Book II - Chapter 10: Manipulation
Vasir was not the type of woman who took rejection gracefully.
A few wide eyed interns scurried out of the way when they saw her stepped off the elevator, her aura thrumming in clear agitation. The brave receptionist hurriedly stood to greet her at the lobby, presumably to stop her from storming Councilor Tevos' office unannounced. One blistering glare from the Spectre melted away the young maiden's courage faster than thresher maw acid could. Vasir strutted past the now terrified receptionist and continued down the hall unimpeded. At this moment she didn't give a flying fuck whether the Councilor was available or not. She had no time to waste on diplomacy.
"... without the support of the Republic in general. The Atamna Politeia will have to…" Tevos abruptly stopped talking mid vid-call when she noticed Vasir had barged in her office. Shooting a look of clear disapproval at the intruder, Tevos quickly finished her call. "Apologies, Lady Ishara. We will talk again at a later time. I'm needed elsewhere."
As soon as the connection ended, Tevos rounded towards Vasir and snapped, "what do you think you're doing?!"
"Getting answers." Vasir replied just as sharply. Any of her colleagues might have been cowed by the Councilor's temper, but not her. They had known each other for too long, had too much history together to feint politeness when she was in no mood for it.
Tevos put a hand over her eyes for a long moment to compose herself. Eventually she let out a long sigh. When she folded her hands together on her lap, her countenance was peaceful once again. "How may I help you, Spectre?"
For some reason, seeing Tevos recover her composure so quickly pissed Vasir off like nothing else. Goddess! Vasir swore in her head. She would choose dealing with crime lords over pretentious politicians every time.
"I had a chat with Admiral Vellana of the Illium fleet just now. I was told that the entire fleet was restricted to within Illium space. Apparently my authority as a Spectre was insufficient to override the travel ban. This meant the ban came from the Council directly. I am sitting on time sensitive intel that has egregious ramifications if not acted upon immediately. So please, enlighten me. What the hell is going on?"
Tevos leveled her gaze at Vasir steadily. "I gave the order."
Vasir inwardly questioned if she had heard wrong. "You did what?"
"I grounded you. Rest assured, this is only temporary." The Councilor sat with her elbows on the desk and her chin resting on the back of her folded hands, a picture of the patient matriarch waiting for a hotheaded youngling to get a hold of herself.
"But why?" Vasir asked, equal parts disbelieving and outraged. When she was first informed that she was expressly forbidden to sail beyond the Crescent Nebula, she had thought there must have been a mistake. Surely, a Spectre had the authority to commandeer any ships registered in the Council space, especially the Republic's owned military vessels. As a veteran who had been serving as a Spectre for two hundred years, to be told otherwise was a slap to her face.
"It is the will of the High Command."
"The High Command has no jurisdiction over…"
"It is also the will of the Council." Tevos interrupted.
Vasir crossed her arms in front of her chest and glared. Tevos' argument was complete pyjak shit and they both knew it.
Tevos sighed and leaned back into the plush office chair. "Fine. We're trying to keep this situation contained, but if you must know. The turians lost a heavy cruiser and three reconnaissance frigates. An entire unit of STG has gone dark. Another one came back with half of its operatives in body bags. We're not throwing away more lives."
Vasir frowned and uncrossed her arms. This was news to her. "What happened?" She probed cautiously. Spooking the Councilor would only make her clam up. It would be best to tread lightly.
"That's what we've been trying to find out." There was genuine frustration in Tevos' voice. "It's a mess. The turian cruiser Viribus took a detour from their scheduled patrol route in the Phoenix Massing since they received an SOS in the area. That was the last we heard from them. We found ship debris a week later. The residual energy signature did not match any known geth weapons."
In the Phoenix Massing, so close to the Veil. If not geth, then what else? Normal pirate ships wouldn't have enough firepower to take on a turian heavy cruiser. Unless it was a fleet? Yet no fleet would risk skirting geth territory when there were more fertile grounds for piracy one relay away. It made no sense.
"What about the recon frigates?" Vasir asked.
Tevos' expression darkened. "They were sent out to track down the unknown dreadnought that shot down the Normandy. One disappeared in the Omega Nebula, two in Hourglass Nebula, all around the same time the human colony Ariel was attacked."
Vasir gave Tevos a startled look.
The Councilor clicked her tongue with a scowl of annoyance at Vasir's reaction. "Of course it was attacked. We encouraged the rumor of their mysterious disappearance because we wanted stability, not because we were daft. Seven hundred people didn't spontaneously evaporate into thin air. This was not a simple batarian raid, or geth. Something extremely deadly is lurking in the Terminus systems. The High Command agreed that it was futile to chase ghosts. We're trying to limit our casualties here."
"I noticed you didn't say anything about the STG." Vasir pointed it out.
Tevos snorted. "That's a whole 'nother can of worms. Valern was convinced that the batarians were involved. The unit that went dark was lost investigating a military research facility on Khar'shan that was studying the Leviathan of Dis. As for the second unit, well, let's just say pissing off the Pirate Queen while onboard the Omega station was detrimental to one's health."
Vasir resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of her nose. This headache inducing news was not what she had expected to hear when she decided to confront Tevos for grounding her.
