Book II - Chapter 9: Recruitment

Peering through the windows, Liara spotted her father pacing impatiently along the gangway even before the Kodiak finished the landing procedure at Nos Astra's private dock. Behind her father stood two commandos, Aeian and Neaira, both looking ready for action. It was obvious Aethyta was not taking any chances after what had happened.

"Liara!" Her father all but ran at her to give her a bone-crushing hug. "You idiot child!" Aethyta sounded more worried than angry, and she didn't seem to want to loosen her arms. "You're going to be the death of me one day!"

"I'm all right, like I said." Liara protested, squirming under Aethyta's attention. She was over one hundred years old and did not need to be treated like a youngling in public, dammit.

Aethyta pulled back to give her a deadpan glare. "Really? Last I heard, you ditched your bodyguards and then went chasing down bomb wielding terrorists in a burning building. That was right after some dickhead tried to assassinate you in your own home. Thirty-six people were killed in the bombing, Liara. You disappeared. No word from you for a month, and now I find you just peachy! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

Liara cringed. When it was laid out this way, it sounded really bad. No wonder her father was upset. "Again, I'm sorry, Father. A lot has happened, and it simply slipped my mind. I contacted you as soon as I could."

Aethyta gave Liara a long suffering look. "Oh hell, you really are Nezzie's daughter through and through. That's not praise, by the way. Listen, kiddo. I understand you're a grown ass adult, you've been out on your own for decades. But by Athame's glorious tits, you've got to remember you don't have to do everything on your own."

Lowering her head in apology, Liara sighed. "I know."

"I sure hope you do. And no offense Liara, but you look like crap." Aethyta pointed out.

"It's been really busy for me. I haven't slept much." Liara admitted. "But the worst is over. I've learnt my lesson, and now my Omni-tool is supposed to remind me to eat and sleep on time." She was not exaggerating. Other than making an obligatory public appearance for her various watchers, she was supposed to relax on her shore leave. Shepard had not been impressed when she had come back from her mission in Bekenstein and seen how Liara had overworked herself to exhaustion during her bondmate's absence.

It had been a hectic month since she assumed the mantle as the new Shadow Broker. Even with plenty of help, it had still taken them weeks to map out the entire network. If not for the helpful info drone Glyph, Liara would still be neck deep in an avalanche of information until sometime next year. There were just so many people to keep watch of, so many projects to monitor at the same time, it felt like if she blinked, she would miss something important. By the time she was able to sit back and survey her work, a month had gone by. That was when Liara remembered she still had a life outside of her room - prime amongst which was a very worried father, plus a slew of spies who were getting anxious of her unexplained disappearance.

"How long are you staying this time? I'm trying not to hover, but I would really like to know."

"A few days, depending. I have contacts I need to see in person." Or to be seen in person, rather. Disappearing for longer than a month was suspicious enough that her watchers might be compelled to do something that was more invasive than installing cameras in her apartment. Liara needed to maintain her public persona as the naive scholar, the underachieving daughter of the disgraced Matriarch Benezia, the grieving young widow of the late Commander Shepard - someone who was vaguely important by association, but harmless if left alone.

"... and then you are leaving again." Aethyta said quietly. Her father didn't sound disapproving, but Liara still felt guilty for putting that resigned look on her father's face.

"I'm sorry."

Aethyta shook her head while smiling sadly at her daughter. "Don't apologize. You've gotta do what you gotta do. You wouldn't be risking your life if it weren't worth it. It's the Mother's Curse, I tell ya. 'Wait until you have a daughter of your own.' With a krogan father, you would think I was the stubborn one. Oh, you should've seen your mother. Once she made up her mind… " Her voice trailed off as she lost herself in memories.

This happened often with matriarchs. A thousand year's worth of memories would sometimes sneak up on them when they were emotional. Liara waited patiently until her father caught herself.

"Right. Just... take care of yourself out there, okay, kiddo?"

"I will, Dad." Liara promised.

Apparently, her promise alone was not enough to assuage her father's fears. Aethyta had insurance in place. "Hey, umm, I've called in favours from a few friends. Commandos. They're all yours. Just tell them where to go. Take Aeian and Neaira, too. They're still beating themselves up from last time. This time we'll make it official. All the paperwork is done and ready to file."

Liara couldn't help but wonder if she had heard wrong. "You're giving me asari commandos?!"

Disciples were not mercenaries. Once pledged, they served for life. Maidens from lesser families often pledged into service of influential matriarchs in exchange for mentorship, connections, and financial support. When Benezia was labelled a traitor by the Council, all her retainers were unconditionally released from their service as per asari law to strip her of power. Those who stayed were considered complicit of the same crime of high treason. Even after her mother's name was cleared when her unwilling indoctrination came to light, the result remained the same. None of the former disciples would commit career suicide and pledge themselves to the only surviving T'Soni. Retainership was an honour reserved for distinguished matriarchs, not unproven maidens, no matter who their mothers were.

