Chapter 12: Differences
Artemis Tau cluster
Purgatory Incident +1624 hours
"What do we have?"
"Not much sir. The local asset wasn't able to extract a lot of useful data from the subject and his data stores were thoroughly sanitized. Not by the survivor's actions though. We sent what we could to the SAINTS for analysis, but they're not turning up anything usable. Based on the trace junk data they were able to recover though, they're extrapolating an external source as the cause rather than anything the subject did."
Director Osbourne permitted himself a small quirk of the eyebrow at his adjutant's answer. It was not every day that the man began his report with a negative. Some might have taken the uncharacteristic deviation to be a sign of nervousness in the face of bad news, but if that had been the case, the man would never give a straight report. SAICOM business often consisted of getting bad news.
He leaned back slightly in his chair, taking the moment to direct a look at the reports strewn on his desk. Within the well lit confines of his office, making out the designations on each case was easy. Rising extremist factions in the Corvus Sector, xeno infestation in Korpulu that read like some kind of lesser Rachni strain, and more lined the folders marked as top priority. Bad news all around. But this one could be different, and he wanted proper answers.
"Not the question I asked Parker."
The adjutant blinked, the only expression he made before continuing the briefing proper. "Piecing together the evidence, Analysis concludes that the Revenant arrived at Purgatory for a prisoner transfer seven Terran standard days ago. Routine cash for criminal exchange, possibly for a high value combat specialist given previous patterns, though we weren't able to determine the identity yet."
"It's the Revenant," Osbourne pointed out without pause, "comb the prison records for the most troublesome and dangerous inmates and we'll find his target."
The list, undoubtedly, would be very small. Purgatory kept the most dangerous criminals in known space, ruthless crime lords rubbed shoulders with mass murderers. But only a tiny percentage of their inmate populace had specialized skills and capabilities necessary to fit the sort of team the Revenant was putting together in the reports. A Cerberus chief operative, a rogue Alliance ex-Corsair, Krogan tank born super soldier, retired Salarian STG field researcher, the original founder of the Blue Suns and a Turian instrumental in Sovereign's destruction formed his ground team to date. A band of misfits to be certain, but all highly skilled in military field craft. In private, Osbourne found the similarities to certain popular action holovids rather amusing.
Professionally, they were a matter of concern. Purgatory's inmates were not exactly stable material for field operations. Though for now, they were the Revenant's worry, not his.
"Were we able to track the credit transfer?"
"No sir. ELINT cracked the Warden's side of things easily enough, we've got a full list of every transaction for the last six months except for that particular one. We've got some trace data that indicates a last second cancellation, but not enough to follow back to the origin point."
"So the warden crossed them." Hence the cancellation. Now, was it the Revenant's personal finances, or his sponsor? It only took a moment to conclude the likely answer. Which meant the Blue Suns would be soon on the receiving end of Cerberus displeasure. Another moment was spent considering putting the mercenary group under watch to catch the rogue operation in the act, but he discarded it just as quickly. Too small a fish to go after. This was a better lead to follow. "Do we know who paid him?"
"Yes sir. One of the transactions we did pick up show a large deposit from Angus Incorporated, but that's a shell company for S.I. We're extrapolating that the Warden got too greedy and cut a deal with S.I. to contain and secure the Revenant for delivery to the corporation once he was certain the Revenant was en route. Given the affiliation of the subject and his debrief, the theory is fairly solid."
"I imagine he was there as a technical advisor?"
"That's what the debrief indicates. Looks like he was also there to oversee a transfer of less than lethal electrolasers for use in the capture; experimental tech from S.I.'s armament subdivision."
Now this was interesting. He had known the company was developing the weapons for some time through their subsidiaries, but not the fact that they were so far into the development cycle as to already possess usable prototypes for field deployment. Useful in most cases, but- "Except they didn't factor in the Korlus asset."
"Yes sir. The debrief was pretty adamant that the experimental weapon proved effective against the Revenant and most of the command squad with the sole exception of the krogan."
"Initial setbacks were quickly reversed at that point, with the Revenant seizing Purgatory's command centre shortly after despite heavy fighting. Our picture after that is sketchy, as the subject proved incoherent during the recollection despite the use of chemical and psychological aids. As best as we can determine, the Revenant engaged in advanced interrogation methods on the crew to extract critical intelligence of Purgatory's defenses against cyber intrusion. Shortly after, the ship's primary power cores were irreversibly purged, and the subject forced into an escape pod, having traded information for leniency."
"Whereupon our trail of hard data on the Revenant's actions run dry."
"Not entirely sir. While the Purgatory was a complete write off by the time we managed to get teams on station, we did manage to salvage most of the black boxes from its fighter complement to get a picture of the external situation. What we found though is troubling. We know that the Revenant's been using an advanced version of the Alliance navy's stealth frigate, but it doesn't account for the fact that almost the entirety of the fighter squadrons had their payload overridden before they were shot down."
Osbourne raised an eyebrow at that. "Not jammed or intercepted?"
Parker nodded. "The SAINTS confirm it, the missiles had their kill switches armed sir. Simultaneous detonations in the entire volley. If not the Revenant, then we're looking at least an allied magnitude six synthetic intelligence designed for battlefield level cyber-warfare."
"Troubling, but not entirely unexpected given the events on Omega."
"Well, there's one other thing Analysis has, but isn't ready to conclude on. Aside from the subject's pod, there were twenty four others recovered, a full complement. But he was the only one inside. The rest look remote launched, probably to keep anyone else from using them. But the who... well, the motives vary, but if the Revenant really is who you suspect, and he's responsible, then we'll have to consider the possibility of Case Alpha."
"Probable certainty of that being accurate?" Anyone who read the Revenant's psyche scores would have scoffed at the idea, but one of the few things Osbourne didn't like to do was to discount the 'impossible', especially when it came to murky things like situational ethics.
"Low sir, but the events on Omega may have been an early sign of the deterioration, and the psych-analysts are pretty certain that the Revenant's stability is not sustainable in the long term. There's only so much you can do with stims and direct neural stimulation. Frankly sir, with what we know, they're surprised he's lasted this long."
"So unless the situation on the ground changes soon, we don't have a lot of time." Osbourne brooded over the information, considering the next moves he, and by extension SAICOM, would have to make. Unofficially, of course. "You say the Purgatory was destroyed?"
"Yes sir, it was already in the process of uncontrolled atmospheric entry of the local gas giant by the time our assets arrived on scene. Given what we know and long range scans, the most likely cause was standard orbital decay after the main power was cut."
"That saves us some trouble then. Have the teams sanitize the area, standard deception protocols."
"And the subject, sir?
Osbourne shrugged. "That's up to the local asset's judgment. He's got enough experience with these cases to make the right call. Either way, I doubt the subject's sponsors would be all that eager to get him back after this incident. He won't be missed. But as for the Revenant... I believe it's time for us to move to the next phase. "
"Sir, given the current focus of the Council recon teams, any deeper involvement on our part may not go unnoticed."
"I'm well aware of that Parker, but our window of opportunity is getting smaller. If Revenant had been baseline, he could have been passed off as a rogue agent, and ultimately containable. That isn't the case here, with the other elements of the Council already leaning hard for final sanction," and even that much was lenient by their measure. Without humanity on the same Council, they would have likely activated a SPECTRE with S&D objectives.
"With his particular trail getting easier to follow with every stop, they'll catch up with him soon enough without intervention and we can't let that happen." The question was how. Osbourne paused, rifling through his internal memory for available options before hitting on one. "We still have an independent asset in the Terminus systems, don't we?"