Damn Shepard. And damn herself, too. Why did she feel compelled to help that troublesome woman every time she asked? Well, too bad. There was only so much Vasir could do. Whatever was happening in Sigurd's Cradles in two day's time was Shepard's own problem now. Vasir was stuck on the Citadel, and no asari ship would sail beyond the Crescent Nebula. It seemed the human had finally ran out of luck.
And speaking of humans, what had they been up to? It was hard to imagine Councilor Anderson would sit back meekly while the rest of the Council was inundated with all the troubles brewing in the Terminus systems. Vasir voiced her question out loud, and got a dismissive wave from Tevos as a reply.
"The humans have been busy cleaning up the Citadel and rebuilding the Council fleet since their induction. Besides, the Alliance still needs to patrol their colonies within the Traverse for geth incursion amongst other things. Councilor Anderson agreed that the matters related to the Terminus systems should be left to more experienced hands."
In other words, the humans had enough on their plates. Their focus right now was on securing their hard-earned place within the Council, not looking outward to the lawless edge of the galaxy. The Alliance had been too ambitious, had taken on too much and was spread too thin to spare their attention elsewhere. Shepard would not find any help on that front either.
Vasir shook her head, feeling quite disgusted by her inability to help. Relaying the bad news to the stubborn woman was going to suck.
No. It simply wouldn't do.
"Where are you going?" Tevos asked as Vasir headed for the door.
Vasir paused long enough to reply, "finding a different solution," before she was gone.
The Collector problem was the one thing that kept Shepard away from the center stage of the imminent Reaper invasion. As aggravating as it was to rely on a single young human, the galaxy needed Shepard. Her victory against Saren and Sovereign had made her a symbol of hope that could boost troop morale and rally support. In a war to decide the fate of all races, they needed a hero.
There had to be something she could do.
By the time Vasir reached the Spectre Office, she was in a foul mood. She had been thinking in circles the whole way while making zero progress. She had even checked the terminal twice, but there was nothing relevant that could remotely be of use.
"Rough day?" A familiar voice interrupted her jumbled thought.
Vasir turned around, a smile slowly crept up her face as a new idea popped into her head. If she played her cards right, this might just work. "Hello, Bau. I've been seeing you here a lot lately."
Jondum Bau gave her a friendly wave. "Paperwork, unfortunately. I'm taking over most of Rix's cases since he quit."
Vasir frowned at her colleague. "That's unexpected. I always thought the old bird was planning to die on the job."
"He left because he felt responsible for Saren's defection. He induced him to our rank, after all."
Varis scowled at the unhappy news. "Damn his moronic sense of honor. He should've stayed. We could use his help dealing with the mess his protege left behind."
Bau studied her face unblinkingly and said, "I was told you looked ready to punch someone's lights out when you stormed out of Councilor Tevos' office."
"Why, so we can commiserate together? I heard you were ready to kick Valern in the teeth when you last met with him."
Bau shook his head in good humor. "An exaggeration, I assure. I was merely… displeased by the news of the missing STG unit on Khar'shan. You have heard of it, yes?"
Vasir nodded. "Just now. After I was denied to act on time-sensitive intel. I never knew the turians had lost four ships in the Terminus systems already."
"I'm not surprised. Sparatus always keeps things close to his carapace."
"More like he had too much pride to accept setbacks gracefully. He's probably taking the losses as a personal insult to his dignity." Vasir privately admitted she was guilty of the same flaw, but she was never going to say it out loud. "What's your thought on all of this?"
"I think we don't have nearly enough information. The situation is far from ideal, but we simply must send more agents out. It is monumentally foolish to operate in the dark, when so much is at stake." Bau said.
Vasir agreed. "True," she paused for a second, and added more by playing it off as an afterthought. "Although, if it's information you need, I believe I have something you can use to get Valern off your back."
Bau blinked rapidly at her. When it became obvious she had no incentive to continue, he prompted in a clipping tone. "And what would you like in exchange for such intel?"
"Do you know of any STG units near Sigurd's Cradles that you can spare?"
"You are asking for a lot." Bau eyed her warily.
"I promise, you will like what I can tell you. Trust me."
After a long moment of tense silence, Bau finally relented with a sigh. "Fine. Here is the contact info for Commander Rentola. His unit is currently active in the Titan Nebula. I have no idea what his mission status is. You probably don't remember him, but he was Captain Kirrahe's second-in-command for the Virmire mission. I imagine he would be eager to help you as long as he is available."
"I will make sure he is." Vasir winked.
"And?" Bau gestured for her to keep talking.
Vasir gave the salarian an impish grin that showed more teeth than strictly necessary. "About your missing stealth frigate - it's not missing. It has been commandeered."
Bau stared at her with his jaw hanging loose.
"It is an invisible ship, so good luck finding it."
Vasir didn't stop to chat. Laughing merrily, she ignored Bau's call and went on her way. She had work to do, people to harass, and a friend to help.
The light frigate Liara had procured was the fastest model she could find on such short notice. It came with a decent shield, and it only required one pilot to navigate.
Two days ago, Liara had expected her bondmate to sound like a wound up ball of libidinous mess when she answered her call. Her hope was dashed as soon as Shepard spoke her name in a resigned, apologetic tone that doused her desire better than a bucket of cold water.