The matriarch-disciple relationship was only a hop away from mother-daughter in asari society. As a result, trading disciples naturally became an established practice between prominent matriarchs as a tangible way of forming alliance. Since Liara herself was only a fresh-faced maiden and had nothing equivalent to give back in return, her father's offer was an utterly one-sided favour. Not to mention those were not ordinary disciples, they were highly trained elites. Aethyta's gift to her was the equivalent of standing on the rooftop and shouting to the world that she not only recognized Liara as her daughter, but she was also willing to invest a great deal of resources to improve her social standing, to help her jump start the restoration of House T'Soni.

Aethyta smirked at her outburst. "Well, you're a little too old for me to buy you a damn pony."

"You are the best dad a girl could hope for." Liara said, a bit breathless from the implication of her generous gesture.

At her comment, Aethyta's cheeks darkened to a deep shade of purple. Her father seemed incredibly flustered. "Anyways," she coughed and cleared her throat a few times before she could continue without choking on her own embarrassment. "I called the girls back from Thessia when I got your message. They are waiting at the lounge. I'll introduce you. Should've done this a month ago and saved me the headache."

Liara considered for a moment and realized her father was right. If she had had a team of commandos with her, or if she had not dismissed her bodyguards, Vasir would have thought twice before she tried anything. Thinking back, she had been acting severely over confident. It shouldn't matter whether she could handle herself in most situations; having someone else watch her back was the safer option. She had to remind herself of that. When she took over the entire Shadow Broker network, she had inadvertently inherited all of their enemies. On top of being on the Matriarchy's watch list, she was now a wanted criminal in every government - if anyone were to discover her covert career change. The objective of her bodyguards was therefore expanded from ensuring her physical safety to also protecting her secrets.

For as long as she could remember, Benezia had always travelled with an entourage of disciples. Liara had thought this habit to be simple posturing amongst high society. Ironically enough, it was her father's love for her that taught her to appreciate her mother's caution. The fact that she was raised in relative isolation while constantly being surrounding by guards now suddenly took on a different meaning. Was her mother involved in something dangerous that would justify this level of paranoia? Possibly. Short of asking Benezia herself, she would never find out the whole truth. Or perhaps…

"Did Mother have powerful enemies who would want to hurt her through me?" Liara asked as they made their way through the trading floor.

The sudden change of topic earned her a startled look from Aethyta. "Why the…" She paused and shook her head at Liara. "You're too smart for your own good. Don't do anything rash, you hear me? Those old bags might be full of hot air, but they've still got teeth."

"So that's a yes."

"That's a given." Aethyta snorted. "I can't say I know much. I've been away from Thessia for too long to be in the loop. Not like I was ever one of them, anyway. But your mother was. They questioned her judgement when she chose to bond wrists with me instead of with someone more respectable. She was too good for me, and everybody knew that, me included. When she left, it felt inevitable. Honestly, it's better this way. Nezzie had the breeding, the skill, the right temperament to play the wise philosopher to the whole Republic. Someone who shone as brightly as her? You bet your ass she had enemies."

Another matter to look into, it seemed. Aethyta was being deliberately vague. Either she didn't know the details, or she was being careful. Liara had her suspicions. Her mother's old political enemies might very well be responsible for making her a person of interest to the High Command.

In any case, it would be pointless to speculate without more information. Her fingers itched to reach for her heavily encrypted Omni-tool, but she valiantly resisted the temptation. Regardless of how much she wanted to dive into this new found mystery, it was a problem for another day. Liara had promised Shepard to take it easy during her shore leave, so she would do her best to honor her bondmate's request. Shepard had insisted that she go cold turkey from the Broker network for at least a full week. Liara understood the sentiment, even though it still puzzled her how a fat bird could be related to her obsessive workaholic tendency. Human idioms were so confusing sometimes.

Maybe she would visit a museum or an art gallery after meeting her new commandos. Some place nice and public. Afterall, she wouldn't want to bore her various watchers too much by doing something as mundane as shoe shopping.

x-x-x

Elsewhere on Illium, Oriana Solheim was blissfully oblivious of the complicated web she had stepped into.

The eighteen-year-old could barely hold back the wide grin that threatened to split her face as she darted through the dense crowd congregating in front of the Kurinth student centre. The University of Illium was her absolute favourite place in the world. Ever since her early enrollment at fifteen, she had spent most of her time on campus. High school hadn't been the best time for her, but college life was everything she had dreamed of. Her above average intellect was no longer an oddity, but a much appreciated trait amongst her peers. She had made friends, real friends. And at eighteen, she thought she had finally discovered her true calling.

"Ori, over here!" Elois Errin, a young salarian boy whom she shared the same math and physics class with, waved her over to one the many booths lining the square.

"Hey, Errin. I didn't know you are coming today. I thought career fair is not your thing."

Errin shook his head and poked at the direction of the Kurinth student centre with a thumb. "I came in this morning to watch Pelas play."

Oriana's expression crumbled at the news. "I can't believe I forgot about that. Crap. How angry do you think she will be when she finds out I missed her debut match?"

Errin waved off her concern. "Nah. She's too nice to stay mad at you. And I think she'll understand you're distracted by other things." He glanced around the rows of colourful booths and asked, "what's the one you've been going on about?"

Oriana's eyes lit up. "Here, I'll show you." She grabbed onto the salarian boy's hand and literally dragged him towards a booth with a large holo-display of a garden world spinning slowly. It had a large banner reading "COLONY DEVELOPMENT" in bold hanging proudly above the table. The booth was manned by two people, a middle aged human male with a weathered face, and a purple-skinned asari.

