A/N: My Shepard is male. Paragon/Sole Survivor/Spacer. Enjoy!
Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Planet Illium, 1734 hours, Zeta time
Illium came alive at night. By day, as Tasale shone down upon it, it was active, true, as business from across the galaxy, thousands of packages, personnel, and data arriving by the hour, came to this: the gateway to the Asari Republics.
But when the sun set, and twilight encompassed the cities, the planet's night life awoke. A city of lights, a horizon bright even after darkness fell, Illium was a testament to the ingenuity of the asari people. The sprawling cityscape never failed to beautify the surface of the world, spires reaching for the sky with such elegance that it seemed the structures had been built for their aesthetics alone.
Speeders and cabs glided through the air, whisper-silent, their tail lights glowing in the night like millions of fireflies. At any of Illium's many terraced ledges, one could look over the edge, and see nothing but light below.
Music drifted through the air, the driving beat of dozens of nightclubs, scattered throughout the city. On the elevated streets, high above the planet's surface, pedestrians looked out at this stunning vista, leaning against railings just to take in the colors of the night. They stood, individuals from across the galaxy, travelers and residents, all taking a moment out of their busy lives to admire Illium. They sat in twos, or threes. There were groups of friends, catching up on long lost time, lovers, sharing a special moment by the failing light of the sun.
But the shadows lengthened, and in their depths, one onlooker stood alone. He was a strange sight to see on Illium, shorter than the asari who populated this world, wearing a dark coat, buttoned up to his throat. His collar stood up, concealing his neck, and the brightly colored orange skin there. Best not to draw attention to himself.
It was no easy feat. Drell were rarely seen on Illium. His green, scaly face remained blank, unreadable, as his dead black eyes gazed at the sunset, too. He appreciated its beauty, from afar. But he had no time to waste. The sunset meant something else to him than it did for the others. Something much more real. A countdown.
Its last rays vanished below the horizon, and in a few minutes the street lamps would flicker on. The drell quietly strode forward, the signal having been made. The alien made for the nearest cab stand, arms crossed behind his back, deep in thought. Drawing up to the taxi terminal, he punched the button to hail a cab. A ghost program inserted into the system only hours earlier was triggered, set to respond upon being hailed at this time exactly. Just after sundown. But the purpose of this covert insertion was only to scroll a simple message across the screen:
Would you like to upgrade to our premium service?
A simple message. If anyone else had received it, they would have likely entered a Yes or a No, only to discover that no such service existed. But the drell knew better. His dexterous fingers tapped quickly, That would depend on the service.
With that, the terminal replied, I see. One moment please.
The screen went dark. The drell made no attempt to reactivate the station, only waited, feet some two meters from the drop-off into oblivion. He didn't have to wait long.
An ordinary taxi drew level with the platform, hatch swinging open with a pneumatic hiss. Without a word, the passenger clambered in, sealing the entrance behind him. The driver sat beside him, an adult human. Female. Her dark-skinned face scowled cautiously out the driver's seat window, checking for anything suspicious. After a moment, she pulled the vehicle into ascent, satisfied. There was silence for a moment, before she glanced at the still figure of the drell, staring directly ahead. All precautions aside, she inquired, "Krios?"
Thane angled his head slightly to the right, listening. "Indeed. Do you have them, Miss…?" The memory lapse was not accidental. Drell had perfect memories. This was a test.
"Parasini. Gianna Parasini." She relaxed slightly. This was her man. "Yes. They're in the glove compartment."
With a curt nod, he opened the compartment, extracting several datapads. Putting these aside, he removed a dark paper envelope. Light, thin, but undeniably precious. Placing the document within his coat pocket, he placed the fake datapads back. Shepard didn't want to take any chances. If things had gone wrong, the decoys would have been taken. No one used paper anymore.
Parasini guided the aircraft along, eyes locked on the skylanes. "I hope they help, whatever they are. He didn't say what this was about," she muttered discreetly, before carefully adding, "I had to pull a lot of strings to get my hands on that."
"I assure you," Thane replied, a polite smile on his otherwise expressionless face, "Your efforts were not in vain." He glanced out at the passing buildings. One in particular caught his eye. "Set me down there, if you would." The Noveria Internal Affairs agent hung a sharp turn, bringing the cab down on the platform. Thane rose without a word, exiting the vehicle.