For the next two days while aboard the borrowed ship, Liara spent the majority of her time establishing rapport with her new disciples, the commandos of Talein's Daughters. In other words, they talked. A lot. And she listened. Liara asked about their backgrounds, the skills they had, the way they fought, and what they wanted out of their retainership. During her time on the Normandy, Liara had learnt from Shepard's example that it was not so much about the mission itself, but the prep work and the people she was working with that generally determined the outcome. As their benefactor (because the traditional title of "Matriarch" was wholly unsuitable in her case), Liara had a responsibility to protect her retainers to the best of her ability. Planning for a successful mission by exploring every advantage fell squarely in that category.
Kalia, the medic, was a skilled adept who excelled at controlling the flow of the battlefield. Due to her specialty, she had the tendency to hover. About fifty years ago, she was three years into med school when her family declared bankruptcy because her mother's business had failed. Aethyta had stepped in and sponsored her all the way until she had completed her residency in emergency medicine. In return, Kalia later signed up for commando work as a field medic to repay the matriarch's kindness.
Valenza was a tank. As a trained valkyrie, her job was to draw enemy fire while dealing damage up close. Coming from a religious family, she was as devout as she was loyal. She loved children. If her desire to have daughters weren't so strong, she might have considered joining the justicar order instead of a regular commando unit. When asked, all she would say was that she admired Aethyta's character. No other reasons were given as to why she had decided to follow the unconventional matriarch.
Tethys was the Garrus of the team. She was reliable as a friend, and even more so as the ace sniper with a M-97 Viper in her hands. Orphaned as a youngling, she was raised in a state funded communal home in Armali, where House T'Soni had been directly responsible for numerous public projects for generations. Liara could not confirm it, but she suspected Tethys' placement under Aethyta might have been influenced by Benezia in some way.
Janae was the baby. At the tender age of eighty-one, she was still trying to find her own combat style. As a junior member without a specialty, she followed the classical route of an adept. Despite her relative little combat experience, she was a proficient pilot and mechanic. Talented as she was, her parents were poor miners in a backwater colony in the Terminus systems and could not afford her a decent education. As soon as she was old enough to leave home, she sent herself away to Illium and signed up with Aethyta for financial aid.
Nisira was a vanguard with a powerful body to show for it. Stern and reticent, she had served as the CO of Talein's Daughters for almost two decades. In her early maiden years, she had made serious mistakes that landed herself in hot water. If not for Aethyta's timely intervention, she would have been dead or worse. Signing up for commando work was a way for her to show her gratitude. As to be expected, Nisira was more than a little weary of Liara's apparent youth.
Of the five additional commandos Liara had received from Aethyta, four of them were twice her age. It was one thing for them to nominally defer to her as their mentor, it was a completely different story when she tried to exercise her authority. Her insistence on personally leading the commandos in battle had met with fierce resistance at first. At least, until she calmly brought up the fact that she had seen her fair share of battle when she fought side by side with Commander Shepard. Specifically, she had proven her worth during the Battle of the Citadel.
It also helped a great deal that Aeian and Neaira had both sided with Liara on this issue, considering they had seen first hand what she could do in combat. Their vote of confidence was deeply touching, and it cemented the argument that the commandos should from hereon report directly to Liara.
Nisira wasn't happy, but she eventually acquiesced. Liara could only hope she would follow her mother's example and earn her disciples' trust and respect soon.
One hour before estimated arrival time, Liara called her commandos to the bridge for the final briefing.
"This is a retrieve and rescue mission." Liara started, scanning the room and meeting each commando in the eyes. "Our primary objective is the data storage device located at the fallout bunker underneath the colony's comm tower. All the antennas on Beaumonde, as well as all the comm buoys in orbits are disabled. The only channel still functional is short range radio built into our omni-tools. To evade enemy notice, we are forbidden to restore interplanetary communication even if we can."
Aeian put a hand up. After Liara gave her a nod, she asked, "what kind of security around the storage drive are we expecting?"
"The standard - locked doors and security mechs. However, security is the least of the problems. Most likely, we will be walking into the aftermath of a slave raid. If we are to run into the slavers, then this is what we are expecting to see." Liara typed into her omni-tool and pulled up a vid on the ship's main display.
Kasumi's hidden camera had perfectly captured the violent clash between Aria's people and the Collectors. The bipedal Collectors seemed easy enough to take down, but the large, hovering variant had a thick layer of armor plating that could rival a tank. Regular rifle fire did little to slow it down. Once it had its sight fixed on the Pirate Queen herself, nothing else was able to distract it. With no warnings, it shot out two streams of particle beams from its glowing eyes, shredding everything in its path - human captives, Blue Suns slavers, crates, and Aria's shields. The crime boss twisted her body to avoid the worst of the damage and landed in a low defensive crouch. Thin trails of blood dripping down her chin from shallow cuts, the expression on Aria's face was downright murderous. What followed was a whirlwind of raw biotic fury that demonstrated how Aria had earned the undisputed claim over Omega as her personal fiefdom. The skirmish ended with a spectacular explosion when Aria shoved a belt of grenades down the large Collector's pincered maw.
