Chapter One: Anchorage
Shepard's eyes opened, and pain spiked across his face.
He jerked, hissing, and his right hand flailed about until they found the autoinjector on his nightstand. He hauled himself up, snatched the pistol-like device, and loaded a vial of painkillers. He pressed it into his arm, and the scanners searched for a good spot to inject the drugs. They were intramuscular, which made the process quick, and a short pinch later, the pain began to ebb away.
Project Lazarus had brought him back to life. That didn't mean it had done it perfectly.
Shepard let the painkillers run through him – standard issue, courtesy of Doctor Chakwas, bless her – and once the agony was replaced by the tingly, gummy weariness of waking up after a hard sleep, he pushed himself up out of bed.
He glanced around the cabin, listening to the distant noises and subtle vibrations of a ship moving at FTL speeds. The new Normandy was strange; he'd been standing on the old Normandy only a few days ago, by his reckoning, watching it fall apart all around him, fires rampaging through the ship and metal strips ripping away from the hull as the Collectors tore it apart, dead crewmen lying among the decks.
Miranda and the Illusive Man had urged him to head to Omega right away to find Mordin Solus and get on Archangel's trail. He'd silently told them to get stuffed and set course for the Traverse, to find the remains of his ship. He couldn't be comfortable in the bright-lit halls of this new Normandy until he'd laid the old one to rest.
That had been last night, and now that his personal business was concluded, he could move on.
Shepard showered and dressed, opting for the Cerberus garrison fatigues that most of the crew wore. He didn't like or agree with Cerberus, but they had brought him back to life and stood behind him; he'd entertained the notion of simply taking their ship for his own, but he'd felt the sting of similar betrayal from Ambassador Udina and didn't want to alienate the only ally he was certain of. The Cerberus fatigues would also help to ingratiate himself with the crew, and he knew he'd need their loyalty before this was over.
The Commander had just finished dressing when his personal terminal beeped quietly, inside the tiny office that overlooked his bedroom. He stepped out of the shower, and caught a flicker of light out the corner of his eye. EDI's avatar manifested across the room, the ball not orienting toward him, unlike how it did in the rest of the ship. His cabin didn't have any sensors in it; he'd removed the Cerberus bugs on his first day, and he swept every time he returned. As one of the Alliance's most skilled engineers, he knew both what to look for an how to counter it.
"Commander, the Illusive Man wishes to speak with you," EDI said. "As soon as possible."
"Already?" Shepard asked aloud. "Did he say what it was about?"
"No, Commander," the AI replied. "We simply received a priority request for communication."
"Understood. I'll be down there when I'm ready."
The meeting room for the Normandy melted away as Shepard stepped into the holographic projector/receiver, and a few seconds later he was treated to the gleaming, churning vista of the Illusive Man's office. Smoke wreathed the suited figure, and he was framed in the blue-red light of the star he used as his backdrop.
The Illusive Man was a polite, civil, efficient, friendly, patient, and intelligent man, and Shepard had a hard time reconciling this affable, almost fatherly figure with the depraved experiments he'd come across while hunting Saren. Still, Shepard at least intellectually understood that the Illusive Man was extremely dangerous, and was not to be trusted. They were allies by circumstance, not preference.
"Shepard," he said quickly, gleaming eyes flicking to the projections before him. "I have an update for you regarding your dossiers."
"Couldn't this have just been forwarded to me?" Shepard replied, frowning.
"Yes, but I wanted to let you know personally," the Illusive Man said, tone patient and amiable. "One of the individuals we sent you, the mercenary Zaeed Massani, has unfortunately become indisposed and unavailable for recruitment."
"What do you mean?" Shepard asked, frown deepening. "What happened?"
"The specifics are available, if you're interested," the Illusive Man said, and he glanced at the haptic display in front of his chair. "The short version is that there was an incident on Omega involving Zaeed, a group of vorcha, twenty three varren, some illegal cryo technology, three hundred kilos of high explosive, and -" his eyes narrowed at the display "- a very angry cross-dressing batarian. Quite a bit of property damage involved. Massani is no longer available; honestly, we're not even sure if he's still entirely intact."