"Hello, Oriana, it's good to see you again. Do you have more questions?" The human male asked with a kind smile.

Oriana shook her head. "No, Fai Dan. You've given me so much information already. I'm just showing my friend around."

"Of course. Just let me know if you need anything. I'm gonna be here all day." Fai Dan said.

The asari gave Oriana a demure nod. "Miss Solheim, I hope you have considered my earlier proposition. With your grades, you are a prime candidate for our co-op position."

Oriana swallowed thickly at the startled expression on Errin's face, and quickly apologized. "Sorry, Nyxeris, but I still need to talk to my parents about it. I'll let you know as soon as I can. Promise."

Much to her relief, Nyxeris seemed satisfied by her answer. "That's more than reasonable. I hope to hear from you again soon, Miss Solheim. Meanwhile, why don't you take more pamphlets for your friends? We are always looking for bright young minds to join our industry."

Errin blinked rapidly at the asari, but he took the offered piece of printed paper without protest.

Eden Prime Colony Development Student Exchange Program, the top of the pamphlet read. Below that was a picture of a happy human family standing in front of a modular home adjacent a vast field of vertical farms.

"So? What do you think?" Oriana asked, a small amount of anxiety bleeding into her voice.

Errin tilted his head as he studied the pamphlet. "This is what you always wanted, isn't it? You've mentioned, loudly, on multiple occasions, that you want to work in colony development after you finish school. A paid co-op experience would be invaluable. It even says here that the colony will work with you through your post-graduate studies! I can't think of a reason to turn this down."

"But I'll have to leave Illium." Oriana blurted out. "I've lived here all my life. I don't know if I'm ready."

"You are already eighteen." Errin said, frowning a little.

Oriana rolled her eyes. "I'm not a salarian. Eighteen is barely old enough to consume alcohol." At the disbelieving expression on Errin's face, she added quickly, "legally."

"Is that why I'm always the one who is responsible for bringing booze?!"

"Details, details."

"In any case, it looks like you've already made up your mind." Errin gave her friend a slow blink while smiling at her warmly. "A word of advice: go tell Pelas as soon as you can."

"Pelas? Why?"

Errin stared at her for a moment and huffed. "Nevermind. Just go. I think you can catch her at the training room if you hurry."

"Alright. Thanks, Errin." Oriana said before she dashed off.

Just as Errin said, she found Pelas in the training room doing biotic weightlifting by herself. The female turian was a few years older than she was, but they were in the same genetic theory class together. Her friend stopped her routine and set aside the weights when she saw her waving at her from outside the glass partition.

Pelas' eyes lit up and she signaled Oriana in. "Ori! Come on in. How did you like the match?"

Oriana felt like an ass. "I'm so sorry, Pelas. I missed it."

Pelas looked down on the floor. Her mandibles trembled ever so slightly.

Oh no, oh no. She's really upset! I've really messed up! Oriana inwardly cringed.

Pelas lied. "Oh. It's not that interesting anyway. Not everyone is into biotiball. Besides, I only got to play the last five minutes to replace Taria. She is an excellent Forward, but she lacks stamina. We won, by the way." She paused for a moment and asked, "so what brought you here?"

Not exactly sure how to break the news to her friend without making herself looking like an even worse asshole, Oriana took out the carefully folded pamphlet from her pocket and handed it to Pelas.

"Eden Prime Colony Development Student Exchange Program." Pelas read out the title and began to flip through the pages. Oriana was not all that great with interpreting turian facial expressions, but even she could tell Pelas was getting upset. "You're leaving."

"I haven't decided yet." Oriana protested weakly. Her words sounded false to her own ears.

"Yes, you are leaving." Pelas muttered, her shoulders slumped in dejection.

After an awkward moment of silence, Pelas straightened up and returned the pamphlet. "Congratulations, Ori. This is a dream come true for you. You should totally go for it."

"But that means I'll have to leave you guys behind. I don't know if I can do it."

Pelas stared at her thoughtfully for a long minute. "Honestly, that shouldn't be a factor at all. This is your future we're talking about. You're an exceptional human, Ori. You'll make new friends. And there is this magical invention called the extranet, I don't know if you've heard of it. I expect you to keep in contact. I don't mean short texts, either. I want holos and vids."

Oriana tackled her friend into a tight hug. Pelas flailed a bit in her arms, but eventually the stiff turian hugged her back. "You're the best friend ever." Oriana said, sniffing a little.

"I know. I'm awesome like that."

Oriana pulled back from the hug, feeling more than a little guilty. "That also means I won't be able to see your next match. I'm a lousy friend."

Pelas shook her head and replied slowly. "Ah. There won't be a next match for me, I'm afraid."

That was news to her. Oriana frowned in a mix of concern and confusion. "What do you mean?"

"There are… events happening on Palaven. Whatever it is, it's way above my rank. Long story short, I'm being recalled back to the Cabal." Pelas shrugged, a gesture she had picked up from Oriana, and stressed, "it's mandatory."

Oriana was aghast, if not a little outraged. "Can they do that? You're in the middle of your program! This is Illium. You don't even live in a turian colony!"

