Chapter Twenty Two: Float and Sting
I don't own BioWare
BLUE SUNS PLANETARY HEADQUARTERS
The Kodiak dipped slightly as it entered a crosswind. Crewman Rolston tightened his grip on the control column. If he stared out the window he knew he would see flashes of light signifying an intense firefight. Not for the first time, he appreciated just how easy his job was compared to most. Those on the ground ran the constant risk of death or injury. The only risk he ran flying the Kodiak was that of possible anti-aircraft fire from the ground.
"Hold it steady!" The voice of his one remaining passenger served as a reminder to stay focused. "Stabilize!"
"Sorry!" Rolston wrestled his shuttle back under control. "Levelling out now."
The sound of the turian's weapon discharging made Rolston shiver. Somewhere, down on the ground, another man had fallen to a well aimed bullet. It disturbed him. As hypocritical as it sounded, Rolston really was a man of peace. He was nervous around guns, he hated using them, and he was a lousy shot. Cerberus hadn't recruited him for his martial prowess, they had hired him for his piloting skill. The cost of living on New Canton, plus a still flaring sense of patriotism had influenced his decision. That...and the smiling little girl waiting for him in the pre-fab back on the developing human colony.
So he kept his mouth shut, silenced his conscience and did the best he could. For humanity, and for his wife and baby daughter.
Garrus rested the end of his barrel on the drop down armature. It acted as an effective firing aid, allowing him focus on pointing and shooting, without the additional worry of supporting the end of his weapon.
"Shepard, I see two heavies on the balcony, and a krogan beneath them. Krogan looks to be fighting them. May I make suggestion?"
=Make it quick= Shepard held his team back, waiting for Garrus to give them the go ahead. Beside him, Mordin and Zaeed double checked their weapons.
"That krogan could be one of the defects that we've heard radio chatter about. Maybe if we take out the Blue Suns, he'll give us intel on where to find Okeer."
=Or he'll just attack us instead= Shepard sounded...thoughtful. Garrus expected him to reject the suggestion out of hand. Instead, it sounded like he was actually considering it. =Alright, we'll try it your way=
COMBAT INFORMATION CENTRE
"This is...unexpected." Jack pursed her lips as she examined the video footage coming up from the ground team. "Shepard..."
"Is..." Miranda had insisted on coming up to the combat deck, despite Jack's security concerns. The thief currently had an icepack pressed to her head. So far, she hadn't spoken about the incident down in sickbay and Jack had no intention of bringing it up.
"Acting unusually," Jack finished her sentence. "Antony's profile..."
"Antony?" Miri raised an eyebrow. "Getting personal with the boss now, cheerleader?"
"Commander's Shepard's profile," Jack corrected herself. "It shows a remarkable unwillingness to negotiate, to compromise on any front. He always follows a set plan, devised by either himself or a member of his 'inner circle'."
"So? He took a bit of tactical advice from Scarface," Miranda shifted the icepack slightly. Her hair was really growing now, almost to her ears. In a few weeks, she'd have her old flowing locks back. Conning and stealing her way across the galaxy had taught her to be ready to forsake luxuries and vanities, but when it came to her hair, The Ghost didn't compromise. "It's not like he's throwing daisies in the air and singing Kumbaya."
"No, but the way he's been acting ever since he got back is inconsistent with what I know of him," the operative frowned again. "His tactics are less rigid, shifting all over the place. One second he's charging in guns blazing, the next he's holding back, taking it slow. If it wasn't for his overt sexual harassment, I'd think I brought back the wrong person."
"Yeah," Miranda snorted. "Like you don't enjoy it."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Jack was never one for hiding behind words and snide insinuations.
"You know exactly what it means," the convict was in a playful mood. Well, playful by her standards. "I know exhibitionism has its thrills, but a woman in your position really shouldn't indulge in it."
"How original," Jack turned to the other biotic. "What are you going to do next? Imply that I'm sexually promiscuous? That I get off on Shepard's attention?"