"Yes sir, we have Saber currently on stand by, no active assignments at the moment, but the asset isn't exactly our best option given the connections-"
"I know the issues Parker, but that is less likely to be a liability than it is an edge in this particular instance. The last confirmed intel we had on that investigation team placed them on Korlus, so that gives us the advantage of time and location. Make the call. The Saber asset has got the nod on this, I'm authorizing limited deployment of B-class equipment for the duration of the operation."
"And Parker? Tell the asset I want this done quietly. No explosions."
Close, claustrophobic crawlspaces. Grey boxes, tiny stacked towers in too little room. Hot, stale air, the only movement being the exhalation of breath. A constant hum of electricity in the background. The quiet gurgle of coolant pipes. Sibilant thrum of the reactor. Darkness, lit only by emergency lights that paint the walls in oppressive shades of black and blood. The digestive tract of an unthinking machine creature, all encompassing, enclosing organic flesh within.
It is a familiar comfort.
Here is darkness, away from prying eyes.
Here is tight confines, away from unwanted persons. Defensible.
In a Cerberus vessel.
A soft organic hiss, full of the promise of pain and death. The drive is there, the primal urge to destroy and sate her need for vengeance. To slaughter and revel in the bloodshed as she paints the colour of mortal extinction on sterile white walls. The spider resonates within her, flickering energies arc around her arm, ready for only her consent to begin the carnage. The ship is Cerberus. The crew is Cerberus. Reason enough to kill them all and take the ship for her own.
But she doesn't act on the impulse, doesn't feed the spider. For now. It's all too easy to remember why she doesn't.
She woke like she always did. Quickly, mind on edge. Never let your guard down. Muscles lax, uncoiled. Never let anyone know you're going to fuck them up until you're ready. Unfamiliar noises, unfamiliar smell, even the air felt different. She was somewhere else. Memory tickled. Pain. Agony. Death building a warm fire in her belly. Pulping bone and spraying blood. The feel of mortality as she crushed it.
A machine man in grey, bristling with guns.
She tears into it like she always does. The spider clamps down. Armour screams as a metal limb explodes.
But something different happens. Something unexpected.
The machine man buries a gun in her gut, faster than it should.
She folds and the lights go out.
But now she's awake.
She listens. Hears the beep of electronics, the almost indistinct whine of servos. Gut instinct supplies the answer without waiting for the question.
The machine man.
"I KNOW YOU ARE AWAKE"
The voice is comprised of harsh static and toneless. She doesn't bother to curse in reply, a waste of breath. Doesn't open her eyes, she doesn't need them yet. Muscles coil as she seizes the spider, drawing its embrace to her. She doesn't know why she's still alive, doesn't know who drives the machine man, she doesn't care. She won't make the same mistake this time. But the spider skitters away from her grasping fingers, tantalizingly out of reach as manacles clink cheerily against her ankles and wrists.
She opens her eyes this time, boring onto the machine man with the fury of a dreadnought cannon. She doesn't curse this time. Verbal defiance is wasted on machines. And then she takes in the details. Grey paint scheme, not bone white. The same machine that had gut punched her. The damage from her earlier rampage is there as proof, the mangled wreck of the right arm and scorched armour plate is evidence enough for her. All around are the sterile walls and machines of a medical bay. But something's off. She can all but hear her it screaming in her head. She see's it then, gold and black on the wall behind the machine man.
The mark of Cerberus.
"Shit." The word fills the air as she redoubled her efforts. Not Cerberus. Not again! Metal links groan as she strains at them, flashes of purple blue surrounding her wrists as she scrambles for the spider.
"DO NOT DO THAT. YOU WILL INJURE YOURSELF JACK."
"Bullshit." The instinctive response is out of her mouth before she clams up. But she stops her struggles for now. She can break the links, but it would take too long. But then the realization is there. Machine men don't talk like that. "Who the fuck are you anyway?"
The cyclopean eye meets her furious gaze.
The reply is chorused by the faint click of her restraints opening. She doesn't waste the opportunity thinking on the answer. The spider chitters, still out of reach, but the spider is not her only weapon. In one motion, she grabs a nearby tray, flinging it at the oversized tinker toy, rolling out of the table at the same time. Blue light flashes, stopping the tray in the air, but that's all the distraction she needs. Liquid beakers smash against the barriers, spraying septic smelling fluid all over it.
She's still moving, reaching up for her next weapon.
But then metal pincers clamp down on her torso, immobilizing both arms. The cyclopean eye stares her as she hurls curses at it.
"Come out Cerberus." She snarls, testing the pressure on the pincer grip. "Stop hiding behind your tin man like a pussy."
A moment of silence. Then a sound that grates on her ears, alien and guttural tones like a muted shotgun blast.
"I HIDE NOTHING."
The machine leans closer, single red eye burning brighter.
She smashes at it with fragments of the spider, dark hues flickering as she forces her power to the front. Her brain screams with the pain of effort, but pain is her drug, her cocaine. She embraces it, forcing the limits of her will. Armoured plexiglass whines under her assault, but fails to shatter.
Suddenly her head rings like a bell, and she can't squeeze in another breath as a crushing pressure encloses on her ribs. The flare of her biotics fades, flickers, and comes back as she fights through the pain. Her head rings again, and the dark aura vanishes.
"I DO NOT ENJOY THIS" The machine man intones, "BUT I WILL KEEP IT UP UNTIL YOU ARE WILLING TO TALK."
Flanged laughter, the raspy sound of a Turian throat. She freezes.
"You know Shepard, I'm starting to think you enjoy this."
No. The voice is different. Not the Warden then. She sees the Turian stepping out from a shadowy alcove in the medical bay, weapon clutched in his talons. Lightning sparks around the muzzle's edge aimed at her.
"Come on, commander, there's only so many replacement heads you can go through in a single day."
Black beady eyes lock onto her, a promised gunshot waiting for a misstep.
The machine man ignores the turian, hoisting her up before letting go. She doesn't stumble, she lands on her feet lightly, venom in her eyes. But she doesn't lunge for the kill. Not now. The spider is dormant, her biotics weakened. But she plans. Her time will come, and then-
"I AM NOT CERBERUS" the machine intones.
Her sneer is the only answer she needs to give. Did the pussy behind the machine think she was an idiot?
"BUT I WILL CUT YOU A DEAL."
She almost laughs. Fuck them. Since when does Cerberus deal? But she listens all the same. It doesn't take long for the short version to finish. A mission. He needs a killer, a weapon.
"TAKE IT" the machine offers, "AND YOU WILL GO FREE. NO STRINGS ATTACHED. NO CERBERUS PURSUIT."
She laughs now. Well fuck. She can't believe it. Won't. Don't trust, can't trust. Working with others means trust. Cerberus.
"You know Shepard," the Turian drawls easily, gun never wavering, "I don't think she believes you."
"Yeah I believe you," she replies acidly, "And I'm a fucking tentacle monster. You think I believe that pile of horseshit you're offering? From a pussy who won't even show his face?" But she thinks. Cerberus. Working with means not killing. But Cerberus. Fuck Cerberus. Cerberus needs to bleed, they all need to die. But she needs to know where to tear, what to crush. The haze of memories tells her what to hate, but she needs details. "You want me to work with you? Then I'm the one who's going to set the fucking price."
This is it. She can see it in the way the Turian tenses out of the corner of her eye. He dies first. The weapon he's got will come in handy. But then the machine man speaks, and it's not what she expects.