"Regardless, I'm still a Silvosus." Pelas traced the blue clan insignia painted on her pale faceplate, and added subduedly, "perhaps it's negotiable for other turians, but I'm a special asset. There aren't that many turian biotics around. I'm scheduled to ship out in two weeks. I was planning to tell you sooner."

"That's not fair."

Pelas tilted her head, her mandibles quivered in good humor. "I'm a turian. I do my duty."

Oriana wasn't sure what the proper response for that should be, but apparently Pelas knew just how to cheer her up. "At least I'm not Errin." Pelas pretended to shudder in fright. "I can't imagine the freak out I'd have if I were locked in a breeding contract with a complete stranger at twelve."

"You don't have to convince me." Oriana scrunched up her face in distaste. "I know it's a salarian thing, but I just can't get over the yuck."

"That we can both agree on." Pelas said with a sigh. In an obvious effort to change the subject, she asked cheerfully, "so tell me more about this program. Eden Prime… Why does it sound so familiar?"

Oriana twiddled her thumbs nervously. "Um, you might have heard of the planet on the news a little while back."

Pelas' mandibles fell wide open at the reminder. "That's the planet the geth attacked! Ori! I can't believe this! What are you thinking?!"

"Whoa, chill. The geth are gone now. Commander Shepard led the charge and defeated their invasion force at the Battle of the Citadel. It's over. Don't you see? This is why they have the exchange program. The war is over, and Eden Prime needs every help rebuilding. They have Alliance patrols and everything. It's perfectly safe."

The look on Pelas' face was plain that she was less than convinced. "Ori, the war might be over, but the geth are still out there. Who knows what they'll do now that the Commander is gone?"

"It'll be alright. I promise. And speaking of the first human Spectre, did you know there's a settlement on Eden Prime named after her? The initial settlers were all personally rescued by the Commander from the geth on a different world and subsequently relocated there. I was just chatting with the mayor of Janestown outside. He told me he was on the Normandy - yes, that Normandy - for three days!"

"Janestown?"

Oriana beamed. Though her effort to change the subject was pathetic, she was happy to see Pelas playing along. "Commander Jane Shepard. Jane's Town. Got it?"

"I see." Pelas seemed amused by her enthusiasm. "I didn't realize you have such a serious case of hero worship."

"Well, excuse me, but the Commander is every human's hero." Oriana crossed her arms, feeling a little embarrassed for some reason. "In my opinion, she is the finest soldier of this generation. She should be every turian's hero, too."

Pelas cleared her throat. "Well, yes, way to stereotype... But I can't say you're wrong. Our entire species really does love our war heros. You should compare notes with my little brother. Plubius has an entire shelf full of Commander Shepard action figurines. Just the other day, he was telling me how he was going to grow up and be a kickass vanguard like the Commander. He is not even a biotic!"

"Yeah, no. I don't think I'm that bad."

"Thank the Spirits!" Pelas praised mockingly.

Oriana scowled at her friend.

"In any case, try to be careful. I worry about you."

"Hey, that's my line." Oriana took the turian's talons and squeezed it affectionately. "You are the one who is being forced back to military service. I bet you'll see more geth than I ever will. I still don't get why they want more biotics now. You would think they need more engineers to deal with the geth."

Pelas finished the train of thought for her. "Unless it's not geth we'll be fighting." She murmured.

Oriana frowned at her friend. "What do you mean?"

Pelas shook her head. "Nothing. Just thinking out loud."

"Well then, if you don't have anywhere else you need to be, why don't we grab Errin and go hang out somewhere? We still have a couple hours before the next class starts."

x-x-x

After leaving Lokasenna station on the same merchant freighter, Joker was dropped off at the Citadel without fanfare. A week after that, he arrived at the small colony of Tiptree located in the Horsehead nebula via a rental shuttle, home at last.

His father was still working at the dock when he showed up at the house, but his baby sister Hilary was there to greet him.

"Look at you! You're so tall now." Joker grinned widely while pulling the young girl in a hug. He had wanted to pick her up and spin her around like he used to, unfortunately that would be an impossible feat to replicate since she was beginning to shoot up like a weed at thirteen.

"I can't believe you're home! Why didn't you call ahead, you jerk!" Hilary kissed his scruffy cheeks and then punched him in the arm.

"I wanted to surprise you, of course. Here, look what I got you." Joker opened his luggage and took out a neatly wrapped box.

Hilary gawked.

"Open it."

She ripped apart the gift wrap like it was Christmas morning. "Oh my god! It's the Normandy!" Hilary squealed like an overexcited puppy while waving the model ship around.

"Found it in a souvenir shop on the Citadel. Thought you might like it. Some assemblies required. I can help if you want." Joker offered. The expensive toy was the same limited edition, made-for-turian precision model that Commander Shepard had recommended when it first came out half a year ago. When Joker saw it in the store, it was all but given that he would fork over the credits.

"Yes! Let's build it now." Hilary beamed.

They spent the rest of the afternoon holed up in the kitchen, putting the model ship together at the dinner table while catching up. It was not until the ship was halfway done did her sister decided that the charade had gone on long enough.

