The Citadel News Network had been playing the feeds relentlessly for what seemed like weeks, even though it had only been a few days since the event had happened; the entire Bahak System wiped out when its Mass Relay had been destroyed. At first, everybody was willing to believe it had been an unavoidable tragedy, a rogue asteroid on path with a dangerous trajectory. The event had wiped out hundreds of thousands of lives, primarily batarian, and put the rest of the galaxy on high alert. Kneejerk reaction caused settlements nearest the Mass Relays to launch mobile gunships to guard against any more stray asteroids or moons. The Council had been working overtime to soothe a galaxy worth of frayed nerves and keep the panic to a minimum.
And then something had changed on the news that morning, more evidence uncovered that showed the impact had not been an accident but a guided strike meant to take the Relay out, though it had remained largely uncertain if the perpetrators of the act would know how widespread the damage would be. The batarian Hegemony was chomping at the bit for action, for a return strike. For anything.
Further information had leaked after that, revealing that some higher administrator knew what was going on but had no intention of letting the public know, so when the audio clips were leaked it didn't take long to identify the voice as Shepard's.
"Alert: All colonists living in the Bahak System, this is-"
Then silence. And not even an hour after the audio time stamps; utter destruction.
Kaidan didn't bother with what the information had wrought on the public, he'd kept to himself to try and struggle through the shock and yes, the betrayal. Had she been lying? Did this have something to do with that transmission she had taken from Cerberus? Admiral Hackett would never have asked for anything that could have led to the destruction of an entire system. He wanted badly to trust Shepard, but this was too monumental to grasp. An entire system destroyed and the woman he loved at the center of the controversy.
Dazed, he pushed away from the balcony of the Presidium and began the short trek to the transportation platform. No doubt Council Anderson would be up to his neck in politics, complaints, a bombardment of information and demands all wanting to be met, but he still felt a need to try and wriggle his way through the bureaucracy for a chance to ask Anderson if she could really have committed such an atrocity.
Kaidan climbed into a taxi to find it already in use; a well muscle individual in clean cut civilian clothing comprised primarily of black and white. "Excuse me," he murmured, and went to open the door only to find the other man had locked them.
"No problem. We're going to the same place." Flashing very white teeth in a quick smile, the man catapulted the car into motion and Kaidan was left hanging on to the 'oh shit' strap as they moved smoothly through traffic. "I've been looking for you, Commander Alenko. I've got a message-"
"I've been getting plenty of messages lately." Kaidan snapped, finally wrangling the seatbelt into place. The dark skinned man piloting the taxi smoothly through Citadel traffic had the air of a soldier about him, and Kaidan pegged him as a former front-liner, probably moved into a position as somebody's aide. Somebody else looking for connections to Shepard through her old comrades and friends since the Bahak scandal had been blown wide open.
"None like this." Squeezing between a pair of lumbering transports, the stranger whipped the car down a turn and headed for the more industrial dock area. "Just relax, Commander. We're almost there."
They'd turned entirely away from the Embassy Ward, but Kaidan couldn't even seem to find it in him to care. Maybe it was for the best that he was being led away from that particular temptation, but he was also suddenly aware that this man wasn't just another soldier. Another aide. "Who are you?"
"You can call me Taylor. Prior Alliance Marine, currently part of a group working for the greater good." Giving him a quick glance from the corner of an eye, Taylor offered another of those quick smiles. "But at the moment, I'm an agent for the Shadow Broker."
"What does the Shadow Broker want with me?" Nobody could ever be certain where the Broker's interests sat. Through the course of his career, Kaidan had been party to numerous brushes with the Broker's agents. Always more of a hindrance than a help, the Broker had his or her own agenda that had remained as much a mystery as their identity.
"Hey, I'm just a delivery boy." Taylor laughed, not as insulted as the title might imply. Slipping through the docking areas, he moved them between transports and dry docked ships before slowing the vehicle entirely and bringing it to a smooth halt. Locking it into standby, Taylor fished into the backseat under Kaidan's wary eye and pulled out a pair of datapads. "Do not activate these in public. It is absolutely vital that you're alone. Read the top pad first, it'll have instructions for you."
"This is a pretty rotten trap." Kaidan eyed the pads and gave a shake of his head. "Instruct me to go somewhere where I'm alone, to wait until I'm a private area before setting off some sort of low energy blast and I'm the only one killed?"