The aftermath was a scene taken straight out of a nightmare. Body parts of indeterminable origins plastered over the inside of the warehouse in gory blotches. Standing over the smoking ruin that used to be the armored Collector, Aria wiped her face with the back of her hand and left streaks of purple on the sleeve of her white leather jacket. She had fought a monster of the Terminus systems and won, but she had not done so unscathed.
Liara paused the vid and looked around the rooms. All the commandos had a similar expression of shock mixed with disgust etched on their ashen faces.
"What are those things?" Janae asked while a visible shudder rippled down her spine. She looked about two seconds away from losing her lunch.
Liara could sympathize. She had gotten used to the carnage after a dozen or so rewatches to study the enemies, but she had had a similar reaction when she watched this footage for the first time. And to think those monsters were after her bondmate… "They are the Collectors, a reclusive race that are known to collect people like objects. What you just saw was the Queen of Omega permanently expelling them from her station."
Valenza caught on right away. A deep frown carved between her brows, she stared into Liara's eyes unflinchingly. "You knew they would come."
There was a hint of accusation in her voice, and Liara decided to address that problem right away.
"Two days ago, I received intel that there is a pending attack targeting the human colony, Beaumonde. Evacuation is not an option because they are monitoring all communications. If the Collectors detect any irregular movements, they are liable to attack ahead of schedule. Intervening in any overt manner will only result in compromising our source. Furthermore, no meaningful help will be forthcoming since this colony is outside of Council space. I've received confirmation from a reliable source that the Council had recently forbidden all additional military vessels from venturing past the Crescent Nebula. Bluntly put, we are unable to prevent, delay, or repel the Collectors."
The accusation in Valenza's eyes melted away. A brooding sadness took its place. "I see."
Satisfied that her explanation was enough to appease her commandos, Liara continued. "There really isn't much we can do at this point. Which is why our mission is to retrieve the evidence of the attack in order to counter similar attacks in the future. Beaumonde is not the first colony being targeted by the Collectors. The first one was Ariel - a human settlement of over seven hundred colonists, no survivors. I have no reason to believe there will be any this time, either."
"No survivors. By the Goddess, how many people are there in Beaumonde?" Tethys asked, her face pinched in a deep scowl.
"Over two thousand. All humans." Was Liara's reply.
Outrage, disbelieve, and a hint of terror blanketed the room. Her commandos could all see where this was going. "That means there has to be a large enough Collector presence to subdue two thousand people. We're looking at a fleet of cruisers." Nisira's voice sounded hoarse from stress.
"Or a dreadnought." Liara said softly. The room was so quiet after she spoke, she could practically hear a pin drop.
"The Normandy…" Aeian aborted the sentence. She clicked her jaw shut immediately as soon as she caught herself.
"Yes." Liara didn't take offense. She might have if Shepard had truly gone down with the ship. "I suspected, yes."
The mood in the room was somber after her admission. This mission was not entirely about saving people because it was the right thing to do. This was personal.
Liara waited until she had received the all clear from Shepard to move in range. Beaumonde was supposed to be as unremarkable as any other small farming colonies littering the Terminus systems. But as they landed near the residential complex, it became abundantly clear that something had gone terribly wrong.
Everywhere, there were signs of life - yet no human life sign could be found. Plates of half-eaten food and stacks of data pads were abandoned on picnic tables outside where people took their meals. Cars sat idling haphazardly on the side of the streets with their doors wide open. Furry household pets wandered the empty streets in confusion. Something had turned this colony into a ghost town, and it was unsettling to set foot in the aftermath.
"This is not right, and I've seen batarian slave raids. Why didn't anyone resist?" Valenza asked, looking around for telltale signs of violence. There were no bodies, no blood puddles. The only thing they found were a few pieces of upturned furniture and drag marks on the floor.
Kalia signaled for everyone to stop. She looked down and nudged something small on the ground with the tip of her boots. "This strange insect, I keep seeing them. Why are there so many dead bugs around?"
"Pesticide? This is a farming colony." Janae guessed.
"If it's a common agricultural pest, it should be on a database." Tethys scanned the insects and shook her head. "No matches."
"Take a few samples. It could be important." Liara said.
They approached the comm tower cautiously, sweeping the perimeter as they went. The main door was unlocked, and there they found the smoking remains of several security mechs inside the lobby.
"The bunker entrance should be around here." Liara knew that because this was one of the many foxholes her agents had set up all over the galaxy for the upcoming invasion.
Their search revealed a hidden panel next to the secondary comm console. Liara stuck her hand into the biometric scanner and unlocked the bunker from the outside. At Nisira's questioning glance, she answered, "it scans for Reaper indoctrination. Only uncompromised organics can unlock the bunker door from the outside. One of Sirta Foundation's latest innovation based on reverse engineered Prothean security protocol."
What she didn't say was that much of the program was recovered from Vigil's database, and Sirta Foundation had been bought out with the Shadow Broker's credits. Unlike previous Brokers, Liara didn't believe in hoarding for hoarding's sake. The stupendous amount of credits her predecessors had amassed had been put to use more aggressively under Liara's watch. Afterall, the end of the world was the best time to spend one's savings.