"What's the point of saying what everyone else already knows? Or is it just a coincidence that I smelled something funny in the women's bathroom after you had your shower?" Miranda sidled slightly closer.
"You're revolting." The XO informed her.
"I prefer the term 'sexually liberated'. But if you're a little too prim to make a move, I might just invite the Commander down to my bunk for a bit of stress relief."
"Possibly," Miranda admitted unabashedly. "Remember this, cheerleader. If I see something I want, I take it. I don't fuck around with roses and chocolate. I've been reliably informed by both sides that I'm a lot of fun in the sack."
"Yep." The thief's hand idly wandered across the console, straying dangerously close to Jack's hips. "Why? You want to try your luck with The Ghost?"
Jack didn't think it was possible to express just how disinterested she was in a walking bag of bones. And even if the thief suddenly sprouted curves and a cultured personality overnight...well...Jack simply didn't swing that way. Every teenage boy's fantasy of every hot woman being a lesbian was exactly that, a juvenile fantasy brought about by raging hormones and the extranet. A cold shower and a rigorous exercise programme was the only cure.
"If you touch any part of my body, then I will break six of the bones in your hand," Jack spoke clearly, so there would be no misunderstanding. "I will also have you confined to your quarters on Deck Four."
"Oh relax, cheerleader," Miranda was having the time of her life. So the bitch did have a Puritanical streak. That was going to be fun. "I'd honestly prefer getting jumped back in the shower on Purgatory. The fellas were twice as honest as you, and three times more appealing. Of course...that didn't stop me killing them when they tried...but the principle remains the same."
"You're a sad, strange person." This time Jack actually turned to address her. "And you have my pity. Now get out of my face and get the hell off my deck."
"Gladly," Miranda turned and swaggered toward the elevator. "I'll be in my bunk. Mind if I think about Shepard? Those big, strong arms of his, just sweeping me up..."
Jack tuned out the rest of the mindless droning that the other woman spewing out. She was slightly amused, but mostly appalled by the way Lawson acted. No sense of propriety, of self-discipline, of professionalism. She doubted whether it was possible for her opinion of the thief to sink any lower.
She cocked her head slightly, re-examining the camera feed. And yet...the other woman had a point. The scars were healing, his scruffy hair growing back, and that cocky grin was appealing...if you got past the personality, Shepard wasn't all that bad.
"Need more shoreleave Jack," she told herself quietly. "A lot more shoreleave."
The smell was the first thing Miranda noticed when the ground team stepped off the Kodiak. Mordin, Zaeed and Shepard were stinking, their armour covered in...something. She coughed slightly to get their attention. "Something go wrong?"
"There was a little incident with some toxic gas," Shepard spoke stiffly. "Mordin came up with an antidote on the fly, then drenched us in it."
"Yeah," Miranda raised a hand to cover her nose. "Smells very effective."
"If you will excuse me," Shepard stiffly walked past her. "I have a shower to take."
ONE HOUR LATER
"So...now that you've given yourself a name, I should probably introduce myself.." Shepard began. "I'm Commander Antony B. Shepard, this is the Normandy SR-2...and that nice lady pointing a shotgun at the back of your head is Miranda. Miranda, say hi to Grunt."
Miranda pressed the Eviscerator closer to the weak spot just above the krogan's fringe. "Hi. Put him down before I kill you."
The blue eyed behemoth turned his head to stare at her. "Human. Female. Biotic. Powerful. You will make a worthy second kill."
"You wish," Miranda snorted. "I took the precaution of loading explosive rounds. One squeeze of this trigger and you have to find yourself a new head."
"You threaten me, even though your superiority is doubtful. Impressive for a human." The krogan turned back to Shepard. "And yet she is cold. Dispassionate. She saves you because it is convenient, not out of loyalty. A good Battlemaster should command the undying savagery of his troops. You do not. You are not stronger than her, so she does not respect you."