Taylor laughed in response. "I told them you'd be suspicious with all this cloak and dagger stuff. Believe me, the Broker is entirely on your side. You'll be amazed when you finally put it all together, but you've been in the Shadow Broker's physical presence. The group I work with, we're working toward a common goal with you and the rest of the Alliance." Expression going completely serious, he held the pads out once more though Kaidan still refused to take them. "We're all working to stop the Reapers."
Eyes narrowed, Kaidan stared hard at Taylor and the man only returned the look. Slowly, the biotic reached out and took the pads from him, tucking them into the jacket of his uniform for later. "Let's say I believe you-"
"You believe me. Or you wouldn't have taken the pads." Taylor fired the vehicle's engines back into action and pulled through the docking area and back into Citadel's heavy traffic areas, swinging it through and around the Presidium and into the other districts in no apparent route. "Not enough people believe the threat, but they will. It'll be too late by then though."
"Why send these to me? Why not to Council Anderson?"
"I told you, Commander. I'm just the delivery boy." Taylor remained stubbornly quiet the remainder of the journey, deflecting Kaidan's few questions with ease. When he finally pulled the vehicle into a halt, it was at the taxi pads in the section of the Citadel where Kaidan held housing. His only response to the suspicious look was another quick smile. "I've been watching you. Waiting for the best opportunity to approach you. Don't be so surprised."
"Who do you really work for?" Kaidan climbed out and held the door while Taylor checked the instruments idly.
"You'll see." Leaving it at that, Taylor swung the door out of Kaidan's grip and let gravity and motion snap it closed as he rocketed back into Citadel traffic. Kaidan watched the taxi until he lost sight of the nondescript car amongst the traffic. Glancing down at the pads in his hand, he huffed out a sigh and trudged down the hallway to his apartment.
Locking the door behind him, Kaidan moved into the spartan depth of his apartment, leaving the datapads on the counter while he fixed a drink. It had been a long, hard day and was now compounded by an edge of mystery he just didn't have the heart for. But the Shadow Broker? It was interesting twist, that was undeniable. While most people seemed to discount any information that the Broker put out, the Citadel Council tended to accept a great deal of the Broker's information because it always largely unbiased. If the Broker had information on the Reapers that they were parting with, it was worth looking into at least.
Drink in hand, he returned to the pad and keyed up the top one. The screen came to life beneath his hand; exuding a soft blue glow interrupted by a brief band of light that flashed across his face as he held it up to view. Cursing as he went momentarily blind, he slapped the pad back onto the counter.
==Biometrics confirmed: Kaidan Alenko.==
He froze at the sound of her voice. Shepard's voice, coming to him as clearly as if she were standing in the same room. Spotty vision clearing, he set his drink down and snatched up the pad. Sure enough, it was her; looking ragged around the edges with a new weariness he hadn't seen in her even on Omega. He ached to respond, to air the doubts that were plaguing him, but it was just a recording. A recording delivered to him by the ever mysterious Shadow Broker.
"I'm sorry, but you already know I won't be coming back to the Citadel anytime soon. Things have gotten complicated," Shepard sighed and the screen went momentarily to static. "It was supposed to be a simple mission, but you can't imagine how badly it all went down. I can't tell you everything that happened in Bahak because it's all a little too... unbelievable. I'll let the included data speak for itself."
Kaidan pulled a stool out at the counter, slumping into it with the datapad in one hand as the message continued.
"I had no choice but to destroy the Relay. The Reapers have more than one way to get to us all, and the mission I was sent to complete had been compromised from the start. Nobody knew. Reaper Indoctrination is a real threat at this point, and there is no telling who might be under their control. It goes a lot deeper than Saren. It gets more subtle." She scrubbed a hand across her face, looking infinitely weary for a split second before returning her glance back to the recorder. "Destroy Bahak, or let the Reapers in. I wouldn't do it any differently, Kaidan. The war is here. Now. We can't see it yet, but it has started."
Static swallowed the picture again, an interference on a scale he couldn't begin to imagine, though when the picture came back it was clear and sharp, as was the look in her eyes. "The hard decisions I've made and the ones to come are exactly what I've been afraid of. But I understand what I have to become to ensure victory. I'm sorry Kaidan, but I can't be the person that I wanted to be. That you wanted me to be. From here on out, I can only be the person that I have to be."
