Chapter Two: Roadsigns
I don't own BioWare
Kai Leng stared at the monstrosity. He'd been surprised at how effective the salvage teams were with the wreckage of the Collector Base. Little more than a radioactive jumble of rocks by the time they'd jumped in, over four months had been spent combing the ruins, scavenging useful tech. They pulled the wreckage of the Collector monstrosity out a little over two weeks prior to his surgery. How many thousands of humans had died, processed to feed the development of the Reaper? Ironically, probably as many as had been abducted by batarians, slaughtered by turian fleets or simply left to rot by the Council.
The thing's primary power source was even now pumping power through the station, providing a nearly limitless power supply for the shields and weapons, as well helping top up the batteries of any nearby vessels. A useful tool, one that he barely tolerated. It stared at him, a contemptuous gaze on its scorched face. He did not possess an active imagination, but the damn thing was beginning to haunt his nightmares. Sometimes he just wanted to have the whole thing shoved back out into space for the fleet to use as target practice.
Hell, the cruisers would relish the action. Cerberus had been building ships at an increasing rate, and receiving more and more donations from sympathetic figures throughout human controlled space. Any Alliance or Council task force that dropped in system looking for a fight would find a dozen Cerberus cruisers waiting for them, heavily armed and packed with well trained, loyal humans.
Cerberus was getting bigger, bigger than he'd ever seen it. It had moved away from small level commando operations and begun building an army. The Illusive Man had lured thousands of soldiers away from the Alliance. The dispossessed, the marginalised, the forgotten and betrayed. All flocked to the Cerberus banner. And with the Reaper implants and upgrades allowing for increased speed, strength and tactical awareness, the initial corps of Cerberus troopers was already proving itself to be a fearsome fighting force.
Shaken out of his musings, Leng turned to face the intruder. Operative Islan, his aide was waiting patiently. Her hazel eyes glowed mutely with her new upgrades. She'd taken to the implants well, her new limbs integrating almost perfectly with her nervous system. Even better than his own improvements.
"They're waiting for you, sir." Islan gestured toward the walkway behind her.
Still leaning on his cane, Leng nodded impatiently. "Good, maybe they'll have something useful to contribute this time."
Once upon a time the younger operative would have smiled. This time she did not. He appreciated the new professionalism...but a part of him missed the familiarity.
His adaptation to the upgrades was slower than he had expected. The nanites had eagerly bonded with his flesh, but his own immune system considered them a danger and tried to reject them. A few sessions with the docs had fixed everything up, but he'd be limping for a while yet.
As he ascended the ramp that led to the Observatory, he reflected for a second on the trust that the Illusive Man displayed, allowing him within arm's reach. Few were allowed the privilege. Miranda Lawson, a cell head, one of the ten most powerful members of Cerberus, had been among those trusted few. It made her betrayal all the more revolting.
There were eight men and women in the room by the time he entered. Some were only holographic, appearing only via Quantum Entanglement, but each wore the same expression. Grim, determined, ready. Some had even been enhanced, though not those whose positions required an outwards appearance that was...ordinary.
General Oleg Petrovsky was completing his report from his new command centre on Omega. The heavily moustached officer's white uniform as immaculate as ever, something the military man still in Leng admired. Neatness and orderliness had always been Petrovsky's trademark. That he could maintain those standards somewhere as filthy as Omega was a subtle slap in the face to some of his younger, more ambitious peers.
"...seems using Aria's old seat of power was a wiser move than I thought." Petrovsky removed a pipe from his mouth, the holographic imager not subtle enough to capture the cloud of smoke on the other side of the galaxy. "Most of these people don't actually care about who's wearing the crown, just that they have fresh air, reasonably clean water and access to their markets. I've set up a temporary civilian government with representatives from each species."
Admiral Li snorted with disgust. "Typical of you, Oleg. Considering the wants and needs of every thing under your jurisdiction. How very humane."
Petrovsky remained unperturbed. The reedy Commander in Chief of Cerberus's naval forces was known for being far more anti-alien than he was pro-human. "Do you have a point to make, sir?"
The two men stared each other down, neither willing to surrender any high ground.
"Now now, boys." The lilting Irish timbre of Operative Malone broke the tension. "Surely it's to Admiral Li's benefit that Oleg's keeping the civilians fat and content? Fewer troops wasted on suppression that way."
