Note pertaining to this chapter
Background. Shepard and his crew have saved Terra Nova from complete annihilation by stopping a batarian raid on asteroid X57. With no other emergency at hand, Shepard has to go to Scott (Terra Nova's capital city) to pick something up for Admiral Hackett. Considering what just happened, he also has to meet with the local authorities for a full account of the events.
Setting. The action takes place in Scott (capital city of Terra-Nova), one day after the battle on X57, and in Pressly's POV. The Normandy's navigator has volunteered to personally oversee the procurement of the food for a party (on the Normandy, to celebrate their victory over the batarians). Tali has asked to accompany him, as this would be her first opportunity to visit a 'normal' human colony. Their visit to Scott is, however, disrupted by an unexpected development.
There is a short author's note at the end of the chapter if you are interested.
My thanks once again to Vocarin for beta-reading this chapter.
Chapter 14: Two is Company.
The taxi looked practically new and was surprisingly comfortable, much more so than he had expected for a colony world. Simply put, it was better than most he had seen back on Earth. Must be all that money from the platinum mines. In fact, everything Charles had seen at the spaceport was top-of-the-line, from the professionalism of the civilian traffic controllers to the cleanliness of the hallways. And this was despite the large number of travelers coming in and out of the spaceport, in keeping with what everyone was saying about Terra Nova: a booming colony world, fueled by the planet's mineral resources.
He glanced at the quarian sitting on the other side of the small craft; she was surveying the landscape through the starboard viewport. He still was not sure it had been a good idea to bring her along; he usually went alone on his excursions. But she had been so eager to see the crowds, that he had not had the heart to say no. Maybe it will be entertaining to play 'alien tourist guide' for once. But he was not really buying his own sales pitch; trying new things never came easy to him.
Sighing, he turned toward his own viewport to do the same thing as the alien, barely listening to the bland elevator style music streaming in from the taxi's VI system. The light craft was following the cargo railroad that extended in a perfect straight line down below, going also to Scott. Aside from the railroad and a line of rolling hills along the horizon, the scenery offered little to catch the eye. The planet's almost uniform grayish brown surface was rocky and mostly bare; a few patches of what looked like moss could be seen here and there, with occasional shrub-like things. There obviously was a lot of terraforming left to do.
They flew over a few small settlements along the railroad, each sporting variable amount of light industrial installations as well as several greenhouses. The latter made him think of the reason he was going to Scott. Food must be at a premium in a faraway place like this. In fact, he was expecting prices to be substantially higher in Scott than anywhere on Earth. The commander had been adamant in his desire to foot the bill, but Charles was determined to be a good steward for the celebration's expenses. After all, the effort of keeping the bill down was half the pleasure in buying groceries. Checking items off a list, comparing foodstuffs, and mingling anonymously through a crowd of fellow busy shoppers made up the other half.
Everything could have been ordered online, of course, but the opportunity to be out of the Normandy, if only for a couple of hours, had been too good to pass, especially if it allowed him to shop at a Space Mart. Ever since his childhood, when he had accompanied his parents on their weekly shopping forays, this had been his favorite go to place for food and many other things. Also, he really needed such a time off to relax and get rid of the tensions remaining from the previous day's battle on X57. Chakwas' pills had helped a lot, but he was convinced the Space Mart would do the rest. The only downside was that he had to leave the ship in the hands of Xiang and Smith, but it was not so bad; he had learned to trust the two junior officers a bit more since the start of the mission and, in any case, they couldn't do much damage while the ship was safely berthed in Scott's spaceport.
Looking through his viewport, he eventually spotted the city. According to the informations he had gathered before leaving the ship, it's population was just under two million, but there were already several steel and glass skyscrapers in its downtown core, like any other big city on Earth. As they got closer, Charles noticed there were many greenhouses on the city's outskirts, along with more greenery than he had seen up to now, a testament to the terraforming efforts which had been more intense around the capital.
Soon, the Taxi veered on the left, losing altitude as it slowed down noticeably. They were going through more airborne traffic, and Charles knew they were just a few minutes from their destination. They were passing over warehouses and apartment buildings. He grimaced at the sight of the latter; they looked like piles of construction blocks put together randomly.
"So… the food store is not in the centre of the city?"
He glanced at the quarian, who was looking through her viewport at the downtown high-rises. "No. Big stores like that attract a lot of people and the traffic would be more problematic in a downtown location. Also, the rent is much less expensive at the periphery of a city." From the talks he had had with her, Charles got that she understood market economy, but only superficially. Everything in her society was geared toward satisfying the most basic needs by a simple rationing system. It was a form of collectivism, but he understood that it was a necessity for them.
"Well, as long as there are crowds of normal humans going through their daily life – that's what I came to see."
He snorted. "Don't worry. Early afternoon on a weekend – that's pretty much the best time to see crowds."