"Listen to me, because this message will only play once. The data that's on the second pad that was delivered deals with everything that happened in Bahak. The team there uncovered a Reaper artifact, Object Rho, that indoctrinated them quick and deep. There are some captured images from my greybox, but it's all a little fuzzy... I didn't have EDI edit anything out, so for now it's for your eyes, and Anderson's eyes only. Don't make me regret sending all of it to you." For a long moment, she kept staring into the recorder. The silence became uneasy after a few heartbeats before she finally seemed inclined to speak again, jaw flexing and eyes falling. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry. Don't come looking for me, you won't find me. And for god's sake, do not go back to Omega. Cerberus is up to something big... I don't know what, but don't get involved with them. Not like me." Shepard sighed, shaking her head. "Goodbye Kaidan, and good luck. It's up to you now."
The video went dark then, the datapad belching out a sudden burst of energy that wiped whatever data had been stored there by simple means of destruction. Knowing the resources she had on hand, he was certain without a doubt that it would be useless to attempt to recover it. Still left with more questions than answers, Kaidan tipped the dead pad into the trash bin near the counter with a rueful shake of his head. But she had been honest in a small way at least and the second pad contained a wealth of additional information, gleaned from the cores and computers of the indoctrinated team's systems before they went under Reaper influence, as well as her own greyboxed recordings of what had happened that world-changing day in Bahak.
Kaidan hoped it would be enough for Anderson, because it simply fell short of being enough for him.
"Commander Shepard," Kelly broke the silence of Shepard's retreat into her "loft" by way of the intercom, her voice a tad worried. A little strained. They'd all been on edge since Bahak and Shepard had retreated to the dubious shelter of Hagalaz between forays out into different systems, using the same tactics that Liara continued to use to avoid detection. "You have a message on your terminal. It's urgent."
"They're always urgent these days." And that was true enough. Somehow, there were more and more people able to access her message system lately and her terminal was constantly overflowing with all sorts of message. Demands for interviews by varied media outlets, death threats from batarian citizens, letters of support from countless others who saw the batarians as a plague to be wiped out, but precious few that actually mattered these days.
"This one is from Admiral Hackett."
Alex knew what that meant without even having to open the message, but she still wandered to the terminal and fired it up, wading past the onslaught of new messages that Kelly had earmarked for deletion and pulling up the one from Hackett with a feeling of sick anticipation. Only two words long, it's meaning was impeccably clear.
Time to come back. He'd told her that the call would eventually come, facing one another in the aftermath of Bahak and both wishing that things had turned out far differently. No way to change the past, but he had stood beside her and told he would keep her out of this until he sent the word. Then it would be on her; keep running and risk everything, or go back to Earth and face the music. Even knowing that it would be coming made it no easier.
"Kelly. I want my team in the conference room in five minutes, no excuses. This is an urgent meeting and everybody will be in attendance. Send a message to the Broker's ship, I want Liara in on this too."
It was time... and she didn't feel ready enough.
A few members of her team were already in the conference room by the time she made it down and it didn't take long for the remainder to show, filing in around the table without much fuss. Standing at the head, she took a long moment to simply watch them. Their interactions had smoothed down and while there was the occasional bit of friction between them, it was nothing like the bouts of outward hostility that had occurred when they had all first started to learn to live together. Even Liara, her image flickering in the corner via the holographic connection, conversed with some of the nearest crewmembers with an ease that gave Alex hope that they might all still pull this off.
"Today, we have to make some changes." All eyes and optics turned to her as she began, her team falling silent in the space of seconds and turning their full attention to her. The last time she'd brought them all together had been on the surface of the Collector Base, and the news then hadn't been the best. Somehow, they'd all pulled through. "I've been called back to Earth, and I'm going."
"That's bullshit!" Jack slammed a fist against the conference table, her voice the loudest at summing up the disagreement that worked its way through the room in a dozen other voices. Nobody was happy with her decision, but it was the right one, and she had made precious little of those lately.
"I can't stay. If I do, they'll send everything out after the Normandy. I made Admiral Hackett a deal, and it's one I intend to stand by. He gave us some breathing room to pull it all together, now I have to repay him by being there for this damn committee. The Council isn't involved in this yet, it's just the Alliance board. But the fact remains that I can't run from this."