As the drell assassin made his way down the docking area steps, making for the crowd, Parasini called out, "Hey! Tell him he owes me a beer next time!" Thane made no answer. He was already gone.
SSV Normandy SR-2, In orbit around Illium, 2317 hours
Commander John Shepard sat at his desk, poring over his private terminal. Scrolling through several unread messages, he selected one at random, and began to read. He needed something to do. Tali was right: the silence on the Normandy was deafening. None of the old voices he missed so much could be heard in the galley at mealtime, the familiar faces having vanished over the years. Some of them had merely gone on with their lives. Others, like Kaidan, or Pressly, had lost them. Either way, Shepard felt so very alone.
Glancing up from his work, he stared, not for the first time, at the holo propped up on his desk. It flickered gently, the smiling face on it looking at no one in particular, but radiant all the same. It was the only picture Shepard had of Liara T'soni, asari scientist turned information broker. Sometimes, when things got slow, he'd think about her. How they'd met under very dangerous circumstances on Therum, narrowly escaping geth capture. How he grew fond of her shy, awkward, bookish nature. How they'd prepared themselves for whatever Saren had waiting for them on Ilos, that one, glorious night. Of all the faces, he missed hers most of all.
Things were different now. Years had passed. Two whole years. So much had changed. His ship, his crew, his whole life, destroyed in a moment. The Collectors had taken that much from him. But he'd paid them back, all right. They'd taken his home, his team. He blew up their station. Seemed like a fair enough trade.
That didn't change anything, though. His friends had indeed gone on in his two-year absence. Two years of believing he was dead. No one could come back after so long, and hope for things to be the same.
But Shepard never expected Liara to become what she became. Ruthless, dangerous, just like her mother, Benezia. The innocent, wonderful person she'd been was gone, replaced by a cold, calculating being. Shepard liked to think that somewhere, Liara was still the woman he loved. He couldn't bear to think that the only time she'd ever look at him again with such carefree affection was in that holo.
Tearing his eyes away with some effort, he sighed audibly, running his hands through his close-shaven hair. He sat like that for a while, turned away from his work. Shepard contemplated the fish tanks, the music system, the whole excessive decadence Cerberus had afforded the Captain's Cabin. Personally, he didn't like it. He missed bunking with his friends. What he wouldn't give for the Normandy, for the old times.
But that was impossible. Now he was an ex-Cerberus asset, having done what he thought was right and destroyed that abomination in the Collector base, saving the galaxy once more and generally pissing off the Illusive Man. He didn't care. Whatever that bastard wanted with the Reaper, Shepard had been determined to deny him it.
He'd always hated Cerberus. He still blamed them for the disaster on Akuze, and he'd never been a pro-human. Not like them, at least. Maybe it came from loving an asari, but Shepard couldn't stomach the thought of human dominance. The galaxy had to be unified if they were going to stop the Reapers from returning, after all.
Where did that leave him? The Alliance and the Council had turned a blind eye to his Cerberus work, and they'd been appreciative of his alienating the Illusive Man once and for all. Things were still being worked out, but it seemed that the Council might have a mission for him. Councilor Anderson had tipped him off a month ago, saying that the crew of the Normandy should start looking into the allies of the Collectors, the latter having been dealt with.
Maybe he was being sentimental, but he already had a lead. Liara. She'd told him that it was she who had given his body to Cerberus, in the hopes of resurrecting him. She couldn't let him go. It had broken her heart, but she had done it for him. Shepard gave a weak smile at that thought. Yes, somewhere deep down, she was still the Liara he knew.
But she'd said something else. To retrieve him, she'd had to cross someone who intended to sell his corpse to the Collectors, no doubt to have it liquefied and pumped into the Human Reaper. The Shadow Broker. Shepard had heard that name often, whenever he'd needed to dig into the criminal underworld of Citadel, to uncover the truth. Sometimes an ally, more often an enemy, the Shadow Broker dealt in secrets, and cloaked himself in just as many. Whoever he was, he was smart to hide. Liara wanted him dead for his crimes. For what he'd done to Shepard, to her friend, to her.