The large store was hemmed in on three sides by even larger apartment buildings, of the same ugly design he had seen from above. Its parking lot was quite busy; Charles was used to the hustle and bustle around a regular Space Mart, but what was going on around this one was epic. Then again, maybe this is the norm in a boomtown like Scott.
Shopping carts were in short supply and they had to wait a few minutes just to get their hands on one that was big enough to carry all the food required for a whole crew and one krogan. It was motorized and equipped with the 'autofollow' technology; as soon as the link to his omnitool was established, the cart started tagging along in quiet efficiency.
When they finally made their way inside the huge warehouse-style store, Tali looked at the scene and exclaimed, "Wow, this place is much bigger than I imagined."
"I told you it would be."
For his part, Charles was happy with what he saw: everything was reassuringly typical of a Space Mart. It was almost as if he was back home. Fifteen-meter-high shelves stuffed with goods, separated by extra wide aisles packed with people pushing carts of various sizes, variably filled by all kinds of merchandise. As usual, the store was divided in two main parts by a main alley running through its center. The food and related accessories were on the left of it, while the right side held all the other usual household items; clothes, furniture, appliances, etc.
At that point, Charles became aware of the curious stares directed at the quarian. That was a bit annoying as he had hoped for some anonymity. Fortunately, people were used to see Alliance personnel on an official Alliance colony like Terra Nova, and his own uniform wasn't a problem in that respect.
"Look Adun, a quarian! Cool!"
He turned to see a dark-skinned young boy, somewhere around 6 or 7 years old, pointing at Tali for the benefit of what was probably his little sister, in a child seat on top of a small, non-motorized shopping cart. The girl, probably around 4 as far as Charles could tell, was holding a vanilla ice cream cone and her cream-smeared mouth was half open as she stared at the alien. She turned to a nearby man and asked "Daddy, why she has a disguise?"
"Hush, Adun … She would probably get sick if she didn't have a suit." The man flashed an awkward apologetic smile toward Tali and him as he pushed his son's hand downward. "Sekyen, don't point at people – it's not polite."
"But dad, I just wanted to show Adun."
The man pushed the cart away with one hand, hauling his son with the other. Charles heard his admonition as he got further away, "We don't know them, so we let them have some privacy."
The boy ignored his father as he replied, "Have you seen her hands? She's got tree fingers! Wait till I tell Jimmy and Nico at school!"
Charles shook his head at the annoying incident. I should have thought of this before agreeing to let her come along.
As soon as the family was out of earshot however, Tali turned toward him. "Wow, human children are interesting!"
He snorted. "You think?" He didn't hate children, he just thought they were too much trouble. He had tried his hand a couple of times at babysitting when he was a teenager; it had not gone particularly well, and he had found the money was not worth the inconvenience. This had pretty much been the last time he had had any serious interaction with this particular demographic. Kids of his own were out of question, and he had no desire for a wife or anything similar, to his parents' despair. Some men like Adams were into this, but not him. He much preferred the simple life a bachelor.
The quarian nodded earnestly, "Oh yes. And they're free to be out and about instead of being stuck in bubbles like little quarians. We rarely see small ones like that in public, on the Flotilla."
What she said made sense. Must be tough to raise children in suits. Not only that, but quarian children were probably deprived of something important, psychologically, by not being able to interact more directly with their environment. But his sympathy was short lived. Nothing's perfect in this world, after all. Shrugging, he chased these thoughts away, activated his omnitool and brought his shopping list on its holographic screen.
In Charles' mind, the only good way to shop was the systematic one. Accordingly, they started with the first aisle on the left and went with the flow of customers. It didn't take long for a few items to get scratched from his list: assorted crackers, disposable utensils, reconstituted fruit juices and a few boxes of ready-made appetizers. But the prices were incredibly high and the list was quite long; he was starting to doubt the commander would be happy after he saw the number at the bottom of the receipt.
Along the way, they came by a small team of Space Mart employees, wearing the famous blue and red checkered shirt. Using a bright yellow forklift, one of them was busy loading something on a shelf while two others made sure the customers did not come too close to the machine. Growing up, he had often watched such operations while his parents went on with their shopping, fascinated by the power and precision of the lift as it moved pallets of goods up or down the shelves. He had even dreamed of, one day, driving a forklift. Nowadays, he regularly saw much more impressive operations as part of his duties, but the sight was still enjoyable and relaxing, as were the reminiscences.
At some point further along, Tali turned to gaze at a woman they had crossed path with, pushing a small cart already filled to capacity. Charles turned also for a quick peek, wondering what had gotten the quarian's attention. He was no expert, but the woman looked like she was near term; in his opinion, her enormous abdomen could hardly get any bigger.
Tali muttered something when she finally lost sight of the pregnant woman but, to Charles relief, she didn't bring the topic up. The last thing he wanted was to get stuck in a convoluted discussion about woman stuff. He just shrugged and pushed ahead; they were getting closer to the area dedicated to meat and substitutes.
When they finally made it to the wide alleys of the meat market, past the vegetarian section, Tali considered the huge refrigerated units and blurted, "Keelah! I know it's not dextro, but it still makes me hungry. And there's so much of it... humans are lucky."