More disagreement, though it was dimmer now as they considered their options. They couldn't evade the Alliance if they were being actively sought out; something would eventually give. If it all went up in a heroic ball of fire their efforts would amount to nothing.
"That's why I'm counting on all of you now." Shepard made sure to meet each pair of eyes in turn as she scanned the room, letting them see the very real trust that she was placing in them. "We all have a duty to make sure that what we've done adds up to something. My crew, my friends, it's up to you. Liara is arranging transportation as we speak, so you will all have a way out to where you need to go, but I'm asking that you don't just bury yourselves back into the world. We've worked hard and we've suffered so the Reapers won't win.
"You all have your own skills, your own abilities. Put them to good use in ensuring that we might have time to warn people and make it out alive. I'm not going to outline what needs to be done, you're all smart enough and capable enough to figure that out on your own, and the less I know, the less I can talk about when the Alliance starts asking questions. It's safe to say I won't be coming back from this anytime soon. What I did could be considered a war crime, and they're not going to let me walk back out the front doors. This could take years to resolve, and we don't have that much time."
"My estimates say we have six months at the very longest before the Reapers are here," Liara said. All eyes turned to the holograph in the corner and she shook her head at the bad news. "Realistically, I anticipate we have half that."
"So don't any of you get lazy on me," Shepard sighed. Pushing her shoulders back, she offered an encouraging smile. "I know you can all do this. Prepare for what we can anticipate so this fight isn't lost right out the gate. Joker will be coming back to Earth with me, and that's not only his decision, but a necessity. None of you get to make that choice. I'm counting on you to be elsewhere. Go back to your homeworlds, capitals, anywhere else where you can accomplish something."
Giving them a moment to let the information sink in, Shepard signaled Liara and the asari began releasing shuttles from the Broker's massive ship to dock in with the Normandy. It might take some fighting and some time, but she fully intended to get each crew member off the ship. Joker and EDI could handle the short hop from Hagalaz to Earth, they'd insisted it was well within their power. Letting anybody else take the fall for her own mistakes wasn't something she was prepared to do, and each crew member on this ship would be considered a Cerberus sympathizer at best if they remained with her.
"Everybody get to packing, your rides to the Broker Ship are on their way, and from there you can make arrangements to go wherever you want to go." Shepard turned, headed to the door and looked back at the gathered crew, giving them a smile. "Make me proud."
"Hey Shepard. Give them hell."
Letting the door close behind her, she make a quick pathway to the "loft" and sank into the chair in front of her terminal, typing up a series of letters that she would make sure found their way to her crew over the course of her imprisonment. There was no point in mincing words when that was the reality that awaited her. While it might eventually change into something more hospitable, she was under no illusion that she wouldn't spend some time in a cage.
When the loft door slid open to reveal Garrus and Tali outlined by its hard angles, she offered them a smile and invited them in. Of all her crew, she knew they wouldn't be satisfied on leaving without a proper goodbye.
"Are you sure about this Shepard?" Garrus eyeballed her from where he stood near the empty fishtank, arms folded over his armor and jaw tight.
"I get less and less sure with each passing moment, but what are my options? I've looked at what I can do, considered different angles and approaches and even had EDI wargame it for me, but this is the best of what we can hope for as a solution. If I turn myself in as a show of goodwill, I have better chances than if I run." Offering a smile to the two friends who had stuck by her through thick and thin, she shrugged. "And if I decided to run, you would all come with me. I need more than that from you."
They both studied her a moment, turning to cast each other appraising glances before Garrus finally nodded and let out the turian approximation of a sigh. "If you're sure this is the right thing to do, we'll stand by you. I'm going back to Palaven to see what I can't push on there."
"And I'm going back to the Fleet," Tali piped up with as much mixed certainty and apprehension as any one person could muster. "We've decided we can try to rally our people, as impossible as they might be. But if nothing else, we have a solid base where we can prepare from."
Standing, Alex moved to each and drew them into a quick hug. "Do what you can, but don't alienate yourselves like I did. And most importantly, don't wait for me."
Garrus laughed, a hand landing heavily on her shoulder as she released them both from the quick embrace. "Shepard, you're a hell of a Commander. We all know this won't keep you down for long."