Whatever hole the Shadow Broker was hiding in, he'd have to dig a hell of a lot deeper to escape Liara's rage. Before, Shepard had been worried by his love's fixation, telling her that it would be best to let the matter drop. But she would have none of it. The Broker was already a dead man in her eyes. Killing him was just a formality.
But now Shepard was on his trail, too. If the Shadow Broker was working with the Collectors, then he was an enemy to every sentient being in the galaxy. He had to be stopped.
Which was part of the reason Shepard had come back to Illium. He'd visited here frequently before, when the mission against the Collectors was going slow, to pay Liara a visit. He'd always hoped to bring her out of her shell, out from behind that desk she now perpetually worked at. Every time, he'd failed. Now, however, he had another reason. They'd done some digging of their own. A couple rendezvous with shady criminals on Citadel, a 'friendly' visit by Garrus to Barla Von, one of the Broker's men. From what facts they'd been able to gather, the Broker was approximately… somewhere in the Milky Way. That sure narrowed things down.
But they'd had a break. Tali and Legion had done some fancy hacking, and secured a message addressed to one of the Broker's associates. It was encrypted, but with some work they'd broken through. Of course, it wasn't from the Broker himself. Just another of his infinite contacts.
Contacts. Damn, he hated that word. Ever since Liara had told him that she'd acquired some of her own, he'd realized what had happened to her. Contacts implied espionage, crime, spy-work. That wasn't what he wanted for her.
So they'd traced back to that contact, and from him on and on. They'd been across the galaxy, amassing enough hard evidence to track the Broker down. Then, two weeks ago, they had a break. The Broker happened to be keeping a private account on Noveria, the center of white-collar crime in the galaxy. No name, but Garrus was certain that with that information, they could track the Broker's activities. His personal agenda.
Luckily for them, they had a friend on Noveria. Shepard had called up Gianna Parasini, and asked her to get her hands on a certain bank record. They'd agreed to exchange the information here, on Illium. Shepard had chosen the place. As long as they were in-system, he could pay Liara a visit. Maybe—
No. There was no time for that. There was barely enough time as it was. The Reapers were coming, one way or another. The distance from dark space was astronomical, and without a Mass Relay it would take them quite some time, but they'd only slowed the invasion fleet down.
So what was taking Thane so long? He'd sent the drell down planetside hours ago. If something had gone wrong, they'd be set back months. They couldn't afford to—
"Shepard?" Garrus's voice came over the comm, and brought Shepard out from his meditation.
Punching the intercom button, he answered, "What's going on, Garrus?"
The turian sounded excited. "Thane just got back. He has the papers."
He was already halfway out the room. "I'm on my way down."
SSV Normandy SR-2, Command Deck, 2339 hours
Shepard emerged from the elevator, making straight for the briefing room. The steel doors parted, whisper-silent, admitting him to the chamber. A table stood at the room's center, around it gathered his team, minus Joker, who still helmed the ship.
Garrus nodded from across the table, his mutilated face parting in a slight smile, which he seemed to immediately regret as he caressed his facial wound. Beside him stood Tali, scanning something into her omni-tool with practiced ease, her long quarian fingers nimbly tapping the controls. She paused long enough to give him a friendly nod, her purple visor concealing her facial expression.
Nearby, Legion idled, apparently inactive, but Shepard knew the geth infiltrator was likely running countless diagnostics at the moment. He'd become a useful supplement to EDI, the ship's AI. Mordin was stroking his chin thoughtfully, wide salarian eyes staring excitedly at Thane, as the drell reported on the mission.
Shepard approached the group, all of whom acknowledged his presence. Seeing them assembled like this made Shepard realize, with some alarm, just how small his team had become. Miranda and Jacob had returned to Cerberus, with the promise that they wouldn't disclose any information to the Illusive Man.
In all honesty, Shepard wasn't sure about his feelings toward their departure. On one hand, he was glad to see the duo go. He'd never trusted Cerberus or their people. On the other, she and Jacob had proven loyal allies through their mission, and Shepard had come to regard them as friends. Miranda had even stood up to the Illusive Man when Shepard made his decision to destroy the Collector Base. They'd stood by his side.