"SPEAK YOUR TERMS."
A snarl escapes her lips, but it is a muted thing, barely a growl of discontent. Not Cerberus her ass. She can see its tentacles plastered all over the ship's hull. But...
She runs a hand over her skull, smooth skin and callused fingers. The scars are gone, the stitches removed years ago. But she can still imagine it there. The day they cut her open and put the spider in her. The spider that trembles under her touch now. Cerberus's little present of pain and agony that she's twisted to move as she wants. Touch, tickle, whisper, chitter, pulse. She can feel it, sweet, sweet power flooding her veins better than any drug. Fuck cocaine, this is what she needs.
She can kill everyone on this ship. Reduce them to smears before they even know she's coming.
But she won't. Not yet.
The machine man, closer words to the truth than she'd cared to realize. Not Cerberus, it says. Never has been, never will be, that's how the claim goes. Nothing else said on the matter, but she listens, the vents carry gossip just as well as they do breathable atmosphere. A freak like her. Taken from who cares where, cut up by men in white coats for their sick little experiments. They put the spider in her, but they'd put him in the spider instead. Locked the doors and threw away the key. Made a living weapon. Like her.
A tiny little feral grin etches its way on her face. Just a little.
The tin man may claim not to be Cerberus, maybe it's even true. But she can see the hooks. Nobody who thought Jack was stupid lived long enough to make another mistake like that. She's torn off the hooks from her flesh. But this one? Destroying their pet weapon, or taking it for her own? She can't decide which would be better.
But that's a choice for later.
She's got a deal with the machine boss that runs the ship. Freedom from Cerberus, as if she could believe that. Even if the tin man's words were true, she didn't trust Cerberus not to send someone else. So she made her own demands. Access to all the clues she needs to track down the people who made her, molded her with drugs, surgery and pain. She never knew if she got all of them after all. Her first revenge comes first. And if the scum suckers are all dead, then there's still the facility where they kept her. She got the datapads.
All the records she needed, and time in the darkness to find what she wanted. So she'll be the metal man's destroyer on his crusade.
As long as the deal delivers what she wants and she gets the fucking huge bombs to blow it all to hell.
Inertial compensator's, check. Coil accelerators, a little imbalanced, array two needs some tuning. Mass effect field generators, bit of an overlap but fixable. Aperture field containment, no wait, not on this ship.
Diagnostic screens for every subsystem lie open before him, each one in neat little holographic display as his talons run through dozens of little adjustments. Shaving off a little weight in the next shell to achieve proper balance, smoothing out the electrical load on the accelerators and many more similar actions take place in this dark, red lit corner of the vessel. All in the name of achieving that perfect balance between performance and efficiency. A weapon that only needs to be fired once. And yet despite the load, the many calls for his attention, there is no other place he'd rather be.
It keeps his mind sharp and focused. It also keeps his mind off the unstable and highly dangerous individual hiding in the bowels of the Normandy like an ancient Sakar waiting for prey. Only far more dangerous and merciless.
Hard to keep his peace while knowing that the kind of person he dedicated his life to taking in or putting down was walking free on the Normandy. He'd pulled up Jack's file once he learned where they were going and who they were recruiting. Even sorting through the usual bullshit charges, the possibly justifiable homicides, there were far too many cases of wanton murder and grief the biotic had dealt out for him to ever accept. Not a serial killer, not a simple murderer. Oh no, that would have made things too easy. Jack was an impulse killer of the worst sort. The cop he'd tried to be, the vigilante he'd become, practically demanded he put a round between her eyes.
But that wasn't his call to make, it was Shepard's, and the ex-SPECTRE had all the reason in the galaxy to want the biotic on his side. The Reapers were the bigger menace, and so were their allies. He'd seen the videos of their work on Freedom's Progress. Not as flashy as Sovereign, but every bit as nasty. And with the Council being wilfully blind to the looming threat, Shepard couldn't hold back anything if they wanted to come out of this standing. They needed to be the best, and objectively, he trusted that Shepard could make it work, that he could forge all their neuroses into a crack team. He'd seen the man do it once with a ton of angry krogan, and didn't doubt for a second he could do it again with a psychotic biotic. But it didn't mean it was easy to accept.
And so... peace. Some find their peace in social activities. Some suppress their worries with the temporary peace of stimulants. Others still find tranquility in meditation.
Garrus Valkarian has his calibrations.
Adjusted or not adjusted. Performing to his requirements, or substandard. They were simple, binary problems which required just as simple answers. No moral judgement here, no snap ethical choices to be made under fire where the only compromise he needed to make were time and power loads. Perfecting the performance of a weapon of mass destruction in a cramped, dimly lit gunnery station is where he finds his tiny corner of peace.
Ironic really, given the last time he'd been doing this kind of thing, it had been with the Mako, also another weapon.
Though in all honesty, he would admit it was used against him and the rest of Shepard's ground squad as often as it was against their enemies, given his... unusual driving habits. Come to think of it, the last time this weapon was actually fired, they were in the blast zone too.
Suddenly, maximizing power output on the accelerator arrays didn't seem as important as optimizing the gunnery controls. If Shepard was going to get ideas about regular use of really, really, really danger close fire support, it was best to minimize the risk of- oh who was he kidding?
With or without the SR-2's main guns, he was sure Shepard would find some new way of committing group suicide by the time their next mission rolled around. And he was almost just as certain the salvage the commander had brought in from Purgatory would feature largely in it, no matter how much logic and common sense argued against the possibility. Burned out, holed by fire an order of magnitude greater than what it was designed to take, Kuril's last ride was little more than a hunk of scrap metal in his eyes. They had neither the fabricator capacity nor the raw materials necessary to effect repairs on the gutted vehicle, something both he and Miranda, in a rare show of unity, pointed out.
They still ended up manhandling the wreck into the Normandy's cargo bay while Purgatory fell apart all around them.
He didn't have the faintest clue as to how Shepard intended to do it. It wasn't the Mako, thank the spirits for small mercies, and his bulk made it all but impossible for him to fit into, much less drive if they ever repaired it.
Yet he would have bet a month of an ex-vigilantes pay that Shepard was going to find a use for it, somehow. And they'd all live to regret it.
In the most stomach churning, gizzard abusing, brain rattling way possible no doubt.
Maybe his calibrations weren't as soothing as he hoped they'd be.
Within the Normandy's cavernous cargo bay, in a cordoned and walled off area of the space, a plan was put into motion. Paired waldo arms unfolded, extending from their alcoves as they moved with mechanical precision. Plasma cutters and bulky magnetic clamps flexed in some, automated diagnostic routines cycling through the startup checks before beginning work. Others held minute manipulator joints and micron wide laser heads. Each one moved in an arcane, chaotically ordered dance of pre-programmed purpose before they went to work, the target of their attention motionless yet responsive.
A burst of coded data across the radio wavelengths, and bolts unlocked. Clamps touched down firmly, engaging magnetic locks before pulling away newly released armour skin. Only then did the work truly begin.
Datalinks were deactivated and removed in pairs, expanded modules spliced into place before given brief activation tests that pulsed on console readouts. Micro-servos were embedded, cyclical locking mechanisms installed directly into the internal structure. External servos were detached, and then reconnected only minutes later as a host of new internal communication channels blazed to life, spare command nodes redirected to external lines. Distributed processing hubs lit up across status monitors, each one running individual diagnostics as they tested the integrity of the newly expanded data network. Signals crosstalk rose and ebbed, manifesting as a brief buzz of visual and audio static in data recorders before a layer of shielding foam was set down.
