our last orders,” he told her, evenly. “If Anderson had been thinking clearly, he might have promoted you and avoided the issue entirely. But he didn’t, so this is my solution to smooth out the chain of command”
“Or maybe he didn’t promote her on purpose,” James put in. “Maybe Anderson wanted you to keep her in line…”
“I’m here because of dumb luck,” Kaidan said baldly. “So are you. So is she. We’re making the best of it, and you, lieutenant, are completely out of line to be arguing like this with your commanding officer - both of your commanding officers.”
“I just want to be clear on this,” James said unrepentantly. “I’ve spent the past six months being told she’s nuts. She wasn’t even allowed on this ship. And now you just want me to roll over and take her orders?”
” Yes ,” Shepard growled. At the same time, Kaidan glared and him and said, “That’s exactly what I want you to do.”
James frowned. “And you? Are you gonna follow her orders, too?”
Shepard’s gaze swung to Kaidan and she raised one blonde eyebrow. The look on her face spoke clearly what her voice did not: Yeah Kaidan, are you gonna follow my orders, too?
Well, Kaidan wondered briefly. Would he?
On the one hand, he knew the answer was ‘yes.’ To have two senior officers in conflict was just a recipe for mutiny. Any soldier knew that. There was a reason Alliance protocols clearly outlined a chain of command and stuck to it. And more than that, Kaidan was certain Shepard could still lead a team. She had defeated the Collectors, after all. It wasn’t her skills that he was uncertain of.
No, what had Kaidan hesitating for just a moment was the fact that even as he stood here in the hold, he could see evidence of the Normandy’s retrofit. This ship had begun as a Cerberus vessel - just as Shepard had recently worked as a Cerberus agent. The woman he was about to work with - that he was about to hand command of this ship over to - had been in the employ of terrorists for months - possibly years. And while Shepard seemed willing to work with the Alliance now, have even been reinstated into Navy ranks, Kaidan couldn’t help but wonder if she still had ties to Cerberus.
And so long as Kaidan wondered that, he couldn’t completely relax his guard around her. Nor could he completely trust her every decision.
Of course, he wasn’t about to say all that in front of James.
“Yes,” Kaidan said, certain that his hesitation had passed so quickly as to go unnoticed. “The Spectre is in charge now, James.”
Shepard let out a breath she didn’t realize she had been holding. Kaidan had paused there for a second, which didn’t bode well. While he’d agreed to her leadership after the space of a moment, Shepard could tell he didn’t like it. She also knew that she shouldn’t dwell on it. It shouldn’t matter whether Kaidan liked her authority or not so long as he accepted it and that matters were clear for the crew.
Shepard turned to James and fixed him with a stern glare. “Any further questions?” she asked, her tone of warning clear.
“No questions, ma’am.” He paused, then added. “I’ll follow your orders, but I reserve the right to bitch about it.”
Shepard stifled a smile. James’ bullheadedness was almost endearing at times. Almost. “Noted, lieutenant,” she said. “Go make sure that the shuttle is in order.”
James nodded and snapped off a salute. “Yes, ma’am,” he said before walking away. Shepard waited until she was sure he was out of earshot, then turned back to Kaidan. He was avoiding her eyes and acting calm, but she thought she could read tension in the lines around his mouth.
“That was neatly done,” she said in a low voice, watching him closely.
Kaidan picked up heatsink, and shoved the clip into the assault rifle without looking up.
“It needed doing,” he replied stiffly.
Shepard tried to ignore her growing irritation. “So,” she said, “Did you mean it?”
“I’m not in the habit of saying things I don’t mean,” Kaidan informed her.
“And I am?” Shepard bristled.
Kaidan said nothing as he continued his work.
“We need to be clear on this, Kaidan,” Shepard snapped, her brows drawing together. “If push comes to shove, are you going to follow my orders?”
“I believe I just gave my answer to the entire ship,” Kaidan shot back.
“I want to hear it from you,” Shepard insisted.
Kaidan let out a pent-up breath. He set down his rifle with and braced his hands on the table between them. His lips thinned to a line as he considered the guns.
“I meant what I said,” he told her evenly. “I’ll take the role of liaison. It will make sense to the crew and allow you to move more freely as a Spectre.”
“But technically, it puts you in charge of my ship,” Shepard observed.
“Technically, yes,” Kaidan raised his eyes to meet hers.
“So I’m in charge so long as you agree to follow my orders?”
“That’s right,” Kaidan said, his voice steady, holding a slight warning.
“And if you disagree with any of my orders?” Shepard pressed.
