Title: Architects of Their Own Fortune
Author: Jewels (bjewelled)
Fandom: Mass Effect
Disclaimer: Mass Effect is Bioware's. And don't they do well with it?
Summary: Rumours abound: the Omega 4 relay has been used, and signs lead to Shepard being involved somehow. Someone has to investigate, and who better than one of Shepard's former crew? On top of all that, ship crews are disappearing, and it can't be the Collectors. So who's responsible, and why?
One: No Return Address Included
"Good morning, Citadel! It's a bright and sunny dawn here on the Presidium, and even if 'days' are a meaningless concept in space, it's time to get up and face a new one."
"That joke never gets old, huh, Mike?"
"No, Jamie, it never does. On the show today-"
Kaidan Alenko failed a hand somewhere in the direction of the VI interface near his bed, catching the 'off' switch more through blind luck than anything else. He'd only managed to get to sleep less than an hour earlier, and he was in no mood to be awoken by obnoxiously cheerful DJs, even if it was his own damned fault for not remembering to turn off the alarm before he went to bed. In his own defence, he'd been so exhausted when he'd finally arrived back that it was a wonder he'd managed to take his body armour off before keeling over.
He was, not for the first time, grateful that he'd invested in renting an apartment on the Citadel. Since it had become apparent that he was more or less permanently attached there it had seemed to be the sensible thing to do, and it was on mornings like this he was relieved he didn't have to deal with the hassle of the Alliance barracks. Normally, someone of his grade wouldn't have been able to afford anything within spitting distance of the Presidium, but Kaidan had been rather lucky in that regard.
If 'lucky' was really the right word for it.
When Commander Shepard, his CO, humanity's Spectre, survivor of Akuze and saviour of the Citadel, had died, she left behind a rather sizeable personal fortune. Kaidan had been aware of the fact that he and the rest of the team that had struggled to defeat Saren, Sovereign and the geth were getting the very best in the way of new and expensive technology, but he'd make the mistake of assuming that the Council paid its operatives handsomely for their efforts. He didn't discover until after her death that the Council paid nothing to the upkeep of the Spectres, expecting them to buy their own weapons and armour. It wasn't unusual, he learned, for Spectres to be involved in business ventures to fund their own activities. He had wondered at the time if it was an extra level of security for the Council; no one could trace the Spectres through payments from the Council if there were none to track. That or it was just genuinely miserly behaviour.
Shepard had apparently used her unique opportunity to explore parts of the Traverse where companies and governments would have to spend a fortune on financing exploratory expeditions to chart and acquire gas and metal mining rights on dozens of worlds. At the time, Kaidan had assumed that they were following orders from Alliance command to scout out new resources wherever possible. He hadn't seen any other justification for the constant diversions to place markers or conduct orbital scans. He had no idea the wealth this had brought Shepard until, a week after she was officially declared KIA, he received a call from a volus who'd represented her legal and financial interests (the best representative, it turned out, on the Citadel, and the most expensive to retain), politely informing him that he was the beneficiary of her estate, and what would he like to do with all the money he now owned?
When he had gotten over the shock of exactly how many digits made up Shepard's account total, he had used most of the money to anonymously invest the 'Shepard Scholarship', given slices of it to Tali and Liara (Wrex had disappeared off the radar right after Saren's death, and was long gone by the time Kaidan could have made the offer, and Garrus studiously turned anything down that might have seemed inappropriate to C-Sec), and what was left over was more than enough to pay for a modest apartment in an upscale part of the Wards, just off the Presidium junction.
It had made sense to rent the apartment, really. He had been quietly assigned to the Alliance's Citadel detachment after the Normandy's destruction, and had found himself being called upon fairly frequently by the newly appointed Councillor Anderson for missions. Officially, those missions were assigned by his immediate superiors, but it was only a formality. Routinely, his superiors didn't know the specifics of the missions that Anderson sent him out on. When he'd once drummed up the courage to ask why he had been given these assignments, of all people, Anderson had replied,
"You fought on Shepard's team. That's makes you better than ten Marines in my book."
