Snow fell on Freedom's Progress, glittering in the scant lamplight as it floated down on the crisp night air. A distant nocturnal hunter howled as a group of quarians navigated the gloomy settlement. Gathering snow crunched softly under their long-toed feet as they walked.
Activating her omni-tool, Tali conjured up a holo-map. It was easy to get lost in this area; everything had a sameness to it. Framed by concrete embankments, this particular district was made up largely of homogeneous prefabricated structures that could be customized to serve as anything from apartments to laboratories. Fuel canisters and supply crates peppered the open areas, while small salvage heaps and the odd bit of equipment could be found tucked away in shadowy corners.
Tali adroitly manipulated the 3D map with her three-fingered hand, changing the perspective and rotating the image. "We can go through there," she offered, speaking to the ten quarian marines behind her. She pointed to one of the boxlike prefab units ahead and a bit to the right. "It's the most direct route to the loading docks where Veetor is holed up. He's about a kilometer from here."
Leaving a trail of U-shaped tracks in the snow, the quarian squad approached the prefab. Tali was saved the trouble of hacking the lock, as the door slid open automatically. The quarians looked around as they entered. Several bunk beds were stacked up against a wall, and one corner had been converted into a small kitchen and dining area. A plate of cold, half-eaten food sat on a table. There was a puddle of dark liquid on the floor from an overturned cup.
"Keelah," Julani muttered softly. "What happened to the people?" The young corporal was one of four females assigned to Tali's military escort.
"I don't know," Tali replied. "But this isn't the first human colony to have disappeared from the Terminus Systems over the last two years." Since Shepard died. The unbidden thought evoked a familiar pang.
She continued. "The most popular theory has batarian slavers targeting unprotected human settlements, but I don't see how batarians could snatch several hundred thousand humans at once and leave so little evidence. This interrupted meal is the most overt sign of a struggle we've seen." Mystified, Tali shook her head. "Maybe Veetor will have some answers for us. Let's find him."
As Tali exited the other side of the dorm and stepped back into the frigid winter air, she heard the distinct whine of a small ship's engine. It sounded low to the ground, perhaps a hundred meters away. It was hidden by darkness and the structures of the city. The mechanical whine continued for a few seconds before winding down and stopping. The quarians looked at each other.
"Sounds like we have company," Prazza said. He was the second in command.
"Good! I was getting bored," Julani quipped, eliciting a few snickers from her squadmates.
Tali frowned behind her visor. "It could be Alliance, although I wouldn't have expected their investigators to get here for another day. It's a bit of a hike." She shrugged. "Maybe they've started patrolling the Terminus Systems since the vanishings started."
"Most likely it's looters," Prazza suggested. "We shouldn't take any chances." He tapped his sidearm.
"No!" Tali said emphatically. "We're here to find Veetor, not pick a fight. If we run into this other group, let me handle it. Fire only if fired upon. Understood?" She looked directly at Prazza.
"Yes, maam," he acknowledged after a pointedly long delay.
Tali wondered if she was going to have a problem with him. She had sensed resentment from Prazza since the beginning, likely because she was younger and had only an honorary officer's rank. She sighed to herself. Why couldn't the Admiralty Board have given her Kal'Reegar for this mission as she had requested? He was level-headed, intelligent, and didn't seem to mind taking orders from an admiral's daughter only two years removed from her Pilgrimage. Furthermore, he had a self-effacing humor that she had grown quite fond of.
Unfortunately, there was nothing to be done about it now. Prazza was just going to have to get over himself. She had neither the time nor the inclination to coddle his ego.
Tali and the marines continued on, threading their way through the maze of metal and concrete until they came to a large, open area. A massive security gate blocked the way to the next part of the compound.
"Give me a couple minutes," Tali said, activating her omni-tool once again. "I'll hack the lock." While she worked on bypassing the firewall and unscrambling the security code, the marines spread out in an arc to watch the perimeter.
About ninety seconds later, Tali triumphantly announced "Got it!" as the heavy door slid into the ground. "Come on!" She beckoned the marines to follow her.
"Wait, Tali'Zorah! Come see this!" Donnu excitedly summoned Tali to where he was standing. He had brushed the thin layer of snow off of a lump on the ground with his booted foot.
As Tali approached, she could see that Donnu was standing over a dead animal. Perhaps forty kilograms in weight, the quadruped was covered with fur - mostly light brown, except for a broad, dark streak that stretched down its back to its long tail. It had a fanged snout and pointed ears that jutted straight up. The fur on one flank was burned off, revealing a cracked patch of charred flesh. Obviously, the wound had been inflicted by an energy weapon.