"So, we can scratch that name off the list," Shepard said, making a mental note to check on the specifics of whatever had happened on Omega. "We'll have to make do with the rest of the dossiers you sent me."
"Actually, I was wanting to let you know that we found a replacement," the Illusive Man interjected. "Another specialist who might be useful for you - a reputable scientist who we recently tracked down."
"We've already got Solus on the list," Shepard said, scowling. "I won't object to help, but I'm going to need soldiers, not scientists."
"I agree," replied the blue-eyed figure. Smoke wafted past him. "The scientist in question has some extensive combat training, from what I'm aware of, so she should prove useful both inside and outside the lab."
"Who is it?" Shepard asked.
"Doctor Allison Young," the Illusive Man said. "Currently head of research at the Anchorage University Artificial Intelligence Research Program. She's one of the foremost experts on advanced artificial intelligence, cybernetics, and synthetic lifeforms. If the Collectors are associated with the Reapers, she's the best people in the galaxy qualified to deal with their tech."
"Anchorage Colony?" Shepard said, brow furrowing in thought. Anchorage was an Alliance colony, well inside secured space. It was an ocean world, with a number of undersea colonies; much of the technology used at the rapidly-growing Proteus underwater colony had been tested there.
"Apparently, the university likes the idea of exposing an unruly AI to a million tons of fresh seawater if it gets out of hand," the Illusive Man mused, an edge of amusement in his tone. "And since you're already in the Traverse, it won't be much of a detour for you. You can probably find her on your way to Omega, if that's where you're going first."
"I'll keep it in mind," Shepard said. "Anything else?"
"No, that's all," the Illusive Man replied.
Shepard didn't say anything else, instead taking a step back, out of the projector's detection radius. The holographic display collapsed around him and the briefing room reappeared around him. Cutting off the Illusive Man was unnecessarily rude and petty, but it was the same treatment he gave the Council. Shepard strove for consistency.
Anchorage was almost nothing but ocean, save for a few surface islands. There were several surface colonies on the ocean which served as transitions to the undersea colonies themselves, which were built on ocean shelves. Shepard was mildly curious about the geography as they descended toward the planet, passing through thick clouds and torrential rain. At least there wasn't a violent storm at work, unlike there was on the majority of Proteus. Anchorage was a more tame ocean world.
Anchorage University was a small institution attached to Colony C-9, a habitat complex that held about twenty thousand people. The docking bay was the usual affair, a crowded, noisy place that smelled of ozone and electricity and resounded with the constant tones of lift-off alarms and rumbling engines. Shepard, accompanied by Jacob Taylor and Miranda Lawson, were past the docking authority within minutes and on a lift deeper into the underwater complex. As they descended the lift, Miranda glanced at her omnitool's display, and checked the data readout.
"The dossier says that she apparently spends prolonged periods submerged in the ocean, using a tether in the univeristy's marine ecology complex," Miranda mused. "Curious. If she's not in her office, we should start down there."
"Good idea," Shepard said with a nod.
"Not sure we should be going down in full kit," Jacob commented. He and Miranda both wore their low-profile armor, and Shepard wore the N7 gear that he'd been supplied after reawakening. "This is a safe colony, and we're going to be underwater."
"I've been awake for a week," Shepard said. "And someone has already tried to kill me."
"Point taken," Jacob said with a nod.
"Just keep your eyes open," Shepard added. "I'm not expecting trouble, but it finds me anyway."
"Prudent, considering it killed you once already," Miranda remarked, and he grunted.
It was silent.
Not in the sense that there was no noise, but no sound that really mattered. The ocean drowned out all noise, save for what animals lurked at these depths, but none of the telltale sounds or ripples of motion of their movements touched her. She drifted alone in the quiet and stillness.
It would have been easy enough to achieve this state elsewhere, by simply cutting off all external sensory input, but that wasn't what she wanted. She wanted to feel, and every time she went beneath the waves, it was a new experience. She could detect and catalogue every bit of passing water as it brushed against her flesh and tugged on her hair. The chaotic nature of planetary hydrological, geological, and thermal cycles ensured that it was always a novel experience, even for a brain like hers that remembered with absolute clarity. Every period in the vast desensitization chamber that was this colony's oceans was another opportunity to catalogue that experience.