"Jeff, are you going to tell me why you're home?" Hilary asked casually without looking up from the small pieces she was trying to glue together.

Joker remained silent as he internally debated what to tell his sister.

Hilary clicked her tongue in annoyance. "Just because I'm the baby in the family, it doesn't mean I'm stupid, you know. You refused to come home after you were shot down. Why are you here now?"

"Because here is where I need to be." Joker replied truthfully. And that was about all he could say without revealing classified information.

"Did you… quit?" Hilary asked delicately. It was obvious she wanted to know if he was kicked out of the Alliance.

Joker gave her a tired smile. "Leave of absence. You guys were right. I needed a timeout after what happened. So here I am." Now that was half truth at best. Nonetheless, Hilary bought it, because she never pried again after that.

Four days after he came home, an uninvited visitor showed up at his doorstep. Right on schedule.

"Hawthorne? What are you doing here?" Joker frowned at the man in a mixture of dismay and confusion. Private Thomas Hawthorne was one of the many new transfers assigned to the Normandy after the Battle of Citadel. One that he actually liked. Despite the short time they had served together, Joker had always thought Hawthorne to be a pretty chill guy.

Apparently, looks could be deceiving. Inwardly, Joker was cursing himself for being such a gullible fool. Who would have thought this chill guy was actually a Cerberus plant within the Alliance?

x-x-x

A similar scene was playing out in a quiet bar in a different system.

"Jenny? Is that you?" Gabriella put down her drink as she squinted at the woman to make out her familiar features. Even in the dim light, there was no mistake that the person was Corporal Jenny Goldstein, a comm specialist who served with them on the Perugia under Admiral Kahoku. They weren't exactly best buds since they worked on different decks, but they had served on the same ship together for two years. Kenneth had commented more than one occasion how long and shapely Goldstein's legs were.

"Yeah, it's me." Goldstein smirked a little and added, "you can close your mouth now, Kenneth."

Kenneth's face flushed a dark red. Most people would probably think the big oaf was flustered, but Gabriella knew better. Her best friend was trying to control his temper. After all, he had just found out that a comrade in arms had been a traitor the entire time.

When Dr. T'Soni informed them of their assignment, they had thought the Cerberus recruiter would be this evil, shady person with a silver tongue. Goldstein was witty and likable. More importantly, she had been a friend.

"Are you on shore leave? What are doing here on Terra Nova? And how did you find us?" Gabriella asked, hoping this meeting was purely a coincidence, and not what she thought it was.

"I handed in my letter when I heard you guys left. I've been looking for you. I've got to admit, it hasn't been easy." Goldstein replied, and her answer made Gabriella's heart drop to her stomach.

"Why?" Kenneth asked curtly before taking another sip from his glass. It was pretty clear he was in a bad mood now. Oh boy. Gabriella briefly contemplated kicking him under the table as a reminder to cool his head.

Goldstein tilted her head. "Why? Because what happened wasn't right. You two are the most brilliant engineers I know, and the Alliance used you and threw you away. Your talent has been wasted."

"Well, sometimes life sucks. But you said so yourself, we are brilliant engineers. We can find employment pretty much anywhere. We're just taking some time off for now, you know, take it easy, travel a bit." Gabriella shrugged nonchalantly.

"And visit dive bars such as this fine establishment?" Goldstein raised an eyebrow at the comment.

"Don't knock the bar. Their scotch is just fine." Kenneth said in a huff. He sounded calm. Gabriella was impressed. It looked like kicking wouldn't be necessary anymore.

"Well, I'll have to judge for myself." Goldstein joined their table and waved down a waitress to order a drink.

"Jokes aside, you still haven't told us how you found us." Gabriella brought the topic up again because she was genuinely puzzled. "Since we left the Arcturus station, we've been wandering around aimlessly, bar-hopping. I wouldn't have known I was going to this particular bar until I decided to walk in."

Goldstein gave her a wink. "I am an excellent comm specialist, Gabby."

Gabriella couldn't believe this. The crazy N7s had been right to act so paranoid. She actually felt ill just to know that this Cerberus spy had been assigned by the Alliance to handle all the inbound and outbound communications for a military vessel. It was the equivalent of hiring a fox to guard the chicken coop. "Did you hack my Omni-tool?!"

"Not exactly. Let's just say I know people who are very good at finding other people."

It sounded like they were being stalked. Dr. T'Soni had warned them this would happen.

The deep crease between Kenneth's brows was a clear indication that her best friend was more than a little perturbed by this information as well. "That's… Ok. I don't even know where to begin. It's… Um."

Gabriella picked up where Kenneth had left off and spoke bluntly, "creepy, that's what. What is wrong with you?"

"The better question is, Gabby," Goldstein replied softly, the expression on her face was a picture of guileless sincerity mixed with a hint of grave concern. Gabriella almost wanted to believe her. "What could possibly be so important that I would go to this length to find you?"

"What do you mean?" Kenneth asked with a frown.

Goldstein paused for a moment for dramatic effect before she continued smoothly, her voice low and somber. "Commander Shepard was right, the Reapers are real. And what did the Council do about this threat? Nothing. No, it's worse than nothing. Those politicians are going to get everyone killed because they scorn humanity. It's vile, what they've done to smear Commander Shepard's good name after she had saved them all from Sovereign. And the Alliance - ha! They would rather kiss alien ass than listen to their own people. They're all the same corrupt crooks who only care about their careers." Her face twisted in disgust as she took a sip from her glass.

