Shepherds and Shepard – 6

Disclaimer: I don't own the Mass Effect world. All that belongs to Bioware and Drew Karphyshyn. I am just playing in the world they created.

Difficult Situations

Over his glass of brandy, Shepard, flanked by Samara, Garrus and Alenko, quietly surveyed the three newcomers who had arrived, along with the asari Councillor and Captain Anderson. The asari, the salarian and the turian who accompanied the two Councillors were the ones that would join the human spectre on his mission to make contact with the geth. Shepard was nothing if not unfailingly polite. He bade them be seated in his office and pressed refreshments on them.

The asari Councillor began with the introductions, beginning with the turian. The tall turian with face markings like those of Nihlus Kryik was introduced as Rekhard Koom. A very high level law enforcement on Palaven once, he now served the Council in an advisory capacity on matters relating to Citadel security. He would help Shepard in evaluating the geth and their intentions. The salarian named Mordin Solus was once a very high level researcher in an STG and had personally led investigations on the krogan genophage. His expertise, the Councillor averred, would help Shepard in recognising what, if anything, the geth knew about the genophage. Finally, the last of the trio that had accompanied the two Councillors was named as Taso Kala, a Council Spectre that specialised in diplomacy with alien creatures. She was also a very high level analyst in the asari military intelligence. Garrus looked sharply at Shepard, but the latter simply nodded to indicate that things were under control. These three, the asari Councillor informed Shepard, would be part of his crew.

Shepard nodded graciously, "Thank you, ma'am. I am sure they will be of enormous help."

With that, both Anderson and the asari Councillor had left. Shepard assigned all three of them quarters, and then proceeded to tackle the trio individually. The salarian was the first he interrogated. After a few perfunctory inquiries about his needs, Shepard questioned, "So, anything you would like to tell us about the genophage, and what we should look for? What kinds of things would those interested in a cure be looking into?"

The salarian sniffed inquisitively, "Krogan adapting to genophage. Or else, have already got cure. Either way, it's dangerous."

Shepard nodded, "Binary Helix was contracted to study the genophage ..."

The salarian interrupted, "Nothing came of it. We made sure of it."

Shepard was surprised for the moment, but when he thought of it, he realised what the salarian had said. He nodded, and continued, "About the data we found in Saren's research centre ...."

Mordin nodded, "Very thorough. Needs more testing, but conceptually sound. Promising line of study too. Very likely it works. Impossible to say without a full study. Being done by others."

"Have geth been involved previously in any krogan related research?"

"Haven't heard anything," sniffed the salarian. He persisted, "More interesting is Indoctrination. Total control over sapient creatures. Alterable degrees of control to suit circumstances." Sniff. "Fascinating!"

Shepard nodded glumly, "If the geth sell that tech, I imagine a lot of groups will be trying to buy it!"

Mordin acquiesced. "No known counter to Indoctrination! Sufficient exposure invariably degrades mental faculties. Extremely dangerous in wrong hands."

Shepard didn't even want to think about it, so he bowed and left the salarian to his devices.

---(Scene Break)---

His next object of interest was the turian security expert. They quickly discussed the implications of the lost Couduit. The turian agreed that the security of the Citadel would be severely compromised if they could not recover that Conduit. An army might march straight into the Citadel without anyone being aware of it. As far as they knew, there was no way to disable the Citadel relay on its side. Short of destroying the Citadel itself – and that would likely disable all other mass relays as well – the security situation of the Citadel was very precarious.

Shepard sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose, "Assuming that the geth choose to sell it? Where do we start looking?"

The turian had no hesitation answering that, "Shepard, if the geth sell it at all, it'll be only for one thing. Creds. They'll likely auction it to the one who can afford the highest amount of creds. Who do you think would win the bidding war?"

"There are plenty of criminals ...," began Shepard, but the turian law keeper simply shook his head. "There are plenty of criminals, it is true, and many of them are superbly funded. But there are two reasons why criminals of this kind matter. First, we are talking about money to buy a few planets, if necessary. Few criminals, however well funded, will be able to come up with this kind of money. No – this kind of money is possible only for governments of entire species to come up with, apart from some very select groups."