“Is there some reason I’d disagree?” Kaidan asked. His nonchalant tone didn’t fool her for a second. He was testing her, she thought, fury erupting all over again.
“So I’m only in charge until your paranoia gets the better of you?” Shepard snapped.
Kaidan’s eyes darkened, and he opened his mouth to say something, but just then, James swung out of the shuttle. Kaidan stopped himself and just glowered at her.
“Shuttle’s ready,” James called to them. “We gonna suit up or what?”
Shepard glared at Kaidan briefly and he returned her gaze.
“We’re not done with this, Kaidan,” she murmured.
“No commander ,” Kaidan replied, sternly. “We’re not.”
Shepard bit back a retort, then turned on her heel and headed for the lockers. She could scarcely reign in her irritation. She ought to be thrilled to have Kaidan safely aboard the Normandy, she thought. Given how close a call it was, getting out of Vancouver at all, she ought to be grateful he was safe, grateful that she had the chance to talk to him again, grateful that the best soldier she had ever served with was at her side for this difficult mission ahead of her.
Instead, Shepard couldn’t help wishing that Kaidan *wasn’t * here just now and she could run the ship as she pleased. No, she told herself as she unzipped her sweatshirt, that was unkind. She didn’t want Kaidan gone. She just wished he wasn’t so damn insubordinate all the time.
Though actually, she reminded herself, there was a time when his insubordination had been very welcome indeed, for more reasons than one…
Right, Shepard thought as she stuffed her sweatshirt into the locker. And just look at all the trouble it had gotten her into. She’d gotten close to Kaidan and it had all blown up in her face. It just went to show that if you screwed around with the crew, you entirely screwed up the chain of command.
Kaidan tried to get a reign on his temper. Usually, he had no trouble keeping a level head when it came to power-plays among soldiers. When some hot-head would test him in the past, Kaidan would just remain calm until the guy started throwing punches. And then Kaidan would stick the guy in stasis and leave him there until he cooled off. It was damn effective at sorting out the pecking order. But Shepard always got under his skin.
He should have known she wouldn’t just defer to his rank. She had been given the mission for a start, but beyond that, she always prefered to run things. There was even a time when he had admired her for that high-handedness. In the field, her decisiveness was a clear asset. When the two of them had worked together in the past, Shepard had always been forging ahead while Kaidan had been checking the exits. It made for an excellent partnership.
But now, there was just too much history between them, Kaidan thought with a shake of his head. He probably should have just given Shepard the assurances she wanted instead of implying that he was keeping an eye on her. But damn it, he wasn’t going to let anything even remotely related to Cerberus taint this ship or this mission. She had to know that. He had to hold to some standards here, even if Shepard was willing to do anything to get the job done.
“You and the commander get things sorted out?” James asked. Kaidan didn’t bother to look up. Evidently, the guy was at least insightful enough to realize Shepard and Kaidan had been hashing things out while he’d been sent to go work on the shuttle.
“Yeah,” Kaidan said, even though it wasn’t true. “Just be ready to keep up with us when we hit Mars.”
“Hey, this isn’t my first op, Blue,” James replied. “I’ve seen enough action to… Whoa.” James broke off and said nothing more.
“What?” Kaidan asked. He looked up to find James staring past him with a stunned look on his face. Kaidan looked over his shoulder, and then he froze as well.
Commander Shepard stood by the lockers, and she had just pulled her t-shirt up over her head and was now just standing there in her sports bra.
Oh , Kaidan’s brain noted distantly, so that’s what Commander Shepard wears under her armor .
What Commander Shepard wore under her armor was a skin-tight running tank of lipstick red. It outlined her figure perfectly; unlike the more utilitarian Alliance gear, it didn’t crush her breasts against her body, but outlined each of them in all their fullness. Maybe it was the cold that contributed to it, but her nipples were clearly visible, straining against the fabric. Another shove and Shepard dispensed with her torn sweatpants as well. Underneath, she wore a matching pair of tight red shorts. Oblivious to the fact that she now had an audience, Shepard bent over at the waist to pick up her sneakers.
Kaidan found his mouth had gone entirely dry. His palms, however, felt sweaty, and strangely aching to get hold of something - like perhaps any part of that rear end before him.
“Oye Mamacita. ¿Quién podría culpar a los toros?”
The blatant statement admiration brought Kaidan’s gaze swinging back around to a rather dumbfounded James. The lieutenant was staring at Shepard with his eyebrows raised and his mouth hanging slightly open. “Hey commander,” he said more loudly. “How come I never noticed how built you were before? Yeow.”
Kaidan’s brows snapped together at once, but before he could say anything, Shepard turned around and just glared.