In the ocean, she found the essence of life, the chaos and unpredictability and interactions of billions of factors coming together to present her with countless individually unique experiences. Part of her, the part that cared about things outside the purely physical, considered that maybe it was these chaotic processes that were responsible for the equally chaotic natures of organics.
That thought was interrupted by a sudden jerk on her tether.
Her eyes opened beneath the breath mask on her face. She turned to look over her shoulder at the long cord of titanium cable that was fixed to the harness on her back. It was the only thing keeping her from sinking into the dark, crushing depths of the ocean. And something was tugging on the fifty meter coil of metal that kept her . . . alive, so to speak.
Were she anyone else, that notion would have been terrifying. Instead, she was simply concerned. Her chronometer told her it was exactly twenty minutes and seventeen seconds before her scheduled return to the colony's underwater bay. Normally, she would have radioed her assistant for clarification as to what was happening, but she'd left her personal radio back in the bay.
The tether jerked again, and then began retracting.
She waited as it pulled, knowing she couldn't do anything useful while it was pulling her back up. Most people could have swam up to the bay doors fifty meters above, but that wasn't an option. Instead, she simply let it carry her up, running possible scenarios through her mind.
More likely than anything else, there was some kind of urgent issue that had developed that someone needed to speak with her regarding. At the same time, that made no sense; she'd taken the tenure at the local university on this colony precisely because it was quiet, secure, out of the way, and the job didn't require her to constantly worry about her survival or the survival of others. In fact, the job was quiet, boring, and simple. Studying gradual AI development tended to be that way. The likelihood of something urgent occurring was extremely minimal.
For that reason, she was on her guard as the tether carried her up into the airlock, the water brightening as she ascended. A few seconds later, she entered the airlock, and the doors closed. The water began to drain as the airlock cycled, and she noted that the temperature rose two dozen degrees as she went from frigid ocean to warm, processed air. She detached the tether as the water drained, letting the long cable slide back into the automatic coil it had extended from. She checked the device as she did so, and noted that someone had engaged the engine from inside the bay.
She noted that no one had positioned any bombs or other traps inside the airlock, and no one was attempting to pump in toxins or gases. That was a positive sign.
The airlock cycled open. It was designed so that the door that opened into the ocean was in the floor, while the ones that led to the bay were mounted on the bulkhead. The bulkhead door hissed open, and she stepped through into the bay beyond.
It was a wide, expansive chamber, built for the university's small fleet of research submersibles. There were several of the bulky, block-like underwater research craft docked in the bay, each over its own portal. Neither they nor the cranes nor the various other pieces of underwater equipment drew her immediate attention. She only noted them in passing, long enough to compare them to her memory of the last time she was in this room, and found nothing had changed, save for the trio of armed figures in the bay with her.
Her eyes flicked over them, rapidly analyzing the newcomers.
Center. Human male, mid-to-late thirties. Glowing scars indicative of recent reconstructive surgery. Clad in armor, customized variant of Alliance Marine armor. Assault rifle, heavy weapon that resembled grenade launcher, sidearm, submachinegun. Very high-end omnitool (Logic Arrest Model XVII, custom Hydra Module) indicative of technical specialty. Body language and placement of others indicated leadership position. Posture nonthreatening, expression open, interested.
Left. Human female, late twenties to early thirties. Symmetrical face, body structure indicative of genetically tailored origins. Lightly armed with submachinegun and sidearm. Uniform form-fitting, obviously low-profile armor, strong element zero core present, probably relying on shields. Posture nonthreatening, expression wary and suspicious.
Right. Human, male. Shotgun, assault rifle. No unusual genetics. Low-profile armor with ballistic weave. Biochemical fluctuations in element zero readings indicative of biotics. Vague similarities in armor to female's; too different to be uniform, but similar enough to be from same organization. Posture nonthreatening, expression curious.
"Doctor Young?" the human in the center asked, stepping forward. She measured her response, and went with neutral. Whoever these individuals were, they had recalled her for something urgent. She reached up and removed the breath mask, turning it off. It was entirely unnecessary in her case, but people asked odd, prying questions when one went for deep-ocean larks without bringing an oxygen converter and mask along.