Having seen some of the eye-popping prices in the nearest refrigerator, Charles replied, "Yeah well, with the price of meat on this planet, the only luck I see right now… is that Shepard has insisted on paying for everything. I just hope that luck will continue and the meat we'll get here won't be wasted in Adams' experimental machine."
Tali was unfazed by his sarcasm. "Chief Engineer Adams is very confident with his ba'arbee'cue. He and the other engineers are probably setting it up in the workshop as we speak. He said it could cook a whole tor'kay. Or was it a tur'kee? Anyway, my translator referred to it as a large game bird... or a stupid person."
Frowning at the pronunciation of the cooking implement's name and that of the bird, he replied, "I'll be happy if the thing can cook small pieces of meat without turning them to ash. Let's just get regular cuts like I was planning to."
They slowly made their way through the crowd, toward the area where the cuts he was looking for were advertised. As he looked around, he was struck by the number of people hunched over their omnitool. Some were huddled together, conversing excitedly. He just shrugged and continued. Must be some local sporting event.
Soon however, they came to three young men accompanied by their own motorized cart, discussing animatedly among themselves and unaware that they were blocking the way. One of the three men turned to look at the quarian, frowned and asked, "Hey, are you from the Normandy?"
The question took Charles by surprise, but alarm bells instantaneously went off the hook in his mind. Their arrival on Terra Nova had not been made public. Maybe it's not a sporting event.
Before he could muster some kind of neutral answer, Tali replied, "Yes we are crew of the Normandy, why do you ask?"
The men looked at each other in surprise, each uttering a variant of "What?"
The one who had spoken first seemed to be the leader of the group. He turned to the others, saying, "Wait. We've got to get the quarian add-on."
Charles let a sigh of relief escape his lips. Many languages were spoken in human settlements, but few translators included alien ones in their basic configuration. He grabbed the quarian's attention while the men were busy with their omnitools, trying to download an update from the local extranet archive. "Tali, let me do the talking." Turning to the leader, he asked, "Why do you ask?"
"Well, we've just seen a special report about a terrorist attack that was blocked by Shepard and the Normandy." He pointed at Tali. "They showed a picture of his crew(1), and she looks exactly like the quarian on it."
One of the other men approached the leader from behind and whispered, nodding toward Charles, "He's the bald dude on the picture."
Charles had heard and frowned at the newcomer, clenching his teeth. He was not one to get angry very fast, especially with a civilian, but the lack of respect was irritating.
The leader looked at him with a peculiar gleam in his eyes, "Then you really are Shepard's crew." He paused for a second, as if he was collecting his thoughts, then asked, "Is it true then, that there was a terrorist attack? What happened?"
Charles felt like he was skating on thin ice, not knowing the contents of the special report the man had referred to. As far as he was concerned, what had happened on X57 was supposed to remain a secret. His mind was racing, trying to find something to say that would be as nonspecific as possible. "It's classified… I'm sorry, but I can't talk openly about the details of our operations."
The same man who had commented on his lack of hair tapped the leader's shoulder again, showing him his omnitool, "Hey listen to this – they've got more details."
With a feeling of dread, Charles also activated his omnitool, imitated in that by Tali. A quick scan of the local channels allowed him to find the special edition of the local news: "...been able to confirm by another source that batarian terrorists have indeed seized control of the X57 asteroid and have attempted to steer it so that it would collide with Terra Nova. Shepard apparently was able to thwart the attempt and free hostages, but several members of the X57 project are still unaccounted for; it is feared that they may have fallen victim to the terrorists. We will now discuss this shocking and exceptional situation with professor Leotonov, geophysicist at Scott's university. We've asked him to explain what would have been the consequences if…"
He had heard enough. The main elements of the story had been leaked, no doubt by a survivor from X57. Damn civilians – why couldn't they follow a simple non-disclosure directive. Warily, he looked around; lots of people were huddled in small groups, staring at omnitool displays and uttering various shocked reactions. He didn't know how these people would react to inexact information and exaggerations from unscrupulous journalists, but he had a bad feeling. The best thing to do right now, he thought, was to quickly exit the store and get back to the safety of the Normandy. To hell with my relaxation, to hell with the party, I'm returning to the ship.
Without even saying goodbye to the men, Charles severed his omnitool's link to the cart's autofollow system. Urging Tali onward, he apologized to a few customers as he cut in front of them, briskly making his way toward the main alley.
He turned to make sure the quarian was following, when she voiced her concern. "Why are we leaving, what about the food?"
He sighed. "We've been recognized. And the way these people reacted... I don't think we'd be able to buy the rest of the food."
The quarian looked around, "Are we in danger?"
"I don't think so, but I don't really want to take any chances."
They had barely reached the edge of the meat market when they heard someone shout from behind, "Hey! Sir! Wait!"
He turned to see the same three men approaching, followed by four other adults and a youth. Rats! I should have run instead of just walking faster.