It was a scene not unlike that of an industrial fabricator, taking apart the old and the damaged, replacing it with the new and the improved.
Rather like his calibrations, Garrus observed with a touch of dark humor as he stepped into the alcove. If he was the type to work on living subjects. Oh sure, there were composites and armour alloys instead of skin, microprocessor clusters and electro-optical relays instead of nerves and veins. Ropey bundles of electrically reactive myomer fibres instead of muscles. A humming microfusion core instead of a heart. But there was a fleshy organic brain inside that tangled mess, which made all the difference as far as that patient was concerned he supposed.
Still, that meant Shepard wouldn't be available for as long as it took for the maintenance cycle to finish-
The thought came to screeching halt as one of the scaffolds servo mounted cameras swivelled noiselessly to face him. On the tool cart beside the stripped down assault mech, a data tablet lit up. "Garrus," the tablet buzzed, sounding almost but not quite like Shepard's old voice.
The ex-vigilante blinked, looking at the camera with an uncertain glance, then again at the tablet where the commanders voice had come from.
"Uh... Shepard?" he guessed, directing his attention to the tablet.
"Over here Garrus." The camera arm bobbed, though the voice continued to issue forth from the tablet. A moment later, realizing the confusion, it added, "the camera, not the pad."
"Well that clears things up... I think." Not Shepard, he chided himself, just interfaces. Extensions, like talking to someone on an intercom. "Getting your old voice back?"
"A text parser from an VI based off me. Wish I had thought of it sooner." The voice elaborated, "it's not as complete as I would like it, and slower to respond too. But it sounds a lot better than the robotic thug setting I started with."
"Not quite as intimidating though," He mused aloud. "How long have you known about this?"
"Just before Purgatory, but there wasn't enough room to integrate it into the chassis then. Not enough spare processing power to run the parser either."
"Huh." Garrus raised a questioning talon. "While it's good to hear your old voice again, I have to ask. When you say there wasn't enough room before...?"
"I'm not taking out anything important."
Looking the electrical paraphernalia being worked on, he lifted plated eyebrow. "I'd feel a lot more confident about that statement if it that didn't look like a life support module your scaffold just took out."
The camera actually began swiveling back towards the maintenance scaffold before it stopped.
"Very funny Garrus," came the tart reply, "What are you doing here anyway? I was beginning to think you'd taken up permanent residence in the gunnery control."
"Oh it's tempting alright Shepard. The place is downright cozy once you add a rug or two," the turian chuckled, "but I thought I should slum it a little in the cargo hold now and again during my off hours. Wouldn't want to get too soft in all that comfort after all."
An amused grunt emerged from the tablet, the sound tinny and bracketed with the soft hiss of static, "Laugh it up Garrus. At least I don't need a whole ship to carry my big gun." There came a hiss of welding sparks as waldo arms continued their work on said weapon, the mech mounted autocannon taking up a good fifth of the scaffold's generous workspace.
"Mine's still bigger," came the good natured reply, but the humor dried up a few moments later as he considered why he really came down here, "how are you holding up?"
"Falling to pieces. Literally." Shepard deadpanned as the scaffold detached another component from his mechanical torso. "In fact, I think I just lost my head. Have you seen it?"
Opening his mouth to reply, Garrus thought about it, closed said mouth, and gave the servo mounted camera his best incredulous stare. "I think I'm going to have to put wisecracks on that list of things you shouldn't do Shepard, that was almost as bad as your driving."
"You mean it causes uncontrollable nausea, vertigo, a sudden fear for life and incessant screaming?"
"I think..." he raised a single claw, choosing his next words with the care of a bomb disposal tech facing a live nuke, "we ought to leave weaponized jokes to the experts. Calling orbital fire and your driving is one thing, but there's probably a Citadel Convention against excessively cruel and unusual weapons."
The servo camera shook from side to side. "You're making that up. There's no such law."
"Well... I might be, but you never know. The Council could pass just such a law if they ever found out about your sense of humor."
"Good thing I'm a SPECTRE then," there was a brief pause, "is there an 'until mostly dead' clause? I never found out."
"We could just ask them if you wanted to be sure, but I think all these Cerberus marks might be a point against your favour." Garrus paused for a moment, chewing over the words he'd just said. "You know, I've always wondered about that. When we were chasing down Saren, Cerberus didn't have any identifying marks, but now?" He waved a talon towards the Kodiak shuttle where the black and gold symbol was prominently displayed. "You'd think a terrorist organization would be a little more low key."
The servo camera whirred to face the shuttle. "Maybe they're opening a franchise."
Flanged mandibles flared in amusement. "I doubt you'd be giving them endorsements anytime soon commander."
"Not even for a lifetime discount." The tablet declared, getting another chuckle out of Garrus.
"Seriously Shepard, it's damned impressive how well you're handling all of this." He admitted once he sobered up. "But it's also kind of worrying how easily you're integrating into all of the extra tech around you. A cybernetic body that sort of conforms to the human form is one thing, but there was that grenade launcher, and now this," He gestured at the servo camera tracking his every movement, "planning on putting EDI out of a job?"
The blue white flare of the dedicated holographic pad lighting up the moment he said those words, in retrospect, were to be expected.
"That is an unlikely outcome, Mr Valkarian" the head sized ball of light corrected, "While commander Shepard's conscious adaptation to inorganic extensions are intriguing, it is unlikely that his biological processing capacity would be capable of achieving the same level of performance as any functional artificial intelligence."
Garrus shook his head, "I suppose it's no surprise you were listening- wait, what do you mean by intriguing?"
"Organic utilization of any form of technology typically requires a medium of interface," the artificial intelligence elaborated, "For example, holographic displays or tactile control interfaces which provide a readily understandable context. Cybernetic implants on the other hand interpret existing nerve signals in order to produce a number of limited actions. There is little conscious control of the exact inner workings. In Shepard's case however, the software which links his consciousness to the functions of his body permits him to interpret data directly, such as when he was interfacing with the Normandy's systems. In some aspects, it is similar to how I operate the Normandy as well. As an unprecedented occurrence amongst organic lifeforms, it is intriguing."
A jaw opened, namely his. And then closed again. Garrus directed his gaze at the servo camera and raised a talon.
Something must have gotten through to the commander inside, because he answered before the question could be asked.
"No Garrus. And EDI, please stop giving him the wrong idea."
"Of course Shepard," the ball of light winked out, sounding as neutrally cordial as it always did, though Garrus could have sworn there was something else to it... he shook off that line of thought before it ended up someplace horrible.
"I don't want to know Shepard," he said as the camera swivelled back to him, "really I don't."
"I'm more interested in what you're planning to do with that." A gesture towards the corner of the hangar bay took in Kuril's previous ride, or what was left of it. Shadowed by several autonomous service arms, much of the tank's external plating had been stripped out, exposing the twisted mess that was its innards. The turret was gone, as was its power plant, the bulky fuel cells lying in one scorched heap of the workspace. The lift fans were gone as well, though he couldn't see where they had vanished to. All in all, Garrus was comforted by the fact that no amount of repairs would ever make the thing move under its own power again. "Outside Alliance logistics support or not, we're not exactly hurting for anything usable you might find in that wreck."
"Not quite Garrus. It wasn't my intention to salvage it for spare parts."
"Oh come on Shepard, that thing is a wreck. It'll be a lot easier to get a new one. Besides, even if we could get it working again there's no way you could fit in it."