"I wish I shared your conviction. Thank you Garrus, Tali." They left as unobtrusively as they had come, leaving her alone in her cabin with her thoughts. They invariably turned to the man framed on her desk. She had done her best to avoid contacting Kaidan again, letting herself slip only far enough to send him the data and nothing else. Distancing herself from the Alliance after Bahak, and from Kaidan in particular, had taken willpower. They had been so close to finding solid ground once more... Finding no solace in the overwhelming quiet of her empty cabin, she made her way back to the CIC to oversee the rest of the crew's departure.
Most left quietly, with a few words of encouragement thrown in to make the parting less painful, less permanent. With some of the others, the goodbye was more boisterous and Grunt in particular made sure she wouldn't forget him; nearly breaking her shoulder with his enthusiastic goodbye. There was enough cursing between Jack and Zaeed's farewells to keep her going for months, but it all amounted to an empty ship and intrusive silence when the last shuttle left.
In the end, it was her and Joker at the helm, watching Hagalaz drift into the distance as they angled toward the Osun system and the Relay within.
"Well Commander, any bright ideas?"
"None." Shepard sighed and parked herself in the co-pilot seat, much to Joker's amusement if the wide grin that flickered across his face was anything to go by. "Make sure you stick to the Normandy when we get to Earth, I don't want them taking my ship."
==Don't worry, Commander Shepard. We have a few ideas already in place to ensure the ship remains in our control, and therefore yours.==
"Leave it to us. Just... stay sharp, alright?" Turning away from her, Joker launched the near empty ship into FTL and toward the Relay. Beyond that was Luna Base... and whatever fate the Alliance Board had planned for her.
True to word, the trip was a short one, made shorter by the crawling feeling of dread. All she'd worked for was streaming away from her like the stars arching up and away as they moved through space. The effort she'd made in keeping the Reapers at bay for one more day was going to come to a grinding halt and she was doing it all voluntarily.
"You look like you're having second thoughts."
"Try fifth thoughts. Or sixth. Damnit, this is... they're going to ruin everything," she growled and stood, pacing as they sped through Sol on course for Luna Base.
"Hey Commander, we're going to make it through his. Sovereign couldn't stop us. Collectors couldn't stop us. The Alliance won't stop us either, you'll see." At that, Joker was forced to turn his attention toward the console and the sudden back and forth of radio traffic as Luna plotted their incoming course and cleared them for landing.
"I hope you're right." Pulling herself back to her feet, she clapped a hand gently to his shoulder and gave him a firm shake. "Stay safe, Joker."
"You too, Commander. Stay sane."
"I'll do my best." Already anticipating the image she wanted to make, Shepard pulled on the N7 armor she'd requisitioned through Liara specifically for this appearance; wanting to present herself as a cooperative member of the Alliance to the furthest degree she could manage. Leaving everything aboard the ship, she stood ready at the shuttle bay when they landed. Pulling herself together to the tune of re-pressurization outside the thick hull, Shepard paced the distance of the bay until the Normandy yawning open to reveal Anderson himself waiting for her approach with a small group of armored marines.
"Councilor Anderson. This is a surprise."
"It's Admiral Anderson these days, Shepard. The Council was never the right place for me. I'm a soldier, not a politician." He looked sharp in the formal uniform, pressed and polished and waiting for her. The added touch of a friendly face would have been almost comforting, but she knew it served a double purpose in making sure she didn't lash out at her escort should her doubts overwhelm her. Sighing inwardly, Shepard marched smoothly down the ramp and stopped in front of Anderson, exchanging a quick once over as she ignored his entourage of guards.
"Afraid I would act out?" Alex allowed herself a faint smile. Anderson did the same, though his faded almost instantly into a flat look as he gestured to one of the flanking soldiers. Dour and faceless behind the helmet of his armor, the soldier approached with a set of cuffs in hand and Alex tamped down on the sudden burst of frustration.
"Procedure." Anderson murmured by way of explanation and Alex nodded in response, holding her wrists out. The cuffs snapped shut over her armor with an audible noise that made her flinch in response. Expression dark, Anderson gestured the soldier back into place with his others and they turned to make their way into Luna Base proper. Taking one last look back at her ship, she nodded faintly to herself and turned to walk in step with Anderson as they marched at the front of the small procession.