Flanked by Tali, he just stood there, unsure as to what to do. These men and women didn't look angry. In fact, as far as he could tell, they appeared more worried than anything else.
The leader of the three men was ahead of the group and was the first to come up to him, extending a hand to shake Charles'. "I know you can't talk too much about what happened, but we wanted to thank you for what you've done. You saved us all, apparently."
A middle-aged woman elbowed her way to the front of the small group, glancing at the youth as she grabbed his arm. She had tears streaming down her cheeks. "Is it true? We could have all died?"
This was most inconvenient. He had always been allergic to that kind of emotional display. "Ah… I can't say much, but you're all safe now."
Tali added, "Shepard wouldn't let anything happen to you or anyone else, I can tell you that."
The woman barely frowned at the quarian – obviously, her translator had not been updated – and threw herself in Charles' arms, "Thank you! Oh thank you! I knew we could count on the Alliance to take care of our security!"
He had rarely felt so much discomfort. He just didn't know how to deal with the hysterical woman. Fortunately, the youth came to his rescue and pulled her off of him, saying, "Mom! What are you doing! Everybody's looking at us!" But the relief was of short duration, as this left him to face the other distraught colonists.
As he looked around, he could see more people converging on him and the quarian, a sure sign of how quickly the rumor had spread that members of the Normandy's crew were nearby. Some just wanted to express their appreciation, but most were asking questions about what had happened. To the latter, he found himself obligated to repeat what he had said to the three men and the hysterical woman, "I can't say anything, but you're all safe. Everything's fine." Most people seemed to understand and did not insist, but a few argued, "We pay taxes! We have a right to know!" Luckily, many more in the crowd were ready to argue with them in his defense.
This went on for a few minutes and, as the crowd was still growing, Charles started to worry he would not be able to get out of the store. That was when he felt someone tapping his shoulder with insistence. He turned to see a smiling middle-aged man with short gray hair, dark eyes and a gray bushy moustache. The guy was as tall as him, a bit chubby and he wore a metallic nametag on the lapel of his checkered blue and red shirt, reading 'Ferhan Yilmaz, Manager.'
The man looked at him and the nearby quarian, "I'm Ferhan, manager of this store. I'm glad I came in person to investigate this…" He indicated the crowd "…disturbance, because now I too can thank you for saving my family and everybody else on this rock."
Charles shook the manager's offered hand, happy at finding someone who could, maybe, help him out of his pickle. "Charles Pressly - Navigator, and Tali'Zorah - engineer. I'm sorry Mr. Yilmaz, but the rules are the rules; I can neither confirm nor deny what has been said."
"Ah, yes." The manager winked back at him. "Military secrets and all that. And now you're trapped in a storm caused by a leak. I understand."
The man's quick and accurate assessment was impressive, but Charles wanted to stay clear of the topic in order to avoid any accidental disclosure. He waved a hand at the noisy crowd surrounding them, "We're sorry to be the cause of such… ah… trouble in your establishment."
The man scoffed, "Don't you worry with that, we're all alive thanks to Shepard, you two and the rest of his crew. Out of curiosity, may I know what are you doing in my store?"
"We were here to buy food for a party aboard our ship. I don't think we'll be able to do that anymore though." He glanced at the crowd before adding, "We were not expecting this at all."
"Ah! Leaks can lead to surprising developments. You see, I used to be a PR consultant in Ankara before moving here – I was tired of the crowds, if you see the irony."
"Speaking of the crowd, Mr. Yalmiz…" Charles was speaking at the same time he was shaking hands that were extended toward him. "…would it be possible for you to help us get out of here and on our way?"
The manager frowned thoughtfully as he looked around, then nodded. "Yes. We're not far from the hangar, and this is a much friendlier crowd than what I used to work with on Earth. We just have to move slowly and we'll make it. I'll arrange for a cab to pick you up at the back door."
Slowly, one step at a time, Tali and him followed the manager. The crowd's mood had changed since the beginning, and it now seemed more celebratory than worried. Most people apparently wanted to thank them, with words like 'Good Job out there, spaceman!" or "Hurray for the Alliance!" Others, just wanted to shake his hand or tap on his shoulder. Now and then, a few people were also asking "Where's Shepard?"
Between two handshakes, he turned to Tali and saw that she too was getting to shake hands with enthusiastic people – they didn't seem to mind at all that she was a quarian. "You wanted to see crowds, right?" He almost had to scream because of the noise.
She replied in the same way, "That's not exactly what I had in mind!"
After a few minutes, it became evident to Charles that they were not making much progress. They were barely moving. He had no idea where the hangar mentioned by the manager was, but as he looked around, he had the impression it would take hours just to reach the nearest wall of the building.
In front of him, the mustachioed man was busy trying to clear a path while talking with other people on his transmitter. At some point, he turned to him with a worried frown. "My staff at the main gate says the situation is deteriorating outside. Apparently, there's a rumor that Shepard is also here and more people are coming on foot from the nearby apartment buildings. Another crowd is gathering outside the back door and the hangar, trying to get in. We can't allow that many people inside; there's more than enough already. If this continues, the store's security system will trigger the lockdown."