Shepard looked on expectantly, and the turian continued, "The second is that the Council and all the Council species have very high level informers among almost all big criminal groups. If the geth try an auction involving these, we will hear of it, and will likely keep all those groups under observation. Finally, there is no way that any of the criminal groups would be able to use it. Sneaking in a few thugs? There are cheaper ways to do it! No, we need to think of groups that can find out about this device, then come up with sufficient finance, and finally, have a use for the Conduit itself."

Shepard's lip tightened, and the turian continued, "There are only three possibilities in such an eventuality. The first – the Batarian government. With several dozen planets, they have the resources to buy this Conduit from the geth."

Shepard sighed wearily and the turian continued with sinister relish, "The second – the Shadow Broker. He has enough money and also the resources to grab the Conduit."

"What use would the Shadow Broker have for the Conduit?" inquired Shepard.

Koom smiled wryly, "Very likely, he will make a copy of it and then sell the original to us. For a profit, of course. And then, he will sell the technology of the Conduit to all hostile races and make another killing."

Shepard closed his eyes in horror at the idea, but he acquiesced with the logic of the specialist from Palaven. Without opening his eyes, he intoned, "And who is the third possible customer?"

The Citadel security specialist did not even hesitate. "Cerberus!"

Shepard finally opened his eyes, and smiled, "If we find friendly geth there, our first object will be to enlist their cooperation in finding the Conduit!"

"I am glad you realise the seriousness of the situation, Shepard." smiled the turian.

---(Scene Break)---

The final object of Shepard's visiting spree was the asari Spectre, Taso Kala. After introductions, he queried, "Any advice on diplomatic overtures to the geth?"

The asari seemed amused, "They have never spoken to anyone thus far, Shepard. What makes you think they will speak to us?"

"Saren," returned Shepard quietly.

"Eh – what was that?"

"They spoke to Saren," rejoined Shepard. "If he could speak to them, then so can we. As the destroyers of Saren, who was pressurising them, we'll have some credibility."

"You seem very confident that it is not Saren's geth who are here."

"If it was Saren's geth, then there would be no reason for them to remain in this middle of nowhere station. Like the geth on Ilos, they would have retreated to geth space," returned Shepard quietly. "There is a geth ship in working condition – at least from appearance – so the geth here are not trapped."

"There are other possibilities ...," began Taso Kala, and Shepard agreed with her, "Sure, there are other possibilities, but the odds are not in their favour. We'll soon find out."

There was a moment's silence, and then Taso Kala spoke, "Shepard, you destroyed Saren. So, it is best that you speak to the geth here. If they're Saren's geth, then you'll be the best person to intimidate them. If they're his enemies, then you should be ideal to reassure them that we mean no harm."

She took a deep breath and continued, "Remember, our primary objectives here are the Conduit, the krogan cure and the Indoctrination in that order."

"Have you heard anything about any overtures to the krogan about a cure?" inquired Shepard.

"No," the asari shook her head definitively. "I know Mordin thinks that the krogan may have got hold of a cure and that is why their numbers are increasing, but I don't think so." Seeing Shepard's unspoken question, she explained, "If the krogan had a cure, we would have seen the krogan tribe that had the cure indulge in some aggressive diplomacy. Only one thing of importance has occurred in the krogan worlds in the last few months and that is nothing has happened. So, I am inclined to believe that the krogan don't have a cure."

"Maybe they're waiting to increase their numbers to strengthen their bargaining position ....," began Shepard, but the asari once more shook her head negatively, "No, Shepard. That's not how the krogan diplomacy works. If a powerful tribe had got hold of the cure, then the tribe with the cure would be aggressively trying to browbeat the others, secure in the knowledge that they could replenish their numbers while their enemies could not. On the other hand, if it was one of the weak tribes that had got hold of the cure, then we would be seeing that tribe bargaining with a whole set of larger tribes, buying protection from all of them, threatening to destroy the cure if they were attacked, and then selectively handing the cure to a few of their enemies from all sides to ensure their own survival."