A section of the floor hissed and sprung open, revealing a set of stairs leading down. "Leave two sentries at the top. Nisira, take point."
The bunker was not deep, perhaps only three stories down. At the bottom of the stairs was another locked door. Liara touched the lit panel to activate the intercom. "This is Dr. Liara T'Soni, requesting entry."
A moment later, a high-pitched salarian voice answered, "this is Commander Rentola of the 14th Regiment STG. Please provide proof of identification."
"14th Regiment? Last time we met at Virmire, you were in the 3rd Regiment under Captain Kirrahe." Liara asked.
"ID confirmed. The door is unlocked, Dr. T'Soni."
Liara shook her head. Salarians and their tricks.
Inside the bunker, a handful of STG members were waiting for them with their rifles at the ready. Behind them lay several unconscious people on the ground in a neat row - a few salarians, one asari, and two human prepubescent children.
"Dr. T'Soni, I did not expect to see reinforcements. We were unable to send out any request before the bunker was sealed." Rentola said.
"Strictly speaking, we are not reinforcements, but we do have a medic with us." Liara said and sent Kalia to check the unconscious patients. "What happened?"
Rentola spoke clippingly. "A large scale coordinated attack using bio weapons as an opening salvo. The species of the perpetrator is unknown. My team had gathered some data before we retreated here with help from the locals. As you can see, we didn't escape unscathed."
Kalia announced after a quick scan, "they are alive, but barely just. There is a potent neurotoxin in their systems that I can't identify. The human younglings are stable, so is the asari, but the salarians are in critical condition. We need to get them to a medical facility as soon as possible. They have, maybe, a couple days before the damage becomes irreversible."
"Then let's hurry."
Liara's team needed no further direction. While they moved the patients up the stairs, Liara stayed behind to access the central console inside the bunker to retrieve the colony's surveillance data.
Rentola stood nearby and watched her unblinkingly. "I believe our role is supposed to be witnesses again, isn't that so, Dr. T'Soni?"
"You will have to clarify, Commander Rentola."
Rentola gave her a sharp, narrow-eyed smile that conveyed little mirth. "I have vested interest in Commander Shepard as well. This unknown species that attacked this colony had arrived on a dreadnought that bared striking similarities to the one that had shot down the Normandy. Adding to the fact that I was re-routed here by Spectre Vasir and then rescued by you, I've come to the conclusion that you were both well aware of this attack in advance but had no way of preventing it from happening."
No one had ever accused salarians of being slow. Liara tossed an OSD that contained a copy of Beaumonde's surveillance data to Rentola. "They are the Collectors. Bring this to the Council."
"Common courtesy dictates that I should express my gratitude for the timely rescue, but I must confess I do not appreciate being played, Dr. T'Soni. My subordinates are dying because we were deliberately put in this situation."
Liara did feel sorry, but she would do it again in a heartbeat if it was necessary. "Apologies. It is certainly not my intention to get my allies killed. That being said, I'm aware that it is a possibility I must live with. I had arranged for your retreat in advance, but I did not anticipate deadly bio weapons being deployed at this scale. I will do my best to ensure your people live through this ordeal. That is a promise."
Rentola blinked slowly at her, looking quite thoughtful. "We are four days away from Council space. My men don't have days."
"Then it's fortuitous that the best doctor for this job is only one day away." Liara said.
Now that she thought about it, it was oddly convenient how Shepard had flagged a highly decorated retired STG operative living in the Omega station as a person of interest. Regardless, her bondmate's whims had come in handy for this mission. The problem now became, how was she going to convince the Pirate Queen to let a full regiment of salarian spys trott through her domain without shooting at them?
Liara had 24 hours to contemplate. She would have to think fast.
Once Liara informed Commander Rentola of the fate of the previous STG unit that had trespassed on Aria's station, it wasn't difficult to convince him to go along with her plan. With Nisira holding the ship in lock down, Liara boarded Omega with only her medic as escort. They didn't go very far before finding someone on their tails.
After taking over the Broker's network, Liara had read countless reports from her agents stationed in Omega. During transport, she had quickly reviewed Aria's dossier and memorized a list of important people under the Queen's command. This light-skinned batarian's name was Bray, one of her favored henchmen/bodyguards. It was a good sign Aria was sending him out as supposed to other more aggressive enforcers.
"Will Aria be available for a meeting?" Liara asked casually as she headed towards Afterlife.
"Aria is busy." Bray said in a slow drawl.
"I'm sure she is. If that's the case, please tell her Liara T'Soni is here to repay a debt, as well as to conduct business."
Bray made a non-committal grunt before hurrying off, presumably to relay the message.
They went inside Afterlife unimpeded as they headed straight towards Aria's private balcony. The female turian bodyguard with a red clan marking, Nyreen Kandros (whom her intel suggested the Queen had been bedding regularly), looked on impassively as they climbed up the steps. Lounging bonelessly on her leather couch, Aria looked as effortlessly intimidating as Liara remembered.
"Didn't expect to see you again so soon, Dr. T'Soni." Aria said, her smile was all teeth. She gave Kalia a quick glance and snorted, "your taste in companionship sure has changed since I last saw you. Commando, really? It's so... conventional. I thought you had a thing for rebels."
"I have a thing for competence. I believe we have that in common." Liara answered cooly.