"Lockdown? What do you mean?"
"It's an automated emergency procedure to protect the building in case of war, riot, or major weather event. Heavy shutters roll down over every door and window for protection. Nobody can come in or out until the lockdown is lifted by the police or the military. I'm not sure we'll make it out before the procedure is initiated. I'm sorry."
Charles had not seen this one coming. Shocked, he tried to plead, "We have to get back to our ship. We're scheduled to lift off in a couple of hours. God knows how long we'll be stuck here…"
The other man nodded at that. "Right. Let's push harder."
They went a little faster, but it was still not enough. Charles almost screamed in frustration when, a few minutes later, the lockdown went into effect. He could not actually see the shutters rolling down from where he was, but the sirens, the flashing red lights on the ceiling and the synthetic voice loudly proclaiming "This building is now in Lockdown" left little place to doubt.
The crowd reacted in surprise and some, from what Charles could hear, seemed afraid that the lockdown was due to a terrorist attack.
The manager reacted quickly by commandeering the speakers. "Please everybody. This is Ferhan speaking, manager of this store. We are in lockdown because of a large crowd gathering outside. There is no danger. Please remain calm. I repeat, there is no danger. The lockdown is for everybody's security as we cannot allow more people inside. Be assured that there is no other reason for this unfortunate but necessary procedure, which will be lifted as soon as the situation outside the store has been normalized. Most sincere apologies for this incident."
He repeated the message one more time, then gave further instructions, "Power is still on and the snack bar will be open and free of charge until the doors are opened again. The store wants to make sure you are as comfortable as possible for the duration of this regrettable event. Please also be warned that the security systems are still on - any illegal act against person or material will be prosecuted." He then switched to his transmitter and gave instructions to his staff, followed by a call to the local emergency services.
While this was going on, Tali commented, "I doubt Shepard will appreciate us being stuck here."
Charles shrugged at that. His initial shock had been followed by anger and other equally unprofessional emotions, but he was now mostly resigned to his fate; things were completely out of his control. "I'm afraid he'll have to wait, exactly like us." He looked at her, "Knowing his penchant for heroics though, maybe he'll find a way to extract us." To him, that didn't seem likely. What could he do? Blast his way through a shutter, recklessly risking the life of civilians by doing so?
"I don't think he'll want to just sit and wait. You're right: he will come." The quarian looked at the ceiling, "There must be another way in."
He looked up too. There were steel beams and ventilation ducts, but no trap door, stairway or other obvious opening up there. The quarian's too optimistic. The only thing he could do right now was to call the Normandy and let them know of the situation. Activating his omnitool, he opened a link to the ship. "Mr. Moreau, Pressly here."
"Hey, Pressly! How's the grocery going? Got my cake yet? A pie would do too - I like pie."
"I'm afraid there won't be a party this evening, Mr. Moreau. Unless we use our regular rations, that is."
"Seriously? Ugh, why do I even ask. You're always serious!"
For the first time to Charles knowledge, the pilot seemed to genuinely lose his arrogant and off-putting wit. It was understandable, as the prospect of an informal celebration had been on everybody's mind for the last few hours. The party's cancellation would be a major blow to the crew's morale, but it seemed inevitable. He proceeded to explain what had happened and why he and the quarian would probably not be bringing food back to the ship anytime soon.
"Well, that's a bummer. I'll notify the boss. If he can save millions of lives, surely he can save a measly little party!"
"He's probably in the middle of a meeting at the local Alliance headquarters right now…"
"What, you think I should not intrude? Pressly, this is an emergency. And I've got a feeling he'd rather come to your rescue than stay at a boring meetings, know-what-I'm-sayin'?"
"That's not what I meant, Mr. Moreau. I was just about to ask you to send a text message instead of a verbal one. And I agree; it should be flagged as an emergency." The commander needed to be notified, that was a certainty, but he had to make sure proper decorum was being respected. It was Shepard's prerogative to decide what to do with the information.
Closing the link, Charles turned to Ferhan, who was also done with his tasks for the moment. "Now what?"
Ferhan looked at the crowd, prompting Charles to do the same. Its previous enthusiasm was completely gone. Most of the people were just standing there, obviously confused and unsure as to what they should do. Some, at the back, were breaking off and wandering away, likely in search of a more comfortable spot for what could be a long wait. "Crowds are fickle, Mr. Pressly. This one's not too bad for now, but it could easily get disorderly later on if the lockdown lasts too long. The best approach is to keep them busy. Fortunately, my staff is up to date on emergency preparedness – you know, with what happened on Eden Prime, the company has been proactive with all its branches away from Earth."
"Looks like you have a plan."
Ferhan offered him a lopsided smile. "Yes I have. Would you happen to have a shopping list?"
