In the void a ship drifted. She was sleek, with graceful curves and a smoothly armored hull that angled forward like a great bird of prey. The absence of sound and slow but steady movement gave the impression of a predator stalking through an endless starry sea. It was only on closer inspection that the illusion was broken. The smooth hull was marked with long, black carbon scores. The graceful curves were broken up by deep gashes in the edge of the hull there, a crumpled wing tip here. Occasionally a faint shimmer of bluish light flickered in the darkness to betray the mass effect fields that covered hull breeches.
Her heart still beat strong, though. The ship's engines burned steadily, the thrum of power could be felt with the touch of a hand on any bulkhead in engineering. It was a reassuring feeling against his back. He smiled. The Normandy wouldn't let a mere suicidal battle and crash landing keep her down, especially not when she had nothing less than miracle workers tending her ails. She was a proud ship, one that was only beginning to add to the legacy of her name. Her predecessor could lay claim to the destruction of a Reaper. Now she had a Collector battleship to her own credit.
A pained grimace drove the smile from one John Shepard's face when he tried to push off of the cool metal bulkhead. The spectre relaxed his muscles and leaned back once more, breath hissing from between clenched teeth. It seemed that the dose of painkillers Chakwas had supplied earlier was wearing off sooner than expected, of course he was supposed to be asleep by now.. Maybe another few moments of rest wasn't such a bad idea.
Shepard looked at the matte steel expanse of the corridor just outside engineering. It looked clean, peaceful even. A glance into the cargo bay would ruin that particular image with crates haphazardly stacked to one side and a large expanse of the starboard bulkhead covered with a quickly welded patch of armor plating. It had been a little over twenty-four hours now, if his internal clock was right, since Joker had jumped them away from the detonating Collector base. A day since he'd pulled himself up off the deck, labored through a tense argument with the Illusive Man, and begun to direct the Normandy's repairs. If everything went as planned they could activate the relay for the return trip soon.
The initial euphoria had long since faded, but he couldn't help but let out the occasional laugh of amazement at what they had accomplished. There were a dozen empty coffins sitting in one corner of the cargo hold, a grim reminder of the stakes going into this mission. Now they just needed to get home to prove them all wrong. His crew was alive, his team. His friends. The woman he loved. Damn the odds.
That thought rallied the smirk to do its best to retake his face from the pained expression that currently held it, but both gave way to surprise and momentary fear when a sharp voice interrupted his musings.
"Stubborn bosh'tet! I cannot believe you!"
He blinked, realizing his vision was a little blurry, and saw the familiar form of a slim quarian standing before him with her hands on her hips as if she had been summoned by his thoughts. The deep, swirled purple of her veil stained here and there with grease and other indications of her trade.
"Tali? What? I was just-"
The engineer cut him off. "Not doing what Chakwas told you! I was there, you know. 'Go to your cabin and rest, let the drugs and your implants do their job without making it harder on them'. That's exactly what she said."
The smirk finally won its battle. Her impression of the doctor wasn't bad, all things considered when an accent and a translator were involved. Shepard gave a shrug.
"Too much to do. The crew deck is fully secure now, no more breaches. Armory is a mess but we can fix that later. I'll rest soon, but we've got to get everyone home first."
"I am aware of the ship's status, Shepard. I am the chief engineer after all," Tali responded with dry annoyance. "Everything is ready to go in engineering as well. I was getting ready to set the final systems tests to run when Zaeed, of all people, contacted my station to inform me that my stubborn hesh'la has been standing in a hallway looking lost for the past quarter of an hour. What do you think you're doing down here?"
He blinked, once. Fifteen minutes? It hadn't felt like that long but maybe the drugs had slowed him down a little.
"I was coming to see you," he replied, finally pushing himself off the wall, taking a step towards Tali.
At least that was the idea, but everything got a little sideways and he reached out for the bulkhead once more when pain danced up his body from ankle to head. The spectre probably would have ended up with his face mashed against the grated steel deck plating if not for Tali leaping forward, three-fingered hands gripping his shoulders.
"John!" she yelped, supporting his weight, the annoyance gone from her voice.
"It's okay. Just a little dizzy," Shepard muttered, forcing himself to stay upright and moving against the wall once more.
"Right, dizzy. Keelah, you're bleeding through your bandages again," the quarian said, hand reaching down to the edge of his shirt, pulling upwards to expose the white cloth that was tinged with red. This close her could hear a faint rasp, the heavier breathing and thickness to her voice.