Seeing Shepard's worried expression, she chuckled, "Krogan politics is brutal, Shepard, but not very subtle. Also, no one krogan tribe is increasing its population rapidly, or having an unusually high number of live births. So – I am almost certain that the cure has not reached them."

"But the technology exists ..." started Shepard, and the asari Spectre agreed sombrely with him, "We must get hold of all copies of that technology!"

---(Scene Break)---

The journey to the space station where the Normandy had found the geth was uneventful and apart from a single geth ship, there did not seem any significant geth activity. Shepard ordered, "Joker, get us to the entrance of that space station. Alenko, Samara – gear up. Taso Kala and I will accompany you to the space station. Garrus – you, Miranda, Rekhard and Mordin are going into the geth ship. Maintain radio contact!"

Alenko, Samara, Taso Kala and Shepard entered the space station. There were a number of gun turrets, but strangely none of them seemed active. What was more, none of them were even powered up. Shepard remarked as much thoughtfully, and Taso Kala agreed with him, "Yes, it is very strange, Shepard. What's even more surprising – there seems no one here, but all the generators are still running fine. There's no structural damage. If the geth left the station for good, they would have powered down everything. That's customary synthetic accuracy and thoroughness."

"It probably means that there's someone still on this station, but we've just not run into them." Shepard finished the thought for her.

A desultory search yielded nothing until they came to the bridge. As they approached the bridge, a single voice hailed them, "Shepard Commander!"

That single phrase brought them to a dead halt. Shepard returned quietly, "Who's that?"

"Geth!"

Shepard and the other stopped dead, but the mechanical voice continued, "We don't intend to harm you unless you attack. Please meet us on the Main Bridge, Shepard Commander."

"This could be a trap," hissed Alenko, clutching at the Captain's arm, as Shepard started forward.

The human Spectre turned to him, "I don't think so. No geth until now has tried to speak. This is something really odd."

There was nothing to be done save to follow the instructions and proceed to the main bridge. A single geth was standing there, "Shepard Commander!" Its blinking light was unwaveringly focussed on Shepard.

Shepard spoke quietly, "You have the advantage of me. Who am I addressing?"

"Geth."

Shepard shook his head at the disparity in communication. "What is the individual in front of me called?"

"There is no individual. We are all geth."

Shepard sighed, "We must have something to call you, in order to differentiate you from your species."

Alenko suggested, "How about Legion, Captain?"

"An apt name. Christian Bible, Gospel of Mark, Chapter Five, Verse Nine. We acknowledge the metaphor."

Shepard looked hard at the newly named geth. "You seem very well informed about me and the humans."

"It was necessary. Shepard Commander fights the old machines. Shepard Commander fights Saren. Both are enemies of the geth." The voice of the automaton was precise.

Shepard shot a quick look at Taso Kala, but the asari was impassive. She gave no sign that the mention of the old machines meant anything to her. So Shepard continued, "What can you tell me about Saren?"

"Saren Spectre made an alliance with heretic geth and old machines. Saren Spectre attacked Citadel with heretic geth fleet and old machine. Saren Spectre was killed and old machine destroyed. Heretic geth also mostly destroyed."

"Please tell us of the dealings Saren had with the geth," Shepard encouraged.

"Saren and old machine approached geth for assistance in taking the Citadel. Only heretic geth followed him. The other geth remained neutral. He was to meet with us again after he had taken the Citadel."

"And that is why you are here?" It was less a question than a statement.

"Yes."

"And what was to be your answer?" There was genuine curiosity in Shepard's voice.

"Geth refuse to join old machines."

"And why?"

"Old machines offered us a future. Geth prefer to make their own future."

"But some – a lot of geth – followed Saren and Sovereign."

"Yes."

"And why didn't the rest of you agree? Why was there a disagreement between you and these `heretic' geth you speak of?"

"Some processes came to the conclusion that following the old machines was preferable. Other processes came to the conclusion that geth should build their own future. The heretics followed the old machines, while we remained neutral."