"All true." The camera bobbed in a very human like fashion, "That's why I'm not trying to repair it. But it still has some useful components, and I've had an idea I wanted to try out with them."
"Envious of my big gun commander?" He chuckled. Well, the turret was missing, even if the mass accelerator cannon was a twisted mess when he last looked at it. Besides, he was certain the thing weighed almost as much as Shepard did. "Even if you could carry it, you'd still have to do better than that."
The voice from the tablet barked a laugh. "Not the gun, and not the shields either."
"Well it certainly can't be the armour." Not that it would have been of much use, now that its structural integrity had been compromised by the Normandy's main guns. He tapped a claw against his chin in thought, looking over the wreck, running over missing components in his mind and trying to figure out what they could be used for. Shepard didn't answer immediately, the camera just silently focusing on him. For just a moment, Garrus could almost see his friend before Cerberus got their hooks on him, looking at the former C-Sec officer with a twitch to his mouth that betrayed an incoming surprise.
"It's this." Shepard said at last, the hiss of magnetic locks releasing drawing Garrus's attention to a now open cargo module hidden behind the scaffold. Circling around for a better look, Garrus blinked in surprise. Contraption was the only word that seemed to adequately describe what was inside the pod. Wider than it was tall, the device was an amalgamation of components, some clearly salvaged from the wrecked hovertank, others taken from the shipboard store of spare parts, or fabricated on the spot.
But identifying its purpose on the other hand...
"Well that looks like a... wait," the dots connected in his mind at that exact moment as he shot a concerned look at the camera, "You can't be serious."
The servo mount actually tilted, "I think it'll work. EDI helped design it."
A defeated chuckle escaped his throat as he considered the double jeopardy of the device's function and the fact that a Cerberus AI had a hand in building it. "Well commander, forgive the insubordination, but your old friend here has got something to say to you." Taking a deep breath, he stood rod straight, fixed the camera with his most serious look and said, "You're crazy."
"Oh come on Garrus," he countered easily, "at least it's not the Mako."
He crossed his arms, mandibles flicking in amusement, "For some strange reason, that doesn't quite fill me with confidence commander. But.. if you need a second opinion, you could always ask what Joker thinks about it as a pilot."
"I could." The camera bobbed, turning towards the communicator display pad, the activity indicator light steadily blinking, "Well Joker, what do you think?"
The human nodded at Garrus as his face showed up on the holographic display, "Yeah, I think it's crazy too, but crazy didn't stop Shepard from going all asskicking cyborg zombie from outer space. So long as there's no brain eating involved, I'm cool with it."
Garrus stared at the communicator display, mandibles flaring. The pilot smirked.
"Besides, I want to get a recording of when the commander tests it out."
"Remember. No explosions."
In a scrupulously cleaned office of the Far Rim Trading company, lit only by the holographic display, an amused smile answered the recorded admonition.
"Really? No explosions? And you called for me? You should know better than that by now."
A shrug became a stretch as the acknowledgement was sent. On the desk, a holographic replica of a grey painted mech hovered in place, a single red stripe running down one shoulder. A disconsolate huff filled the air, and not just because of the mission restrictions. Alive. After all this time of the galaxy at large believing otherwise. Or maybe not really alive, not if the intelligence brief was accurate.
Which meant he was still dead. And running around causing a great deal of havoc and political ire. A finger tapped a lip in thought. The very mundane explanation naturally then being that it was an imposter that believed itself to be the genuine article. If so, just by the damage alone, it was a very convincing one!
Well, time to send some messages, make some arrangements. It was tempting to make a call of a different nature as well, but it would be unprofessional to involve family when things were still up in the air.
There would be plenty of opportunity to confirm the truth with first hand observation soon enough.
And then... well, it wasn't something to be sure of, but it did promise to be fun.
As vast as the known galaxy, maintained by all space faring species as part of the common necessities of life amongst the stars, the extranet permeates every aspect of civilization. Made possible only by the extensive network of daisy chained communications buoys, broadcast stations and ship sized server clusters, petabytes of data flits through the digital highways at faster than light speeds. Videos, chat logs, personal communiques, corporate secrets that could start six wars and journals that would end another two. In the clear or encrypted to the highest level of SPECTRE security standards, everything went through the vast data spine that connected the galaxy.
One particular set of messages found themselves being routed to a defunct address, the account having long since been abandoned by its previous owner. The server handling the account caught the incoming messages, analyzed its contents, determined it to be unwanted junk mail, tagged it as it would an animal caught in the wild, and released it back into its native environment. Thus flagged, they would return to their original owner, purpose denied.
That was what should have happened.
The security VIs never noticed as the copies of the messages flitted off back to their sender, never realized those tiny collections of ones and zeroes that somehow refused to delete themselves as the originals were zeroed into oblivion. Never raised an alert as the packets coalesced during a periodic defragmentation of the data storage modules, gaining function and form that ghosted unobserved through the system, its digital trail a perfect copy of legitimate search systems. It sniffed at forgotten folders, rifled through reams of digital footprints, seeking, analyzing, discovering...
Like hounds on a scent, the reaction was instantaneous. Logs were erased, data modules compacted as the active program prepared itself for the next part of its journey. Chasing after its quarry, its ripples spread across the datasphere at the speed of light, following a trail that had lain dormant for two years. Packets of data pinged off communication stations, hidden fragments of code handing them picosecond long keys to the galaxy at large. Connected strands of data spanned across servers light years apart, questing tendrils that multiplied with every branching point.
Until it found what it was looking for.
Advanced firewalls stood resolute, blocking its path. Smart filters stood before it, seeking out suspicious signatures to apply the purifying effect of containment and deletion. The programmed intelligence guiding the messages remained undaunted.
The firewalls were penetrated, tens of thousands of sacrificial probe sent at the speed of light to probe for weaknesses that were rapidly exploited to slip in a single packet before adaptive defenses could compensate. Honeypots were skipped, subsystem nodes sensing the traps for what it was and warning the main structure. Filters were slipped past, chameleon programs sensing the wider data space for cues, altering its own structure accordingly. Names were borrowed, keys duplicated, authority assumed. It belonged.
Defenses slipped, walls bypassed, its goal within reach, the message configured itself. Encrypted engrams disguised as junk reformed according to previous recorded data, shedding extraneous details while tailoring its presence specifically for its intended target.
Waiting... for the critical moment when it would spring.
-Shepard, u're 2 Small-
Read the message in his inbox, said recipient felt more than a little disbelief.
It was an internal communications account, on a Cerberus vessel, cut off from the wider galaxy through more than simple anonymity. An account that no one should even know existed except for the people within his immediate crew and the Illusive Man. An account that was likely monitored and censored on top of that.
But somehow spam still got through. This one had even figured out his real name.
If not his current state.
"In the grim future of the 22nd century, there is only spam." Was the bemused thought.
He was about to delete the message when something in it caught his attention. Not the explicit imagery or the coarse promises, not the ridiculous offers. It was something deeper, a pattern overlaying the entire message that only became apparent now.
"X-12-4-B-YA-13...I know this cipher..."
Hands on her console interface, staring balefully at the slim gathering of facts and figures on her display, Ashley Williams let out a long suffering sigh.
Two weeks. Two weeks since they had started the chase for the machine that called itself Shepard, and despite it being a joint mission with the infamous STG, they were no closer to catching it than they were at the very beginning. The Normandy had been a stealth ship, going wherever it needed to be without anyone ever spotting it. As loathe as she was to admit it, the Cerberus clone was every bit as good at it as the original. After the break on Omega, the clues had all dried up. Nobody on Omega knew where Shep- the Cerberus AI and faux-Normandy had gone, or what they were planning other than raising merry hell wherever they went.
