A/N: Bioware owns Mass Effect.
"Perhaps this will encourage you to keep up on your filter maintenance, Jin," Dr. Chakwas said as her patient hopped off the examination table with a small cough. "Martian bronchitis is nothing to joke about. It is curable in most cases, of course, but you'll be laid out for weeks while the nanites clean your lungs of all the dust."
"I know, Doc. Sorry. I just get in a groove, you know? I forget about my equipment sometimes." The young scientist grinned sheepishly. "I'll take my enviro-suit down to Mack's right now."
Chakwas watched as the gangly young man exited her medical bay. From bullet wounds to stubborn coughs; from Council Spectres to Alliance scientists. Karin Chakwas smiled ruefully. She'd thought a brief reprieve would be good for her—and it had been, for a few months. Glancing down at her omni-tool display for what felt like the hundredth time since that morning didn't help the restlessness clawing at the edges of her mind. She'd put in for a berth on the SSV Shenyang and still had not received word on whether she would be accepted. Somehow, she knew it wouldn't be.
Chakwas had been around long enough to know when she was being handled. Still recovering from the shock of losing the Normandy and Commander Shepard, Chakwas had quietly acquiesced to her reassignment, objecting only to the tentative advice that she might consider early retirement. She was barely sixty-five years old—she had useful decades still ahead of her. Work was what she needed; work and time. She had thought that she would be reassigned to another ship, but her superiors thought it best that she "take it easy" for awhile on the Martian Naval Base. No frenzied battles to worry over, just overworked scientists and a dusty, frozen clime that encouraged a local condition: Martian bronchitis.
It was too easy—she should have seen it coming, especially when they grounded poor Jeff. She'd made a hard effort to keep in contact with the old crew: Engineer Adams, Lieutenant Alenko, Liara, Joker. But Adams was reassigned immediately to an Alliance dreadnought and had no time to write if he wanted to keep up with his new duties. The asari scientist had replied eagerly at first, but eventually her communication tapered off as well. Kaidan hadn't replied at all. Joker had been the most reliable correspondent, and that wasn't saying much. He was a diffident communicator at the best of times. But she could tell that he tried at least and had sent messages to her once every standard Earth week. His last had been three weeks ago, however, and she was getting worried.
Her omni-tool blipped as she was flexing her wrist to turn it off. A new message from Captain Dorian Reynolds of the SSV Shenyang. Stomach fluttering in nervous anticipation, Chakwas sat down in the chair behind her desk and opened it.
Thank you for your recent request to berth with the Shenyang. While you are extremely qualified, I regret to inform you that...
Chakwas switched off the glowing omni-tool, suddenly feeling her age for the first time in a long while. Obstacles at every turn. She couldn't stay here on Mars, but what could she do?
Her consulting office had a large viewport overlooking the red plains, a luxury in a facility designed solely for scientific research of the Mars Archives. The sun was beginning to set, casting a blue and reddish haze as the light hit the heavy particulates in the atmosphere. Sunsets were the one thing she did like about Mars. She had missed them aboard the Normandy...
A face popped into her mind. Captain Anderson. Of course! Of all her old friends, he would understand her frustration, and maybe be able to grease a few wheels. She mentally composing the message already when she remembered: he was Councilor Anderson now, and from what she had heard, it wasn't the easiest position, what with the rest of the Council opposing him every time he tried to introduce reform or change. No, she couldn't bother him now... Chakwas glanced out the window at the setting sun and revised her idea: she would keep Anderson as a last resort. Surely there were still a couple of favors she could pull somewhere.
The door to her consulting office chimed at her. Another patient this late? She glanced at her omni-tool—not a scheduled patient. An emergency in the labs perhaps? Chakwas stood from her desk as the door to the office opened with a squealed protest. She made a mental note to send a maintenance request to Mack again. Not that he could do much good—the red Martian dust got everywhere, no matter how hard they tried to keep it out.
The man who strolled into her office wasn't injured and his stance, while showing a familiar soldierly alertness, wasn't hurried. No emergency then.
Chakwas assumed her professional smile. "Can I help you?"
"Actually, I think I should be the one saying that, Doctor." The man smiled, revealing teeth dazzlingly white against his dark skin.
"Doctor Karin Chakwas, former Chief Medical Officer of the SSV Normandy." He stepped forward, offering his hand. "I'm Jacob Taylor. I represent an organization that wishes to give you a second chance. A chance to work where your substantial skills and experience will be needed and valued."
Chakwas raised an eyebrow. A headhunter? She supposed she should be flattered. "And just what organization is this?"