Li eyed the woman with only slightly more contempt than Petrovsky. Sinead Malone was the director of all Cerberus operations on the Citadel, a directorate that only she knew the depths of. No one could ascertain how many C-Sec and Alliance officers had been recruited by her or her agents. She was certainly a beautiful woman, and a deadly one, capable of offering pleasure to her targets, then threatening to snatch away their entire lives with just a few well placed press leaks. For professional soldiers, nothing was more revolting than this, compromising a man's oath and forcing him into treachery. True, Li and Petrovsky had once been Alliance men themselves, but they had willingly renounced their oaths, they had never broken them.
"I suppose Operative Malone is correct." Li turned back to the centre of the group. Leng observed Operative Radetz's lips twitching slightly with suppressed humour. The head of propaganda was notorious for his disdain for the military arm of Cerberus. Li continued to talk. "Continue, General."
"We're recruiting heavily from the human ranks of the Blue Suns and Eclipse." Oleg indicated the briefing pads in their hands. "Most of them for the better pay and living conditions, I'll send them to Sanctum for enhancement and re-education. A few patriots. I'll keep with me, I could use the help."
There was an uneasy quiet for a few seconds. The Illusive Man had personally ordered that Petrovsky and his troops would not be enhanced until Project Sanctuary had completed its work. While the benefits of the enhancements far outweighed the risk, there was a private understanding that one last bastion of Cerberus would remain un-enhanced until the risk was eliminated forever. The Illusive Man was big on redundancy.
"What about the Alliance? Any noses sniffing at your door?" The Illusive Man spoke for the first time, his voice quiet and intense.
"They know Omega is mine, and that if they attacked me they'd be facing a conventional opponent instead of an unpredictable insurgency." Petrovsky's eyes glinted briefly with humour. "Under any other circumstances, I'd expect to find myself under attack from Fifth Fleet. Hackett wouldn't come himself, he knows that he taught me far too well. He'd send one of his protégés. Admiral Mikhailovich would be likely, or Anderson. Both are inventive strategists."
"Yet you consider yourself safe?" Lawson's replacement as head of R&D, Operative Volkoff looked sceptical. "What circumstances prevent Hackett from stuffing the entire Alliance armada down your throat?"
"The batarians." Oleg indicated the galaxy map at the centre of the room. "The Hegemony is puffing its chest out. Its officers are screaming for action, and their public are still up in arms over the Alpha Relay incident. Hackett will concentrate his forces there. He will leave a strong arm of his armada to defend Arcturus..."
"...will be leaving First Fleet at Earth, under Admiral Lindholm, and Second at Arcturus, with Admiral Dos Santos replacing Admiral McLaurin." Hackett's gravelly voice was as hard as steel as he highlighted the indicated units on the star chart. "There will be a complete reshuffle of all other fleet movements to maximise our offensive and defensive capabilities."
No one had doubted that Hackett would be picked to ascend to the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Alliance Navy after the eventual retirement of Admiral Koleci. After years of fighting politicians and pirates in equal measure, the snowy haired Albanian had finally shuffled into retirement. His decision to retire to a nursing home on Thessia had caused outrage amongst the Alliance Parliament and uproarious laughter in the wardrooms across the fleet. Just the mental image of the kindly old man surrounded by a race of beautiful blue women sent enlisted men into hysterics, made lieutenants giggle ceaselessly, caused captains to chuckle, and even made Admiral Hackett's perpetual frown twitch uncontrollably.
The long time Commanding Admiral of Fifth Fleet, the biggest hero after Shepard at the Battle of the Citadel, and a foil to every last human politician in the galaxy, he was the perfect choice for the job. Prime Minister Shastri hadn't even bothered with the other dossiers in front of her. Hackett's promotion ceremony was barely over before he was faced with the aftermath of the Alpha Relay Incident. He was taking to it...enthusiastically.
"The Exodus Armada will cancel the planned exercises with the Citadel Defence Fleet. Sixth Fleet will cover Terra Nova, the batarians know it has enormous propaganda value as a target. Seventh will do the same for Eden Prime. Eighth will cover Elysium and her surrounding colonies. If the batarians try for a symbolic victory, Admiral Cain will be waiting for them."