Aria grinned. "Sit."
Liara sat down on the same spot she had occupied many months ago. With lives riding on her shoulders, and without Shepard here to guide her, she was just as nervous this time. She could only hope she wasn't being too obvious about it. Her hope was quickly dashed because Aria took one look at her, rolled her eyes, and told her to relax before she broke something.
Liara handed over a data disc. "This is to repay the debt I owe. You will find the content… enlightening."
Aria plugged the disc in her omni-tool and clicked open a random file. One of many security footage captured on Beaumonde played on the screen, showing insect swarms descending on the colony like a plague of locusts. Battalions of Collectors followed in the wake, carrying off paralyzed humans in pods to be transported back to their dreadnought. Aria abruptly shut off the program and stared at Liara, clearly unamused. "What is this?"
Liara tilted her head, staring back unflinchingly. "They are your neighbors. I thought you would be interested to know what they are capable of."
"When and where?"
"One day ago, Beaumonde, a small human colony in Sigurd's Cradles. The colony is dead now. Some of my allies were caught in it. I came straight here."
Aria leaned back into the couch with a sigh. "I thought you were smarter than this, T'Soni. You know it's going to get messy. This is a human problem. Why the hell are you getting involved?"
"You know why. They shot down the Normandy. I'm already involved."
"Well, you're a T'Soni alright." Aria muttered under her breath.
Liara arched an eyebrow at that comment.
"Fine. Consider your debt paid in full. What else do you want this time?"
Liara chose her next words carefully. "An easement."
Aria gave her a blank look. "An easement. Athame's tits, you're giving me flashbacks to my days of dealing with corporate goons. You've spent too much time in Nos Astra. Say it like normal people do, alright? You want access to… what?"
"To professor Mordin Solus, a retired STG operative. He is running a free clinic on your station. I have an urgent need for his expertise."
"No you don't. If you do, you wouldn't be sitting here, chatting with me. Who are you requesting medical attention for?"
Liara smiled grimly. Being straightforward with Aria was oftentimes the smarter choice. The Queen could always tell if someone was lying to her face. "Four current STG operatives, one asari, and two humans."
Aria pinched the bridge of her nose. "You are honest with me, I'll give you that. You know what? I don't care. Let them die. I'm not letting salarian spys set foot on my station. Salarian blood clings like nothing else. It cost me a fortune to replace the shaggy fur rug in my living room. It's not my problem anyway. Illium is one jump away. Go now if you are in a hurry."
Liara shook her head. "It is to your advantage if you allow us access to Mordin Solus. The neurotoxin from the Collector swarm is synthetic in nature. My medic has confirmed that the toxin is most likely designed to target humans. Mordin Solus is one of the most qualified researchers in species-specific applied medical science. If the Collectors are to target Omega in the future, you want the antidotes on hand."
Aria was silent for a long moment before she finally spoke in a bored tone. "Yes, I would like the antidotes on hand. That will be your payment for the... easement. Now get out of here before I change my mind."
Liara didn't forget to thank the Queen before she hurried back to the ship. She was lucky to have found the right words to convince her. Tricking Aria into watching what the Collectors had done and thus planting a seed of fear was a move she was quite proud of. Thanks to Kasumi's diligent surveillance, Liara was made aware that Aria was not as indifferent about the monsters of Terminus as she liked to pretend.
Mordin Solus needed no prompting to help once he saw the unconscious patients wheeled into his clinic. Even though he was retired from the STG, the scarred professor literally jumped to help his fellow operatives. He quickly confirmed that the unknown insects they had taken from Beaumonde was the source of this mysterious toxin. Within a few hours, he was able to partially restore pulmonary functions of the affected salarians. Although it would take a lot more time and effort to fully flush out the toxin, the two salarians were no longer lingering at death's door.
"Peculiar, this." Mordin showed Liara the dissection notes he compiled on the strange insect. "An organic based mass dispersion device. Vibration of its wings can create localized shockwaves that may bypass weaker kinetic barriers. Toxin is engineered to target the human nervous system to cause muscle paralysis. When introduced to other species, symptoms range from light allergic reaction to total shutdown of the central nervous system. Conclusion: it is a highly specialized weapon against humans."
Liara was not surprised. How else could the Collectors abduct entire colonies without encountering any resistance? "Can you create a vaccine?"
Mordin hummed thoughtfully. "A cure to counteract the toxin, yes. A vaccine, no. Not enough resources at the moment."
Liara suppressed a sigh. "Would you be amenable to keep working on the vaccine? I can provide you with all the resources you need. We need the vaccine to fight the Collectors. They are the culprit behind the mass disappearance of human colonists."
Mordin pursed his thin lips. "I will give you a list. Regardless, will need to test the countermeasures outside of a laboratory."
In other words, they would need to test the vaccine in a real life setting to be certain of its effectiveness under combat conditions; she would have to plant someone in a human colony to be attacked by the Collectors. How many more people must die before they could fight back? Liara was feeling nauseous just thinking about the potential body count. Was there any wonder why Shepard was losing sleep under the weight of this immense responsibility?
"Please keep me updated. I will need it as soon as possible."