He was away so often that he never seemed to get around to personalising the place. The furniture was basic and had come with the place, the walls unadorned with much in the way of pictures, though at least one of his female friends had made clucking noises of disapproval at the austerity of the place and given him a plastic orchid to brighten the place up a little.
It was a nice place. Shepard's finances had provided him that much comfort, at least, but he would have rather lived on a cot shoved in the corner of the barracks if it had meant that she was still-
He shoved the thought away, rolling on his back and rubbing at his eyes, trying to divert his mind from remembering her, recollecting the last time he'd seen her. It was hardest in these muggy semi-conscious moments just before he became fully awake. For two years, that last memory had been of her eyes through a slit in her helmet, her voice telling him to get into the escape pods, but these days it was of her on Horizon, glowing scars on her face, looking not a day older but every bit as ready to take on the galaxy as she had in the old days, flanked by unfamiliar faces, the shadow of Cerberus behind her. He wondered if it was worse to think she was dead, or to know her a traitor.
He shoved the covers off the bed. He was quite thoroughly awake. No chance of getting to sleep now his brain had started down this particular path. He had a scheduled free day today, liberty granted after the completion of a quick recon mission to the edges of the Attican Traverse. He could crash later in the afternoon, when he'd exhausted himself so thoroughly that he didn't have the chance to think about her.
He moved about the apartment, picking up the bits of armour he'd left scattered over the floor. He'd at least had the good sense to stow his weapons in the personal locker he'd received permission to keep in the apartment; another investment of his. Given that he often had to deploy at short notice, and the weapons weren't standard issue to the Alliance, it had seemed only sensible. He'd found that Shepard's habit of buying whatever weapons were the best, regardless of supplier, had served him well on several missions. The fact that he'd received permission to keep so many personal weapons seemed to him another indication of his rather odd status in the ranks of the Alliance here on the Citadel.
He'd tossed his omnitool on the desk near the kitchen, and he was just picking it up and moving to slide it onto his arm when he realised that the extranet terminal was flashing with a 'new message' icon. He pulled a face at it. He'd been away for two weeks. Messages tended to build up in that time, so, for the moment, he ignored it.
He stowed the armour, realised that he had nothing in his kitchen other than a sealed ration pack that he must have tossed in a drawer after a previous mission, and sighed, thinking that his mother would probably have been exasperatedly annoyed at his complete lack of domestic skills. The thing that annoyed him more than anything, though, was that he'd gone through the last of his genuine coffee before he'd left for the Traverse.
He stared, groggy and disgruntled, at the empty packet that he'd shoved back in the cupboard after the last time he'd made a mug, and slammed the door shut without bothering to throw it away. He went back into the bedroom, looking for some relatively clean civvies, and headed out of the apartment, going the rapid-transit station on the nineteenth floor and punching in the address of a strip of cafés and eateries not too far away, where he would be guaranteed to get a decent cup of coffee in spite of the obscenely early hour.
He picked a small café on the end of a row of shops that he knew from experience served decent coffee and was clean and tastefully decorated. He indulged in a sandwich as well, and the servitor, a diminutive human woman with a name-badge that indicated her name was "DORIS" smiled at him in recognition and offered to bring his coffee to the table. Now he thought about it, he was actually a fairly regular customer.
He relaxed on a stuffed chair in the corner of the café, opening up his omnitool and linking it back to his extranet terminal back in his apartment, accessing his messages. Some of them were advertising crap that had made it past the VI guard, and he scowled as he deleted them, unread, making a mental note to update the VI's algorithms. It would give him a few months grace until the next iteration of spam came up with new ways to circumvent the blocks.