"What is it?" Julani asked. All the quarians had gathered around to look at the glassy-eyed animal.
"A dog," Tali replied, kneeling down to examine the corpse. She pressed down on its midsection with one hand. The flesh was still somewhat pliable, not yet frozen. "It's only been dead for an hour or two. Whoever took the humans must have done this. Poor thing must have died slowly from that horrible wound."
"Dogs are trained attack animals like varren?" Donnu inquired. The corporal was young, and his Pilgrimage had not taken him into Alliance space.
"They can be," Tali replied, continuing to examine the animal. "Humans domesticate them and sometimes train them as service animals. I remember Ashley Williams had a great fondness for them. Many humans do."
"Service animals?" one of the marines prompted.
"Yes," Tali confirmed with a nod. "They can be trained to attack, guard, track, retrieve, hunt and so on. Certain breeds are better at certain things, as I understand it. In some areas of Alliance space, they still use dogs to sniff out hidden narcotics that all but the most expensive scanners sometimes miss. Williams once told me that some dogs could even be trained as 'seeing eyes' for people who have lost their sight."
"'Seeing eye' dogs?" Prazza scoffed. "Do they excrete eezo as well? Sounds to me like the humans filled your head with fairy tales about magic dogs."
"And what do you know of it?" Tali said sharply. She thought to say more, but bit her lip. Prazza's implications about the truthfulness of her human friends bothered her greatly, but she was not going to be reduced to squabbling with him in front of the other marines.
She calmed herself. "In any case, I think this one died trying to protect its master," she said, reaching into the dog's mouth. Something was stuck in its teeth. She pried it loose and held it up for everyone to see.
"Looks like piece of a shell or something," Julani observed.
Tali nodded. She couldn't identify what it had come from, but it looked biological. Chitinous. She tucked it away. There would be time to examine it later. "Let's move out," she said, standing up.
Bullets zipped through the air as the quarians popped in and out of cover, exchanging gunfire with the steadily advancing LOKIs. "Please reconsider your aggressive attitude," uttered one of the bipedal security mechs in an ironically pleasant female voice, even as it brandished a heavy pistol at them.
A group of flat-faced, varren-like mechs charged out of the shadows. Quickly sprinting past the plodding LOKIs, they made a beeline straight for the quarians. "Take out the FENRISes first!" Prazza shouted to the marines. "Don't let them force you out of cover!" To his credit, Prazza had kept his cool when the mechs attacked, immediately ordering the marines to take cover and switch to disruptor ammo. Of course, quarian marines were specially trained to fight geth. These simple synthetics paled in comparison.
Tali stayed behind the marines, using a sturdy supply crate as cover. Her nimble fingers practically blurred as they danced over her omni-tool interface. She hacked one of the LOKIs and temporarily overrode its IFF protocols, commanding it to turn and attack its fellow mechs.
One FENRIS managed to get past the quarian front line. Rather than turning to attack the marines it had successfully flanked, it continued sprinting toward Tali's position. Tali briefly wondered if this was a result of faulty programming or a clever bit of threat assessment on the mech's part. She suspected the former.
"Tali, one's coming your way!" Julani warned.
I've got it. As it came close, Tali leaned out of cover. Swinging her shotgun into position with one smooth motion, she blasted the mech in what passed for its face. As it staggered, she pumped another round into it. It collapsed to the ground in a quivering heap, sparks spraying from exposed circuitry. Tali ducked back behind the crate, and the mech exploded harmlessly a moment later. Take that, bosh'tet!
The mechs came at them in three waves, until finally they were all reduced to scrap metal. Afterward, the quarians dusted themselves off and examined each other's environment suit for damage. They had come through relatively unscathed – a few scorches and minor rips, but no injuries or life-threatening suit ruptures.
The quarians gathered inside one of the prefabs, discussing how to approach Veetor's position. The last stretch of the main corridor had proven too difficult to pass. The area had been swarming with dozens of drones, forcing them to retreat under a furious assault of rockets and bullets. Donnu and two of the other marines had sustained moderate injuries in the firefight. Julani administered antibiotics to them and helped them patch up their environment suits. Meanwhile, Tali once again conjured up the aerial map with her omni-tool.
"There has to be another way for us to get in," she said, as Prazza and a handful of the marines crouched down to examine the amber hologram. "This corridor is too well protected."
"Can't we go this way?" Prazza asked, running his finger along a narrower, roughly parallel path.
Tali shook her head. "It circumvents the security gate, but we'd still have to deal with the drones. And there's less cover. What we need is…"
They were interrupted by the sound of a door sliding open. Tali looked up to see three humans entering the unit. There were two men and a woman, all with weapons drawn.