Tali found Shepard sitting in the mess hall, staring blankly at a tray of half-eaten food. The woman looked so lost, Tali couldn't help but want to cheer her up somehow.
"I've never had salarian standard nutrient paste before, but I've heard unflattering reviews about it. We should stock up on human food at our next stop." Tali said with some sympathy.
Shepard looked up and gave Tali a weak smile. "Yeah, it has all the necessary nutrients, but it's an acquired taste that I don't have. Jack likes it enough though."
Tali rolled her eyes, even though the gesture was mostly blocked by her tinted faceplate. "Jack will eat anything that's not dextro. I've seen her chomping down a jar of pickled Ontarom beetle larvae before, and I thought only the vorcha would eat that."
Shepard's pace face turned a shade greener than usual. "I thought they were pickled eggs."
"Not eggs. Larvae. Eggs are smaller and not as crunchy. The chitin of the larval exoskeleton gives it a..."
"Ok, please stop. You know what, can we talk about something that's not going to destroy my appetite forever?"
Tali chucked as she slid into a seat across Shepard. "Sure. What do you want to talk about?"
"Tell me more about what happened after you went back to the fleet. You're a vas Neema now, right?"
"That's right. Captain Kar'Danna was impressed by the data disc I brought back. Any information on the geth is highly prized for obvious reasons. I then officially joined the Neema under Admiral Han'Gerrel at my father's recommendation; they are old friends. They even talked about having me head more missions in geth-controlled space before I left. I supposed they considered me qualified to lead a team of my own, given my time spent under your leadership."
Shepard looked a bit startled. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to derail your own career within the Flotilla when I asked you to help me out. That was inconsiderate of me."
"Come on, Shepard. I will always choose to help you. It's nice to be valued in the Flotilla, but what we do here is more important. The Collectors are abducting thousands of people from their homes. Who knows what they need them for? They shot down the Normandy, and they tried to kill you. I can't let that pass."
The smile on Shepard's face was making Tali feel all warm and happy. "You're not just a valuable crew member. You're family to me, you know that, right?"
"Of course I do, silly."
"Just making sure." Shepard said with a light tone; she only sounded like that when she was in a good mood. Behind her faceplate, Tali grinned triumphantly to herself. Mission accomplished.
"I'll do the same for you, Tali. I'll help you if you need anything."
"Now that you've mentioned it, it would be great if I can find more geth components to send to my father for his research."
A strange look passed over Shepard's features. Tali thought she had learnt to read human expressions well enough by now to decipher most unspoken communications, but apparently she was mistaken. She had no clue what the Commander was thinking about when she frowned so intently at her.
"Have you sent back anything yet?" Shepard asked.
Tali shook her head. "Not yet. I'm hoping we'll find more intel on the geth now that we have the Shadow Broker network at our disposal."
Shepard rubbed her chin in thought. "We'll keep an eye on isolated pockets of geth to ambush. But Tali, has your father told you what his research is about?"
"Not really. I'm guessing he is trying to find the weak points on geth armor." Tali replied in a dry tone. "My father is… distant. He is driven by his work. We don't talk much. When we do, it always ends with how he is going to build a house on Rannoch for me."
The same strange look was on Shepard's face again. Curious. Tali wished Liara were here. Her friend was so much better at reading the Commander. Shepard could be so cryptic sometimes.
"I'm sorry to intrude, but I have a few strong suggestions for you, Tali. I hope you'll heed my warnings."
"Yes?" Now Tali was starting to worry. What did Shepard know that she wasn't telling?
"Ignore your father's order."
Tali's eyebrows shot up in surprise.
Shepard wasn't finished yet. "If you must send geth parts back to the Flotilla, send them to Han'Gerrel instead and have him sign-off on the content. This way no one can accuse you of any wrongdoings if things go south."
Indignation twisted at her stomach. Tali couldn't help but feel insulted by Shepard's suggestion. "I know better when it comes to geth, Shepard. I'll make sure every single piece I send back is deactivated. I won't endanger my people by being sloppy."
Shepard held a hand up to pacify her rising temper. "I'm not saying you'll make a mistake, Tali, I'm asking you to keep Han'Gerrel in the loop; he is the one in charge of Neema. You'll need your ship's commanding officer to be a part of this. You must know the quarians are divided. While most of them want to retake Rannoch from the geth, some have no appetite for war and simply wish to find another world to settle."
"You're talking about the Neda bosh'tet." Tali stood up from her seat and paced in agitation. "If they want a new world so much, they can sign up for the Andromeda Initiative and sail to a distant galaxy for all I care."
"No, I'm not talking about them, even though it's interesting that you brought them up." Shepard combed a hand over her choppy red hair and leaned back into her seat with a sigh. "Can you honestly say the Admiralty Board won't strap guns to arm even the liveships if they thought they could win the war against the geth by doing so?"
Tali wanted to reply that Shepard was wrong to assume the quarian leadership would be so callous, but then she thought about her father and his zeal to reclaim Rannoch, and the words died in her throat.
"Why are you telling me this?" Tali finally asked after a long minute of silence.
"Because I care about you, Tali," Shepard said slowly, her voice was aggravatingly calm when Tali was feeling anything but. "I don't want you to get caught up in the political jockeying between the warhawks and the pacifists. Your father is in the thick of it. Like it or not, if you help him with his research, you'll be dragged into this mess."