He frowned. "Fine I said. Are you okay? You sound sick. Oh hell, when we... your immune system..."
One of those hands found its way to his face, fingertips brushing his cheek. Behind her visor silvery eyes met his own, voice soft and far more playful now. "My muscles ache and my sinuses are filled with something I won't describe... but it was totally worth it."
Before he could formulate a reply Tali shifted to his right side, slipping an arm around his back and dragged him towards the elevator. One day he would stop forgetting just how deceptively strong her petite frame was. His muscles screamed in protest but he was able to keep it together until they reached the door.
"Let me call Chakwas. We have to get you back to the medbay," she said.
"No," Shepard cut her off, reaching out to grab the had that was headed towards the comm button. "She's asleep herself by now I'm sure. I'll be fine."
Tali cocked her head and he could just see the eyebrow arched at him behind the smokey purple glass of her visor. "You keep saying that but if I let you go now I bet you'll be back on the CIC or in the cargo hold in no time, trying to fix something. I'm not going to find you bleeding out in some corner of the ship because you didn't know when to stop."
"Guess you'll just have to escort me to my cabin then, ma'am." He grinned.
"Bosh'tet," Tali said again, but this time there wasn't any anger in the word.
She didn't argue with him, though. They had had these discussions before, both knowing how it would go. Tali would say that she needed to be in engineering. He would point out that she had just said it was almost complete, just waiting for a few tests that could easily be activated by EDI. She would protest the need to double check things, and he would insist on rest for her as well. Apparently fatigue and concern were enough to skip a few steps in the process.
A minutes later the elevator door opened and Tali helped him slowly into the main cabin. Aside from a few of his models knocked around and datapads strewn about the floor his quarters had weathered the battle mostly unscathed. Small miracles it seemed. When they stepped down into the 'living area' half of the room, Tali addressed the small terminal on the wall.
"EDI, please hold any calls for the Commander unless it's an absolute emergency at least for the next few hours."
The AI's hologram appeared briefly. "Of course, Tali. If anything absolutely requires the Commander's attention I'll wake you both. Otherwise I think it will be safe for everyone get some downtime until the diagnostics are complete and we're ready for jump."
"Thank you, EDI," she replied.
"Logging you off," the AI said and winked out of existence.
"A conspiracy I see," Shepard laughed, cutting it short when his ribs protested painfully against it.
"That's what it takes. I sometimes wonder if all of you humans are this stubborn," the quarian said, helping him tug his shirt off. She shook her head at his heavily bandaged chest, pushing him down onto the bed and disappearing for a moment into his small bathroom. A small packet of medi-gel was in her hands when she returned.
"It is one of our more endearing qualities," the spectre informed her. His head was still swimming. The only question was if it was from simple physical exhaustion or if the good doctor had dosed him more heavily than he'd actually asked for. Shepard was beginning to suspect the latter.
If one could hear eyes rolling, then Tali's most certainly were. "Endearing? If you say so."
She had removed the bandages that seemed to have become the most stained with blood, moving fast enough that he barely even registered it. Cool medi-gel made his breath catch in his throat, smeared across the spots where blood still seeped slowly. Randomly, while she replaced his bandages with fresh ones, he thought it was both an interesting and sad note how adept Tali had become at first aid.
"Well, not everyone thinks so. But it must work on some people," Shepard told her. "One in particular since she's putting up with me."
The engineer attempted to stand and move away but he captured her wrist, pulling her onto the bed. Minimal resistance crumbled quickly and he slowly drew her with him. Tali shifted, pressed lightly against his side but being careful not to put too much weight on his wounds.
"I guess she decided what was underneath was worth putting up some occasional stubbornness," Tali whispered. "And you know I should go back to engineering. I'm not nearly as bad off as you are..."
He struggled against fatigue that tried to drag him down already, his words thick. Just a quick nap to take the edge off, then they could get back to saving the galaxy. "Think we've earned a little rest, at least for a few hours."
Tali's body shifted minutely under his hand, shining eyes watching him from behind the visor for a few long moments while he fought to keep his eyes open. He saw the silver orbs flick towards the door before she shook her head.
"I guess we have," she replied finally, reaching up to caress his cheek before settling in next to him.
Even as his eyes closed Shepard smiled, squeezing the quarian lightly, his remaining will melting away in the softness of the bed and long hours of alertness. Pain killers coursing through his blood only made it that much easier. The last thing he heard before sleep claimed him was Tali's barely audible whisper.