There were a few messages from the Alliance, routine stuff mostly, which he set aside to review later, when he felt up to dealing with official nonsense. There were a couple from Anderson, which he skimmed to see that they weren't immediately urgent, then sent them to the 'deal with later' folder along with the Alliance messages.
Then he came across one which he nearly deleted as spam, but halted, fingers poised over the 'trash' macros, something odd catching his eye. The sender field was blank. Not masked, or spoofed, but utterly blank. That was unusual, to say the least. It was easier to just fake message header details than to strip them completely, so it was something he could never remember seeing before. He expanded the metadata, trying to pick out where it had come from, but it had been utterly scrubbed clean. There was no return data, no originator stamp. It could have come from a public terminal on the Citadel or from a buoy on the other side of the galaxy. It shouldn't have been possible to route messages without the header data, but he was staring at the clear exception to the rule.
Now unutterably curious, he opened the file, and when he read the contents, a single line, the bottom fell out of his stomach.
Tell Anderson: the Collectors are no longer a threat.
There was only one person who would send him a message like that.
His arm, omnitool still on and glowing, thudded to his lap, and he stared vacantly through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that looked out onto the commercial concourse. His thoughts raced by so fast that he couldn't spend more than second on any of them. Eventually he gave up on trying to figure out what to feel, and just fell into a curious sort of stunned numbness that was easier to deal with that to think about the ramifications of that single, simple message.
"You okay?" Doris asked, as she set the mug of coffee in front of him, brow furrowed in polite curiosity, "You look pale."
He blinked, stared at her. He hadn't even noticed her approach. "I... uh. Just... something I didn't expect."
She glanced at his omnitool. "You didn't just get a Dear John, did you?"
"What?" He glanced at the omnitool, and quickly flicked it closed, before she could see the message content. She shouldn't be able to, but he wasn't going to take any choices. "No, no."
He laughed, in spite of himself. "No."
"Then it can't be that bad." She gave him a sunny smile, and returned to the counter to continue preparing coffees for the other customers that entered in dribs and drabs.
He should take the message to Anderson at once; that would have been the sensible thing to do. But the message was stamped as having been received by his system six days ago, while he was still in the Traverse, so it obviously wasn't urgent, or it would have been routed to Anderson's system rather than having been sent to his.
Why had she sent him the message, rather than telling Anderson directly?
He was tired, sore, with the beginnings of a migraine that was probably his own fault from pushing himself so far. He was in no condition to face Anderson and deal with this message rationally. He picked up his mug and took it back over to the counter.
"Can I get this to go?" he asked.
He was expecting to stare wide-eyed at the walls once he returned to his apartment, and surprised himself by lying down on the bed, still fully dressed, and falling asleep almost immediately. He awoke a good eighteen or so hours later, having slept the remainder of the day and most of the night, uncomfortably twisted in clothes and drooling onto his pillow.
Oh yes, very attractive, he thought to himself as he wiped at his cheek and went for a shower. By the time he'd dressed anew, and had thrown out the untouched coffee that sat stone cold on the table, he felt much more human.
He couldn't resist sitting down at his desk, opening up his messages, and staring at that anonymous message again. He couldn't just ignore it that was for sure. He transferred the message to his omnitool and erased the local copy, then headed for the shower. By the time normal 'start of business' on the Presidium, he had made himself presentable in a dress uniform with the pistol he was permitted to wear as a senior member of a Council race's garrison, and was heading for Anderson's office.
He heard the voices before he arrived at Anderson's office in the human embassy. The acoustics of the Citadel were oftentimes very peculiar. Sometimes sound echoed around corners and down hallways, in others, mostly in the Presidium, there seemed to be acoustic baffles in odd places, which could be a little disorientating until you got used to it. The Embassies were a prime example of this. It was hard to overhear anything that you weren't in the room for, which was exactly how the various diplomats liked it. They even used low-powered kinetic barriers to prevent someone from pointing a microphone across the Presidium to pick up sound waves, a slight tweak in them prevented anyone from seeing inside as well. Of course, it didn't stop various governments from trying to use technological methods to circumvent the sound-proofing. Anderson had to have his office swept for bugs twice a day, and more often than not it came up with something. He had once told Alenko that he was pretty sure the constant paranoia was giving him an ulcer.