"Stop right there!" yelled Prazza. The marines aimed their guns at the intruders.
"Hold your fire, Prazza," Tali commanded. "I told you I would handle this." She faced the trio of humans. One of them was a muscular, dark-skinned male with a Cerberus insignia on his chest. The woman was striking, dark-haired, with a form-fitting white bodysuit that also bore the Cerberus insignia. The third human wore N7 armor. No Cerberus insignia.
With shock, Tali recognized his face.
"Shepard? Is that… You're alive?" It certainly looked like Shepard. He even had that same small scar on his hairline. It looked as if he had picked up some new ones, as well. In fact, his face was criss-crossed with not-quite-healed scars, giving him the appearance of having been assembled from puzzle pieces. His eyes had a slight reddish glow to them. Cybernetics. Keelah! What happened to you Shepard?
The man looked at her, ignoring all the guns pointed at him. "Tali?" He looked almost as surprised as she felt. "Your suit is different, but I'd know that voice anywhere." He lowered his weapon and moved toward her.
"Stop right there, Cerberus!" Prazza shouted.
Shepard's weapon clattered to the floor, but he didn't stop. "Shoot if you like." He swallowed the distance between them and gathered Tali into his arms.
"Oof!" she uttered in surprise as the man nearly squeezed the air out of her lungs. She returned the embrace tentatively, stretching to keep the tips of her toes on the floor.
After a long moment, he released her and took a step back. "It's good to see you Tali. How have the last two years treated you?" The room was oddly quiet as everyone watched. Shepard didn't seem to notice or care.
Tali felt flushed. Is this really happening? "Oh, um, fine. Better than you, I think." She reached up with one hand, almost touching his face, before tugging it back in embarrassment. "Sorry."
Shepard smiled in response. The red glow seeping from his eyes robbed him of some of his humanity, but his smile had the same warmth that she remembered. "It's okay, Tali. I… had some work done."
"Had some work done! You were dead! The Normandy exploded. They never recovered your body. I attended your funeral, Shepard!"
"I heard it was nice. Did you say a few words?"
"It was a military funeral. They wouldn't allow me to eulogize. Only family members and Alliance…" She saw Shepard grinning at her mischievously. "You bosh'tet! How can I be sure it's you and not another twisted Cerberus experiment?" The dark-haired woman behind Shepard rolled her eyes, but remained silent.
Shepard placed his hands on Tali's shoulders and peered into her visor. "It's me, Tali. The man who gave you geth data to use as a pilgrimage gift. The man you once told the Normandy's engines were too quiet for you to sleep. The man who…" Swallowing, he stepped away again. He looked down at the floor for a moment before looking back up. "I swear it's me, Tali."
The full weight of realization came down on her. By the Ancestors! He's alive!
Before she could speak, Prazza interrupted. "This is all very touching. But why is your old commander working for Cerberus? And why is Cerberus here?"
The dark-haired woman behind Shepard finally spoke, too. "We could ask the same of you. Did you come to loot the dead?" There was contempt in her voice.
Prazza pointed his gun at her now. "Shut up, Cerberus bitch!"
"Stand down, Prazza!" Tali shouted.
She turned back to her former commander. "Actually, it's a fair question, Shepard. There is no love for Cerberus among my people. And you've seen with your own eyes the results of their horrible experiments. You know what they did to Admiral Kahoku."
The dark-haired woman started to object. "That's not…" Shepard silenced her with a motion.
"I woke up on an operating table, Tali. They brought me back. I don't like their history, but they're the only ones doing anything about the vanishing human colonies. We're here to investigate. Now, can you tell me why you're here?"
Tali considered for a moment before answering. "Maybe we can help each other."
Tali triaged the three injured quarians while Shepard and his two companions fought the YMIR outside. Damn it Prazza! Why didn't you listen to me? Seven lives foolishly thrown away, including your own. And three more in doubt!
She wasn't looking forward to flying back to the Flotilla in a makeshift morgue. She would have to report Prazza's insubordination to the Admirals. Bringing grief and shame to his family was not a duty she relished. Failure burned in her eyes. Their deaths may have been Prazza's fault, but they were her responsibility. One good thing about these damn visors is that no one can see your tears.
"Hold this here," she instructed Julani, pressing down on a suit rupture near her abdomen. "Apply pressure until the patch adheres." She went to the door to watch the battle. She felt an impulse to jump in and help, but thought better of it. Shepard could handle himself. Her duty was to find Veetor and protect what was left of her squad.