"Kid's gotta point," Miranda admitted. "You're kind of a pussy at times Shep. Really badass one minute, then a whiny little bitch the next."
"Without a fight that's mine, one kill is as good as the next." Grunt tightened his choke hold. "Might as well start with you."
"That's a pity," Shepard was struggling for breath. "Because it just so happens I'm on a mission to wipe out a species."
The krogan immediately perked up. "You are?"
"Complete extermination, gotta clear out the whole stinking house," Shepard confirmed, nodding furiously. "Okeer told you about the Collectors, right?"
"The Collectors..." Grunt inhaled sharply, gazing past Shepard as images sprang into his head. "Pale hoards of soulless monsters, incapable of fear or pain. Unknown in numbers, possibly millions."
Antony was turning blue. He gasped out his last words. "Well...if...you're...afraid...?"
Grunt snapped out of his trance. He relaxed his grip, allowing Shepard to slump to the floor. "I am not afraid. My first campaign must be a mighty one. Time will tell if you are a great Battlemaster, Shepard. But for now, you have the quad to plan the deaths of those who do not know it. That is enough...for now."
"Glad you...saw reason," the CO groaned from the floor. Miranda rested her shotgun against her shoulder, looking down at the Commander with a quizzical look.
"You know, boss, those times when you act like a pussy...that was probably the best example of that. Just so you know."
"Whatever, give me a hand up..." Antony allowed her to pull him to his feet. "Now we have a krogan on the team."
"A homicidal maniac who's got the mental capacity of a baby," Miranda reminded him drily.
"Don't count him out yet," Shepard eyed Grunt cautiously. "I think he's a lot smarter than he's letting on."
"Yeah, well, your brain's suffering from lack of oxygen," Miranda turned toward the door. "Come on, I wanna show you something."
"What you need is a hobby that doesn't involve anything violent," Kelly explained to her patient. "Something that will ease your stress and relax your mind. Writing poetry, for instance. Or painting."
"If I start painting, would you leave me alone?" Jack enquired.
Kelly shifted uncomfortably. "Well...no. But it would be a step in the right direction, massively assisting your current mental state."
"I'll consider it." Jack glanced at her watch. "Well, would you look at the time? Looks like your hour's up. You can see yourself out, Miss Chambers."
"Of course." Kelly hesitated. "Operative Harper...if we could speak more about the Arabis incident, I am sure we would..."
"Arabis is in the past," Jack turned back to her console. "Your job is here in the present. Dismissed."
TURIAN HIERARCHY OUTPOST
Jackie used the shadows to hide herself. Her lightly padded suit was matte black, swallowing any light that touched her, not letting off any reflection that might reveal her. The Illusive Man had entrusted her this mission, a milk run really, with the intention of completing her training.
Operative Tam was the best field expert on turians. Academics could lecture about turian caste structures, discuss socio-political dilemmas regarding the First Contact War, but Tam didn't care about any of that. Jackie had thought she knew all there was to know about turians, but Tam had demonstrated the uselessness of her university qualifications when applied to the field. He knew what made them tick, how they thought, how they operated. He could have talked all day about the colours that the turian eye did not perceive, or what relatively simple household items were lethal to a 'split jaw'.
The best. And The Illusive Man knew that, appreciated it, and rewarded it. Tam was entrusted with making Jackie field ready, and he had done his job with gusto. Jackie had already been a skilled biotic, but Tam taught her combat. What knives to use on a turian, what firearms to use, what biotic attacks to focus on.
The mission was meant to be a simple one. Get in, hack the relatively unprotected computer systems of the insignificant turian outpost, and then blow its power supply, forcing the turians to evacuate. No wet work required.
"Tam? Are you at the computer core?" She whispered into her radio.
=I'm inside= Tam replied. =Good work Jackie. We're almost done here=
"Donovan Hock, a former Colonel and Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Army Intelligence in the Republic of Africa," Miranda dropped back onto her bed, tossing Shepard a pad. "Remember how I asked you for files on him, back on Purgatory?"