For the briefest moment, the young man looked discomfited. "I'll come to that in a moment, Doctor. There's something you must see first." His omni-tool lit and after pressing a few commands, a holo-vid popped up from the display. The texture was a little grainy, but Chakwas could see that it was a medical bay with a person on an examining table, surrounded by tubes and wires.
A balding man with small eyes came into view. "Earth time, March 4, 2184, 1300 hours. Operative Lawson and I will be removing the breathing tube from the subject." The man suddenly smiled, a wolfish smile of professional pride. "Shepard will breathe without the aid of machines for the first time in a year today."
"What?" Chakwas started, but Jacob held up a hand and the recording continued with the familiar enough procedure, only this time Chakwas stared intently at the patient's face. It was difficult to recognize at first: the skin had an odd, dry texture associated with heavy-duty skin implants, usually given to burn-victims, and the glow of other cybernetics through the still-growing skin was clear to see. But the shape of those eyes was unmistakable and the mouth, though lifeless now, had once chatted amicably with her about Captain Anderson and Lieutenant Alenko.
The recording blinked out just as Shepard began breathing.
"What... what have you done?" Chakwas breathed, her heart alternating somewhere between her stomach and her throat. "Is this some kind of joke? If so, Mr. Taylor, you have very bad taste."
"No joke, Doctor," Taylor said gently. "And before you ask, it's not a clone. This Shepard's the real deal. We recovered the body from the Normandy crash site. We've been piecing the Commander together ever since. It's state of the art technology—cutting edge science that no one's ever done before. Commander Shepard is alive and in time will wake up to prove it to everyone."
Chakwas sat back heavily in her chair, staring at him.
"I know this is a lot to process, but I was sent here to recruit you. Humanity is in danger. You may not have heard while you've been groundside, but a human colonies in the Terminus Systems have gone missing."
Chakwas stirred, frowning. "The Terminus Systems are dangerous. Pirates, batarians, name your pick."
Jacob shook his head. "Those types always leave signs; bodies, blood, looting. These colonists have simply disappeared, every man, woman, and child—just gone. No explanation, no bodies; no evidence that anything is wrong except that no one is there." Jacob sat up in his chair. "That's why we need the Commander. Shepard represented—represents the best of us and knows how to get a job done. That's why we're committed to bringing the Commander back and we want you to join the team."
Chakwas straightened her spine, folding her hands together to stop them from trembling. "Who do you represent, Mr. Taylor?"
"Cerberus." He paused as if waiting for reaction, but other than a thinning of her lips, Chakwas said nothing. Jacob continued. "I understand that while you served with the Normandy, you had run-ins with some of Cerberus's more... liberal factions."
Chakwas' expression didn't change as she nodded.
"I'm former Alliance myself, ma'am, so I understand any reservations or hesitation you may feel. Former Flight Lieutenant Jeff Moreau expressed the same reservations, but now he's waiting in a Cerberus facility for Shepard to wake up. The Illusive Man wishes you to know that he is willing to give you a salary three times what you're making now."
"If this 'cutting-edge' science of yours actually works," Chakwas said slowly, still absorbing the shock, "and Shepard wakes up still Shepard, what guarantee do you have that the Commander will not just refuse to work with you?"
Jacob nodded, brow clearing. "The Illusive Man knows that will likely happen, ma'am. However, he also knows that Shepard's sense of duty to humanity is strong enough that any hesitation in working with Cerberus may be set aside in pursuit of our common goals: saving these human colonies." He paused, looking at her expectantly.
"What happens if I refuse?"
"Nothing, ma'am." His gaze was open and frank. "I leave and you never hear from Cerberus again. As for the mission, the Illusive Man will hire an equally talented medical officer to serve under Shepard's command in your stead. He offers the position to you first out of politeness and a realization that the transition for the Commander might be easier with a familiar face nearby."
"I'll need a few weeks to find a replacement," she found herself saying.
"Of course." Jacob stood and tapped out a few commands on his omni-tool. "Whenever you're ready, send a message to this secure address. You'll get a reply with further instructions and how to find us." He held out his hand. "I look forward to working with you, Doctor."
She hesitated a moment, and then shook it. "About the salary, Mr. Taylor. I want no part of it. I will not work for Cerberus. I want that made clear to your 'Illusive Man.' If Shepard wakes up, that is who I will work for."
"Of course, ma'am." Taylor's arm stiffened as if about to salute, but then he nodded and left her office, the door squealing shut behind him.
Chakwas stood, walking to the viewport. The sunset was nearly over now, purple ribbons of light streaming through the horizon as the bright disc of the sun sank faded from sight. She would have to enjoy this one. After all, a sunset really wasn't the same on a ship.