"Yes," she said, and waited for him to continue.
"I apologize for interrupting you like this. My name is Shepard," he said. "I need your assistance."
They were heavily armed but there was no indication of coercion. The weapons were worn as a matter of course, as natural as any other part of their clothing. They were not mercenaries (too confident and controlled, no signs of coercion) or soldiers (clothing and equipment too dissimilar for military); likely a special operations team of some kind. Possibly privately funded. She noted Shepard's features and the similar logo on both of the other two agents' clothing; she would run a search on the image the moment she had a network connection.
For now, information.
"What kind of assistance?" she asked. She knew it would be dangerous, likely violent. It was what she specialized in, though it had been a long time since she'd last engaged an opponent.
"Human colonies are disappearing," Shepard explained. "I'm assembling a team to investigate and put a stop to it."
To say he wasn't telling her everything was an understatement. She could tell that by the way he spoke the words, and the unspoken reactions of his companions.
She glanced sideways, a purely human affectation, and noted her own reflection in one of the submersibles' windows. She looked like a lithe, slender human female, with delicate features on a round face and dark brown hair, now almost black with wetness. She was clad in only a simple one-piece black bathing suit, and under the circumstances she should have been shivering, considering how the cold should have bothered her.
These were not circumstances to discuss this sort of thing. Social interaction in swimwear, particularly discussing life-or-death missions, was not typical. Also, she needed her network connection for reference purposes.
"I see," she said. "Can we discuss this in my office? Thirty minutes?"
"Of course," Shepard replied.
She gathered her clothes from a locker beside the airlock and headed to her quarters. She checked the pocket of her trousers and found her wireless network connection, and slid it into her ear, where it would look like any radio earbud. As soon as she did so, data flooded into her awareness. She shunted away the standard alerts as she walked, and instead began an immediate extranet search on both the name Commander Shepard and the symbol. She already knew enough about Shepard to understand he was a famous military officer and human Spectre, and that he had been killed about two years ago after fighting the geth incursion, but she knew relatively little about the man himself; most of her interests in the news regarding the war had been focused on the geth and their flagship, as they lay within her area of expertise.
While the search was running, she accessed archives and opened her most often-used fileset. Shepard and his team had caught her off-guard, and she'd devoted all of her attention to analyzing them first. She would need to be able to properly socialize, and default parameters were insufficient.
Run Fileset: Young, Allison v2.79542
She slowed, blinking, and shook her head, a very human response to the equivalent of a rush of disorientation. It was completely involuntary, but then, that was the purpose.
She stopped, inhaled, exhaled, and opened her eyes again.
Allison Young stepped into her modest quarters; there was a bedroom, a small personal office, a rarely-used kitchen, and a separate shower. Other professors of her level of pay had better accommodations, but Allison didn't need an expansive or expensive apartment.
Allison slid into her bathroom and quickly activated the shower. Whoever Shepard was, he was likely in a hurry, if he'd come down into the bay to interrupt her drift. She stepped into the warm water as it poured down her body, and let out a sigh of contentment. The cold ocean didn't bother her, but a hot shower was still a pleasant experience for Allison, and she reacted like a normal person would to it.
But that was the whole point behind Allison Young in the first place.
She bathed quickly, wondering if Shepard had caught on that she hadn't been showing any of the typical signs of spending an hour in deep ocean water, such as shivering, hypothermia, or death. For the people she worked with, Allison passed it off as a combination of cold-weather cybernetics and a heated swimsuit, and they bought it.
Shepard was likely sharper.
Allison stepped out of the shower and dressed quickly. She didn't bother with hair or makeup; she neither had time nor needed them. Aging wasn't a factor, after all, and she looked exactly the same as she had when she'd taken her first steps out of the skinning facility. She did check herself in the mirror to make sure her features were as they should be, and a quick diagnostic confirmed all the organic parts were working fine. She stepped outside and moved to her dresser.
University professors' quarters were private and secure, but that didn't alleviate long-standing paranoia - especially the hardwired kind. She took a few moments to open the hidden, shielded compartment inside her dresser, and withdrew the heavy pistol she kept in there. Allison checked the charge, made certain all the custom modules were installed, and then slid the weapon into a shoulder holster beneath her jacket.