“Earth is burning, Vega,” she said flatly. “Keep it in your pants.”
“Ouch,” James said, turning his head to the side as if she’d physically slapped him. “God damn, Shepard. I was just joking. You can’t expect…”
“I can and I do expect you to get suited up ASAP and to keep your dumbass comments to yourself. We’ve got guns and armor to sort out before we reach Mars and that gives us twenty minutes tops to get ready.”
She then turned to grab her under-armor body suit out of her locker, leaving Kaidan and James with a perfect view of her backside. The tank top had runched up around her natural waist, exposing a stripe of bare, white skin. Kaidan could see the dimpled spot where her spine reached her rear end, and again had a sudden urge to reach out and…
“Is she always this cruel?” James muttered to Kaidan. Kaidan started and shook his head in order to clear it.
“That’s enough, soldier,” Kaidan growled at him. “Just follow your orders.”
James shrugged, then gave Shepard one more appreciative glance before heading to the lockers himself. Kaidan had to fight back the urge to tell the younger man not to stare.
Okay, Kaidan thought. He was being a total hypocrite, and he knew it, since he was staring as well. And Shepard, for her part, appeared to be completely oblivious to all this as she stabbed her feet into the body suit and pulled it up to her waist.
“So what happened to my jumpsuit?” Shepard asked James, nodding at her locker. “I mean, this new stuff is nice and all, but I miss my old gear.”
“That thing was a relic,” James said, his tone teasing. “Hard to believe the great Commander Shepard managed to stay alive in that old thing.”
“It was my lucky charm,” Shepard said. “Like my old favorite pair of cowboy boots.”
“It was merc gear,” James said. “Crappy merc gear at that.”
“It didn’t come with a Cerberus logo,” Shepard replied. “That was the reason I chose it over all their fancy swag.”
Kaidan paused at her words. If she didn’t want to wear a Cerberus logo, then why the hell had she joined them? Her comment confused him. He knew that sometimes Shepard talked like she resented Cerberus, but she had worked with them in the first place. It really made no sense.
Deciding he wasn’t going to get any clear answers about that at the moment, Kaidan forced himself to focus on armor - his armor - and not Shepard as she tried to pick out her own gear. He needed to get his suit on, after all, and Alliance groin protection made no allowances for arousal.
Sadly, Kaidan thought, he *did * have experience with that kind of thing. After all, he’d worked with Shepard before.
Shepard reached into her locker for a harness, then froze. Because beside her, Kaidan had just stripped his shirt off. The sudden motion had caught her eye, and she had turned just in time to see him lower his arms and that familiar expanse of tanned muscle of his back had flexed with the motion. He completely ignored her as he turned to the locker - giving her a brief glimpse of chest hair - and tossed the shirt in.
I am such a hypocrite , Shepard thought. Here she had taken James to task for checking out a superior officer, and then here she was, watching Kaidan’s muscles flex, watching him unclasp his belt and zipper and shuck his pants…
Hot damn, Shepard thought distantly. Was Kaidan’s ass always that toned? And his thigh muscles? And then Shepard noticed a distinct bulge in the front of his shorts that sent the blood rushing to her face. Suddenly, the chilly, cavernous cargo bay felt a little too cramped and a little too warm. That couldn’t be for her could it? Well, surely it was for her, right? She didn’t imagine it was for Vega.
Shepard just stood there, painfully aware of the sound of Kaidan’s clothing slipping off and hitting the floor. Funny how the sound of his clothing sounded so different to her ears than James’ clothes, she thought. Clearly she was going nuts after so many months in an Alliance jail. Clearly, lack of sex had warped her mind.
Shepard peeked another glance at Kaidan. She didn’t mean to, obviously, but he was just there , and then, all of a sudden, she noticed something else.
“Hey,” she said, grabbing him by the shoulder to turn him around. “What happened to you?” She looked at his chest with a frown. Distracted by the gashes as she was, she almost could ignore the muscle.
“Husks,” Kaidan said, pulling away.
“You need medigel?” she asked. “‘Cause I think the medbay…?”
“It’s nothing,” he said shortly. Shepard wasn’t quite sure if she’d offended him or not, but clearly he was still smarting over their argument of a few minutes ago. Feeling instantly prickly herself, Shepard turned back to the lockers and yanked out a pair of boots.
“I was just trying to help,” she said, instantly cursing the way her voice sounded rather petulant.
“I’m fine,” Kaidan said in that deep voice of his. Shepard avoided looking his way, but just hearing that rasp had her imagining his bare back all over again.