Gabriella exchanged a look with Kenneth. Honestly, she was impressed. Goldstein was really good at this. If they hadn't been warned beforehand, they might have bought her impassioned recruitment speech. Then again, Goldstein had been working as a Cerberus spy within the Alliance for years. It made perfect sense she would be so good at her job.

"Preach to the choir, why don't you." Kenneth muttered into his drink. Gabriella tried not to snort at her friend's dry comment.

As good as Goldstein was at being a persuasive recruiter, she obviously didn't know Kenneth well enough to discern the real meaning behind his words. He was getting impatient and wanted her to hurry up and finish her space Nazi diatribe, not agreeing with her.

"Some things are simply beyond our control, Jenny. Commander Shepard is dead. The world is ending. Nobody cares. There is nothing we can do to change it." Gabriella said with a shrug. Her reply was meant to nudge the conversation to the right place so they didn't have to suffer through any more long winded villain monologue.

Goldstein's eyes glinted with triumphant. "What if I told you there is something we can do?"

Hook, line, and sinker. "Yeah, right." Gabriella laughed. Kenneth chuckled with her.

Ignorant to the real reason why they were so tickled, Goldstein grinned.

x-x-x

This is not Shepard.

Joker stared transfixed at the mangled body floating inside the tank, and repeated the mantra to himself.

This is not Shepard.

During the briefing at the Lokasenna station, Liara had informed them of Cerberus' perverse plot to recreate legends - a new and improved Normandy to go with a new and improved Commander Shepard. The young widow was made aware of Cerberus' unhealthy interest in Shepard when their agent attempted to bargain with her a scant week after the Normandy was shot down.

To counter their machination, Liara had conspired with Admiral Hackett to fabricate a fake copy to bamboozle the terrorist organization. Her scheme was proven successful - intel suggested that Cerberus was none the wiser of the deception since they continued pouring a massive amount of resources into resurrecting Shepard.

Joker couldn't help but wonder whether Cerberus's mad scientists really could raise the dead. It would be utterly unnatural but beyond amazing if they could bring the Commander back to life…

Nah. Joker shook his head. If there were even a snowball's chance in hell, Liara would be the first one to jump on it. The fact that she hadn't meant that there was absolutely no way Cerberus could make it work.

"It's impossible." Joker muttered under his breath. Empty eye sockets stared back at him. Under the patchwork of tattered muscles and fraying sinews, the doppelganger's expression was frozen in a tortured silent scream. This was not a person. This was a tangle of meat and tubes. This was a fake. This was NOT Shepard.

Joker was, all of a sudden, furious. Toombs' ghastly first hand account of his experience under Cerberus's tender care was the stuff of nightmare. He thought he was mentally prepared when he agreed to the undercover mission Liara had laid out for him, but the sight of Shepard's doppelganger pickled in a glorified mason jar was positively nauseating. "She's dead!" His clenched fists shook as he resisted the urge to punch the reinforced glass because all it would accomplish was to wreck his fragile hands. Again.

"Debatable, depending on how you look at it." Said a smooth, feminine voice from behind him. Joker jumped from the unexpected sound; he thought he was alone when Hawthorne left him here to have a private moment. When he took a good look at the intruder, his brain all but stalled from the visual whiplash.

Breasts.

Perfect, perky, magnificent breasts, trapped underneath a thin layer of tight spandex. Joker couldn't help but squint and tried to find the outline of her nipples - no visible bra line. If he dared to put his hands on those lovely melons and squeeze, he imagined they would lightly spill over the tip of his fingers while her nipples scraped his palms…

"My eyes are up here, Lieutenant Moreau." The owner of those exquisite tits said in an arctic voice that wilted his boner in an instant.

Joker's head snapped up as he automatically straightened at attention. His guts was yelling at him that this woman would rip his dick off if she detected the slightest disrespect. Now that his eyes were no longer glued to her tits, he could see that it wasn't just her breasts that were perfect.

"Um…" His throat was dry. Joker felt stupid standing there, gawking like a complete idiot.

"Miranda Lawson, Lead of the Lazarus Project. You're on my station. Close your mouth."

Joker's teeth clicked together. In his hurry, he was shocked he didn't bite his tongue.

Lawson's grey eyes held little warmth, but they weren't unkind when she studied him. She must have gotten used to people staring at her boobs all day long. "I was told you absolutely needed to see Commander Shepard with your own eyes before you signed on. Are you convinced now?"

Joker swallowed. It didn't help. "She's… There's no skin. It doesn't look like her." He cringed at his own display of blatant stupidity. Why did he have to say the first thing that came to his mind all the time? The last thing he wanted was to tip people off that this fake was not the real Commander Shepard.

To his surprise, Lawson's full lips curved to a faint smile as she regarded the floating body with obvious affection. "Perhaps not. Beauty is never skin deep, Lieutenant. It takes discerning eyes to see the truth." She turned back to gave him an evaluating look, one meticulously shaped eyebrow arched in amusement. "After all, you don't look like the best pilot in the Alliance, either."