"You can't know that."
Shepard raised an eyebrow at her.
Tali gasped when the revelation hit her like a punch to the nose. "The Shadow Broker has intels on the Flotilla, of course!"
"Let's just say the Broker has eyes and ears in places where there shouldn't be." Shepard shrugged.
"So what is it?" Tali demanded. She hated being blindsided.
Shepard was quiet for a moment before she replied, "there isn't enough information for me to be completely sure, but there has been an awful lot of geth components being brought into your father's lab ship Alarei for research. Enough to re-construct a few units."
Tali stared at her, speechless at the implication.
"I could be wrong, but I think your father might be planning to experiment on active geth units. If this is true, that means the pro-war faction is desperate. You don't need me to tell you why."
"The Fleet." Tali said, faintly aware that she was shaking. "Keelah… I know we're losing more ships than we can replace, but to think the situation is so dire that they would… No. I can't believe it. Father would never…"
"Tali," Shepard interrupted her mid-rant. Her voice was gentle, and her expression was full of compassion; even though Tali wanted to, it was difficult to stay mad at the woman. "You have access to the Broker's archive. Go see for yourself."
Tali bolted towards the comm room.
Not for the first time, Shepard was wracked with guilt at manipulating her dearest friends. She kept telling herself that it was necessary, that it was for their own good. Repeat that mantra to herself enough times, and one day she might believe it enough to not feel this wretched shame.
She had been keeping a close watch over all her friends ever since she gained access to the Broker's network. Armed with both her future knowledge and a means to spy on everyone, she had been moving friends and foes alike as chess pieces on a board.
Would it be better to feign ignorance and let Tali's father continue down his destructive path? Shepard highly doubted that. Rael'Zora had committed a war crime and risked having his name stricken from records because he was a man of conviction. Shepard could be persuasive, but wagging her silver tongue at him would be pointless. It was set in stone that Tali would be heartbroken by her father's crime. The only thing Shepard could do was to stop him before he got himself killed.
Her thought then turned to another friend she had manipulated. Taking her advice to heart when he left the Normandy, Garrus had gone back to Pavalen and joined the Blackwatch, the most prestigious turian Special Ops unit - the equivalent of Alliance N7, instead of going off to wage a one man crusade against all the gangs on Omega. She would like to think she had nudged Garrus off-course enough that he wouldn't be filled with vengeance this time around. Time would tell.
Miranda was another good example of Shepard's unfair interference. She was more than a little disgusted with herself that she had resorted to using Miranda's sister as leverage. Orina wasn't kidnapped per se, the young woman was lured away by Shepard's people and was now under constant surveillance. Shepard reasoned that she was protecting her from her would-be kidnapper, her biological father Henry Lawson. Still, she regretted having to involve an innocent.
A soft ping from her omni-tool drew her attention away from her self-flagellation. Liara's mission was a success. Her bondmate had obtained valuable intel on the Collectors, rescued an STG team, enlisted Mordin's service, and duped the Queen of Omega. Liara had accomplished so much when tossed into a hopeless situation out of the blue.
Shepard shook her head in wonder. It was a privilege to watch the naive girl blossom into a capable woman. This time around, Liara had no need to hide behind a ruthless mask to protect her shattered heart. Now that was one change she didn't regret being responsible for.
Speaking of changes, Ashley's enrollment in the ICT program had made a dramatic impact on the woman's lackluster military career. When given a fair shake, her competency outshone the cursed name of Williams by a mile. Half a year into the program, she already had the "N2" logo stamped on her chestplate. It would be a matter of time before she earned the red and white stripes of an N7.
Kaiden was alive. That alone made her glad she had changed his fate. According to Hackett, Kaiden was an exemplary squad leader. His biotic company had successfully completed a number of difficult missions in the Verge. Very soon, they would be ready for the Moby Dick they had trained them for.
A bloodthirsty grin splitted her face as Shepard imagined the look on the Delusional Man's face when he found out that his precious Lazarus Project had imploded so spectacularly.
There were only a few more pieces missing before D-Day. Most important amongst which was EDI. Shepard hated to be stuck in the "hurry up and wait" stage, but there was little she could do to help things along. Patience was never her strong suit. Regardless of her feelings, she needed to focus on things she could change instead of on things she could not.
Acquiring the Broker's vast resources early was one of the smartest moves she had made on her second run. There was so much information she didn't have access to before. Shepard was going to put them to good use this time. Impatience gnawed at her. The familiar pre-mission jitter was making her skin buzz and her fingers twitch, as if she had taken too much stim in one go. Adrenaline rush.
Shepard was never the type to sit still while she waited. There were many projects competing for her attention, but since she had found several interesting pieces of intel in the Broker's network, her next stop would be Illium.
Shepard had an asari to impress.
A/N: Hi all, it's been a while. My baby and I are both doing well. Guubear-spawn is super adorable. Even though I'm not getting quality sleep, I'm happy to be a mom. Also, say hello to Talein's Daughters. They are Liara's commandos now. They are minor characters so I won't spend too much time on them. Not while I have so many squadmates to write about. Wash your hands and stay safe, everyone.