The Scarlet Chaser

In the days following the events of ME2...

1. Aria

Aria T'Loak put down her glass and closed her eyes, letting the dim electronic vibe of Afterlife ripple through her. A smile crossed her blue lips. But when she opened her eyes again it vanished.

"Shepard. You're back." Aria studied the woman's expression and realised that, just as before, she wanted something. This time, though, she gave the impression of having less patience than ever. The frowning thin eyebrows looked more keenly cut and the mop of rugged scarlet hair was more wild. Her face was thin, intense and a little worn. Those scars still weren't healing on her; both chin and left cheek were still tainted by unnatural lacerations; that aspect of her was curiously synthetic. But Commander Emily Shepard was all too real-there were a lot of dead people who could testify to that. All idiots, thought Aria. The human was one of the few of any species she'd met worthy of her respect, even if they were surely never going to see eye to eye.

"You don't sound surprised, Aria," was Shepard's dissipointingly flat reply.

"Well, I never doubted you, did I? How was the Omega 4 relay? Anything interesting to tell me?"

Shepard, in Alliance navy slacks but a less formal black shirt and jacket, wasn't interested. "Classified, Aria, all of it. Now, you said you had some intel for me?"

Aria leaned forward across the table. "You're finished with Cerberus, then? I hear that ship of yours got sent back for... refitting. Right?"

Shepard remained implacable. "Classified."

"Your... friends?" She looked left and right to her Turian bodyguards. They knew better than to look back and remained statuesque. "No, I guess I don't have any either."

This time the Commander did smile. "I still have a couple of people I can rely on, Aria. Right now my question must be: are you one of them?"

Aria gave a short, harsh laugh. "I would have thought the answer to that was obvious, Commander." There was a terse silence for a few seconds.

"What's the intel?" Shepard repeated finally. She still smiled, but it was as if hewn from rock.

Aria considered. "Well I suppose you saved us all, again. And for that I suppose I can give you something you may find amusing. Which is to say most likely extremely dangerous." She put her hand to her white waistcoat's inside pocket and produced a datapad, then slid it over the glowing pink tabletop to the human. "Derelict Cerberus shuttle. Eclipse Mercs came across it, out in Kite's Nest—the Vular system. My guess it was headed for your colony on Vana. Been there once, long time ago, it was a hole when it was useful. No idea why anyone's stuck around, frankly. But according to Eclipse communications that's where it was going. So maybe I'm missing something."

Shepard became interested. "Sounds like Cerberus could be missing something to me."

Aria nodded. "Quite. You'll want to find out what and then do what I do." She watched as Shepard tilted her head in caution. "To take it," Aria snapped. "Obviously."

Shepard's shallow blue eyes narrowed, but they showed she agreed. "Can I speak to these Eclipse guys?"

"My Eclipse guys, Shepard. Don't forget that. But to answer your question, no, the ship's coordinates and course was the last data communicated to anyone. Nothing since. A bit of a mystery. So, there, if you want something to do and help prove to your Alliance comrades you really aren't a Cerberus turncoat, check it out."

Shepard did. An air of grudging respect hung in the humming air between them.

"You know, for someone who just bailed their asses out, your superiors don't sound very grateful, Commander Shepard," Aria said eventually, leaning back again as the redhead got to her feet.

Shepard appeared to grind her teeth. "They never are."

"Well at least I know you're a good girl."

"Thanks Aria, you're too kind."

Aria pressed her hands together quickly. "Now, please, just tell me something about your trip?"

Shepard looked as if she wanted to tell her a lot more than she did, which was simply: "You should leave Omega. Soon."

Then the Commander was gone, striding swiftly down into the dancing, writhing throng of the club.

Aria threw up her hands and was silent. Suddenly she realised, despite herself, that she had an unease within her now, about times ahead.