He didn't seem to need the help anyway. Moving from cover to cover, the trio outmaneuvered and bewildered the mech. Eventually, all of its defenses had been whittled away. Shepard's arm coruscated in blue as he made a tugging motion. Telekinetic energy staggered the mech, bringing it to its knees. From there, it was quickly over.
It took Tali a moment to realize what was wrong with the scene. The Shepard she knew wasn't a biotic.
She went back to triaging the injured marines with a sense of unease in her gut.
Shepard addressed the two Cerberus operatives. "Veetor needs medical attention. Tali will give us his omni-tool data and take him back to the flotilla."
"Understood, Commander," the dark-haired woman acquiesced.
Tali breathed a sigh of relief. She hadn't been sure that Shepard would take her side.
"Good." Shepard thrust his chin toward the door. "Now go see if there's anything you can salvage from that YMIR."
The two operatives exited the room, leaving Tali and Shepard facing each other. Veetor stood by the bank of security monitors, fidgeting with his omni-tool and muttering to himself about swarms.
Tali studied the Commander's face. He looked tired. No. More than that. He was in pain. "Thank you Shepard. I'm glad to see you're still the one giving the orders."
"You know how I love to give orders." Shepard said with a sly grin.
You can't hide it, Shepard. I studied your face, learned every tic, every mannerism. I haven't forgotten. But she just chuckled. "Your sense of humor appears to be intact as well."
He glanced at the door, his smile fading. "It's a good thing too. I think I'm going to need it."
"Don't trust your new traveling companions?"
"Jury's still out, but...I think I do trust them, actually. Jacob's just a lost puppy looking for a new master. Miranda's a bit trickier." Shepard ran a hand over his short-cropped hair. "She's overcompensating for something. Daddy issues, I'd wager. But I'm pretty sure her heart's in the right place."
"A freezer?" Tali put a hand on one hip and shifted her weight.
Shepard laughed. "Yeah, she's frigid, I'll give you that. Honestly, though, it's their boss I'm worried about. He talks a good game, but..."
"You should be worried, Shepard. They're terrorists. They can't be trusted."
Shepard rubbed the back of his neck. "I'll keep that in mind. But for now, they're the only ones who seem to be doing something about the Reapers. And they did bring me back."
"But not quite the same."
He looked at her with a startled expression. "What do you mean?"
Tali pointed toward the door. "I saw you out there, Shepard."
She could see Shepard replaying the fight in his mind. "Oh, you mean this!" He raised one hand. It pulsed light blue for just an instant. "Yeah, admittedly, this is new. I'm still learning how to use it." His voice was strained.
"How is that possible?" Tali asked. "I thought biotics presented by puberty or not at all." Biotics were all but non-existent among quarians, as their suits prevented exposure to element zero, but she had spent enough time around Kaidan Alenko to have picked up a few of the facts.
"That's right," he nodded. "Miranda says I was a latent biotic whose abilities never manifested. But when I died, my body was exposed to even more element zero from the Normandy..."
"Wait!" Tali interjected. "You really died?"
"Yeah, as I understand it, I was about as dead as dead can be."
Tali shook her head in wonderment.
Shepard continued. "So, anyway, when they Frankensteined me back to life, I essentially went through a second puberty. Only instead of getting zits and a cracked voice, I got biotics this time." He was rubbing the back of his neck again. "I think I'd rather have the zits, honestly. It's not like I'm much to look at now anyway."
"You were never pretty, Shepard. What with those ridiculous things you call ears sprouting out of your head."
Shepard's warm laughter washed away the crinkles of pain around his eyes. Tali stepped forward and raised a hand to his face. What are you doing? The man fell silent, staring into her visor unflinchingly. Lightly, she traced one of the longer scars on his face, running from one cheekbone almost to the corner of his mouth. Micro-sensors on the skin of her suit conveyed the sensation of the ridged scar tissue to her fingertips. Softly, she spoke. "It's good to have you back, Shepard."
He reached out and clasped her other hand, squeezing it gently. "Come with me, Tali. I need you." There was a touch of urgency in his voice. "I'll help you return your people to the Flotilla, and then..."
Tali pulled away, cursing her impulsiveness. "I... I'm sorry, Shepard. I can't. I'm not just a girl out on Pilgrimage anymore, looking for adventure and something shiny to bring home. I have responsibilities now. I have a mission."
Shepard studied her for a moment, then nodded in disappointment. "I understand. Go home. Complete your mission, whatever it is." He stepped forward and lightly kissed her faceplate, just below the lip of her hood. "But I'm going to find you again soon. When I do, I'm going to ask again. And I won't take no for an answer." He turned and walked toward the door. "Goodbye, Tali'Zorah. For now."
Tali touched the smudge at the top of her faceplate as she watched him leave.