"This is the guy?" Shepard frowned at the suited figure. "Looks like a pussy."
"Perhaps, but he's a pussy who is rich, ruthless and trying very hard to be as smart as he needs to be," Kasumi pointed out. "And he's the type of pussy who doesn't hesitate to smash a man's head in to get something out of it."
"I've done that in the past," Antony was defensive. "Sometimes to get information out of people..."
"No, you stupid bastard," Miranda interrupted him impatiently. "Literally. He smashed in the head of a very good friend of ours, he was looking for something in his brain. And now he's got that thing. A greybox, a neural storage device that literally records sensory perception and stores it digitally. We want it back."
"And you want me to help you?" Antony looked less than impressed. "You want to put a mission to save millions of people on hold...so you can rip off a guy who killed your friend?"
Miranda and Kasumi looked at each other. Kasumi shrugged. "That's pretty much it, Shep."
Shepard measured his words carefully. He was trying to be more diplomatic in this 'second' life. Being resurrected was a fucked up experience, it had left some definite impressions on him. "Well, I'll consider it. But right now, we've got more important things to investigate."
"Like what?" Miranda protested. "I took a look at the files. There's no leads on the Collectors, just a bunch of dossiers."
"I want to go find my friend," Antony shot back. "When this goes down, we're going to need him."
"Ah yes, 'Commander Alenko'," the other woman snorted. "A goody two shoes Alliance officer who used to lick your boots."
Antony growled a warning. "He's a damn fine soldier and officer. And a top notch biotic."
"What do you need a biotic for?" Kasumi piped up. "You've already got Miranda and Jack."
"Let me make myself clearer," Shepard crossed his arms. "I need a biotic who's loyal to me. Someone I can trust. So far, I've got no one on this ship that I can talk to without them demanding something from me."
Miranda's brow creased, and she pursed her lip. "Okay."
"You do this..." Miranda nodded at the dossier. "And I'm in. All the way. Not just because I'm getting paid, but because I'll owe you. I'm good with my debts, Shepard. If you take a two day detour to do this for us, then me and Kasumi are in it till the last shot's fired."
Antony considered the offer. It made sense. He didn't just need troops for the fight. He needed fighters who were completely committed to the cause. A two day delay on the mission...for that kind of commitment to the mission...
"This is his mansion," Jack had accessed every file available to her clearance level. She had been both surprised and pleased with Shepard's decision. If it meant stabilising rogue elements such as Kasumi and Zero, then she was all for it. Especially if it was Hock, he had been a stain on humanity's reputation for far too long. Currently, the briefing room's holo-projector was displaying a multi-dimensional representation of the target building. "Also a fortress. The lower levels were hard to scan, but our latest intel reports the existence of massive storage facilities. YMIR mechs, Infantry Fighting Vehicles, ballistic missiles, and several squadrons of gunships."
"We won't even see those," Kasumi tapped the table impatiently. "If everything goes to plan we'll get into the vault, nab the greybox, and get out before they ever know we were there."
"Noted, but we need to prepare for the worst," Jack frowned. "I'd recommend taking in a gift, something big. Hide weapons and armour in that. If you get caught, you can still fight your way out."
"I don't think you can tell us anything we don't already know about our job," Miranda sniped. "Do I tell you how to suck..."
"Moving right along!" Shepard interrupted. "Kasumi, you said that you've prepared cover ID's for us?"
"Correct," Kasumi handed him a dossier with a profile picture. "You'll be Solomon Gunn, a merc leader from the Terminus. I've prepared you a legend to fall back on. A few convictions for assault, ordinance trafficking, public indecency. I've also arranged for you to have an article printed in Badass Weekly."
TEMPORARY ALLIANCE BARRACKS
Kaidan took a deep sip of his morning coffee as he picked up his regular copy of Badass Weekly. The Ilium publication was always an interesting read, providing him with an idea of what the scum of the galaxy were up to.