Mildly suspicious, Charles nevertheless accepted to sync his omnitool with the manager's and to transfer the small file. "What do you have in mind?"
"It's high time for some games."
In the middle of the furniture gallery, where the games had been set, Charles was getting antsy. Right after the games, he had been distracted for a little while by people who wanted to talk, but his refusal to disclose any detail on the Normandy and its missions quickly discouraged them. Since then, he had been left alone with his rising frustration. What was bothering him the most was the absence of update from the ship or Shepard. The last communication he had received was from the pilot, more than half an hour ago. "Hang in tight…" he had said, "…Shepard's on his way – He said he'd come up with a plan once he's there."
But time was trickling away, and he couldn't help thinking of all the work he could have done if he had stayed on the ship instead of getting trapped in a store. Dammit, all that time wasted and I can't do a thing about it. The only thing he could do, in fact, was to try and calm his nerves. Shaking his head at himself, he sighed and resumed his pacing in front of the plush demonstrator chairs the quarian and him had been confined to during the games, as 'guests of honor.'
The games, it turned out, had been a series of races, the pretext of which being to fetch the items on his list in order to make a gift package for Shepard and his crew. There had been no shortage of volunteers willing to race against one another, but Charles suspected this had more to do with the generous participation prizes - small appliances, credit tickets of all kinds and other merchandise - than any actual gratitude toward Shepard.
Thinking of the games, his gaze went to the pile of foodstuff neatly bagged and stacked on a pallet near the chairs. Everything on his list was there, including two large coolers filled with ice to keep the perishables and the beverages at their optimal temperature. Altogether, this amounted to slightly over fifty kilograms. Despite the manager's optimism, he doubted the food would ever make it to the Normandy. It's not like we'll be able to bring it with us when Shepard comes to get us out. We can't stuff it all in our pockets and run away. He shook his head. What a waste.
Still, the games had worked in keeping most of the crowd distracted for close to an hour, which had probably eased the manager's fear of losing control over it. He looked around at the people still in the furniture gallery. They seemed rather placid compared to how edgy he felt inside. Then again, they probably have no particular duty to attend to. They're just civilians after all.
After the games had finished, some had left for other parts or the store, in search of other things to do. Those who had stayed were sitting here and there, on pieces of furniture or on the floor. They were passing the time on their omnitool, watching entertainment programs or playing games. No doubt some were also, like him, getting regular updates on the situation outside the store, which had turned into political drama as, apparently, a couple of improvised leaders were now demanding that the government come clean on what had happened on asteroid X57. There were demands also for Shepard to show himself.
He shook his head again, but at the Alliance this time. Nothing of this would have happened if there had been more patrols on duty in the system; the batarians would never have taken control of X57 in the first place. It was as if the Alliance had learned nothing from Eden Prime, just a few weeks ago. I hope Shepard has told them to wake up and actually do something.
Looking around some more, Charles spotted the quarian. At the other end of the gallery, she was surrounded by a group of curious people that had probably never seen an alien from up close. They were mostly young adults and youths, some talking animatedly with her. I hope she's not revealing any secrets. Anyone of these kids could be recording her and what she was saying could find its way in the wrong places. He knew she was probably to be trusted, but still, he was a bit worried and started walking in her direction to check up on the interaction. Halfway there, he spotted a couple of children in the group, gawking at her under the watchful eyes of their parents. That almost made him chuckle. No parents would let their kid so close to the quarian if they knew what kind of activities she was engaged in on a regular basis, with her shotgun and the rest of her gear.
Before he reached her however, his omnitool signaled an incoming call from the commander. Ah, at last. Eagerly, he activated the link. "Commander! Glad to hear from you."
"Pressly! Everything's alright in there? Tali's with you?"
"Yes Commander. We're just waiting for you."
"I'm presently on the roof with a few officers of the local police. We have a plan to bust you out. It shouldn't be long."
The commander cut the link before giving him any details, but Charles' spirits were on the rise; they would soon be out of the woods. He looked at the ceiling again, wondering how Shepard would get in, but shrugged and quickly went on to round the quarian up. We should also warn the manager.
It didn't take long to find Ferhan. He was sitting in a couch, talking to his staff through his transmitter. He noticed their arrival and, raising a finger, gestured for them to wait a bit while he finished his communication, "…you've got to insist. Tell them they could get hurt if they try that… And if that's not enough, tell them they're being filmed by a dozen cameras right now and that the company will sue them for any damage they do. Right. Yes. I'll come and deal with them myself if it doesn't work. Thanks. Later."
Turning his transmitter off, the manager shook his head in frustration. "They're tired of waiting. That was the most serious incident yet; they were set on using power tools from the hardware department to cut their way through one of the shutters." Shaking his head again, he looked at Tali and Charles, forcing a smile on his face, "But let's try to remain positive, shall we? What can I do for you."
Charles felt for the man. The navigator was convinced, deep down inside, that he was responsible for everything that had happened in and around the store. After all, it had been his idea to come here in the first place. "You've done more than enough, believe me… In a way, this whole mess is my fault and, for all it's worth, I'm really sorry."