Kaidan tried not to think about the lingering feel of Shepard’s fingers on his shoulder, nor the fact that she seemed to be glancing at his crotch every couple of seconds. For his part, Kaidan kept trying - and failing - not to look over at her, stare at the smooth expanse of unblemished white skin…
Kaidan froze as he registered what he was looking at. He was looking at Shepard’s waist: her white, trim waist. And the shrapnel scars that used to criss-cross her left side were gone.
Kaidan’s eyes scanned Shepard quickly from head to toe, picking up other details he’d missed in his initial ogling of her body. The thin medical scar that used to run from the back of her skull down to her shoulder blades, the tell-tale implant scar for an L3, was gone. The nick on the back of her right elbow, a childhood injury from Mindoir, was gone, too. The crescent scar around her eye was gone, and he now remembered that on Horizon, he’d noted that her eyes had changed color to a uniform ice blue. Her nose was straighter too, the bones unbroken.
And more than that, Kaidan sensed the coiled thrumming of her biotics on a completely different frequency than before. Instead of that crackling static that had once marked Shepard’s energy signature, Kaidan now sensed a deep pool of power, like an underground river coursing through her. They were subtle changes, all of them, but taken together, they were almost staggering.
Last of all, Kaidan looked to her shoulders and his eyes finally registered what he was seeing there before she pulled her jumpsuit up over her back and flipped her hair out of the collar. The freckles that used to dot Shepard’s shoulders, the freckles that he had once tried to kiss one by one, were gone. There were a few freckles on her face, he saw, but they were not at all like the freckles he remembered from before. It was like the skin under her armor had never seen battle, never seen the sun.
Rather than finding her smooth complexion beautiful, the sight made Kaidan’s blood run cold. Shepard’s words came back to him from years ago on Horizon:
I was in some kind of coma while Cerberus rebuilt me.
Dear God , Kaidan thought, the proof of those words hitting him fully. Just how far did the reconstruction go? Surely the work was just cosmetic. Surely, he told himself, it was just her body that had needed work after what had happened to her. At least, he certainly *hoped * that they hadn’t messed with more than that. But then, she did have new biotics.
And as he thought that, Kaidan had the sinking realization that he had just handed the command of this ship over to a reconstructed woman. Reconstructed in body, anyhow, and in her mind…?
Kaidan didn’t know. Honestly, he didn’t want to know. Perhaps Shepard thought her ties with Cerberus were at an end, but perhaps she wasn’t as free of them as she’d led the Alliance to believe. Either way, Kaidan knew that he was going to have to watch her more closely than he originally thought.
At least they only had a simple side mission ahead of them, Kaidan told himself, forcing his eyes back to his own locker and his own gear. All they had to do was pick up Liara and get on their way to the Citadel. That shouldn’t take long.
The Archives were just a backwater research station, after all. Nothing much ever happened on Mars.
Dr. Cameron Harrison stood at his station, staring off into space with a dreamy expression. Such an expression looked rather awkward on a man of such bulbous features, but Harrison didn’t really care how he appeared to the other scientists.
After all, all he cared about was her . He’d actually stolen a caress from her last night. Well, a squeeze of the hand, really. Dr. Coré had a surprisingly strong grip, he thought with a smile. And tonight, he might be able to experience that grip again - in a much more intimate way. Because when he had suggested that they have dinner together again, she had taken things a step further. She had asked him to join her for coffee in her quarters instead. He was pretty sure she had meant that as a euphemism. He could hardly wait.
And speaking of the lovely doctor, Harrison thought, there she was now. Dr. Coré was walking at an almost impossibly fast pace across the room, her lithe hips swinging, her high heels click-clicking across the metal floor. Harrison called out a greeting to her, but she did not stop. No, she just went over to the airlock, hit the button and then disappeared into the room beyond.
Harrison frowned. Maybe she hadn’t seen him. Maybe he should go over there now and say hello. Perhaps she was ready for coffee now. The thought had his heart pounding double-time.
But then, suddenly, there was a whooshing sound and the whole room seemed to pitch. Harrison gasped for breath, feeling as if all the air had been sucked out of his lungs. He clawed at his throat, his bulging eyes darting to the airlock.
It had been left open.
He tried to run to the airlock, but already dizziness overwhelmed him. He heard the other researchers choking, gasping. He tried to scream, but couldn’t seem to find his voice.
And then he saw her.
Dr. Coré walked past the windows, the same breakneck gait, the same confident rolling of her hips. But now, only now, Harrison could see how wrong it was, how artificial it was.
Because Dr. Coré was walking outside. Outside on *Mars. * And she was wearing no helmet.
As Harrison fell to the floor, the last thing he saw was Dr. Coré striding past the windows without blinking.