The staff officers scattered around the auditorium were already murmuring with approval. Direct action, unhampered by political interference. Exactly what they had been denied in the fight against the Collectors. Cerberus had taken all the credit for that one, damn their traitorous hides.
"Fourth Fleet is currently patrolling our border with the Hegemony. Third Fleet, under Admiral Singh, will immediately reinforce their positions and take up a preparatory stance." Hackett smiled drily. "Fifth Fleet, under Admiral Mikhailovich will get the prize. While our fleets can prevent any significant military action by the batarians, our real danger will come from insurgent attacks by our old friends in the Special Intervention Unit."
There was a collective shift in the mood of the room. Famed and hated for its cruelty, the SIU was the Hegemony's premier black operations group. Made up of the best of their special forces and their most effective intelligence operators, the SIU had cut down entire rebellions against Hegemony, and orchestrated some of the most bloody slaver attacks on human colonies.
"We've been aching to go up against these bastards for a while now, and the Prime Minister has given me the green light for any action I deem necessary. To that end, I've authorised the creation of a special Tier One unit. Task Force Two Seven Two, made up of several platoon sized elements from the 103rd Frontier Division and various elements from Recon Team Six. Lieutenant Commander Williams will be in command. They will be assigned to rooting out suspect SIU infiltrators, as well as acting as insurance should the Hegemony come over the border in force. Needless to say, we have our work cut out for us."
"I would feel more comfortable if I dealt with the batarians myself." Li's perpetual neuroticism was beginning to irk Leng, but he held his peace. The Admiral could be seen pacing up and down his comms room. "Give me a week and with our new forces I'll cut a swathe three systems deep through..."
"No." The Illusive Man didn't give Li time to finish, tapping the ashes of his cigarette into the ash tray by his side. "Better to keep the Alliance and the batarians at each other's throats. Keep their attention off us, weaken their own dispositions, allow us to operate without...distraction. Operative Malone, how are our efforts coming along on the Citadel?"
"Recruiting low ranking agents and corrupting local community leaders has been a cinch." Malone looked bored. "The problem remains in securing high ranking support. Without precinct captains in our pocket, we won't be able to get the weapons and people we need through C-Sec. We also need political clearance and a lot more bribe money if we're going to our gunships and mechs onto the station."
"I was under the impression that you had an almost limitless wallet?" Petrovsky's mocking smile seemed to incite the passive Malone.
"A wallet can dry up rapidly if one is consistently forced to expend large amounts of credits keeping Aria T'Loak from waging a private war against you." The woman snapped back. "If you had done your job, General, and killed that bitch when you had the chance, maybe I wouldn't have agents getting stabbed in the back in dark Citadel alleyways."
"I defeated T'Loak where she was strongest." Petrovsky looked as smug as a cat that had gotten away with a gallon of cream. "If you cannot stop her when she's on the run, she deserves to win."
It was not the first time Leng had seen The Illusive Man raise his voice toward his unruly soldiers. It was a pleasant thing to watch him admonish them like he would rebuke a set of bickering children.
"Malone, you will deal with T'Loak in any way possible. Petrovsky, you will consolidate your hold on Omega to prevent any possible attempt by the Queen to retake her throne. You will assist each other in any way possible, without any further unpleasantness." There was an edge of pure steel to his voice, a tone that indicated a lack of patience for any further squabbling.
Petrovsky spine became a little straighter. "Understood sir. Will that be all?"
The Illusive Man's eyes flicked past the General for a few seconds, his lips moving indiscernibly. Then he blinked, moving his eyes back to the Russian. "Of course, General. I wish you luck."
Muttering inane pleasantries, most of the staff deactivated their entanglers and disappeared from view. Leng chose to remain silent, waiting until the head of Cerberus was ready to speak.
He waited for several minutes, the Illusive Man lost in his thoughts. Leng didn't pretend that his own intellect even approached that of the man sitting in the chair. His role was to protect the goals of Cerberus, not to think them up.
"The reports from Earth?" The Illusive Man withdrew from his pondering for a moment.
"Confirmed." Leng looked up as a topographical map of the target zone on the shore of the Mediterranean appeared. "Our follow up teams found equipment, clothing, all the usual tell-tales. Taylor got away, as did Doctor Cole."