Joker was torned between bristling with indignation and puffing his chest up like a peacock. Damn. Drop dead gorgeous, intelligent, and charismatic. He found it difficult to dislike Lawson even knowing she was working for the baddies.

"Do you really think you can do it? Bring her back, I mean." He hated how weak and desperate he sounded.

Lawson didn't answer immediately. If she had said yes without pause, Joker would have thought worse of her. "She was dead when we found her. Now she has a heartbeat. So yes, I believe I can bring her back. I will fail only when I stop trying. Does that answer your questions?"

"Yeah." A traitorous part of his mind wondered whether Liara had made a mistake by not handing Shepard's real body over. Lawson sounded so convinced of her eventual success. What if...

"Are you onboard?"

Joker wiped the cold sweat off his palm and took the hand extended towards him in a firm handshake. "Hell yeah."

x-x-x

"She's trying to kill me." Shepard muttered to herself, her eyes glued to one of the many screens of the Broker feed in Liara's office that used to be the Captain's cabin.

The Enigma was a tiny ship. They had started out in the the comm centre, but at the end they had to rip apart the Captain's cabin next door as well to fit all the equipment inside a secured area. Shepard was a little choked to lose her private bedroom, along with her privacy with Liara. Now they shared a bottom bunk in the crew quarter with everyone. Neither of them minded the narrow bed and her crew was more than happy to give them privacy when the door was locked. All in all, it wasn't a terrible arrangement, but it did suck.

When they transferred all the essential assets out of the Broker ship, Liara had used the opportunity to make several upgrades to streamline the information gathering processes, one of which was the multiple-channel live feeds on priority targets. Glyph was set to alert her in the event of any unusual activities. While Liara was away on a much needed vacation, Shepard was supposed to help out.

This was how she found herself in the current predicament.

"Who's trying to do what?" Tali perked up from the console she had been working on to give Shepard a curious glance.

Shepard jumped at the unexpected question. She hadn't seen Tali when she walked in, and she hadn't thought to check, either. Hastily, she grabbed the screen with both hands and tilted it away from Tali's line of sight. "Nothing." She said, her voice was an octave higher than usual.

The faint glow of Tali's pale eyes narrowed behind her purple tinted faceplate.

Shepard avoided making eye contact and kept her hands on the edge of the screen to save Tali from having to bleach her brain later. The urge to pull at her collar to let in some cool air to sooth her warm skin was getting stronger by the second. "It's, um, Liara."

"What about her?" Tali asked, tilting her head in puzzlement.

Shepard swallowed back 'doing a goddamn strip tease in her living room because she knew I'd be checking up on her through the Broker feed' with some difficulties. At least now she knew who had set up the camera in Liara's apartment. Not that she was complaining, but Shepard would have never imagined her shy, socially awkward bondmate would pull an Aria and wield her own sex appeal as a deadly weapon against her. And wow. Where the hell did she learn to twerk like a professional pole dancer?

"Shepard?" Tali spoke again, this time with a tinge of concern in her voice.

Exerting her much diminished willpower, Shepard tore her gaze away from the erotic peep show and fixed her eyes on the young quarian instead. She had been staring at the screen the whole time instead of answering the question. "Hum? Oh. Liara. She's fine." Her tongue felt thick in her mouth. Everything about Liara was fine. The only thing that was not fine was the impractical see-through black lingerie hugging her curves like a second layer of skin. Shepard had yet to decide whether she preferred peeling them off carefully while showering Liara's skin with feather-like kisses or ripping the sheer fabric apart with her teeth like an animal.

Tali propped a hand on her hips. Her body language was clear that she was highly skeptical of Shepard's claim. "Sure she is. You know what? How about I give you two some space. I've got other stuff to do anyway. Have fun." She said, and sauntered away. Shepard could almost see the sly grin on her face through the tinted glass.

Of course a quarian would know what shenanigans they were up to. While the asari might be the most sexualized race of the Milky Way, the quarians were the undisputed master of no-contact sex. Feeling the tips of her ears burn at the implication, Shepard was not sure if she should be more exasperated or excited by Liara's attempt to torment her. Why did she think sending her workaholic wife away for an extended vacation was a good idea in the first place? Now that Liara had no work to occupy her time, she was free to do as she pleased. Sometimes Shepard forgot Liara was only one hundred and seven, the equivalent of late teens to early twenty by human standards. If an asari's wild maiden years was anything like a human's early adulthood, then it meant she had sent her bondmate off to spring break half a galaxy away, on a planet nearly as debaucherous as Omega, with Aethyta on hand as sole supervision.

"I've made a huge mistake."

On the screen, the camera provided an excellent angle to look down at Liara's cleavage, her full breasts straining against the gossamer black lace that did nothing to conceal the outline of her hardened nipples. Her skin glistened and glowed in the moonlight under a light sheen of sweat while she twisted and gyrated to the soft music that the hidden camera could barely make out. Thankfully, the video quality was much, much better than the audio. Shepard followed the meandering path Liara's fingers were tracing oh so slowly down her torso, lingering at the patch of smooth skin above her waistline, and then back up to cup her own breasts. When Liara's head tipped back with a drawn out moan as she pinched her nipples through the lace, Shepard was certain her own head was going to explode.