It had given then Lieutenant-Commander Kaidan Alenko the chance to relate the anecdote of the volus merchant who'd tried to bug the Normandy back in the early days of Shepard's tenure as a Spectre, and detailed exactly what her response had been. It had been one of the few times during that awful two years where he could recall talking about her and laughing; the first time it hadn't hurt to say her name.
To hear voices, you had to be inside an embassy or, as in Kaidan's case, standing immediately on the threshold, the door open. He hesitated as he looked inside, seeing Anderson standing before three active holograms of the Citadel Council, arms held behind his back as he listened to the salarian councillor hold forth on some point. Kaidan glanced back. Anderson's secretary had waved him in, saying that the Councilman had been expecting him, but he wasn't sure it was intended for him to walk in on a private Council session. Then he saw Anderson's eyes flick in his direction, and the small motion made with his fingers, out of sight of the Councillors who would only be looking at the front of his hologram in their respective offices, gesturing for Kaidan to enter but remain outside of the holopickup. He wanted Kaidan to observe without being seen for some reason.
Kaidan stepped inside to let the door shut, and leaned back against the wall, arms folded and paying close attention to whatever was going on.
"Pure speculation," the salarian was saying, "Intelligence from inside the Terminus systems is sketchy at best."
"These rumours didn't come from nowhere," the turian said, "It seems that civilian news networks have better resources than we do. I believe that we must determine for certain whether the Omega 4 relay has indeed been used. It is an unknown quantity, if the so-called 'Collectors' truly exist, then its activation does not bode well."
"We cannot send a fleet, or even a task group into the Terminus systems to investigate," the asari said. "It would be seen as deliberate provocation. Even to assign a Spectre-"
The turian councillor interrupted brusquely, "We already have a Spectre in the Terminus systems, do we not, Councillor Anderson?"
Anderson quirked an eyebrow slightly, a gesture no doubt lost on a turian. "Have you forgotten already, Councillor? You were there when her privileges were reinstated, as I remember it, but perhaps it slipped your mind."
The turian councillor looked incensed that Anderson had turned a rhetorical turn of phrase into a subtle insult. The asari, however, looked like she was trying not to smile.
"Commander Shepard," Anderson continued, before the turian could puff up his pride and retaliate, "Has yet to respond to any messages or requests to report in. If it was her ship that passed through the relay, she may already be dead."
"What, again?" the turian asked.
Unseen, against the wall, Kaidan curled his fingers into loose fists.
"I wouldn't count her out just yet," Anderson said, ignoring the jibe. "If there's one thing that I'm certain of, it's that killing Shepard will only make her more determined."
"We don't know anything for certain yet," the asari councillor said, diplomatically, "We will continue to monitor the situation and proceed if further developments warrant it. Gentlemen, as we are in open session tomorrow, we will table discussions for now."
"Good day, Councillors," Anderson said, bowing slightly, the gesture and words echoed by the others before the holounits powered down.
Kaidan straightened up, tugging his uniform jacket back into place and walking over towards Anderson. He resisted the urge to salute out of habit, though it had been a difficult think to teach himself not to do. He had a feeling that he'd always see Anderson as his CO deep down, though, given the way that Anderson always looked tired these days, perhaps he would have preferred to remain in the military.
"I hadn't heard," Kaidan said, "About the Omega 4 relay, that is."
"You must not have seen the news lately then," Anderson said wryly. "It's been the talk of the gossip columns the last few days, ever since news made its way out of the Terminus systems."
"I've been busy," Kaidan said, wryly.
"Ah yes, your mission to the Traverse. How did it go?"
"Productively," Kaidan said, "I've filed the report with Admiral Epworth. That's not why I'm here, though."