Beyond the spaceport and the lights, the Earth glimmered in the distance. Impossibly round and bright, it was her first look at the planet she'd never before visited. A home to her people, and she felt almost no sense of attachment to it. Her mother had been to Earth several times over the course of career and visited friends in Vancouver often, but her daughter had never followed that particular route.
Anderson found her gaze out of the corner of an eye, turning his head to follow the look she cast on the planet in the distance. The view disappeared as the spaceport closed in behind them, hangar doors grinding shut and closing them in to metal and stone once more. "I'm sorry your first visit to Earth couldn't be under better circumstances, but I don't think things will be quite as terrible as you imagine."
"I have a good imagination." Their steps echoed in the long halls of Luna until they passed through a heavy set of doors that joined the docking bays to the remainder of the base. Systems Alliance personnel moved through the halls on their own schedules and it reminded her of Arcturus Station in it's own way. She'd been to Luna years ago to solve a problem with a rogue AI, but Arcturas was the closest to Sol she had stayed for any extended period of time. "So if you're Admiral now, who's back on the Citadel leading humanity in the Council?" The tone of her voice made the question void; she was already fairly certain who.
"Council Udina is doing a good job."
"God, Udina..." Shepard let out a low breath. "It's a shame humanity didn't get a seat on the council earlier. Maybe he'd have gone down with the Destiny Ascension like the rest of them."
"Shepard!" Anderson hissed, appalled at the dark tone and darker comment. Giving the escort the signal to clear out, he angled her away from the main throughway and into a small, empty room with its own short hallway. There was a bench set against a wall and he pushed her onto it unceremoniously.
"Shit. I'm sorry, Anderson." Alex hung her head, lifting her hands to massage at her temples and sigh. "I've got a lot of rage right now and no way to deal with it."
"Well you can just sit there for a minute and prove to me that you're still a trustworthy person," he said, giving her a dark look and holding a hand off to head off whatever complaints of unfairness she could think to voice. "Sit there and behave."
He strode down the short hallway without another word, leaving her feeling angry, sullen, and about two feet tall, her sense of shame momentarily overriding her self righteous anger. It hadn't been long when he returned with another soldier, and if he wasn't the biggest marine Shepard had ever seen, he was damn close. Even from her seat on the bench, she could tell he was head and shoulders taller than her, sporting bold tattooing on throat and arms with a skirting-the-regs crest of dark hair angled into a mohawk. At the sight of her, the man pulled up short and stared for a good moment. "Commander Shepard?"
"Shepard, this is Lieutenant Vega. He'll be your liaison and guide on Earth."
"You mean my guard-dog." Giving the massive marine another once over, she turned her sharp gaze to Anderson and arched an eyebrow. "All that muscle just to handle little old me?"
Sighing, Anderson handed the Lieutenant a datapad and explained the pertinent information; when to take her to boarding, what ship they would be going to Earth aboard, where to report when they made it. During the instructions, Shepard kept one ear open but amused herself by toying with the cuffs, which Anderson had made clear needed to stay on until they checked in at Vancouver. Eventually the instructions came to an end and Anderson stepped back to give the pair of them an unreadable look.
"Don't worry Admiral." Vega saluted sharply, still slightly overcome by the surprise of his new duty.
Anderson returned the salute but angled himself to give Shepard a dry look and a shake of his head. "I wasn't talking to you, Vega. Shepard, just watch yourself. I'm on your side, but I can't say that about everybody."
"Yes, sir." Giving him a half-hearted and awkward salute with the length of chain linking her wrists together, Alex glanced back around the small room and shrugged. "I guess I'll see you planet-side." Anderson nodded once and moved to the door, stopping to give her one last parting remark that she could have done well enough without.
"Welcome back, Shepard."
AN: And thus ends this foray into the world of writing. I always enjoy it, but sometimes I forget how much of a challenge it can be. There was more that I wanted to get across in this story, and most of it in a different way, but I wasn't certain how. Lacking the experience and discipline to really pull this together the way I wanted, I still hope it turned out as an enjoyable read without a lot to nitpick about. I hope you all enjoyed the adventure because I enjoyed writing it. You'll probably see more of Alex Shepard in the future; the ME universe still has so much left to explore.