Of course, with the mission complete, they realized their place was with Cerberus, at least for the time being. Regardless of Shepard's opinion of the pro-human splinter group, it was an ally against the Reapers, and there they could do the most good.
He frowned marginally. Miranda and Jacob were good people, but Cerberus had warped their methods. Perhaps they would work together again. But without Cerberus in the equation. He couldn't accept anything done by the organization as noble, despite its claims. He winced at the thought that Liara had become just as ruthless.
No. He had to believe otherwise.
Samara had returned to her Justicar duties, having fulfilled her oath to Shepard, while Grunt had ventured back to Tuchanka, where he was welcomed into Clan Urdnot. Wrex had sent Shepard a message or two, telling him how things were holding up back on the krogan homeworld, with reassurances that Grunt was doing fine.
Jack had left the crew some weeks ago, disembarking at Omega Station. A less informed individual might think twice before leaving a young woman alone on Omega, but this was Jack they were talking about. Knowing her, she'd have already made herself a reputation. Shepard quietly hoped she just didn't piss off Aria.
Zaeed's contract complete, the mercenary had gone off to continue his search for Vido, his lifelong enemy. Another of the dubious Cerberus agents out of the way, Shepard found himself in good company. It was almost like old times.
Thane approached Shepard, a look of triumph written across his scaly face. "Shepard," he intoned in his gravelly voice, "We have it." A single gloved hand extended, offering a dark envelope.
Shepard took the proffered package, noting, "Well done, Thane. I knew I could count on you."
With a muttered reply of, "It was nothing," Thane took a step back, as Shepard approached his team.
Holding the envelope over his head, he spoke to them, as he had so many times during their missions. "We're going to use this information to track down the Shadow Broker, and find out what he knows about the Reapers." Always the leader, he went on. "He thinks he can deal in secrets forever, sell out humanity and all the other races just for credits. Well," Shepard's expression grew determined, "We're going to teach him a lesson. We're going to show him what happens when he goes against the Alliance, the Council, and this team!"
There was general consensus at this statement, and the expressions of the assembled grew anxious, excited (With the exception of Tali, whose face remained hidden, and Legion, although no one ever knew quite what the geth was thinking anyway. To his credit, the metal flaps on his head rose marginally, so Shepard guessed he was interested, too). Without another word, Shepard glanced down at the seemingly innocent , he broke the seal with a sharp snap! and opened the envelope.
Several documents had been neatly tucked in, folded crisply and filed away. Shepard removed the papers, unfolding the first among them. It was a printout of an extranet account.
[Intergalactic Bank of Noveria:
Account Number: 2936829
PIN #: *****
Account Balance: 12,743,192,561 Credits
Mailing Address: Citadel, Presidium Prudential Building, Apartment 502]
The invoice went on to list a series of withdrawals and deposits, each of staggeringly high quantities. It seemed the Shadow Broker was doing very well for himself, indeed.
Handing this document to the others to review, Shepard turned to EDI's avatar, a holographic orblike structure. "EDI, can you run us a cross-reference with the banking systems? I'd like to test this account number. I assume you still have access to your Cerberus hacking functions?"
"Affirmative," EDI chimed. "It will take time, but I should be able to come up with a more accurate idea of the Shadow Broker's activities."
"Do it." Leafing through the other documents, Shepard found more invoices, but nothing else of particular value. Handing these over to Legion for analysis, he turned to face the rest of his team once more. "It seems we have the good Broker's address. Who's for paying him a visit?"
A rousing chorus of "Aye!" responded, and Shepard nodded with approval. "Great. Joker?" A moment's silence, then the helmsman came over the Intercom.
"Plot a course for Citadel Station. We've got a lead."
"Sir, yes sir!"
With an appreciative nod, the commander strode from the room, as the rest of the team rushed to their stations, no doubt to prep their gear for the mission. They were closing in on the Shadow Broker, and no one wanted to miss the fun.
But for Shepard, he found excitement for an entirely different reason. This information would not only help their investigation, but Liara's as well. Maybe, just maybe, he could convince her to—
No need to get my hopes up. We need more data first.
He approached the nearest viewport, and gazed out at the stars as Joker brought the Normandy to bear, making straight for Tasale's Mass Relay.
And we're going to get it.