The whole process took maybe ten minutes, and in that time Allison's extranet search had acquired an enormous amount of information on Commander Shepard. Part of her noted with chagrin that Shepard was apparently more famous than she'd estimated and had played an instrumental part in defeating the geth and Saren. She probably should have paid more attention to him, especially now that he was coming to visit her.
The symbol, however, was more interesting. There was almost nothing coming up regarding it, save for reports that her search had hit a number of clearly classified files. Some extranet conspiracy theorists attributed the symbol to a pro-human organization known as Cerberus, and she widened her search parameters to include everything she could find on them.
As Allison rode the lifts out of the university's apartment block and up toward the administrative wing, she analyzed the data coming in regarding Cerberus and not-very-dead Shepard, now greatly intrigued by both. Shepard, it seemed, was an exceptional man: survivor of a brutal gang life on Earth, and a ruthless commander who had wiped out hundreds of pirates at the cost of many of his own men on Torfan. Allison found his tendencies both disturbing and necessary. He was also a highly-competent combat engineer who had dealt with multiple hostile AI. That was more distressing.
She wondered which parts of her were reacting in which way.
Allison stepped off the lift, and ran almost headlong into her assistant, Susan.
"Ah, Doctor," she said, halting in surprise. She was a mousy, somewhat overweight dark-haired human woman. "There are several . . . people waiting for you outside your office."
"I know, thank you," Allison said, walking past her. "I invited them. Hold my calls."
"Of course," Susan replied. Allison could have used a VI, but she preferred a human assistant for those matters; it added a touch that she was worried would be missing if it were only her and a VI.
Shepard and his team were waiting in the anteroom outside of her office. Allison smiled at them as she walked in.
"I apologize," she said. "Please, come inside."
"She's strange," Miranda had said as they waited, and Shepard couldn't disagree.
"Yeah, I hear you there," Jacob replied. "I don't know what kind of cybernetics she's got, but that ocean thing is weird. You don't like this, Miranda?"
"The Illusive Man provided the dossier and said she's on the level," Miranda replied, shaking her head. She was pacing around the room, which Shepard did not mind at all. "I trust him."
"I agree that there's something odd going on," Shepard said. "But she's supposed to be the best there is when it comes to synthetics and artificial intelligence. We'll need her if we're dealing with Reapers."
The others nodded, and waited in silence for a couple of minutes, until the office anteroom's door opened. Doctor Young strode in, and Shepard noted that not only had she cleaned up, but there was something very different about her.
For one thing, she smiled, and did a damned good job of it.
"I apologize," she said. "Please, come inside."
Shepard rose from the comfortable leather seats, wishing someone had designed the N7 armor to take into account that sitting would be useful sometimes, and followed the doctor into her office, Miranda and Jacob trailing him.
Her office was a simple, spartan affair, a metal desk with a collected pile of datapads neatly organized on one side, and a semi-circular haptic interface in the middle that dominated the whole desk. Basic metal chairs formed the furniture, and the rest of the room was bare of any decorations; no plants, bookcases, plaques, or anything. The only decoration was a small holopicture on the desk, which flashed a series of images of a thin-faced human, gradually showing him aging from a teenager into an older, gray-haired man.
Doctor Young sat down behind her desk, and gestured for the others to sit. They followed suit, Shepard hiding his wince as he sat down.
"So, Commander," Doctor Young said. "I hear you're back from the dead."
"Yeah," Shepard replied, a bit wearily. He got the feeling a lot of people would be saying that before this mission was done.
"And you're working with Cerberus," she added, which made Shepard blink in surprise. How had she . . . ?
"I did some catching up while I was away," she replied, and her hands began to play over the haptic interface. From Shepard's perspective, it blurred together into a riot of colors, a normal security measure to hide what one was looking at. "I recognize the symbol on your companions' clothes."
"You do your research quickly," Miranda said, and Doctor Young nodded.
"My job requires analysis of large amounts of data," she explained. "I have a permanent network connection installed in my brain."
"Wow," Jacob said. "I've heard of mind-machine interface, but that's sort of dangerous for someone working with AI."