The manager got up and smiled more broadly. In front of Charles, the frustrated man beset by problems suddenly changed into a being radiating with positive energy. "What are you talking about? No…" He gestured toward the rest of the store "…Nobody could have predicted this. And it's given me the opportunity to shine in a I way that I never had since I left Ankara. And frankly, all of this is nothing compared to what Shepard and you did." Again he gestured toward the store, "Don't worry with what happens here; considering how much Space Mart pays for its all-inclusive insurance coverage, it's going to be worth every credit."
Charles sighed in relief. "Oh well…" Smiling thinly, he continued "I just got a call from-"
He was cut-off by a loud hissing noise coming from up on the wall behind him. Turning to look for the source of the ominous noise, he was just in time to see a small spray of sparks flying off the grate at the end of a large air duct. Right after that, the grate came off, then stopped abruptly after a fall of a meter or so, held back by a rope of some sort. All this made a lot of noise and got the attention of everyone in the furniture gallery.
Charles turned to the manager, "That's probably Shepard. I was just about to tell you he would show up."
Tali chimed in, "And of course, he had to find a dramatic way to make his entrance."
All around, people got on their feet to have a better look at what was happening. Some had heard what Charles had said and were talking among themselves, excitedly repeating Shepard's name. A few were typing furiously on their omnitool. Obviously, the commander's appearance would hit the news in no time.
As Charles expected, Shepard himself came into view, crouched in the duct opening. The latter was just above a conveniently empty section of the topmost shelves, fifteen meters or so above the floor. In no time, the commander nimbly climbed down the duct to stand on the shelf itself, dusting his dress blues and looking down.
Stepping forward, Charles raised a hand to get his attention.
Shepard's gaze quickly zeroed in on him and he smiled, shouting, "Pressly! Tali!" He pointed at his back, toward the ventilation duct, "This is the way to the roof. You've got to climb up here ASAP."
Charles considered the shelves. He didn't think it would be possible to climb them safely. I could have tried that ten years ago, but not anymore. But there were other options; after all, there was a hardware department nearby. Turning to the manager, he asked "Can we get a ladder? Or maybe some ropes?"
The manager was frowning in thought as he looked at the people that were streaming back in the furniture gallery from the rest of the store, likely attracted by the news that Shepard himself was here. "Hmm. I don't think we have ladders that are long enough. We've got ropes, but I've got a better idea." He pointed at one of the yellow forklifts standing idly at the corner of a nearby aisle. "What if I lift you up there with this machine... we could even lift your party supplies..."
Tali was enthusiastic about the idea, "Yes, that would be the quickest way to do it."
Charles had to admit she was right. And it wouldn't be more risky than a rope or a ladder, for that matter. He still didn't think they could do much about the food itself however - stuffing it in their pockets before going through the air duct was not an option. But the food was already on the only pallet he could see in the area, and the latter was needed as a support during the lifting.
While they had been discussing, the crowd had started clapping and chanting "Shepard! Shepard! Shepard!" There were also a few calls for Shepard to say something. Charles even heard a young woman yell, "I love you Shepard!" Despite the rowdy crowd, the forklift was brought over to grab the pallet holding the party supplies, on which he and the quarian took place.
As one of the store's employees was about to lift them, Ferhan came over and shook hands with Tali and him. "Well, it was nice of you both to come by. Officer Pressly, may I ask for a favor before you go?"
"Yes, of course. I think I'm in your debt, despite everything you said."
The man chuckled. "I'd like to argue, but the time's up." He nodded toward Shepard, who was waiting on the top shelf. "Could you ask him to address the crowd? That would make their day, and it would also help me keep some sort of order for a little while longer after you're gone."
Charles nodded and took the manager's access code to the store's sound system. "I'll ask him. I can't guarantee he'll agree to that, but I think the chances are good."
They were lifted amid thunderous applause, but Charles was too busy to pay attention; he was gripping the railing at the back of the lift's carriage and, at the same time, trying not to crush any of the food. He had dreamed of driving such a forklift when he was a child, but never of being lifted by one. Oh well, as long as I don't fall off.
Shepard, it turned out, agreed to briefly address the crowd. It took almost a minute before Shepard could get the people to quiet down enough for him to talk. At that point, someone asked for his version of what had happened on X57, and the commander obliged by giving a short description of the event. He omitted to mention that it had been pure luck that the Normandy happened to come by at just the right time. He also omitted to say anything about the conspicuous absence of Alliance patrols. But for the rest, it was the straight truth. He finished by expressing his regrets at not having been able to save more of the people on the asteroid.
After a very short pause while the crowd was digesting what he had just said, Shepard went on with apologies for being the indirect cause of them being trapped in the store, and promised he would give a speech to the crowd surrounding the store, in the hope of quickly ending the situation out there and allowing them to return home. This got him a standing ovation.