Shepard's eyes cracked open, trying to focus, disoriented. The first thing he noticed when he brought his hand up to rub away the sticky residue of a long night's sleep was that his body was not happy with the concept known as movement. Just the act of raising his arm made it feel like his muscles were being stretched on a rack. He groaned loudly, feeling around but finding the bed empty, slowly rolling onto his side. His brain was doing its best to catch up, cataloging things that should be important. Above he could see stars and... a blue corona? They were in FTL?
"EDI..." he rasped, clearing his throat and speaking more clearly. "EDI! Status."
"Good morning, Commander. All systems are nominal. Temporary power re-routing is holding steadily and no further hull stresses have been detected."
"Why are we in FTL?" Shepard demanded.
"Ms. Lawson decided our first destination should be the Citadel as it was the most likely place for us to be able to facilitate repairs with current resources and known contacts," the AI explained.
"We already passed through the relay? When? How long have I been asleep?"
The door to his cabin opened when he was half way through his sentence, two familiar figures entering. Miranda Lawson, biotic, genius, and his executive officer looked as together as ever, an impressive feat all things considered, a few white butterfly bandages on her chin being the only thing that looked out of place. Right behind her was Tali, her suit cleaner than the night before.
"You've been out for approximately twenty hours," Miranda answered in lieu of EDI.
He blinked. "Why wasn't I woken when we passed through the relay?"
"Because Chakwas exercised her authority as ship's doctor and toldl EDI to not do so. On both of our recommendations," Tali said, gesturing to his XO. "The risk of going back through the relay was minimal, and we made it through without incident."
"At which point I made the decision to set our destination as the Citadel. With the evidence we've collected and the current state the Normandy it seemed the most logical course of action. Especially considering our now... nebulous relationship with Cerberus," Miranda concluded.
Shepard shook his head. "No point in me arguing is there?"
"None at all, Commander," his XO said, one of her rare smiles playing at her lips.
"Well you made the right decision, we have to get this information to the Council. And get the Normandy repaired. I doubt we could afford a repeat stay at Aria's dry dock," he said wryly, flicking his gaze between EDI's hologram and the two women standing on the other side of the room. "Besides, who am I to question the plans of the women that have clearly decided to manage my life for me."
Tali wagged a finger at him. "Don't act the victim with me, Shepard. It was for your own good. Chakwas nearly had a fit when she saw the readings on your vitals for the time after she'd went off duty. She actually wanted to drag you back to medbay and keep you there."
"Okay, okay... let me try to learn how to walk again. How far out are we?" he asked.
"A little over twenty two hours," Miranda answered, heading for the door. "I already sent a message directly to Councilor Anderson. I'll be on the CIC if you need me."
The woman exited quietly, leaving Tali to help him up despite his protests. After a few painful minutes of stretching he was able to move without constantly wincing, if not sans discomfort. He found Tali gaze fixed on him while he rested against the wall.
"Just watching. I'm allowed, no?" she replied.
Shepard smiled and closed the distance between them to slip an arm around her shoulders, guiding them both towards the elevator. "You know you are. But I've also learned to read quarian body language and that was clearly the 'I'm pensive' stare."
"Hmph," she sighed. "I just... I don't know. What now? The mission was always in the back of my mind and now we've actually done it. I'm relieved. But I'm worried. The Reapers are still coming but now we don't have a clear objective."
"Sure we do, it's just broader. We've got to keep preparing the galaxy for what's coming, get the word out. Build our alliances. I'll admit it was far simpler when someone just told me where to go and what to shoot," the spectre told her.
Tali nodded, pressing the button for the CIC.
"We get to the Citadel, give the Council the evidence we've collect. They can't ignore it this time," he continued. "Wrex is already turning the krogans into a unified force and the Rachni are still out there. Soon we're going to have to visit your people again too. Warn them of the full extent of what's coming."
"I just hope they'll be less willfully ignorant than they have been in the past," the engineer said.
The lift opened, revealing the command deck in much the same state that he had left it. The miscellaneous debris had been long since cleared but there were still lightless consoles and hanging cables that reminded him of their less than perfect condition. He felt Tali try to pull out from under his arm, but Shepard merely smirked and kept her there.
"No escape for you, if you're going to keep me knocked out for hours for my own good you also get to help me get around. Besides, I think Omega proved that the crew isn't exactly unaware of us at this point."