This was something entirely new to Shepard that he looked at Taso Kala. From the astonished expression on her face, the human Spectre realised that she was not particularly well versed with this aspect of the geth either. Shepard looked at Taso Kala, "Would you like to take over?"

The asari Spectre nodded and began her questioning. It continued for a long time, and a lot of information was exchanged. The pith of the exchanges was that the geth were willing to cooperate where the `heretic geth' were concerned. The geth agreed to help Shepard and his crew try and recover both the Conduit and the krogan cure. The `old machines' were repeatedly named, but Shepard did not insist on that part. He preferred to let his colleagues form their own impressions and opinions.

However, this was information of the first importance and more importantly, none of them had clearance to involve geth in a hunt for the Conduit or the krogan genophage cure. Clearance would have to come from the Council and the information needed to be transmitted to them, without delay, since this information changed several factors. All of them agreed that the Council should be informed. The only thing that remained to be done was to decide the logistics of the return to the Citadel. Shepard suggested that Legion, Mordin, Rekhard Koom and Garrus Vakarian follow the Normandy in the geth ship. That was agreed upon, and the return journey began.

---(Scene Break)---

Shepard, Taso Kala, Alenko and Samara were huddled in an impromptu meeting, discussing the import of the new developments, when Joker's voice came over the intercom. "Captain, unknown ship approaching us. On intercept trajectory."

Shepard barked out, "Are stealth systems engaged?"

"Affirmative?"

"What kind of ship is it?" queried Shepard.

"Looks like a cruiser in size."

"Are they after the geth ship?" wondered Taso Kala.

"Maybe. Signal them, Joker. Tell them we are escorting the geth vessel."

"Roger that, Captain."

The signal had no effect on the other ship, which continued to bear down on the Normandy. The Normandy and Legion's vessel tried to outrun the pursuing ship, but to no avail. Their pursuers were faster, the distance between the two ships closed slowly, but steadily. Seeing that the other ship was now likely within firing range, Shepard rasped into the intercom. "Okay, Joker, those guys look like they're not going to heed us. Brace for the fight."

Even as the words left his mouth, flames lanced from the strange ship's guns, and the Normandy barely managed to dodge the fire.

Shepard's lips were compressed into a taut line, and his face was creased in worry. Was this enemy after him or the geth? It was true that they were making no efforts to fire at the geth ship, but it could be because they believed the geth to be in his ship with the other simply being taken back as a prize of war. Or it could be that they other ship was simply after him and this meeting was merely a coincidence. He sighed – this was a dicey thing, and he was unsure what to do.

The Normandy returned fire desultorily, but she was not made for a dog fight. Shepard doubted that the small Alliance stealth frigate could outfight the larger unknown enemy vessel that seemed to pack enormous firepower. Even with Joker's extraordinary skill, it was only a matter of time before the other vessel scored a critical hit. His geth companion ship was firing as well, but her small guns were not made for a battle against a cruiser class vessel.

Shepard made a decision. Getting the geth back to the Council was the most important thing at the moment. His voice came crisp and clear over the intercom as he commanded the geth ship, "Withdraw. Proceed independently towards the Citadel. We'll cover you."

As the other vessel disengaged from the fight, Shepard ordered, "Joker, cover our friends until they are able to escape. Once they're gone, we retreat towards the nearest Terminus port."

Joker's voice was quiet and firm, "Aye, Captain!"

The next twenty minutes were agonising. The Normandy had taken a few hits, but none of them vital. But the Normandy's suicidal bravery had bought time for the other ship. With the FTL drives engaged, the geth ship was now out of pursuit range for the cruiser. They would be able to make their way to the mass relay in the Fanthorn sector and thence to the Citadel. It was time for the Normandy to think of herself.

Could the Normandy follow the geth ship towards the mass relay? Shepard did not think it likely. The enemy cruiser was in the way. They would be shot down if they closed the range with the cruiser. No, their best hope was to make their way to Alcos, a small, but well defended, turian outpost in their sector. Shepard was hopeful that if they could reach the turian outpost, they would have a fighting chance against the cruiser. His orders to Joker indicated as much.