This morning, Intel had reported some news coming down the vine about some new scumbag called 'Gunn'. He had been making an easy living off Alliance convoys. That made him a person of interest to Kaidan.
Bringing up the front page, he spat most of his coffee out over the pages. Staring him in the face was the cocky visage of Commander Antony B. Shepard.
"Well, fuck me sideways." Alenko blurted out as the rest of his coffee spilled across his fatigues. What the fuck had Shepard been up to?
"What about you two?" Jack indicated Miranda and Kasumi. "Cerberus can set you up with identities..."
"They wouldn't be suitable," Kasumi spoke before Miranda could summon up another insult. "Cerberus would make up some perfect ID's that would stand up to any scrutiny. We don't want that."
"Because he's scum, princess," Miranda couldn't contain herself. "And we're pretending to be just like him..."
"Shouldn't be too hard." Jack crossed her arms. Miranda smiled patronisingly.
"Yeah, real funny. Anyway, we want him to take a close look at our files. And we want him to find flaws, see things that don't add up, find financial statements that we can't legally account for. It means we're his kind."
"Alright, now that we've got that out of the way," Shepard shot Kasumi an exasperated glare. He was doing his best to keep Jack under control, but she needed to rein in her friend, and soon. "What are yours covers?"
"Miranda has an old fallback," Kasumi explained. "Sarah Walker. Former government badass, discharged for some very suspicious bank transfers. Crooks love working with that kind of person. Getting fired from being a spy for taking a bribe is about the most respectable kind of career transfer you can manage in this business."
Kasumi looked slightly humiliated. "I've got one I haven't used in ten years. It's...slightly dated...but it's the only one that Hock hasn't compromised."
"And it is...?" Antony pressed.
"...Anna Woo," Kasumi finally grated out. "Former electronics saleswoman on the Citadel, who decided she could make more as a stripper...then as an escort. I created it for a party on Ilium, the volus running it really loved humans."
"Is Hock going to buy that?" Miranda couldn't help but grin at her friend's expense. "This party is supposed to be for badasses."
"I've added a murder suspicion to the rep, a turian slave trafficker on Omega," Kasumi explained. "Hock loves his guns and private wars, but disapproves of slaving. Funny, huh? Anyway, if Donnie Boy gets curious and starts probing, he'll find some private mail between Woo and Gunn that confirm that she's his mistress. Some juicy emails between Woo and Walker should convince Hock that they're secret lovers behind Gunn's back."
"Okay, now this just sounds like the plot from a bad Fornax film." Jack leaned on the table. "Let's not be shy, we've all seen that episode, we've all role played that episode...hell, you two probably starred in that episode."
"Which is why Hock is gonna lap it up," Miranda used the same tone that she would use with a child. "The man's a sleezeball. He blows upwards of five hundred thousand credits each month on high class companions. Loves blondes and asari."
"And you take such a close interest because...?"
"I'm a professional, I do my research on my targets. Besides, its Cerberus intel, not mine."
Jack turned to Shepard. "Well, if you think it can be done, then I have no objections, Commander. But I really think I should accompany you, just in case."
"Three's company, four's a crowd," Kasumi interjected. "If Shepard walks in with a beautiful woman on each arm, Hock's impressed. He walks in surrounded by them? Hock feels threatened, his alpha male status is being challenged, he keeps a closer eye on Shep. That blows the whole plan out of the water."
"Besides," Miranda winked. "This is our field. You just run on back to your psychopathic experiments and political takeover intrigues. Leave the honest crimes to us."
A/N: I don't know if many of you are Chuck and Burn Notice fans, but if you are, then you might notice that when I characterise this AU Jack, I picture her as a cross between Carina (a recurring character on Chuck), and Fiona (a main character on Burn Notice). Tough, professional, but also wild when she wants to be.