While the applause were slowly dying down, Shepard looked at Charles and Tali and pointed toward the duct's opening. "Time to go!"
Charles indicated the pallet and the party supplies. "We went through so much trouble to get the food. It's disappointing to have to leave it behind."
Perplexed, the commander looked at the supplies. "So that's what it is!" Turning to Charles, he smiled. "I've got the solution. There's a bunch of police officers standing around on the roof. I'm sure they'll be happy to send a few rookies down here to get it for us while we address the mob outside."
Looking at the Spectre, Charles smiled, "Is that how it works commander? Nobody can resist helping a celebrity like you?"
Shepard smirked. "If people are going to treat me like I'm a superstar, I might as well behave like one. Who knows, I might eventually get some real money from this gig." He shrugged, then pointed at the duct opening, "Go ahead, Pressly."
"No, that's fine Commander, you go first."
Tali stepped forward. "I'll go first if you don't mind. Is it far?"
Shepard replied, "No. Just follow the duct. It goes through the building's outer wall, then, on the other side, you'll see the hole I've made. All you have to do is climb out and on top of the duct, and from there it's easy to get on the roof."
The quarian climbed in the opening, got on all fours and went forward. When she was about a meter inside the duct, Charles wondered why Shepard was not getting in too. Turning toward him, he realized the commander was ogling the quarian's behind. He frowned, surprised by the unexpected behavior. Women in tight suits were all over the place and it never bothered him one bit. Why was he so affected, and by an alien? But he quickly dismissed the thoughts; it was time to move.
Charles cleared his throat in an exaggerated way, which produced the desired effect of snapping the commander out of his dreamy contemplation
Shepard looked back at him in surprise, "What?" But he realized at once that he had been caught off guard, and a smirk quickly appeared on his face. "Ah. Hmm, don't make too much out of this, Pressly - I was just… appreciating the aesthetics." Indicating the opening, he added "Go ahead. I can admire your aesthetics too, if you're jealous."
Charles couldn't repress an embarrassed chuckle. Shepard had a funny, but slightly disturbing way of turning things around. "No, you go ahead. If you're quick, maybe you can… you know, appreciate some more."
It was Shepard's turn to chuckle as he complied. "I never thought I'd get this kind of advice from you, Pressly." Just before disappearing in the duct, the commander waved one last time at the crowd who responded with shouts and another round of applause.
Charles exchanged a last salute with the Space Mart's manager and, finally, climbed into the duct. Normally, he would have fussed about the dirt he would get on his uniform by crawling around in such a place, but he was too glad to even notice. I never thought I'd be so happy to get away from a Space Mart.
1. See chapter 11 ('A Picture of You'). The picture of the Normandy's crew was taken at the end of a staged public appearance on a space station in orbit around Earth. This was just after the mission on Luna, and was part of a public relation scheme by the APRS (Alliance Public Relations Services).
This chapter, like the episode in a bar in Port Hanshan (chapter 9) or on the space station in Earth's orbit (chapter 11), is another example of those infinite number of plausible things that could happen in between the events depicted in the game. The idea came as I wondered what would happen if Shepard (and the Normandy) actually went to Scott after the X57 incident: how would the local population react to the news and how would my Shepard deal with the situation, considering his celebrity status. Lastly, this chapter is also an opportunity to give more substance to Navigator Charles Pressly who, as I discussed briefly in chapter 7, I see as a (confirmed) bachelor with rather conservative views and mild obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
Terra Nova: This planet is never visited during any of the three Mass Effect games, and the only information provided on the planet (by the game) is a very succinct description of the colony's history as well as some data on the planet's climate and physical properties. That means I can make up some of the details.
Shopping in the 2180's: The stores in the Mass Effect games (found mainly on the Citadel and Omega, but also on Ilium and Noveria) are of two types: the most frequent is the setup with a counter, a salesperson and a catalog. The other type is held by hanar merchants, with a somewhat different spatial arrangement, but also with a catalog. I don't see the point of this system: why go to a physical location (a simple booth) if the buyer ends-up ordering stuff from a catalog? This could all be done online from the comfort of wherever the buyer is. Indeed, the only reason anyone would shop at an actual physical location is to see, smell, hear, touch and sometimes even taste the merchandise! The store I depicted in this chapter is based on a type of establishment one can find at the outskirt of practically every large Canadian city.
The forklift: Why use a regular forklift in a science fiction story where the mass effect is possible?
I think the main reason why it would make sense for a private business (like the store depicted in this chapter) to persist in using regular forklifts is economical. Indeed, eezo is expensive and so would be any machine using the mass effect. The Alliance military needs the best in everything (whatever the cost), so it would make sense for it to use eezo in every way possible. But private (civilian) enterprises are subjected to the laws of the market and need to be as economical as possible: I doubt the mass effect version of the forklift would be that much better than the regular forklift, which is already an amazing little machine. But this story happens 170 years in the future and the various components of the forklift (the hydraulic system, the electronics, etc.) would likely have been improved even if no eezo is involved.