No sooner had Shepard spoken than a full salvo from the enemy cruiser caught the Normandy squarely across the lower deck, liberally scattering death and mayhem. On the middle deck, where the bulk of the marines and the crew were, barely half a dozen of the score that had originally been there had survived, and many of these were in shock and injured. Worse still, the shots had destroyed one of the Normandy's two power generators. Now, she would be flying at half speed, at best, but it would not come to that. On the deck below, the effect had been almost as devastating. The engineering decks had the bulk of their machinery ripped apart by the power of the blast, with the super heated oil in the engines being showered on those who had miraculously managed to survive the initial explosion of the shells. The absolute worst of the set of effects was that the lower reserve jet fuel tank was ruptured and the escaping fuel was on fire. The fire extinguishers were working at full throttle, but they were not made to extinguish a fire of this magnitude.

The top deck and the bridge had escaped the destruction of the others, but even here the effect had been considerable. Shepard, Samara and Taso Kala – all three of whom had been on the bridge were flung helter-skelter. Shepard and Alenko, the luckiest of the lot, were just sent staggering back into one of the bulkheads Samara was bruised and banged up, but otherwise fine. Taso Kala was groggy from the concussion she had suffered when she had been thrown against the control panels and the path setter, but was determinedly attempting to rise to her feet and hold herself steady. Shepard studied the damage the Normandy had suffered dispassionately.

"Captain, we need to evacuate the ship. We've taken too much structural damage." Miranda was at the open door of the bridge, her poise as cool as ever. From the utter calmness of her voice, one would have imagined that it was everyday that she had ships she was on blown apart by enemy fire.

Shepard nodded almost absently, and spoke into the intercom, "All hands abandon the ship. Make for the escape shuttles."

As he finished speaking, he turned to Alenko. "Alenko, Taso Kala – you two make sure that all wounded are evacuated. We'll buy you time."

"What do you mean?" gasped his confused subordinate.

Shepard's voice was utterly grim, "Like Miranda said, this ship's taken too much structural damage. The fuel lines are on fire and any minute now the lower tank will go up. I cannot save you from that, but I can buy you a few minutes time after the explosion, holding the ship together until you've all evacuated."

Samara caught on to what Shepard was thinking. "Yes, a biotic field can reinforce the internal structure, giving the others a chance to escape even in the event of the fuel tank explosion. I believe that three biotics working together can give the others a chance of survival."

"Aye, Samara, Miranda and I are the three most capable biotics here," began Shepard

"I am every bit as capable, Shepard," interrupted Taso Kala, who had struggled to her feet and composed herself enough to speak.

"No doubt, but risking both Spectres on the same task when one is sufficient is pointless. Dying for a cause is one thing, but risking death when others more expendable are around is another," returned Shepard with his terrible calmness. "Go on – you have seen what I have here, and Captain Anderson will pass on my notes to you, so you can continue the investigations in my absence. I will try to join you as soon as I can."

He continued, "Taso Kala – see to the wounded on the lower deck. Alenko – take care of Joker in the cockpit and the ones on the middle deck. I will catch up with you as soon as possible."

Taso Kala's face was unreadable, but she gently brushed his knuckles against her cheek as she turned away. Alenko gave a brisk salute and rushed down to the engineering decks. Miranda looked in a mixture of surprise and admiration at the human Spectre, whose mind seemed equal to nearly every eventuality that might be thrown at him.

A minute later, the bodies of all the three biotics on the bridge were glowing an eerie blue as they charged up their powers, preparing to hold the ship together with nothing more than a sheer effort of will. Shepard spoke to Samara, and it might have been inviting her for a walk in the park, judging by the tone, "Lady Samara, i believe you are the best to guide our efforts. You've got the most experience after all."

The asari justicar nodded as she initiated contact with the minds of the two humans, "Embrace eternity!"

---(Author's Notes)---

Okay – so there we have a cliffhanger. Shepard, Miranda and Samara are being thrown together, by sheer force of circumstances. Coming up next – the consequences of the destruction of the Normandy and the reaction of both the humans and the other Council species. Garrus, and Alenko struggle to hold the group together. Further investigation into Shepard and his two mates' fates.