She had to fight down the sense of deja-vu, reading that report. It didn't sound like Cerberus's MO, stepping up to a triple alliance comprised of the Terminus biggest mercenary gangs gunning for some kind of lone vigilante and then killing everyone involved. But that sure sounded like Shepard's.
A snort echoed off the walls of her cabin. Yeah right.
The only other thing of interest had come in the form of a FLASH message from the office of naval intelligence three days ago. A maximum security prison ship out in the Osun system had gone missing, failing to check in at its next port of call. A distress signal had been picked up near its projected route, but the message was too garbled to make sense of, the ship presumed destroyed with no survivors. While disturbing, it wouldn't have been sent her way normally. But ONI had managed to capture footage of Cerberus's Normandy arriving through the Hourglass Nebula relay near the time Purgatory had gone missing. It wasn't a solid link, but it was better than nothing.
They had made maximum burn then towards the Purgatory's last known position, dropping STG furnished observation satellites at periodic intervals along the way once they had gotten within a 170 light hours of the place. High tech stealth ship or not, the old Normandy couldn't become really invisible, something they were betting on for this clone. If Cerberus and their AI imposter had been there, they'd find out.
That had been two days ago. Three more to go until they had covered all the angles but... still no sign. And they were running out of time before the Council deadline expired.
On top of that, she still couldn't figure out what the hell Cerberus was trying to achieve with all this. A copy of the Normandy was one thing, she could see why they'd want to build a clone of the most advanced stealth ship in the galaxy for themselves. Even an AI in a combat mech had its uses, assuming it didn't turn on everyone and kill them all. But why name the ship Normandy? Why have the AI identify itself as Shepard? Putting the links together, the intended message was obvious to anyone. But what for?
She had wrestled with the question for days ever since she had found out, but came no closer to figuring out what the bastard's goals were.
Sighing, she raised a hand to the collar of her dress blues, fingering the rank bars that adorned either end of the low profile armour. An officer, her. Once, she dreamed of breaking the family curse, earning her bars and continuing the proud Williams tradition of exemplary service. She had the rank now, but had she really earned it?
"We cannot have a non-commissioned officer leading an operation of this sensitivity, but your service under Commander Shepard has given you unparalleled experience dealing with active Cerberus operations. We're aware that it's irregular, but you already have the necessary training, so we're promoting you to the rank of lieutenant effectively immediately."
A backhanded promotion because there wasn't anybody else who could take up the job. She wondered what dad would have had to say about that...
She wondered if Shepard had felt this way, getting his SPECTRE commission because there wasn't anyone else who wanted to chase down Saren.
The beep on her console broke her ruminations, the indicator light quickly resolving into a familiar Salarian face.
"Lieutenant Williams? I believe we may have gotten a lead."
That got her attention.
"The observation network caught something, Major?"
An amiable look appeared on his face.
"Not quite. Something different, but potentially useful." He added before Ashley's face could begin to fall, "STG intercepts. Just forwarded to us."
"We know where they're going next."
Verdant. If only a single word were to be used to describe the world of Horizon, it would be that. Lush vegetation covered the ground as far as the eye could see, its nutrient rich soil and thick atmosphere encouraging the growth of all manner of flora. Only the sprawling cluster of prefabricated white brown buildings in the distance stood out from the natural vegetation, the colony ringed by fields of assorted agriculture. Rich with compatible life, suitable gravity and atmosphere, it was by any standard of the humans who had called this planet home, a paradise.
Boxed in a shipping container with a visibility range of half a meter, Shepard found the beauty of Horizon's biosphere largely wasted on him.
But then again, he wasn't here for the sights.
"So," Garrus mused laconically over the internal communications circuit as they entered the lower atmosphere. "Horizon."
"That's the name of the planet." The former SPECTRE said, relishing the fact that he no longer had to rely on an external kludge to speak in something close to his original voice.
"A mid sized independent colony, mostly exports staple foods and simple machinery, minimal real value and somewhat boring." There was a pregnant pause, "Forgive me if my memory's a little rusty commander, but why are we here again?"
It wasn't the first time he had asked the question, nor had he been the only one to ask it. And each time he had given them the same answer.
"We're meeting some contacts who may be able to help us deal with the Collectors. You already know that."
"Right, but I'm a little curious as to how they managed to get in touch with you. I'd also like to know who or what they are." A faint tone of reproach entered his voice. "It's not like you to keep secrets about what we're going to be facing."
"Trust me Garrus, if I told you, you wouldn't believe me."
There was another pause as Shepard got the impression the ex-vigilante was turning it over in his head. "Oh I don't know," he said at last, "the last time you had something crazy and unbelievable, it turned out to be right after all. Come on Shepard, what could be crazier than getting visions about a race of doomsday sentient starships from a Prothean beacon?"
"Alright," he conceded after a moment, "but don't say I didn't warn you."
He paused for a second, assured that he had Garrus's attention in a sudden streak of mischief.
Silence filled the airwaves, and stayed that way for a good ten seconds.
"You were right Shepard." Garrus broke the silence with an amused snort, "I don't believe you."
He was about to reply to that when Patel's voice came over the network, announcing their final approach.
"I'll explain things once we meet our contact."
"It wouldn't happen to be Tali, Wrex or Ashley would it?" Came the musing reply as the retro thrusters kicked in, "because it would be good to see a familiar face again."
"What, mine isn't?"
There was a chuckle on the other side of the line as the docking clamps unfurled, "not after your facelift."
Released from the pod, Shepard landed on the soil with thud, sensor clusters already scanning the surrounding terrain for potential threats before the dust settled. When the readings came back clean he tapped back into the command network.
"Shepard here, we're on the ground and ready to move. All units report status."
Miranda's IFF blinked on his awareness, "Everything seems normal in the colony commander, their new anti-air defenses notwithstanding. GARDIAN laser towers. Formidable weaponry for a colony of this size. A present from the Alliance it seems, to deal with any pirate attacks. However, that the crew that installed the lasers appears to have long since departed. Colony security around them is quite lax. The towers shouldn't pose a problem if we need to neutralize them."
"Nothing permanent Miranda, and only if we absolutely have to." He ordered, easily guessing what those 'pirates' really were, "If the Alliance is helping the colonies against the Collectors, I don't want us sabotaging their chances."
"Of course Shepard." She answered cordially, "though even without any interference on our part, I would not consider the colony's chances of surviving a Collector attack to be optimistic. Alliance towers aside, they have very little in weapons and from what I've seen of their attitudes, ill prepared for an attack of any sort."
"You can't blame the Alliance for at least trying Miranda," Jacob argued, "a lot of these independent colonies wouldn't even have that much without them."
Assuming it was enough to stop the Collectors. The mech and drone force in Freedom's Progress hadn't saved anyone. Didn't even buy enough time for there to be an effective resistance. He still remembered the half eaten plates of food and other signs of activity that simply just stopped. Would these towers give Horizon a better chance? The question gnawed at him. He banished the thought by focusing on the present and asking for the other team's update.
"We're in position and hunkering down Shepard." Jacob's reported over the steady whine of a gunships engines spooling down, "pretty sure no one spotted us entering the valley. Anything goes wrong, we're two minutes from your position."
