He recognized her voice.
As the woman stepped through a door opposite him, speaking in hushed tones to the human and turian at her flank, Steven Hackett felt a rush of familiarity. It was something akin to deja vu, and yet it was stronger. It was crisper; more intense. For a moment, he felt himself standing there, no more than a yard away from the doors that rushed closed, his feet planted into the ground a minute's walk from Anderson's office.
Blinking once, he gave his head a shake. He knew that voice. He'd heard it before, but he couldn't pin a name onto the sound. His shoulders rose and fell as he glanced in the direction of the door again. It led down to one of the Presidium's many lakes, surrounded by elevators and rapid transport stations. Even stronger than the desire to figure out who'd he just heard, however, was the necessity of meeting with Anderson.
A message had been passed along a few days prior, informing him that they'd discovered the remains of the Normandy on Alchera. Along with the skeleton of the vessel came a sense of relief, even knowing that this would only open old wounds for the family members of those lost in the accident.
He and Councilman Anderson had discussed this in length. He was to organize a group of soldiers to place a monument at the wreckage for those lost and attempt to find any remaining evidence lingering among the tragedy. When the conversation was through, he hadn't expected to hear another word from Anderson on the subject. It was settled; they'd decided upon what they would do. What else was there to discuss?
This question quickly faded to the wayside when the door to Anderson's office slide open to reveal the councilor sitting at his desk, index and middle finger digging a circle into his temple.
"Councilor," Hackett began, glancing over his shoulder to watch the door close before stepping up to his desk.
Anderson straightened, his arm falling across his thigh. "Hackett," he greeted, nodding towards the chair in front of him. His eyebrows were poised high on his forehead, creasing the lines deeper to match those around his mouth. "I've got news. Good... ah, relatively good news."
Sitting down in the chair opposite Anderson, Hackett removed his glasses, folding them and inserting them into the front pocket of his uniform. Despite the weariness on Anderson's features, he found the corner of his mouth tilting upwards in a hint of a smile. Over the years, he'd learned very quickly that receiving a message including the acronym 'ASAP' was never, ever a good thing. He was pleasantly surprised that this wasn't the case for once. "Good news is good news. Relativity has nothing to do with it."
Hackett's jaw worked in a vain attempt to keep himself from gaping at Anderson. Of course, he'd heard the rumors, but there had been rumors before. Some hotshot merc gets a big head in the Terminus, starts wearing an N7 helmet and referring to herself as Shepard. A group of hackers find some way to get into Shepard's old accounts undetected to buy new parts for their junker of a ship, the gossip mill starts churning out word that she's alive.
It happened time and time again, but heroes like Shepard didn't get the luxury of resting in peace. Evidently that phrase couldn't be any more true. He'd seen the wan expression on Hannah Shepard's face every time some idiot revived her daughter's name. Wounds as deep as that didn't heal, but that was no reason for anyone to take advantage of it.
The moment Anderson's words dissolved into a shocked silence, something clicked. That woman in the hallway had been Shepard. He'd been feet away from her, heard her talking to her party, and he hadn't been able to recognize her voice. After so many years of being well-acquainted with the Shepard family, followed by months of sending her priority missions for the sake of the Alliance, he felt like an imbecile for not realizing.
Anderson cleared his throat. "The Council reinstated her Spectre status. She's... doing well. The other rumors, however—"
The ghost of a wrinkle between Anderson's brows nearly turned into a valley. "They're true. She was quick to assure me that Cerberus isn't giving the orders, but they're holding a lot over her head right now. She made it sound like she didn't have a choice."
Hackett took a deep breath, palm rolling against his knee and eyes focused on the very front of the desk. "Did she give you any intel? Do you know what they have her doing?"
The councilor laced his fingers together in front of his console. "It's about the abductions; the human abductions in the Terminus." From the moment Shepard left his office to the second Hackett entered, he'd been circling around what she'd told him, trying to figure out where he stood, what he could do, what anyone could do to help her. "Collectors. Cerberus seems to think they're working with the Reapers."
Everyone who'd been on the Citadel two years ago knew very well that the Reapers existed. Denial was their easy out, and those who resisted were often called crazy. Unstable. The Council denounced the existence of the race without a moment's consideration, effectively casting Shepard's name and most of what she'd done into shadow. Out of fear or ignorance, even humanity was afraid to call her a hero.
He'd seen Sovereign. He'd nearly been shot out of the sky by the geth fleet that accompanied the massive structure. And he wasn't the sort of fool who could accept that this vanguard was a singular threat. Wherever it'd come from, there was a whole fleet of them. Anyone thinking otherwise was too comfortable on their high horse to consider other options.
"The Collectors are working with the Reapers," Hackett repeated on a breath, leaning back slightly in his chair. "That doesn't explain why they're going after human colonies, Anderson. They've never gone after such a massive group of a single race, if I remember correctly. Don't they go after anomalies? Two-fingered turians? Colorblind asari?"
"We've only been part of the galactic stage for a handful of years in comparison to the other species'." Sucking silently on his teeth, Anderson's eyes went to his console. He was already amassing a small fortune's worth of messages. A quiet sigh passed his nostrils, and he looked towards Hackett. "We are the anomalies."
The heavy pause resting between them stretched and stretched, pulled by their twinned horror at the situation and a learned respect for those already fallen.