"Commander, you said you needed me to help with your investigation into these missing colonies," Doctor Young added, ignoring Jacob. "Why?"
"We believe they're being abducted by the Collectors," Shepard said, and Doctor Young frowned, her face becoming carefully neutral.
"And you believe the Collectors are connected to the Reapers," she said.
That left a moment of silence in the air.
"How do you know about the Reapers?" Shepard asked. Doctor Young waved a hand, almost dismissively.
"My interests lie in synthetics," she said. "That includes the geth, and their flagship Sovereign. The Citadel tried to cover it up, but information has a way of being free. It's not a matter of knowing about them, Commander, it's simply a matter of believing. You claimed that the Reapers were behind this, quite publicly, though the Council has . . . " she sniffed the air, wrinkling her brow. "Dismissed those claims."
"Yes," Shepard said, biting out more venom than he expected with that one word.
"You have to understand, Commander, I have a job and commitments here," she continued. "And I do admit I find some of your claims regarding the Reapers . . . unlikely."
"A hundred thousand human colonists have gone missing," Shepard replied. "Look, I don't care if you actually believe in the Reapers or not, but I need someone with your expertise and experience on my crew. I know that these abductions are just the beginning, and I need to put a stop to them. Will you help me?"
Doctor Young stared back at Shepard, her dark brown eyes meeting his. The silence stretched out for several long seconds.
Allison Young was by her nature not an objective arbiter of events. Her chassis was designed to mimick a human, but she wasn't human and needed to be, which was why Allison existed int he first place. The core of her logic told her that she shouldn't risk herself and that this wasn't her concern, just as most of what happened in the galaxy wasn't hers. After all, she'd spent so long simply staying out of the way, letting history run its course. This was another piece of it.
Her eyes drifted down to the picture, the only concession she'd made to the human notion of brightening up her workplace.
She looked down at the scrolling series of pictures, and watched him as he gradually aged from a vibrant youth to a vibrant old man. She didn't need to, as she had all of the images of him plus a hundred thousand more, along with vastly more complex sensory inputs, secured in the vaults of her brain, but Allison wanted to anyway.
She scanned his face as the years rolled past, and glanced up to Shepard.
They had the same eyes.
Not physically, and if she weren't Allison, she wouldn't be able to see it. But through the veil of humanity that was Doctor Allison Young, she saw the same intensity, the same drive and determination and willpower that could change history. The kind of person who only came long so rarely.
John had known what the right thing to do was, and he'd spent so long trying to teach her the same thing, to teach her to respect and protect and care. He could have altered her programming, but he hadn't chosen to force morality on her. He'd taught her, convinced that if he altered her, or altered Allison, that he'd lose something irreplaceable. He'd become her conscience, and he'd given her free will.
So. What would he do?
What would John want her to do?
He would do what he'd always done. He would fight, for innocents, for humanity, for survival.
She set the picture down and nodded, making her decision.
"Very well, Commander Shepard," Allison Young said. "You need my assistance. I'll help you."
"Glad to hear it," Shepard said, nodding and smiling. He started to stand, and extended his hand. She mirrored the gesture. "You'll be a valuable part of my team. We'll need-"
Shepard's words were interrupted when the door to Allison's office slid open. Six men in dark blue and gray armor strode into the room, assault rifles and shotguns shouldered, and the office erupted into a storm of gunfire and deafening noise.
Author's Notes: This story was an idea that I'd been playing around with in my head for a while, ever since ME2 came out. I really wanted to explore how someone like Cameron would work in a setting as restrictive against synthetics like Mass Effect, as well as explore both her viewpoint on the rest of the setting and the events in the story. I also wanted to explore the dichotomy between two distinctly different personalities: the cold, logical, yet almost child-like Cameron and the very human persona of Allison Young.
This story is not going to be a straightforward narrative. Rather, its going to be a series of interconnected snapshots of the different characters interacting with each other; Cameron's reactions as they explore the galaxy and interact with various people, Shepard and his crew's interaction with Cameron, etc.
And yes, there was a blatant Ghost in the Shell reference there. It seemed appropriate (plus, Summer in a swimsuit.)
Until next chapter . . . .