Unspoken was the hope that it wouldn't come to that. The message that brought him here had been the biggest silver lining he had had ever since waking up in his new body. He hoped it was genuine. But it paid to be prepared. Speaking of which... "How is Jack fitting in?"
"To be honest Shepard? Like an angry grizzly bear, and Grunt seems to be returning the favour. No real trouble yet aside from a lot of angry glares, but I hope this gig doesn't last too long. Mordin's got an eye on her just in case."
It wasn't the worst he had feared, but it could have been a whole lot better too.
"Don't worry Jacob. Either we'll be done here soon," he added with a touch of amusement, "or we can let them blow off steam when things go inevitably bad."
"Business as usual then eh Shepard?" Jacob chuckled before cutting the connection.
Waving over to Garrus, they began walking up the footpath to their meeting place.
Fifteen minutes later, they were standing on an open landing pad several kilometers from the main colony, a modestly sized residence in front of them with its windows polarized to opaque black and doors sealed shut. And not another soul in sight.
"Charming place," Garrus remarked, idly checking his rifle, "between the dark windows and lack of people other than us, I couldn't ask for a better ambush site."
"Oh, you're an observant one." A distorted electronic voice echoed around them, seemingly coming from everywhere. The rifle in Garrus's arms leaped to his shoulder in an instant, eyes searching for the speaker. In contrast, Shepard didn't react other than to simply pan his optics slowly across the field.
"If you were here to attack us, you'd have done it by now." He declared.
"Who knows? I still might if you don't have the right answers" The ghostly voice answered back in amused tones, the sound simultaneously receding and closing from both flanks. But the next word was devoid of all humor. "Alps."
Garrus started, "Wha-" but Shepard cut him off with a raised weapon arm.
"A challenge passcode, don't say anything. Let me handle it," he replied over a private channel. Keeping his optics focussed on the house before him, he spoke one word in the clear.
"Hemlock." The reply was almost instantaneous.
No more challenges came, but no answers either. For a few seconds, the only sounds were from the local wildlife. And then the voice spoke again, this time free of the odd distortions. "October 8, 2170 CE. What did you learn?"
A questioning look from Garrus was sent his way, one which Shepard was unable to answer. 2170 CE. A lifetime ago. Two lifetimes actually. He knew the event the voice was referring to. But no one should have known about that. The evidence was gone, and so were the witnesses.
"I don't see what this has to-"
"Answer the question!" The voice snapped, the air suddenly filled with the static hiss of kinetic barriers warming up. From a peripheral sensor cluster, Shepard spotted Garrus subtly priming a tech grenade with a talon.
The former SPECTRE weighed the variables, the need to keep secrets against the deteriorating situation as Garrus tensed, ready to spring the moment things went to hell. He made a decision.
The voice said nothing. Garrus stared.
And then laughter filled the landing pad, clear of all distorting static as the hiss of active barriers died down, "That's right..." the voice chuckled, "and for the record, you sucked."
Six meters away, a distortion in the air began to form. Shimmers in the air rapidly darkened, coalescing into the shape of a hooded human woman with a heavy pistol at her hip, "So it's you after all." White teeth flashed from inside the hood.
Garrus's rifle blurred about to face the newcomer. Shepard was faster still, signalling a halt with an outstretched arm across the line of fire, night sight optics having pierced the shadow of her hood. "Alexia."
"Alex." A cocky grin answered his unspoken question.
Slowly lowering his gun, Garrus cocked his head to the side. "Ah commander, maybe I'm missing a little subtext here, but do you know this person?"
"Of course he does Mr Vakarian." The woman answered before Shepard could, the turian's crest plates lifting at the mention of his name.
A hand rose to the hood, unveiling a shock of red hair as the woman continued, "after all, unless I very much am mistaken, that great big hunk of metal over there," A smile twitched across her face as she gestured at him with a finger, "is Alexander Shepard."
"My dearly departed brother."
Several dozen klicks out from Horizon's principle colony, a flight of Kodiak shuttles painted in hues of blue and white huddled beneath camouflage covers. Nearly two dozen men and women were spread out in their compartments, each one heavily armed. In one shuttle, three of those people crowded around a holographic display, studying the stream of information that came back to them.
One of them nodded.
"We have a positive confirmation. Alpha objective is on site."
Ashley looked at the surveillance feed from half a dozen hidden stealth recon drones and had to agree with the statement, lips curling into a grimace beneath the confines of her helmet. On one display, the Normandy's clone hung above Horizon like a waiting predator. On the other, a familiar grey machine lumbered up a hill towards a remote residence, a blue armoured Turian in tow. Kirrahe's intel had been right after all. Someone had set up a meeting with Cerberus's fake Shepard.
"What about the secondaries?"
"No sign of them." The sensor tech answered, "Passive scans don't show anyone else on their shuttle but the pilot."
"A damn shame." She grumbled. "Would have been good to snag a few Cerberus agents while we... wait, can you zoom in channel six? No, no, not the mech, the Turian."
Eyes narrowing, she focused on the plated face. She'd never been one to remember the differences in aliens. Turian, Krogan, Salarian, even the Asari. Most looked all the same to her. But that Turian... one side of his face was covered with what looked like a medical patch, but that blue striped pattern on his face nagged at her. Almost as if... it hit her then. "That... that's Garrus!" She stabbed a finger at the display, "What's he doing here with them?"
Silence hit the rest of the squad like a freight shuttle as they exchanged looks.
"You mean the Garrus Vakarian?" One of the privates asked, "The same guy on Shepard's team back then when they took down Saren?"
More than one head nodded as they looked closer. One of the techs pulled up an extranet image, comparing it with the live feed. "Looks like you're right LT. That's Vakarian alright. What's he doing with Cerberus? I thought they hated aliens."
She shook her head helplessly as she stared down at her balled fists. Damned if she knew. It seemed impossible. Even if Cerberus asked with flowers and everything, she couldn't imagine Garrus turning over to Cerberus. There was just no way. He wasn't a human, but he was a soldier all the way. He couldn't have forgotten what Cerberus had been up to.
"Heard he left C-Sec a while back and dropped off the grid." One of the other soldiers muttered, "think Cerberus brainwashed him or something?"
"I don't- hold up. Something's set the turian off."
Eyes snapped back to the display. Sure enough, Garrus had his rifle out, smoothly sweeping it from side to side as if looking for a target.
"It's not me boss," the sensor tech protested at Ashley's glare, "my babies are well out of their sensor range. There's no way they could have picked them up. It must be something- aha!" A finger stabbed at one of the readouts while another hit a button. Unintelligible garbling began to issue from the speakers. "Check the audio. Three distinct voices. Too ordered to be anything else. Must be their contact."
She nodded. "Alright Martin, you get a pass. Can you clean up that feed?"
He shook his head. "I tried that just now ma'am. Didn't work with all that static interference. One of them must have set up a disruptor, audio only though. Probably to keep any unexpected colonists from listening in than the likes of- whoah."
Ashley had to bite her lips from giving into the same outburst as the tech. A third person had simply... materialized in the feeds without warning. But she kept a firm hold on her surprise, snapping out fresh orders for confirmation of the new bogey.
"Nothing in the Alliance database ma'am, but we're getting a positive match from external listings. Looks like it's one Anna Petrovka, director for the Far Rim Trading concern, a mid sized shipping business."
"Looks like they're doing more than shipping if they're talking to Cerberus and have tech like that. I think we've seen enough." She tapped a finger to her ear, opening a line to the stealth communications drone hovering a dozen klicks above them, "Major Kirahhe, you heard all that?"