The Illusive Man took a calm sip of his bourbon. "Regrettable. I would have preferred to make this quick and painless."
"I can be on a transport to Earth within ten minutes. They'll try to get off planet, I'll track them from there."
"I already know where they're going." The Illusive Man turned as he stood. "General, would you please enlighten Mr. Leng?"
Out of the shadows of the room stepped the last arrival to the meeting. He cut an impressive figure at six feet, four inches, towering over both Leng and the Illusive Man. A handsome, angular face, with a shock of blonde hair, his build and features indicating a heritage with both Aryan and Asian elements. A white Cerberus uniform jacket covered his broad shoulders, with a black leather pistol belt wrapped around his middle. A nickel plated M-5 Phalanx tucked into a holster completed the dashing image.
With an accent that was pure Birmingham, Alabama, the man spoke. "Operative Leng, I've been an admirer of your work for some time now."
"Leng, in case you were unfamiliar..."
"General Derek Izunami." Leng nodded curtly. "I'm honoured."
"The General has been an ally of Cerberus for quite some time now, ever since Saren's attack on Eden Prime." The Illusive Man tapped a button on his chair. After a few seconds, a side door opened, one of his assistants approaching with a tray. "A recent intelligence leak by Alliance agents within Cerberus betrayed him to Internal Affairs. He spent three months in Lowell SuperMax on Mars."
"My deepest thanks to your agents for ensuring my speedy departure from that place." Izunami accepted the glass that the assistant handed him and sipped it. "Conecuh Ridge? You keep a well stocked bar."
"There are advantages to having a private budget."
"No doubt." Izunami turned back to Leng. "Now, I believe you fellas are in possession of a certain Jacob Taylor-shaped problem?"
Leng folded his arms. "You're familiar with him?"
"Familiar?" Izunami chuckled. "Hell, I trained that kid when he was just a hotshot rookie fresh from Officer Candidate School. The boy had spark, initiative. Had balls, too. Best recruit I've ever trained, taught him everything he knows."
Leng couldn't bite back a retort. "I think he's learned a few new tricks since then, General."
Derek smiled genially. "Yeah, adaptation, he had a knack for that. If he doesn't have the gear he wants, he'll scavenge and scrounge till he finds it. If he needs intel, he'll go to any lengths to get it. Made him an effective Corsair, and a brilliant infantryman."
"Well, any advice you could give that leads us to him would be appreciated."
The senior officer looked amused. "Advice? Son, I'm not here to advise you on your rogue operative problem, I'm here to fix it, like you boys have failed to do. Spectacularly failed, I might add."
Leng's exterior self control concealed the momentary flash of anger he felt. "I see."
"No, you don't." Izunami's smile faded away quickly. "You were N7, and your solution was to bomb his zone into rubble? That's stupidity at its finest, son."
"Cerberus doesn't have the luxury of flying in whole armies to deal with simple problems, we need to conserve resources. A drone strike..."
"Was inaccurate, inefficient and clearly didn't work." Izunami took another sip. "There comes a time, Mr. Leng, when the scalpel is far more effective than the broadsword. I am that scalpel. I know how Jacob thinks. I know how far he'll go, and how much further he can be pushed. I know how he'll fight, and I know when he'll run. I know how to bring him back."
"And if he doesn't want to come?"
The General was unflappable. "Then I know exactly how to kill him."
Leng was quiet as he observed the synthetic fingers gripping glass. "You've received your upgrades?"
"And all necessary training to utilise them. Regardless of the methods, Mr. Leng, Lieutenant Taylor will cease to be a threat to Cerberus." Izunami's pleasant demeanour flickered slightly. "Regretfully, Doctor Cole and her friends will be expendable."
A/N: So yeah, thought it was awesome that Mikhailovich got promoted to Admiral in ME3, as it matches my headcanon perfectly. Since Hackett's now the Commander in Chief of the Alliance Navy, I figure that my favourite Russian would get Fifth Fleet.
This story was originally meant to be about how Jacob lets FemShep go and moves on, but I had a lot of feedback on the Ash forums asking if I could swap it back to my original Ash/Shepard canon. I agreed.
Oh, and Petrovsky's awesome. My second favourite Mass Effect Russian.