When he felt they'd been quiet for long enough, Anderson rose from his chair. "Shepard will want to hear about Alchera. I didn't mention it while she was here. She had enough to chew on." Moving around to stand in front of Hackett, he held out a cordial hand. The other man stood, taking the hand in a firm shake. It wasn't surprising to find that his hands were quite a bit softer. "You were put in charge of the mission; it's only right that you contact her."
"Thank you for informing me, David."
Anderson nodded. "Not a problem." Letting go of Hackett's hand, he took a step back, thighs pressing into the edge of his desk. "You're closer to Hannah Shepard than I am," he continued. "Would you...?"
It was Hackett's turn to nod. "Of course." Turning to leave, he looked over his shoulder at the councilor. He couldn't help himself. This moment was far too important to just leave, to just skirt around the subject or ignore it completely until he set about composing the message. "So she's alive."
"That she is," Anderson said, allowing himself a wide smile. "Alive and kicking, just like always."
"That's... good news." Hackett returned the smile, though his was softer, more personal. "That's very good news."
Dia Shepard was standing behind the wide, leather back of Joker's chair when she saw EDI flicker out of the corner of her eye.
"Yeoman Chambers would like me to inform you that you have received an urgent message, Shepard." Brows knitting together, she leaned heavily on the chair, her attention turned from the orange omni-board to the light blue glow of the AI. "It is from Admiral Steven Hackett of Alliance Command. The message includes direction to a planet called Alchera in the Amada system. Would you like to plot a course there now?"
She could hear Kelly in the background, not bothering with hushed tones as she chastised the AI for digging into Shepard's messages. Clearly there was only room enough in that job for one person. Shifting on her feet, she passed her tongue over her bottom lip. "We won't be plotting a course anywhere until I read that message." Leaning forward, she looked into Joker's face to see him smirking. "Keep that in mind, won't you? I'll send down word after I see what he Admiral Hackett has to say."
"There really isn't any privacy on this ship," he sighed, the back of his head pressing into the cushion. "I swear, just the other day, I felt EDI watching me while I was in the shower."
"Hey, who says it was EDI? For an AI, she has impeccable manners."
The blue globe pulsed. "Thank you, Shepard."
Dia smiled to herself. "Plus, it might've been Kasumi. She's just as quiet."
"Oh, thanks," Joker retorted. His smirk disappeared, replaced by a green glare. "That's so much better. I'm gonna start showering with my clothes on now."
Giving the bill of his hat a tap forward, Dia straightened her posture and turned towards the CIC. She hadn't heard from Hackett in a very long time. At least, it was a very long time; it felt like she'd met him for coffee on the Presidium after accepting her medal mere months prior. He probably couldn't recall the Hero of the Citadel burning her tongue on an asari blend, but she did and felt the flush of embarrassment trailing in the wake of that memory.
When she passed by the consoles at the base of the galaxy map, Kelly gave her an apologetic smile that required no explanation. Nodding, Dia passed her without a word and stepped into the elevator. Reading this message in private was a much better idea than reading it in front of everyone in the CIC.
Once she was in the confines of her cabin, she gave the hem of her Cerberus uniform an agitated tug. Even if it was the exact right size, she knew the black and white cloth would never hang off of her as well as her Alliance blues. The effect was psychological, but she wasn't interested in changing her mind. It was a very small thing in the grand scope of things, but it was still important to her.
Setting herself down in front of her console, she watched as it flickered to life before her eyes. The message was a few strokes away, returned to its previously 'unread' status due to the yeoman's thoughtfulness. She tapped the screen, watching with dark eyes as the words came into view.
A trill of both anxiety and excitement bubbled upwards from her stomach. This feeling was becoming commonplace in recent days. After a reunion with Tali on Freedom's Progress and Garrus on Omega, meeting with Anderson on the Citadel – even seeing Emily Wong's smiling face plastered all over the Citadel News Network, they were all she had that brought a smile to her face.
She didn't like being thrust into the unfamiliar or taken unawares. It kicked in a fight or flight reflex that had been honed to a sharp point inside of her where it was mere reflex in most others. Everything that came after waking up in a Cerberus facility and informed she'd been dead for two years was nothing less than a kick in the teeth. She clung to these small instances of familiarity like they were the very last things holding her feet on the ground.
As she read over Hackett's letter, that feeling returned in full force, but it was followed with the realization of what he was asking her. He wanted her to find the wreckage of the Normandy, to retrieve any evidence of the fallen and place a monument.
Even still, the warmth didn't abate. It wasn't overpowered by any feelings of sadness or even anger. She wasn't afraid of Alchera or the sky that surrounded it. This wasn't the first time she'd returned to a planet to honor fallen comrades, and she reckoned that it wouldn't be the last. She'd shed her tears after Akuze. Mourning would only prolong the pain. Celebrating – honoring – those who'd died would raise them up. All of them, including her.
Taking a deep breath, Dia turned in her chair. "EDI?"
The AI blinked into existence on the other side of the room. Its blue glow mixing with that of the fish tank, creating moving shadows on the slick, metallic floor. "Yes, Shepard?"
"Tell Joker to change our heading." Twisting in her chair again, she looked towards the console.
Godspeed to you, Commander.
"We're going to Alchera."