Why had she decided to run to the Voyager cluster to spy on the Normandy's construction again? Oh, right, Enigma's stealth function was the best surveillance tool to bypass Cerberus security at their private shipyard. And she needed to be in close proximity to their supply ships in order to deploy Widget to hack into their navigation system.

Liara must truly resent being forced to take a vacation on her own because she ramped up the next level of torture by sending a sultry smirk before she turned her back to the camera, and then undid the front clasp of her bra. With a casual flick, the thin straps tumbled off her shoulders and the garment landed on the floor in a discarded heap.

Shepard's heart pounded in her throat while she mentally begged her bondmate to turn around.

Liara did not heed her wishes. Instead, she bent at the waist to pick up a small bottle on the floor. The prints were large enough for the cursive asari script to be legible.

Massage oil.

Shepard seriously contemplated calling Liara and pleading for mercy because she could guess where this was going. One-sided, unfair vid sex, really? Their scheduled rendezvous would be nine days from now. If Liara insisted on playing this game, Shepard just knew she was going to die of excessive teasing.

Liara upended the glass bottle and drizzled a generous amount of massage oil on a cupped palm. She glanced back, twisting her upper body towards the camera without revealing anything important, and rubbed her palms together to spread the warm liquid around. Shepard panted at the sight of Liara's oil-slick fingers gliding along her delicate neckfolds, her blue eyes half-lidded and hazy from arousal but remained fixed on the camera to maintain eye contact. She knew Shepard was watching, and she intended to make her suffer.

"Commander, you have received a Priority One message. The line is open. Rerouting." Glyph's chipper voice didn't register in Shepard's mind initially, but when the insectoid face of the Collector General plastered over the screen she was holding, she was shocked into warping the hardware to a smoking heap on reflex.

"Fucking hell!" Shepard scrambled backward, flaring her biotics in agitation while her hand flew to her belt for a pistol that wasn't there. Blood roaring in her ears, Shepard snarled at the wall of screens from the Broker's feed, each one showing the same ugly wide face with four yellow eyes that glowed like searchlights.

"Shadow Broker. Cut off all communications in the human colony at the attached coordinates. You have forty-eight hours."

Think, damnit! Stall for time!

"Forty-eight hours is not enough time. Our agents…"

The Collector General cut her off with a high pitched screech that grated like a rusty nail on chalkboard. "We will not be delayed by your incompetence! You have forty-eight hours." The screen cut to black after that.

"The line is closed. End of message. Resuming regular feeds." Glyph chirped cheerfully.

Shepard had never wanted to scrap the fucking info drone as badly as now. "Glyph, listen carefully. The next time you put anyone through without asking permission first, I swear I will render you down to a pile of omni-gel, that I'll then use to patch the leaking toilet."

Glyph sounded significantly more subdued after being threatened with bodily harm. "Noted."

Taking a deep breath to calm her hammering heart, Shepard tapped on the main console to wake the display from sleep mode. "Show me the coordinates on the galaxy map."

"Beaumonde, a human colony in Sigurd's Cradles, population 2,141. Its main industry is small scale farming and food processing to supply the Omega station. ETA seven days, two hours and twenty-one minutes."

Shepard slammed her fist into the bulkhead. Over two thousand innocent people were going to be butchered and she was helpless to do anything about it. She was given forty-eight hours, and she was seven days away. What was the point of taking over an entire Broker network for the intel if she could not act on it?

"Glyph, do we have agents in the area?" The moment those words left her lips, Shepard knew it was a stupid question. What use were spies when the enemies came by the size of a dreadnought? Worse still, she would have to do the Collector's bidding and cut off all communications around Beaumonde while its colonists were being herded like cattle for slaughter. If she refused to obey in order to save two thousand lives right now, she would lose out on future intel, thus condemning all future victims.

But the part that sent her seething in impotent rage was the thought that even if she could somehow reach Beaumonde in two day's time, there was absolutely nothing she could do to prevent the massacre.

"Yes, we do, Commander. Of our senior operatives, agent Shora is currently stationed at Beaumonde for an ongoing operation. Agent Feron is stationed at Whitefall, a human colony in the same cluster. Agent Calamis and agent Murat are on Omega. Agent Nyxeris and Dr. T'Soni are in Nos Astra..."

"Stop."

The info drone wisely shut up.

There had to be something she could do. Shepard refused to believe otherwise. She didn't travel back in time just to throw up her hands when confronted with a seemingly unscalable obstacle. The N7 logo she wore on her chestplate was there for a reason. When her back was against the wall, she'd better fucking use it.

"Secure a channel. Get me the agent on Beaumonde, stat."

x-x-x

A/N: Yes, Andromeda players, the commandos are the ones you think. I simply could not resist. Pelas and Errin are both characters taken from Armax Arsenal fan mails. About Joker: Liara gave the Neptune cell misleading info before she sent them undercover to make their reactions convincing (aka to fool the enemy, you first fool your allies). Joker didn't know Shepard was alive. Those of you who are waiting for the reveal scene will have to wait awhile. Also, work is going to be crazy for the next two months. I may not have much time to write. I'll try, but no promises.