A small sound of exasperation came from the quarian at his side, and from the way her head dipped Shepard could imagine the faint bluish blush tinging her features. Kelly was at her station and the first to greet them. There were dark circles under her eyes and the usual cheery smile on her face looked a little strained... but she was there, like all the crew.
"Good to see you up and about, Commander. And hello, Tali," his yeoman greeted them.
"Good morning, Kelly," Tali replied. "Would you mind keeping an eye our fearless leader? Despite his insistence, I do need to get back to engineering. He's not to do any work that requires more effort than pushing buttons."
He frowned. "What, now I'm being passed around like a pet? And it doesn't take any effort to push buttons, they're holographic!"
Before he could offer further objection Tali slipped out from under his arm and into the elevator, offering him a little wave as the doors slid closed. This left the spectre staring at the door and then back at Kelly who couldn't be help but give a small laugh. She gestured towards the cockpit.
"Come on, sir. I wouldn't want Tali mad at me for letting you escape."
"I seem to recall a time not so long ago that I was in command here," Shepard muttered.
"You still are, Commander," Chambers said, her expression turning serious. "What you did for us? You came into hell for us, every person on this ship will follow you anywhere. But Tali gets very... assertive when she's worried it seems. It was made very clear that if anyone caused you to hurt yourself further 'Chiktikka and a shotgun' would become involved. Cute if a little scary."
"I survived the Collector base, it's not like I'm going to drop dead now."
"That so? Because Chakwas said your blood pressure and heart rate dropped below norms. If you'd been anyone else medical alarms would have triggered."
He was unable to suppress a start at the voice appearing at his elbow, the sudden turn only reminding him that his body was interested in such fast movements. Kasumi was standing there with her arms crossed, tapping a foot. It seemed he was going to have to brave the entire gauntlet.
"Pushing yourself through the pain meds and not resting really stressed your system. Tali was worried that she risked your life by not making you go to medbay. So I think you're going to have to just live with it for awhile, Shep."
His annoyance quickly bled away at Kasumi's words. It hadn't occurred to him that everyone hadn't just been overreacting. It had become second nature to shrug off whatever hurt and keep going, trusting his conditioning and the cybernetics to see him through. Now Shepard felt like an ass for putting even more stress on friends that were already long overdue for a rest. He held up a hand in surrender.
"Okay, I'll be good."
Kasumi smirked. "See, told ya guilt would work."
"I concede the point," Kelly replied.
He narrowed his eyes as he was led to one of the chairs near the cockpit, Joker already seeming to be awaiting his presence. With a full selection of choice sarcasm for his Commander. Just what Joker needed. A captive audience.
"A damn conspiracy," Shepard muttered.
The man on the small screen swallowed nervously once before speaking. "It looks like they're heading to the Citadel, sir. We haven't been able to re-activate any of the tracking devices but have been forced to rely on secondary information sources that noted a second activation of the Omega relay and sightings of the Normandy before it jumped to FTL."
The well-dressed individual leaned back in his chair, lifting a cigarette to his lips and taking a long drag. Letting the smoke blow slowly through his lips the Illusive Man took a moment to think. Finally he nodded.
"We've become too dependent on technology. Some old fashion survelliance will do our people some good. Continue to follow reports, alert our agents on the Citadel to provide any information they come across," the man ordered.
"Of course. I'll forward any reports to you immediately."
"See that you do."
After his initial anger and following contemplation the Illusive Man had quickly fallen back into his calm, collected method of operation. Shepard was still an asset and he himself had become too complacent with the control he had over the spectre. It wasn't a mistake he would make again.
Bringing up a screen with the various collected datapackets from his operatives he composed a pair of extranet messages and set them both to different triggers. Shepard was an idealist and loyal to a fault. Those two traits meant that with the right leverage it wasn't difficult to bring him back onto a path that helped both their agendas. The first message would go out two hours after the Normandy arrived at the Citadel, sent directly to Shepard's personal terminal.
The thought of contacting the Normandy directly had crossed his mind, but chances were the man would assume he was calling to rant against Shepard's ultimatum and uncooperative behaviour. This way was more impersonal, letting him feel more in control of acting on the information even if the Illusive Man already knew exactly what he would do. And that action would trigger the second message, sending it speeding on its way to Liara T'Soni.