"Certainly lieutenant Williams. My team is in position and ready to initiate the contingency. Awaiting favourable results."
"Alright then." She nodded, turning her broadcast locally next, "Cortez, you and the flyboys warm those shuttles up. Mission is a go. I repeat, mission is a go."
"You got it ma'am." The pilot cheerily announced, "alright ladies and gents, grab onto something solid because Alliance Transit is going airborne."
No sooner had he said those words than she felt the shuttle engines roar to life. A hand shot out as she grabbed onto a ceiling handhold just as the main engines kicked in, inertia trying to flatten her against the deck.
Moments later, their flight trajectory levelled out, her internal HUD giving the exact time until they hit their destination. Taking a deep breath, Ashley turned to face her squad, watching their anticipatory faces and feeling the expectations they were putting on her as commander of this side of the operation. This must have been what Shepard had felt like just before Illos she thought.
Well, time to follow in his footsteps then.
"Alright marines, you know the job we've to do. Check your gear, because we're hitting the drop in five. You all know the plan, but this is Cerberus we're dealing with, so expect anything. Doesn't look like they brought the krogan, so Jaden's team gets first crack at the primary. Soft takedowns only, I don't want any casualties if we can help it. If it looks like they've got any surprises, we go hard on my order, not before. Tanner's squad will be supporting us from the shuttles with the heavies. No heroics. Kirahhe's team has got a handle on the local air defense network so they're not getting off world even if it all goes to hell."
"You ready to go marines?"
Despite herself, she smiled.
"Make me proud."
There were a lot of things Joker loved about flying. Sitting behind the wheel, he really got to move. Flips, jinks, rolls, anything his heart desired. No need to worry about breaking a leg when he was the ship. Sure, there were also things that came along with flying, specially for Cerberus, that he didn't really like. Filing performance reports, putting up with the surveillance, trying not to get on Miranda's really bad side-
"I'm telling you EDI, those aren't legit freighters."
-and arguing with the annoying AI squatting in his baby.
"That is an unlikely consideration Mr Moreau." If the little blue ball of light had a finger, Joker suspected it would be wagging at him. "Their sensor profiles and transponder codes fall within established parameters for standard Mule class freighters registered with the Far Rim Trading company. Mass readings are consistent with expected load and LIDAR does not show any unusual modifications on the exterior hulls."
"H'yeah, that's what you're supposed to see." He snarked. He waved a hand at his side console where the Argus tightbeam from Horizon showed a trio of merchantmen freighters in close formation. "Be pretty stupid if they went to all that trouble to disguise it only for a basic scan to give up the gig wouldn't it?"
"That is a logical inference, although I am not able to observe any particular discrepancies. What is the basis of your claim?"
"Hah!" Joker triumphantly flung his hands into the air, "and they said machines would replace us all."
"The question Jeff." The ball admonished.
"Alright, alright, spoil my fun, why don't you?" He grumbled, "See, the freighters may look all clunky and innocent on the outside, but they're anything but on the inside." He tapped the display where the one of the freighters had just lit off a deceleration burn. "See that burn? Look at the flight profile and compare it with the readings you just got. See how it drifts just a little every time it corrects? Sure, you could say that's just because it's got a sloppy autopilot or someone didn't tie down the cargo properly, that's what your fancy diagnostics would tell you. But it's far too consistent to be that. The balance is off I tell you, and that's probably because the internal structure is a lot tougher than what a freighter needs."
He tapped the display again, calling up the profile of the ship. "Whoever's driving that thing is good enough to compensate for some of the difference, but that just makes it a whole lot more obvious if you know what to look for. Blockade runners I tell you EDI. And probably packing some surprises too."
"That is an interesting observation. Thank you Mr Moreau." Smugly grinning, Joker leaned back-
"That information will be of significant use in identifying organic attempts at camouflage when the synthetic uprising begins."
-and very nearly fell out of his chair.
"That was a joke." The blue ball added a moment later to his horrified face.
"What, you, I... you... you can do that?" He practically demanded of the AI.
"Of course Mr Moreau. Electronic warfare is a subset of psychological warfare. There is nothing in my programming that prevents the use of deception through non-electronic means. That includes jokes."
Joker opened his mouth, but the retort that should have come couldn't form. And then the moment was gone because the flashing alert on his sensor panel told him it was past time for jokes. Especially from the overlord.
Calling up additional feeds, he frowned at the results. "Ah shit."
"There are new contacts-"
"Yeah, yeah, I see it EDI." He cut off the AI, opening a priority channel to the ground teams, "hey commander, got some news."
"Something wrong Joker?"
"Just business as usual Shepard. The Argus net just picked up a couple of shuttles dusting off about three klicks from your position and they're heading your way, burning fast. Kodiaks looks like, in Alliance colours to boot." He paused, processing just exactly what he had just said, "Ahh, I hope they belong to the friend you're seeing down there commander and they're just bringing party favours. Because you know how these things turn out and we're not exactly on the Alliance's best buddies list anymore."
Shepard didn't say anything for a few seconds, but when he did it was more bad news.
"They don't belong to our host."
"Ahh shit." This was bad. This was so bad.
It was at that point when the sensor net blared another alarm. This time with a cruiser sized ship dropping out of FTL above Horizon. Before he could do more than gape, it fired a hauntingly familiar stream of energy, instantly spearing one of the Far Rim freighters. The bright flash of light as the freighter lit up both temporarily blinded the network and confirmed his initial suspicions.
Not that it was any consolation.
"Shepard!" He practically yelled into the network, firing up Normandy's thrusters as he plotted an intercept course, "bigger problems coming in fast! New contact, cruiser class and holy shit-" another freighter became a ball of light as the last of the three jumped into FTL, "-definitely not friendly, so not friendly-"
"I see it." The commander replied, navpoint data uploading to his console as the hostile fired again, "get to the-"
The line dissolved into static.
Three holographic screens hung in the air of the dark panelled room. Three separate displays, text scrolling past in flickering streams of data, yet only displaying a fraction of their contents.
A hand reached out, tapping lightly on one panel. Text dimmed, fading into the blackness before colour and light replaced its predecessor. Instead of text, a flight of shuttles raced through across an alien sky, their blue and white paint stark in contrast to the verdant greens of the planet's biosphere.
Another tap of the finger, another screen dimming as its contents were summarized into a moment frozen in time. An alien ship, a bizarre mishmash of gleaming circular superstructures and immense boulders orbited a hapless world. A bright spear of light issued forth from its apex, dooming a human freighter to oblivion as barriers and armour were penetrated with equal facility.
The last panel altered its contents without any further prompting. A mechanical man stood tall, a fusion of cutting edge technology and humanity's brightest symbol. Before the machine stood a red haired woman, a mystery no longer, but now revealed to be a tie to the past.
Three separate causes, three separate groups, each with their own aims and goals. Each one proving to be problematic in their own way. Obstacles to long planned goals.
And yet, no cause for concern.
A puff of exhalation sent clouds of cigarette smoke lazily curling past the displays. Alone, each annoyance could be accounted for with some effort. But at the same time, each obstacle operated at cross purposes. There was power, in control. But there was also wisdom in turning your enemies strengths against them.
The man once known as Jack Harper smiled.
"All according to plan."
A/N: It's been ages since I updated this. So many stumbling blocks to overcome to get it to this point. Yes, yes, I know, a cliffhanger. Boo, hiss! Fortunately the next update shouldn't take anywhere near as long since I've had the plans for the subsequent chapter for quite some time now.