Anderson frowned, opening his mouth to ask when Kaidan held up a hand.
"Is the room secure?" he asked.
Anderson nodded slowly. "Had it swept just before the conference call. Electronic jammers still running as standard, of course."
Kaidan nodded, reassured. He had no desire to let this information get out unnecessarily. He had no idea if anyone could use the information for their own advantage, but he didn't want to experiment and find out. He opened his omnitool and linked it to the holounits. When they weren't generating real-time comm images, they could produce a fairly high resolution floating 2D image these days. "I found this message in my system when I returned from the Traverse."
A flick of his fingers, and the message appeared in the air. Anderson stared at it, eyes slightly wide. "Can you confirm it's from her?"
Kaidan might have, at some other point in time, found it funny that they both leapt to the same immediate conclusion as to the identity of the sender. "No," he said, "The metadata was thoroughly scrubbed. The only thing in the message was what you see before you."
"Well, we know who activated the Omega 4 relay," Anderson mused, "Was this sent before or after she passed through it, I wonder."
Kaidan frowned. "You think she would have sent it before going to face them?"
"Possibly, if she thought there was a chance she wasn't going to come back. Shepard wouldn't leave whatever was on the other side unless her task was completed, but I think she'd want us to know what was going on. Just in case."
"So..." He stared at the white-on-orange text in trepidation. "She might have died fighting them?"
Anderson frowned at the message for a long moment. "We can't send a scouting mission or fleet into the Traverse. That's a declaration of war. We can't send a Spectre in because it's halfway to a declaration of war." He stepped forward, tapping the control panel for the holounits. The computer chirruped and the screen cleared and the message 'Memory Cache Purged' flashed up briefly. "But one more mercenary in the Terminus systems, who's going to notice that?"
Kaidan scowled as he caught onto what Anderson was saying. He folded his arms. "One of these days I'm going to ask for a serious pay rise."
"One of these days I might give it to you," Anderson said, with a small smile. "You have the rest of the week off, don't you?"
Anderson nodded his head thoughtfully. "I'll have a word with Admirals Epworth and Yang, see what we can come up with in the way of transport that just so happens to be passing close to the Terminus systems."
"I guess I should start making a few preparations then." Kaidan straightened, unfolded his arms and snapped of a salute before he even realised what he was doing. Anderson didn't even bother to call him on the unnecessary nature of it. Kaidan was halfway to the door when Anderson spoke up again.
"Odd that she sent you and only you the message," he said. When Kaidan hesitated and turned back, Anderson was studiously looking out over the Presidium, his expression invisible.
"Sir," he said, neutrally.
"One would think," Anderson continued, "That she trusted you above anyone else. More than Alliance Command, more than me."
Kaidan swallowed. Anderson had never given sign that he knew what had happened between Kaidan and Shepard while they served together on the Normandy. As far as he knew, they had been discrete enough that no one knew. While, after her death, pursuing him for any breach of protocol would have been pointless, now that she was alive and with Cerberus it meant that if anyone chose to make a point of it publically and claim he was compromised from a previous relationship with a woman with suspected terrorist ties, he was seriously at risk of getting stood down from active duty, moved away from the Presidium, perhaps 'encouraged' to resign if they couldn't find any evidence against him.
Kaidan opened his mouth to make some excuse about technical skills or their service together on the Normandy, but realised that Anderson had turned around was giving him a solid, knowing look. He swallowed the words, knowing they'd be picked up for the weak rationalisations that they were.
He didn't know how, but Anderson knew.
"Is that a problem?" he asked.
"Not in my book," Anderson said, after a long moment's silence in which Kaidan's heart sat firmly in his stomach. "I trust Shepard. More relevantly, I trust you, and I trust your judgment. Don't make me regret that decision."
"Of course not, sir," Kaidan said, hastily.
Kaidan had never been so relieved to hear those words in his life.