And then humanity's best asset against the Reapers would be back in action, allegiance to Cerberus or no. The cherry tip of his cigarette glowed in the dim light of his office and the Illusive Man smiled.
"Normandy, this is Citadel control. We are detecting fluctuations in your mass effect field and structural damage."
"Affirmative, Control. This is Spectre John Shepard. Our vessel has sustained significant damage, requesting a vector to the nearest secure dock facility so that we can power down to make repairs," he informed the disembodied voice from over Joker's shoulder.
There was a brief pause, and then the voice responded. "Head to docking facility one-one-three, Normandy."
"Thanks, Control," Shepard replied, patting the back of the pilot's chair. "Take us in, Joker. While we're meeting with the Council I'm putting you in charge of prioritizing our repairs. Not like anyone knows the Normandy better than you."
He smirked. "And you, EDI. But we can't exactly have you talking to the port authority can we?"
"This is true, Commander."
Joker gave him a lazy salute. "Don't worry, I'll get it done. Can't let my baby go around flying around all busted."
"And I will endeavour to keep Jeff from causing any problems with the work crews due to... overly stringent demands," the AI said. "And the Normandy is my form, Jeff. Not your 'baby'."
The spectre beat a quick retreat, not about to get involved into that particular argument. EDI's unshackling and the entire incident with the Collectors had changed the relationship between pilot and AI into a far less antagonistic form, but they still slipped back into a mode that strongly resembled an old married couple at times as Kasumi would put it. Already he could hear them arguing as he walked back towards the airlock where the rest of his team waited.
"You sure this is a good idea, Shepard? I feel fucking stupid," Jack asked as he approached, free hand tugging at the neck of her shirt. It was the biggest concession he could get her to make, black and sleeveless, but the high collar seemed to be driving her to distraction. Her other arm being still trapped in a sling probably didn't help matters.
Anderson had sent confirmation that the Council had agreed to meet with him as soon as they docked at the Citadel. His first thought as always had been to bring Garrus and Tali with him, they had been through it all with him after all, there since the beginning. Then he'd changed his mind. Instead his ground team now waited at the airlock, in its entirety. Casts, crutches, bandages, and all.
"Shepard's right," Garrus said from the back, apparently having just exited the elevator. "The Council needs to see the people that just saved their asses again. And that's all of us, maybe this time they won't be able to sweep it all under the rug. Just wish we could fit the rest of the crew in their office."
He smiled. "Couldn't have said it better myself, Garrus."
"Okay, we're coming in now. Good luck, Commander," Joker said over the intercom.
The deck plating shuddered faintly beneath his feet as the Normandy settled into the docking cradle and the magnetic clamps locked into place. Outside he could hear the gantry rolling out to meet with their airlock. Seconds ticked by until the light went green and they filed into the airlock. He felt Tali's fingers squeeze his elbow while they waited.
"How are you feeling? Chakwas said you were healing rapidly but..." the quarian trailed off, voice laced with concern.
Before he could respond a low rumbling laugh came from behind them both. He turned to see Grunt's shoulders shaking, lips curled into a grin that would have looked frightening to anyone else. It said something about the path his life had taken when a grinning krogan was actually a pleasant sight.
"You worry too much, quarian. Shepard can't be killed by anything as mundane as a few lingering wounds. All great warriors die on the field, standing on the bodies of their enemies."
"Those are only the most famous warriors, Grunt," Thane interjected. "The greatest die with quiet contemplation, having defeated all that stood before them."
Shepard held up a hand, snaking the other around Tali's waist and letting it rest there. "How about neither? I intend to keep on living for a good long time yet. Too many things to do."
Finally the airlock finished its cycle, putting an end to any further discussion of his mortality and opening to allow them to exit. Immediately the familiar sights and sounds of the Citadel washed over him, thousands of voices all speaking at once, beeping electronics, it was all so very mundane after everything they had been through. Shepard pointed towards the rapid transit station.
"No elevators today. I don't think any of us feel like a long walk."
"A little less walking would be appreciated, Commander," Jacob said as he exited the airlock, crutches under his arms and his right foot and ankle in a polymer cast.
As soon as they reached the terminal Miranda took charge, assigning people to cars with her usual efficiency and making sure those like Jacob were able to get in comfortably. He and Tali simply waited in the back with Garrus, letting the biotic do what she did best. It amused him to note that her actions now seemed far more mother hen than demanding ice queen. Nothing like a few months and far too many near death experiences to finally break the ice surrounding her..
"We do make quite a spectacle all together. It would probably look a little more impressive if it didn't also look like most of us just fell out of a medvac, though," Garrus commented.
"You said it yourself, the Council needs to see the people that just saved their asses for a second time whether they know it or not. Too much time spent in ivory towers and people start to forget what war looks like," he replied.
Quarian fingers tapped his battered breastplate. "Is that why you're wearing this?"
Shepard glanced down at his armored chest. He had debated this particular piece of showmanship for awhile in his cabin, but had finally decided that if they were going to make a statement than there should be no holding back. The armor that Tali had once said made him look like a baelen'sor, a knight, was far from regal now. Much of its silvery surface was covered in carbon scoring and abrasions, even a few pieces of shrapnel that had embedded themselves in the surface but not quite penetrated the thick protection it offered were sticking out in places. Not to mention the punctures where it armor simply hadn't been enough and the projectile had passed clean through.
"It did its job. I'm still here. But at least its one more piece of evidence that we don't come out of these things looking like vid stars with perfect hair and some well placed dirt smudges," Shepard said as Tali traced a fingertip around one of the holes where a round had penetrated the armor and his midsection.
"I know. I guess I just don't like the reminder either."
"After this you won't see it again. The armor is shot... even as advanced as it was, it's just not worth trying to repair."
"Look at it this way, Tali," Garrus said as they finally got into the last of the aircars. "This way he has to get new armor so you can to undress him repeatedly while he tries the new stuff on."
She threw a glare at the turian like it was a physical thing but he had already retreated into the car, smug look fixed firmly on his features. The quarian could only shake her head and follow him into the car.
Shepard couldn't help but smile.
A short ride later found them on the Presidium. The expansive open space always impressed even after the number of visits he had made to the place since the first days of hunting down Saren. Everything had seemed a little... brighter then, but it still carried that air of authority. Behind him Shepard heard Jack whistle.
"Fancy types living the high life up here. Bet they'd suffocate down in the lower wards with us dirty low-lives."
Legion swivelled its head towards the former convict. "Total oxygen ratio is zero point three percent higher on this level. Breathable atmosphere is sufficient on all levels, however, for organic life."
"It's a figure of speech, rustbucket," the biotic snapped.
The geth looked down, single optic scanning its form before turning its attention back to Jack. "This platform does not exhibit any signs of oxidation."
Jack threw up her hands. "Ugh!"
Ignoring the back and forth Miranda increased her pace to fall in beside him. "I'm still not sure if bringing Legion was a good idea."
"After the last time with them telling me Sovereign was a 'geth creation'? Oh no, I wouldn't waste this chance," the spectre assured her. "Besides, the girl at customs didn't even know what it was. 'Synthetic assistant' my ass."
"Geth do not intentionally infiltrate," Legion spoke up again, stressing the 'intentionally' as it repeated its statement from earlier.
"Don't worry, Legion, I believe you."
Thankfully for the likes of Jacob and a vocally unhappy Zaeed it was only a short walk to Anderson's office as promised. The door opened to Anderson waiting to greet them, an expression of surprise and concern on his face at the sight of his battered armor and extensive entourage, but he still reached out to grasp Shepard's hand firmly.
"Shepard. No offense but you look like hell and... how many people did you bring with you?" Anderson asked.
"Long story, Captain. My team. Is the Council ready to see us?"
"They are. I guess they're also in for a hell of a surprise," the older man said and stepped aside.
His team filed into the spacious office, most offering some brief greeting to the Councilor. Grunt seemed to be sizing up Anderson like he wanted to fight until Samara interrupted him, introducing herself and pushing the young krogan farther into the room. It seemed adult or not Grunt was still looking for ways to challenge himself. Shepard considered that maybe he shouldn't have told him quite so many stories about his former CO.
"I wish I had time to get the whole story first, Shepard, but best not to keep the rest of the Council waiting," Anderson said and stepped over to his desk, hitting a flashing key.
The familiar holograms flickered to life, showing the life-sized forms of the remaining three Councilors in their usual formal attire. Even through the blue-tinted images he could see the look of shock at the assembled group standing before them. As usual it was the asari, Tevos, that spoke first.
"Commander Shepard, this is certainly a surprise. First we receive reports of the Omega 4 relay being activated and then a communication from your vessel requesting a meeting. I assume the two are connected?"
Shepard stepped forward, putting his arms behind his back in an at rest position, ignoring the protest from his ribs. "They are. Two days ago my ship and my crew activated the Omega 4 relay and jumped into the galactic core. There we found and put a stop to the real agent of the disappearance of the human colonies: the Collectors. Servants of the Reapers and the ones responsible for the abduction of the colonists from Freedom's Progress, Horizon, and elsewhere."
"Collectors? This is a bold claim, Commander, even for you," the salarian said. "After centuries we have little information on the Collectors as a species. There had been some speculation as to their involvement after footage from the Horizon colony attack was leaked, but nothing could be confirmed."
"Is that why we seem to have an audience?" Councilor Velarn asked, gesturing at the assembled team. "More people to vouch for your newest escapade in the 'Reaper' delusion?"
He could almost feel the sudden tension in those behind him, the faint grinding of Jack's teeth and the rumble deep in Grunt's chest. Even Samara made a disapproved sound in the back of her throat. Shepard merely frowned, shaking his head and fixing the turian with a level stare. Barely a few moments into it and already his hackles were up.
"No," Shepard replied coolly, turning his attention back to the Council as a whole.
"As for confirmation, I have all the 'confirmation' you need. The Collectors are dead, we passed through the Omega 4 relay. We found their base of operations, a massive space station protected by powerful mass effect fields amid the wreckage of thousands of dead starships. My team and I boarded that station, retrieved my crew, and blew it straight to hell... along with the Reaper they were creating inside that station, using the kidnapped colonists as the basis for its organic components."
Continuing he gestured behind him. "These people aren't here to agree with me, I've got all the proof I need. They're here because they deserve to be. Because they all risked their lives, gave their blood, sweat, and tears, to end a threat that each of you were so quick to dismiss as a 'human matter'. Everyone one of us will bear some scar for the rest of our lives from that gods forsaken place. I thought it was time for you all to take a long hard look at those that did what you wouldn't."
The spectre produced the datapad he'd stuck into the pouch at his back and tossed it onto desk, the plastic rattling loudly in the sudden silence of the room. The reactions of each were mixed. Anderson regarded him with the same measure of respect that he had since this chain of events had begun over two years ago, while Velarn seemed to still be holding onto the exact opposite as he always had. That barely contained contempt. The two other were more difficult to read, but there was a spark of understanding in Tevos' face at least, looking at the battered saviours.
As expected Velarn rallied quickly. "An impressive speech, Commander. But I still fail to see what this has to do with your claims of Sovereign being some sort of race of killer starships rather than an instrument of the geth. What proof do you have other than your self-righteousness?"
The proof provided itself before Shepard even got the chance. Legion had stepped forward, past Samara and Grunt, to present itself next to Shepard. A collective gasp went up from the Council, the platform's presence apparently having gone unnoticed in the back until now.
"Sovereign is not a geth creation. The old machines are enemies of the geth collective. We are not capable of such feats of engineering or construction. Neither has there ever been any information that would support such a hypothesis. This conclusion is illogical."
"Are you insane, Shepard? You brought a geth onto the Citadel? Onto the Presidium? We should have you stripped of your Spectre status and arrested!" the turian sputtered.
"Because I endangered everyone by bringing a geth? Or because he's challenging your official story?" Shepard asked.
"Commander," the salarian began, cutting off another outburst from Velarn. "This is... very irregular. I believe that you believe that this geth is somehow... friendly, but how do you know it hasn't merely been biding its time to infiltrate the seat of our government?"
"Geth do not infiltrate," Legion stated firmly. He could almost swear there was a faint tone of exasperation to the geth's usually inflectionless voice.
Samara stepped forward behind the synthetic, resting a hand on one of Legion's shoulders. "I am Samara, a follower of the Justicar Code and sworn to assist the Commander on his mission. If you cannot trust the word of one who is supposed to be your own agent, then trust mine. I have followed Commander Shepard and this geth in battle. Both have sought to do nothing but protect life, synthetic and organic."
Shepard gave the asari a nod of thanks before looking back to the Council, pointing at the datapad resting on Anderson's desk.
"Among the data you'll find on that pad are detailed scans of the Reaper that we destroyed from our suit instruments. Along with information on the Collectors as a species and what lies beyond the Omega 4 relay and extensive amounts of data pulled from the base's databanks before we destroyed it."
"In the end you're going to believe whatever you want. But don't stand there and claim I never brought you proof. I saved this Council once at the cost of hundreds of human lives. Thousands more died at the Collector's hands because no one would act. It finally took a crew of independent people, criminals, bounty hunters, disillusioned soldiers, and patriots all supported by a terrorist organization, to get the job done. Put whatever spin on it you want, but don't ever forget that."
He turned and gestured towards the door, his piece said. In all honesty he hadn't expected a great from the meeting, at least not in the short term, but he felt obligated to at least try. Now they could do whatever they wanted with the information but they couldn't say no one had warned them of what was coming. Shepard stopped when the asari Councilor's voice spoke up, causing him to pause and turn back to face her.
"What we do, we do to preserve the peace and stability of this galaxy, Commander. And we are certainly not perfect," Tevos said, silencing Velarn with a glance. "We will review your claims in light of this new information that you have brought forward. It would seem at the least we again owe you and your crew a measure of thanks for taking the risk you did. I will see to it that your vessel is repaired. The Citadel's medical facilities are also available to you and your crew."
The salarian cleared his throat. "Ahem... we do ask that you do not let the geth wander the station. If the word of a Justicar is enough to reassure Councilor Tevos of its intentions then that is sufficient for myself, but it could still cause a panic if someone recognized it for what it is."
"Thank you, Councilor. I'll take what I can get. But review that information quickly. There's a storm coming... if we're going to survive the only chance we have is to stand together."
The meeting clearly over he offered Anderson a nod and headed out the door, his team following. Maybe he'd been a little too confrontational but pain and months of stress, not to mention the entire incident of dying, had left him less patience than he once had. Now it was up to the Council to make the right decision.
"So what now, Shep?" Kasumi asked once they were all outside, overlooking the shimmering artificial lake on the Presidium.
"Drinking, lots of drinking," Zaeed supplied.
"Actually, Zaeed has the right idea," he agreed, earning a number of surprised looks.
He held up his hands to forestall the avalanche of questions. "Not specifically the drinking. But we've all been to hell and back. Once we get back to the Normandy and get repairs underway I'm giving everyone that's staying aboard the ship shore leave, regular crew and ground team. Essential personnel will get rotated out so everyone gets a break."
"And the Reapers? We have no solid estimation of how long it will take them to reach Council space without utilizing the Citadel as a mass relay," Miranda asked.
"If they show up in the next week then there's nothing we're going to be able to do about it anyway. But they are coming and I'd rather not having my crew burn out before they even get here," Shepard said with a grimace.
"I'm not going to ask anyone to stay after this. We completed our mission and everyone went above and beyond the call of duty. And I won't lie to any of you either... when the Reapers get here hell is going to come to every inhabited system in this galaxy. If you want to grab whatever bit of happiness you can before that day comes I won't blame you for it. It's been an honor to serve with everyone one of you."
The team exchanged glances during a long pause, a few nods and murmurs passing between them. Mordin gestured at the assembled group.
"Time is a gift, rarely appreciated. But stakes are too high to ignore. I would stay aboard the Normandy. Do what I can," the doctor said. "Think I speak for everyone when I say we do not believe the mission is over."
Heads bobbed in assent now, even Legion mimicked the very organic gesture. Despite all these years as an officer and a leader Shepard never quite understood how he earned such dogged loyalty. It seemed he wouldn't have to give up his odd, dangerous family just yet.
"Besides all of the ludicrous amounts of money Cerberus paid me aren't going to be worth spit if the goddamn Reapers show up and burn everything," Zaeed added. "Saving the galaxy sounds like a hell of a retirement plan to me."
Garrus smirked. "I think you're stuck with us, Boss."
Shepard responded with a laugh, stepping forward to drop an arm around his friend's shoulders and the other around Tali's, nodding towards the rapid transit terminal. "I wouldn't have it any other way. Now, let's get back to the Normandy and get things straightened out so we can all go spend some of Zaeed's ludicrous amounts of money at the most expensive bar on the Citadel."
Welcome to the newest slice of the adventures of John Shepard and crew from my Razor's Edge series.
This particular tale won't be anywhere near the length of my previous endeavour and if you haven't already guessed will be taking the crew through the events surrounding the Shadow Broker. As in my previous tale, however, nothing happens in vacuum so some other things might occur along the way ;)
If there's anything you feel like I missed in the last story feel free to drop me a line! I also tried to edit this one better than the last go around, so I make no promise as to chapter speed but hopefully there's less typos!